Field of Science


Feeding a hungry world

This is good news if you want a career in botany and plant science. The world is going to need lots of people who understand plants, who understand ecology, who understand conservation, who understand people, and who can put it all together. Because who else is going to feed a hungry planet? Pay attention people, this is the future calling.

What's Trump?

The Phactor tries to stay away from commeting on too many current events, especially politics. As a pretty natural cynic, events seldom disappoint me, but the sudden grand entrance of Tonald Drump onto the GnOPe presidential stage fills me with wonderment about how low can the bar be set. Years ago the Phactor told a conservative colleague that no one dumper than Reagan could ever get elected president, but then came the shrub. And then a senile senator selects the dumbest yet running mate, although she's demonstrated a certain low cunning in terms of figuring out what side of the bread the butter is on. No question she like butter and attention. But now Tonald. Anybody who thinks they look good with a silly comb-over isn't very smart, period. And their self image doesn't indicate a mature personality. But once you hear him blather on about anything, anyone who thinks he's viable presidential material has just made an argument in favor of having an IQ test to determine voter eligibility. If you fall for his crap you just aren't smart enough to be voting. Simple minded answers for simple minded people are not a prescription for fixing anything. So for now the Phactor will be sticking with the type of Rockefeller Republican he grew up with, Obama.

A Trillium by any other name would still have 3 leaves

For reasons that cannot be fully explained, other than they were cheap, the Phactor bought a package of six "white trillium". That certainly doesn't definitively tell you what you had bought, but what with lots of shady areas, and a big area to transform into a woodland wonderland of spring ephemerals, more trilliums could not hurt. All six corms grew and here's the score: Trillium ceruum, nodding trillium, which is white - 4, Trillium sessile, toadshade - 1, Trillium erectum, red trillium & several other common names - 1. So in general this is a happy enough outcome. Nodding trillium was new to our gardens as was the toadshade, so our species diversity went up by 2. Our gardens already have Trillium grandiflora, T. recurvatum, T. erectum, and T. luteum, so in a way this was a pretty good deal, but honestly, the actual name of the plant being sold should be known, and in a manner of speaking we have an honest claim that they owe us two white trilliums because it was their sloppy handling that mixed the corms so that the order included two non-white trilliums, or cynically, white trillium was selling well and not others, so lets stretch the inventory by a third. Who knows. Any similar stories to share?

Last Friday, Last Lecture

Today is the last Friday of the semester. Today was my last lecture in plant diversity. It turned out just about right. Changes that took place during the last 65 million years (since the Cretaceous) had to be covered and that's 1.5% of Earth history, and one lecture is 2.2% of a semester, so the Phactor lavished lecture time upon this time period. But it shouldn't be called the Cenozoic; it should be the Anthofloric, but such is the animal bias.
For many different reasons this was a difficult semester, but mostly it was the additional demands being made upon us because we're terribly under staffed. There just never seemed to be enough time, so you do your best for the students, but ultimately they are the ones who get shorted, and no one is confident that our administrators understand all of this. Of course there will be some sad stories when a few students realize that they have run out of time and should have invested more effort all along. But then you have those students who improve all semester and find out that they really like learning; those are our success stories. Wish they were all that way. These are students who finally realize that you don't study for exams, you study to learn, and if you do that exams take care of themselves. That is a lesson too few students learn. You should see the looks when the Phactor tells 1st year majors that they shouldn't study for exams. They never hear the 2nd part.

Friday Fabulous Flower - ID Quiz

Name this plant. This makes a nice Friday fabulous flower not because it's gaudy, but because it's a much over looked component of our spring woodland wildflowers. So rather than give it away, let's see who's been observant, who's seen this beauty before. And even though natural in our area, the Phactor has only seen it a handfull of times. Maybe it doesn't get noticed because everyone is looking for morels. Hint: Pay close attention to the number of floral parts.

Watching the prairie disappear

Here's a very nifty graphic that shows the spread of agriculture and the increasing intensity of agricultural land use over the last 300 years. If you get your eye on Lake Michigan in North America watch as the prairie to the south and west gradually turns yellow as it disappears. Here in Lincolnland less than 1% of the original prairie has survived thanks to John Deere. As human demands have increased, it has come at the cost of natural communities. Nothing mysterious at all. HT to the Scientist Gardener.

April showers bring floods

This April nearly concluded will go down in the record books as the rainiest April in over 50 years. Rainy also means cloudy, and cloudy also means cool, and this translates into general depression and miserable field conditions. Early spring perennials do well in this type of weather as do early plantings of trees and shrubs, and any transplantings, if you could find a day or two without rain to garden. And of course April is windy. That's spring here in the upper midwest. But it is without question that such weather slows down growth and flowering, so many flowering events in our gardens are running 7 to 20 days behind last year. While the mild winter and late spring means that some shrubs have burst forth with some amazing flowering displays, for example, our tulip-flowered magnolia, but unfortunately rain and wind have then conspired to fore shorten their longevity. Nature gives and nature takes away, so you enjoy them while you can. The weather is affecting migratory species too, and several avian visitors usually seen April have yet to arrive. Maybe they're taking Amtrak. As a natural consequence of flood plain levees and rain up here, down stream, especially where the Missouri, Illinois, and Ohio join the Mississippi, it floods. It always has, but without wide flood plains to spread the water out, and wet lands to absorb, reduce, and slow down the flow, the flooding tends to be sudden and catastrophic. This part of it is man made, and right now decisions are being made whether to flood farm lands or cities, but neither one should be there without being ready to deal with the consequences. Guess we can look forward to May flowers.

Plant developmental morphology and Darwin

Two of the Phactors favorite people happen to be botanists who study plant development and evolution and who happen to be a couple. Having known them since they were in graduate school, it's been great to watch the careers of such talented people and to associate with them, that is when they let me hang around. One of the interesting things about them is that they have an interest in the history of science, and soon to be published in The Plant Cell is an very nice historical article on the history of plant developmental morphology (not sure if the article is free or not since our institution does subscribe). Plants are very different from the "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" type of embryology, and some of the early observations were pre-Darwin and quite impressive. Working on a manuscript with images rather like some of these illustrations right now. Talked about this article with the authors last year at meetings, but HT to the AOB Blog for tipping me to the online pre-pub version.

Conservationists are pagans

Do you love the environment and nature? Worried about carbon dioxide and global warming? Do you want a greener world? Well, according to a Catholic cardinal you must be a pagan treehugger and Mother Earth worshiper. Why don’t you know the Christian God gave you a planet to destroy? So all those greeny activities must be akin to pagan rituals. What a revelation! Let's bring back the May pole as a celebration of fertility and renewal. Considering the alternative, the Phactor is fine with being a green pagan. Maybe that’s something like a leprechaun. HT to Deltoid.

