Field of Science


Legume longevity - lupines and pinto beans

A number of legumes have pretty hard, nearly impervious, seed coats, and thus the seeds may remain viable for a long time. Although perhaps questionable because it lacked a "best used before" date, a seed of an Arctic lupine supposedly germinated after being frozen in permafrost for an estimated 10,000 years. Our own bit of permafrost resides in the basement, and on the rate occasion when the Phactor ventures into the depths of our chest freezer, amazing discoveries can be made; in this case another ancient legume, a quart of BBQ pinto beans from May of 1994. A lot has happened since those pinto beans went into their cryogenic hibernation, e.g., it's a new century, we moved to a new house, albeit one only 4 blocks away, which undoubtedly played a role in their longevity. Having been cooked there can be no expectations of viability, but to our astonishment, those beans were still quite edible, in fact it was quite a good batch. Someplace there must be a record book for leftover food survival, a hall of fame of for forgotten freezer residents, survivors of power outages, occasional defrostings, and purges. So like all real ancient things, those pinto beans avoided quite a number of potential threats. Maybe someday the F1 will inherit the rest.

Garden Flowering Log - October & 2010 Roundup

The first freeze was night before last and fortunately the last of the peppers and tomatoes were picked, but the Phactor never remembers having frost sensitive produce survive so late into the fall before. You generally don't think that many things flower in October, but a few do, so here they are:
Oct 1: Chysanthemum
Oct 9: very late sedum, monkshood (wolfsbane)
Oct 10: white snakeroot
That brings the total number of plants flowering in our garden for 2010 to 276! That's just 24 shy of the 300 benchmark that Mrs. Phactor was hoping for. Several newly planted flowering shrubs and some new spring bulbs should up the total next year even after losing a couple of plants. Must run; bulbs to plant.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Wolfsbane

How appropriate that the fabulous flower featured close to Halloween should be wolfsbane (Aconitum uncinatum), also known as monkshood, a reference to the helmet-shaped upper perianth part (part of a petalloid calyx). These common names are applied generally to all the species, although some try to restrict wolfsbane to A. lycoctonum, a creamy flowered species of Europe. No question a plant as toxic as wolfsbane could keep werewolves at bay; this is not an edible plant, period. In terms of habit wolfsbane grows rather like a coarse larkspur, both being members of the buttercup family, but the wolfsbane prefers moist wooded areas, and so while the Phactor's estate has plenty of shade, things are a bit too dry for wolfsbane and it struggles in late summer. Nonetheless, wolfsbane/monkshood is a great addition to a perennial garden because its tough, generally trouble free, and best of all it flowers in October, the last of all our perennitals to bloom.

Botanical questions - grass trees

grass trees living tissues inside them, what is this purpose?? and how are they adapted to fire??

Here’s a recent question (10/27 via comments) submitted to the Phactor, and this is my best effort to answer what seems to be asked. Grass trees are the common name for some yucca-like plants in the genus Xanthorrhoea native to Australia. They grow slowly and can live for 200-500 years. They start out looking like a grassy/yucca-like tuft of stiff-leaves and with time they develop a trunk largely composed of compacted leaf bases, which is very resistant to fire, so they do not burn, although they develop a good black scorching, but insulate the living tissues within from the heat of brush fires. Their habitat is generally open savanna like forests or chapparel, areas subject to occasional or even seasonal burning. The trunk is hollow and the living portions within are adventitious roots that connect the live top to ground (nice picture here). Dead leaves can form a considerable mantle around the stem if the plant has not been subjected to fire. While the outer leaves of the crown get burned the dense whorl protects the growing apex within. They are a great looking plant, and so subject to landscape exploitation much like cacti in the SW USA. My CSIRO colleagues said they did not transplant easily or well. They produce a really distinctive terminal flowering stalk and tough fire-resistant fruits. Fire seems to stimulate seed dispersal and germination.

Business as usual – the Beautiful “purple” Danube

Here’s a real blot on the landscape as seen from space, the toxic sludge spill in Hungary. If you mix enough toxic red sludge with a beautiful blue you must get a purple color, but any way you want to look at it heavy metal pollution is an environmental disaster even before reaching the region’s major river, which it now has done. Top to bottom you can see the red stain several kilometers downstream from the alumina plant sludge reservoir. The terrible thing about this is how impossible it is to clean up. Organisms accumulate heavy metals, so any such pollution will remain in the biosphere for a long, long time. Not only that but heavy metals accumulate up a food chain, a phenomenon called biological magnification. And even without the spill, we may ask what was the alumina plant, and indeed any such industry, going to do with this toxic sludge? The Phactor figures that at some point in the future, when the resources feeding the plant are depleted or the equipment out-dated, the corporation will just waltz away from their lake of toxic sludge with a shrug and an oh well, that’s the cost of doing business. And it’s not just in foreign countries; beneath Kodak Park in Rochester NY a plume of toxic materials is spreading toward the nearby Genesee River that empties into Lake Ontario just a few miles to the north. Business plans and indeed the price of many commodities fail to include the environmental damage and clean up costs, but in the end we all pay. Of course the corporation will have made money by ignoring the fact that their profits came at the expense of the environment and people. And any and all attempts to increase regulations and impose such rules bring out the GnopeP screaming that’s anti-business legislation. So this is a good question to ask aspiring politicians everywhere, “Does being pro-business means being anti-environment, or is the only way to make money by despoiling nature?”

