Field of Science


Send beer, money, summer clothes

The Phactor may not be coming home any time soon. Here's one of the great places on Earth, Alma Bay, Magnetic Island, QLD. Just forward my mail and retirement checks; sorry boss. And this is the height of winter, just pleasantly warm, and gorgeous. The breeze off the Coral sea is rustling through the palm trees. The rainbow lorikeets are feeding on the mimosid inflorescences (red powder puffs - Calliandra?). No particular incentives to come home. What's a fall semester? What's a fall? Suddenly these concepts are alien. Brain going tropical.

Friday Fabulous Flower - GumTree

It looks like a fine day here, and fortunately the scientific program looks a bit bleak, so it will be a day to amuse myself elsewhere. It is the mid-winter here, but relative to our zone 5 home, it looks more like middle to late April. So no surprise that a number of plants are in flower. Here's a gum tree in flower, a Eucalyptus, the predominate tree in this region, and the Phactor has no idea which one, or even if this is native to this region. Sorry.

Thick as a brick

Here's a tree of a type that you don't see very often, a pachycaul, a tree with an unusually thick trunk just like a pachyderm has a very thick skin. This one is just a juvenile, maybe 4 m tall, but already it has a massively thick trunk especially in relation to its height. This is a bottle tree, Brachychiton rupestris, from Queensland, a tree the Phactor first saw about 30 years ago out in 40-mile scrub, a large patch of dryish forest about 40 miles beyond the last excuse for a town. Their thick trunks and rather smallish crowns make the trees look like milk bottles with a shrub on top. This one is obviously cultivated in a garden in Sydney.

Mad Hatter Highlights

There are very few material things the Phactor covets, but then there are hats, especially with broad brims and low crowns. What this means is that some or later when in Australia the Akubras beckon. What wonderful hats, and the Phactor has worn them for over 30 years. The demise of an old friend and the shrinkage of a well used Stetson has left the hat stable a bit thin, not that any excuse was needed. So despite the fact that hats are not easy to travel with, and as soon as you nestle one kindly into an airplane overhead bin, some lady inexplicably carrying several bowling balls in a gigantic carryon bag will sling it into the bin with never a mind for what might already resides therein. But this is an opportunity that cannot be passed up as it has been 8 years since my last visit, and now that the Akubra purchased on that occasion is getting decently broken in, it becomes a possible to get a new one. Here's the model except for the silly feathers. What do they think me? A gallah?

Blue sky alert! Blue something alert!

Not a cloud in the sky this AM which figures because today the Phactor departs of Melbourne. Several activities got rained out, but over by Darling Harbour, or actually partially in the harbour, is Sydney's sea aquarium, which features indigenous aquatic fauna, but by any standards this is a wonderful aquarium for a dry afternoon. The sky isn't the only thing blue. This is not one of the more exotic or unusal creatures, but still a favorite, and you are thinking, it's just a crayfish. Wrong. Over here a "cray" is a large lobster like marine crustacean. This is a fresh water crustacean called the eastern blue yabbie. Cute! But if it's so cute, then why is it named Cherax destructor? Apparently it's burrows destroy earthen dams critical to holding rain water for live stock. So until the Phactor can get some plant pictures out of his camera and onto his PC, you'll have to make do with this, but it's a promise, some good flora from Oz is on the way.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Rose mallow

All the locals say today is Saturday, but it still doesn’t seem right to the Phactor, and it's still Friday back home. Not only that but posting a flower from the gardens at home, albeit a very showy flower, one that opened on the very morning of our departure, just doesn’t seem right. But for now it will have to do. The weather in Sydney is not conducive for botanizing or any form of out of door activities (wettest July in over 60 years). So you make do with what you have, and what we have is a rose mallow, which has the largest diameter flower in our garden (~9 inches). Even better the Japanese beetles who dearly love mallows are not nearly the menace this year as last. Now what is significant is that this is the very first picture taken with a brand spanking new Nikon Coolpix P7000 camera, which is a compact camera for serious photographers. For a couple of decades the Phactor lugged around a gadget bag with two camera backs and several lens, and for all that effort a very good picture every now and again. And people had their instamatic cameras, handy, convenient, but you couldn’t bring yourself to stoop that low, but digital cameras changed the game. This is a very serious camera not to be recommended to anyone who isn’t a serious photographer because in a standard automatic mode many other simpler, easier cameras can do as well, but what this camera can do in addition is awesome. At present the Phactor is only half way through the instruction manual and that’s after a trans-Pacific flight with lots of time to spend, and sometime during the instructions for using the white balance feature, the brain shut down. And none of this has much to do with a rose mallow. This is not actually a FFF repeat, although it's wild relative was used for a post last summer. This is a cultivar that comes in a variety of colors with a bit larger flower than the wild species.

