Field of Science


Berry-Go-Round #24 - January 2010

WELCOME TO BERRY-GO-ROUND #24! Let’s start with a Berry-go-Round Amusement.

January is such a good month for plant blogs probably because there’s so little else to do, at least here in the northern Temperate Zone. But to avoid some seasonal affective disorder head way down south to Sao Paulo and say olá! to Ricardo and his fellow tree bloggers. This time he’s in Rio and presents some nice pictures of the cannonball tree and their bizarre flowers, which the Phactor showed you some time back.

Here's more tough winter duty. Over at Arboreality, Jade Blackwater has been hanging out on the beaches of Santa Barbara CA. Head on over and see the many beautiful images of trees and commentary, and then express you sympathy for such making the best of it in what is clearly a place hardly fit for human habitation.

Let me broaden your horizons by introducing a bit of botanical illustration and some botanical art. The Phytophactor was an art minor in college, somewhat strange for a biology major, or so everyone said. However he now understands that the combination of genetic pattern varied by environmental influences produces great design, and so we find plants aesthetically pleasing to the point that failing to appreciate their attractiveness is a sign of clinical depression.

Oh no! More dam yam confusion, but ocas are pretty (and we’re not talking killer whales either) over at the Love Plant Life Blog, but no complaints if it becomes fodder for the Phytophactor's blog.

At the Natural History Blog, David Ingram calls our attention to lichens, symbiotic organisms consisting of algae growing within a fungus mycelium producing an organism that looks nothing like either partner. And if you like these images and figuring out what some of these tough little organisms are, then the Lichens of North America is the book for you. It includes an identification key and great illustrations.

The Festival of the Trees blogroll #43 (How could this have escaped my attention 42 times before?) is up at Xenogere. Don’t be a stranger.

Tim Enwistle (Director of the Botanic Gardens in Sydney) at Talking Plants blogs about frangipani, Plumeria, a nice winter diversion for us Northern Hemisphere residents. Frangipani has the most wonderfully fragrant flowers and is one of my favorite components of UTF (ubiquitous tropical flora). This correspondent heartily endorses his recommendation to visit the Mt. Coot-tha Botanic Gardens the next time you’re in the neighborhood of Brisbane to see their collection of over 100 varieties of frangipani. And the Sydney Botanic Gardens should not be missed either.

Michele at the From Seed to Table blog provides harvest data and a nice image of some less well known carrot varieties, but if she were my student she'd be explaing whether she weighed the whole plant or just the part she eats? This correspondent is an avid gardener, but weighing all your garden produce is a bit anal retentive. There are only two amounts: enough and not enough. Enjoy already!

The Watcher at Watching the World Wake Up has way too much energy; you can get exhausted just reading this blog, but it’s part of my exercise regime (watching others exercise). You simply have to admire how someone can notice they’ve picked up a hitchhiker on a morning jog and turn that into a blog about nature’s Velcro™, burdock.
Later in the month The Watcher treats us to a pictoral visit to the Sonoran desert and a nice explanation of plant spacing. Then the Watcher starts out by scaring us a bit with thought experiments, which are easier after the morning coffee, but he finally makes his point or two or more about plant spines.

While it may be that deserts are loaded with prickly plants, neotropical rainforests have a surprising number of spiny plants too, enough so you learn not to just grab hold of stems. And a good example of this was provided by John at Kind of Curious whose late December posting tells you about kapok, that oh so useful waterproof fiber that they used for the stuffing of May West life jackets. So come on up and see his blog sometime.

Over at the Wild Plant Post my botanical colleague Joseph Craine asks what limits plant productivity? Water or nitrogen? This is a devilishly tricky problem to solve as one may influence the other making it impossible to tease the individual affects apart. This is real science well explained.

Here's a pretty good story. A wild tobacco gets pollinated by hawkmoths, so it flowers in the evening. But the hawkmoth also used the wild tobacco as a brood substrate for its caterpillars. Plants being attacted by the hawkmoth larvae switch their flowering time to mornings attracting hummingbird pollinators. This is pretty cool, but the real question is why bother with the hawkmoths anyways? The authors reason that perhaps the hawkmoth is a better pollinator, so the plant benefits from the interaction until the hawkmoth herbivory becomes too great, and then it's better to switch to a less effective pollinator. Now how to test this hypothesis?

Here's another flower story from the Human Flower Project. The strange looking flowers of Pedilanthus, usually called something like the "little bird flower" are supposed to bring luck so they are popular in SE Asia around the lunar new year (Feb. 14th) in places where that is celebrated like Malaysia. Hmm, no easy way to explain that these are really inflorescences that look like flowers, something that is fairly common in the euphorb family.

