Field of Science

Weather Forecast - Snow

Although the upper midwest of the USA does have real winters, they are nothing in comparison to the winters of my youth in upstate New York, in particular the snow belt along the southeastern shore of Lake Ontario. Today there are all manner of dire predictions of 8-18 inches of snowfall during the next 24 hrs. But generally, in fact, mostly, the actual snowfalls are quite short of the mark. Apparently the weather people like scaring everyone into good behaviors and smart actions, although these SW to NE storm tracks are difficult to predict and if you are right in the path, you can get clobbered while an area only 50 miles away from the narrow storm track will only get a couple of inches. In upstate New York when they warned you about heavy snow (no one would notice just 6-8 inches more) you immediately ran out and bought beer, bread, peanut butter, ping pong balls, you know all the necessities so that you could survive if a big snow fall was realized. During the Phactor's freshman year in college on the shores of Lake Ontario an actual snowfall of 104 inches (+260 cm) was recorded in 48 hrs. We could toboggan out a 2nd story window, and it took a week to dig out. Good thing the lake was there so you had a place to put it all. And even more impressively, that is not the snowfall record for the state. A little town to the east, Red Creek perhaps, received 78" of snow in just 24 hrs. So no worries there except that anything more than 5-6 inches is more than they can deal with. When you have to tie a fishing pole to your car antenna and put a flag on it so people can see you coming up to an intersections, why then you've got some snow. The image is of a colleague's driveway.

Clever names for plants, gardens, and the such

Clever names are always a delight; it tells you something about the people you're dealing with. And so the Phactor, and yes, he'll admit the Phytophactor was not so clever with his pseudonym as he would have liked, certainly appreciates clever names especially as they regard plants and the like. Maybe Turn Over a New Leaf would have been a good blog name, but actually it would suggest that somehow the author was seeking to change, for the better, and that would certainly be inaccurate. How about the Garden of Eaton? Nice. However my current favorite is Peony's Envy. Check out the Paeonia japonica, the Phactor could not resist and got them in the ground just as fall turned into winter. Unfortunately, a class discussion needs some leadership, and they'll have to do with me. So perhaps, others of you will be kind enough to make some nominations.

Science & Pseudoscience - Senior Seminar

Senior Seminar is one of those "it sounds like a good idea" sort of things that actually doesn't work so good for several reasons. Many of my colleagues consider it a waste of time and therefore spend very little time on it, and wow, if they aren't right as a result! In an effort to wrest a bit of thoughtfulness from our seniors, discussions of various science/pseudoscience issues have proven to be pretty useful although it always dismays the Phactor how difficult to impossible it is for some to part with the woo in their personal lives. While considering a wide array of alternative medical remedies, one student related that her father had treated his cancer with one of these alternative therapies and recovered. This made her peers very uncomfortable about offering any further comment. So the instructor must wade in. "How fortunate for him. So what do you actually know?" After a long silence, another brave student offered, "He recovered; that's all you know." Give her a gold star. This precise point is what is not clear to almost everyone including biology majors. In a non-scientific situation, you cannot know why this person's cancer disappeared, presuming there was no misdiagnosis, which is always a possibility if the person generally foregoes regular medical treatment. And so it goes, but one out of 12 isn't too bad, is it? Oh, yes, the pre-meds were not first and foremost in grasping this important detail. Wait until we get to evolution and medicine!

Kauai - Botanical paradise?

A recent travel news article called Kauai, one of the Hawaiian Islands, a botanical paradise, and then talked about the all the remarkable plants: crotons, bougainvilleas, plumerias, philodendrons, mango, guava (!), poinsettia, hibiscus, and so on. No question that such plants grow well, even luxuriously in the wet tropical climate of Kauai, but like most visitors to this island, the travel writer had not seen one single native plant. The plants they noticed are what the Phactor calls "UTF", ubiquitous tropical flora, widely planted ornamentals. There are two factors at work here. One, people always bring plants with them from where ever they come, and this started with the Polynesians and has continued to this day. Two, plants and animals native to islands are often unable to deal with vigorous invaders having evolved in a place with few natural enemies. And like lots of immigrant organisms, organisms brought to islands become invasive in new habitats devoid of their natural enemies. So you have to look hard and walk some distances to find any native plants on Kauai. But you will see guava every where, a very easy plant to recognize with its smooth cinnamon-colored bark, and when guava arrived, whenever that was, but guava is a terribly invasive plant in Kauai. Invasions of immigrants take a terrible toll on native species. So while a pretty place, quite lovely in fact, and well worth visiting sometime, Kauai is more of a botanical disaster zone than a botanical paradise.

Saturday fun - household chores

After a morning spent cooking (chocolate cranberry tart for tonight's dinner party & new batch of granola), the temperature actually got above freezing so Mrs. Phactor decides we should take down lights and other outdoor ornaments. Walk around the estate showed that the rabbits were delighted that the flowering quince did not get protected by fencing; it is now thoroughly pruned. They also ate the needles, but not the twigs, off a newly plants white pine that has limbs near ground level. As good "parents" we put the Wisconsin born Norwegian forest cat kitten in her harness and let her explore the great snowy outdoors, a new experience. It was great fun even if paws did get wet and cold. Oh, these pampered house pets have it so soft. And it's so funny that all those squirrels you see outside the windows just never seem to be around when the cats go outside. Funny how that works. But good thing to get some outdoor chores done because more winter weather is on the way this coming week. 49 days of snow cover so far with February yet to go and our average is about 40 days. This is not a bad thing for the plants at all. And the granola seems like a good batch; no two are ever completely alike. The tart is spectacular.

The things you can learn from feng shui

Our local morning newspaper, never one to cover things in any depth or breadth, is a way to keep track of goings-on hear abouts. But today for reasons unknown an interview with a feng shui master was included. Wow! The Phactor didn't know that chi energy had anything to do with quantum mechanics, but it's a good bet this means a feng shui master doesn't have a clue what quantum mechanics is all about. No doubt there are ways of arranging your furniture that are more aesthetically pleasing, but not because of any flow of chi "energy". But there was one useful piece of advice: keep the toilet lid down so that the chi doesn't get flushed down the sewer. Yes, she actually said that. Always thought the lid was kep down to keep the cats from using the toilet bowl as a water dish, oh, unless maybe her cat is named Chi. Do they make hermetically sealing toilet seats because, don't know about yours, but ours leaks chi like crazy through all those spacers. How do people fall for this stuff?

Berry Go Round #36

Over at Seeds Aside, the January round up of plant related blogs has just been posted. You're just sure to find some new blogs and lots of interesting posts so click on over for a look. The Phytophactor is grateful for having been included, and my worry mounts because next month's BGR is my responsibility. And since February is a short month let us hope all the northern temperate zone bloggers try to cure their cabin fever by postings lots of goodies.