Politics 2010 - Words of Hope and Cheer

This political season has exacerbated my cynicism about politics and the American public more than a little. The political ads all appeal to the worst in people, they attach their opponents, they distort or present out and out falsehoods. But who are we to complain? Politicians simply reflect the general nature of the American public today, which by any and almost all accounts is less knowledgeable, more apathetic, more reliant on others to think for them, more susceptible to simplest thinking and simple answers, and therefore more easily exploited. Buzzwords and slogans are substituted for serious discourse, and as a result we get what we deserve, so that just when we think things can sink no lower, people arrive upon the scene to lower the bar some more. Politics is about selling you a product from a particular ideological manufacturer, and unfortunately at present we only have two, the Dimbulbocrats and the GnopeP, neither of which is fielding any awe inspiring candidates this season, especially here in Lincolnland. How appalling to hear so many candidates railing away about freedoms as they promise to take yours away. How galling to hear policies and programs criticized by people who offer no alternative or workable solutions. Truly if ever we needed the NOTA it is now. None Of The Above has a chance of winning many races this election, too bad they aren’t on the ballot.

Amazing Discovery! Botany is interesting!

Elective courses were at a premium this fall, and several transfer students were "forced" to take the Phactor's economic botany class or be short on hours. Now by mid-semester two of them have approached me to express their "surprise" that botany is interesting and both wanted to know how to pursue it as a course of study, something that is not all that obvious or easy in a department of biological sciences (a new plant science sequence is being prepared to fix this). Why is it this was such a surprise? Their answers were exactly, precisely, and fundamentally what the Phactor has always said: never before were they exposed to any botany in their "biology" classes or what little was covered was boring terminology and memorization (i.e., teachers without any background in botany being forced to include some plant stuff in their course). Gad! This is the human-biomedical/animal bias that permeates biology in the USA. It's why there can be 3 snake-chaser programs on TV, and when a clever student of mine pitches a program about botanical discoveries, like the oldest forest in Lincolnland, a mile below ground in a coal mine, he's turned down flat with a three-word rejection, "plants are uninteresting", to which we add, to the below average intellect of most TV producers. This problem starts way down in grade school where teachers poorly prepared in science any how don't realize that the best stuff around for teaching biology are plants. They simply don't know what or how to do it, even easy stuff like tree identification. Then in high school, the biology teachers, thoroughly steeped in the prevailing bias, either leave plants our or teach about them poorly. A few of my students do counter this and introduce lots of plant biology, and their positive results support my contention, there is no innate bias against plants, it's learned. The Phactor remembers when an 8th grade science teacher told us the F1 was doing poorly in science mostly because the botany she had to include was so terribly boring. She was on the cusp of retirement, the damage done, but you find yourself wondering if homicide to improve science teaching would be justifiable? Maybe, but only if there was a jury of my real peers.

Kitchen Garden Roundup - 2010 was OK

'Twas not the best of gardens, nor the worst of gardens, as is often the case. The early season garden was great raising expectations; asparagus, rhubarb, salad greens, and berries (red, straw, blue) performed very well. The early summer garden produced plenty of snap peas, broccoli, and beans, but the warm weather crops got off to a slow start and never really recovered, but to give credit where credit is due, while not prolific they hung in there and seldom have eggplant, tomatoes, and peppers all been harvested in October! Still the champion this season for longevity were the cucumbers, which usually die of beetle transmitted bacterial wilt after a month or so of productivity, but this year, a bad year for cucumber beetles we may assume, the cucumbers made it into September, and unlike the terrible bitter, seedy variety grown the year before, these were excellent fruits. The other vine crops were disappointing, first too wet and cool, then too hot and dry; can you imagine not having enough zucchini? In the Phactor's memory this has never happened before, except for the one time the stem borers wiped out the crop when we were away. And of course this year marked the first tree fruit crop - nova spy apples. The late season salad greens were a bust, woodchucked and slugged, but the bok choi and even some spinach may yet be successful, and at long last, the Phactor having temporarily won the battle with voracious herbivores, may yet get some parsley!

