Field of Science


New Year's Conservation News

Like many biologists, the Phactor is both concerned about and supports conservation efforts even though his research is not focused on that issue. Conservation is an interesting field where PR is as important as the research, and generally biologists are good at the latter and poor at the former. That being said, it explains my uncertainty of how to react to this particular New Year's Eve conservation PR activity planned by the Center for Biological Diversity. CBD is going to distribute 50,000 condoms this evening each displaying one of six different slogans and artwork : the polar bear (“Wrap with care, save the polar bear”), jaguar (“Wear a jimmy hat, save the big cat”), American burying beetle (“Cover your tweedle, save the burying beetle”), snail darter (“Hump smarter, save the snail darter”), coquí guajón rock frog (“Use a stopper, save the hopper”), and spotted owl (“Wear a condom now, save the spotted owl”). Needless to say the six species are considered threatened or endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Oh, let me see it! How big of an audience does one expect will be viewing these PR messages? After all this is quite a bit different than a lapel button or bumper sticker. One wonders about sizes: snail darter vs. jaguar, and new sexual euphemisms: burying the beetle. And did George Carlin ever approve the term "tweedle"? What are parents to do because the tweedle is used in a children's book (hmm, a tweedle beetle bottle paddle battle, or some such phrase, if memory serves. F1?). Wonder who the lucky people will be? What will be the ratio of male to female recipients? What will be the age range of the recipients? If you want to have the biggest impact on human population growth the mean age will be about 16, and you might have a bigger impact giving 500 condoms to 100 teenagers (You want the bear or the hopper tonight?). Clearly the Phactor isn't cut out for PR work. And this seems a good note upon which to finish the year and wish us all better for 2011. So becareful out there tonight; you never know what someone will hand you in the name of conservation.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Orchid

The end of December is a tough time to find a fabulous flower, but the rain forest ecology field trip archives always come to the rescue. This particular orchid (Prosthechea fragrans) as the specific epithet indicates has a wonderful fragrance, which is a bit unusual in orchids. Also unusual it's a "right side up" flower. Most orchids are resupinate meaning that their flower stalk twists 180 degrees, or the inflorescence is pendent and therefore upside down, which places the distinctive petal on the bottom, while here it is on the top. The neat thing about this view is that you can see the two pollinia, waxy masses of pollen, ready to be picked up and dispersed. No idea what pollinates this flower; never seen a visitor, but the nectar guides and flower size (~3 cm across) would indicate a bee.

Been there and done that.

A recent poll tells me something that the Phactor said was coming from day one of the invasion; the majority of USA citizens oppose the fighting in Afghanistan. Yes the people say "war" but since there has been no congressional declaration of war (read your constitution people), it's just fighting, not a war. And it's Vietnam deja vu all over again, a pointless conflict with no clear objectives, no way to win, no easy way to disengage, and you wonder if you're doing more harm to people than good. Do you remember how bad things looked when the USA finally left Vietnam? But now over 3 decades later Vietnam certainly turned out OK, and not at all like the dire predictions. When you do not learn from your past you are doomed to repeat it, but hey, that's what "military intelligence" is all about.,

Making fruits and leaves - sweet!

Here's a great little video about making fruit and leaf shaped hard candy. No translation needed.
HT to Bioephemera.

Predictions for 2011 - Divide between rich and poor will increase

It hard to believe what can be accomplished in a great country like the USA; you can become wealthy and enjoy the fruits of your labors. But one thing seems to be missing and the thought occurred to me while walking home from campus. How wonderful that you own a house or apartment house, but does that not include responsibilities as well? And one such responsibility would be to shovel your sidewalk clear of snow. In a similar manner you may well ask what are the responsibilities that come with great wealth? In the past 30 years, and especially in the last decade, the gap between the richest and poorest has grown ever wider, and yet the political policies that not only allow this, but promote this, are arguably supported by the majority of citizens because they vote for politicians who have produced this inequity of wealth while at the same time placing more and more of the citizenry, nearly the majority, into the poor category. Why vote for people who continue to hose you? It would seem that social issues provide the glue that binds and blinds people to economic policies that do not help them at all. And as Sam Harris points out so well, the rich have never had it better. If Reagan trickle down economics were going to work, by this time you would certainly know it. All the data indicate this is a falsified economic hypothesis, and yet still the cry is "tax cuts, tax cuts". For a very small % of our citizens, 2011 will be a very good year. So until more people figure this out, there will be more of the same.

Predictions for 2011 - Politics and politicians to remain dumb

Unlike more professional soothsayers, the Phactor likes predicting sure things, so in the coming year we may expect that our politicians and the politics they practice will not get any smarter. Although it will not bother me a whit when some of the dumbass political actions being foisted off on us as solutions when actually they are merely sound bites being prepared for the next round of elections which is as far as most of these near-sighted morons can see, end up biting some of these twits in the butt, but the troubling aspect of this is that politicians are exactly what the voting public makes them. So if our representatives act like ideological idiots it's because the voting public made them that way, and if we could wish for anything it would be more choices because too often the choice between dems and doze is nothing by a lesser of two evils.

Seed Catalogs

Sacrozona asked if the Phactor could recommend some seed catalogs, and the answer is yes, but to do so would violate this blog's no pay-no play policy. Throwing my considerable reputation behind a recommendation that all too easily could be construed as an endorsement would violate my pure amateur blogger status and sully an otherwise pure nonprofit status. Afterall if this blog ever began to make money, the Phactor might have to take it seriously. That being said, all the major purveyors of garden seeds have nice catalogs as well as online sites, and then there are dozens of smaller and more specialized catalogs for all manor of seeds. Nonetheless in an effort to please a regular reader please consult Cyndi's Catalog of Garden Catalogs. But if you are just planting a small patio type garden, there isn't any real need to buy onling or mail order; a visit to a local garden shop will have all the seeds and plants you will need. The only things the Phactor purchases from catalogs or online sources are some hard to find items and unusual offerings, otherwise support your local garden shop.