Zombie blog

In a carefully orchestrated conspiracy, all trans-Pacific flight begin late at night. Nominally the idea is to arrive early in the day at your destination with the whole day in front of you, which works time-wise, but seems to have left an important biological component out of the equation, the traveler. There you are, newly arrived in a foreign country with the whole day ahead of you, and you are a jet-lagged, sleep-deprived zombie about 6 hrs to early to occupy your hotel room because they have yet to purge their previous night's guest, so you don't get to shower or change clothes in a futile effort to look human. The actual door to door trip took 33 hrs, and now some 10 hrs beyond that, fatigue is beginning to become an issue. But if you cave in too soon, you never will get into sync with the local time. Unfortunately, the weather here is wet and cold, quite atypical based upon all of our previous visits, so that hasn't helped the situation. A nice local amber ale has helped. But in the grand scale of things, this was a trouble free, incident free trip and everyone arrived in better shape than expected. Hotel is situated quite centrally, and the F1 is quite excited about the proximity of Chinatown and its many eateries. Asian presence in Sydney has continued to increase with each visit since the Phactor first visited 30 years and five international botanical congresses ago. Decent coffee is now common here, very different than the near ubiquitous instant coffee situation 3 decades ago, and fortunately coffee shops have gotten on board with free wifi, so it costs less than an internet connection in my room, and comes with a decent cup of coffee.

The no-you-can't weed

Common bindweed (Convolvulus arvense) may be the toughest weed in the world. Now the aerial shoots don't look like too much, a slender vine with it's little pinky-white morning glory flowers, but it forms a tuber deep under ground from which it can resprout forever as best my efforts can determine. So you think, OK I'll dig the sucker out, but it's tuber and roots have been found 30 feet below ground! It will survive any thing short of a direct hit nuclear blast. So you decide to hoe the heck out of it, but new plants can regenerate from bits of rhizome as little as 5 cm long; think about sorcerer's apprentice here. And of course numerous shoots can arise over a considerable area from one rhizome/tuber/root complex way below, so there may only be one bindweed in my garden. Even repeated applications of herbicide will not kill it even though there is some meager satisfaction is seeing the aerial shoots die. New ones will soon sprout, and it can keep it up longer than you can. Some people have actually suggested that bindweeds may grow straight through the Earth and their shoots on opposite sides of the globe are actually what holds the whole thing together. So having just weeded, they'll all be back when the Phactor returns. A close contender may be the trumpet creeper. None has ever grown in our yard in memorable history, but shoots keep arising from some deep under ground root system, and they've been pulled and herbicided every now and again for 10 years now. Any other nominations for really tough to kill weeds?

Down under preview

In sort of a crazy juxtaposition, one of the Phactor's best friends returned from Australia just a couple of days ago. Last time the Phactor traveled to Australia, we were in perfect sync; this time, well, one of us got anxious. He sent along a nice image of an iconic plant, a Banksia (B. ornata), a genus named after the great English botanist Sir Joseph Banks. The columnar inflorescence is quite an ornamental display and in case you don't know your Australian lore, as the fruits mature they become very evil.

Hunting sandhill cranes in KY?

You must be kidding me? What's in season in KY? Stupidity? The 10000 Birds blog reports that a hunting commission in KY thinks having a hunting season for sandhill cranes is a good idea. Maybe they can't hit anything smaller, but WTF? Do they have good recipes for roast crane? Do they think cranes are a game bird? No, just a bullets for brains attitude for shooting anything that moves. Sorry, in a bit of a rush, so no time to gather up links, but petitions and information links are over at 10000 Birds. The Phactor declares open season on KY hunters.

The irony of gardening

As all gardeners, and farmers, know, you have your good years and you have your bad years. Last year the garden started well, but then settled into a green lethargy of mediocrity. This year didn't start well for the summer garden, but now just as it's finally kicking into high gear, something to admire and harvest, the gardener is off gallivanting around the globe. Last year eggplant were a bust, and this year they are robust. And who knows about the zucchini. Over the years the Phactors have discovered many diverse ways of eating zucchini, but today the zucchini's arch nemesis was observed. A rather handsome, 1.5 cm long, red and black day-flying moth uses the thick, fleshy stems of your squashes as a brooding place for its larvae. They fly to the plant, land, follow a leaf stalk or stem down to ground level, do an about face, and then lays one to several eggs on the stem. Unless these are dutifully removed, or sprayed with something nasty like Sevin (but you need only spray the leaf stalks and stems, not the entire plant), the eggs hatch, the larvae eat their way into the center of the squash stem. Eventually they eat enough to destroy the stem's ability to conduct enough water to the crown of the plant, and the plant abruptly wilts. Thick stemmed squashes are the most susceptible, things like pumpkins and bush variety zucchini; the thin wiry stems of some standard squashes are less susceptible. But without our watchful eye, the zucchini are sort of on their own, and its possible we won't get any if the stem-borers get theirs. It's a similar story with cucumbers. You can keep them covered with a net until they start to flower, and then you have to let in pollinators, and you also let in cucumber beetles. Now they generally do not eat enough to make any difference, but they transmit a bacterial wilt that will infect your vines, clog their vascular tissue, and kill them. Our cucumbers are poised to produce a lot of fruit, just a couple of days too late for us to sample, and we can only hope they survive until we return. That's just how it goes, and the only thing to do is remain resolute, enjoy our travels, and enjoy what's around when we return.