Great/Awful Fall Weather

The weather for the past 5 weeks has been both great and awful at the same time; great temperatures, warm days, cool nights, no frosts yet, sunny, beautiful, glorious, but the near complete absence of rain has produced a mini drought, and people who did not faithfully water shallow-rooted and/or newly installed plants will find come spring a lot of "winter kill". Farmers have been overjoyed with these weather conditions and the crop harvest has been going very well indeed. Yesterday it was obvious a front was moving in, and the morning dawned dreary and over cast, and now some rain has come, not too heavy, not too light, and maybe if we are lucky it will keep up all day and all night and all of tomorrow. After 5 weeks of essentially no rain, the ground is parched and it will take a lot of rain to soak in deeply. If the area only gets a half inch or so, it will fool the amateurs, who will now have an excuse to not water. And already the weather goof balls are saying "maybe the rain won't last too long" as if this were a bad thing. Strangely it seems that weather people are never garden people. Rain is just what the bok choi needs. This late Indian summer will push the cool weather fall chores way into November, and this isn't good because it's only one month before the Phactor heads out to Costa Rica with my rainforest ecology class. Too little time and too many things to do!

Friday Fabulous Flower - New England Aster

The Phactor does not object to taxonomists who attempt to correctly classify organisms, however it nonetheless is annoying when a taxon and a plant's name that you have been using for over 40 years changes. Aster is one of those "know your genera" taxons where the common name and the scientific name are the same, although as nearly always the case the common use of aster is a lot more loose than the botanical use. Aster used to have something like 600 species strewn across N. America and Eurasia, but taxonomists have decided that all but one of the N. American species should be transferred to a series of other genera. So it goes with today's fabulous flower, or rather as is the case with members of the Asteraceae or sunflower family, a fabulous inflorescence of tiny flowers presenting the image of a much larger flower to pollinators and gardeners, the New England Aster, formerly Aster novae-angliae, now Symphyotrichum novae-angliae. Symphyotrichum (sim-fee-oh-try-cum) rolls off the tongue well enough, but it just isn't as familiar as Aster. This is why taxonomists hide away in herbaria in universities, museums, and botanical gardens; people would be kicking them in the shins for messing with their favorite plant names. Ah, but asethetically a New England aster by any other name would still be a massive clump of royal purple color gracing the fall landscape.

New Rules for College Mascots

Recently a high school was accused of infringing upon a university's trade-marked mascot and with so many possibilities out there, why would you copy someone else's mascot? Other mascots are subject to complaints about insensitivity and political incorrectness, but the solution these problems is quite simple, a new rule is needed; college mascots can only be named after plants and invertebrates. Some institutions are ahead of the curve on this idea demonstrating that mascots don't have to be some snarling anthropomorphic vertebrate, and with so many more plants and invertebrates to choose from there will be no need to copy. Does THE Ohio State University suffer for having Buckeyes as their mascot? No, but we do point out that this is the foetid buckeye. Does having a plant mascot take anything away from the Buckeye's annual rivalry with the University of Michigan Pansies? Clearly not. You have to admire the University of California Santa Cruz for being the Banana Slugs; they're so cute and slimy, and it fits their sports slogan so well, "We're soft, yellow, and slow". A few institutions would only have to make some minor adjustments, e.g., Nebraska Cornhusks and Illinois State Redbuds (and the former Redbirds could keep the same colored uniforms!). The Penn State Petunias has a nice alliteration. There are still scorpions, spiders, and the mighty ants (let's save this one for Division III). Commentaries will still be colorful, "Boy, the Wyoming Weeds have really gone to seed this year". "Yes, the Texas Thistles are certainly having a good season, if only they hadn't lost to the Kentucky Bluegrass." The Phactor is confident that readers can supply more mascot suggestions for their favorite institutions.

Politics in Lincolnland - Fall 2010

The Phactor does not blog about politics very often because it is so depressing, and as an educational elite, i.e., someone who can think for himself and recognize rhetorical BS for what it is, there is very little to say except this country seems to be reaching ever lower toward a least common denominator representative government, and as a result we will get what we deserve. Lincolnland has a wonderful choice for governor, a bumbling incumbent, well, he is governor, but only because Bag-of-chips got impeached, and his not-ready-for-prime-time GnOpeP challenger. The latter has been our representative in the state government for the past 2 decades during which time he has never displayed an ounce of leadership and whose key legislation all involves conservative social agenda items. This will be one of those times when you hold your nose and vote for the incumbent, who however hapless, will perform better than his opponent whose economic agenda reflects his utter cluelessness. Too bad there isn't a really viable 3d party candidate.