Lastly this carnival cannot close without mentioning that plants, specifically trees, should play a prominent role in helping get Haiti back on its feet again. Deforestation and the accompanying loss of soil has been a problem leading to poverty in many countries. You might consider a contribution to Plants with a Purpose, a charity devoted to helping with agroforestry. Ht to Casaubon’s Book blog and her nice discussion of the role reforestation plays in redevelopment.

Thanks to all the contributors, witting or not; keep up the good work.

A tree campus sprouts in Lincolnland

The Arbor Day Society is promoting trees by designating Tree campuses across the USA. To qualify a campus must have at least one tree on campus, an advisory committee on tree resources, a tree care plan, a regular budget for tree care, some sort of service learning project involving campus and/or community trees, and lastly engage in the observance of Arbor Day.

In the inaugural year of this program 39 colleges and universities qualified, and my heart soars like an eagle to see that Lincolnland’s oldest public institution of higher learning, Illinois State University, was among them (so far the only campus so designated in the whole state). The university’s founder, Jesse Fell was an ardent planter of trees, and presently the campus grounds officially constitute the Fell Arboretum. This is a bit ironic because at its founding the university was located about 3 miles out of town (Bloomington) on the open prairie, and now only 1% of Illinois’ native prairie still exists. Nonetheless, the Phactor cannot argue with the idea of planting trees (his own urban estate is home to over 150 species of woody plants).

OK Plants for OK

An OK Anonymous reader writes: I love plants, but don't have a lot of time to devote to them as I work in a drug rehab and work very long hours. Need easy maintenance, hardy plant ideas for the Oklahoma area. Any suggestions?>>

My first suggestion is to move. In my experience Oklahoma is not conducive for growing plants. However, since this is hardly practical advice, let me provide the simplest of advice: go native. And help is available in the body of the Oklahoma Native Plant Society. Most appropriately Gaillardia is their symbol and the name of their newsletter. You can’t plant anything prettier, well, unless you plant Missouri evening primrose (Oenothera missouriensis) and you should be able to get plants easily enough. If not you can get seeds from Ever Wilde. They have nice maps to show where the plants are native and the range over which they will grow. This species actually does fine way up here in Lincolnland so long as you give it enough sun and drainage. (It looks great draping over an exposed retaining wall displaying its huge yellow flowers.)

Those good folks at the Lady Bird Wildflower Society (named after the former 1st lady, not the former 1st dog) also have a list of recommended native plants for Oklahoma. They also recommend some wildflower seed suppliers, like Lorenz’s OK Seeds (on OK Street in Okeene, OK – OK, we get the idea!). The only problem, one the Phactor has commented about before, is to get nurseries to stock more native plants.

Lastly the Phactor suggests that gardening is good therapy; get people to dig in the dirt, plant things, and watch them grow, which may be a win-win idea about how to get your property planted via drug rehab therapy. Why maybe someone will even give you a grant!

Monday's Bureaucratic Wonder!

As you are probably aware, Lincolnland is second to no one in the careful nuturing of politicians and bureaucrats sensitive to your needs. Since our great public institution's credit was not as good as my own, the Phactor had need to use his own personal credit to charge baggage fees for students and a colleague on a recent tropical field trip. The cost had been budgeted and it was a simple matter of filing for reimbursement. However, our Comptroller, the one who regulates, directs, and restrains, the one who interprets state rules and regulations to generate the most circuitous and annoying procedures, decreed that my colleague, who had not spent a dime, must file for imbursement (it wasn't re- anything) as the traveller, and then if the spirit moved him, repay me. See how nicely that keeps track of everything? Someone who did not spend any money must file paper work to get the money you spent, and then give it too you. Wow! Perhaps we need a policy where in an annual balloting the bureaucrat voted least helpful and the greatest hinderance could be voted out of a job and off campus. And maybe if we are extremely lucky, she'll take her husband with her (he only came in third in the voting). Since the Phactor is an equal opportunity fellow, the administration shall have the same opportunity to vote faculty out. Oh, wait, they already do that!

Recycling program you should support

Cork is a tissue that all woody plants grow to produce bark, which includes non-functional phloem too. Woody plants have a cork cambium, a lateral meristem, that produces an annual layer of cork. You can see the layering of bark in lots of trees. However the stuff we call cork is from the bark of just one species, the cork oak, Quercus suber, a tree that produces a soft, spongy, waxy cork tissue. Every 10 to 12 years or so the bark can be stripped off and made into corks. The problem is that those dark streaks in cork are channels for gas exchange called lenticels that run in and out (you can see them in this chunk of bark). To really seal your wine bottle, the cork must be cut at right angles to the layers of cork meaning the maximum diameter of the cork is limited by the thickness of the cork. That way the lenticels run crosswise in the cork (from the inside out as seen here).