Ice "Flowers"

Here's a pretty neat phenomenon that was brought to my attention a few years ago, and in looking for some interesting "flower" stories for posts, this came up again. So with permission of the owner, here's a teaser, an "ice flower" or actually more of an ice ribbon. More pictures and explanations of how they form can be found at this link. And if you like this, see the "frost flowers" here too.

Friday Fabulous Flowers - Alpine Tundra

To complete this week's mini-series of blogs on Rocky Mountain alpine tundra you just knew the FFF would be something from way up there, so not to disappoint here are actually two dicot flowers, and a bit of grass. When two low, small-leafed mound forming plants grow close to each other it often is difficult to figure out where one ends and the other begins. Actually most of the leaves you see belong to the clover (Trifolium dasyphyllum), but it's difficult to see their trifoliate nature (note the upper most leaf on the right side). The yellow flower is Sedum lanceolatum (?) and its short succulent leaves are barely visible. A 3x5 file card would cover the whole field of view. The grass may be a wild rye.

My desk is wooden. Who knew?

Clutter, it grows on you. It had been so long since the Phactor had seen his desk it comes as a nice surprise to find it's a somewhat worse for wear mahogany. Needless to say, the university hasn't bought this type of desk for any faculty member in a long time, never in fact; this particular desk belonged to an administrator and you know they need big, impressive desks. And how this desk was acquired demonstrates my nefarious connections, but this issue was finding it. Truly it was nearly embarrassing to see how much the dregs of past semesters and various projects had piled up. The lowest strata could be radio carbon dated to 2007. Now the students have more room to play with the toys sitting on the front edge of the desk, and it reminds me that the "attitude improvement" candy jar is almost empty and its time to get more sour gummy things. Found are 7 books, 17 issues of various botanical journals, 23 research papers, and a hundred or so paper clips. They seem to slink to the bottom and hide. The problem is that too many projects have long drawn out tails before being completed, so things hang around in anticipation of completion an all too rare event, but for a moment, if neatness, which is a lot like cleanliness, is next to godliness then just call me Saint Phactor.

Something we all need - TNT detecting plants

Genetic engineering opens so many possibilities that only your imagination limits what you can do, but this really does boggle the mind. Plants bioengineered to become extremely chlorotic when they detect minute amounts of TNT. And the cool thing is that all you need to do to solve the problem is give them some nitrogen. Uh oh, the African violet says we have a bomb threat. OK, quick, give it some fertilizer. Several concerns do come to mind. First, even "fast" plants aren't known for their rapid response time, and explosions tend to be hasty things. Second, what will all those explosive sniffing dogs to for a job now? Kibble doesn't grow on trees. Third, paranoid gardeners will go into shock everytime one of their plants is a bit chlorotic. According to my azaleas al qaida is hiding in our garden. Imagine what an infestation of white flies means! Still you have to admire the creativity of who ever decided you could get a plant to detect TNT. But how do they do with fertilizer bombs? Would a plant turn chlorotic just to get at the fertilizer? Hey, but maybe there'll be some new job opportunities for botanists and horticulturalists in homeland security.

Whither comest new technology?

According to that always authoritative source the Onion the new MacBook is doing away with the keyboard, instead replacing it with the "wheel". This technological advance is intuitive, easy, dumb, and slow (see the demo). But something looked vaguely familiar about this, and from deep in my memory recesses an image emerged of a toy typewriter we had as kids. Like the Onion's MacBook it used a wheel; the keyboard was fake and you had to dial up each character, one at a time, and then print to to the paper by hitting the "type" button. So at least one of the Onion's writers must still use one of these.

Alpine tundra meadow

Here's another view of a Rocky Mountain alpine tundra meadow. This is a pretty lush portion with lots of vegetation, and tall too! At higher altitudes yet the vegetation is lower and sparser. These are great places for botanizing in season, you know those two weeks of balmy weather above freezing. The mid-summer temperature this day was 38 F (3 C) and in exposed places the wind chill made it feel much colder. But it was sunny, and down close to the ground it wasn't so severe and as you can see quite a number of plants are in flower; lots of composites, pinks, legumes, some cinquefoils and sedums, and some grasses & sedges. Of course lots of these species would look great in your rock garden; it's their natural habitat, and while they are certainly cold hardy when covered in snow, they would absolutely fry in the heat of our central midwest summers. Unfortunately some alpine species, particularly European ones, are being marketed as hardy perennials, and while true in the sense of cold, they won't survive summers in our climate, so it's another example of rather unethical marketing.

Another frightening news article about wine grapes

To heck with terrorism; global warming is no worry; the world won't end this May 21st, but wine grapes are in jeopardy! Oh, no! But it's so, and for a news article this one in the New York Times is pretty good so one suspects the science writer is a oenophile. This particular problem is true for any cultivated plant that is largely if not wholly reproduced asexually. Understand that most of the diverse varieties of wine grapes appeared as "sports", somatic mutants, that are then propagated asexually. So let's get the modern version of Louis Pasteur working on the grape no-sex problem because without a decent glass of wine with dinner, nothing else really matters, nothing civilized any ways.

Alpine tundra in the Rocky Mountains

To follow up on recent posts on alpine islands, and for those of you who don't like to even stand on the kitchen step stool, a brief introduction to alpine tundra is in order. Even if you are not an intrepid mountaineer you can visit alpine tundra in the USA and Switzerland. The first time the Phactors did this was at Monarch Pass and we were camped at 10,500 feet which is about 500 feet below tree line where alpine tundra begins. At the top of the pass a gondola goes to the top for the view. "Can we get outside and wander around," we asked? "Yes, but why would you want to?" At first glance alpine tundra looks like little more than a field of rocks, but plants are nestled down into spaces between them, little microhabitats, and all you need do is look down to discover that the tundra was in full bloom and wonderful. And the dope running the gondola was missing out on business by not encouraging people to see the tundra. In Rocky Mountain National Park you can drive, if your vehicle is up to it, to a bit over 12,000 feet and the alpine tundra begins where the parking lot ends. A lot of the plants here have developed a "moss" type growth form, a dense, low-growing, small-leaved, cushion of a plant, and sometimes it's tough to know what you have unless it's in flower. Tundra plants tend to have what seem in comparison to the plant size, large flowers, but of course flowers even on dwarfed plants still have to be big enough for the pollinators. In this image a lush alpine tundra meadow in in the fore ground. Across the valley you see the dark green of the fir forest and above that tree line is alpine tundra. This is July and a few snow fields still remain. By the way the road up is not for the faint of heart or those who fear wide open spaces; suffice it to say there's no place to pull off the road without a large component of down.

