Field of Science


Alien Invasions - Starlings

Starlings are not a favorite bird. They nest in my covered gutters thereby defeating the purpose of having them covered. At times they overwhelm our bird feeders' regular native visitors. And then there is another strange behavior that has yet to be explained to me, but it's truly vexing. Just as their chicks are getting ready to leave the nest, the adults will pluck bits of vegetation. No idea why, but they aren't feeding it to their offspring because they leave the plucked bits behind. They prefer small tender plants sort of out in the open. This happens at just about this time of year, and you've just set out pepper and tomato plants, and have new seedlings appearing in your garden. Nip, nip, pluck, pluck, you HAD new seedlings and recently transplanted plants in your garden. Now you got little green leafless sticks. Pass the birdshot please. What's historically interesting about this is knowing who to blame - Eugene Scheiffelin. In 1890 he released 60 starlings into New York City's Central Park. The next year he released another 40. He had some romantic notion about having all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare's plays introduced to New York City. Of course by 1928 starlings had reached the Mississippi River so fast did their population grow. The story is familiar to biologists who know that many introduced species can have population explosions because nothing checks their growth. Here's the simple rule for safely introducing alien species - DON'T! It gives you something to think about when you replace your pepper plants.

Is the fountain of frustration on the level?

Even though the lily pond is being renovated, another water feature in our gardens demanded the Phactor's attention over the weekend, and it's his own fault for having given Ms. Phactor a pretty thing for a present, a gift that keeps on giving. This isn't rocket science, but what you don't see is the part that gives you problems if you allow yourself to become obsessed with having the water flow such that it dribble and drips from all around the dish. The variables are the surface of the glass dish itself, which undulates with shallow channels, the direction of the water as it wells up from below, and of course, any off plumb tilt such that a few millimeters down below can change the dynamic up above. So you tinker and tinker to no avail. Still, who can argue with pretty; it's good looking especially when the hostas are in bloom and a spot of morning sunshine lights up the fountain, and it sounds good too, although at first you keep thinking you left water running somewhere. This year the setup is a bit off kilter, but before too long the whole assembly will have to be lifted and cleaned out providing an opportunity to try again.

Average weather here in the great midwest

Beware of the average lie when if comes to weather. Weather people are always fond of telling you that the temperature or rainfall is this much or that much above or below average for this time of year. Here's the big problem; this part of the world never gets average weather. Now you can take all those highs and those lows, those drenching rains and weeks of drought, those summer scorchers and Arctic blasts, windy days and doldrums, and you can average them even though you never get those conditions. So within 4 days the weather goes from lows in the upper 30s and low 40s to highs in the upper 80s and low 90s. Somewhere between the two is some nice average weather, but it never happens, just the turbulent stormy transition from one to the other. And then just to make life interesting, after a front passed during the night and morning dawns more summery, a day's outing took us north back across the front, so the temperature drops like a stone, storms attempt to belt us off the road, and then after a bit of wait, the front passes us again. Dumb. More on the field trip later.

Wanted: Patron of Botany

What with all the gains in wealth at the top end, the Phactor wants some trickle down. For a mere $10,000 per year you can be my patron! Please understand, most of this money will help feed students because even given a meager faculty salary, especially here in Lincolnland, that much money won't help restock the wine cellar. So not only will you be supporting really interesting botanical research, but bunches of students will be able to eat macaroni and cheese because of your support, and it's a tax writeoff. Oh, yes, you probably don't pay taxes, but it's still biologically charitable. Think of all those acknowledgements for helping understand rainforest ecology and restoration of prairies. Patrons will even be allowed to assist with the field research especially when the treatment is eradication. So, be one of the first 10 patrons to sign up. Contact me at the email address provided on the side bar.

Transitioning - Asparagus to strawberries

Never, never has the Phactor been so late at getting his kitchen garden planted. The weather gods have really been unfair, so thank goodness for perennials. So as asparagus season ends, the strawberries, inside their wire fortress, are ripening. The bed looked pretty dense, but then after weeding out the Indian strawberry, no task for any but the most observant, the bed was a bit more open. The berry crop will be OK, but not spectacular. The same will probably also be true for the blueberries and raspberries. And while everything else has languished, the weeds have been growing rapidly, so the behinder the gardener is.

Not enough tree peonies yet

The magic of digital photography allows us to enjoy certain blooms for much longer than they last in the garden. After reading a fairly accurate description of short comings, and eye-popping value of tree peonies over at the Garden Rant, the Phactor chided them a bit in a comment, but then decided maybe we haven't had enough pictures of them in flower yet. So here's a new addition to the stable, part of the back drop of a Japanese garden, remarkable, but ephemeral beauty. Hopefully the hint of pink comes through, but the red pistils are a bit muted in this image. The flower is about 9" across.

New Publication Record!

The Phactor is not and never has been a prolific publisher; years of data seem to easily distill into a single table or figure, but my publication record now spans 35 years. The Phactor and a most terrific collaborator submitted a manuscript to a major journal in our field on 11 May 2011 and it was accepted pending only trivial revisions on 24 May 2011. Today, 27 May, the revised manscript was resubmitted, and it's final acceptance could come within a week. This is simply amazing, a new record for certain, and it does show how electronic communications have speeded up the process. Everything used to have to be mailed to the editor, and then the review copies mailed to reviewers, after the reviewers were contacted and agreed to read the paper. Even in an efficient operation, this could take 3 weeks, and if you got an acceptance with minor revisions in 2-3 months you figured that wasn't too bad. Of course any changes meant retyping the manuscript. Remember typing? Cutting and pasting? No, of course, not. Who does? The Phactor lets students play with an old electric typewriter every now and again, just for grins, and my first pc is stored in my lab for reasons not altogether clear, but mostly to show people how utterly primitive they were. Turn it on and up comes a blinking cursor. Now what, they ask? Indeed. So in some respects this certainly represents progress.
Now in total honesty, our collaboration was arranged in 2007, and the specimens were collected while doing tropical field work with another collaborator that fall. The field work was published in 2009. But we got about 90% of the project done during my sabbatical visit, and the last 10% then took another 18 months. The manuscript was half done 2 years ago, but one thing and another kept us from finishing things up. So in a total start to finish sense, maybe this wasn't such a record. The field work didn't set any records either because it was based upon two previous seasons of field work dating back 7-8 years. Lastly you only truly appreciate the easy ones because of all the hard ones, the ones you had to battle with editors and reviewers to get published, the ones that took you so long to do the work and so long to prepare. Ah, well, another revision and another submission (June 1 deadline) await. But now off to the field where a project started in 2006 is still underway, and only now are the first results pending publication. So why do we do this? Well, it's actually interesting and intellectually stimulating; we do learn things. And it's our job to teach science students to do science, and mostly that's done by what is still an apprenticeship approach, working with a "master", who must be actively involved in science to provide the environment in which the student can learn. But it's still fun to see your name in print.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Golden Chain Tree

If you are looking for a small flowering tree to brighten up some spot in your garden, then you must consider a golden chain tree (Laburnum x watereri). For a flowering tree their display is fairly long lived (think 1.75 l vs. 0.75 l bottle of wine), and the tree is fairly tolerant, but maybe not even completely hardy in zone 5 in our experience. They do flower at an early age and can be trained to an arbor if you have the patience, in which case the long pendant inflorescences hang down rather like wisteria. Ours sits way back at the intersection between a perennial bed and a Japanese garden, but the display of even our small tree (recovering from winter die back a year ago) was easily seen from our house 200 feet away.