New herbicide kills lawn weeds - and all your trees!

According to a report in the NY Times, DuPont has a winner on their hands with the "environmentally friendly" new commercial herbicide Imprelis. Apparently it kills violets and creeping charlie and some other really, really tough lawn weeds. It also appears to kill shallow rooted landscape trees including conifers. But you know, getting all those obstructions out of the way will make it so much easier to mow your monoculture of grass. According to one landscape/lawn care professional, they made 1000 applications of Imprelis and had 350 complaints about dying trees, and the number is climbing. Apparently the product is implicated in the death of thousands of Norway spruce, eastern white pines, and other trees on golf courses after the use of this herbicide. Now the Phactor's views on the ecology of lawn care are well known, although not followed by enough people, so he cannot condone the use of this product, but he knows from experience that creeping charlie mows really nicely and it grows well in the shade of those trees that you didn't kill. Think about it. Know how long it takes to grow a really big tree? Know how long it takes to kill it? Better to learn to live with creeping charlie. Now this also says a thing or two about the dummies at DuPont who must have never tested their product on anything but turf because how else do you end up marketing a product as environmentally friendly if it kills trees!

Evolution - It's not a belief

Some sort of religious conference for kids was taking place on our campus, something about how to be a good Lutheran as best could be determined based on t-shirt logos. While grabbing a bite of lunch in the student center some of the adult conference attenders asked if the Phactor was a faculty member? Yes. What does the Phactor teach? Economic botany, evolution of plants, and plant identification. Oh. We don't believe in evolution. Then the Phactor recommends that if your children wish to attend college they find a nice little religious school with a curriculum straight from the middle ages. But actually you need to know that the Phactor does not believe in evolution either. You see, belief is an act of faith, and evolution isn't a matter of faith. It exists, the evidence abounds, we use evolution to do science, to understand plants, animals, and yes, even disease organisms, and in that regard there is no alternative at all. So once you know something, instead of engaging in willful ignorance, which is the denial of something you know nothing about, you need not take evolution on faith, and when an expert tells you something, you might consider for a few moments that they just might know what they are talking about. Have a nice day ladies.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Bottle Gentian

One of the more interesting, but not the showiest, summer wild flowers in our garden is the bottle gentian (Gentiana andrewsii). A student surveying flowering in a prairie once made an obvious observational error. They kept waiting for the flower to, well, flower, and it did, but not in the way they expected. The corolla of these flowers never actually opens even though the flower is mature and functional. It takes a pretty hefty pollinator to pull the corolla open to get inside the flower, and the brute around here is the bumblebee. No idea whether the carpenter bee can pollinate the flower or not. At this stage our plants are a bit small in this their 2nd year, and perhaps they are not in the best location as quite a few plants around growing more aggressively that are perhaps providing a bit too much shade. But this is a nice tough little plant and can be combined with shrinking violets.

On the road some more - Heading down under

While not even recovered from the botanical meetings here in North America, the Phactor & phamily are off in a day or two to Australia for the international botanical congress in Melbourne. An international congress occurs every six years, and the Phactor has attended them in Berlin, Sydney, Vienna, St. Louis (yawn), while having missed Moscow and Tokyo. This is one of those things where the actual travel is brutal, but after you get there it's fun. From 1980 to 1990 the Phactor spent more than 1/10th of his time in Queensland doing research in the wet tropical forest. Unfortunately the congress is way down south and we like going way up north, so this will be like arriving in Washington DC, going to Boston, and then going to Miami. Who knows how many blogs from down under can be posted; depends upon when and where connections are available, and frankly it's one of those things that wasn't critical in booking that beach house. But we'll go looking for some great plants, and maybe we'll see some platypus or cassowary or bush tailed possums. One is actually probably, one is a maybe, and one would take both effort and luck. Maybe you can guess.

The great wilderness inside us

Since one of the ways you sell things is to use fear as a motivator, it should be no surprise that antibiotic cleaners, wipes, soaps, and the like, make it sound like germs are everywhere, and people have reacted by becoming excessively germaphobic. Well, as biologists know, we virtually live in a microbial sea awash in countless microbes. In a study use of antibiotic wipes and soaps did no better than regular soap at preventing illness among users, but those using the antibiotic products got more severe illnesses. A nice little evolutionary study of selecting among common bacteria to leave more nasty types behind.
Most people are alarmed to find out that the human body harbors more teeny, tiny organisms than the body has cells. And now that molecular techniques are beginning to allow us to examine microbial diversity in the GI tract, it turns out that a
maintaining a diverse ecosystem is quite important to your health. "Like a lush rain forest, a healthy microbiome in the human gut is a diverse ecosystem... When you use antibiotics, you essentially drop a bomb on a microbial community...Last year, Stanford microbiologist David Relman published a study that illustrated the potentially devastating impact of antibiotics on the [gut] microbiome. He gave three healthy adults a five-day course of the antibiotic Cipro, then another course six months later, and monitored the state of the microbiome after each treatment. The gut flora of all three subjects gradually recovered from the impact of the antibiotic treatment but never returned to their original state."
Although this sounds sort of icky, like other ecosystems, your GI tract flora can be restored by transplanting them from someone else, usually a close family member. Use of antibiotics in cleaning products and the like should be banned; they do more harm than good. Once again, it's time humans learned to live with the flora and fauna around us rather than trying to destroy it.