Make way a cartoonist is coming

Cartoonists particularly those that translate politics and its foibles into hilarious renderings have always struck me as having the sharpest mightiest pen that can cut most deeply perhaps because they can convey so much with so little, and the Phactor does so like to see justly deserved ridicule meted out so amusingly. So imagine my delight to discover Marc Roberts on my lunchtime romp through various science blogs (HT to Gareth Renowden of Hot Topic and the Science Blogs of New Zealand).

Beat the Winter Doldrums - Seed Catalogues

Joy to the world! The firest seed catalogues for 2011 arrived yesterday, which seems rather early, but most appreciated. Can there be anything that generates more anticipation than gardeners contemplating the pictoral promises so wonderfully displayed? And the Phactor has a list and he's checking it twice to make sure he knows what to buy and when. Red currents are high upon this year's list. A new location is ready, and that's good because the supply of current-cranberry jelly (a dynamite combination discovered when there just weren't quite enough currents) is running low. Temptations always run high (oh, a double fernleaf peony), but the rule is simple, there has to be a space to plant something before the purchase can be made, which is such a stupid rule, but Mrs. Phactor is trying to rein in the impulsive purchases (unless they're shoes). A considerable rear shady border area was been cleared of trashy plants last year and awaits new landscape plantings granting lots of purchasing latitude! And it's only 2-3 months away!

Berry-go-Round #35 - Plants for the Holiday Season

The Decemeber edition of Berry-go-round is up over at the Accidental Botanist where Mary did a fine job of rounding up all sorts of plant blogs for the season. Oh, except no one blogged about poinsettia, although the Phactor did post about a Christmas tree in the same family.

Predictions for 2011 – no retirement

For the eleventy-seventh time the Phytophactor has no plans to retire yet! Let me explain.
1. Age is not the issue. Although it seems to some that the Phactor has been around for long time, when you start college at a young age (17), complete 3 degrees in 9 years, it becomes possible to have had a long career and still be of a relatively young(ish) age. In particular although the body keeps reminding us of the mileage, the mind still feels quite energetic, if not downright juvenile at times, or is that creeping dementia? Oh, no. But at least if it gets bad you won’t really know.
2. Money is not the issue. It matters not if my retirement benefits equal a substantial percent of my working salary for three reasons: (1) unfortunately my salary is not all that impressive, (2) my career was not chosen for its financial rewards, and (3) more time allows me to stash more into my personal retirement accounts as a hedge on when (not if) the unfunded retirement fund administered ineptly, illegally, and unethically by our great and corrupt state goes belly up.
3. The job is not the issue. One definition of retirement is “removal or withdrawal from service”, to which the Phactor says, “What the .….?” Botany is more than a career or job, more an avocation than a vocation, such an inextricable component of my life that no line can be drawn between my work and play, between my professional and private life, and the day this botanist is “removed or withdrawn” from service will be his last day, period. One wonderful colleague so enjoyed attending fall meetings at the Missouri Botanical Garden (he’d never missed one) that he had his son arrange for an ambulance to deliver him and a private nurse to accompany him to one more meeting while nearly on his death bed. The Phactor is happy for all you people who did a job and earned your retirement. So please understand that some of us do not view what we do as a “job”. In spite of his occasional forays into despair about students who waste their opportunities to learn, he likes what he does. Besides it would be unseemly if the Phactor were to retire before his undergraduate mentor retires.
4. When you retire good old Cheap-skate U., a perennially underfunded, undersized institution has a tendency to want to use your office and research space to house some new, naïve, barely competent assistant professor, thus shoving decades of knowledge and knowhow out the door, along with my library. One legendary botanist acquired a library of such a volume and of so many volumes during his career that he actually bought the house next door and moved so he had room for all his books, an admirable course of action. The Phactor’s library doesn’t take up much more than 130 linear feet of shelf space, but he was educated while it was still the mark of a serious academic to have an impressive collection of books and journals, and now it’s just how many gigs of pdfs you have. Sigh. And my office is where I work; too many distractions around the house and estate. Never have understood these faculty who minimize their time on campus; fire ‘em and use THEIR space for new faculty.
6. The Phactor tends to get in trouble when he’s not busy and occupied. So as a matter of public service and safety, continuing to function as a botanist is a good thing. There should be a fund established for this purpose.
7. My current chair has begged me not to retire just yet. Now the Phactor has seen an impressive number of chairs come and go, on average about one every 4 years, and finally one actually thinks a botany is indispensible to biology, and who can argue with that. This does recognize that without the Phactor there would still be some botanists and some botany courses, but not enough to amount to a sequence, so until the employment picture improves somewhat yours truly may have some leverage!
8. A colleague in another discipline complained that he retired because he had been left behind. Well, whose fault is that? Sorry but one of the responsibilities of our profession is that you remain current, although it is true that young colleagues specializing in the topic du jour tend to consign more traditional areas to the garbage bin of academia and you can find yourself disciplinarily isolated. However, as a purveyor of what one might think of as more traditional botany, the Phactor makes it his responsibility to demonstrate the relevance and usefulness of knowing how to identify plants and name them correctly. This would be easier if they’d only leave families alone; now where did they put those maples?

Exobotany, Astrobotany, Alien botany

A couple of weeks ago a discussion of alien biology asked if life was found on other planets would some of it be plants? A reasonable question, and there are reasons why biologists would expect photoautotrophs and why any such organisms of any size would have some similarities to plants, but the more intriguing question was would they be green?
Plants, or more correctly, photoautotrophs on other planets may well be green, but not necessarily. Different stars have different light quality just as incandescent and fluorescent bulbs each produce a different spectrum of light, and neither are the same as sunlight. Perhaps you’ve noticed that plant grow lights, light bulbs designed to produce a spectrum of light more like the sun, look sort of reddish to us. So the spectrum of light may be such that a non-green pigment would work fine. If there is life on a planet, it needs energy and the only three sources that make any sense are geothermal, geochemical, and light, and organisms using all three types of energy can be found on Earth. Geothermal and geochemical energy sources are quite site specific in comparison to light, and so photoautotrophs are common on the surface of our planet, although most of them are unicellular so not plant-like at all. The geochemical autotrophs are probably wide spread too deep within the Earth's crust (they're every where we look).