How a university works - paper towels

Paper towels are one of those useful things especially in lavatories and laboratories, all of which have sinks. So of course you think sinks-paper towels, they just sort of go together, but then the VP for the physical plant whose building service workers (i.e. custodians) distribute paper towels decides that one way to save money and cut costs is to only supply paper towels to those sinks in lavatories. The laboratories are on their own. So academic departments with sink-containing laboratories will now be forced to buy their own paper towels if they want to use them at all, and darned if science isn't messy. So how does this save the university money, especially when you figure in the economy of scale? All the physical plant did was shift the cost burden to the academic units of the university. So does the central administration decide to provide those academic units that use sink-containing laboratories with more money in support of education to buy paper towels? Duh! Of course, not. Oh, and then the VP for Finance, another towering intellect, says, "And we don't want the cost passed on to the students." Now where the hell does this fool think the money is going to come from if not from lab fees? Our department budget hasn't been increased in ages, and indirect cost money from grants goes to support research activities and research infastructure. Paper towels get used in largely teaching labs. And why doesn't the university want costs passed along this way? Well, maybe because that is exactly what the university does everytime the state cuts its support to the university; it raises tuition and fees. So do as we say, not as we do, a primary administrative directive. This is the kind of frustrating, small-time, nonsensical thinking that high-powered, or even medium-powered academics have to put up with all the time. You just want to scream. And this was just about paper towels. But at least one VP will probably get a raise, probably worth more than the cost savings in paper towels, for their cost-cutting effort.

And the war continues

The war between plant eating insects and plants continues. Plants have lots of defense mechanisms, but then insects evolve counter strategies, and so the war continues. When a female insect lays a clutch of eggs in the bark of a shrub, one plant strategy is to respond to the injury, however minor, with localized cambial growth increasing the diameter of the twig beneath the injury. This may not sound like much of a defense until to realize the insect eggs can get crushed in the process, slowly crushed, but crushed. Now biologists have found out that leaf beetles have evolved a behavioral counter measure. Female leaf beetles try to lay their eggs near other clutches of leaf beetle eggs. Now this may sound like putting too many eggs in one basket, but clustered oviposition sites can so damage the bark that the twig beyond dies thereby eliminating the growth response defense. So more leaf beetle larvae will hatch when their mothers oviposited in clusters than alone. And that's the bottom line of evolution: differential survival.

Botany programs in decline - UK version

Botany as a subject is definitely in decline in universities, the unfortunate victim of popularity. It's been a 40 year trend now, and shows no sign of improving anytime soon. Here's a recent news item from the UK. Of course, there are more reasons than ever to study plants, and more reasons than ever to be producing more botanists. For example, upwards of 50% of all the botanists employed by the federal government will retire in the next 10-15 years. No one knows where the replacements are going to come from. Botany departments and degree programs have gradually been incorporated into biology departments and biology majors, where as the minority, botany continues to lose the numbers game. Biology has become so human-biomedically oriented that botany becomes marginalized. About 10% of our majors find plants interesting, but all too often students who take a botany elective in their senior year find out, all too late, that plants are fun and interesting. In an effort to interest kids in plants at a younger age, the Botanical Society of America operates a collaborative effort (Planting Science) to have grade school teachers conduct plant research with their classes and professional mentors. It is a worry especially when your alma mater, long known for its botany program, makes the error of combining separate departments into one.

Plant ID - UTF my speciality

The internet has brought a whole new dimension to us plant identifiers. In the old days people with plastic bags of plant parts or telephone calls ("it's got green leaves and red berries; what is it?") all got routed to the Phactor, but they hadn't travelled very far. Now specimens come from all over the world and from lots of strange places, and while this botanist has gotten around pretty well, it's still only a couple of dozen countries. So an old buddy sends along an image and asks what he's taken a picture of in Dominica, an island the Phactor has never visited. Ah, but this one was easy because it's part of the UTF - ubiquitious tropical flora, a group of plants that's been moved around so much most people have no idea where the plant is really from or what it's really called. In some tropical places, people may never even see a native plant. Many members of the UTF pick up new common names in their new locations. The picture is pretty good, although it looked better in the horizontal, but blogger rotated it for me (?), and several obvious features should narrow things down for you right away. Note the big, glossy, opposite leaves and the white flowers with 5 corolla lobes flaring from a narrow tube. You should have thought that's in the Rubiaceae right away. Now the fruit is a bit unusual for this family, but very distinctive for this plant, which is often called noni, or Indian mulberry, or cheese fruit among others. Morinda citrifolia naturalizes near beach areas now in lots of countries although it's a native of SE Asia. As one of the common names suggests, the fruit is not to everyone's liking; think limburger cheese. Since the fruit is composed from many flowers, this is a multiple fruit, like pineapple. The Phactor scores again!

How can something toxic be healthy, a reader asks.

A reader asks, via email, since the comment button on my blog seems to be broken, how can something toxic be healthy? The explanation is pretty simple. Toxic is not synonymous with poisonous. Toxic substances in effective dosages generate non-nutritional physiological responses called intoxications, and different toxins produce different intoxications. So different toxins may be depressants (morphine) or stimulants (caffeine). Some may effect cures and others may be deletrious to deadly, often depending upon dosage.

Students doing good - Real Assessment

Administrators and politicians always want to know how we know if we've taught our students anything. And of course they want it reduced to a simple little standardized exam. The Phactor has ranted about this issue in the past (here, here, and here), but it's too nice of a day to really rant. But you see, a former student who graduated a bit over a decade sent me an email to tell me that even though she miss IDed a columbine on a final plant ID exam, she hasn't missed IDed one since. One important thing to notice is that even though an exam indicated a failure of learning, learning took place, so something important was taught. This is something the dim bulbs that run many universities just don't get. Real learning is a complicated thing, and that's why you must rely on faculty to tell you when it has occurred. Students get to assess our teaching and courses even before they've finished a course, and the Phactor has gotten his share of brickbats and kudos, but the point here is simple. Most students don't know how much they learned, and sometimes a course just starts them on a trajectory of continued learning, and isn't that the point of higher education, developing interests and learning to learn. And when we do that, well, that's a real assessment of educational effectiveness. We've taught somebody something really important, and our students may not know or fully realize this until years after they graduate. The same SOB (He'd laugh out loud if he reads this.) taught me the first and last biology course the Phactor ever took as an undergraduate, and it took me years to realize that even though he wasn't a kind, likable, warm and fuzzy type of faculty member, he was an exceedingly influential and effective instructor who was years ahead of the curve on science education, and important lessons were learned that had an impact on my successful career as an educator. So real assessment of real learning, and therefore effective teaching, takes years. My role was simple, not just to teach some botany, but to instill an interest in plants and learning, and as a result in some small part, my student has done real well for herself and the Phactor is very proud of her active role in Seattle Tilth, spreading a legacy that plants are fun, important, and interesting. But many of our fearless leaders aren't very interested in such data points probably because if they admitted these were important, they'd also have to admit that we faculty know what we're doing. So it will be interesting to see how the new mandate for more assessment of our teaching effectiveness will deal with this. Prediction: it won't.

Uplifting news for a Monday

At times it seems if we didn't have bad news, and news done badly, we'd have no news at all. Well, my dear fellows, it seems that one to three cups of coffee at day reduces the risk of prostate cancer. You just got to love these double duty toxins: a stimulant and healthy to boot! Now to go out and find a big damned cup.

Have data, need analysis

Our garden event data shows that virtually everything is happening 10 to 16 days later than last year. But the difference is not universal, so it will take some time to actually compare the two records. Some plants have for years flowered on or about a particular date, and their tardiness suggests things are late this year. Slowly things are beginning to catch up. Local area farmers are way behind in planting schedules according to the news and our prairie is late too, and that's good because the eradication treatment must get finished this week. So much fun, down on your hands and knees weeding a prairie.

