Field of Science


Got the Moby Dick lego set?

Be the first on your block to get the Moby Dick lego set! Both the free standing 3D Moby Dick and the mosaic mural of Ahab were created out of legos. Moby is fairly small for his species, only standing about 7 feet tall, but that's still one whole heck of a lot of white legos. This particular display was at the Sydney Aquarium in Darling Harbor and it sort of caught my fancy.

Fall Field Work

After the summer lull field work begins again. Several students have projects that will require the team work approach to collecting data/plants/soil. A colleague wants to collect soil specimens from our long-term experimental plots, and that is always hard work. And we'll need to collect seed from some species for glasshouse experiments, and collecting data on an invasive species must be done for the depressing purpose of demonstrating the speed and extent of its spread. All these things must be done before 1. hunting season, and 2. a controlled fall burn. This makes for some fun because by now the prairie has reached it's full height, and even finding our plots can be tough, and then removing everything that could burn. Good thing one of the new students is tall; less chance of losing her. A few newbies will probably volunteer to give a hand with the field work just to see what field research entails and just to see the prairie. Regular nutritive rewards, particularly chocolate, keep things moving along. You know you just leave trails of little chocolate bars from plot to plot.

Something wrong with MLK memorial

Since the unveiling of the MLK memorial, something about the whole thing has bothered me. Anyone my age remembers vividly the civil rights movement and the role that MLK played in bringing about change. MLK may not have been the ideal man, but no denying his impact, so this is in no way an issue about MLK's worthiness of a national memorial. It's a strange nagging feeling that something just doesn't fit. Part of it is that MLK just doesn't look right in white marble, but this wasn't the basic problem although certainly it is bothersome. And then it finally hit me, this statue was more like what you would expect for a stature of Mao during the height of his power. Yes, this was a stature more fitting of Mao than MLK, the arms folded across the chest as he emerges triumphantly from the marble leading the revolution. It just isn't right; it's the wrong sort of image for MLK, just like the stupid sculpture of George Washington draped in a toga is just wrong for the man and his time. Wow! While searching for relevant images, the creator of the MLK monument turns out to be Chinese! Don't know what that explains, but it's sort of a spooky connection. Does this creep out anyone else?

Wildlife friendly yard and tomatoes

Our gardens provide food, cover, and water to quite an array of wildlife, unfortunately this year their primary food seems to be tomatoes. Let's see, so far the opponents have fielded a team consisting of young possums, a couple of raccoons, and a woodchuck. Apparently it takes quite a few tomatoes to keep these critters well fed, and all one asks is a BLT on a regular basis, one without teeth marks in the T. Now not to be too unfriendly, but what with small mammal populations running about 10 times higher in urban areas than in rural areas, my aim is to relocate a few individuals to even out the population. As a result of this experimental approach, the kitchen is now for the first time in a long time awash with tomatoes. The cucumbers have been quite wonderful, but the zucchini have been relatively speaking a no-show maybe for the 1st time in my long gardening history. Hard to know why; while growing they are producing mostly staminate flowers, perhaps a stress response to the hot, dry conditions. With the return of some cooler nights the capsicums are beginning to set fruit again although the variety has been fruitful during midsummer in the past. Rain is still needed, and it was probably too little water during my absence in July and early August that set the stage for poor fruiting now.

You still say tomato

Tomato, tomato (said with long and short vowel sounds), a domesticated solanaceous fruit that by any other name would still taste as good, especially while thinking about the sugo alla puttanesca the Phactor cooked last night from fresh Amish paste tomatoes. For quite some time, botanists called the tomato, Lycopersicon esculentum, the juicy wolf peach, a name which added a bit of European skepticism about how esculent this neotropical, and newly arrived, nightshade might be. If you know anything about Old World nightshades, then you'll understand the skepticism. No one doubted that the tomato was closely related to the huge genus Solanum, the name sake of the nightshade family, and now relatively recent molecular studies have shown that the tomato species is part of the genus Solanum. Now what is usually done in these circumstances is that the specific epithet (esculentum) is transferred back to Solanum to produce a new combination, Solanum esculentum. Ta da! And for awhile that was the species name of tomato, but then someone remembered Linnaeus. Remember Linnaeus? The father of taxonomy. Well, the order in which taxonomic names are published counts with the first name published (the oldest) being judged correct, and no one is older than Linnaeus. Linnaeus was simply set as the starting date of plant names, and Linnaeus had named this plant Solanum lycopersicon. Subsequent to Linnaeus the specific epithet was raised to a generic level and a new specific epithet was added, but now that tomato is back in Solanum the whole thing reverts to Linnaeus' original species name. Image credit - diversely colored wild tomatoes from western S. America: Ana Caicedo, Univ. Mass.