How to run a University - Travel Reimbursement

The worst part of travel, even worse than the hassle of flying, is doing battle with travel reimbursement. This might be characterized as much ado about nothing, or very little, since it seems the state doesn't think scholars in international fields ever need to travel beyond its political boundaries. At any rate they provide so little support for professional travel that you are almost tempted to just say to heck with it to avoid the hassle. Here's an example of how the university does things. The Phactor was traveling with a dozen or so students and another faculty member. During airline checkin the university credit card being used for luggage fees, each charged separately, is refused because of the number of charges in a short period of time, so my personal credit card is used to continue the process. In seeking reimbursement for the luggage fees, for which the money is already on hand, paid by the students so it isn't state money anyways, the reimbursement is refused because one of the charges is for another faculty member, who must seek reimbursement himself. Now he never paid for anything, so he must fraudulently ask for reimbursement, which will entail another form to be processed, and then after waiting for a check, must cash it and then, voluntarily, repay his colleague for the luggage fee. What a system. And then there's the issue of alcohol. It's not enough to simply give them a receipt for a modest dinner, they want to see an itemized ticket to assure that you didn't try to get reimbursed for a glass of house red. Barbarians! Then there was the time the Phactor was doing field work in a foreign country and needed reimbursement for the 2-3 hours of driving to and from study sites. Now this was back when gas in the USA was really cheap, but the rest of the world was paying unsubsidized prices, which now people in the USA are whining about. Well, ditch the Escalade; it's stupid car. Oh, but the reimbursement per mile (and the Phactor was driving kilometers) was pegged to state-wide prices per gallon (and the Phactor was purchasing liters). And did it matter that the grant money was based on doing biology in a foreign country with different gas prices? Nope! So to cover the difference, and make the business office bean-counters happy, suddenly my study site got a lot further away. Didn't matter that the commute in question would leave almost no time for actual field work; dealing with reality just isn't that important to the cubicle queens. Good thing this trip was only to St. Louis. Gad, the paper work for the International Botanical Congress in Melbourne, which the Phactor is off to next Tuesday, will be the stuff of horror movies.

The Future of Botany

The Phactor has seen the future of botany, and it's young women. This the my 39th year in the botanical society, and never before have so many young people been in attendance, the result of so many supporting members contributing to student travel funds. A great deal of scientific talent was on display and it was most impressive. When you see undergraduates speaking to an audience of 60 or so professional botanists, and with great poise and confidence, you just know what kind of potential they have. Botany has always had the largest percentage of women of any of the sciences, upwards of 40% in recent history, and it's possible that botany will become the first female majority science, and nothing is wrong with that. The Phactor has always had a thing for smart women.

Plants are alive, they move, they respond to stimuli

Well, duh! But you would be surprised how many people don't seem to know that plants are alive, that they move, and that they respond to stimuli. The perceptual problem is simple, plants operate on a slower time scale and we either need to use technology, like time lapse photography, or a lot of patience to see what they do. A colleague has been using such films in teaching and generating curiosity about how plants do things, and he's posted them for your edification, amusement, and use! Pop over to Plants in Motion and have a good time.

Branching out - tree architecture

Plants truly became trees when two innovations coincided: woodiness and axillary branching, a continuation of growth from buds that arise in the angle between leaves and stems, leaves being modified lateral branches anyways. Before axillary branching, branching took place only at the apex, and this very much restricts the forms that can result, but axillary branching allows new modules, iterative growth, and this and only this produces a true trees, although clubmosses and ferns produce, or did produce, a type of arborescent growth. Hmm, this is very hard to explain without a lot of diagrams, a lot of fossils, and quite a bit of knowledge of plant anatomy. But sometime in the late Devonian, true trees appeared, and they appeared before seeds!
Here's another way to think about it. If you cut the top out of a coleus, all the axillary buds begin growing and the plant bushes out as all the new modules grow and develop, with the modules producing new modules. But if you cut the top out of a tree fern, or a cycad, or some conifers, well, that's basically it. It cannot produce new modules because there are not lateral buds to produce new modules, no interative growth. Sorry, too tired to figure this out any better. But it was a good talk, although quite technical.

