Field of Science


Friday Fabulous Flower - Let's get small!

Fall changes my flower focus from outside to inside, and on a stroll through our glasshouse the other day this specimen, although not in full bloom when it is truly dazzling, caught my eye. This is an orchid with a rather typical orchid flower, which is to say small. Most people have the wrong idea about orchids because the ones we grow, the ones we use to pursue mates, and the ones we use for decoration are those species with large flowers, but small flowers are more the rule. This particular orchid from Costa Rican rain forests (Pleurothallis guanacastensis) has flowers only 8 mm tall from top to bottom of the open perianth. Who knows what tiny insect pollinates such flowers? An orange perianth is not a real common orchid flower color. Such plants also live up there in the canopy, not down here where biologist roam more safely, which makes them hard to study. Here in North America you would be surprised how often people fail to notice orchids because of their small flowers, except maybe the lady slippers; lots of small green, green-white, and whiteish flowers among our native terrestrial orchids.

Mustard to pump you up!

Remember Hans and Frans? They only want to pump you up! But you don't want to get caught using those nasty anabolic steroids and who wants all those side effects? Well, a recent study has found that the brassinosteroids in mustard, taken orally (sort of a relief to know that), can have the same effect on increasing body mass as anabolic steroids without any (?) side effects. So who, who, could possibly want ketchup on their hot dogs now? Oh, the study was only done on rats, but to have a body like Hans and Frans maybe having a long tail is not such a big price to pay.

Bush Tucker

The mention of paw-paws following Tuesday's fruit blog got the Phactor thinking about all the exotic fruits he's encountered over the years, especially wild ones. Wild tamarind (Diploglottis australis) and several related species were a particular favorite bit of bush tucker encountered while doing field research in Queensland Australia. Actually the fruit is an inedible capsule, but each seed is surrounded by a red-orange aril with a very tart tropical fruity flavor. Boy could they wake up your taste buds. Hate to think how long ago that was, some 30 years. Made a nice beverage and dynamite jelly.

And where would the budget cuts in education come from?

If education budgets get cut under the "leadership" of elected GnOPers, no question about it, science would take a hit. If evolution is just a theory, and the "alternative" is so easy to teach, e.g., "fill-in-the-blank shows the Creator's intelligence", biology departments could all be trimmed by eliminating all those troublesome ecologists and systematists, those people who don't believe in "kinds" and bring up all those inconvenient ideas about how not to bring about the "end-times" by destroying our environment. Geologists and climate scientists would be toast too except for those who help find oil in the deposits left by Noah's flood. So what is a decent biologist to do? Just what us educated academic elites always do, make fun of the dummies.

Fruit Diversity

One of my students' favorite economic botany labs deals with fruit diversity. Probably at no time previous have so many different fruits been available in ordinary temperate zone markets. Although the Phactor managed to find quite a few interesting fruits, there were several disappointments. Tamarillos, which had been around for several weeks, disappeared. Drat! The pitiful excuses for pineapples were picked way too green as were the custard apples. However the mangoes and orange papayas were in great shape. Kiwanos and passion fruits were the most unusual from the student perspective, both having fleshy seed coats as their edible part. This year's surprise favorite was carambola. And big surprise, most of them tried most of the fruits without being cajoled to do so! Sometimes peer pressure can be a positive thing. After so many years of prowling tropical markets around the world new fruits are a rare event for the Phactor. Oh, yes, tried all of these. Out of this group the mangosteens are my favorite.