Glass flowers

That's right glass flowers, not grass flowers. Over at Erba Volant is a great post about the glass flower collection at Harvard University. If you've never heard of them, or never seen them, and don't know their story, the blog is well worth your time. They are quite remarkable, and even more life like when you actually see them. Not only did the creators have to be great craftsmen, but they had to really know their botany.

It threatened to rain. So?

It was close, but the Phactor's track record of never having it rain on a field trip is intact. OK, today's field trip will have a little asterisk next to it because the field trip was called short on account of the threat of rain, which was not the actual reason, but putting a group of students under tall trees with lightening in the area is not a good idea. As one student observed, funnel clouds are not rain. Just because a drop or two of water fell, it did not qualify as rain, as some naysayers looking to lower their grade contended, merely the threat of rain. Still the field trip lasted nearly 2 hours and a nice diversity of gymnosperm reproductive structures were observed.

It never rains on field trips

One of the Phactor's cardinal rules is that it doesn't rain on field trips. OK maybe once in a while it rains on field trips when teaching rain forest ecology, but then rain is expected. On one memorable field trip, after 4 hot, dry days at the start of a rain forest field trip, one of my charges said, "Where's the rain? Thought this was a rain forest." Late that afternoon a deluge moved in and provided about 36 solid hours of heavy rain. OK then, it's really rain forest, so no whining (actually that's #1 rule on field trips). More than anything this is an attempt to teach students the power of positive thinking, and the futility of getting annoyed at something you cannot control. A little dampness never hurt anyone. However, at the moment my next field trip is 31 minutes away and some sort of precipitation is pounding on my office window. While it probably is rain now, in a mere half hour it will by definition not be raining. Useful rule that.

Plant like an amateur

So you've bought and planted a new tree or shrub, fine. Now take the bloody tag off! Nothing says AMATEUR quite like leaving the tag on dangling like a solitary ornament. First of all, it's easier to read if you take it off, and here's the paradox, the people who need the planting instructions are the people who don't take the tag off to read. So now the Phactor just removes the tag for them and hands it over. Make note: the plant doesn't need the tag; it's for you. If it was too much trouble to remove, then you probably didn't invest enough time planting properly, so maybe you leave the tag on to remind you what it was that died. And this means digging a big enough hole and loosening the root ball especially those plastic potted trees and shrubs. On a slightly more practical note, the cord or wire used to attach the tag can actually girdle the stem. Found a dead branch on an arbor vitae the other day and was amazed to see that it was caused by the loop of silk spun around the twig by a bag worm. So let's shape up people. Do you leave the tags on your shirt or jeans? Do you leave the price tag in the window of your new car? Oh, you do. OK, never mind. ER (eye roll).

Ubiquitous Tropical Flora

UTF is short-hand for a set of common tropical ornamentals that have been moved around the world such that you expect to see them virtually everywhere. A relative sent the Phactor a set of pictures from Hawaii because they were so excited about the plants they saw there, but not a one was native, not a one belonged there. Still some of them are quite wonderful, but maybe none has a more beautiful flower or floral fragrance than frangipani (Plumeria rubra). The specimen in our glasshouse, now in full bloom, has yellow-centered creamy white flowers; other varieties have pink to rose colored flowers. Note that the corolla lobes for a pinwheel and they are so twisted in the bud. This is a tell-tale for members of the dogbane family (now part of a lineage with the milkweeds to whom they are closely related). And frangipani does smell wonderful. My students capture the fragrance by placing several sliced open fresh floral tubes on a layer of purified vegetable fat ("Crisco") in a petri dish, covering it overnight at room temp, and then replacing the flowers each day for a few days to a week. This is a method of capturing delicate scents is called enfleurage and it can be used with rose petals or orange blossoms or butterfly ginger, whatever. After a few days the fat will be quite well scented, and by rubbing the fat on your skin, or even between your fingers, it releases the fragrance. This can be a pretty fun, low-cost activity for kids, but in the case of frangipani, do take care with the milky sap.

Cost of Gasoline (petrol)

Citizens of the USA are such terrible whiners about gasoline prices. What my fellow citizens don't seem to realize is that they have been enjoying subsidized gasoline pricing for as long as the Phactor has been driving and further, and that my friends and readers would take us back to $.26/gallon in the 1960s. This leads to practices like driving civilian versions of Hummers used only for grocery shopping (over 4 tons; ~10 mpg). Tropical botany takes you abroad so the Phactor is well aware of the cost of transportation fuel in many places, and this is not the time to relate the fights with bureaucratic accountants who did not want to reimburse the actual cost but the "out-of-state" (Lindolnland) cost, so like the research was done in Indiana in stead of Costa Rica or Thailand or Queensland. How much other people currently are paying for gasoline is largely unknown to people in the USA, so tell me, readers, what is the current price for gasoline where you are (location & price)? If you want to convert, there are 3.785 liters in a US Gallon. Leave a comment & the data will be summarized later in the week.

Strawberries & Indian Strawberries

One of the worst weeds of strawberry (Fragaria) is Indian strawberry (Duchesnea indica). In flower and fruit these two species are easy to tell apart (yellow flowers, 5 bracts, red achenes), but early in the season the leaves are quite similar (Indian strawberries have sharper teeth on the leaf margins), but if you aren't sharply observant it can be the devil's own time to weed out the invasive Indian strawberry, especially when fairly abundant. Good thing the Phactor has experience and observational experience to sort them out without any mistakes, but it isn't easy.

Asparagus - one of the best things about spring

Asparagus, when properly planted, is about as fool-proof as any plant can be. Never had any troubles with red raspberries before, but this winter and the bunnies beat the crap out of them, and while they will recover, this year's crop may be pretty slight. But asparagus always comes through, and how better to celebrate a weekend of early season gardening than to feast on it. In this case, nice young asparagus shoots quickly sauted in a bit of olive oil with green onions splashed with balsamic vinegar and topped with shaved asiago cheese. Oh yes, there was a bit of marinated, grilled lamb and some dilled potatoes.

Sunday morning with cats

You love, and therefore understand something of cat nature, or you don't. Not the simplistic kind of dog love, but a complicated affair that takes some deeper appreciation to love. All our cats have been quite the unique individuals, each endearing in their own way, each returned you affection in their own way. Today after their morning repast, the two felines whose house the Phactors live within have retired to the foot of our bed where side by side (they do get along well for non-siblings) they are napping-bird watching. The fascinating action that is semi-riveting their attention, in between naps, are starlings building a nest. Of course they would prefer the window open, and the screen removed, but having already had one previous cat fall off a porch roof while on starlings in the rain gutter patrol, this is not going to be repeated. Both cat and birds survived unscathed. What a life these cats have!