But oaks don’t grow very fast, and the demand for cork is greater than the supply, so maybe you’ve seen some of the cheaty composite corks or rubber stoppers or even screw tops (oh, the shame of it) on your wine. Or maybe your wine comes in a box! Now here’s a recycling program you can really support, wine cork recycling, so that the virgin cork can be used for the very important manufacture of wine corks. Some cities and areas have recycling programs coordinated with restaurants because corks really accumulate there, although they pile up quickly around our house. So life is too short to drink cheap wine, and you should recycle those bottles and corks. Drink red or drink white, but drink green.

Submissions for Berry-go-Round #24

Give me your tired, poor, blogs;
Your tortured prose yearning to be set free.
The wretched refuse of your teeming imagination and bizarre interests.
Send those botanical blogs to me, those reader-less, link-lost refugee blogs;
I will lift my fingers, illuminate their contents, and they will become Berry-go-Round #24.

Submissions can be sent to: phytophactor at google mail dot com. And google mail is abbreviated gmail.

Bicycles made of bamboo

Innovative new uses for plant materials is always such cool thing, but this one is really amazing, and award winning too – a bicycle made from bamboo, thus Boo Bikes (TM). Bamboo is a grass, and it stems are not woody, but all those vascular bundles weaving through the stem are fused together making a very strong, light, flexible plant material. Ride on.

250th is a good year for Kew Gardens

The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew celebrated its 250th birthday in 2009, and during this year botanists working there added over 250 new plant species (actually 292) to science. This feat and the amount of taxonomic research taking place at Kew can be put into perspective when you understand that on average about 1000 new plant species are described each year (Kew averages 200.). This accomplishment does not come easily. It took people working in the field collecting specimens in over 100 countries, collecting thousands of specimens, and then matching and comparing them with what is known, only to find some few that remain unknown. A rather frightening finding (at least it is if you know something about biology and diversity) is that nearly a third of these new species are in danger of extinction largely through habitat destruction. And of course knowing what exists and where diversity exists is the scientific basis for conservation efforts. If you want to see some of these discoveries and read more about them, visit the Kew Gardens web page.
OK, the Phytophactor had to pick his favorite new species, Isoetes eludens, a quillwort, which is part of the most ancient living lineage of vascular plants, the clubmosses. Wow! Doesn't that just take your breath away! Quillworts are a lot more common than people think because most people just don’t frog around in their shallow water habitats checking out reedy looking plants. When the water dries up quillworts die back to a perennial corm. Although they do not look it, quillworts are living descendents of arborescent lycopods of the Carboniferous era. Hey, don’t mock it, birds mostly don’t look like dinosaurs either. This one was found by Stephen Hopper, Kew's director, in temporary rock pools in South Africa, a country that is a hot bed of plant diversity .
HT to a BBC news story.

Relief from winter doldrums: 5. Plant catalogs

Seed and plant catalogs are the earliest harbingers of spring that exists. Yes, only 2-3 short weeks after the holiday gift catalog deluge ends, the spring seed and plant catalog arrivals begin! Egged on by promissory pictures, you get to whallow in midwiner gardening dreams and expectations. You get to make selections to fulfill your every garden fantasy, and maybe even order something if your budget allows. It's such great fun that the Phactor doesn't even mind this departure from the ecological straight and narrow. Hard to know why some catalogs keep coming, but apparently mailing lists are forever. It's not because of purchases because the Phactor buys most of his common garden plants and seeds from local family owned garden shops. Although seeds of those orange Turkish eggplants are calling out to be bought.
So readers, what catalogs send the most shivers of anticipation up your gardening spines?

Relief from winter doldrums: 4. Fun in the Kitchen

Yes, the Phytophactor likes to cook and make things in the kitchen having had the fortunate childhood background of parents who cooked and still did lots of "old fashioned" things like canning fruits and vegetables, making katsup, jam, & jelly, and smoking their own bacon and ham. Once you know what the real stuff is like, and have the satisfaction of having made it yourself, the commercial facsimilies seldom compare well. A surplus of red currents and cranberries long stored in the freezer were turned into a wonderful jelly. A stash of black and yellow mustard seeds and a bottle of stout that was not to my liking were combined into a stout mustard. A big pot of mulligatawny soup was made to keep us fed a couple of days during our busy week. And lastly a whole array of items were combined into a batch of home made Worchestershire sauce, and even more amazing, everything needed (tamarind concentrate, molasses, soysauce, anchovy fillet, cardomom, chile de arbol, cinnamon stick, garlic, ginger, onion, sugar, pepper corns, cloves) was in the cupboards! This amazing recipe came from Saveur magazine (Jan. 2009), and is well worth the effort, but the 3 week wait while it all steeps challenges the patience. And the frigid weekend passed without hardly a moments boredom.