Trees changed almost everything

A recent publication in geology (this link takes you to the SciAmer news, not the publication directly) reports that rivers changed significantly because of the evolution of trees. Although rivers vary significantly, they were broad and shallow with wandering courses prior to the evolution of trees where upon these larger plants with deeper roots which could hold more soil began restricting rivers to narrower, and therefore deeper, channels. So it comes as no great surprise that many flood prone areas are often the result of deforestation. Rivers are certainly not the Phactor's cup of tea, but trees are. It's hard to imagine Earth without its mantle of forests and soil, although it certainly isn't what it used to be. This story takes you back to the Devonian, a smallish geological period, just under 60 million years in duration beginning 416 million years ago. At the beginning of the Devonian one group of vascular plants existed and they ranged in size from about the length of your little finger to a full hand span, tip of the thumb to tip of the little finger, and they were the biggest plants on land! But by the end of the Devonian not only had plants diversified considerably, but the first aborescent plants appear, pseudosporochnalean cladoxylopsids. About 10 million years later the first true trees (Archaeopteris) appeared right at the end of the Devonian. The former grew like tree ferns while the latter had a branching crown, and you need more an more anchoring to keep bigger plants standing upright. The next geological period, the Carboniferous, the dominate land plants were aborescent forms of clubmosses, horsetails, and ferns, and these, along with the early seed plants, pteridosperms, formed the forests that changed the form of rivers.

Cover of the Rolling Stone

Only once before has the Phactor gotten the cover picture for a scientific journal where the cover illustration relates or is taken from one of the articles in that volume. But the 2nd cover picture is on its way according to the journal's editor by way of asking for some text describing the image. No question about it, you have to buy five copies for your mother, although these days it'll just be a pdf file. In the grand scheme of things, this counts for very little; it's just kind of fun. Still you have to have at least 5 cover photos before you can even be considered for the centerfold!

Friday Fabulous Flower - At the stage of seed dispersal

A fruit is a flower at the stage of seed dispersal. Fruits aren't something different, just those parts of flowers that undergo a post-pollination development. Here's a particularly interesting one of Paeonia japonica, a species new to our gardens, and what a cool fruit/seed display. The follicle-like fruitlets have an unimpressive dull green-gray to brownish color, looking a bit like a short pea pod, until they dehisce, opening along a lateral suture and then how colorful is that! The fertile seeds have a dark blue fleshy covering (aril probably, or fleshy seed coat) while the undeveloped seed are soft, fleshy and red, and makes you wonder if this is a plant making to most of an otherwise wasted resource (unpollinated seeds) as an attractant and reward because they are considerably larger than at the time of pollination. If not pollinated, most ovules abort their development. The inner fruit wall is purple. This display is exactly what you would expect for bird seed dispersers. Calling all cedar waxwings!

Friday Fabulous Flower - Someone else's very sexy Gesneriad

The biggest downside to having been identified early as a talented teacher was that it generated a career trajectory wherein universities offered me jobs and then sort of expected the Phactor to be on campus. Now this is nothing negative about teaching or its rewards, but my highly developed observational skills would have made me a great plant hunter. So there is a touch of envy when these museum/botanical garden colleagues show off some of their latest exotic finds. This one is truly a wonderful gesneriad. Wow! Sorry, uncertain what the species is. Perhaps a Columnea, but don't know this family well.

Judy in the skies with diamonds

A planet of diamond! What will those darned astronomers find next?

What people need to understand about evolution

Dear Paula (Kirby), Very well said, indeed. You understand the situation vis-a-vis evolution and religion very well. It is rare to find someone who grasps fully the problem evolution poses for many religions. That being said, a very great many people in the USA, and many other countries, perhaps even a majority, will stick their fingers in their ears and yell, "La, la, la, la,...." so as not to hear any of it. And the most sobering realization is that it really means we, as individuals and as societies, must be responsible for our actions and deeds. Once you get comfortable with reality it is preferable to mythology, but this does not condemn religious stories to the dust heap completely because like the moral stories of Aesop, they need not be factually true to teach lessons.

Ballistic seed dispersal

Quite a number of fruits snap open is such a way that the seeds are expelled ballistically. The basic principle is the fruit in maturing and drying is constructed such that a force is built up and when the force gets great enough to overcome the anatomical constraints, themselves often weakening with maturation of seams and sutures, and the whole thing snaps open and the seeds are thrown several meters. Cool. However the detailed features of the mechanism have not been much studied, and here's a pretty neat image of one of the two fruit walls of the hairy bittercress (a mustard, Cardamine hirsuta) after the two halves have split and thrown the enclosed seeds. Many such fruits (siliques) just open with maturity and seeds drop out (yawn). The study featured in the latest American Journal of Botany documents the type and shape of cell wall thickenings that result in the rapid shape change of the fruit wall that forcibly expells the seeds. The image is from the cover of the August 2011 issue.

The mechanism for explosive seed dispersal in Cardamine hirsuta (Brassicaceae). 2011. K. C. Vaughn, A. J. Bowling, and K. J. Ruel. AJB 98: 1276-1285.

Seeing Trees Contest - Win a nice book & print

Go to this link (non-endorsement, no money changed hands) and register to win a pretty, and pretty cool book and print. Since the Phytophactor is no one's shill, no names or titles are used, but it sounds like regular readers would be interested. Do be aware of the catch.

A presidential candidate who believes in evolution!