Naked truth about sex, gardening, religion, and politics in American government

In this day of binging and googling, buzzwords in a title can greatly affect the number of hits upon your blog or published article, but who would stoop to such a low and deceptive device? Since botany is in one of the little traveled back waters of biology, and most of biology isn’t trendy enough to matter to the media, it would appear that the Phactor has never used one of these academically trendy buzz words in any title of any published article. He did publish ‘the best pun ever used as a title” (according to one reviewer) and it attracted a great deal of attention to a small, but quite clever, bit of research, so buzzwords appears to work, but by now you should have realized that you are a data point in an experiment. We’ll report back to see if the traffic on this article is affected by the gratuitous use of buzzwords in the title. Which buzz word do you think will have the greatest impact? Take the poll; you're part of the experiment anyways.

Plants rule!

What can you say? When it comes to –estiness, plants rule! Let’s see the score card: biggest living organism (in mass) - Pando aspen clone, fully connected at about 6,000 tons (biggest in size would be a fungus), oldest single living organism (not counting clones, if allowed it would be Pando again at maybe 80,000 years) – Norway spruce at about 10,000 years, oldest living genus – Selaginella (alive in the Carboniferous), oldest living species at 70 million years – Cinnamon fern, largest chromosome number – adder’s tongue fern at 2n = 1260, largest sperm – a cycad sperm cell is visible to the naked eye, if you know where to look. Zowie! There hardly seem to be any –est categories left, but here’s another, the largest genome.
Paris japonica, a relative of Trillium that can't count (probably should have been named Quadrillium), has over 150 billion base pairs in its genome in comparison, humans have about 3 billion base pairs, so the genome of this little woodland wild flower is 50 times bigger than ours. In case you’ve forgotten your freshman biology, genes are composes of a sequence of 4 nucleotide bases, adenine, thymine, guanine, and cytosine, and taken three bases at a time they spell out the genetic coding for each of the 20 amino acids that compose our proteins. It isn’t clear how or why an organism should have such a large genome, although hybridization and chromosome doubling is a common mechanism of speciation among plants, but even with over 1200 chromosomes, the adder’s tongue fern doesn’t have a genome any where near that huge. However, organisms with big genomes seem to be at greater risk of extinction, again for uncertain reasons; perhaps they may be unable to deal with changing conditions because they have so many copies of each gene, which would be like tossing a thousand coins versus two coins. In the latter case they come up HH or TT 25% of the time, but with a large number of coins the ratio of H:T will always be close to 50:50 and never even close to all heads or tails.

True gardeners are not deterred by lack of space

Never met a gardener who didn't try to squeeze in as many plants as their garden allowed, and at in places where garden space is truly at a premium, or just plain lacking, the intrepid gardener still manages to get some soil, stick some plants in it, and have a go. In this regard, nobody seems to challenge European gardeners who seem to be able to have plants sprout from the woodwork, but still there is a certain delight is seeing people make the most of a little. Up in the NW corner of Lincolnland there is a little old river town called Galena and parts of it are almost built on the vertical so what lot you may have is quite slanted. Yet gardeners prevail and plant, and the sag of this particular walkway connecting the third floor of a house to the street above shows that a few tomato plants and kitchen herbs are worth a certain risk of having the whole thing collapse onto your neighbor's deck below. You have to love the attitude.

Why don't students want to study plants?

Others have wondered the same thing? Why is it that plants capable of fascinating the Phactor for so many years are of so little interest to students? There is no one answer, but several factors do come into play, but before outlining these for you, some smallish percent of our biology students do like studying plants, about 10% on average.
Firstly, and most importantly, it takes a certain mental and emotional maturity and sophistication to apprectiate something a subtle as plants. This certainly explains the attitudes of many of my zoological colleagues. Flower children versus colleagues red in tooth and claw. They're just like most of our students, but grown up. Secondly, you have to know something about plants to appreciate them, and today's biology, especially in the USA, has a heavy human biomedical emphasis that even ignores non-vertebrate animals. A student complained about our animal behavior course as being about "insects" rather than animals. Wow! Unfortunately biology students who think biology is about baby zoo animals is all too are all too prevalent, and they become high school teachers. So thirdly, high school teachers educated in this system perpetuate the cycle by treating plants as uninteresting items forced into the curriculum. When the Phactor complained once to a chair that botanists weren't being considered for many jobs, he said, "You won't be happy until half the department are botanists (at the time it was 8 out of 34), but what will they all teach?" Genetics, cell biology, ecology, evolution, physiology, etc. was my answer, but of course, "real" biology is animal biology, so this could not be tolerated. He was dick about lots of other things too, so no big surprise in his attitude. To a great extent generally held preconceived notions about plants (and fungi) color people's attitudes, and even many gardeners revolt, or get revolting, when you try to learn them something about plants, sort of a don't muddle my poor head with knowledge, and never ever use a scientific name (which is why the Phactor blogs every now and them about knowing your genera; oh, it's been that long?). Fortunately the master garden programs are reversing this for many. Even worse, higher education, which should be a bastion of biological diversity, is run by pin-headed "bean" counters so if your area of expertise is on the short end of the stick, well, too bad. No one needs all of biology, just enough to get people into medical school, and so it goes with no real regard for the discipline. It''s like a conspiracy.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Black Cohosh