The Peat Moss

A genetic study of peat moss, Sphagnum, in North America resulted in quite a surprise. It's all one genetic individual. That's right, we're not talking about 1 species, but 1 individual. This suggests that a single colonizing peat moss cloned itself and spread across the whole continent! This is pretty weird, not clones per se, which are pretty common and long lived in the world of plants, but just one peat moss everywhere you look anywhere in North America. That sort of boggles the mind. Wonder how many times you check your results when everything keeps coming out identical? You'd begin to think maybe somebody in the lab made a mistake.

Garden catch-up

A busy May schedule, cold wet weather, poor timing (really cold & wet on weekends) have combined to put the kitchen garden way behind. Some attempt will be made today to catch things up and get the garden going. Of course, some people would rather have screens put in their windows than plant tomatoes showing terrible priorities, but the screens are needed now and tomatoes are going to be 2 months away no matter what. Cold wet weather also did in the apple and pear pollination. Add that to the destruction of the raspberry canes by bunnies, and the fruit season is off to a poor start, the fate of farmers everywhere.

Backyard celebration - F1 Birthday

The gardens are getting prettied up a bit because tonight the F1 is having friends over to celebrate her birthday. Other than general readiness, the Phactor's job is to fry a turkey. Now this may sound weird to some of you, but it is hard to describe turkey this good. You think greasy; it isn't. You think dry; it's wonderfully moist. You think dull; but fried turkey is injected with a Cajun spiced marinade. Now of course this all requires some special equipment, some preparation, a bit of know how, and practical experience. Getting 20 lbs of wet turkey into 2.5 gallons of 350F oil is a delicate process requiring some real care. Fried turkey has become the family gathering dinner of preference. A big cooker also does crabs, sweet corn, big batches of just about anything, but this was a bit of a surprise when the F1 asked me to cook one for her friends. Maybe it's because they're beginning to grow up.

Youth of the Sixties meets the Rapture

So the rapture is eminent. Sure. But as a youth of the sixties, back then you might have convinced me. Let's see the Phactor helped people build bomb shelters in their basements in the early sixties; my very pragmatic father said, "If they start throwing H-bombs around, it won't matter." Lost friends to drugs. Lost friends in the race riots and voter registration violence. Cities burned and it was ugly. And then we moved right straight on to Vietnam. Lost friends there too. So you needed cheerful tunes to stay upbeat. Do you hear it? Wait, my old fashioned amp and those 25 year old speakers still have lots of muscle and can be cranked up quite a bit more. Do you hear it now? The whole neighborhood says, ah, yes, the Doors, This is the end. And yes, the Phactors saw them live in the fall of 1966, and we both lived to tell the tale. It wasn't the end, and it won't be tomorrow either, but damn those tunes take me back.

Majority of university presidents oppose faculty tenure

Here's the finding from a recent survey conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education:
If the majority of college presidents had their way, tenure would become as obsolete as the slide rule. According to the findings of The Chronicle's survey of four-year-college presidents, 53 percent of them said they agreed that tenure for faculty members should be replaced by a system of long-term contracts. Thirty-nine percent disagreed.
But presidents' backgrounds led to wide differences in how they viewed tenure. Those with no teaching experience were much more likely to oppose tenure than those who had spent years standing in front of classrooms. Seventy percent of presidents who had never taught before favored the contract system, compared with only 38 percent of those who had taught for more than 20 years.

They needed a survey to find this out? A disturbing trend is the number of presidents who now support the view that faculty are just employees, subordinates, to be hired and fired as needed. Now here's my view. The Phactor spent way too much time in his pre-tenure days looking for a better job. It was a tough market, and the grass was not always greener, but the point is that everything done was for my advancement, my reputation, my career. Why commit time and effort to a university that seemed to have little interest in keeping me on the faculty? Tenure was used as a threat to "keep you in line". But the bottom line is this. Faculty and students are the university; presidents have come and gone, some have done more damage than good, others have done more good (thankfully the most recent one especially). Same goes for provosts and deans. If a university wants commitment, wants to improve, wants involved faculty, then the university had better demonstrate a commitment too. Otherwise faculty members find their jobs and the whims and whimsy of administrators, held hostage to the ups and downs of finances and majors, and everyone would be doing just what the Phactor was doing; looking out for old number one. University service? A waste of time. Notice that presidents who were never faculty, a fundamental error to think such a person can run a university, were most enamored with getting rid of tenure. Hmm, makes you think.

Friday Fabulous Flowers - Fringe Tree

Fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus) and its Chinese counterpart (Chionanthus retusus) are among the Phactor's favorite spring flowering shrubs. They are just so beautiful in flower, although maybe a bit ungainly of a shrub. But both are tough, a bit slow growing, but if you don't have one of these, you really should consider adding it to your landscape. When you see a really big specimen in flower it can take your breath away. The flowers are small, but the four-corolla lobes are long and flowers are produced in profusion, and the whole tree just drapes itself in a veil of white. Brides should be so lovely! Fringe trees are relatives of Forsythia and lilacs, all in the olive family, and generally you grow them like lilacs, even being tolerant of shade. American fringe tree has larger leaves and is a bit coarser in appearance than the Chinese fringe tree.

Kitchen Accouterment Extraordinaire

Oh, is the Phactor jealous! Why didn't Mrs. Phactor build in one of these when she had the back of the house ripped off and a new kitchen built? Right now it's just wasted crawl space down there. Wonder if these can be made any bigger? One must presume that it keeps things at an optimal storage temperature. Wonder how hard it would be to keep the bloody cats, who have a penchant for zipping in any opened door, out of there whenever you open the "trap" door? But you know you could take a nasty tumble stepping back from the sink if someone opened the door without your knowing it. Just wow!

What's for dinner world?

Everyone asks that question, but in many parts of the world it goes without saying it'll be a bowl of rice or grain porridge. So maybe they don't ask because they know. Food is without question one of the most important things to know about and to understand. Yet many of citizens of the modern world have so little connection to the production and processing of their food that they know virtually nothing about it. Having taught the botany of economically important plants for a few decades now it has been the Phactor's aim to "edumatcate" a certain small fraction of our youth that food is not just something that is delivered to your door in a broad flat box! If you've never thought about food from an international perspective, here's a link to a Lester Brown article on the geopolitics of food. It's food for thought. Perhaps some international readers will offer some comments.

Is Tom Toles unfair to the GnOPe?

"We have a winner. I got my 1,000,000th email today complaining that I am not fair to the Republicans. Well, fair is kind of a matter of opinion. I actually think I am mostly fair to Republicans, within the context of cartooning anyway. I do have real trouble with the party in that their pre-eminent, overarching, unbreakable, ironclad and undiscussable principle is that taxes can never go up, even after they have gone down, even back to levels we thrived with before, even for a brand new and unprecedented class of hyper-hyper-hyper wealthy individuals, even when the solvency of the American government is hanging in the balance. Yeah, I have some trouble with that as a first principle, but that’s still not the main thing.
The main thing is they are in absolute, abject and catastrophic denial about a straightforward set of facts that is probably the most important set of facts we face as a nation, and as human beings on planet earth. They have turned their faces away from climate change in a way that is simply and utterly unforgivable. They now apparently DO feel entitled to their own facts, and they live, campaign and purportedly do their jobs in a zone of outright lies. Lies they have every reason to understand are lies, and lies that will almost certainly result in massive destruction and death. Exactly how would you be “fair” to these people?"
Tom Toles

Ed Brayton points out that willful ignorance isn't something exactly new in the USA with this quote from Issac Asimov. "There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge'."