The Phactor has been asked many times if he “believes in evolution?” My answer is always the same, “No, because it isn’t a matter of faith.” Evolution is true because of all the evidence, because of the way this explanation makes sense out of so many otherwise inexplicable observations, because it helps unite some many different aspects of biology into a whole, and because of the usefulness of this explanation in doing more science. Not everyone uses language as precisely, so when a presidential candidate says “he believes in evolution”, he is in a sense correct because he’s taking it on faith that biologists know what it is of which they speak, so his acknowledgement of that is fine, and welcome. But it’s only news because all the other candidates are so proudly pig ignorant of science. And such a well-educated, well-informed fellow doesn’t stand a chance with that voting block. It doesn’t bode well for our country.

Kid discovers a break through in solar science. Not really.

This sounded like a good story; a 13 yr old kid does a great science project and figures out something everyone else had missed about solar power. Well, the Phactor thinks he remembers being a kid and discovering that all the good ideas you had someone else already had had, and it was rather discouraging, and this remained a worry until in graduate school you finally knew enough to know what was and wasn’t known. This story illustrates how quickly a nice story in today’s electronic media can spread, and then when someone has to say, uh, no, it isn’t quite such a sensational story, it makes them sound like a jerk for raining on some kid’s parade. Even from the small illustration shown in the original article, it was obvious something was wrong, but while a solar energy person pointed out the problem was about the output being measured from the solar cells, the thing that caught my attention was the form of the tree. Tree form and its evolution has been studied a lot, and from those studies you can generate a form that is optimal for light harvesting, and such trees have horizontally oriented crowns and arrays of branches (B). But of course trees must also reproduce (A optimal form for spore production and dispersal) and they must be structurally sound (C optimal form for structural stability), so selection operates not just on one thing because real trees must do many things so rather than being optimal for light harvesting, trees are actually a sort of compromise in form, sub-optimal for several different functions, but good enough at all of them, and darned if the computer generated forms aren’t pretty similar to the form of real trees (D forms optimalized for all three functions). (Image after Niklas 1997 Evolutionary Biology of Plants.)
So if our young scientist had designed a tree for optimal harvesting of solar energy, his trees would have looked like B, horizontal arrays, and according to the article he found a suboptimal "real tree" form to be better at light harvesting than horizontal arrays of solar panels. So as a natural skeptic this scientist was sort of dubious and then it turns out he wasn’t measuring the right output. Now young Mr. Dwyer still did a great science project, so congrats kid! It was a job well done. You learned a lot. Hopefully you aren't too discouraged or disappointed that it didn't really work and wasn’t such a break through, but you have to know a lot of things to really discover something novel, and most of us are happy enough going through their career just learning new little things.

But the lesson here is really about the rather sorry state of journalism; journalists want titles like “ancient mystery solved”, “new discovery of …”, “grand theory of everything falsified”, etc., rather than actually talk about real science, assuming they actually can talk about real science. So before you let a journalist run away with things, please check with a scientist or two, hopefully one not too caught up in their own little world such that they would offer some decent advice on you science project.

Now something for the ladies in the audience

Every now and again you avoid stepping into a mine field just by luck, and had the Phactor found this advertisement himself, and offered an opinion or two, one way or another someone would have been offended and gotten mad at yours truly. So with great pleasure the credit for commenting on this garden advertising aimed at women (?), real women (oops!), was called to my attention by the wonderful women of the Garden Rant blog. All that can be said, is Wow, you've come a long way baby! Now what could they possibly be selling that deals with gardens? The ad, presumably a parody, is for Dutch bulbs marketed by women for women (?) using the slogan: Dig. Drop. Done. Anyone there my readers identify with? Where's the career woman who gardens as a hobby?

Economic Botany vs. Midwestern Students

Tomorrow the contest begins. The Phactor vs. a certain midwestern complacency and parochialism that most students do not even know they have. Suffice it to say there was more ethnic and language diversity it my freshmen dorm in New York than there is among my students here in Lincolnland. The idea is simple really: start thinking globally. What's true for you is not universal. The good news is that a very effective means of bringing this home is via the topic of food. None of my students will ever put rice in their list of most important food plants; what a complete difference when the same exercise was done in Thailand. Also funny is when my students are unable to actually think of 10 food plants after you explain that Sugar-coated Chocolate Bombs are not a food plant. One of the things they are assigned, and you may find it interesting too is a photo essay entitled What the world eats. The photos are great, but study the groceries. You can learn a great deal: who of this group seems to have the best diet, the most diverse diet, the most monotonous dies, who eats the most fresh food, who eats the most packaged/processed food, who eats the most junk. Then the students have to compare this to their own diet. Parents may shudder at the thought of what their 20 somethings would eat when left to their own devices; it's sometimes as bad as you may think. How many of them do you think actually cook? Hint: don't hold up too many fingers. Your insights, comments, and feedback will be appreciated.

Why blog under a pseudonym?