TGIF, GF & Earth Day

Yesterday was a queer day, queer in the sense of not-quite-right, which is what my Mother taught me the word meant (pronounced "choir"; she was southern). It was a Friday, always a suspect day on college campuses because everyone wanted the week to end the day before. And yesterday was Good Friday, which sort of caught me by surprise; stock market was closed so Mrs. Phactor had the day off, but for most students that was a good excuse to skip out and go home early. The Phactor finds this particularly strange because as an undergrad only a school closing would get me to go home. Colleges had lots of things going on, lots of people, and everything on campus was more interesting than anything back home. But large numbers of our students still go home on weekends; still don't get it. Next Friday is the last day of the semester, so maybe this was a last hurrah. It was also Earth Day, which was more or less a no show this year, not to mention that the weather was horrible what with end-of-the-Earth thunder storms. So the usual busy halls of our building were vacant, empty, a virtual ghost town. All of this didn't affect my plant diversity class much; 70% attended, maybe 10% lower than normal, and the whining was up about 30%. All typical enough for this point in the semester and given their lousy exam performance last week. Plant diversity has a way of sneaking up on students who study for exams rather than studying to learn. It's a very cumulative subject matter, so if earlier ideas and organisms didn't get mastered, they suddenly find themselves sinking fast. And to top it all off, a manuscript gets returned for "major revision" and you have to put the thing down and walk away for a week to keep from just screaming at the editor who agreed with the dummies who did the reviews. Maybe the Phactor will go home for the weekend.

Friday Fabulous "Flower" - Hardy Azalea

Azaleas certainly brighten spring, but they can be a challenge to grow in many places. Maybe they aren't quite hardy, maybe they're tricky to grow, maybe they're slow to grow and develop a presence, and here in the upper midwest most of those things are true to some extent. Around this latitude (a hard zone 5), one of the earliest and hardiest (zone 4) azaleas is also one of the easiest and least fussy to grow, the Manchurian/Korean azalea (Rhododendron mucronulatum). These deciduous shrubs grow fairly quickly and easily to 6 feet, and they spring forth with bright, rosy-pink flowers in small clusters. They look just great in border areas mixed with other shrubs, so says the Prophet Dirr. However, this species is not the most common in the trade, so you may have to look a bit to find one.

The value of botanical gardens

In the minds of many of us, botanical gardens are institutions ideal for teaching botany, but many people just think of them as pretty places to walk through. Quite a number of years ago our campus, which has a distinguished collection of trees, was designated an official arboretum. And one day while walking across the campus with a VP, she commented on how nice the campus looked and then said she'd like to visit the arboretum some day. Yes, most of our admins simply think the campus is the landscaped space between buildings. The Phactor has argued for years that the arboretum was the biggest and most frequently used classroom the university has, and a VP didn't even know she was in it. You can read or obtain a nice article over at Art Plantae on the value of botanical gardens. It's worth reading; it's worth sending it to your dean.

Dwarf Alberta spruce advice

A correspondent asks the Phactor, "I would like to create a screen to shield my firewood racks and trash cans from the neighbors. Give me an opinion on whether there is enough space and sun to plant dwarf alberta spruce?"
Here's someone who has not yet read my
10 Commandments of gardening, in particular #8. This conifer is indeed dwart, but it's hard to recommend planting one anyplace outside of a rock garden. They are so slow growing that they won't provide a decent sight barrier maybe ever. And around the midwest they tend to be fussy and prone to spider mites adding to their summer heat misery. Even without consulting the Prophet Dirr, it is written that you won't be happy with this plant. A better choice would be a columnar arbor vitae like 'Degroot's Spire'. The Phactor has spoken.

Bougainvillea bonsai

A friend gave Mrs. Phactor a bonsai tree, a Bougainvillea, as a gift. After a dormant period over the past winter when the tree dropped its leaves and was kept in a cool semi-bright location, it was moved into a brighter location, and the buds began to open. Much to our pleasure and surprise, the initial flush produced a very attractive "flowering" display. Actually the flowers are fairly small and white (upper left) mostly still unopened, but each is borne upon a colorful bract, a modified leaf, produced in whorls of three. In this variety the bracts are pink; white, red, and fuchsia are also available. The whole tree is about 8-9 inches tall. How cute is that?

Prairie field work - spring version

Cities and towns are nice little microhabitats, and this is never more obvious than when you drive 10 miles or so out of town to do prairie field work early in the season. Yes, this is the same place that had highs in the 80s last week, and snow flurries this week. It didn't seem too bad walking home, so out to the field we go, and what a difference! Yes, with a stiff breeze providing a pretty substantial wind chill a couple of hours on the prairie was quite bracing. This is the reason those wind turbines are sprouting up all over; the wind is always blowing. Fingers and toes still feel a bit stiff. Next up will be our annual permanent plot hunt! The fun never ends.

RIP Sarah Jane Smith

The Phactor is greatly saddened when people his age die for what ever reason especially favorite ones. It's just way too soon. Of course Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) was one of the great sidekicks of Dr. Who, played by one of the best of the Doctors, Tom Baker, who in his Dr. persona bore a certain general resemblance (hat, hair, scarf, trench coat) to the Phactor. The Phactor even used to carry sour gummy bears in his jacket pocket (rather than jelly babies). As a scifi fan from way back the discovery of Dr. Who on Aussie TV while on a research stay in Queensland came before the show made its way to USA TV. Ah, but Sarah Jane. What a sidekick. And what a surprise that her obit would appear in our local newspaper. Who knew she commanded such respect. HT to Respectful Insolence for the image.

Of insects and flowers and things

One of the great biologists of my generation was Thomas Eisner, and we were saddened by his recent death. He studied many things and used his cleverness to figure out a great many ways with which insects interacted with the rest of the world. A very nice post on some of the highlights of his career can be found at the Artful Amoeba, a very fitting tribute to his career. The Phactor heard Tom give several lectures and they were always interesting, and a couple of my colleagues studied with Eisner too. Just excellent biology.

iPhone biodiversity app?

In the Phactor's ever expanding universe of things he doesn't need comes sci.spy, an iPhone app for recording biodiversity. So far the web site appears to be a gallery for demonstrating poor iPhone photography. My first reaction was to add this to my ever growing list of things no one needs, but a bit of reflection suggests that if you used properly this app might encourage an interest in natural history among kids, who all seem to have cell phones now. So maybe this app is actually useful. Having let students use digital imagery to record field and lab specimens, it is always instructive to quiz them after having seen one of their images. How many petals did that flower have? Did it have any spots? Was is fuzzy or shiny and smooth? Did it have a fragrance? Don't know, well, you only looked and shot, you didn't observe anything. Delete the image and start over. Yes, delete. Once you know what you want to record, what you need to record, then take the picture, or 3 or 4. The lesson is simple, anything that encourages a superficial approach must be redirected or it is useless. So about sci.spy; use with intelligence or don't use it at all. Why if things keep progressing like this, the Phactor may even have to get a cell phone, or not. Any users care to comment?