You probably realize that the “visible electromagnetic spectrum” is a very small portion, a narrow band of wavelengths, and perhaps you wonder why out of all those wavelengths plants just use the portion that we see. Is this some kind of cosmic coincidence or purposeful design? First, there isn’t just one visible spectrum; different organisms have sight adapted to seeing different wavelengths, e.g., bees and lots of other organisms see into the ultraviolet wavelengths and this is why flowers under UV light look different then when seen with just light visible to us. But in general no one would expect photoautotrophs to be using wavelengths of energy very much beyond the visible spectrum and the reasons are pretty simple. As you move up into the ultraviolet wavelengths they become energetic enough to damage many different organic molecules and lots of organisms have UV filters to prevent such damage. You wear sunblock to reduce damage from UV. At the other end of the spectrum infared wavelengths (heat) are beyond red, and except for those wavelengths closest to red, they are not energetic enough to be used by photoautotrophs although a geothermal autotroph is known to exist. Many organisms see this same range of wavelengths because these wavelengths are abundant enough and enegetic enough to be useful and not particularly harmful. So light sensing organs and photoautotrophy are adapted to using some of the same wavelengths, although not exactly the same. Any pigment that captures a useful amount of “light” energy could work, so photoautotrophs could be several colors: reddish-brown, blue-green, green, yellow-green, and that’s just here on Earth. An alien photoautotroph could be, but wouldn’t necessarily have to be, green. Green predominates because chlorophylls are more efficient than bacteriochlorophylls and work well under water, and since land plants have an aquatic ancestry, they acquired their green pigment from them.

Merry Christmas - Houseplant Edition

The F1 was complaining yesterday morning about the semi-melt had left the snow looking old and dingy, but in the spirit of the holiday the weather obliged her and a Christmas eve snowfall of 5 inches has freshly coated everything in a fluffy whiteness, but without any wind or too much snow travel isn't too difficult. A number of houseplants have flowered for Christmas: an orange-red gesner, the queen's tears bromeliad, a gold-flowered epiphytic cactus, and in particular a nice azalea that is so reliable that it gets its own decorations adding to the cheerfulness. Merry Christmas everyone!

Your Christmas Present - Bourbon Pecan Truffles

Didn't you know the Phytophactor would think to get a present for all of you? Bourbon Pecan Truffles are very American composed as they are of chocolate, pecans, and bourbon. Sorry, some assembly required.

Bourbon Pecan Truffles
3 cups semi-sweet chocolate bits (680 g)
1 can (14 oz.) sweetened condensed milk (425 ml)
3 Tablespoons Bourbon (50 ml)
1 cup chopped pecans (225 G)

Melt chocolate pieces in top of double boiler over hot, not boiling water. Stir in condensed milk; combine until smooth. Remove from heat; stir in bourbon. Chill for 2 hours. Shape into 2 cm diameter balls. Roll in pecan pieces. Chill until firm. Store in cold; serve at room temperature.

The easiest, but rather messy way to form the balls is by rolling balls between the palms of your hands. In a pinch or act of sheer desperation congnac or rum could be substituted for bourbon, and walnuts could be used instead of pecans.

Christmas Tree Nostalgia

Many Christmases ago when the Phactors were newly wed, living in relatively tiny apartments, and had limited resources, we had acquired this candelabra "cactus" which is really Euphorbia lactea, and since it had gotten rather large and could not stay outside during winter, we decorated it for Christmas because there wasn't any room for another tree. Those paired stipular spines at each node were perfect for hanging ornaments and the whole thing was quite festive decked out in holiday garb, and it grew a bit each year so there was more to decorate until it reached some 8-9 feet in height. Hard to know if our daughter was warped or traumatized during her early years by this peculiar take on Christmas decorations, but even before she was born a young neighbor came in, looked at our tree, and said, "That's no Christmas tree!" "Well, if that's not a Christmas tree, then those are not Christmas presents under it." His reappraisal of this logic and the definition of a Christmas tree was swift and pragmatic, and he ran to show his parents the unexpected present. And that just goes to show you it's not about the past or tradition, it's about the present.

Strong Dislike of Technology

One tries very hard to be rational, and it's irrational to hate inanimate objects because that's too strong an emotion for a thing, but at times things can be very much disliked. The particular object of the Phactor's ire is the very inequitable rate of technological change and the realistic life spans of hardware. While universities may be places where cutting edge ideas are common place, cutting edge technology is another matter. There just isn't enough money to keep you caught up. Now take microscopes. My research microscope at 30 years of age still has excellent optics, but the proprietary camera system is now totally obsolete and very difficult to retrofit for digital photography. In an attempt to remedy such situations, and provide students with a means of digitally recording microscopic images, several modest digital camera systems are being considered, but there's a problem. The Windows based software on our campus is changing over to Windows 7 and virtually all 32 bit devices instantly have become obsolete because there are no 64-bit drivers for them and no one is going to write any since the industry wants you to buy new ones and where would anyone think that money is going to come from? So a 32 bit microscope camera is not so plug and play, and the poor consumer is caught in the middle. Even if a nice 64-bit camera comes on the market, most of my students will still have older operating systems on their laptop computers and so the 32-bit cameras would work for them, but then over the next 2-3 years it would gradually become unusable although still perfectly functional. Did the Phactor mention his excellent flatbed scanner was a 32-bit device and when forced to change his pc to the new operating system it became inoperative. So no good solutions present themselves and without the proper technical support faculty are largely left to deal with these things themselves (so much for the run education as a business fallacy) you spend several hours figuring all of this out to conclude you have no good solution.