Botany in Antarctica

What do botantists study in Antarctica? Well, plants, of course, but they don't grow there now. Here and there rocky islands emerge above the ice cap and their fossil bearing sediments thus exposed bespeak a very different climate in a very different time. In the Late Permian Antarctica was part of Gondwana, a super continent, and as an ice age receded pteridosperms , woody, seed plants with ferny foliage, moved in, and a group called the glossopterids were the most common. Their fossils provide a window on an ancient world, and somewhere, somehow, some of the pteridosperms had a common ancestry with flowering plants. Still this tropical botanist find the idea of Antarctic field work rather daunting. Besides my best field parka is at the cleaners.

Sweet potato migration to Polynesia

Over 800 presentations will be made at the Botanical Society of America meetings this week, so there is no shortage of things to learn. Today there was a symposium on the botany of economically important plants to honor Charlie Heiser, a tribute to the late botanist organized by his students. He wrote several great little books, so google him to find them. One of the talks presented considered whether or not the sweet potato, native to South America, got to Polynesia in pre-historic times, i.e., evidence of Polynesian contact with South America. One interesting fact is that the name of sweet potato, kumara, or linguistic derivatives was spread across the Pacific. But botanists, while intrigued by such findings, want more definitive data. And the DNA complied. You see, the problem was that sweet potatoes also spread around the world going east and they were taken around Africa and introduced into SE Asia by the Portugese but that would be during the 1500s. The DNA data clearly distinguishes these more recent introductions from those that came probably some 2500 years earlier. Polynesians apparently reached the Cook Islands and Hawaiian Is. no later than 800-1000 years ago, but the Cook Is. are still a long ways from S. America. But look where the Hawaiian Is. are! This is great because the Phactor doesn't need to change that bit of lecture, just add some new confirming data. But the one new thing learned was the sweet potato is still called kumara in New Zealand!

Botanical Meetings Begin Today

Totally tired from driving and getting to the meetings in St. Louis. Of course all sorts of friends, colleagues, and students and all are here, and what great fun, but exhausting. Over the next couple of days a few botanical tidbits will be passed along, not that there is any shortage to tidbits, but a shortage of time to blog about them. Hope you all understand. All manner of things will be going on all at the same time, even some botanical art.

Cruel & unusual punishment

Went to a July art festival on Saturday. Quite nice, but of course, hot. But that's not what is cruel & unusual punishment, it's those people who think that their dogs, or their little kids, and even babies would benefit by the cultural experience and bring them along to do nothing but suffer. Do they have no sense at all? And let's not forget the crowds, the throngs of big people through which the dogs, little people, tiny people, and the heel-killing strollers must maneuver. It was close to unbearable for those of us who are tough old field biologists, there looking at art of our own free-will and volition. Dogs are just stupid about wanting to go places, and unfortunately people are just as stupid about appropriate and inappropriate places to take their bloody dogs. There's simply no excuse for the mistreatment of really little kids, and their general misery, usually communicated verbally, so adds to the experience for the rest of us. So the Phactor is not impressed at all with your commitment to either parenting or pets. Same people are probably looking for something to match their couch.

Where have all the vultures gone, long time passing?

One of the many fox squirrels that inhabit our estate failed to pass on their genes and the remaining population is just a tiny bit better at avoiding motor vehicles when crossing the street. While this is not a very big animal, nonetheless the presence of a rotting carcass was detected by the Phactor’s olfactory sense from a considerable distance. Now of course what should happen is that scavengers should have found is delectable bit of carrion, dined well, if but briefly, and then moved on having disposed of the body. Of course some scavengers did find the flat squirrel fritter, flies, and their offspring are dining away, and while efficient with the fleshy bits, they are slower than large scavengers. Now scavengers are not an entirely necessary component of nature’s recycling, bacteria and fungi will decompose things quite well, the problem is what you have to put up with in the interim.
Vultures are very efficient scavengers, but our native species, the turkey vulture, is seldom seen in urban settings, except maybe in Hinckley Ohio, especially on a semi-busy street, so the squirrel just sort of slowly rots away. Annoying but not a huge problem unless of course it was a bison that got hit crossing the street. Unlikely, but think about how long that carcass will be around!
Now consider India. Vultures were a common sight in India, massing in great numbers to scavenge, especially in places where bodies were regularly disposed of, and in a big, densely populated country, where diverse religious and cultural beliefs prevent people from handling dead bodies, cow, goat, human, whatever, vultures played an important role as nature’s recycling system. Even if the organism died of a serious disease, after being processed through the vultures’ remarkable digestive system and deposited as nasty vulture scat no health risk from the diseased body remains. So vultures served a body disposal service, until they began to disappear.
First it took awhile for people to realize that the loss of vultures was taking place. Then it took awhile to figure out why. And then it took even longer to act. The vultures were dying from dining on livestock carcasses treated with diclofenac, a mild painkiller akin to aspirin or ibuprofen. Yes, they can eat an anthrax infected carcass with no harm, but this seemingly harmless painkiller using in treating animals is very harmful to vultures.
The lesson in this is that delicate are the scales of nature, and complex are its workings. We humans tilt the scales and put wrenches into the delicate machinery of nature at our own peril. When will we ever learn?

Friday Fabulous Flower - but just for today!