As the garden season winds down there are fewer choices for Friday's fabulous flower, but then a favorite plant decided to bloom, so here you go, the black cohosh, or black snakeroot, or black bugbane, none of which make this native of the north eastern North America sound very nice. In a bit of a twist, modern molecular studies have determined that this plant belongs in the genus Actea (A. racemosa), where good old Linnaeus placed it all those centuries ago based on pure morphology; for the past century it had been in the genus Cimicifuga. But no matter the name, it's the same plant, and a member of the buttercup family, which surprises people who aren't familiar with its diversity. What you actually see is an inflorescence where the floral display is largely composed of stamen filaments and a smallish single perianth whorl, a bit like mimosoid legumes. Small flowers arranged like this in either "bottle brushes" or "powder puffs" function as diverse pollinators move over the outside of the inflorescence. Once established, and this must be said, they are slow, these are great perennials under the shade of hardwood trees.

Simulacraceae, a new plant family

Good parodies of science are rare, good parodies of botany are even rarer, so here’s a study of plant simulacra, an update on what we’ve called Plantus plasticus for decades. What’s even more amusing is that the 1st author is a biologist from New York, New York, so one supposes he must study what is available and make the most of it, and the result is more than you ever wanted to know about this new family of plants. Perhaps you will have some specimens to pass along to the authors. Enjoy.

HT to Casaubon’s Book.

Fabulous Fall Foliage

Fall color is full upon us, although it will be short lived because of the drought. Some people are so poor at discerning differences among plants, a form of plant blindness, that they just see them as all the same. Here's an example. The Phactor's daily commute passes a neatly trimmed sidewalk lining hedge of about one meter in height, and every few days he wonders about the original identify of the hedge, probably either barberry or privet, both are quite prevalent, as are a wide variety of other woody weeds that have taken their place among the former as part of the hedge to be dutifully pruned into shape. Some of them are providing a most excellent fall foliage display and at a convenient height for some of you young people to pick and take home to your Mother. Nothing like some gaudy fall leaves to please. Oh, yes, the hedge is owned by a health care organization.

Exotic Fruits Pictoral

Wow, even by the Phactor’s standards, these are pretty exotic fruits! Of the 15 the Phactor has never even heard of three of them, but he’s eaten all the rest, and of this particular group, mangosteen is probably my favorite, although rambutan fresh right off the tree are pretty darned good. The Physalis (probably P. peruviana) is closely related to the tomatillo, but this species is fruitier and called Cape Gooseberry (not a real Ribes gooseberry), and they aren't much eaten fresh but they make a great pie or tart. Durian doesn’t taste anything like it smells (bad!), but it’s nothing to rave about either, sort of an insipid custardy taste, but it makes a pretty good ice cream. Here's a picture of a kiwano or horned melon taken by one of my students to record their fruit lab. The part you eat is a fleshy seed coat and they have a vaguely cucumbery taste; these really look cool in a fruit salad.

Columbus Day? Cola Day?

Who knew? Who cares? Some of our official holidays make no sense what so ever. That schools, banks, and the post office are closed makes no never mind and affects my daily routine not at all, so the Phactor didn't even know it was Columbus Day. But what do we celebrate? Everyone is pretty certain that Columbus did not discover the "new world", and some of his exploits and motivations are not precisely good as role models. To honor the fact that he made more than one round trip Columbus is honored by having several traffic circles named after him, and that would seem adequate at this point. Some historians suggest the holiday was conceived to honor Italian-Americans, but each and every pizzeria does that quite well. Praise be. To keep things similar and easy to remember, maybe Columbus day should be renamed Cola Day to honor those two fine post-Civil War pharmacists whose concoctions, both patent medicines, one to improve your brain functioning and alertness and the other to treat upset stomach (dyspepsia) should be honored by toasting them with the appropriate beverages, diluted with rum. Certain the colas have had more of a major impact on our country and society than Columbus. What a great reason for a day off!