Rye bread, fungal disease, demonry and witchcraft

Over at the Scientist Gardener blog, my colleague MAT kinase explains the connection between rye grains infested with ergot, a fungal disease of cereals, and its likely association with suspected outbreaks of demonry and witchcraft as in Salem, Mass in 1692. This is a pretty interesting interaction between plants and people, one my economic botany class always is fascinated by. This illustrates how when inexplicable events occur people ascribe them to the supernatural.

Tropical peltate leaves

While curating some recent specimens in the herbarium, this plant caught my attention because it has a very interesting leaf, quite typically tropical, quite typically monocot. This is Piper peltatum, an aptly named species because when the leaf blade surrounds the point where the petiole is positioned the leaf is termed peltate, a form that is relatively uncommon in the temperate zone. The apex forms a drip tip, which like the lip of a beaker helps water run quickly off the leaf, as do the somewhat recessed channels forms by the major veins. The "parallel" major and 2ndary veins are a "monocot" feature as are the leaf primordia encircling the stem and the scattered vascular bundles in the stem, but pipers are dicots with a lot of monocoty features as is true of a number of other dicots in a similar phylogenetic position. This leaf is about 23 cm across the widest point.

Here's another peltate leaf, the very distinctively lobed leaf of Cecropia obtusifolia. The lobes are so deep the leaf is close to being palmately compound. The trees are highly distinctive as well with candelabra branches with the leaves helically whorled around the ends of the branches looking a bit like something out of a Dr. Suess Whoville landscape. They are quite well studied both for its bird and bat dispersed seeds, its role as a pioneer species in rain forest communities, and its symbiotic association with ants of the genus Azteca, little warriors who defend their plant from all intruders. This leaf is some 40-50 cm across. Here's a young Cecropia emerging above the crown of a Pentaclethra tree (a mimosoid legume) in flower.

Relief from the Winter Doldrums - Mission Beach

Although the Phactor is a native of the snow belt and has personally witnessed a 104 inch (264 cm) snowfall in 48 hours, my maternal heritage hails from the deep south, and perhaps for this reason, while winter has it fascination, in recent years that has worn off quickly, in about a week. For therapy, a daily visit to our university greenhouse teeming with vegetation helps greatly, the humid warmth, the "earthy" green,organic smell. For those of you who through no fault of your own find yourself mired in winter, and so far December here in Lincolnland is deeply mired with winter running much colder and snowier, about 10 degrees colder and 40% more snow than average, which of course in terms of weather in the great midwest of North America is just that, an average of extremes where the weather can be averaged, but the weather is never average, enjoy this bit of tropical relief, one of those places (Mission Beach, QLD) you long to visit along with a few cans of Castlemaine XXXX Bitter Ale. Notice the crowds. Notice the lack of surf and surfer dudes. Notice the occasional saltwater croc! Ah, the relief.

Monday Morning Musings

It's a Monday, Christmas is closing in and the Phactor has had no time for shopping, much to the distress of Mrs. Phactor and F1, and this is what you do while waiting for the appliance repair guy. In the good news area all the grading is completed and the grades submitted; there should be few complaints, although 'tis the season for wishful thinking even though when you do below average work for an entire semester, you really have to expect a below average grade even if you are a senior who expects to graduate. Life can be like that. Hmm, that slipped unexpectedly back into the negative. On the positive side the oven's sudden decision to go on strike only slightly inconvenienced a meeting of our dinner club at Chez Phactor and the menu was oh so good (champignons farcis duxelles, potage de potiron et poire, poulet avec la sauce creme a roquefort, pommes de terre de pesto avec les haricots verts, clafouti de poire avec la chaux et le miel, and a couple of very good French wines, and for a total of about $17/person!) so who can find anything to complain about in that? Tried a new cookie recipe (bloody oven was working fine then!), a nice crispy wafer loaded with chopped dried cranberries and pistachios, which fit in so well with the red-green holiday theme we have been exploring of late, and why not have one with this 2nd cup of latte? So let's indulge in a bit of attitude improvement before finding out that the oven is toast and the Christmas dinner menu is up the spount and my please Santa list must be revised to include a new stove.

This is terribly clever, and you have to admire people this creative. "Let it dough" is sure to make you smile. HT to Uncertain Principles.
Simon's Cat U-tube videos always make me laugh, probably because our kitty-girls have all of the behaviors portrayed with such economy of line and humor. Here's Simon's latest: "Santa Claws".

Leaves you feeling really small - Galaxies Galore!

The Hubble space telescope is just about the niftiest research gadget ever. Here's a deep space image of a galaxy (upper left) that has moved through another galaxy and pulled it apart (tail toward the lower right). Boy, there goes the neighborhood. But what really grabs me about an image like this is you're looking at a tiny fraction of the sky, a portion that includes just a couple of stars with their characteristic cross shape in the foreground, a teeny-tiny part of our own galaxy, and all the rest, all those specks of light receding into the distance, all of them are galaxies. Yes, the Universe is a really, really, really, really big place. Wow!

HT to Starts with a Bang.

Christmas Trees are Green - Well, Duh.

This article confirms what seems obvious to the Phactor, real, live Christmas trees are greener, easier on the environment than artificial trees. The part that was obvious is that growing conifer trees is a sustainable form of agriculture that provides year around habitat for wildlife. Nobody is cutting down a forest to get Christmas trees. In our city at the end of the season, trees are shreaded into mulch for the ultimate in recycling. While artificial trees can actually look pretty life-like, something about their ultrasymmetry bothers my sense of the asethetic; perfect symmetry just isn't natural. And of course artificial trees just don't smell right, and as mentioned just a few blogs ago, none of this matters to Mrs. Phactor, who wants her fir tree no matter what. Now the only problem is getting enough time to decorate the tree during this busy end-of-the-semester and holiday, two uncomplimentary activities, season.

Congratulations - Award Winning Republicans!