As mentioned a few days back, members of the lily family, or members belonging to the diverse lineages that used to constitute the lily family, contribute a great deal to the color in our summer gardens. So here's a rather spectacular daylily from Mrs. Phactor's collection; the flower is easily 20 cm across. Unfortunately these gaudy giant flowers only last one day, thus the name.
Now the Phactor knows what you're thinking, "If a daylily is no longer in the lily family, what is it classified as?" The genus Hemerocallis in in the Xanthorrhoeaceae (zan-thor-ree-aye-see-ee), which isn't even in the Liliales but the Asparagales. So in addition to the Liliaceae, genera that all used to be dumped into this family or very closely related families like the Amaryllidaceae (Did you learn that the difference was an inferior ovary vs. a superior ovary?) there are now 13 more families here in alphabetical order, unless one got missed: Agavaceae, Alliaceae, Asparagaceae, Asphodelaceae, Hyacinthaceae, Melanthiaceae, Nartheciaceae, Ruscaceae, Smilacaceae , Tecophilaeaceae, Themidaceae, Tofieldiaceae, and Uvulariaceae. Wow! It used to be so much simpler and so much more incorrect! Some people ask, “Why bother, the old classification worked fine.” Well, that’s only true if all you needed was a classification that was nothing more than a card catalog for filing all these genera. However, modern plant taxonomy sees classifications as phylogenetic hypotheses, so groupings hypothesize a common ancestry for that particular lineage, and as is clear, although no so the relationships among all these lineages for which you need a diagram, the “lily lineage” represents a great deal of evolutionary diversity. If all this is just too much, the flower is just as pretty.

Annual Botanical Meeting - St. Louis

Going to St. Louis about 200 miles to the south and in the Mississippii River valley in July is not the smartest time to visit. It's smarter than visiting in August, but not by much. Part of the reason for the meeting's location is of course the Missouri Botanical Garden. So a thousand or so botanists, members of the Botanical Society of America, professional botanists of all sorts and their students, will descend on the city, and actually the weather matters little because the meetings are 4 days of jam packed meetings, posters, and talks where you seldom venture out of the meeting venue usually some sort of convention center or big hotel. Why there's hardly any time left for socializing. You get to meet new young colleagues, and that's good, because members in my age group are beginning to thin out and the Phactor sees fewer of his graduate school cohorts every year, although usually a couple of my former students attend, and it's great to see what they're up to. A decade ago one of my mentors set an incredible record. He had attended the botanical meetings in 8 different decades having first gone to the meetings in the late 1930s and there he was in attendance at the 2001 meetings. That was the last time we saw each other, and his last publication, co-authored by my undergrad advisor/mentor, was posthumous. That is quite an example to live up to. The other thing that is fascinating is to examine the remarkably diverse array of research topics being presented by my colleagues. It's hard to believe. You can actually view the abstracts here. The big problem is that this is a classic 8 ring circus, and for some of us who are interested in lots of things, in the Phactor's case ranging across ecology, paleobotany, floral biology, education, evolution and phylogeny, you generally find that 4 or 5 presentations are being made at the same time & you simply give up and go have a cup of coffee. People who are more specialized simply plant themselves in a session and stay until everyone runs out of gas. Unfortunately at least one presentation has yet to be finished, so stop blogging and get going.

Stormy Weather - Haboob

This will make you feel better about your weather. Here's a cool picture of a haboob, an intense dust storm. Now this is (A) a clip from the movie the Mummy, (B) a clip from the movie Star Gate, or (C) Phoenix Arizona getting swallowed by a haboob. C is of course the correct answer, although haboobs were featured in both of the movies. This is something the Phactor has never seen, although a snowy version of the phenomenon he has seen. Think maybe things are a bit dry in the southwestern USA? Similar dust storms ravaged the southern great plains back in the dust bowl days. So when you see something like this coming, close your windows.

Botany as a Brand

Over at the AoB blog Alun Salt (always thought he should be Alum Salt and a chemist) is offering his thoughts on making botany more appealing to students. Here in the USA the human-biomedical tail continues to wag the biological dog, and as more stand alone botany departments and programs get submerged into biology depts and programs, it continues to get harder to even get a forum for showing students that plants aren't just green scenery upon which animals cavort stopping now and again for a bite to eat. Alun used sensitive plant as an example. Show the video to a bunch of biology students, and then ask, "How do they do that?" The responses will sound like plants are just green animals. Then you have to prick their biological bubble. "Plants don't have nerves; Plants don't have muscles." "Yet this plant reacted quickly to a stimulus, so I ask again, how do they do that?" Unfortunately such investigative approaches, while quite rewarding in some terms, requires sacrificing content, but since content laden botany seems to be a losing proposition, what do you have to lose? Remember, plants are dull, but botany can be. More on this later.