Never Enough Time or Money

The Phactor routinely gets asked to identify plant specimens, and in doing so our herbarium collection is used for comparison and to verify identifications. But a colleague dragged in a specimen that demonstrated a gaping deficiency in our collection of plant specimens. For certain local habitats, particularly dry hilltops and ridges, as well as priaries, no new collections have been made in over 100 years! What a shock to pull out a folder and only find one representative specimen, and that now mislabeled because of some major taxonomic research that has realigned a group of genera and their species! It was hardly any help at all. In an era when climate change may well be affecting the biology of organisms, altering their flowering period and even geographic ranges, the magnitude of this deficiency is apparent. And even the Phactor is to blame having collected way more tropical plants than those from the local flora. The solution is to get busy collecting, and then you run into the dredded T & M problem, time and money. Collecting isn't rocket science, so perhaps volunteers could be inlisted, up to the point where a species name has to be afixed. What a terrible situation, but nothing a couple more botanists couldn't fix.

Who da primate? Who da rodent?

One of the few problems of having a big, park-like yard, other than having a lot of gardening to do, is unwanted organisms moving in. The majority of such organisms are plants, weeds, and it's an annual battle of them against us. Generally the Phactor has a generous nature, and lots of animals enjoy living or passing through our gardens, skunk, opossum, raccoon, fox, rabbit, fox squirrels, a great variety of birds, two species of bat, coyote (once), and deer (once), here in the middle of our city, but one unwanted rodent is a regular problem, our native marmot, groundhog, or woodchuck, really pretty nice animals, handsome, as rodents go, but absolute pigs, hogs, when it comes to eating your gardens, an entire crop of winter squash one year, leaves, fruit, and all. And don't ask Ms. Phactor about her parsley crop this year! Eaten clean off in the late spring, languished during the heat of summer, and just as it was recovering in the fall, eaten clean off again. But the worst and only real problem is their penchant for burrowing under sheds, garages, and pavilions. So although it only provides a temporary solution as new guests constantly arrive, the offenders are humanely trapped and removed to a somewhat more rural location. This is not as easy as it sounds. Something irresistible to a woodchuck usually appeals to opossums as well, and they simply curl up and sleep, awaiting their fate, which is to be turned loose heading away. Young raccoons often trade a period of incarceration for a juicy, fruity treat, but they get quite indigent. And the latest woodchuck to take up residence in our gardens was quite wary, grabbing small teaser baits, but never entering the trap after a big treat, and after 3 different opossums fell for this three days in a row, it was looking like this problem would be dealt with in the spring. But we win these contest with intelligent guile and after thinking about how dry it has been, baited the trap with sices of watermelon, which proved to be rodent irresistible. Next year the contest will begin again, but we know who the primate is.

Indian Summer- Keep Watering

As always battling weather fronts make for weather extremes here in Midwestern North America. Only a week ago, the over night lows were flirting with a frost, although in the center of our mighty metropolis it's usually a few degrees warmer. Presently this Saturday's high is in the lower 80s, and not having had any significant rain in nearly two weeks, the area is parched. A typical enough Indian summer, but one that requires gardeners to take some care. Farmers harvesting their maize and soybeans are delighted, but many plants are suffering, and if they were newly planted, the wise gardener is providing them with some significant water. Watched a neighbor making a common error, spray over watering, a novice mistake. Using a hand held nozzle he only wet the top millimeter of soil, and while the top looked wet, the plant roots remain bone dry, and even worse he thinks he watered! It takes patience, or forgetfulness to water well. Lacking the former you are much better off to use a slow gentle sprinkler and then simply forget about things for a couple of hours. Come spring, didn't-water-morons will complain about how many plants died, but they killed them, right now during the fall, but this will be a hard sell. What most people don't realize is that the biggest winter kill problem is from desiccation; winter is like a cold desert, and more plants die of dehydration than freezing. Indian summers are nice for getting the garage painted, today's major chore, and it's a delightful temperature, but tough on plants.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Dead Stick Plant

Some plants do not attract much attention, sometimes because people only notice gaudy, sometimes because they are relatively uncommon or quite strange and people just don't know what to make of them, and sometimes because they are not meant to be noticed. The dead stick plant (Cynanchum marnierianum) is a leafless succulent consisting of long slender, pendent stems that look quite dead, perhaps the perfect houseplant. It has been suggested that the plant avoids herbivores by being so cryptic, but since its native habitat are dry forests of Madagascar, the coloration might simply be a filter for intense tropical sun. However if the dead stick plant is not indeed dead, then seasonally it bursts into bloom and the stems are covered with these delightful 1 cm diameter chartreuse bird cage flowers. The more taxonomically more sophisticated among you may immediately recognize the flowers as rather typical for members of the milkweed family which contains many stem and leaf succulents. This is what discounts the cryptic coloration story; milkweeds are usually pretty well protected against most herbivores. These plants actually do make good house plants if you have a sunny place for a hanging basket and like a bit of bizarre among your plants and can avoid over watering.