That which was lost is found - cycad cone

Cycads make some pretty impressive cones, and the only problem for those of us in the teaching business is that they sometimes do so when you don't have a class or a class at the right stage to appreciate them. This is why botanists are so found of taking advantage of the situation and pickling specimens for later use. However when the cone in question is a pollen cone of Ceratozamia that is some 50 cm tall, you ain't gonna get it in a jelly jar. Now back in the old days, museum jars of various sizes were common place, and some were quite large, but now most such things are gone or residing in antique shoppes. So to preseve one of these monster cones a very large graduated cylinder was pressed into service and the top sealed to prevent evaporation of the ethanol solution. Fine, but now you have to find a clever place to store the specimen, and in this the Phactor was too clever for himself having found a place so safe that it was forgotten and went missing for a couple of years. But while searching for other bits and pieces, the pickled cone turned up, and now the storage problem is renewed. In case this sounds like all too much trouble, the cycad in question has not coned since! the cones shown here are about 30 cm tall and each leafy unit bears a pair of sori on the lower surface and a single pair of reduced leaflets projecting outward.

So disappointing to learn on a Monday

Certain things should never ever be learned on a Monday morning. Apparently time travel in a meta-material universe is not possible. There are several very disconcerting things about learning this, not the least of which is not having the slightest idea whatever they are talking about. Was time travel apparently theoretically possible in the real universe? Could you use fast forwarding to see the results of your landscaping decisions. Hmm, guess that little patio garden was the wrong place to plant a Sequioadendron. The chaos of my academic life generates a yearning for time-travel to fix up all those little troublesome meta-things that didn't come out right. Return to last wee and grade exams; return to last week and grade exams; return to last week and grade exams. No use; it remains a dismal task. There were a couple of days that the Phactor would have to travel back to time after time after time. Perhaps best to leave well enough alone than to actually effect a change and return, check the tyme and dyscover thyngs not quyte as you remember them. And somethyng useful could have been done whyle musyng about tyme travel. Note to self: drynk your coffee and move on.

Spring Cleaning Almost Done

Hey, the house can stay a wreck, but our gardens are almost presentable. No matter how many leaves you clean up in the fall, you still end up cleaning up lots more in the spring. Darned oaks. Yanked out lots of hackberry, cherry, and redbud seedlings from various beds and gardens (along with sugar maple, our worst woody weeds). Lots of thing needed replanting to save them from the pond remodeling, to fill in nasty open places, and to redistribute a number of things that have grown too big, not fulfilled their promise, or might like another place better. Bunnies really did a number on the raspberries; might be light crop, but made for easy pruning. But on the other hand some of the spring color beds look fantastic (bluebells, bleeding hearts, celandine poppies and bellworts combination). Redbuds just beginning to show color. Considering yesterday there were snowflurries in the mid-afternoon, today was a complete winner for gardening. Even gave little cat black a nice outing until she slipped her harness. And even better, not for me, but for Mrs. Phactor; tax season is over! Hmm, means she'll want some compensation for keeping the Phactor out of IRS trouble for another year.

Tree amputees

As has slipped a few times, the Phactor does not like poodle pruning shrubs, but then this extreme example via the Scientist Gardener. This goes a bit beyond poodling, it's complete amputation! Out and out dismemberment! Maybe they could be made into nifty sundials or a totem poles. In some areas of the world whole woodlands look this way because people searching for animal fodder and firewood repeatedly trim all the small branches off the trees leaving only the trunk and main branches. Spookily unnatural. Now what type of tree can you do this to? Mulberry?

Keeping currant

Always aware of currant events it has become apparent that by not keeping currant the supply of jelly has been seriously diminished. One of our favorites is made from a combination of currants and cranberries, a deep red, tart confection to spread upon a toasted muffin. Redesign of a small portion of the garden has produced the correct location for some currants, but no one, no one, carries currants as garden stock. This tells you a great deal about people who think all jelly comes from the store not understanding what a pale imitation it is. Never have more people been further removed from where their food comes from; and curiously something a easy to make as jelly is looked upon as a terrible imposition. Kids just don't know how things are made anymore at all, or what kind of tree tomatoes grow on. Maybe mail order is the only option. Now to strain my latest batch of worchestershire sauce, which isn't hard to make either.

Ten Commandments of Gardening

Ten Commandments of Gardening

1. Thou shalt have no other garden before you your own for yours is the one true garden.

2. Thou shalt not covet your neighbor’s (fill in the blank) for verily it’s the only decent thing they grow.

3. Thou shalt not ever disclose what you paid for a magnificent, rare specimen; price matters not in our eyes.

4. Thou shalt honor thy shrubs and allow no poodle pruning upon them.

5. Thou shalt not be concerned about non-grass components of your lawn as they add richness, texture, and diversity to the otherwise dull.

6. Thou shalt minimize lawn area as grass is an affront to our sensibilities and it provideth no food or flowers.

7. Thou shalt listen to the euonymus and always keep the weekend sacred for gardening.

8. Thou shalt consult the prophet Dirr whenever contemplating a new tree or shrub or you will suffer the presence of a mistake unto the fourth generation and beyond.

9. Thou shalt plant no solitary perennials as onesies are an abomination.

10. Thou shalt not admire your garden bereft of cocktail or wine as this is a proper offering to the gardener.

Should you have other, or better, commandments from on high, then verily part the waters and comment until content. These have yet to be chiseled into stone.

Generating student interest in botany

A long time colleague used to say, "I'm going to teach them ecology if I have to rip their little heads off and pour it in." Such practices are widely frowned upon among the more enlightened members of our profession, but short of pouring it in, you can't make students learn anything that they are not interested in. Therefore the first and most vital step in teaching, especially subjects like botany and ecology that are viewed by many students as "boring" is to generate interest. Here's a nice post about how an aquarium visit generated student interest in ecology (and a link to a freebe publication), but generalized there is a lesson for all educators. Put something interesting in their hot little hands. The most successful general biology lab for non-science students the Phactor ever constructed consisted of a series of stations each with some intriguing problem that posed questions to be answered via a simple investigation by a small group of students.

Friday Fabulous "Flower" - Tulips

Our early spring gardens provide a lot of yellow, white, and pink, and so Mrs. Phactor has planted clusters of tulips, mostly species tulips because of their naturalizing ability, to provide early spring splashes of shocking color. This is a variety of Tulipa kaufmannii, and while only about 6-8 inches tall, they make their presence known.