Ligularia in flower

Midsummer means lots of lilies and ligularias in this instance Ligularia japonica are in flower. It should be obvious that this is a member of the sunflower family, but that isn't so obvious to everyone. A recent visitor remarked, "Oh, that one has a big flower." In fact the flowers are pretty small, but they are grouped together into a large flat disk of an inflorescence that produces the image of a large flower. Each of the yellow "petals" is an individual ray flower whose corolla is a big strap shaped affair narrowing at its base to a little tube. The rest of the flowers are disk flowers with short symmetrical corolla tubes and you can see unopened disk flower buds in the center. So there are several dozen flowers open. The style extends out of each flower and the bilobed style makes a double loop at the top. Flowers open first around the margin (bottom) and proceed to open in towards the middle (top). No question that insect pollinators are reacting to a "floral" image presented by this inflorescence.

Barbie - Australian for Barbecue

Some of my best times, best friends, and best field research have taken place in Australia, so while quite fond of the people and place, one item does divide us. Barbecue. In Australia a "barbie" is a device for cooking, not actually a grill, in our sense, but more of a hot plate or griddle. Otherwise barbecue is used as a verb down under, something that you do to cook food. Until the Phactor got this figured out it caused some confusion because as all right thinking people know barbecue is something that you eat. Without arguing about all the various types of barbecue, Australia just never got this part of speech right. It was very difficult to attempt to set those in my acquaintance right. You had to get a butcher to get you the right cut of meat. And then you had to get the makings for a decent rub, and as Australian food runs to the milder end of the spectrum, this was no where as easy as in the USA. Then it was necessary to concoct a replica of a BBQ sauce for the full effect, and in this case leaning toward the vinegary North Carolina type. Quite a bit of modification to a "barbie" was required to get a couple of slabs of ribs cooked properly, and while not perfect, they were acceptable. While they didn't like the BBQ ribs at all, somehow it all got eaten. As for corn bread and beans, let's not go there.

Tired of evolution? Move to Kansas!

The Onion reports that in response to a public referendum Kansas has outlawed evolution. Bacteria will be prevented from mutating, but trying to prevent crossing over and independent assortment during meiosis will be really difficult, unless you just outlaw sex altogether since its purpose is to produce genetic variation among offspring. Of course under no circumstances will either natural or artificial selection be practiced. "Although the full impact of the new law will likely not be felt for approximately 10 million years, most Kansans say they are relieved that the ban went into effect this week, claiming that evolution may have gone too far already."
This was really good, but it would have been a bit more believable had it been Oklahoma rather than Kansas.

Know your tropical fruit

Last night a chance encounter with the Food network program Unwrapped caught my interest because it was featuring passion fruit rose petal ice cream from Out of a Flower in Dallas TX. Anything with passion fruit in it is better than things without, a belief the Phactors came to have while living in the tropics where we rented a passion fruit vine that came with the apartment option. Well, let's just watch this a bit and see the goodness. So the fellow explains, "We start with fresh fruit." And the video shifts to hands peeling, wait for it, mangos. Then they show the mango being pureed and the rest of the whole thing, and not once, not for one second, did they show or work with a passion fruit. Now quite likely the mango rose petal ice cream is great, but passion fruit it ain't unless someone at the food network screwed the pooch and inserted the wrong footage. In a few weeks a trip will take us for far northern Queensland and about 70 km north of Townsville sits the Frosty Mango, the purveyor of some of the world's best tropical fruit ice creams, yes, including passion fruit, although people in the know say the black sapote ice cream is just magic.

Distant Memories - Six Months Ago

Think about it. Six months ago it was February 3d, and this photo was taken out of our front door. July has a way of making you forget about February. Suppose if we didn't we'd move to a more reasonable climate. So having forgotten the snow, the Phactor did typical enough summer things. A relatively new to this area invasive species, the Japanese beetle, has emerged, maybe not in as many numbers as two years ago, so the dwarf apple trees were netted up, and while at it so were the cucumbers. Around here just about the time your cucumbers begin bearing fruit, cucumber beetles show up, and while not particularly destructive themselves, they vector a bacterial wilt that kills your cucumber vines prematurely. Since they were planted late to begin with, keeping the cucumber vines out of the reach of beetles until they begin flowering, but then because pollination is needed, you have to provide insect access unless you like hand-pollinating lots of flowers, which in a garden on our scale is feasible. The herb garden, some of the more recently planted trees and shrubs, and the Japanese parasol pine (Scaidopitys) all got watered because they handle these hot days best when well watered. Having gotten through the "to do" list for the day, it's time for a margarita.

Not really news

This isn't really news or even slightly surprising, but our great state, Lincolnland, although one columnist calls this Madiganistan after the guy who really runs things, has another former governor going to prison. This shouldn't come as a surprise even to Bag-o-chips himself; no one ever liked him, he didn't do very well as governor, and no one ever believed him, so testifying on hisr own behalf must been an extremely desperate strategy. This is becoming almost a tradition for governors with 5 of the last 8 convicted of something. As John Stewart put it, "If you're in a room with 2 or more former governors of Lincolnland, you can be pretty sure the room is in a prison." Generally speaking they do less damage in prison and the cost to the tax payers is about the same although often the terms are a bit longer.