Over at Science Blogs, the new over lords, National Geographic, has decreed that bloggers using pseudonyms will no longer be permitted. Well, that certainly bites, and may the Phactor predict that the blog they purchased will lose many good bloggers and a great deal of their readership. Although SciBlogs never saw fit to include a botanist, the Phytophactor would now be banned anyways, so there. Who wanted to be in your blog collective anyways, and they put stupid ads in the siderail over which you have no say. So there! This blog is hardly controversial, doesn't use bad language, and generally stays clear of politics and contentious topics unless for mental health reasons the Phactor needs to blow off steam. Upon those occasions that he comments about the ineptitude of deans or provosts, readers find it comforting to think "that may well be the fool we've got here", and that's the point of never quite pinning down person or place, it keeps people wondering, thinking, and the blogger remains free of entanglements of institution, person, or place. Besides it's amusing to write in the 3d person.

Wildlife friendly yard bites back

You do everything you can to make wildlife happy in your yard, except to let them eat my tomatoes, a crime punished by banishment, and then some, or in this case, just one species of wildlife makes your life miserable. Chiggers were a personal discovery in 1971 after having moved to the hotter, dryer midwest for graduate school. They were not a problem in upstate NY. The hot, dry weather has produced a sizeable population and each and every time the Phactor ventures outside, to water, to guard his tomatoes, to enjoy the evening, to see the pond progress, or lack thereof, the next morning new red, itchy chigger welts are found, and generally in either very uncomfortable or very embarrassing places. Mosquito repellants work to some degree, and perhaps the attacks upon my personal temple would be more numerous without its use, but who wants to do that experiment? The strangest thing of all is that Mrs. Phactor is usually a chigger magnet, while the Phactor is ignored a situation she has attributed to my being a distasteful person, but this summer it's quite the reverse. And that is the worst thing about it. Who said they could change the rules?

Friday Fabulous Flowers - Survivor Lilies

A few blogs ago a sudden and violent thunderstorm devastated quite a number of the hundreds of "magic lilies" (Lycoris squamigera) that annually adorn our late summer lawns and gardens. A goodly number survived by either flowering later or because of a sheltered location beneath some of our large trees. These are quite a mundane plant, but extremely easy to grow and they provide a week of great color in mid-August when the heat and drought of summer can make gardens fade. This has to be one of the most reliable of naturalizing bulbs. Some of the clumps in our gardens are decades old, and when transplanted they almost always grow and flower in their new locations. However don't plant them too close to smaller spring bulbs because they produce a large clump of leaves in the spring that can crowd out smaller plants. Magic lilies grow well around the base of lawn trees.

Pond Refurbishing Labor Troubles

The lily pond in our garden is about 90 years old and as it was not constructed with any kind of circulating system, it had turned into a marsh dominated by sacred lotus. While a happy home to quite a diversity of dragon flies and amphibians, the annual spring visit by ducks three years ago had provided an example of plant dispersal by bringing in duckweed which rendered moot the presence or absence of fish beneath the green expanse, all of which resulted in the decision to rennovate the entire pond. Enter the Pond Lady, quite crazily obsessed by ponds. She and her older assistant probably have a total age of around 100 and a total height of about ten and a half feet, so they employ strapping young men to assist with moving the cinder blocks, rocks, old cement, sand, and soil needed for the project. Here's the pond as it looked this spring with a couple of pallets of cinder block waiting for deployment. Pond Lady has been through 5 or 6 young men this summer alone. The last one, new to the job Monday, left for lunch on Tuesday and never returned. He lasted half a day longer than one earlier this summer who simply said, "It (the work) is too hot and dirty." Assistant pond lady laughs, shakes her head, and says, "They just can't keep up with us. We're tough!" How true especially when compared to 20-something marshmallows (my preferred spelling). In spite of slower than anticipated progress due to these labor problems, new plumbing is now in place and the pond is once again filled with water, so in a couple of weeks the project will be done except for all the new landscaping required. Oh, yes, the lotus, being sacred, was preserved, but it will be confined rather than allowed to roam freely.

Practical students

Students are flooding back to campus today and observing their diverse approaches is very enlightening. Some are very practical arriving with little more than a couple of bags, a box of this and thats, and their laptop. They plan to survive in a minimalist fashion for a couple of weeks and then drag back the rest of life's necessities when returning from Labor Day weekend. Now this strategy only works if you're the odd person out because if everyone did that the move-in problem would only be shifted in time by a couple of weeks. However judging by the small mountains of necessities accumulating upon the sidewalks, the wait-a-couple-of-weeks strategy is quite workable. While chatting with a couple of the move-in assisters, mostly 2nd year students who survived their own freshman move in as well as a year of university studies, a young lady came to my attention as the model of impracticality as firstly she was hovering over one of the larger mountains of "necessities" such that you immediately felt sorry for her roommate and secretly hope she is paired with another just like herself, which never seems to happen, and secondly she was wearing shoes that quite closely resemble these shown here. Now far be it for me to point out that black shoes like this do not actually make much of a fashion statement especially when worn by day with denim short shorts rather than a little black dress, but you realize that here is a person who does not actually plan to move anything herself preferring to demonstrate the sharp distinction between labor and management by dress. Hmm, want to bet about her major? It isn't biology you can be certain of that. "How come you aren't wearing shoes like that?" asks the Phactor. They look and burst into giggles. "Freshmen," and they shake their heads. 2nd years can be so judgemental.