Do not covet thy neighbor's Magnolia

Who would ever follow such a ridiculous commandment? Besides when you got a thing for magnolias, you covet them all. You resent hardiness zone restrictions, and cost is no object, but other than that the Phactor is as objective about magnolias as the next guy. My neighbor doesn't have any magnolias, but a fine specimen of Magnolia kobus grows on our campus and its flowering display this year was magnificent. Some of the taxonomic experts say star magnolia (Magnolia stellata) should be Magnolia kobus var. stellata, and they are quite similar. The Kobushi magnolia is generally a bigger tree/shrub with bigger flowers bearing fewer bigger petals than star magnolia. It is quite hardy to the depths of zone 5, and one optimistic source said it has zone 4 hardiness. Maybe. This specimen was suffering a bit from a windy day so the flowers were a bit whipped, but still this flower was all of seven inches (17.5 cm) across with petals over 4 cm wide. When it first emerged, like most white flowered magnolias there were lots of pink highlights. Here in the Midwest it's better to plant these early magnolias where they won't flower quite so early thus risking a heavy frost ruining the floral display.

Symbioses - Bacteria & leaf-cutter ants

Leaf-cutter ants are one of the most fascinating organisms you encounter in the tropical rain forest. Watching a river of little leaf pieces bobbing and weaving along a little path only to disappear underground is an amazing sight. Most people assume leaf-cutter ants are herbivores, plant-eaters, but no, they are fungivores, fungus eaters, and the leaves are used to raise their fungi. Like any other "garden" a fungus garden can get infected and weedy fungi can sprout up. The ants, like all big organisms, harbor an internal community of symbiotic bacteria, and unlike disease organisms, these are part of their biology. You don't like to think about this but you harbor more bacteria within you body than you have cells making up your body. A recent study has found that Streptomyces is one such ant symbiotic bacterium, and just as the name suggests, it can make antibiotics and antifungals used to stop infections and weeds from damaging the crop of fungus. This doesn't surprise me at all because one of our students on our most recent rain forest ecology field trip conducted a nice little experiment that demonstrated that extracts of leaf-cutter ants have strong antibiotic properties. Here's a link for more information on leaf-cutter ants.

Guns on Campus

This is such a bad idea it's hard to understand how anyone could defend the idea of allowing students to carry guns on campus. Of course Lincolnland is not Taxes, and lots of stuff seems reasonable down there. Research indicates there are two kinds of guns, those that are designed for hunting and all the rest that are designed for killing people although the former can do this too. So then because the constitution says that well regulated state militia are a good idea, someone thinks that allowing students to carry guns on college campuses is a good idea. Wow! Now first of all you're talking about students, people who have trouble walking and texting at the same time, people that have trouble with making good decisions about all manner of things, and now, in one of the safest over all environments in the country, some lawmakers are thinking about letting them carry guns. College campuses are places where people learn to shoot off their mouths, and that can lead to high emotions, which when mixed with guns is a recipe for trouble, right here in River City. How long before some yahoo decides to show some smart ass that the gun (sword) is mightier than the pen? And when conflicts break out routinely over who just got winked at, stood up, or dissed, well, anything sharper than a tennis ball shouldn't be allowed. Haven't these people seen or heard the crowd when arch rivals play football? They're dangerous only armed with hotdogs. The whole concept boggles my mind.

Food Chains, Climate Change, & Penguins

Life is pretty simple in its basic concepts. Energy flows. You eat and get eaten passing energy from one to the next until ultimately all that solar energy captured by photosynthetic producers gets dissipated as heat, thus having delayed entropy, but not violated any laws in the process. Everything else gets recycled. In the specifics things get more complicated, but at the base of food chains you always find an autotroph, mostly green photosynthetic producers, but there are other types of bacterial producers too. All the solar energy used by the entire food chain enters at this point. So if something disrupts one step in the food chain, any organism further along the chain has a problem. In this particular instance some penguin populations are in decline, and it's probably due to a decrease in those small crustaceans called krill or the small fish that eat krill, but krill are not producers. Further down at the base of the food chain are phytoplankton, mostly green unicellular organisms that capture all the food for these ecosystems. High latitude ecosystems are very productive, seasonally because in these cold water areas nutrient laden deep cold heavy water more readily mixes with the brightly lit surface waters, so phytoplankton bloom seasonally. So how, perhaps by spreading out the seasonality, global warming is altering this pattern, and organisms way up the food chain suffer. How many such stories will have to be found before people begin to pay attention?

Not a flower but it should be

This is a pretty awesome picture. Looks like it ought to be a flower, and if it was, what kind of flower would it be? Composite? Magnoliid? Looks a lot like a Eupomatia.

Carnivorous plant terrarium

A reader asks: "Hi, I'm trying to set up two terrariums. They both will consist of carnivorous plants. I am considering Venus fly traps, Sundews, Butterworts, and Sarracenia purpurea. What combinations would be best for optimal growth and beauty. Also where would be a good place to buy them from. Thank you."
None of these plants are truly carnivorous in spite of what they are called. All are photosynthetic autotrophs, but all are natives to habitats, mostly acidic wet lands, where nitrogen is a limiting necessity. Carnivorous plants capture insects and other invertebrates and use them as a source of nitrogen. As wetland plants they require pretty high light and humidity, and of course, our homes are basically dimly lit deserts, a bad combination for most plants. A terrarium can solve the humidity problem. These plants also do best in low pH (acidic) conditions so that means using a growth medium high in peat moss, in fact growing sphagnum moss, sort of pre-peat, is an excellent idea. So basically you're trying to create a bog although they do not like standing in water. Sundews (pictured) do seem to like saturated soils. Tap water in most places tends to be somewhat limey, basic, so capturing rain water for your terrarium would also be a good idea. None of the plants you mention are large, but for starters it would be best to pot them individually and surround them with sphagnum, which may decide to grow if some viable asexual propagules remain. The pitcher plant can get 9-10" across, so it's the biggest. Small plants like sundew look best in clusters or clumps. Providing bright indirect light may be the most difficult problem best dealt with by putting a plant grow light maybe 18" above the terrarium.

Purchase of carnivorous plants is pretty easy. Lots of online sources are available and the Phactor tries to avoid endorsements (they refuse to pay up). Some pretty well-known sites provided without endorsement are the Carnivorous Plant Nursery, Bug Biting Plants, and Predatory Plants. They are not even uncommon in garden shops and even some big box stores. Care and feeding information is also fairly common. These are not actually difficult, but neither are they easy plants to grow successfully. One problem is the North American species are temperate, and a cold season of dormancy seems necessary to keep them happy. But feeding them flies and such can be quite a bit of fun.

Flowering shrubs like a bottle of fine wine

Flowering shrubs are rather ephemeral things; their flowering displays while lovely usually only last a few days, maybe a week. And in this sense they are rather like a bottle of fine wine; you enjoy it, savor it, but it doesn't last for very long, an hour or so. So what's the solution? It's simple, have a lot of bottles of wine and lots of different flowering shrubs. Now the problem is to decide what vino goes best with each particular shrub. Let's see, maybe a nice rioja with a flowering quince? How about a sauvignon blanc for a star magnolia? This subject may be more appropriate for Mrs. Phactor.