Congratulations to Republicans; this is a richly deserved award. Yes, the Politifact website has awarded them the Lie-of-the-Year for the phrase “government takeover of health care”. This honor comes with a cute lapel button proclaiming “My pants are on fire” with flames flickering in the background. The cynical nature of the politics of obstruction allow key talking points to be totally divorced from reality and truth so much so that the laughably ignorant, unfortunately this time around the voting majority in many races, carried signs saying “keep the government out of Medicare”. Where did they think those benefits came from, a health insurance fairy? The real sadness of this is that the USA has way too many citizens who don’t do enough critical thinking for themselves. Here's my hint; you can never go wrong by starting with the premise that if it’s a politician and their lips are moving, of course they are lying, or distorting, or misrepresenting, or misleading, or smearing whenever it seems it will help their political fortunes to do so. Another reason for the award is "there was a uniformity of Republican messaging that was disconnected from facts; the sheer discipline . . . was breathtaking." Many citizens of the USA like to pride themselves on having good old fashioned common sense street smart intuitions about political intentions. Well, this time you got hosed. Start thinking or get used to it.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Silky Oak

Friday snuck up on the Phactor again; this time because of exams, lab reports, research presentations, and students excited, exercised, excusing, expecting results about same. As our unusally cold wintery weather presists, it helps to turn to warmer or even southern hemisphere climes, and here's some pretty nifty flowers of an Australian silky oak (Grevillea). The prominent style and stigma are pretty unusal as a major part of a visual display, as is their function as a pollen presenter. Prior to being exerted, the style forms a loop while the knobby stigma is still held within the perianth (lower left). My old friend the Flyguy took this picture while on sabbatical.

Seasonal Holiday Blogging - Mistletoe in Trouble?

Mistletoe has long been a "magical" plant growing as it does hemiparasitically upon other trees and staying so obviously green through the winter upon its deciduous host. This is the stuff of Norse mythology (Baldur again), and another source of winter greenery. Clearly the usual kissing under the mistletoe is a pretty pagan practice, as is the custom observed by some of removing a berry and eating it until none are left and then the magic is gone. Although this usually involves the european species, Viscum album, which seems to be more toxic than the North American species, the rumor that eating the berries is a dangerous activity seems over blown. Lastly, collecting mistletoe, and the loss of old apple orchards (a favorite host) has people, particularly Druids, worried about its conservation in the UK. Wish it could be grown on one of my oaks, but my estate is a tad too far north.

Had the draft of this brief post done a day or two ago, and can you believe a science blogger with no spine at all (he wishes) and with no pretences of any botanical leanings posts a similar article, and when he should have been grading exams like yours truly, but a HT to PZ anyways.

Seasonal Holiday Blogging - Phlox News' Phony Outrage

Oh no, some grinchy, scroogey school district is prohibiting kids from wearing Christmas colors, our favorite seasonal red/green motif (Wait until that Canadian guy with all the duct tape finds out!). When Phlox News posts a news article about the War on Christmas it pretty much assures you that it will be borderline hysterical, and not in the ha-ha funny way, although they can be funny in sort of a pathetic way, at least to us educational elites. Now of course all reputable news organizations check their facts, so of course you know Phlox News did not find out their story was completely false until after they posted it, but this is not really about Phlox News because frankly they are not very interesting. What the Phytophactor finds interesting is the idea that red and green are Christmas colors when actually they are pagan through and through, long associated with a Druidic celebration of the winter solstice. What would really cheer up the season, and send Phlox News into a hissy fit, would be little Balder (reference to some almost appropriate Norse mythology) arriving at school dressed in sweater emblazoned with a falalalala deck the halls green and red holly motif (a seasonal blogging theme that has already taken some surprising turns) and after being told he should not be wearing Christmas colors to school he says, “Christmas? I’m a Druid celebrating the arrival of the winter solstice”, so Balder alone gets to keep his sweater right side out and everybody else has to turn their Christmas sweaters inside out. Happy HOLIDAYS Phlox News.

Real Tangerines

A short while ago a blog was posted about bogus clementines and reached the conclusion that something other than a clementine was being sold under that name, probably tangelos. A new batch of these round fruits has reached our local markets, but so did basic old-fashioned tangerines, and since many moons have passed since last having tangerines, it seemed like a good idea to extend the comparison. The tangerines were slightly larger than real clementines, with both the distal and proximal ends somewhat flattened, but slightly convex and not as flat or even slightly convex as in the clementines. While the rind is easier to remove from the tangerines than form other citrus, it was still tighter, firmly adhering, than that of the clementines. Seeds were common, 1 or 2, rarely 3, in at least half the sections, where as clementines are virtually seedless. The taste was, well, tangeriny, as expected, but they are tarter than clementines. This in no way changes my mind about the earlier analysis. Tangerines are not clementines, or vice versa, but the store labelling can leave this unclear, as the new untried batch were being called "clementine tangerines", and in another case tangerines were subtitled "mandarins", which is correct. The stores seem quite oblivious to any differences, so it's buyer beware.

Scientists and Political Leanings

The only news magazine worth reading is The Economist, and in particular the outsider observations made about the good ol’ USA are amusingly on target in a sense that would send most of our “we’re the greatest” citizens into a tizzy. In this small commentary, the author is musing about why only 6% of scientists in the USA self-identify with the Republican party, and then offers three suggested answers.
"The first is that scientists are hostile towards Republicans, which scares young Republicans away from careers in science. The second is that Republicans are hostile towards science, and don't want to go into careers in science. The third is that young people who go into the sciences tend to end up becoming Democrats, due to factors inherent in the practice of science or to peer-group identification with other scientists."
None of these strike me as the most fundamental reason, but Balloon-Juice (very uncertain what that stands for, and so this is a bit scary) offers a reason that seems way more correct based upon this insider’s perspective, especially of my own discipline.
“… anyone who’s thought about this for more than a few minutes knows a very specific answer to the question of why there are no Republican scientists: it’s because contemporary science is an empirical, reality-based intellectual enterprise [my emphasis added] and all such enterprises are inherently non-conservative, unless they involve making a lot of money (there are probably some forms of business that fit the above description and I would not be surprised if some of the people who do them are conservative). If contemporary science was based on reasoning from principles (like the sort of “science” Aristotle liked to do), it might be of interest to conservatives. But it’s not. This is of course the same reason why there are no good conservative journalists.”
And of course this is also why so few are religious fundamentalists too. Scientists can be as dogmatic as anyone, but they love and respect data, and if you want them to changes their minds about something, present them with really good data and you’ll be surprised how quickly even the most hard-headed will change their perspective. Conversely, anyone who rejects data-based ideas out of hand, and offers no data-based alternatives just doesn’t inspire any confidence. Anyone who misinterprets, misrepresents, and misuses science regularly, and further, anyone who scoffs at real experts and their informed opinions, is not going to be seen as a leader, even if they become the media darlings of many citizens. But it's great fun to register as a Republican voter so you can mess with their telephone polls.