Tom Toles is an award winning political cartoonist for the Washington Post, and the Phactor has always liked this guy and his even-handed, mild mannered approach to issues. In this case Toles is referring to the "tax-break trickle down" mythology of the GnOPe and climate change denial.

HT to Class M who the Phactor shamelessly ripped off, but PP's got field work to do. Hope he understands.

Commuting Alternatives

Our fair city together with my institution of employment teamed up to advocate a week where people found alternative means of commuting to and from work or school. This is a grand idea; who wants to get stuck in a rut, so after walking or riding my bicycle to campus for 30+ years, the Phactor is driving this week. The campaign must be pretty successful because parking spaces are easy to find. Now before accusing this poor old man of being a contrarian please remember that this is field season, so every afternoon the troops head out to work on the prairie, and a 20+ mile round trip carrying all the field gear is a bit much to expect even for students, although one particular graduate student did the trip regularly. Now both he and his wife drive these huge gas-guzzling SUVs in matching black. How things change. On the whole the Phactor feels good about his decision to keep with the theme and use an alternative means of commuting.

Biology and Law in Florida

Here are a couple of shocks for the good people of Florida: 1. Humans are animals. 2. A new statute would make sex with animals illegal. Although probably intended to outlaw beastiality, this statute is one of those things that makes you wonder why anyone would think this issue important enough that a legislature would spend anytime on it at all, but from the biological perspective, the statute outlaws sex altogether. You see forbidding "sex with animals" includes the object of your affections, whatever animal species. Is there any problem with having sex with fruits? Is there a term for that? OK, best not go there. This statute reminds me of some old legal attempts to prohibit people from making moonshine by forbidding fermenting "seeds" (cereal grains), which of course makes beer, while allowing fruit fermentation to make wine. So when a guy gets arrested for making "corn wine" he trots out his botany book and there in black and white it says a cereal grain is a caryopsis, a one-seeded fruit. Oops! Stupid legal animals; should have asked a biologist!

A peek at my garden

The thing about gardens is that different spots in the garden have different looks at different times of the year, sometimes little spots have their day at the top of the garden glamor hit parade. One particular display involves a spicy-lights azalea set among spruce trees in a large bed of hosta that runs along the sidewalk. Last year the Phactor witnessed a near rear end accident as a motorist, clearly a garden-lover, although an iffy driver, braked suddenly to get a better look. For about a week this light orange azalea at about 7 feet tall brightens up the dark green space in which it resides quietly for the other 51 weeks of the year. Soon it will have a couple of slightly later flowering golden-lights companions, but they will take them another couple of years to gain some size.

Misused and abused chemical terms

Chemistry and biology broadly overlap at the molecular level, so chemists and biologists deal with some of the same terminological bugga-boos. Here are probably the most commonly misused and abused chemical terms, and the Phactor wouldn't argue with this list one little bit.
CHEMICAL - Ooo! That unwashed piece of fruit is probably covered in chemicals. Actually the whole damned thing is nothing but chemicals. What do you think stuff is made of?
PURE and IMPURE - Nothing is really pure. One of the chemically most pure common substances in your house is sugar, probably something like 99.99% sucrose, but it still has contaminants. So virtually everything is impure, including some of your thoughts. Therefore the connotation that pure is good and impure bad just doesn't hold water so to speak.
TOXIC - This is one of the Phactor's favorites. In teaching about poisonous plants, medicinal plants, stimulating plants, narcotic plants, and even hallucinogenic plants, the most useful concept is that they are all toxic, all produce intoxications, but the intoxications differ, some even being beneficial. Lots of toxic substances change categories with dosage, usually, but not always, producing more harmful intoxications with increasing dosages. Nothing like a glass of wine with dinner, but ethanol is a very toxic chemical. So toxic is not the same as poisonous, and here impure is good. Remember, what makes wine tasty are all those impurities because water and ethanol are both colorless, tasteless, odorless, totally miscible chemicals.
NATURAL and ARTIFICIAL - Natural is good; artificial is bad. Salicylic acid is natural and too rough on the stomach to be taken internally for aches and pains, although pounded up white willow leaves might make a good poultice on a sore elbow. Artificial acetosalicylic acid (aspirin) is much easier on the stomach. So everything that occurs in nature isn't necessarily good, and everything artificial isn't bad. This sort of gets confused with ORGANIC and INORGANIC, which would have been the Phactor's 4th pick rather than chemical. All food is organic, although we sometimes ingest some inorganic chemicals like salt. There is no such thing as inorganic food. And what gives with fertilizers? Plants don't care where the nitrates come from, they'll absorb them the same, and you can't tell the difference. At times you wonder if the grocery store will put a new sign "Inorganic produce"? If you really think this makes a lot of difference, go back to pure and impure, and start again. There are a lot of really unintuitive things about molecules, and the primary one is that they are so darned small even a tiny amount of something contains mind-boggling numbers of molecules (look up Avogadro's number sometime; we used to call it "avocado's number" and now there's a restaurant of that name.). If you were to carry a glass of water to Lake Michigan and throw it in, one glass full into the lake, and if you assume the molecules in the glass of water disperse evenly throughout the whole lake, what are your odds of dipping the glass back into the lake and recapturing one or more of the molecules you threw in? Just based on numbers, you're almost certainly going to get at least one water molecule back. How can that be true? So perk up your ears and listen for those improperly used terms.

Newtron Bombs

Yes, the Phactor can spell, but for 30 some odd years we've been the targets of the verbal bombs of Newtron Gingrinch, the worst rhetoric since Spiro Agnew. At least Spiro used big words and alliteration (e.g., "nattering nabobs of negativity"). For those of you fortunate enough to have purged your memories, or those of you too young to have such memories, and those in neither of the previous groups but who need reminding what a two-faced, hypocritical little wart Newtron is, Mother Jones has a nice sampling from across the years. Here's some thing typical from 1989 where Gingrinch lays out his electoral roadmap: "The left-wing Democrats will represent the party of total hedonism, total exhibitionism, total bizarreness, total weirdness, and the total right to cripple innocent people in the name of letting hooligans loose." Hey, with Newtron running (off his mouth) the campaign will be colorful and he's sure to please all those conservative values voters. Read the list, it's real presidential material.
HT to Ed.

Geeky primitive flowering vine

Who doesn't like big showy flowers, but small strange flowers are really cool to especially to us botanical geeks. As a result the Phactor tends to grow some less common plants for his own amusement. Here's a close up of a small (~1 cm diam) flowered vine that occupies a couple of stories of an old TV antenna at the corner of our house. You many notice several unusual things about this flower: one - the perianth consists of a helical whorl of 8-9 parts that start smaller and greener on the outside and turn whiter (and a bit pink on the inside base) as they spiral inward. The plant is monoecious and this flower only has 5-6 stamens, spirally arranged, and where the anther is rather broad and there is no filament to speak of. Higher up on the vine other flowers will look identical but with ~24 spirally arranged individual pistils. Most people don't know this genus, or its family, or its unique place in flowering plant phylogeny. The vine is Kadsura chinensis (Schisandra family - Schisandraceae) and it now resides phylogentically among one of the basal grades of flowering plants indicating an ancient common ancestry with all the rest. Sometimes this species is called magnolia vine, but it doesn't remind me of magnolias very much.

Should colleges be exempt from budget cuts?