Monday education blues

Mondays tend to be a depressing day, and to make it worse today is gray, rainy (a good thing), and an exam is scheduled this morning in one of my classes. Why should a professor be depressed about giving an exam? Think about what are the students feeling? Ah, yes. It is depressing because after so many years of the same pattern, you know exactly what to expect, you just don't know who will do well and who will demonstrate that they are just not yet ready for advanced classes. Actually most of the class will do well enough, and those a bit disappointed will adjust their approach and perform better from now on with the result that 70-80% of the class will probably get Bs and As, which is not unexpected from upper class majors. However in recent years my class has attracted a 5 to 10 transfer students who having just completed junior college have transferred to the university level. Half of these will do fine, but the other half will prove they are not ready having not progressed much beyond the high school level in terms of study skills, work ethic, and educational expectations. They are the ones who aren't taking notes during a discussion because they have been trained to disregard any material that does not easily conform to multiple choice examination questions. Sadly for them, such questions are not on my exams, and when confronted with blank paper, even when a soothing pastel colored blankness, upon which they are to relate their understanding of a discussion that they failed to take any notes about, they are at a loss. "It's not in the textbook." Ah, an insight, finally! Yes, correct, you have an instructor who does not need a textbook to teach and who does not teach the textbook. Although not an issue as yet in Lincolnland, the dismantling of public education continues apace especially under the guidance of GnOPe governors, like the ones in Florida and Texas, and like the educational amateurs they are, their reforms are recipes for pandering. The reason some students arrive at university from junior colleges unready is that too much attention is paid to student satisfaction in evaluating faculty performance, part of the "education should be run as a business" attitude. But learning isn't always easy, or fun, and doesn't always yield top grades. The Phactor learned more from one SOB than almost any other professor he encountered, but it took me 10 years and a lot more sophistication to realize that and any evaluations of his teaching effectiveness back then would have generated outrage and scorn. He didn't care actuallyabout whether you liked him or not, part of his charm, or whether you liked what he was doing, but only if you learned. And it wasn't easy, or fun, although having a real-life blond cheerleader in your study group had its moments, but we did learn, and this guy was so far ahead of the educational curve most science teachers have yet to catch up to him. And when finally the Phactor figured this out, it was awe-inspiring. So, having amateurs decide how you do your job is not good business practice, but there we go. And as the papers are being turned in, you know how disappointing some of them will be, so you have to remind yourself that no amount of your effort can help them all achieve, but at some future time, some of them may credit you for a job well done, even if you didn't teach the textbook.

Fall Lawn Care Advice

As many readers of the Phytophactor know, he is an expert on ecological lawn care (see here and here to review his perspective), so imagine the delight when a newly discovered blog begins with these statements. If you were on a quest to rid the world of excess turf grass, the front lawn would be a good place to start. Front lawns dominated by grass are, for the most part, wasted space.
How very true, although it they had been following my advice, it would be lawn not turf grass, a dead giveaway term of a hort education, so even this guy has something to learn. Front lawns, especially front lawns of grass, are such a waste! The idea of expanses of lawn in front of the family manse wasn't such a bad idea when a flock of sheep was employed to keep it manicured, but that's hardly practical when the local berg won't even allow chickens or rabbits. Now it's hard to know which is sillier, those little tiny patches of grass slightly larger than a door mat you find in inner city neighborhoods or the acres of sense numbing, diagonally-mowed grass of the 'burbs. At present lawn occupies about 30% of the area of the Phactor's front garden. Our quest to minimize lawn is aided and abetted by large trees that make a grassy lawn nearly impossible, but even in old established urban neighborhoods such as ours too many people attempt the impossible either out of laziness, based on the grass is easier myth, or ignorance of alternatives, or both (remember my mention of an Ediot neighbor who ripped out all of the landscaping and planted grass? An update on him will be forthcoming.).
So my advice for lawn care this fall is simple: dig it up, this is an excellent time to plant something new. Violate those stupid ordinances that prevent you from gardening your land in view of others! Make your act of civil disobedience create a visual and actual oasis of greenery. The image provided is of the 4th house west of the Phactors, the smallest lot in the entire neighborhood, and not a blade of grass to be seen anywhere. Please be kind because at this time of year their garden lawn is rather over grown, suffering from the heat and drought, and health has prevented them from maintaining control. But the concept that lawn/grass is not at all necessary is exactly the point illustrated. Stop wasting space on lawn!

Garden Roundup

As September winds down the kitchen garden is winding up. This may have been one of our worst years ever. Asparagus and early salad greens were reliable and plentiful as always. Strawberries were worse and raspberries better than expected. Cold wet weather prevented any pollination for apples and pears. After a good start, eggplant and peppers just pooped out. Everyone knows what to call a man who plants 4 hills of zucchini, buried, but not this year. For some reason, probably stress the plants stayed largely male and the zucchini were actually way too few. For a month and a half the tomatoes were good, although way to many were "shared" with wildlife. Snap peas were good, but only briefly. Winter squash got off to a poor start and never recovered. Bush beans just did not germinate at all. The champion performer for certain were cucumbers that persisted and produced, avoiding bacterial wilt, until this very week, probably a new record. Some fall lettuce, spinach, and bok choi are still to come, but the garden has had better years. Heat, drought, and neglect all took their toll; what with one thing and another we were away too much for good gardening and no one was around to keep up with watering. But like all gardeners you look forward to next year. It has to be better, right?