Demonstration of Student Interest and Dedication

At the end of a semester students will often seek extra work (not having done the regular assigned work) or some other means of enhancing their grade. But never before has one of them offered to show their interest in the subject area and their dedication to the course material by having themselves tattooed. Now having been down the botanical tattoo route before, and having had several botanical tattoo images sent to me that a respectable blog simply cannot repost, this request was approached with some trepidation. However in this case, having stumbled upont this image somewhere, they merely were amused by the notion. It figures, no real interest, no real dedication, pretty average, but they were searching for botanical images, so that may count for something. Sort of an interesting pair of tattoos though, chocolate and vanilla.

Yard Smart or Bunny Banquet?

Yesterday in spite of the cold rain it was necessary to take advantage of a short break in the freezing weather to finish up fall gardening by putting cages and fences around various young trees and shrubs, and the reason why is simple, if this wasn't done by spring the bark could be girdled or the shrub reduced to nubbins by the local bunny population. The Phytophactor has enrolled his gardens in a Yard Smart program meaning that the gardening practices used have a minimal impact on wildlife. Since our estate provides shelter, food, and water, it harbors a considerable wildlife fauna, although at times that seems to be mostly fox squirrels who can materialize out of thin air within minutes after you spill bird seed on the ground. However a balance has to be struck, and the bunny barriers keep our yard smart friends from turning hundreds of dollars worth of shrubbery into a banquet. Indeed a new witchhazel has already been nicely pruned back, adding to the previous years bunny pruning that occurred when heavy snow provided access over some barriers. You have to take certain pride in having some of the best fed bunnies around, and if perhaps you think this violates the Yard Smart premise, the possibility of biological control presents itself when you happen to be visiting the local pet store and they have several grayhounds retired from the racing games, and a one with big sad eyes named Bolt, a quite nice name, licks your hand and you ask, "Does he know how to chase bunnies?" What a present for Mrs. Phactor! Bolt, the bunny buster.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Banksia

To get a Friday Fabulous Flower the Phytophactor had to reach far afield, half way around the world into the southern hemisphere. Although widely refered to as Banksia "flowers" , a name honoring the botanist Joseph Banks, this is actually a whole inflorescence of tiny flowers borne closely together in pairs. Pollination is accomplished by the pollinator crawling over the surface of this "bottle brush" going flower to flower or sort of poking into the "brush". Since they are a rich source of nectar the pollinator could be a bird, a small possumy mammal, or a bat, or some combination thereof, and because the latter two are largely nocturnal the flowers are often fragrant at night. Above the flowers and oriented sideways is one of last season's infructescences. The individual fruits are quite hard and often do not open until they have been heated, an adaptation to fire ecology. And of course these are the stuff of Australian children's tales, the evil banksia men who are always on the outlook for unsuspecting gumnut babies.

Field Guide to Gymnosperms & Book of Leaves

Nothing is better than well-illustrated plant books, except maybe an exceptional bottle of wine for under $10 (one can have dreams). Two newish books have come to the attention of the Phactor and both upon initial inspection seem quite good. The first is a field guide to Gymnosperms of the United State and Canada, and the wonderful illustrations may be glimpsted over at ArtPlantae, and do not let anyone anywhere try to tell you that photography can take the place of good botanical illustration. You'll love this book. However, as a field guide this book has not been tested to determine how well it works at actually identifying gymnosperms. Maybe some reader will have given it a go and let us know.
The second is a book about tree leaves, The Book of Leaves, more precisely the leaves of exactly 600 temperate zone trees. This is less of a field guide, being a rather hefty tome, and more of a reference book, but a quite handsome and very well done one. Each page has an excellent image of a leaf, full-sized (as much as the page allows) next to the full leaf, and an interesting commentary about the tree as well as its botanical specs. The tree selections, and you might quibble with a few, are selected from all the world's temperate zones, so yes, it includes Nothofagus as surely you were wondering. As a tropically oriented botanist, the temperate zone restriction is rather disappointing, but perhaps this will give the author, Allen Coombes, an idea for his next project. Looks like the Phactor has found a couple of presents to buy for that very special botanically-inclined someone. Or send this blog to someone as a hint of a present for yourself!

How did we live without this? Whipped Lightening!

Coming soon to a state near you, Whipped Lightening, a new product presently only available in 10 states: Arizona, Texas, Colorado, Georgia, Louisiana, Missouri, South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, and New Jersey. Whipped Lightening takes a whipped topping, some coloring, and spikes it with ethanol. Yes, that's right readers, a 30 proof whipped topping! "Whipped cream's not just for kids anymore." Cool Whipahol will certainly add something to Grandma's pumpkin pie or an ice cream sundae. Is this a great country or what?

Identify this fungus

One of the Phactor's academic passtimes is plant identification. This skill takes a certain amount of knowledge, considerable experience, and the ability to not be misled, a common student mistake. Here's an example. A citizen wanders into the university, finds their way to my laboratory for plant identification, and asks the student on station, "Can you identify this fungus for me?" Now identification of fleshy fungi is another such skill, and at one time the Phactor was pretty good at the local fungal flora, but without lots of regular practice you lose your edge. Well, the student did one thing right, summoned me, and did one thing wrong, they were misled by the initial question and started looking in the wrong place. You see, fungi don't have flowers, and while lacking chlorophyll, this plant has flowers and actually all you usually see is just the flowering shoots of a subterranean parasitic plant. Locally this plant is called "Indian pipe" (Monotropa uniflora) and its a member of the heath/Rhododendron family, and while common enough, it is rather inconspicuous even in flower. So the lack of chlorophyll was taken to mean this was a fungus, but that isn't a valid dichotomy, and a very chagrined student hopefully learned a couple of lessons. Make your own observations and don't jump to someone else's erroneous conclusions.