Ancient Beer

How do you recover from a weekend of athletic disappointments, or even a season of disappointments? Obviously you turn to that most wonderful of all depressants: beer. Via an esteemed botanical blogger MAT Kinase, comes a HT about a wonderful advertisement for a truly ancient beer, Fossil Fuel Beer, brewed supposedly using really, really old yeast, in fact 45 million year old yeast from the gut of a bee preserved in amber (fossilized tree sap). This is of course the premise of Jurassic Park, obtaining dino DNA from the gut of similarly trapped mosquito. The Phactor does not doubt that such things can be preserved, but that such preserved artifacts are still viable, i.e.e, capable of growing, does generate considerable skepticism. Sorry but even spores have a half-life for viability. Still you gotta love the name; has a great amber color and should have a long shelf life. For one thing the Phactor is going to stop worrying about that bottle of beer that's been in the back of the fridge for a year or so.

New Record - 85 degree shift

Mrs. Phactor set a new record on Friday. At 5:30 AM when she departed it was -5 degrees F (-20.5 C) and by noon she was in southern Florida at 80 F (26.6 C), an 85 degree temperature shift in a matter of hours. But although not as drastic, the return from tropical to arctic is always much harder, and that comes from having returned from tropical field work into our winter on several occasions. No fun it that what so ever, however the worst aspect is not the temperature shift but the difference in humidity and the horrible things that does to my aging dermis.

Stock Market Sausage Sunday?

Lincolnland is all a buzz about some kind of stock market and/or sausage event. Everyone is going on about a Bear market, and it has to do with meat packers too. But for some reason everyone must take sides and wear either a big C or a big GB and fuzzy ears or a chunk of cheese on their heads because you have 22 gigantic men on a field, only one ball, and there's no agreement on which way the ball should move. Silly as this sounds, everyone says the outcome of this contest is very important. But some of us with a more mature outlook understand that none of it really matters folks because its the Jets all the way!

No escaping upward

Talk about timely; no sooner does the Phactor mention that global warming will cause the extinction of alpine species who cannot migrate any higher to escape the increasing warmth and an article on that topic appears in the NYTimes. As the article highlights this will be particularly a problem in the tropics. My colleagues, the Clarks, have established new study plots in cloud forests atop some of Costa Rica's highest peaks for the very depressing purpose of recording their demise. And atop some of Thailand's highest peaks are very temperate looking "oak" forests, and again they got no where to go to. Sad.

Islands in the sky

Islands have many biological oddities because the organisms there are isolated from those on the mainland and this can have many consequences. Unless you are a biologist you probably don't think about mountains tops and the species living there as islands yet they are. One question of interest is determining how much gene flow exists between populations on different islands, and one of my colleagues, Andrea Kramer, has been examining this by looking at bumblebee (see image) and hummingbird pollinated penstemons, and she found that the bee-pollinated species were more distinct mountain to mountain. This means as you may suspect that birds are better at moving genes greater distances than bees. Genetic diversity on mountain top islands is a particularly critical thing to study because a warming climate pushes alpine species higher, and if the mountain isn't tall enough, that population become extinct, and the islands getter smaller, fewer, and farther apart. Islands in the sky may be one of the places where climate change results in the loss of a lot biological diversity especially those that are highest, the inhabitants of alpine tundra. As a change of pace, alpine tundra will be featured in a few upcoming blogs.

Get some culture

To the people the Phactor works with day to day, get some culture means getting a petri dish out of an incubator. But while surrounded by many cultural philistines the Phactor is a patron of the arts, an appreciation developed by minoring in art while majoring in biology. Probably because artists and biologists dress more alike than any other two disciplines, their only strong similarity, no one really noticed this fellow slipping back and forth. If you've never had to move to have more wall space, then you aren't an art collector. Why Ms. Phactor recently had a lighted case built to display the art glass. So every now the science is put on pause to call attention to an artist's work, especially if of a botanical bent. This came to my attention from another science blogger, so a big HT to Bioephemera. Linda Behar constructs photo realistic embroideries that are simply wonderful, and it is no accident the there is a Monet-like quality to some of the images as you will discover while exploring her gallery. Truth be known, several years ago while searching the web for articles about waterlilies (the kind of thing like yesterday's Friday Fabulous Flower, and yes, it's Friday again!) up popped a surprise, an art gallery link, and this resulted in the purchase of a painting of waterlilies. So why not also mention that an artist is a new Phactor Phollower, and you can see her gallery here. Welcome.

Friday Again

Yesterday, Friday, was a strange Friday, probably because most people acted as though it were a Thursday, and now it's Friday again. Is the Phactor caught in an endless Friday Ground Hog Day loop? Too many seminars (2 for job interviews, one visiting researcher) and a day of cancelled classes have generated a day-date disconnect like some rift in the fabric of time and maybe it will take a massive pulse of tachyons fired from the main reflector disk to get me back to tomorrow. Glad this week is almost over, or is it? Very troubling. Where's the Doctor? Who?

Missed a land mark - 500th blog

The Phactor is not the most prolific blogger around; he has another job, and although blogging about botany might be considered part of it in terms of public outreach, other duties certainly loom larger. None the less having started this blog not quite three years ago the blogging frequency has grown, and just the other day the total passed 500. Probably time to begin purging some of the old little read and little visited pages. And my followers continue to increase in number also, 40, no the Indoor Garden (er) has joined so 41 as of today, is fast approaching both my age and IQ. Not really. The Phactor is much older and a bit smarter than that. It's funny how it goes. By far the most popular blog has been whether an artichoke is a fruit or a vegetable. Why do so many people care about that, or is there only one person in the world who thought to deal with such a question? Ah, that's it certainly. The blogosphere (never write that without thinking about how the word always reminds me of our impeached governor) is a curious online community, and you find yourself having great affection for some of the people that regularly interact with your blog persona. As the blog continues the Phytophactor vows to continue being true to form, which seems to be providing an eclectic collection of bits and pieces of this and that mostly revolving around botany, gardening, and the foibles of academic life. Thanks for staying with me folks.