Jargon jockey

The Phactor does not condone scientific jargon in general and botanical jargon in the particular because its over use has been a leading deterrent to learning botany, but having said that, it's perfectly OK to have fun with it by posting and illustrating a new botanical term each day at the Phytography blog. The illustrations are often not usual plants either. So click on over and build your vocabulary of arcane terms. HT to AoB.

Here we go again?

Pick Rerry for president? Isn't this the 3rd candidate that heard from on high that they should run? Is this evidence for the trinity, and if so, why don't they agree? Apparently Pick's credentials are he's governor of the Lone Star Republic? Didn't we try one of these before? You know when you buy a car or a new beer, and you don't like the way it runs or tastes, do you go right back to the same place for another? And then you think about just how well the Lone Star is being run, and you wish to inflict that on the whole country? This just doesn't make any sense at all. Is Pick all that much smarter than W? Nothing really suggests that, especially their respective college records. Could that many of the GnOPe really think W did such a good job that they want to run another governor of the Lone Star? Wow! My confidence soars! The mind boggles. And what about the USA does Pick like so much that he wishes to be president after threatening to secede from the union? That bodes well for representing the polices of the USA. Looks like the inmates continue to run the funny farm. Molly Ivins simply wouldn't believe it, and you can be sure she'd have something to say about this Pick.

The calm before the storm

Tomorrow the Phactor's bread and butter begin returning to campus and a sleepy college town turns into vehicle, people, and stuff chaos. Clearly people in the education business approach this with mixed emotions. Most students approach the new academic year with a great deal of enthusiasm, and my job is to assist them as well as possible to maintain that enthusiasm, but after so many years, this being the start of my 5th decade of college teaching (starting as a graduate student), the reality is that some will not succeed for a variety of reasons the most common being procrastination combined with a bit of laziness or at least a desire to expend the least effort possible. The dread feeling creeping into my office is not from the students, or my classes, or the research, it's the black hooded specters of paperwork, committees, and meetings, and you find yourself thinking "at this stage in my career what does it really matter?" which is of course a type of bad attitude not of my making. And tomorrow it all begins. Guess it's time to start preparing for those classes, or do some field work!

Prairie study site visit - August

Today was our first visit to our prairie study site in a month, and let me assure you that the hot, and now dry, weather has not had an adverse affect on the prairie. So let's start with our first task: finding our research plots. Now just in case you think us amateurs, the plots are quite well marked by 30 inch white pvc posts in one corner. In the tall portion of the prairie a bamboo pole was added raising the height to around 6 feet and orange plastic flagging was tied to the top, and in late May and early June that all seems over the top. But now it's August, some 5 months from when it was burned to the ground, and the change is most amazing. A dense canopy of vegetation is in places chest high, and the emergent grasses block your vision (see image) and forbs tower above my fingertips even when my arm is raised straight above my head. At one point we were within a foot of a plot and still could not see the pvc. Some helpful denizens of the prairie had chewed off most of the plastic flagging for reasons that seem quite unclear other than sheer perversity and at a distance of about 20 feet even my colleague was quite out of sight let alone trying to spot nice beige-colored bamboo poles. Even with our trusty map plots were hard to find, and the physical effort of just pushing through such dense tall vegetation was quite taxing; where are bison when you need some? But this is quite impressive vegetation really, and for people who have never seen such vegetation, and these days that is very few, it's quite a revelation that something so cool has been nearly destroyed by the John Deere legacy.

cherry tomatoes

This year's cherry tomato produces handsome golden spheres with a nice combination tartness and sweet tomato flavor. Nothing quite like cutting a few of these in half, combining them with equal sized pieces of fresh mozzarella cheese, lots of chopped basil, and then drizzling the combination with some olive oil and a balsamic vinegar. That is summer salad gold. Oh, and if accompanied by fresh white & gold Lincolnland sweet corn, and some pork ribs seasoned with a dry bbq rub, damn, pure summer goodness.

The garden needs rain, gentle rain.

Things are mighty dry, dry to the point where watering only helps a few key plants and garden areas. The majority of plants looked stressed, some only mildly, some very, and a few that were neglected during our 3 week trip looked dead. Ah, well. Our lawn had gotten to that crunchy under foot stage, but about that there is no worry given our philosophy of laissez-faire lawn care. The need for rain was so great that the Phactors watched with some anticipation the building storm clouds late yesterday afternoon, and the rain did come, and so did other precipitation, hail. Our gardens have quite a number of late summer flowering "magic lilies" (Lycoris squamigera), dozens and dozens of clumps, mostly a decades old legacy, but a quite colorful and cheerful one. Not so much any more. Our colorful display was truncated by getting a significant amount of our water in its solid state accompanied by some wind bursts. Unfortunately the rain gauge says the total was only 1/4 inch less than half of what's needed to keep things going, and one quarter of what was needed to begin to replenishing soil water. But to our amazement an 8 foot tall tower of cucumber vines survived. The danger here for the unwary gardener is the appearance that the storms delivered a significant amount of rain, which it didn't. Keep watering those new plantings.