Friday Fabulous Flower - Stiff Goldenrod

Fall in the midwest and on the prairie is mostly about what we used to call SYCs, stinking yellow composites, an equivalent of birder's LBJs, little brown job. And yes, it takes a bit of work and experience to get beyond the it's a composite (aster/sunflower family) and yellow stage. Today's fabulous flower, flowers actually, is a favorite fall SYC that deserves to be in any perennial garden, the stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida). The leaves of this plant are quite stiff with a rough surface, one of the many stiff, rough, prickly sort of things so abundant on the prairie in the fall. But what makes this goldenrod's floral display so fabulous are the ray flowers, which are only found in a handful of the 50 or so species in northeastern N. America. For those uninitiated to composites, each "petal" is actually a flower whose short tubular corolla has a single strap-like lobe. The corolla of the central disk flowers has five small lobes. In some of these little heads the disk flowers have yet to open. Lots of goldenrods flower this time of year, and because they are conspicuous, they often get blamed for causing people's fall-season hayfever, but because they are conspicuous they don't. Such conspicuous flowers are insect-pollinated, so the pollen doesn't end up inside your nasal passages, but the wind-pollinated ragweeds, also composites, with their very inconspicuous flowers are flowering at the same time.

Identify this plant

The Phytophactor hasn't posted a plant identification quiz in quite some time largely because the sharpies among the readers of this blog always get it right on the first try. So don't really expect this quiz to be any different, but actually the Phactor just wants to show off the handsome image my old friends, like Jurassic old, Juruf and Dr. Chips sent me. Now given some of my well known likes and the obvious features of this flower, the genus isn't very hard, so to win this quiz, you have to get the species correct!

More research on invasive species

Having just started studying an invasive species, the most noticeable effects are a negative impact on some of the other plants in the community. This can happen via a lot of different mechanisms. But even if the invasive species is removed, they can have a residual negative effect from having altered the soil microbiota (link to a news article about such a study), something that has not been studied much. Sometime during the next month, in collaboration with a soil ecologist, samples will be taken from our long term study plots to determine what changes to the soil microbiota have resulted from this invading legume. This will be quite interesting because a related species is a native to the prairie, so will the change be observable, subtle, or dramatic? The data will tell.

Outrage! Pure, totally distilled, essence of outrage!

This story will raise your blood pressure, so if at risk, proceed with care. A man living in a small town in British Columbia faces six months in jail if he doesn’t cease “all agricultural activities”, i.e., gardening, on his 2.5 acre lot on the edge of town. Now that just screams of a mindless bureaucracy in action. Some stupid ordinance must say that farming within the city limits is not allowed, but gardening? And where do you draw the line between a garden and a farm? Does it have a barn? Does it have a home-made mailbox made from a plow? Does it have broken down, rusty agricultural machines lined up behind the garage? If not, it’s not a farm, at least as the Phactor knows farms. Outraged? Well, just wait. It gets even worse.
The former owner of these 2.5 acres removed all the top soil from the land and sold it. Then the sand was removed and sold, and finally the gravel beneath, lowering the landscape by nearly 4 feet, leaving nothing behind but a barren wasteland created by exploitative greed with nary a concern about the results of raping nature to make some money. The current owner restored the land well enough to allow successful gardening. See the pictures
here for the before and after. Now this is what really rubs my rhubarb! It was OK by the town to totally destroy the land and leave a moon scape behind, but restore the land and plant a garden, that’s illegal. The needle on your outrage-o-meter should be bouncing off the right hand side of the scale! The mayor should be pinning a medal on the guy instead of prosecuting him for gardening.
Speaking of mindless bureaucracy, remind the Phactor to tell you a story about nature, lawns, rules and regulations, and the Army Corps of Engineers.
HT to the Garden Rant.

Flower, Fruit - What's the difference?