Friday Fabulous "Flower" - A Basal Angiosperm

Here's a not very awesome image of a "flower" of Trithuria submerse (Hydatellaceae). As the name suggests this is a monogeneric family of small, aquatic "grassy" plants that were long classified as monocots. The word flower is in quotes because like some of the oldest fossils of flowers, e.g. Archaefructus, it brings into question what should be called a flower. In this case what you actually see is best referred to as a "reproductive unit", which can vary in the number and ratio of subunits, in this case consisting of 4 simple pistillate flowers (C = carpel; H = stigmatic hair) each associated with a bract (B), a modified leaf, surrounding a single stamen/flower (A-anther, F-filament)(Bar = 0.5 mm). The morphological features do not suggest any close relationships, but molecular data surprised everyone by showing them to be a sister group to the waterlilies (Nymphaeaceae) and part of one of the basal lineages of flowering plants, those plants that have the most ancient common ancestry with the rest of angiosperms. These basal lineages are referred to as the ANA grade where the N stands for waterlilies now including this little vestigial (?) waterlily. The image is compliments of a recent study of the reproductive ecology which find that mostly it self pollinates, probably a mechanism for rapid reproduction in its ephemeral shallow-water habitat. That such plants look monocoty is not a surprise; basal angiosperms, basal monocots, and magnolid dicots all tend to have flowers with parts in multiples of 3s and often numerous. Others are very few-parted and simple. Water lilies also have only one cotyledon, but remember that several gymnosperms also have 2 cotyledons, so this sure does mess up the old traditional monocot-dicot taxonomy. The Phactor will save that lesson for another time.

Seed catalog addiction - look for the symptoms

Oh, dear, a fellow blogger who shows all the classic signs of seed catalog addiction: the glazed look of anticipation, the bit of saliva at the corner of the mouth, compulsive dog-earing corners to mark pages, a mail carrier with a bad back. The Phactor has seen it all before but never issued a stern warning. Fortunately SCA - seed catalog anonymous can help you over come this addiction where you think too much about what might be and not enough about what will be happening in your garden. It's the promissory nature of these catalogs, those pictures of perfect, bountiful flowers, fruits, and vegetables, and you know, you just know, that yours will look just like that and so you become addicted to this pleasurable fantasy, and you just can't get enough catalogs as shown in the link above. Now if only my blueberries grew just like in the picture. Maybe a new variety would help?

Important science - Wine Grape Genetics

The research that made Louis Pasteur famous originated with a government commission to find out why wine was spoiling leading to the discovery that things like spoilage and infections, and indeed fermentation itself, were the direct result of the metabolisms of invisibly small organisms. It's good that many scientists are focused on the public good as the driving force of their research, and this report from the proceedings of the National Academy of Science is downright scary. If grape breeders don't get busy and inject some new genetic diversity into the gene pool of wine grapes, the whole industry could be in trouble. When Mrs. Phactor, a wine survivalist, hears about this, the wine cellar which now only holds 120 or so bottles will have to be greatly enlarged. You begin to worry about the end of civilization coming when and your supply of wine being only 100 bottles or so. After all it'll take a couple of years to get your own winery going. This genetic study indicates that early in the domestication of wine grapes, some 6000-8000 years ago (this study's molecular clock suggests wine grapes arose 5000 years ago) whatever stock was successful became sort of a genetic bottle neck, a small subset of the wild grape genome, and modern varieties all trace to back to this source. Various diseases resulting from their wide-spread cultivation are catching up and the only chance of the wine industry lasting another 5000 years is to breed in new disease resistance. Worries like this can ruin your sleep. And it's probably true for any number of other domesticated plants too. Even worse when the crop is propagated asexually, like the poor Cavendish banana that is so beset with disease that you may as well kiss the most popular banana of the northern temperate zone goodbye. Fortunately better bananas exist, they just aren't part of the cultivated banana industry, although a few other varieties are beginning to appear in our markets. And this is why so much more research is necessary on the origins and domestication of those plants that feed people. And why students need access to basic botanical education, which has been systematically downsized in the USA in favor of human-biomedical biology. Why should people be impressed by physicians and befuddled by botanists. Botany what? Oh, yeah, on that great scale used to decide worth in our culture, salary, physicians get paid about half of what botanists are actually worth. Doesn't the Phactor wish. Come on! Wine! This is life and death stuff here!
HT to AoB blog.

Fun with English

Language is funny, especially English, a wonderful rule-defying, conglomerate of confusing sound-alike words with different usages where it ain't regular unless it's irregular. What is most amusing is how the biggest differences occur among those who consider English as their native tongue. And so this article caught my eye because of my uncertainty of what a "crisp opportunity" would be, my mind being prepared for its use as an adjective, i.e., crisp as opposed to soggy, or damp, a limp, all rather unappealing opportunities. Caught by the English use of "crisp" as a synonym for "chip". Now this is one of those instances where crisp seems preferable to chip, consider: potato chip, cow chip, wood chip. In general not very appetizing. Yet the use of "cookie" over "biscuit" must be defended because across a great portion of the USA if you order "biscuit and gravy" for breakfast (and that's not biscuits, always singular, never plural) you don't want gravy on oreos. Apparently a real biscuit has no name in English English. And savory mince on toast simply doesn't measure up in name, texture, or taste. So the Phactor hopes no one has a chip on their shoulder, cow or otherwise, when he points out that the potato chip was invented in Saratoga Springs, New York about 160 years ago starting a crisp opportunity.

Do the student shuffle

Schulmp, schulmp, schulmp! This sound passes my office every so many minutes, and you will hear it whenever walking across a campus, the sound of students who scuff and shuffle along, dragging their feet to keep ill-fitting footwear poorly-designed for walking on their feet. When you become a university professor, you have a reasonable expectation that you will be teaching students to speak, write, and think gooder. But it turns out that we must teach them to eat (Way too many are food wimps.) and walk as well. The student shuffle becomes quite aggravating on field trips like the one to study rain forest biology in Costa Rica because they must wear Wellington style rubber boots both to deal with the wet, muddy conditions and with the well camouflaged pit vipers. When the student shuffle is done in heavy duty rubber footwear, some of which still don’t fit too well, a problem they will soon regret as they figure out that the amount of walking they must do is far greater than what they are used to and even slightly ill-fitting boots make your life miserable (remedy = mole skin), and the din created reminds me of the herd of buffalo that passed by during the night just upstream from our “tree house” in a South Africa game park. You weren’t going to sleep through that experience. And you aren’t going to see much rainforest wild life if you don’t learn how to pick up your feet when you walk either. How much energy is lost with all this friction? Now if they would only close their mouths when they chew and display a smidge of intellectual curiosity about new and different foods. On some other occasion the Phactor may choose to comment about and snicker at the “stork walk” caused by overly high heels and the contribution that makes to a fashion statement. At least you can have a bit of respect for the guy in your class who wears cargo shorts and flip-flops year around. "It makes things simple." Yeah.

My Darling Clementines

A couple of months ago the Phactor commented on real versus ersatz clementines (here and here) and their differences from tangerines. Since then at least one batch in local markets, not sampled, helped confuse the issue by calling the fruit "clementine tangerines". Curiosity and their nice appearance resulted in a recent purchase of "clementines" from California, and indeed, these are clementines. How nice. The ersatz clementines were from northern Africa. A complaint to the produce manager got a bit of an irate response to the tune of "who had the temerity to question the identity of their fruit?" The Phytophactor, that's who, a real expert. Here's my card. Call me if you have any more produce needing identification.