Market day & dogs

Our fair city has a nice Saturday morning market with purveyors of everything from art to Zea maize. With stands and booths lined up and down both sides of 3 blocks of downtown city streets it's quite crowded and booths with popular items can have considerable lines of people waiting to purchase fresh produce. So why under such circumstances do people feel the need to bring their dogs? Markets are not a dog location, especially really big dogs, really, really little dogs, and any poorly behaved dogs. And then people with dogs seem to have the need to chat with other people who have their dogs, who then circle each other just enough to entangle all as well as unwary passersby. Dog owners also can be quite cheeky like taking a sample of sausage and giving it to their dog. Does the dog have money? Is the dog going to make a shopping selection? These people are giving away samples to sell sausage not to make your dog's tail wag. Children are also problematical in most cases and when turned loose released from their stroller those of us who are not used to looking out for little knee-biters are likely to tread upon your genetic heritage. Unfortunately the solution is almost as bad as the problem. Strollers the size of SUVs also do not belong in crowed places of any sort, and when driven into the back of your heels, sorry just doesn't cut it. And lastly people, you aren't shopping at Krogers; you're dealing with small vendors, so no they don't take your Discover card and it's helpful if you have lots of small denomination bills because paying for a green pepper with a $100 bill is more than a little silly. But other than these inconsiderates markets are one of my favorites places, but in other countries you don't see dogs, except being sold as food, or strollers, although shopping carts are quite common. In the last overseas market the Phactor visited, someone had turned a large mob of school children loose to conduct some type of food survey that caused them to chase around, trip over your feet, and bump into your person while messing with their cell phones. Felt like a large dog was needed.

Friday Fabulous Flower - a Queensland orchid

What with the international date line crossings, the Phactor is a bit unclear about the day of the week, even more than usual. However, my trusty international Casio watch, which has a better understanding of such things, tells me it's a Friday, so time to blog about a flower, as if this never happens otherwise. This particular orchid (Dendrobium linguiforme) is a wonderful plant that can (or could be) found in a wide variety of habitats, most often as a stem epiphyte of trees. As you will note the tough sclerophytic leaves and short stocky rhizome form a substrate hugging mat that allows it to survive in some pretty harsh places. Unfortunately it's easy to grow and the flowering is quite lovely, if brief, and the flowers are fragrant, all of which leads frequently to poaching from the wild.

Sydney from on high

Sydney Australia is not the greatest city on Earth, but it is a very picturesque city, and one to be very much apprecitated from the correct venue. So here's the Sydney skyline from the perspective of a pub high upon the top of the Rocks near the base of the harbor bridge which costs close to $300 to risk your life climbing up on top of. But at a considerably lower cost, a pub's rooftop beer garden offers a great view of the harbour and serves beer. Here's the view. Wow! What a great view of the opera house! Happy campers, disappointed that they couldn't afford a life-risking tour to the top of the bridge, consoled themselves with beer. Somehow these people are related to the Phactor, but clearly something is amiss. They are way too good natured, optimistic, and happy to be related to yours truly, but the beer, and the view, was good (an IPA).

Book Report - 100 Top Food Plants

Even before the Phactor has finished reading about all 50 plants that changed history, another book cataloguing the 100 most important food plants lands on my to-read table. My first thought is what a sad commentary on how overly busy things have been that in the past 4 months that so little progress has been made on the to-read books pile. And now a new semester is starting, so there you go. No time to read books let alone write books. But it is necessary to acknowledge that these people who get their books actually finished must be admired for that if nothing else. Oh, yes, the book, their book, a published book. OK, that's sort of whiny; the Phactor did get a pdf of his most recently published research paper just day before yesterday (ooo, color plates!), and with two more in press, it's not that the keyboard has been idle.
To start, how do you choose the 100 most important food plants? Well, by following the lead of Prescott-Allen and Prescott-Allen (1990, Conservation Biology) who documented that 103 plants provide over 90% of the food for 96% of the world's people, and that's just what the author, Ernest Small has done, with some quite well thought out adjustments to the list it came to exactly 100. The book is organized as a series of brief essays each of which includes some intriguing sections like the culinary terminology associated with each plant, which is totally delightful for the garbage minds among us (amaretto, amaretti, tortoni, frangipani, and so on for almond). Each essay has a bibliography (yea!) and specialty cookbooks (fun!) listed. The introduction to food is quite good, paralleling the introduction to food in my economic botany class, which is quite good too. Included is a nice section on the geographic origin of food plants. The book is a paperback with only black and white illustrations, but it's also a great book deal price-wise, and with a conference discount to boot, it was a must buy! There is quite a bit of overlap between the two books in terms of the plants listed, but the content does not overlap as much as one might presume, being primarily in the area of taxonomy and names, which in my case are fairly well known already, and thus skipped over. So both are recommended for those so interested.

Why plants and rainforest stuff, not politics?