The provocative title above preceded both a YES and NO answer. Jane S. Shaw of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy provided the NO answer, and a couple of points presented by her really scrolled my nerd. Ms. Shaw is one of those people who don't seem to know anything about higher education, but that doesn't stop them from criticizing what we do. Firstly, she serves up the familiar and tiresome caricature of "many faculty would rather do scholarship than teach" charge, and of course, for some of my colleagues this is true. But she then dismisses such scholarship as a great academic waste of time. One of our state legislators once asked me "Fine, fine, but for the life of me, I can't figure out how anyone working at one of our Lincolnland universities can justify spending their time studying rain forest in central America." Much to the consternation of the administrative dweeb showing them around, the Phactor, standing right their in the door to the greenhouse, chose to answer. It's simple really. 1. Biology doesn't pay any attention to political boundaries; there isn't a biology of Lincolnland, it's all one. 2. Research isn't easy to do, and to remain motivated to exert such physical and intellectual energies the topic has to be something of great interest to me. But the actual topic doesn't matter as long as the research is biologically meaningful and of a high quality. The reason we do science, and other scholarly endeavors, is that a very important part of our job is to teach students how to learn; to do science rather than learn about science. So students must apprentice with scientists and what kind of this-is-how-you-do-science teacher would I be if I didn't do science? Would you hire a swimming coach who didn't know how to swim? So the actual subject matters little, but we have to be scholars to show students what it's like. And how can someone who understands so little about higher education think themselves capable of suggesting how it should be run? Well, Jane? You miss the whole point of higher ed but feel perfectly OK justifying our economic sacrifices.
Second, the other main thrust of her opinion piece was that fiscally colleges are "coddled, complacent and resistant to cost control" and whenever budgets get tight colleges just raise tuition. In fact our tuition has gone up faster than the cost of living over these past 20 years, but during that period of time the state legislature has cut their percent of support from 64% to less than 23%, and when you factor in the withdrawal of support, the real costs of running the university, including all kinds of unfunded state mandates, are way behind the cost of living. Certainly our salaries haven't kept pace with inflation so we slowly watch our standard of living erode. The Phactor feels so coddled. Members of our foundation board asked me if my salary, an over 30 year full professor, could possibly be less than $100,000? It made me laugh!
But what do you expect from Jane, the president of the Pope Center? Here's their mission:
• Increase the diversity of ideas taught, debated, and discussed on campus;
• Encourage respect for the institutions that underlie economic prosperity and freedom of action and conscience;
• Increase the quality of teaching and students' commitment to learning so that they graduate with strong literacy and fundamental knowledge;
• Encourage cost-effective administration and governance.

Ah, yes, all the right wing what's wrong with higher education buzz issues. In other words, let's run higher education like a business where us subordinates (faculty) are told what to do rather than be given any say in the running of the institution. Forget that colleges exist because faculty hired administrators in the first place so that we could concentrate on academics. Now the college consists of bricks & mortar and the administrations; the rest of us are employees or customers. And Jane wants to know why so many students are doing so poorly? Doesn't she know that the customer is always right? Parents and administrators constantly intercede on behalf of students rather than letting us hold their feet to the fire. Only wish that people like Jane really knew what was going on rather than making it up and cherry picking information based on conservative ideology, which she might learn if she had done some real scholarship, isn't a valid method.

Vertical Gardening at Chelsea & Your Food Supply

Ever been to the Chelsea flower show? The Phactors attended a few years ago as part of our 2nd botanical geek tour. If you do go, save enough time the next day to see the Chelsea Physic Garden only a short distance away; it's worth it. The amazing thing about Chelsea, and what sets it apart from all other flower shows, a lot, is the size and complexity of the garden installations. We found ourselves constantly asking "How did they do that?" The logistics are quite mind boggling like having picture perfect floral displays all week long of 50 different varieties of you name it, and getting them all to flower at once in large enough numbers to produce the display. This year a vertical garden installation will be featured to illustrate how to grow a big garden in a small space. One side of the building is all plants, one side solar cells, and the areas within for composting and propagating. Practical? Probably not, but imaginative, clever. Just think a rectangular building with two sides facing south. Think about it.
Of course the point of this is that cities have a problem. While they put lots of things and people conveniently close together, as they get larger the convenience decreases, and important things like water, sewage, and food must be dealt with at increasingly further distances away. Now some cities have solved the space for food production problem. Detroit now has enough vacant space to probably feed itself, but this wasn't planned. London is supposed to only have four days of food on hand at any one time, and this is probably true for most large cities. It's why the shops empty so fast during disasters. So what kind of person are you? Mostly to suit our busy lifestyle and our make it from scratch approach to food, the Phactors keep a considerable supply of basics on hand: canned goods, pastas, flours, beans, frozen stuff (but only good for a few days if the power goes out), and do not dare overlook the wine cellar. This is sort of a throw back to a rural childhood where winter storms frequently left you marooned for a few days, and a big garden tended to overwhelm if produce wasn't canned or frozen. But you must remain vigilant; just yesterday when fetching a decent bottle of red yours truly pointed out that the entire stock of red wine was down to just 9 bottles. Mrs. Phactor almost fainted. What if a disaster struck? For some reason our on hand wine stock is at its lowest in over 25 years. But that's another story. Although it might get a bit dull & some things would disappear quickly, we wouldn't starve for at least a month (but the squirrels better watch out!).
So what kind of person are you? How long could you hold out? Are you one of those real hard core survivalist with a year's supply? Wow! That's be a lot of wine! Or do you go day by day?

Good timing & wild life observations

Gardening and field work have a lot in common; sometimes things go well and other times nature kicks you in the butt. Fertilizing of prairie and gardens, and sowing of some new grass seed, was done just before a nice rainy front arrived. Wow, what good timing. And you decide to sit down and enjoy a cocktail for a TGIF while just looking at your gardens, and goldfinches and an indigo bunting just decide to show up. Great! And then as the Phactor raised his gaze a bit farther out, our wildlife diversity added a species (for 2011), a wood chuck, that model of rodent gluttony and bane of Mrs. Phactor's perennial garden. Parsley and campanulas were the main course, our early lettuce, still in its planter boxes was the salad course. And then just to add a small insult to the injury, you spill your cocktail. That's just how it is. You must remain philosophical, resigned, fatalistic; you either live with nature or fight against it. Excuse me, time to look up a recipe for grilled wood chuck.

Plant ID Cell Phone App

For those of you who have found cell phones useful, there soon will be a new application (that's what app stands for) that will take that picture of a flower or leaf you took and compare it via a google like search, but using images not words, to identify the plant. Now the Phactor has no idea how good the Leafsnap plant ID app is, but the botanist involved is my old buddy John Kress of the Smithsonian, the guy someone called the Indiana Jones of Ginger, and he does know his stuff, and no question about it, this cell phone app will be a whole lot easier to move around than John's usual plant ID facility, the Smithsonian's millions of plant specimens housed in their (our) herbarium. So if you find yourself lost deep in the wilds of New York's Central Park (Well, you have to start somewhere with plant ID so why not someplace central?) you can identify every plant found there with a leaf, flower, or fruit. So those of you actually have a cell phone, a smart one that can use these apps, do let us know how it goes. Now as a long time experienced plant IDer, it will be interesting to see how this works because variation is the demon, and how does the program make image comparisons? Maybe the software is borrowed from the face recognition programs that work so well on the CSI programs, but then again they seem to have scanning electron microscopes that no only image things like pollen grains but label them for you! Oh, did anyone mention that Leafsnap is free? Plant ID will be added to the list of reasons why the Phactor doesn't need a cell phone.