Silly botanist; holly is a girl

Long has the Phactor thought that plant-oriented people make up a very small portion of the general population, a very small club if you will, and then along comes something so simple, so direct, quite forcefully reinforcing that idea. While thinking about a yuletide post on pagan botanical customs (a forthcoming feature), the Phactor with clearly botanical expectations and still not quite thinking clearly because of a low caffeine titer and clogged sinuses, googled "holly" with an expectation of seeing numerous images of Ilex. If google represents what the general public thinks then when you say here's an image of holly, only 1 out of every 50 people will think of the plant. The other 49 are thinking about mostly blondes, mostly scantly clad blondes, mostly enhanced and artificially colored blondes, and quite definitely, mostly A blonde that lived with a geriatric publisher as a caretaker of sorts. And this result was actually puzzling upon first glance, sort of a what the heck just happened momentary confusion before the duh! awakening, which only shows how little impact pop culture has made upon this botanical academic, although still being somewhat ashamed of actually knowing upon reflection who this particular Holly was. This generated an interesting reflection upon the symbolism of decorating you home with Holly, or Hollies, and then my thoughts returned to the geriatric publisher with more than a bit of revulsion and a recommendation about people who won't act their age invariably looking foolish. Thank goodness when you google "holly bush" the result is botanical, not blonde.

Why don't trees freeze?

The Phactor gets questions, and what could be more appropriate than asking why don't trees freeze and die on a morning where the temperature is -13C and my system is still trying to get from tropical to temperate, so arctic is still beyond me. In actual fact some trees do freeze, but they do not die. The biology of some woody plants, those whose ranges extend the farthest into the high latitudes, allows their cells' water to freeze without harming the cells. These are called "freezing tolerators" and once frozen they can withstand almost any temperature. One such shrub in the Phactor's collection is the Siberian cypress (Microbiota) and it is hardy to Zone 2, -45C. It doesn't have to worry about such severe cold here in Lincolnland, but it can suffer from the opposite, our summer heat.
Other trees don't freeze; they have the ability to deep super-cool the water in their cells and avoid freezing, although that gets more difficult as the temperatures get colder. The ability to deep super cool has its limits at right around -40 (F or C!), where the two temperature scales actually equal each other. This means that freeze avoiding species can disperse and grow further north but then when they finally encounter a really cold temperature, they will freeze and die. The first map shows the distribution of a freeze tolerating species, the red-osier dogwood, which ranges north right up to tundra. The second set of maps shows the distributions of 4 species of freezing avoiders (A-D, American beech, white ash, sugar maple, and northern red oak). The heavy line running just north of the Canadian border is either the border drawn by Google maps (not a funny joke in Costa Rica right now) or the -40 C minimum temperature isoterm, which by definition connects all the points where the minimum expected temperature is -40 C. Other freezing avoiders are less able to deal with colder temperatures. Here in Lincolnland the minimum expected temperature occurs about every 10-15 years (-29 C), so a less cold tolerant tree or shrub might dodge the bullet for quite awhile before the climatic extremes demonstrate that my sweet bay magnolia is growing too far to north. Obviously global warming will shift such climatic zones and the distributions of organisms along with it. 54 million years ago when the climate was much warmer tropical forests extended to 50 N latitude! Imagine southern magnolias growing in Green Bay, Wisconsin!

Last week of a semester - the student perspective

It's too late. The last week of the semester is here. Things undone will remain undone. The general student attitude can be summed up as "Do we have to?". Their preference is to do nothing the last week of the semester. This would also apply to the first week of the semester, thus reducing a 15 week semester to 13 weeks effectively, sort of a 13% educational discount, and of course the manditory classes cut just before and after Thanksgiving. Of course if those two weeks were really removed, the beginning-end attitude would still seek a further discount. So as faculty you simply cannot give in. You have 1/15th of your material to cover, or maybe more like 1/9th, as is the case this semester. Let's assign that one lecture's material to be learned as a research project and include it as part of the final. But in some respect, it's too late to get any more out of students. At his point grades could be assigned with 85% accuracy; only a few will change as a result of the final exam, the study habits, the effort, the interest, are fixed. This is the way semesters always end. The students generally were quite good this term; only a few disappointments. You cannot get them all to succeed even though you present them with the opportunity. And so it goes.

Are flowers manipulating your emotions?

Are flowers manipulating your emotions in a way that improves their resproductive success? Wow! The Phactor is truly stunned by this idea; it is stunningly stupid even for psychologists. As usual their approach is it’s all about us. There is a relevant question, which is why would humans find visual signals that evolved to interact with largely avian, hymenopteran, and lepidopteran, senses aesthetically pleasing? These are not the only pollinators, but generally humans don’t find flowers adapted to other pollinators so appealing. No one will argue that humans like flowers, and evidence shows this appreciation dates back at least to Neanderthals who buried people with flowers. But there’s no co-evolution here. Humans evolved in an environment dominated by flowering plants and without them satisfying all of our material needs, human life would be impossible. Humans do cultivate the flowers we like, thus making them more successful in human modified environments and so dependent upon our ministrations that most would immediately perish if the human influence was removed. So what’s wrong with this psychological “hypothesis”? Consider this remarkable statement: “[Plants] have discovered the secrets of our positive emotional response mechanisms, and have adapted themselves to exploit it.” Oh, this hurts. It’s like the worst stuff written on freshman biology exams. No organism adapts itself; a selective agent must act on the organisms such that the genetics of the population are altered. True just as humans have selected upon the wolf genome to produce somewhat less threatening variants, like toy poodles, humans have selected variants of our pet plants to produce bigger, more colorful, different colored, unnatural hybrids, and many parted flowers, some thereby rendered virtually sterile, and our ministrations keep them alive, although since they have no biological purpose personally the Phactor, who studies flowers' biologies, finds these cultivars of little interest. These preferences tell us a great deal about our likes, but no evidence exists that the more highly altered plants, those incapable of survival on their own elicit a greater positive emotional response in humans. Do humans appreciate those more than wild flowers? Sorry, but in only the most trivial sense might floral cultivars be considered an adaptation based upon human emotional responses. A daisy did not begin to look like a daisy because it pleased a Cro-magnon. Perhaps this is the stuff of “positive psychology”, but it sure makes a negative impression on me.