A reader asks why the Phactor has made no comments about recent political events and instead rambles on about his tomatoes and rainforest organisms? Well, it’s fairly simple. The Phactor is so disgusted, so annoyed, so angry, so outraged that he will go ballistic if he starts thinking and writing about this topic at all. After all when you’ve been accosted, however nicely, by an upset shopkeeper in a small butcher shop in a beach community of far northern Queensland who’s worried about the impact of the USA’s stupid politics will have on global economics, well, you know there is a lesson to be learned and it’s pretty simple: rigid ideology of any sort is no way to govern. The butcher had decided that while his business was doing well, he wasn't going to risk a good thing by buying and opening another shop in a 2nd location until the world economy of which the USA is a lynch pin settles down. If a butcher thinks like this half way around the world, why is anyone surprised that the economy and the job picture have not improved. Our politicians, and therefore, the USA are not instilling confidence because of how they behave. The common good does not matter at all, either on a national or international level, just ideological purity. Fundamentalism either in politics or religion does not lead to thinking about consequences. Yours truly hopes that everything does not have to implode for people to learn that electing political ideologues is not a good thing, ever, of any persuasion. To all you good people of the world, let me apologize for our actions, for the stupidity of the electorate and the elected. Oops, blood pressure monitor, that bulging vein on my temple, says this is not good for my wa. Even a tomato-thieving varmint has a calming influence in comparison.

Sexual Dimorphism - Golden Orb Spiders

One of my favorite tropical organisms are the orb weaver spiders, and Queensland has some spectacular ones. Here's an image of one that had woven a big web in the corner of the car port of our beach house. When pointing the beast out, the Phactor refered to it as a "her", and was chastised by family and friends as being unable to sex spiders, but in this case the big ones are always female because these spiders have a tremendous sexual dimorphism: huge females and dwarf males, spiders so small that they are generally not noticed if you don't know what you're looking for. The female spiders are locally refered to as "bird-eating spiders" and you do occasionally see a feather stuck in the web, but while the web can hang on to the stray loose feather, even these substantial webs seldom can hold a bird. Old Shelob here has a body 4-5 cm long and a leg span of 20-21 cm! So just maybe she could "eat" a small entangled bird, but not sure how reliable some of the reports of bird catching are. While running into one of their webs and tangling with Shelob is a bit creepy, she's actually harmless to people, at least big people.
This particular spider's orb was also inhabited by a male, shown here in an inset (upper right) at approximately the same scale (Did you notice?). Now you may ask why is there such a huge difference in body size? In answer, remember sperm are not very big, so even a small male can make quite a few. So how do you mate with such a big fierce predator? Answer: carefully. Presumably a dwarf male is so small he isn't going to be mistaken for a meal, or even a snack, very often. In many invertebrates, females are bigger for egg production, so you start with somewhat smaller males who after all only make the much cheaper gametes, sperm. Such systems evolve when males of various sizes have different reproductive success. If larger males more frequently get eaten by the female before mating, and smaller males more frequently succeed in mating, then the average size of males decreases because those genes are passed on to offspring more frequently. At some point selection will be such that there no longer is any advantage to being still smaller. The dwarf males make a living by scavenging tiny prey caught and ignored by the big female, or by sneaking meals from larger prey items.

Kitchen Garden Update

After 3 weeks of neglect, although a good neighbor did water once or twice, the kitchen garden has survived a hot, dry July and early August fairly well and this may be attributed to the paper and straw mulch. The plants look pretty good, especially the tomatoes, however most of the near ripe fruit is on the ground half eaten. This would suggest we have a free-loading possum or raccoon hanging around. Damn. Fortunately the golden cherry tomatoes are far enough up on a tall vine (indeterminate plant you know) so they are generally out of reach. For some reason the zucchini have been slow to grow so many are in still in a juvenile mostly male stage, but are showing signs of kicking into gear. Asian varieties of eggplant are doing pretty well except the flea beetles have really laced the leaves. Peppers haven't done much yet, but a couple of plants are keeping things from being a complete failure. If the weather breaks a bit, and some rain appears, some beans, snap peas, and salad greens will be planted for fall crops. Basil and parsley have grown well, and were generously used in a Thai salad for din-dins tonight. Cucumbers have been very successful so far having climbed to about 8 feet and seem in pretty good shape. Hope the beetles hold off for a bit and don't infect them with wilt. Notice that nothing was said about vegetable because most of the summer crops are fruits. So that's the way it is for us small time farmers. Maybe the season of tomatoes and zucchini will happen yet.

A nasty plant

My old friend Woody introduced me to this plant on our first trip to Australia 30 years ago for another botanical congress. “Stand next to that plant for a size comparison”, he said. Pointing to it, the Phactor said, “This one?” And the pointed finger was too close and a small hypodermic needle of a trichome (hair) slipped under the edge of my finger nail. The stinging sensation that resulted was something to behold because even though there was no visible injury at all, it felt like a hot ice pick had been shoved under my finger nail. The pain was severe and it just throbbed, and after subsiding 3-4 hours later, it would begin throbbing again every time my hand was in water. The rather innocent looking shrub that does this is Dendrocnide moroides, the stinging bush, one of the nastiest members of the nettle family. Another colleague tripped and fell into one, and the reaction and pain required a trip to hospital. Imagine how his showers felt after this! The fruit is a rather attractive red raspberry looking thing, but all those stinging hairs give you real pause about trying it. So visual ID of this plant is one of the first things you learn before doing field work in rainforests of Queensland. Slow learners will get a lesson they won’t forget.