Prairie field work - late spring edition

The prairie is slow to get going, but then the vegetation blasts out of the ground. This makes some of our treatments more difficult. Today's nutrient augmentation treatment wasn't too bad, but let's see to put 7 g of nitrogen on each square meter plot using 12-12-12 fertilizer, you need hmm, how many grams?? But the real trouble is the 128 plots. Used the Sawyer approach to get a young back to assist with this very fascinating research. Part of this is to figure if hemiparasites function as nitrogen thieves and how that affects the rest of the prairie community. The other plots are to see if increasing the competition from grasses will negatively affect an invasive bush clover. So now things will certainly grow faster and better, oh boy! Wild camassia was in flower, a very pretty wild flower. Sorry, forgot to take a progress picture to compare with the one posted a month or so ago.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Tree Peony

One of the Phactors great weaknesses is a love of tree peonies. This morning 5 of them in full bloom could be seen from my patio, 4 ranging in color from light pink to purple, and 1 yellow (a particular favorite). So one of them will be today's fabulous flower now that the blogger maintenance is done and us bloggers again have access to our blogs. Each of these blooms is 8-9 inches across. Wow! These are challenging plants in this area; slow to establish, a bit fragile, so now the lure of the intersectional Itoh hybrids is calling where you get the large flowers and great colors in an herbaceous perennial. They appear to flower a bit later than the tree peonies, which flower after the fern-leafed and woodland P. japonica, so a report will be filed later. This will be their 1st flowering season so who knows perhaps another FFF will be in the offing.

Long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away!

Yesterday the poor old botanist was trying to impress you with the fact that horsetails are 150 million years old. And that's pretty old all right, but astronomers have a way of humbling (or is that Hubbling?) us biologists in terms of time and distance. Want to see something 13.2 billion years old? Hubble obliges. And it's pretty amazing because the whole universe is estimated to be only 13.7 billion years old. Sort of makes you feel small doesn't it. And you wonder if somewhere in all those galaxies some other sentient organism has gotten technologically advanced enough to look at a similar view and wonder the same thing. Or is it that while life is common enough given the bio-friendly chemistry of this universe, most inhabited worlds stall at about the cyanobacterial stage, which is where Earth was for the vast majority of its meager 4.3 billion year history. To even begin to grasp such a thing is a true intellectual achievement, and in stead we have people who think some religious cluck who predicts the end of the Earth based on a book is important. Maybe we aren't so far out of the slime after all.

Age of Equisetum

Presently the horsetail lineage, whose diversity peaked in the Carboniferous, has only a single genus, Equisetum. A newly described fossil (American Journal of Botany) indicates that the genus appeared much earlier than previously thought. The anatomical detail of these fossils is quite amazing (stem cross section) and clearly shows that this late Jurassic (ca. 150 million years ago) horsetail has the characteristics of Equisetum. While that's a really long time for a genus to be around, the champion is still the clubmoss Selaginella, a genus that appeared in the Carboniferous which would make it about twice as old as Equisetum. And that's rock hard evidence.

Reviewing your own literature

While writing a review paper, it was necessary to read several of my own research papers of circa 20 years ago to refresh the old memory. This is an interesting exercise. In doing so you might cringe at your own naivite and premature conclusions. You might find that subsequent studies in the field have trashed your best ideas. Or you might find that your studies have stood the test of time fairly well, that they still are sound biology and a good reflection on your work. In this respect the Phactor is feeling OK; these were good field work on a little studied group. What is more interesting is to see how your papers are getting cited by other authors. Chased down three publications cited as more or less supporting some of the conclusions reached in my own papers. All three were actually citing my papers, so these were sort of secondary citations, by a third author. Then there's always the "say what?" citation, where you wonder what they were reading. Can't find anything in those papers that might have been so misconstrured either. So that's on them and their scholarship, not on me. And yes, it does help to refresh the memory. Two publications had become confused in my memory, and it helped sort them out before making a mistake. But now the eyes are a bit glazed and focus wanders. Need another dose of caffeine perhaps, or at least a walk around to get out of this mid afternoon daze.

Irrational thinking alive and well in DC

The regular Tuesday meeting of the House Republican caucus grew heated last month when some of the more seasoned lawmakers said it was time to “shut up,” as one put it, about the birther issue. The caucus has 85 new members, more than 30 of whom are new to elective office and some took strong exception to being urged not to talk about President Obama’s birth certificate. “Well, I don’t think he was born in this country,” one freshman snapped.
“well, I don’t think ___(fill in the blank)___ .” It’s what some students say about evolution. It’s what people who are opposed to regulation of green house gases say about global warming. It’s what anti-vaxxers say about the lack of a link between vaccinations and autism. Such people are simply not rational. A rational person changes their mind, accepts they were wrong, and adjusts their thinking when presented with compelling data and information contrary to their position. All of us can be pretty stubborn about changing our minds at times, and it's OK to demand good evidence, but nothing you could show that GnOPe birther would change their mind. Unfortunately, this is a person who has been given the responsibility of running our country, and they have demonstrated that they are in no way rational. Is that who you want running things that actually matter? And some of my students will not change their minds about evolution no matter what you show them, no matter how compelling the evidence, so they are incapable of learning about this and who knows what else. Is this type of thinking largely the result of religious thinking, a non-questioning belief fervently held in the face of any and all disclaimers? The Phactor may be joining the ranks of those who want a religious litmus test for those wishing to run for office, but for exactly the opposite reason.

Silver-bell tree

The silver-bell tree (Halesia tetraptera) is a much under used ornamental tree. A 1.5 m bare-root plant flowered in it's 2nd year of growth, and if pruned it could be grown as a large shrub. In flower they are quite elegant with all these small white, not silver, bell-shaped flowers in small clusters at each leaf. Our campus had quite a large handsome speciment, but new landscaping killed it by burying the roots to change the grade, exactly what the Phactor told them would happen when he saw what they were up to. Of course it took 3 years, and then the next year a new sapling was planted, but it will take 30-40 years to replace its predecessor. And any good arborist would have seen the problem if consulted, and it was in an arboretum too! That required a special form of incompetence. Although native to moist woodlands from west Virginia to southern Illinois, they seem quite hardy in zone 5 and fairly tolerant of our droughts once established. This is one of two members of the Storax family in our gardens; the other has been featured as a Friday Fabulous Flower, American snowbell.

Fortuitous Garden Combinations

The Phactors practice experimental gardening. Almost everything tried is an experiment where the results range from successful to failure and lots of iffy inbetweens. Every now and again an experiment is ever so successful that you would like to pretend you knew what the results would be afore hand, but alas, it was merely a fortuitous combining, so you just enjoy the event, and the accolades. In this case a daffodil-hosta-fern garden under development for about 5 or six years now resides under the shade of redbuds, a flowering dogwood, and a couple of smoketrees (yes, trees, not bushes). In seeking a ground cover Mrs. Phactor found some giant bugle (Ajuga reptans) that had been languishing in a distant garden, and moved several clumps into this bed. The bronze low-growing foliage now covers most to the bed and it poses no impediment to the bulbs, hostas, or ferns. This season, just as the daffodil season ceased, the bugle burst into full bloom carpeting the area with a sea of purple puncuated by different colored and textured islands formed by the emerging hostas, a young yellow-leafed full moon maple, and the still erect bulb foliage. The overall effect is wonderful, gorgeous, just as it was planned! Even better apparently bunnies don't eat bugle either, at least not while they can fatten themselves up on our other garden plants!