Fighting the Winter Doldrums

Tropical biologists really suffer through the winter season unless somehow, someway enough time and money appears to work in the lower latitudes. So frequent reminders are needed to keep spirits up, and spirits themselves help too, although my preferences certainly are different seasonally. My university has this crazy idea that classes should be held, and faculty should teach them, during the winter months. It is only for the lack of resources that my classes are not conducted abroad as they should be and occasionally are. This is pretty view from a quite old picture taken on one of my first tropical research trips. Coconut palms growing along a river in the land of coconuts, Kerala. Most of these will be floated down river and used for fiber (coir). Feeling better?

Is your character changing?

What a shock! To find out after so many years your astrological sign has changed here at the end of the age of Aquarius (as one who actually saw the musical "Hair" when it was new) is quite disturbing. So now that the signs have shifted do you feel yourself in flux? Rather than being agreeable and of a cheerful disposition, are you now irritable and mean? Ah, that's what happens when the signs change. You see ancient astrologers just didn't know a few things, like the Earth wobbles a bit, and that affects the positions of those arbitrary patterns so named constellations, and you might even be an Ophiuchus (Nov. 30 - Dec. 17), and you all know what they're like, especially if you're a Sagittarius! A dear neighbor crazy lady was our local source of astrological expertise for years. After giving her a ride home one winter evening she said, "You're a Taurus aren't you? I can just tell." "How totally amazing your are" was my reply. She left quite happy. Then Mrs. Phactor turned to me and said, "But you're a Virgo!" Yes, that's what is amazing. So little sleep will be lost over this revelation.

The Sound of Silence

Yes folks students in public schools in Lincolnland will now have to observe a "moment of silence" to start the day since a court has ruled that silence per se is not about religion especially if your religion says you are to make "joyful noise". Now if really taken seriously this would not be a bad thing because the Phactor has long benefited from the silent reflection upon ideas and research during his walk to work. But of course this isn't actually about serious thinking, this is a shallow victory for those who favor forcing everyone to acknowledge their religious superstitions. This is what legislators do in our state rather than try to solve difficult problems. At least one judge wasn't duped and called a spade a spade - a moment of silence is about prayer in school as if people of that religious bent could not always pray whenever they wanted, but it's just so much better when everyone else has to play, er, pray along. Now if they decide to extend this to universities, no question we'll comply. It's easy to get a moment of silence. Just ask who's done the assigned reading?

Botanical quest - daun salam

What a botanical challenge for a Saturday in mid-January here in the center of North America. The recipe we must cook for this evening's meeting of our dinner club is opor ayam (braised chicken in coconut cream sauce). Nothing quite like a pleasantly spicy tropical feast for a winter dinner! But the recipe call for daun salam and even with my considerable knowledge and experience with Asian spices and cooking condiments, this is a new one because so far my travels have not included Indonesia, much to my regret. Daun salam is the Indonesian equivalent of our bay leaf (Laurus nobilis, Lauraceae), but one cannot be substituted for the other as they are very different plants and very different flavors. So now where to find Eugenia (Syzygium) polyantha (Myrtaceae)? This will be quite a challenge and no viable substitute exists. In all truth our club members, even as semi-sophisticated lovers of cooking and good food, will probably be unable to tell whether or not the recipe contains daum salam or not because it is probably new to all of us. So off to the Asian grocery shoppes we go. And don't tell anyone, but some kaffir lime leaves and lemon grass may go missing from the university greenhouse!

Mostly Unicellular

In Doug Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe the entry for Earth gets updated and revised based upon 15 years of field research from “harmless” to “mostly harmless” (also the title of his 5th book in this series), not a vast improvement, but probably helps with the publisher's liability issues. The Phactor thought he was the only person who could do so much field research and publish so little. When teaching about biological diversity even biology majors seem surprised by the idea that a dispassionate, unbiased evaluation of Earth’s biosphere could be summed up similarly as “mostly unicellular”. This is true although it does seem a bit ridiculous from our large organism point of view. People just cannot or will not come to grips with the idea that each and every one of us has more microorganisms living in and on us than we have cells in our body. Wonder how much the modern obsession with cleanliness and resulting germaphobia have contributed to this misconception, or is it simply that most people just don’t know how tiny and how numerous are the organisms that surround us?

Friday Fabulous Flower – At the Stage of Seed Dispersal

This isn’t precisely a flower, but then again it is a flower at the stage of seed dispersal, but a very pretty and unusual image the result of having gelatinous seed coats. This also isn’t exactly a common plant especially when viewed this way. So who recognizes this very nifty image?

Food Chain at Breakfast

As many of my faithful readers know the Phactors own a largish, park-like urban "estate". Many organisms share this space with us, and generally, with a few exceptions like gluttonous woodchucks, their presence is not just tolerated but encouraged. Unfortunately, like many patchy landscapes the animals most affected are the top predators. Screech owls and Cooper's hawks are the most common. Coyote have been spotted exactly twice in the last decade. So, in particular, squirrels and rabbit populations are rather high. About 20 feet from our breakfast table is a sugar maple that serves as a feeding station for our resident squirrels; this handout is not to actually encourage them but to reduce their efforts to raid our four bird feeders in that immediate vicinity. So it was with great delight this AM that while eating my English muffin with red currant jam a red fox streaked around the house and almost nabbed one of our fox squirrels. Oh, that they were so named because they are easy prey, but alas, the sugar maple provides a safe haven and with an inch or so to spare, the rodent escaped, all to the great amazement of our resident felines watching from the warm, safe indoors.

Student Evaluations - Yawn.

Last semester's teaching evaluations arrived yesterday and the Phactor filed them, unread, along with all the rest. You see, student evaluations of my teaching have been drearily similar semester to semester for years, and the whiny tone with which students complain is always depressing. My courses demand considerable effort, and student effort, ranging across a couple of orders of magnitude is the single biggest determinate of success, both now and in the future. Hard-working students find my classes easy enough, but slackers hang themselves with the all too ample rope provided. So as you might easily guess, my student evaluations are a mixed bag that generally parallels the diverse work-ethics of the students in my classes. As opposed to current students, enough feedback returns from students from one to ten years post-graduation saying that while my classes were hard in the effort required sense, they found themselves very well prepared and found my classes' usefulness enduring. That's more than enough justification for ignoring recent whines.
So imagine what someone has discovered? ""Hard" instructors seem to do better at preparing students for upper-level work, even though the grades may be lower and student-evaluation scores weaker in those classes." Duh! And guess who the "hard" instructors were? Oh yeah, permanent senior faculty who aren't worried about evaluations deciding their future employment! Fortunately my bosses have never placed an over reliance on student evaluations, but at institutions where student evaluations reign supreme you select for easy, sometimes even pandering instructors, except for some very very few faculty who can be both hard and popular. This is the great failing of junior colleges; faculty careers live or die based upon whether you please your students. Lincolnland has a great many junior colleges and their graduates show up in my classes as 3d year students, and about 50% still have poor study skills and poor work ethics, so they sort themselves out quickly even though most sport quite good grade averages from their junior college. This is also a failing at uber-elite institutions where you cannot fail. Give an uber-elite student for whom admission was their last academic hurdle a C, even for no effort at all, and mommy & daddy dearest who pay that awesome tuition initiate the cascade of complaint that ends up with a dressing down of the presumptuous faculty member, who had better have tenure. At our great public institutions students are free to fail, and that's why the grades of our top students actually mean something. Oh, even our institution has it's soft underbelly of disgraceful grading (8 out of every 10 students in every single course in music get As!). Sure, never a sour note. Unfortunately our current provost would be better suited for work at a junior college, so one must always be on guard. One day all of that paper filed away will be recycled as garden mulch and smart money says the plants will grow great.