Mangroves - Rich in carbon

Mangroves are a bunch of different trees that all grow in the same estuarine habitat throughout the tropics and subtropics. Generally mangroves are considered scruffy sort of forests occupying valuable coastal real estate, so it comes as no surprise that some 30-50% have been destroyed. It's no wonder why people think this way; they're muddy inhospitable places (for people) what with the stilt roots and all. This is particularly unfortunate because one of the primary reasons for destroying mangroves is for aquaculture, particularly shrimp, but mangroves are the place where many species reproduce and where the productivity of coastal fisheries is derived from. This is truly a case of robbing peter to pay paul; terrifically short sighted. Mangroves also play an important role of protecting coast lines against storms and even tsunamis. Now a study of mangroves shows that they are one of the most carbon rich of tropical forests probably because the saturated soils result in slow decomposition. So destroying mangroves puts more carbon back into the atmosphere than other forests, and mangroves take more carbon out of the atmospshere than other forests. So when you add that to the rest of the equation, conservation and restoration efforts (along with educational programs) makes great sense.

Care and use of non-existent animals

Everyone in biology knows about IACUC (Insitutional Animal Care and Use Committees). If you study animals, at least those far enough along the phylogenetic tree, you have to construct protocols for their proper and humane care and use. So far those of us of a botanical sort are not subject to such protocols. You want to make cole slaw; slice and dice away. This is fortunate because the Phactor does not react well to over bearing bureaucracies, but this story isn't about the Phactor. One of my colleagues does something a bit strange. Every now and again he travels to the northwestern USA, joins up with some cryptozoological colleagues, and heads out into the boondocks to look for Bigfoot. It's probably a nice hike. But now IACUC wants him to file a protocol for Bigfoot. Huh? A protocol for the care and use of a non-existent beast? Don't you have to ask if there are established protocols for unicorns and trolls? Well, if you actually go looking for trolls, then you deserve having IACUC demand a troll protocol. Fortunately no botanical equivalent of cryptozoology exists, although there is a society for plant neurobiology, which certainly is studying something that doesn't exist. Cryptobotany doesn't exist because botanists have been so successful at finding extinct plants, but if you happen upon a glossopterid, oh, please let us see it!

Worth the Wait

A few years back a friend gave me a seedling of Magnolia salicifolia, the willow-leafed or anise magnolia. The leaves are narrow for a Magnolia, but not really willow like at all. After 8 years the stick is now 15+ feet tall and a lovely rounded conical shape 8-10 foot at its widest. This is a tree, not a shrub, and it could get quite large (30-50 feet). This spring it flowered enough to hint at how spectacular it will be in full flower. The flowers are about the same size as star magnolia, but with only 6-9 broader petals and a definite blush of light pink. This magnolia is rare in the trade, and most people would not have room for this tree as landscape. Needless to say, we are quite pleased.

Garden Flowering Log - March 2011

A lot of snow cover and lingering cold temperatures pushed back a lot of spring events. And as always some things change from year to year. Here's the rundown. March 4 - Snowdrops March 11 - witchhazel (Arnold's promise)(Diane was a no show; bunnies were the reason), snow crocus March 16 - late crocus, winter aconite (new!) March 18 - American filbert March 19 - Scilla (great blue lawn this year) March 21 - hybrid hellebores March 22 - dwarf daffodils March 23 - Japanese pachysandra, early standard daffodils March 30 - Pushkinia schilloides (new & probably later than when established), lungwort March 31 - Spicebush, Forsythia, Abeliophyllum Addition of a some new spring bulbs added two new March flowering events. Cool weather looks like it will push early April events even further back. Does this mean global warming is a crock? No, this is weather related, not climate related. Climate is weather averaged over a lot of years. The Phactors' gardens are not among the earliest around because all the trees make for shady conditions, but then again our star magnolia, while later than most, gets its flowers frozen less seldom. And lots of good things have happened so far in April (mostly yesterday, asparagus is coming up!) but the roundup of events will have to wait until the end of the month. So busy yesterday getting early kitchen garden planted, removing bunny barriers, and getting a new tree (more on that later too). And going to a nursery in spring is not smart; it's like grocery shopping when you're hungry. Oh but that new Itoh peony will look just great. Have to hide the price tag from Mrs. Phactor.

Prospective students visit campus

This is the season when lots of prospective students vivist campus hoping to impress and be impressive. A few end up in my office, so here's a couple of tidbits of advice to the parents of would-be students. 1.When a member of the faculty asks your offspring a question, let them answer. Anyone would feel quite sorry for this one young lady. Certainly she was shy, and while her Father seemed nice enough, he never let her answer. The message was clear; he'd be an OK student, but not so certain about her, although certainly she would do better out from under his thumb. Altering the situation without being rude is difficult. In this case, while looking directly at the student and asking a question about her career interests, when the Father started to answer, a forefinger was held up to suggest his silence while waiting for the answer from the questionee. Ah, she could speak and fairly well. Both parents and students need to avoid doing this to each other. 2. It's great to have career goals, but when they are totally unrealistic, out-landish, and virtually impossible, there isn't much advice that can be given especially when you reject every similar opition. Great, go for it, reality bites, but eventually you'll figure this out. Probably too early to burst their balloon. 3. Dress nicely. That's a really nice tatoo placed high upon your thigh. How do you get that cock's comb of purple spiky hair to stand up like that? Is there a cocktail party scheduled for later where you sequined little dress would look great? Do you need a belt to help hold those pants up so they cover your little diamond printed boxer shorts? None of this indicates how you may do academically, but it does cause one to worry about your judgement. 4. Listen politely and thoughtfully to advice. Well, you see it's impossible to be a biology major and graduate in less than seven years if you won't take a chemistry course and a biology course in the same semester. Oh, it's you won't take any 2 science courses in the same semester. Well, your undergraduate experience will probably be looked back upon one of the most enjoyable decades of your life. And you want to go to medical school? Certainly. 5. Pay attention. After seeking me out, it's a real bad idea to fiddle with your phoney thing as if talking to me were the last thing on Earth you wanted to do. 6. Which majors lead to jobs paying the most money? Well, you could major in physics and engineering. What, oh, no math or science. OK then, well, philosophy and social work are sure bets. 7. What has made your students successful? Huh, a good question? This may sound a bit weird, but the single skill that has led to more opportunities for my students than any other is knowing how to identify plants. How do you get good at that? Practice, lots of practice. Parent: Can I come and learn that?