Not a creature was stirring

Today is the Monday after graduation weekend, and never ever is there a quieter working day on campus. The silent, empty hallways and sidewalks are sort of scifi spooky. Weird! And the Phactor is here because he's got a manuscript to finish and not much time left. Of course it always is surprising how much you get done when your aren't constantly interrupted or disturbed, two terms that define an average work day during the semester. Almost too quiet right now; so lock the office door and getting to work.

Kentucky Derby

Yesterday was Kentucky Derby day, and as a hat lover this sounded like a nice celebration although never had the Phactor associated a derby with Kentuckians before. The only connection in my memory was coonskin caps, a left over of childhood Disney versions of Davey Crockett. Still a hat is a hat, and even better, according to southern kin, the most important thing about derby day is mint julips. "You can't right be properly married without monogrammed silver mint julip cups", said Cousin Dan (wife's side of course), as he presented a set of four as a gift nearly 40 years ago. The southern side of my family were Baptists. Nuf said. Any beverage made with bourbon is already high on the Phactor's list, and if you have to watch a herd of numbered horses run for about 2 mins to get one, or two, or three, well, that's not too high a price to pay for a frosty minty julip is it? And in viewing the audience, it turns out that hats, big ugly ones, are indeed a part of the derby. Here's one, appropriately floral, a custom made job. A couple of mint julips, a hat like that, and who knows? Oh, yes, a horse won the race.

Cost of an anti- vaxxer measle outbreak

Just a few days ago the Phactor commented on the health risk of the anti-vaccination movement, but Mike the Mad Biologist, one of my favorite crazy/angry (?) people, calculates the cost of just one small out break of measles. Even a tiny out break generates a huge cost that everyone pays for. So it's time for the public to wake up and put an end to the anti-vax stupidity. But what truly scrolls my nerd is that such a huge number of health care workers have not been vaccinated! Sorry, but people that stupid/foolish shouldn't be working in health care. And are you at greater risk of contacting an infected person in that line of work? Duh!

Manuscript deadline - out of time or end of time?

Enjoying a cup of coffee on a quiet Saturday morning, but the Phactor is worried about a manuscript deadline upcoming, fast. And then an NPR story tells me that rather than being a deadline, it's actually going to be the end of time. So why bother? The true believers are quiting their jobs, spending their money, in anticipation of the best (rapture) or the worst (left behind). It's very hard to take such thinking seriously, and you could feel sorry for these people on May 22nd, but excuses will be made, rationalizations, so that their faith may be preserved undented by the failure of their predictions. End of time predictors have a perfect track record of failure so far, and that doesn't seem to affect the expectations of followers. How sad to have such a life sapping faith. But come Monday, the manuscript will proceed, and perennials have been planted. Such is the strength of my faith.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Shooting star

One of the very handsome spring flowers in our prairies and open forest glades is the shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia). It's among one of the early flowering species in our prairies preceded only by the prairie lousewort, blue violet, and strawberry. A rosette of shining green leaves pops up and then produces a flowering scape 20-40 cm tall. The pendant flowers with the reflexed corolla, which can be white to pink to purple, produce the shooting star. Anyone familiar with bumblebees recognized one of their flowers right away, for example, compare this to a tomato flower. The conical whorl of anthers, each opening by a terminal pore, have their pollen removed when a bumblebee hanging upside down under the flower buzzes their flight muscles to hit a frequency that vibrates the pollen out onto the bee. Pollination occurs when at a subsequent flower the bee's fuzzy belly with a nice dusting of pollen contacts a stigma protruding from the cone of stamens. And like other spring ephemerals, the above ground parts die back by mid-summer leaving no trace.

Friday - Excuse Day

Today is the last day of the semester, period. Yea! But today will be excuse day, the day when students who didn't invest enough time during the semester explain why they have just run out of time completely. It's dull, but a steady plodding along work ethic would well serve many students who allow themselves to be distracted. The Phactor has heard some good stories over the years, but they won't matter. Still if you were abducted by space aliens, cruelly probed, and managed to return, this is certainly something the Phactor understands. Did you manage to bring an artifact to verify your experience? Medical excuses are always good; some combination of three or more broken limbs, but now with voice recognition software even that doesn't keep you from "writing" your assignments. Take if from the old guy; no too many new excuses exist. My college was on the shore of a lake and my roommate majored in fishing, at least that was what he spent most of his time doing. Why did you miss the exam? The fish were really biting! At least he was honest about it and had a creel full of proof. What became of him? He was a high school shop teacher, and a damned good fisherman.

Wow! Cool pseudoscience!

This will brighten your morning, especially if you like a nice little parody of pseudoscience. "The Homeopathic Activity Verifier (TM) uses patented Quantum Unified Attentuating Cathode (QUAC) technology to test the effectiveness of homeopathic solutions." Be the first to get yours. Read the whole thing over at Molecular Matters. Anything with so many nice lights must do something good. Maybe it aligns your aura too!

Floods & flood plains

The Army Corps of Engineers are not my favorite bureaucracy; worst land lords ever, but that's another story. Lately though they had a choice to make about flood control and neither was going to prove popular or be without a cost. All our rain up here north goes south via the Mississippi River drainage, and near southern Illinois flooding is frequent because of the confluence of several major rivers: Illinois, Missouri, and Ohio all enter the Mississippi. The rapidly rising water was threatening Cairo (pronounced "kayro") Illinois, a thriving metropolis of two to three thousand people. To prevent that city from flooding, the Corps broke a down stream levee on the Missouri side flooding thousands and thousands of acres of thinly populated largely agricultural land. This is a hard equation to solve, but probably the agricultural land, former flood plains bottom land, is the more valuable, but Cairo would impact more people, but not so many that the choice is obvious. Other than a couple of BBQ places, there isn't much to Cairo that cries out for saving, but some people call it home. So the Phactor will endeavor to make both parties feel better. No one should have built a city there nor decided live on flood plains either. The land isn't really yours; it was borrowed from the rivers, and at times like this, the river needs it back. And therein is the whole problem; human intervention has created this problem by not "going with the flow". Back in the old days settlements along the Mississippi were either on bluffs or way back across the flood plains on the lower shoulder of the river valley; remnants of them can still be found in places. Nice fertile soil out there, washed down from up here, but dang it, you can't farm it when it floods. And it was tough getting to those river boats for transportation and commerce, so all those nice levees were built, and the wetlands were drained, and people decided to live on the bottom lands or the river shore for a matter of convenience. Well, things aren't so convenient now, but it was a fool's dream that you could permanently steal land from a big river that built the land in the 1st place. So while it's not nice for the individuals whose lives and livelihoods are disrupted, it's all the result of poor choices made some time ago. The lowest and most flood prone areas, especially those upstream, should be restored to wet land areas that will act like sponges, slowing the flow, and taking the pressure off the main channel, and of course, many organisms would benefit whose populations have suffered from the loss of wetland habitat. But we're talking about the Army Corps, the same brainiacs that channelized the everglades and Mississippi delta. Now they got a plumbing problem a lot worse than the one in my old house with the result they must make no-win choices. So think they'll go for longer term solutions, or just put a bandage back in place?

Tropical leaf drip tips - yam

A student asked a good question the other day after telling them about past climatic differences. How do we know what the climate was like millions of years ago? One answer too frequently heard is that we can't know because no one was there to observe the climate. In the real world observations can still be made about the past. For example, leaves display different forms as adaptations to different climates. Here's a leaf from a yam (Dioscorea), which is not a sweet potato. The leaf shows a couple of adaptations for a wetter environment. First it's a fairly large leaf, and leaf size is very generally correlated positively with warmer wetter climates. Note the attenuated apical tip, a drip tip, with a drip on the tip, and like the pouring lip of a beaker or pitcher, that tip helps water drip and pour off the leaf more efficiently. The major veins that generally follow the out line of the leaf margin from base to tip form valleys, gutters, again to help water pour off the leaf. So when you find fossils with such features, or with features associated with very seasonal climates, or very dry climates, paleobotanists, infer that they were adapted to a particular climate suited to that leaf type. And if that's not so, then maybe those leaves weren't well designed after all.