Beer - The Natural Selection

Nothing quite like a nice cold beer, and one nice thing about the microbrewery revolution (prior to this the USA was down to just 37 breweries), is that naming and labelling all these different beers has generated a great deal of creativity, e.g., Coal Porter (Atlantic Brewing Co.), Polygamy Porter (Wasatch Brewery), Druid Fluid (Middle Ages Brewery), and so on, but frankly the Phactor is not an expert having sampled no more than a couple of hundred microbrews (over the years - with the data to prove it). But still you know you've made it scientifically when someone brews one especially for you. And what better to celebrate Darwin Day and guest lecturer Richard Dawkins than Evolution Ale from the Darwin Brewery of course (Is it located in Downs? No, in Sunderland near Mowbray Gardens. Planners of botanical geek tours take note.). The recipe comes from a long line of beer recipes, with modification. HT to Pharyngula.

Primate Brain and Snakes

Deep down in the ancestral primate brain lurks an innate fear of snakes. Something rustles in the dry grass next to where you are standing; you startle and jump away ready to flee. The reason is fairly simple the instinctively jumpy primate lives to have more offspring than the curious one who looks to see what made the rustling noise, and then the curious ones become biologists. So it comes as no surprise that even at a very young age, 3 years old, humans readily notice snakes. This is great to know, but unfortunately my students are 20-something years old (they only act like 3 yr olds) and not only have they not learned all that much, but their basic instincts seem to have been blunted as well, so my worry continues. The illustration at the link shows a nicely coiled, hood-flaired cobra against a white back ground, and who would wonder about the human ability to notice that. The real world isn't so nice, and where my research is done the snakes are really, really a lot harder to spot. Here's a nice fer-de-lance in its typical understory habitat, right under one of my study trees, and it's one heck of a lot harder to see, even for a 3-year old. Hint: the head is almost dead center at the bottom of the picture looking to your left. Can you say camouflaged?

A Mirror on American Culture

The Phactor does not like most politicians, but shooting them is not right, and not a solution to any problem. At such times more citizens of the USA need to see ourselves as others see us. One of the unlikeable things about politicians is that very few are brave enough to tell it like it is; most tell people what they want to hear even if it means telling out right lies. Not very many people in the USA have lived overseas; many travel to other countries, but most often in ways that isolate them from the local culture and people. You don’t get a sense of the world by using taxi drivers, baggage handlers, and tour guides as exemplars of another culture. The Phactor has many well-traveled friends who always go on tours so they never have to “deal” with people. Even worse tours are well scripted travel and usually overly scheduled travel; you just can’t poke around enough or take more time if you find something interesting, or if all you want to do is sit in a café with a drink and watch the passers-by. As a university professor not only do we have many opportunities for significant overseas travel, we also come into contact with many people of foreign birth, many are students, some become colleagues, but they offer diverse perspectives, and often thoughtful perspectives, real insights, on the peculiarities of our culture, things that too many 'Mercans think of as normal SOP that other people find incomprehensible, like our county's love of soft doughy bread. People in the USA suffer in part from the problem of being a citizen of a large country with a very homogeneous culture, at least on a superficial level, where you can drive 3000 miles and always be able to speak the same language, and if they don’t speak our version of English, well, they damned well ought to because they’re in “our” country after all, and you want to super size those fries? So that’s why different perspectives are so important. Generally when you have in depth discussions about world issues in other countries you end up being down right “un-American” by apologizing for exporting the worst aspects of our culture and the actions of our government. This is important because the rest of the world can be right, and the USA wrong.

Monday Morning Musings - A new semester begins

The first Monday of a new semester is always such a dreary thing; everyone seems to have forgotten whatever they knew or didn't know about how such things work. This year the semester seems to be starting early, but if so, trading a week of January classes for a week of May classes works just fine for us field researchers. The office staff wants this, that, and the other thing, all of which goes into an administrative black hole someplace because it never ever seems to be used or seen again. Students wander nearly aimlessly in a sort of Brownian motion and a few accidental collisions land some of them in your classroom. My primary botany class this semester is plant diversity, my best subject, a class filled with fascinating ideas and hypotheses, yet the enrollment is low, but at least it's students with a hard-core interest in plants. Oh, no, email arrives announcing the first phaculty meeting; another with interview schedules for candidates for neurobiology, and not a botanist among them, disappointing if the Society for Plant Neurobiology represents the absolute cutting edge of delusional biology. Another email; a student wants in an already oversubscribed seminar. Back to the coffee hoping the caffeine kicks in soon. And so it goes. You'd think the Phactor would get used to this after sixty one semesters. The afternoon should be better.

Unsustainably stalking the wild asparagus

Some people just don’t get ecology. A local crazy likes to advocate “living off the land” by eating wild plants he’s gathered as if this somehow makes sense and is feasible for more than just one or two crazies per region. The days of a gathering-hunting life-style are long gone and so are the very low human population densities required for this life style to be successful. At our present population density, stalking the wild asparagus is not practical or possible, and asparagus isn’t wild anyways. In this area several plants have become or are becoming rarer because they are over predated by human collectors, in one case (wild ramps) by local foodies, and in the other (ginseng) by people selling to purveyors of herbal medicines. In other places over gathering of wild plants, in this case rooibos, a legume used as an herbal tea, can also threaten populations and negatively affect biological diversity. It may seem like a good idea to harvest wild organisms for “free”, but there just isn’t enough wild left in most places any more to harvest wild organisms sustainably. In the case of rooibos tea and ginseng demand in other places drives over predation, which is a few stealing from everyone in the case of public lands. While trying to study the age structure and reproduction of ginseng locally, plants were disappearing as fast as they could be located, which sort of made our case for over-harvesting. Or like the Phactor, plant and harvest your own ramps from your woodland gardens, but even with plenty of space, harvests have to be limited and propagation encouraged by some intervention to keep the population going.