Rainforest in the rain

Rainforest always looks its best just after a rain or during a light rain; in a real heavy rain you just can't see anything. Took our traveling companions of a field trip to see some rain forest in a light rain. This particular forest was in a national park at about 900 m above sea level. Here's a nice picture of the forest profile, a particularly difficult type of picture to get because you are seldom in the right place to see the forest like this. The primary vine in this forest is rattan palm, not one of the Phactor's favorite plants as it is forever trying to rip your head off. In just showing people the darned thing it ended up planting some of its grappling hooks in my hand. It's why the locals call it "lawyer cane" because once it gets its hooks into you it never lets go. Our temperate forests have fewer layers and are deciduous. Next blog another nasty denizen will be introduced.

Not quite cryptobotany - Annual Thismia Hunt

The holy grail of Lincoln-land plants is Thismia, a plant that has been MIA for nearly 100 years now, but every year people go looking for this midget in hopes of still discovering it alive, but the Chicago area has seen a little bit of development since it was last seen near Lake Calumet. Volunteers are always welcome to assist in the search, but the Phactor who spends all too much time on his hands and knees doing his own research, isn't up for this. This isn't quite cryptobotany since it once did actually exist, but it's close. HT to Get your botany on.

Tropical garden color

Even if UTF (ubiquitous tropical flora) is a bit over done at times, a number of its components are very colorful, very attractive plants, and the red powder puff (Calliandra haematocephala, a mimosid legume) is one of my favorites because its display is both gaudy and long lasting. The nicely landscaped beach house recently occupied use vegetation very effectively to be both attractive and to generate privacy. But the red powder puff inflorescences (note the heads of flower buds) generated even more color than its flowers here in far northern Queensland by attracting rainbow lorikeets (Trichoglossus haematodus) each morning providing them with some nectar for brekkies. As the generic name indicates they have brush-like tongues for swabbing up nectar. Took this picture from the veranda while having brekkies myself.

Home Again

At the great risk of complete incoherence, the Phactor reports his return home after a 30+ hour travel day after a night of less than 4 hours sleep. Nothing amiss happened; just the usual clueless, inconsiderate fellow travelers who add so much color to your travels. A few comments for those who fall into to this latter category: get luggage you can actually handle without assistance and that will actually fit into storage bins, please recognize that you are not alone on the aircraft, stop your kid from kicking my seat or leave it to me whatever you prefer, if you plan on asking your seat mates to move more than one or two times ask for the bloody aisle seat, patience is a virtue because everyone there has someplace to go, if you bump into me, trip over my luggage, or stop blocking my path one more time because you're more engrossed in your cell phone than walking the damned thing is going to get thrown down the concourse, have your travel documents ready and filled in before walking up to the immigration desk with 200 people waiting in line (looks really cannot kill it turns out). Love to visit places; hate to travel, if you understand what that means.

Very slow internet

Halfway around the world is no great distance for those little electrons to travel, but the interface available here in our tropical paradise is quite slow which is why no recent pictures have been posted and why so few blog postings. Reports from the tropics will have to be a retrospective. Uploading images is just out of the question. In a manner of speaking when you're in the tropics you shouldn't have access to newspapers, the internet, or underwear, none of which is very useful here. But soon, all too soon, the Phactor will be on the road again, returning to the great midwest, which surely will welcome us with milder weather.

Where do you publish and why?

Seeking a large number of illustrations for a book has been a very informative, but frustrating process. The lesson is simple. Not-for-profit journals published by scientific societies have in every single case given permission for use of the images from their publications, and of course, full attribution is given. For-profit journals have in every single case wanted payment for use of an image, even if the authors have given me permission. So the question is simple, do you want your research, your scholarship to be used or not? Of course, there is another tradeoff. Some of the most prestigious of scientific journals are for-profit publishers, and while it may indicate that your work is the latest and most important, and you may receive more notoriety for publishing in such venues, you work isn't going to be used as widely as you may wish. Now of course this is all because the publisher of my book is also an academic publisher and the budget for illustrations is basically nil, and no question about it, both the publisher and author hope the sales will result in some economic gain. So you begin to wonder what is fair usage?

Fern Envy

The Phactor's beach house is quite nicely landscaped for both attractiveness and privacy. And the selection of several plants shows a bit more imagination going beyond the typical UTF (ubiquitous tropical flora - Don't get me started!). So while sitting on the veranda enjoying the gentle (OK, a bit stronger than gentle) breezes blowing in off the Coral Sea, a fern catches my eye. Or at least my initial assumption was fern, but without any good reasons why. Several of the hanging baskets, of basket ferns and clusters of elkhorn ferns on tree trunks have long slender fronds hanging limply below, and it was clearly something different. The locals call it ribbon fern. Some of the long, slender fronds are dichotomously lobed apically, and then the whole thing became clear. There were fertile fronds with two rows of big fat sporangia fused basally to the fertile fronds, which leads you to the inescapable conclusion that even though this is a tropical epiphytic fern, there is only one thing in the world this fern can be which is a species of Ophioglossum, which turns out to be O. pendulum, a native of Queensland (sorry connection too slow to upload my images), and the Phactor is so jealous. Hope this fern is in the trade somewhere so it can be obtained in N. America.