Anti-vaccination people ignore real health threat

As a school kid in the 50s we all had friends and classmates variously hobbled by polio. It was definitely the health scourge of our day, then along came a polio vaccine and now hardly anyone ever thinks about polio any more. Some few also died of the disease. So the Phactor is wondering when and where the next outbreak will be in the USA? Polio is not gone from the Earth, and all it will take is one non-vaccinated person, the unfortunate offspring of irrational parents, to travel abroad and bring the disease back, and then an outbreak will occur among all those non-vaccinated kids, who were up until then protected by the vast majority who got vaccinated. This is happening right now with measles, a not completely inconsequential childhood disease. In the "old" days if you did not have an up to date vaccination record, you could not attend public school. Now 2% of all kids in California are not being vaccinated. So when the inevitable happens, everyone should just say you could have, you should have, but you didn't. It's all on you. Tough. Clearly it's in the best interest of the country for the USA to restrict overseas travel of non-vaccinated people, and they should be the ones clamoring most loudly for the restriction. Now of course some small chance of vectoring a disease can also come from visiting persons, so anti-vaccers should realize the potential risk and their only protection is too become extremely xenophobic, stay at home, don't travel, don't send you kids to school, and don't socialize, or face the consequences of your actions.

Cat's Claw Vine - Greenhouse juggernaut

More years ago than any of us want to admit, the Phactor used to travel to LSU to do some collaborative research with a colleague during our spring breaks. The logic was simple, Louisiana has better weather that time of year, my field work hadn't started yet, and then there's the seafood so the 1st two really didn't count. In addition to bringing back crayfish for friends in the seafood reciprocity pact, one year a bit of cat's claw vine (Macfadyena unguis-cati) was brought back and placed in our university glasshouse because it's not hardy up here. It promptly climbed a nearby tree, Dillenia indica, grasped onto the central support framework of the greenhouse, and has lived their ever since surviving several attempts to eradicate it. Now each spring its shoots droop down and cheerfully flower and although one would think it requiring of a pollinator, it selfs and produces numerous fruit whose winged seeds drop into everything around. Cat's claw vine is so named because the terminal leaflet of the trifoliate leaf is a 3-clawed grappling hook that snags any irregularity and is set in place by the weight of the vine. Later adventitious roots take over the task of holding the vine in place. The flowers are large and quite handsome, clearly a member of the Bignon family (both the fruit, which is flatter, and seeds are similar to Catalpa). This vine will probably exist living in the inside peak of the greenhouse, a most hostile location with both winter and summer extremes, until the entire structure is taken down at some future date, probably by just hooking a truck onto the vine and pulling, and maybe someone will wonder who in their right mind put that vine there in the first place. Dunno!

How do you tell the difference between a palm and a cycad?

Their terrible attempts to answer this question indicate that my students really don't want to know the answer. This is one of those terrible defeating moments when you realize that your efforts to provide engaging activities, like comparing palms and cycads, were all for naught. Cycads are very palm like to the point that some are called palms, e.g., sago palm (Cycas revoluta). Cycad leaves have two rows of leaflets like that of many palms, and the leaves are borne in helical whorls at the ends of stems, and cycads often have a stocky main stem and little or no branching. However actually cycads are more fern like than palm like. The leaves develop by uncoiling like fern "fiddle heads" (left). Palm leaves encircle the stem so the trunks bear the familiar leaf scar rings. Cycad leaf scars are much smaller and helically arranged; no circles. Nobody, nobody responded correctly about cycad leaf development. Groan. This is why grading exams is such an awful thing to do. Sometimes you just want to rip off their heads and pour the botany in.

Bio-geek party food

Bio-geek party food is celebrated over at the Science Punk, and it's pretty funny stuff. Here's a nice bacto-jello plate! This is what happens when students have too much time on their hands. These examples are definitely on the animal-cellular-microbiological side of biology, so the Phactor wonders, what Earthly delights would be featured at a botano-geek party? And please, no smoking allowed, so take that bowl of "oregano" and those JOB rolling papers outside, preferably into the neighbor's yard.

What is the right response?

The death of the best known terrorist around, ObinL, may well have been deserved, although my preference is still for courtroom rather than frontier justice, but people reacting with jubilation just seems wrong, as wrong as the cheering throngs abroad after the WTC towers came crashing down. If that seemed wrong to you, then cheering crowds chanting, USA! USA! should seem wrong too. Does anyone actually think this changes very much? Let the Phactor remind people with a militant view that tit for tat is a game without an end or a winner. Our government is neither saintly nor evil, but in the view of many around the world the USA acts like the big bully on the block to interfer and intervene, to influence and alter, and that tends to piss people off, and a few decide to get back at us anyway they can. What if some other country had the ability to "depose" one of our leaders for crimes against humanity for ignoring Geneva conventions, international law, and the like? Ah yes, well that's all very different, but clearly our country is not holding our leaders responsible for such actions, nor was Pakistan going to punish ObinL even they must have known where he was. So the game will continue, and just because nobody else has the where with all to land choppers of elite troops on the east lawn, it is not at all thoughful to act all smug and superior about the present asymmetry of might.

Orchid pollination and fungus mimicry

Orchids are a fantastically diverse family of flowering plants that employ many fascinating and equally diverse pollination biologies. Animals used as pollen vectors don't pollinate flowers because they like them or anything like that; they visit flowers because they get a reward or they have been fooled, tricked. Some orchid flowers mimic female insects and get males to visit the flower and transfer pollen while attempting to mate with the flower (pseudocopulation). My old friend Peter Bernhardt (He shares an undergrad alma mater with the Phactor.) is among a group of botanists who very recently described a very unique mimicry involving a ladyslipper orchid (Cypripedium) native to China. The leaf spots look like a fungal infection and the flower produces fungusy odors thus attracting a fungus-feeding fly to transfer pollen, a whole new mimicry for a whole new group of pollinators . This is a great looking little orchid (scale bar = 2 cm). Is that cool or what!

Berry-Go-Round April 2011

Life is good. Had freshly made rhubarb pie and a new round up of plant related blogs is up over at Foothill Fancies. So many goodies you hardly know where to begin. The Phactor is a bit surprised to learn how bloggerific he was this April. Guess there were lots of plant things happening combined with a desperate need to share the utter trivial with others. So go enjoy yourself. Sorry, not enough pie to share.

Lawn biodiversity versus monoculture

As many of you probably know, the Phactor is not a fan of grass monocultures. Lawns with some diversity are so much easier and cheaper to maintain. So quite to my surprise and with no effort what so ever, a considerable expanse of lawn has become a virtual monoculture, but not of grass, but the common violet. If full bloom 2500 square feet of purple and white violets is quite colorful and virtually nothing else is growing there at all. This is ecologically perplexing unless the violet is indeed the most competitive species. Now the question is to intervene or not. Oh, Mrs. Phactor says there is no choice, so some violetence is going to be exacted upon this lawn. In another area Viola labradorica is proving a well behaved component of the lawn. Wonder what conditions led to the violet takeover. Based on the number of seedlings, violets had a very good year for reproduction. Wonder if some experimental quadrats could be set up?