Why in blue blazes do we need this?

One of the reasons people love to look through seed catalogs is to see what’s new. Although not actually new, Briggs Nursery introduced this 2 years ago, it just didn't register until the 2011 crop of seed catalogs. One item raises a question. Why in ever lovin’ blue blazes do we need pink blueberries? This is one of those things that you have to wonder why spend the time and effort to breed a pink blueberry? Did they discover this while waiting for these berries to finally ripen, and they just never did? Perpetually unripe berries, wow! Oh, no, is this is another example of the trouble our country is in? John Birch wouldn’t like this one bit, creeping commie pinko fruits invading our ‘mercan pie crusts. Way to go Briggs; you on a list now. We'll be keeping an eye on you and your little dog too.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Yellow Walking Iris

Our teaching greenhouse is always interesting to visit during the winter months because the plant life is quite vibrant and many tropical plants are in flower. What spurs so many of them to flower is a bit hard to understand because most are supposedly day-neutral and therefore not stimulated to flower by the long nights, yet they seem to be. Yellow walking iris (Neomarica longifolia) is not in the genus Iris, but it is in the Iris family and the resemblance is fairly obvious. Walking iris is also a near weed albeit a pretty one because after flowering, plantlets grow from within the floral bracts and when they are heavy enough the inflorescence bends down and the plantlets take root. In a subtropical to tropical climate this plant could "walk" across a shady area in nothing flat. The Phactor has never seen what pollinates these flowers, but the perianth has leopardy nectar guides and the petalloid stigmas and three stamens forming a central column jiggle at the slightest vibration or touch so it would be great to see how it actually works. Tilt! Tilt! Tilt!

Plants deep in thought?

Well, something is deep. Heidi Marshall finds

it absolutely fascinating that scientists are finally starting to consider plant sentience a serious possibility. The idea of plant communication is not entirely new, and has been an integral part of some spiritual practices. So, if plants are capable of communicating with each other, and understanding whether those around them are family or not, can they also feel pain? And if they can feel pain, do their relatives hear their screams when they are cooked or eaten? I think the idea of plant sentience may put a whole new perspective on things for some people. It would seem that if plants are capable of the same things as animals (realization and communication), that eating a carrot would be no different than eating a chicken leg, as both come from beings that display awareness. It certainly gives you something to think about.

What a great example of anthropomorphic thinking. This isn’t new; consider the legends surrounding mandrake, whose name is basically a synonym of anthropomorphic, but nothing about plant communication suggests plants have any such higher animal attributes. Plant communication is not equal to plant sentience; organisms can “communicate” without having any awareness in the usual sensory sense of the word because plants don’t have sense organs or a nervous system, so the concept of pain seems misplaced as well. Seriously, do you actually think a head of cabbage screams in pain as you colely slice it into slaw? Sorry but that's just cabbage-headed. Does a plant grow toward the light because it “loves” the feeling? Do roots grow down because they enjoy the tug of gravity? Is the color yellow happy? When you google plant sentience, you will notice one interesting thing. The people discussing this idea are not botanists or horticulturalists.
Part of the problem is the semantic baggage associated with words like “communication”. Plants react to stimuli, and some of those stimuli are molecular plant signals. Dodder is a parasitic vine that “tastes” its hosts and grows such that it can find and put more parasitic taps into better hosts, but it isn’t thinking yummy thoughts (see this link for some images and a similar discussion). Why do reasonably smart people engage in so much new-agey fuzzy thinking? Taking concepts like sentience and expanding it to a concept where it is synonymous with being alive, i.e., capable of reacting to a stimulus, doesn’t help anyone understand anything. If ever there were a group of people with this problem it’s the founders of the Society for Plant Neurobiology, a new discipline with nothing to study but plant signaling, and plant physiologists and cell biologists were already doing that, and many chided their colleagues for using “superficial analogies and questionable extrapolations”. The use of such terms as plant neurobiology must be regarded as an attempt to make more of a phenomenon than it presently deserves, and it doesn’t assist with the public’s understanding of science one tiny wit as Heidi so well demonstrated. The Phactor has spoken at length with my pal Phil O'Dendron, but he hasn't had much to say, and that says a lot.

Harness Your Body's Green Power!

Do you want to garden better and longer? Do you want your garden work to be enhanced? Do you want to align your body’s own natural energy field so it can be transferred to plants and accelerate their growth? Do you want to wipe the sweat from your eyes? Garden Green Power™ wrist bands are for you!
Our Garden Green Power wrist bracelets are “based on the idea of optimizing the body’s natural energy flower… They are designed to resonate with and respond to the natural energy field of the body” and to soak up sweat which if it rolls into your eyes can really scroll your nerd and disturb your wa.

Garden Green Power wrist bands can be yours for a ridiculously low introductory offer of $14.95 for the pair (one for each wrist). A new product, Green Power Anklets™ are being developed so that every where you place your foot the grass will grow greener. This was discovered by a user of Garden Green Power wrist bands who liked to walk on their hands, and it took awhile for our product development team to devise a more practical solution for better lawns, particularly if you have a dog. Plant people everywhere will soon be clamoring for Garden Green Power, so be the first to go green naturally. Order yours now!

These wrist bands do actually perform one of the four claims; can you guess which? Who falls for this stuff? A click on the link will show you that the answer is for one, jocks, and if you can't flimflam them out of $29.95 by telling them it works with "the natural energy field of the body", well, you need to be in another business, but could the Phactor fund his research by setting up the Green Power Foundation to launder the proceeds? When the energy is properly aligned the unethical mind boggles, and the gullible get fleeced.

The Plant List - Name that plant!

Well, the Phactor was preparing a blog about the Plant List, a new resource for determining the correct scientific name for a plant once you think you know the name, that is. This is a problem because many plants have been named more than once, and someone has to fiugre out is this is the case or not, so only about one out of every 3 known scientific names is correct; the rest are synonyms. Oh, and that can ruin your day. Now some day when the iPlant project gets going successfully people won't think they need plant IDers like me, but even such a resource won't make you an expert or diminish our ranks. However, Mary, Mary was quite contrary and her excellent post sort of beat me to it, and actually because it is so good, she saved me some effort, so click on over to the Accidental Botanist for a look, but this resource may not be much use to many.

What is a rare plant?