Chlorofilms - Contest and Previous Winners

Chlorofilms sounds like some kind of green cellophane, but actually is an annual contest for videos about some aspect of plant biology; some are animated, some are documentaries, some are time-lapse, all are pretty creative. Among my favorites, although by no means the most sophisticated, are several films featuring Deedra McClearn, Director of La Selva Biological Station in northeastern Costs Rica, a facility run by the Organization for Tropical Studies. The Phactor conducts research there when time and money (and Mrs. Phactor) allow, and this is also where my rain forest ecology class goes for its annual field trip. These little videos focus on the fern flora from the surrounding rain forest and there's are lots of pterrific little bits included. Perhaps someone out there will get inspired to enter this year's contest.

Growing Apples - Japanese style

Having grown up in the apple country of upstate New York, apple farming is something the Phactor is very familiar with, and it bears virtually no similarity to apple farming in Japan. The amount of hand labor used in Japan to produce big, perfect, pretty apples would price apples right out of the market virtually anywhere else. First you hand pollinate the flowers, than you cull the crop so the tree produces fewer but bigger apples, and then you double bag to flowers to protect from insect pests and damage, yes, that's right you bag each and every apple. Near the end of the season the opaque bag is removed leaving an innter translucent bag so that the cream colored apples with ripe into a uniform color. The only fun thing about this is applying an opaque stencil to the cream colored apples will produce a pale design in the apple's skin (image borrowed from the link above), and even this is done in the USA in a few boutique orchards, and as a special sales item. The apples produced by all this attention and hand labor are big, perfect, and beautiful, but is it really worth it? The Phactor wouldn't have time to do all this even to his mighty two tree orchard let alone hundreds of trees. So does this end up being decided by the consumer, whether you want to pay alot for a few perfect apples, or whether you'd want more apples for less money, and ignore the uneven coloring or a few blemishes? Even in Japan this may not be a sustainable form of agriculture.

Universal Standard Time - Set Your Watches

Each fall and spring here in the Northern Temperate zone, excluding Hoosiers who insist on doing their own thing for the silliest of reasons, our local time reference shifts an hour to take maximum advantage of daylight hours. This shift between daylight savings time and “standard” time always causes considerable consternation, so the Phactor has no illusions about how troubling it will be to resetting your time pieces to account for new data that provides an age of the Universe at 13.75 billion years (+/-0.11) rather than 13.73 BYA. Yes, this was published 9 months ago, but what are a few months (years, eons) on such a time scale? So set your watches accordingly. This of course rather points out that our local time designation, a system designed to make trains schedules meaningful and accurate, and in this the good old USA this is an abject failure, is quite arbitrary and those atomic watches that set themselves to an accuracy of one 250th of the second or something like that are an absurdity. Numbers like 13.75 billion years always sort of boggle the mind, as does the implication that the universe ballooned from a subatomic size to something the diameter of a soccer ball during its first 30 seconds of existence. And so you sort of wonder where did all this stuff come from, and the answer, a marvel of mathematical logic, is that the sum total of positives and negatives, the matter and antimatter, in the universe are essentially zero, so there is nothing to account for save a miniscule asymmetry on the side of matter, and this is what we see. The Phactor does so apologize to any reader who has a more sophisticated understanding; this is the best this botanist can do.

Mandatory Ethics Training

Yes, folks it's time once again, before the fall, for manditory ethics training if you are an employee of the state here in Lincolnland. Let's see what has been learned so far? Well, if you don't take long enough to read the grade 10 text before selecting the rediculously obvious answer you get accused of cheating even though you read with comprehension well above this level, and quickly, as part of your job. We've also learned that the people who get handsomely paid by our tax dollars to administer this training to university personnel don't have a clue what ethical challenges faculty face in our jobs. To date not one single item has any real bearing on what faculty do for their jobs, and an attempt to make the training relevant involved changing a few words so it sounded a bit like education, but do they think my "immediate supervisor" actually tells me what to do on a day to day basis? But no question about it, if there is ever time that a contract needs to be signed accepting Cubs tickets in return is not OK; now maybe Blackhawk tickets. The designers of this training could use a good ethics course wherein they learn about shades of gray rather than assume all situations are black and white. Making a personal call, say to remind my wife of an afterwork commitment, using my office phone is unethical, even though there is no real cost or waste, and many hours in compensatory time are worked, and no one is paying us overtime. And of course the only people employed by our great state that ever get called out on the carpet for major ethical infractions are our representatives who probably are not taking the ethical training they themselves mandated. Guess there aren't internet connections in prison.