'Tis the Season Tree Identification

The Phactor fields this question almost annually. Are Christmas trees the same as pine trees or evergreens? In short, no. A pine tree is a member of the genus Pinus, and among those trees sold as Christmas trees is the Scotch pine. Pines are characterized by having their needles in clusters of 2, as does the Scotch pine, 3, or 5. Many of the yuletide trees are firs (Abies), widely liked because of their fragrant foliage and sap. Their needles are borne singly and they leave a circular scar on the twig when they fall off. Here in the USA balsam, fraser, and noble firs are the three species sold. In some places junipers or red cedars are used, and sometimes so are Douglas-firs, which is not a true fir. Every now and then you see spruces. All of these conifers are evergreens because they are not deciduous, but there are both deciduous conifers and many everygreen flowering plants too. So evergreen does not mean either pine or conifer. Many people have simply given up on real trees having switched to artificial trees that now represent the artificiality of the Christmas season, just as evergreens used to represent a renewal of life to celebrate Saturnalia when the days began getting longer again and light began returning. Mrs. Phactor is a tree traditionalist, so fir it is.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Episcia

International travel and the recovery rom it has left the Phactor day and date disoriented. Almost let Friday slip away without posting a fabulous flower, not that there haven't been lots of nice flower posts of late, but TGIFFF. Today's flower, Episcia lilacina is a close relative of a couple of well known house plants in the gesner family. It's sort of funny; a plant like this is hard for many people to grow, and this species has not been used as a temperate house plant to my knowledge even though it has a larger flower than the two cultivated species in our greenhouse, but down in Costa Rican rainforests this lovely plant with it's pale lavendar flowers and varigated leaves with purple on their undersides grows upon bare clay banks in the dark understory. The problem with growing such a plant is quite simply the difference in humidity, and the arid winter air in our houses is just too dry for many tropical plants.

Plant Porn

One of the big problems faced by early land plants is they retained the swimming sperm of their algal ancestors, a problem that was finally solved by the seed habit. Sperm are small so even swimming short distances to find an egg to fertilize is quite a challenge, but this also means that even a film of water, the morning dew, can provide an adequate aquarium for sperm to swim in, and lacking vascular tissue, such bryophytic plants conduct water along their surface rather than through their interior. But at the great risk to the Phactor’s reputation for wholesome botany, check out this link for some liverwort porn. Clouds of sperm ejaculated, atomized some 15 cm into the air capable of fertilizing any and all females in the vicinity. These are real porn stars of the plant kingdom. Oh, did the Phactor mention that the biggest sperm were also found in the plant kingdom?

The Non-browning Apple Non-controversy

The Phactor has never considered the browning of apple flesh after exposure to air (oxygen) to be much of a problem, but then again, my attitude is sufficiently old school that the purchase of pre-sliced apples and other pre-butchered produce is considered not at all appropriate. After all knives were invented way before plastic bags, but solutions to this non-problem are in the news. The oxidative enzymatic reaction that causes apple flesh to brown is strictly a question of aesthetics; nothing else changes, not taste, not texture, so eat the damned thing. Ah, but we want our pre-sliced apples, although thoroughly butchered and in a bag, to maintain the pretense of freshness. Does it occur to any of these morons that apples with their skin intact do not turn brown? Apple slices can be treated with any number of anti-oxidant chemicals like ascorbic acid (lemon juice) and the USDA has approved a long list of chemicals that prevent browning. Now a company from the Great White North has produced a variety of apples in which the enzyme polyphenol oxidase has been silenced, rendered non-functional, so the flesh of these apples does not brown. Now again, this seems to be something no one needs in the first place, but watch what will happen, two groups will strongly oppose this GMO apple: the companies that drench apple slices in chemicals (generally quite harmless ones) to keep them “fresh” in appearance and the anti-GMO crazies. Already one group has raised concerns about “cross-pollination” of regular apples with pollen from non-browning apples. Oooo, scary! So what would happen if regular apples were pollinated by GMO apples? Nothing. The apple is the maternal genotype. The seeds would be hybrids, but we don’t eat them and we don’t use them to propagate apples. Could someone please point out the problem here? Well, it comes down to money and anti-science attitudes, and not once does anyone considered the obvious conclusion that you don't need non-browning apples of any sort.

Lincolnland Tries to Teach Tropical Travelers a Lesson

A temperature of around -6 C and snow flurries is no way to greet tropical travelers who not only aren't used to it, they aren't dressed for it, and although their parents would be appalled at their lack of fore thought, even the Phactor felt sorry for students caught only in t-shirts. So the return from the tropics to the seasonal weather of Lincolnland was every bit as shocking as expected; it was as if our homeland were trying to teach us a lesson, but if it was, the lesson may have had the opposite effect. As observed by my sage senior colleague, "I don't have any damned classes to teach; why the hell didn't I stay in Costa Rica when I had the chance?" Good point that. And no question about it, if the state were not paying my salary, chances are the Phactor would be spending very little time there too. So let me close by assuring my employer and the citizens of Lincolnland that the Phactor returned with as many students as he took, and as a result a few of them may have some appreciation of the splendor of perfectly fried platanos and freshly picked ripe pineapple, the remarkable diversity of rain forests, the tenacity of ants, and the tropical life.