Relief from winter doldrums: 3. Plan a trip to the tropics

What could be a better escape from the winter doldrums than planning a trip to the tropics? An invitation to speak at a symposium at the 2010 Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation meetings provides all the excuse the Phactor needs! And where you might ask is this international scientific organization going to hold their meetings? Bali! Part of the Indonesian archipelago. Unfortunately the meeting is not until July and by then the weather in Lincolnland will be approximating a tropical climate, but the idea is to think about it now. This image shows the spectacularly terraced rice paddies of the central highlands, a terrain you would think was too steep for rice cultivation.

Relief from winter doldrums: 2. Visit the greenhouse

Lincolnland is still in the grips of cold and snow, although it does look pretty right now. Usually the midwest is just sort of snowlessly bleak. But for the second in my series on seeking relief from the winter doldrums, let's visit the greenhouse and see what's going on that isn't monochromatic.

This is a pretty spectacular flower, Thunbergia mysorensis. As the specific epithet suggests, this vine is native to southern India. A pair of reddish bracteoles encloses the base of each flower providing a constant display as the flowers open sequentially bottom to top. Morphologically; the inflorescence is pendent so the bottom is at the top and each flower twists 180 degrees to attain the correct orientation. The flowers produce copious nectar, often enough to drip over the bottom lip of the corolla, and are bird pollinated. The stigma and stamens occupy the top of the corolla tube where depending upon the stage of flowering (pollen accepting or pollen dispersing) one or the other makes contact with the visiting bird's head. Enjoy.

Relief from winter doldrums: 1. Tropical beaches

Having spent a considerable amount of time in the wet tropics "down under", the Phytophactor has a great affection for citizens of "Oz". So it irritates me to no end when an ugly American, referring to any USA citizen who engages in loud, arrogant, demeaning, thoughtless and ethnocentric behavior when abroad, demeans this fine country and its people, to wit, criticizing the attire, or lack thereof, of women in the tropics. On my first visit to Queensland's tropics, the plane landed at what amounted to a car port, and a sarong clad young woman appeared and draped a floral lei around my neck. Loved the place ever since. So what of this fine moral young Marine? Clearly he's a wanker.
Oh,yes, this story definitely needs a picture, and this one is sort of appropriate, one Peaches Geldof showing some minimalist tropical beach attire, an image from the UK's Daily Mail, who applied the unnecessary black out, an image sent in response to a blog the Phactor did some weeks ago on
botanical tattoos.
Miss Peaches, a very botanical moniker, sports a stylized daisy chain being nibbled by a unicorn, a tattoo of little botanical value, although there was an age, decades ago, when the canvas would have been of some greater interest than the art, but certainly nothing offensive to my delicate sensibilities is evident. One does worry about such young women with such a name though who are these unfortunate pseudocelebrities due to the fame and fortune of their family, and my guess is that Peaches' intellectual development is sagging a bit behind.
See how that banishes winter for a few brief moments?

Berry-go-Round #23 - Start the New Year with a roundup of plant blogs

Head on over to Agricultural Biodiversity Blog and enjoy a wonderfully diverse Berry-go-Round blog roundup. As always the Phytophactor found them interesting and informative.

Out of this world botany!

Botany in movies and on TV is usually absolute and utter crap, and it ruins it for me. Plants frequently are a give away that the filming was done in a location distant from where the action was supposed to take place. Even pure escapist garbage gets really annoying like a recently viewed "Librarian" episode where the hero finds quaking aspen is a Louisiana bayou and it's supposed to be part of some Christian legend which of course would have been set in the Eastern Mediterranean. CSI is ever rediculous in their pin-point plant identifications from a single trichome recovered at a crime scene. Except I did see one of my mentors ID a plant from just a trichome once. So imagine my surprise to learn that even when it doesn't matter, i.e., purely science fiction, the makers of Avatar consulted a botanist! Wow! It happens so seldom, but of course we are are the only ones who know because no one else notices. At least this gives me a reason to see the film.

As an added bonus,
my colleague recommends some "other-wordly" plants you can grow in your garden. Enjoy!