Ediotic Neighbor Update

An update seems in order about a blog about a neighbor, reminded by my link in the previous post, that no subsequent events had been reported and clearly this fellow is clearly unqualified to own a home anywhere but in the bare naked environs of a recently completed suburban development where they grow nothing but grass out of necessity and habit, their lot having most recently been a maize field. My advice at the time was to stick to lawn mowing, and while it is true that my advice seems to have been taken to heart, it is with great dismay to watch as every other landscape plant in the entire yard was removed and replaced with lawn, curb to foundation, fence to fence, a lesson in how to transform an elegant established neighborhood into a barren burb trying to recover from dozer blight. Quite a few residents of this outspoken little community have expressed their displeasure at this destructive display of property rights such that the fellow offered an ediotic defense of the aesthetic delights to be found in a "well-kept" monoculture of grass. The house is like an elegant painting lacking a frame, a gift box without ribbon, a field of grain with a solitary silo arising in the middle, oh, well, that's just what it's like. How aesthetically pleasing.

Enhancing diversity, hope, and anticipation

A total of 273 plants flowering in our gardens in a single season is pretty good, but now is the time to prime the pump so to speak for next season. This is being accomplished by planting some new spring bulbs. One in particular puzzled the Phactor for several years; a small early flowering bulb with pale blue on white flowers looking a bit like a pale flowered squill, but many flowered on a small raceme like a hyacinth. Further they had somewhat dilated stamen filaments like another spring liliaceous bulb Chionodoxa, glory of the snow. The only place these flowers had been observed was in a neighbor's front lawn planted there by owners long past, and this being an historic neighborhood and all such surprises are not uncommon, and by and large most of us do not have the primal urge to dig them out. But lacking any means of systematically identifying such plants, there being no guide to exotic spring flowers, they remained a mystery until happening upon Puschkinia scilloides var. libanotica alba, and of course, it's supposedly related to both Scilla and Chionodoxa. Ta da! Unfortunately no image exists in my garden files; but wait until spring. Now we only have to find 26 more to push us to the 300 plants flowering thresh hold, but still there are some young shrubs that might come through for us in the coming year. And is this not the way of the gardener? Always looking to the coming season with hope and anticipation, sort of like being a Cubs fan but with a much better record of success. Don't you just once want a political candidate to say, "Gardening is my favorite passtime, and I wish to use my position to enhance the lot of gardeners everywhere by passing a universal mulch plan." Unfortunately what we get is insubstantial compost, especially here in Lincolnland. But more thoughts on this will have to wait for a less sunny day. Today we garden with optimism.

Cat Seasonal Unemployment Disorder

The two felines who possess our manse are quite pleased that the operations managers they employ to provide essential services keep the windows open as much as possible so that they may use their valuable time to survey the bird and squirrel populations and generally watch the world go by. This occupation having occupied so much of their time for these past few months is now in jeopardy as the sudden turn to cooler temperatures has forced the closing of the windows, sorry, observation posts. In particular this is weighing heavy upon the junior partner as this is her first bout with seasonal unemployment, and so she moves from window to window expressing her displeasure with the entire manner in which this place is being run in a manner entirely consistent with a sense of entitlement that rivals that of the American teenager. She fails to recognize that her long dense fur is adapted to high latitude seasonality while us natives of the tropics and nearly hairless ape-descended life forms are not so well equipped. But they do both like having blankets upon the beds, and the shift to napping as a primary activity will not take too much adjustment.

Berry-Go-Round #31 - September 2010

How do some people do it? As far as work goes, this is still mid-September, and then some people can just get things out like right on time, by what ever deadline, and how was the Phactor to know that today was the first day of October anyways because September, given the time of year around academia, deserves 31 days more than a number of other months where the extra day is just wasted! At any rate the monthly round up of plant blogs, Berry-go-Round #31 is up over at Blog Around the Clock. Have a look at what the month brought us. In the meantime a stack of exams is calling my name.

Friday Fabulous Flower - A Shrubby Clematis

Not all Clematis are vines; quite a few species are herbaceous perennials with determinate aerial shoots that form upright clumps, sort of semi-woody shrubs. Until you know this, the first time you encounter such a beast, and you have the floral characters of Clematis firmly attached mentally to a viny growth form, it can be very confusing. The Phactor's particular favorite among these is Clematis heracleifolia, whose specific epithet combines the name of the mythological hero Heracles (Hercules) with a suffix meaning leaves, heroically strong leaves? Generally the flowers are at the small end of the scale in this genus at about 1 inch in diameter , but they are a handsome dark blue and borne inclusters in the axils of upper leaves blooming in the late summer and fall. Although a bit coarse the foliage remains a nice dark green even in hot and dry conditions. Looks can be deceiving and in just a couple of years the plant can form a substantial clump of shoots up to 4 feet in diameter, a nice addition to any perennial garden. Last year's aerial shoots should be removed each spring.