Saturday morning weirdness for the master of the household

The idea of servants or any kind of household workers clashes with my pure blue collar background. The Phactor is quite handy, at times, and can fix strange things like sash weights, and the day was some pretty complicated tasks were attempted, but we had plenty of time and not much money. This was a good thing because if the switch-applicance wiring scheme did not seem to make sense, well, living without bathroom lights and exhaust fan weren't impossible, and finally, after three or four days, and turning the book upside down, the wiring made sense. Ta da! Just don't ask me to do it again. Now as older and more affluent home owners it pleases us to do the things we like (gardening) and pay people to do the things we don't like and don't have the time, or expertise, to do. But this particular morning, a saturday, first day of a long weekend, the Phactor is uncomfortable and has retreated to the library to blog because a couple of very nice Latino ladies have been hired to clean the house, really clean, really deep, and circumstances beyond our control have left yours truly in charge of the homestead. Saturday is supposed to be about a leisurely breakfast, with fresh berries, and a newspaper and NPR and gazing at the garden that still needs work even if it promises to be a hot, muggy and miserable day. So it is strangely discomforting to have these women Wisking about cleaning, disturbing my wa, but clearly others share my feelings and the love seat is just big enough for the three of us, and just enough out of the way. Perhaps to feel comfortable with this one needs to have grown up with it. But that doesn't explain the other two. Long have the cats had two servants that feed them and groom them and pick up their toys, and in a day or two they would probably be quite happy to have another person or two to do their bidding. That does explain a lot. While the Phactor is a blue-collar professional, these other two are true aristocats.

Berry-Go-Round #41 - a round up of plant related blogs

Plants are the Strangest People, and who should know better than Mr. Subjunctive. So click on over and enjoy a plant blog round up from soup to nuts, including some nuts. Funny that this should come within minutes of having posted a berry blog of my own! Forgive me for having been so preoccupied with a July 1 deadline that the Phactor failed to contribute.

In defense of some wild brambles

This past winter was not kind to our red raspberries, which is to say, it was not kind to bunny rabbits, who in turn were not nice to our red raspberries. What was left is producing at a rate about 1/6th to 1/8th of its potential yield, but here and there in the wilder margins of our urban estate, wild black raspberries have risen to the challenge. Fully 1/3d of the berries picked today were wild ones, and actually the combination of the two species is extremely tasty, with a smattering of blueberries thrown in because so far in our alkaline soils, a taste of blueberries is the most the Phactor has managed with his benign neglect management style. So maintaining some balance, cultivated vs. wild is not a bad thing, and one should think carefully before extirpating some wild species. A few years back before the north 40 was so tame, the black raspberries sort of took over for a year, and if memory serves me, with the help of adventuresome neighbors (those were some bad brambles) over 22 quarts were harvested, and damn they make some awesome jam. So hedge your bets folks. It can pay off dividends. Now if only passion fruit would grow on the back fence.

Permission granted to go crazy

The worst part of writing a well-illustrated book is seeking and obtaining permissions to use various figures and images. It's a nightmare of details and paperwork. Scientific colleagues are the most cooperative, although there will be some drinks to buy. For profit scientific journals are the worst. To use one little figure from a paper published in a well known journal would cost me $93.75, which is $93.75 more than my entire illustration budget. There is such a thing as "fair usage" which is a wonderful morass for the ethically challenged. Looking at whole arrays of images accessible on line is such an amazing convenience, although you do get surprised sometime as the Phactor pointed out some time back. Then it was holly; today it was moss. But then you find the perfect image, and can't find the owner to ask their permission. The Wikimedia Creative Commons is proving a life-saver; good thing they aren't asking for drinks. Or you try to track down who owns the rights to something published 50 or more years ago, following the lineage of acquisitions, only to run into a dead end. So the day was spent redoing several figures to use alternative images from authors who provided them for my use. Oh, thank you! Progress is being made, but still many to go, lots of emails sent, awaiting many replies, and most of the remaining problems are more difficult. Need to get this done, but need some time off too. Getting to the point where fewer illustrations is looking better except then everything down stream would have to be renumbered. Ahhhhh! Time for a cocktail hour.

Friday Fabulous Flower - St. John's Wort

Nothing makes the pollen-gathering bees happier than the flowering of our shrubby st. john's wort (Hypericum frondosum). You can see why one of the popular varieties is called 'sunburst'. Although the flower is only about 4 cm in diameter, the shrub produces masses of flowers at once for quite a buzzing display. As easily observed the stamens are numerous which is typical for this family, Clusiaceae, formerly Guttiferae. Given the number of stamens and the number of bees (at least 5 different ones) collecting pollen, how could the single pistil not get pollinated? If you google st. john's wort you'll get pages and pages advertising and discussing it as an herbal remedy for depression, but according to Quack Watch the best clincal trials have not found its effect to be significantly different from a placebo control. However this does not affect its sale as an herbal supplement or from its purveyors making false claims about its value. Better to enjoy the flowers and bees.