Friday Fabulous "Flower" - Nanking Cherry

While most people are still driving home from work, the Phactor has walked home, poured himself a beverage, and is taking a walk around our gardens. Nothing helps you unwind more than discovering that some blasted beast has cropped the new shoots off one of your precious, ever so slow growing tree peonies! Oh, oh, don't let such things disturb your wa. New buds will grow. Instead look at the lovely things that are doing well. One of the first shrubs to flower each spring is our Nanking cherry (Prunus tomentosa) and it presents a week of lacey elegance. In late June the crop of cherries isn't bad either although they are too juicy to do much with other than make jelly or just eat fresh provided the cardinals allow you a share. The shrub is decades old with a tough, hard dark bark and that's good because the bun-buns debarked all the young shrubs over the winter. So take that as a warning if you decide to plant one; without protection it becomes rabbit fodder.

Algal Symbioses & Green aliens?

Molecular tools are allowing biologists to investigate more closely a a long-known symbiotic relationship between an algae and a most unusual partner, salamander eggs. As you know most amphibians lay their eggs in still water, and algae grow inside these salmander eggs making them green (the spotted salamander in N. America has eggs like this too). Metabolic waste products, carbon dioxide and nitrogenous compounds are raw materials for the algae and the photosynthesizers give off oxygen, thus the symbiosis. But how do the algae get there inside an egg? Algal genes in salamander DNA suggest the algae may be inherited, passed on from mom to offspring (assuming the algae go with the egg). Algae live inside lots of animals: hydra, mollusks, sea slugs, corals, but this is a vertebrate, a supposedly higher animal. And you know what that means? Green aliens are a complete possibility! Of course, Star Trek fans already knew about the slave women from Orion. What great slaves! So cheap to feed and clothe! HT to Thomas' Plant-Related Blog.

Playing with protists

This is way too cool in a slightly sadistic way, real geeky fun. Who knew you could play games like paramecium pong with protists? Wonder if we could do something similar with students? You know herd them around with the correct stimuli? Wave exams at them, chase them with lab reports, intice them with pizza? The first person to fill their classroom wins, or loses! Hmm, need to think of more inticements. A big fun HT to the Artful Amoeba.

Not Fair!

This is so unfair! A son of Scotland gets very depressed when he finds out these other people (link, link) have figured out how to turn his daily after work recreation into research! Maybe the Phactor just has to admit that some people are more clever, more creative. Has it ever been mentioned that the fruit of the nutmeg, of little use to most people, is made into a singularly deleterious alcoholic beverage in Grenada? Maybe they'll need my expertise some day.

Conifer Fun

The laboratory spent examining conifers (yesterday) is always quite a bit of fun. Even among biology students most think conifers and evergreens are synonymous. The worst even think pine and conifer are one and the same thing, as in, "See the pine tree", while pointing at whatever evergreen conifer it may be. And a local merchant got quite annoyed at me for pointing out that the basket of seed cones being sold were not "pine cones" but spruce cones, and suggested the Phactor had no way of knowing! Well! So that's why it's so much fun to provide my students with a generous supply of conifers of various sorts, and let them key them out to genus. Language is a problem. If precise, it's too technical; if more descriptive, then it's too imprecise, but that's the price you pay for trying to construct a non-technical key for wider usage. You wouldn't believe what different people think is "ferny" or "soft & flexible" or "broad". In particular part of the fun is betting on which among them will be bored, impatient and non-observant, or observant and thoughtful. It tells you much about their potential. One very bright young lady is quick on the uptake, but this has bred in her a frightful impatience with anything that isn't immediately clear or evident. Still most did quite well and two even commented on the sense of accomplishment they enjoyed for figuring these things out, and a recognition of the the tremendous utility of identification keys, and the ability to identify things where other people failed to see differences. On the whole a most satisfactory result. Still saved one curve ball for later when they'll have to decide what kind of plant this is and they are presented with Scaidopitys, which lurks in our garden and is so different looking it stops most people dead in their tracks.

Moving north at biological speed.

One of the important reasons to keep collections of organisms is that they document prior locations. Even as spotty as these records are, if you record enough of them a signal can emerge from the noise, and the signal if simple, species are moving north at the rate of 6.1 km per decade, or if you grow on a mountain, then you're moving up in altitude. Winter is getting shorter and spring coming earlier by 2.3 days per decade. What if a plant flowering earlier fails to coordinate things with a pollinator because of differences in how they react to environmental cues. And what if a heat sensitive woodland plant runs into a barrier, like a hundred miles of mostly agricultural fields, that prevents it's northward trek? Or if your particular mountain just isn't tall enough? Adios, amigos. Another species extinction. Conservation has long argued for preserving corridors and this is why. Of course, that won't help alpine species that just run out of room. Colleagues in Costa Rica have set up study sites in cloud forests on their tallest mountains for the rather depressing reason of recording their demise.

Spring at my Study Site

Spring, when a man's fancy turns to field work. And here's what a small portion of the Phactor's study site, a far corner actually, looks like in early spring. Nothing like a well-charred prairie to let you know it's going to be a good year for field work. The new transects won't be hard to find now, but last fall the stakes were quite well hidden by the tall grass vegetation. Finding a hundred or so individual plots only marked by a metal tag at the corner is another matter completely; hard when the prairie is burned, impossible when it isn't. This prairie will turn green very quickly, and the work will begin. Thank goodness for students and their nice young backs. This is a good place to break in those nice new white athletic shoes.

New fun and games with public education in Lincolnland

The grain, er brain, trust that runs Lincolnland is looking into using some type of assessment metric to evaluate public institutions of higher learning and then use that ranking to determine state support. The code phrase is "out-comes based funding". This is such a terrible idea on so many levels you hardly know where to begin. OK, let's start with the un-obvious. What's the point? Is it to get better performance out of poor performing institutions by punishing them financially and removing resources? Yeah, that should work. Is it to put more resources into the best performing institutions to get the most bang for the buck? Increased resources? To education? In Lincolnland? Yeah, that was ridiculous. Is it to have some reason to further cut state support? Duh! It makes your head hurt every time someone wants a "metric" to evaluate higher education. Graduation rate, degrees per dollar, grants per faculty, wins per sports scholarship. Who knows. Oh, but won't that help improve the quality of higher education if degrees awarded or some similar metric is used. Can you say pandering? You can see the new slogan now: "Lower your standards and save your funding." And of course, we still have mopes out there, even in education itself, who bemoan the lack of assessment, the lack of a metric to use as a basis of comparison, which means the failure of faculty to know if anyone is learning anything. Has the Phactor calmly commented on this before? The more selective institutions will have it made so to speak, and woe be to institutions who mission requires them to admit riskier students. Nothing whatever good can come of this. Sorry, but the link to this news story was lost, but this is what it's based on. How can this not lead to gamesmanship being played and putting state insitutions into a competition for limited resources? Oh, maybe it'll be "Reality Higher Education". Today one of our state insitutions will be voted out of existence because of regular poor performance and failure to meet their outcomes. Next year another one will be at the bottom, and you see where this leads. Ah, yes, folks, Lincolnland where all our kids are out-of-state students.