"Do you have any rare plants in here?" asked a recent visitor to our teaching greenhouse. This is an interesting question that left the Phactor a bit uncertain how to answer. Our teaching greenhouse is on the smallish size, but an impressive amount of plant diversity is housed therein, and so the only question was what did our visitor mean by rare? Do you mean rare in the absolute sense as in nearly extinct? No, nothing in that category. Our greenhouse and collection couldn't be trusted with any plant so very rare. Do you mean rare in the sense as in this plant is very uncommon anywhere anyhow although not in any danger of extinction? Well then yes, we have at least one plant that is an narrow endemic from a Pacific island, a rather non-descript amaryllid. Do you mean rare in the sense that the plant is uncommon in collections and not commonly known, but it could be as common as dirt where it is native? Yes, lots of plants here would fit that description. A dozen or so may be the only specimen of that species in North America, or a most one of a handfull, like a wild nutmeg (a couple of offspring were given away). And it's always nice when the Missouri Botanical Garden gives us their exhibit left overs for safe keeping. Do you mean simply rare in the sense of something exotic that you've probably never seen or noticed before? Then probably there are a couple of hundred species that are rare in that sense. Not many places around where you can see 9 different genera of cycads, especially in such a small place. The Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago has the biggest collection in these parts, but we recently donated several new things to that collection via a former student of mine. Maybe you just mean rare in that you can learn something new that you never knew before, and in that case virtually all our plants are rare, and that's the point of maintaining collections like this. Plant collections give you an opportunity to get curious and explore in a way that you seldom get elsewhere, and unlike an arboretum or botanical garden (the Phactor has been barked at more than once; actually he gets barked at a lot) where playing with the specimens is frowned upon, students are actually encouraged to examine things to the point of taking them apart to see how they tick. So let's hope the examples were impressive because this particular visitor holds some purse strings. Now what the Phactor really wants is a conservatory greenhouse surrounded by a modest sized botanical garden. $20 million should get us off to a good start.

End of Times Garden Planning - Pre and Post Rapture

2011 is presenting a challenge in garden planning according to some who say the Rapture (seems like it needs capitalization) will occur on May 21. Now this won't really matter for salad greens and peas, although getting those peas in early will be important, and you may decide to continue cutting asparagus right up to the end, but if you think you'll be saved then don't waste your time planting those tomatoes. Actually in our part of the world you'd only be 7-10 days after the frost-free date, so you could hold off on buying those tomato plants until the 21st of May to be sure. Now the cool thing about this is that if you find yourself in a garden shop on the 21st you can be sure that everyone else there was damned right along with yourself, so you might as well get busy planting tomatoes and the rest of your summer garden. Of course, this isn't the first end of times prediction, and one thing certain is that the batting average for such predictions so far is zero, naught, goose-egg, zip, unless it actually has happened already and no one you knew was saved so you didn't notice except for the torment of reality TV (explains a lot really). So one way or another tomatoes are going to be part of my garden.

Time to update my taxonomy and YOURS: part 2

A reader has asked the Phytophactor “why seed plants evolved into monocots and dicots?” This question actually can’t be answered because science is not very good at answering WHY questions. This question is even more difficult to answer because flowering plants can no longer be simply divided into monocots and dicots, and it would be wrong to say they evolved into monocots and dicots. This is because phylogenetic studies tell us that monocots (Liliopsida) evolved from a common ancestry with dicots, and as a result, they share many characters with basal angiosperms. However, dicots no longer form a single lineage, the requirement for being recognized as a taxonomic group. The rest of the groups shown in this simplified phylogenetic diagram are dicots, except for the outgroup, gymnosperms, but even some gymnosperms share the character of having two cotyledons. So dicots, a lineage of plants with two cotyledons, does not.
None of this tells us why such groups evolved. Flowering plants presumably were more successful in many habitats than other seed plants. This may be attributed to many things, not the least being their interactions with animals involved with pollen and seed dispersal, although cycads use both as well. Why monocots evolved cannot be answered other than to say a set of modifications in the ancestors of this lineage were successful and plants with these characteristics proliferated.
The second part of the answer is that the taxonomy of flowering plants is far more complicated than monocots and dicots. Even this diagram does not reflect many of the newest findings or even show all the lineages (it was just handy), but it shows the general organization and gives examples of familiar plants. The ANITA grade is a series of basal lineages now just called ANA as some new relationships have combined what were separate lineages. The label refers to their names (e.g., A is for Amborella, N is for waterlilies, A is for Austrobaileyales), and the AA lineages have two cotyledons while the waterlilies only have one. The eudicots (eu- means true) all share a particular type of pollen. So, although this is not reflected in formal taxonomies because of the difficulty of translating such knowledge into the traditional taxonomic framework, flowering plants consist of the following groups/lineages: three lineages forming a basal ANA grade, monocots, the magnolids, and the eudicots. Even this is simplified, but next spring the Phactor will be teaching plant taxonomy.

Time to update my taxonomy and YOURS

One of the strengths and problems with science is that it keeps finding out new things, and my job is to keep up. But at times it's a struggle because you have to relearn things you've KNOWN for more than 40 years. So let's say you get a book on trees and it's organized alphabetically by botanical families. No problem, mostly, to find a maple you open near the front looking for Aceraceae, but its not there. Maybe you want to find a buckeye; no problem, you've known the family name forever, but you can't find Hippocastanaceae anywhere. What kind of a book on trees is this anyway? Well, it's up to date so Acer and Aesculus are located in the Sapindaceae, the soapberry family. This may well come as a surprise but the research was published 5 years ago. Now in the old days such taxonomic rearrangements might have bordered on whimsy, and some might become popular and others forgotten, but now phylogenetic research clearly demonstrates that a broader family concept should apply and these two prominent northern temperate genera long residing in their own families should be with the other soapberries. Unfortunately for those of us who are the go-between for putting the scientific literature into the classrooms and blogs, it's nearly impossible to keep up with the changes especially in areas outside of your research expertise(s). The Phactor will try to adjust his thinking, but it's just like when meeting a former student, and impressively the free-wheeling memory access process pulls up the name - Goldschmidt, "Hey, Ms. Goldschmidt, how nice to see you." She's impressed her old professor got the name right, but she's married now to an Abercrombe. Well, no way in ever loving memory enhancers will she ever get reclassified. Constantly having to update all those connections becomes a real problem. But it can be worse; a colleague used to complain to me that she couldn't start and finish a project on any legume genera without having the name change.

First day of a new year - Same old stuff

What a way to start a new year trying to keep entropy at bay which is an ongoing activity for all owners of older homes. Who knows how many decades this particular toilet has been in service, and vitrified porcelain is almost forever, but not so the little bits and pieces inside, and now replacement parts no longer exist, so the Phactors spent the first day of the new year engaged in the glamorous activity of shopping for a toilet because too much water was being wasted. The Phactor takes this as somewhat of an omen, a portent of things to come. How many more things will leak? How many more little internal parts will become obsolete? So much to look forward to.