Shades of gray, nuanced thinking

As many if not all of you are aware, these are not good days to be an intellectual. Thinking, and doing it well, are not a highly prized commodity of late, and in its place there are lots of concrete thinking and simplistic black and white answers. Way too many people seem unaware of how shallow such answers are and naturally our unpopularity arises from popping their balloons, to which they answer with hostility. For this reason, and his general sanity, the Phactor stays away from most current issues with only the occasional rant to vent his frustration. but every now and then you must admit that someone does it better. So here's the infamous science blogger, PZ Myers' essay on shades of gray. "This is a complicated world and there are a great many subjects that simply aren't reducible to binaries — we do a disservice to the subtleties when we discard them in favor of absolutes. And often I can agree that we need depth and breadth of understanding if we're to navigate a difficult situation."

Spring Cleaning

Spring cleaning is probably the Phactor's least favorite activity, all the debris, all the leaves, all the pruning, all the crap you have to get out of your garden to make way for the new growth. But this is also the season when field work starts. None of these garden cleanup jobs is much fun, but the worst, nastiest, job is pruning the damned roses. Why do such pretty flowers have to grow on such ugly, thorny crappy plants? So these past two days have been nearly non-stop pruning and cleaning up aerial parts of herbaceous perennials, and cleaning up all the leaves that escaped last fall. The big problem is simple, a garden's the size of ours are a big cleanup problem. How great are those woodland perennials that know how to deal with leaves. In this regard some newcomer's (wild ramp, jacob's ladder, and others) are showing up with vigor, maybe enough to offset loses (blue cohosh).

Idle hands are the devil's playground

What happens when you oldest friend retires without a lot of planning as to the next step and finds his busy, curious intellect idle and a lot of time on his hands? Well, of course, he turns to handing out advice. But Dear Abby he ain't. Q&A with the "doctor" you’ll want to consult on dietary practices. Q: Doctor, I've heard that cardiovascular exercise can prolong life. Is this true? A: Your heart is only good for so many beats, and that’s it...don't waste them on exercise. Everything wears out eventually. Speeding up your heart will not make you live longer; it’s like saying you extend the life of your car by driving faster. Want to live longer? Take a nap. Q: Should I cut down on meat and eat more fruits and vegetables? A: You must grasp the notion of logistical efficiency. What does a cow eat? Hay and corn. And what are these? Vegetables. So steak is nothing more than an efficient mechanism of delivering vegetables to your system. Need grain? Eat chicken. Beef is also good source of field grass (green leafy vegetable). And a pork chop can give you 100% of the recommended daily allowance of vegetable products. Q: Should I reduce my alcohol intake? A: No, not at all. Wine is made from fruit. Brandy is distilled wine. That means they take water out, so you get even more fruity goodness that way. Beer is also made of grain. Bottoms up! Q: How can I calculate my body/fat ratio? A: Well, if you have a body and you have fat, your ratio is one to one. If you have two bodies, your ratio is two to one, etc. Q: What are some of the advantages of participating in a regular exercise program? A: Can't think of a single one, sorry. My philosophy is: No pain...good! Q: Aren't fried foods bad for you? A: YOU ARE NOT LISTENING! Foods are fried these days in vegetable oil. In fact, they are permeated by it. How could getting more vegetables be bad for you?!? Q: Will sit-ups help prevent me from getting a little soft around the middle? A: Definitely not! When you exercise a muscle, it gets bigger. You should only be doing sit-ups if you want a bigger stomach. Q: Is chocolate bad for me? A: Are you crazy?!? HEL-LO-O!! Cocoa BEAN! Another vegetable! It is the best feel-good food around! Q: Is swimming good for your figure? A: If you think swimming is good for your figure, please explain the whale to me.. Q: Is getting in shape important for my lifestyle? A: Hey! 'Round' is a shape! Well, I hope this has cleared up any misconceptions you may have had about food and diets. For those of you who watch what you eat, here's the final word on nutrition and health drawn from international nutritional studies. 1. The Japanese eat very little fat and suffer fewer heart attacks than us. 2. The Mexicans eat a lot of fat and suffer fewer heart attacks than us. 3. The Chinese drink very little red wine and suffer fewer heart attacks than us. 4. The Italians drink a lot of red wine and suffer fewer heart attacks than us. 5.. The Germans drink a lot of beer and eat lots of sausages and fats and suffer fewer heart attacks than us. CONCLUSION: Eat and drink what you like. Speaking English is apparently what kills you. And remember: Life should NOT be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways - Chardonnay in one hand - chocolate in the other - body thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming "WOO-HOO, what a ride!!" It's tough to argue with such sound advice, but the Phactor needs to talk to him about the chardonnay thing. A big cabernet-sauvignon would go much better with the chocolate. This boy needs a blog.

Friday Fabulous "Flower" - Winter Hazel

Winter hazel (Corylopsis spicata or related species) is a member of the witch hazel family and it's shrubby habit and growth are similar to witch hazel's. But winter hazel differs in one important respect; it has a much bigger and more dramatic floral display. An inflorescence of flowers, each with 5 pale yellow petals, dangles out of a large bud whose pale green bud scales add to the display. The shrub itself does best in sheltered areas here in the great midwest, it fact that may be the only place it does well at all. Although graceful in appearance, the shrub is not robust, so heavy snow can break twigs, and the bunnies love it having pruned mine back two or three times. The foliage is attractive and it grows in semi-shady to shady areas, and although Dirr rates it as zone 5 hardy, that's maybe a tad optimistic. -19 F produced some twig dieback. Winter hazel is a slow grower and probably won't get over 8-10 feet tall ever, with a similar spread. But it's a lovely floral display in the early spring.

Maniltoa archives

Dear most alert and attentive reader, yes, the Phactor was aware that Maniltoa was featured in a previous blog two years ago, but no flowers were produced with that flush of growth that followed a severe pruning, and the new pictures were so much more handsome, but that post did explain how the branches and leaves repositioned themselves. Thanks for the reminder.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Very very early spring flower

My old friend and colleague, David Dilcher, has been hard at work digging up fossils in China. So here's a very, very early spring flower, published in March 31 Nature, but aged at 124-123 million years ago in the early Cretaceous. To put this into some context, dinosaurs still reigned and would do so until the event that marks the end of the Cretaceous, a bolid impact on the Yucatan, at 65 million years ago. It bears the name Leefructus mirus, and if you were going to place it in a modern plant family, it would be a buttercup, a member of the Ranunculaceae. The significance of this fossil is that it pushes the evolution of the eudicots back to an earlier time indicating that flowering plant diversity took off early. The flower (center) is in early fruit stage.