A reader asks what is the difference between a flower and a fruit? Oh, the Phactor wishes he got a dollar for every time he's answered this question. In fact, why not? To read further deposit one dollar US in the slot to the right of your monitor. Hurry, this display will automatically turn off if you do not pay by ... 3, 2, 1. ? ? ? You're still there?
If you can still see this, something didn't work correctly. Most of the other bloggers here don't know that FoS has and allows this pay as you go system, so let's keep this just between us for now. Damn, there goes this week's lunch money.
Flowers and fruits are the same thing, but at different stages. Flowers are at the stage of pollen dispersal; fruits are at the stage of seed dispersal. Both have many diverse adaptations for accomplishing these dispersals. Usually the showy parts of the flower, one or two whorls of perianth and the androecium (stamens) having functioned in pollen dispersal are discarded post pollination while the rest of the flower undergoes more development to become a fruit containing one to many seeds.
That's all you get for free.

Field Work - Invasive Species

One of my study sites is a restored prairie, a particularly high quality one, but a bit small. Now this little prairie is being treatened by an invasive species, silky bush clover, an Asian relative of native bush clover. It's one of those things where the focus of your research was elsewhere, and when you finally become of aware of what is happening, it's too late. This week's field work, and probably next week too, will be to harvest the silky bush clover from our long term research quadrats to document its continued invasion and increasing density. How dismal. Because this invasive species is so well adapted to the prairie environment, no obvious mechanism exists for its removal, and this isn't just one or two plants here or there. So like good scientists the demise of this prairie will be recorded; it served us well for quite a number of years, but in another decade it will be quite a different plant community, one with dense stands of the clover, much lower species diversity, with some of the taller forbs, and the grasses persisting. Here's a view across a patch of silky bush clover and notice that you don't see much else except way back some grases mark the back edge.

Highly conflicted on today's weather

When you are a plant person and your area is suffering from a drought, you want and hope for a really rainy day, but why today! Once a year the Phactor drags out his Cajun cooking gear and out under our big trees, he whips up a big pot of fish soup for a bunch of friends, and now it looks like the hoped for rainy day has come on fish soup day. Thus the emotional conflict, the-rain-very-much-wanted-but-just-not-today conflict, after all what would it hurt if it rained on Monday or Tuesday when classes occupy me all day? So the soup preparations will continue, and no one will complain about the rain, certainly not the plants, but the annoyance remains.

In praise of chiggers

Actually noting good can be said of chiggers (trombiculid mites). This year's hot, dry weather has been very good for the chigger population, and while you might think that any botanist who wades around in thick prairie vegetation is just asking for an infestation, the prairie has been quite benign posing no problem. But our yard this year has been its worst in memory. Every journey into our gardens for herbs, flowers, or garden produce, even just a cocktail hour walk around, has produced another batch of red, itchy welts. The Queensland Australia version,scrub itch, plagued my rainforest research, but it wasn't the rainforest per se but any scruffy, weedy margins where the mites were encountered. Under usual conditions, Ms. Phactor, being the tastier, would collect chigger wounds, while leaving me untouched, but for reasons not clear, certainly not a question of my tastiness improving, this season we have been on a par although not actually keeping exact score. This is what you get for having a wildlife friendly yard. And invariably your worst itching chigger wounds are on those parts of your anatomy that you cannot scratch in public.

Deans, provosts, and presidents, oh my!

How does that song go? If you want to be happy for you academic life, never make a pretty woman your wife; no, that’s not right! For a happy academic life, never make a non-scholar your dean, provost, or president. It’s very simple, if not a scholar, they just don’t seem to get it, and in this case, the “it” they don’t get is that scholarship is both necessary and important to quality university teaching. Provost Plodder is an “educator” and seems to subscribe to the old, often criticized, characterization of universities as places where faculty research comes at the expense of teaching. This of course is often the case at big research universities, but at such institutions, no one is confused about the role of teaching and research, and prospective students would be well advised to figure out what faculty at such institutions do. However those of us who embrace the concept of an undergraduate research university would beg to differ with that characterization of research and teaching, and whenever we uppity faculty beg to differ with the provost, well, life can be difficult. At this stage of his career the Phactor has seen them come and seen them go; some just don’t go soon enough. Quality does not count with our provost, just those enrollment beans. Programs that have grabbed every warm body they can find are being rewarded with resources, and programs that have been selective and offered those students quality educational opportunities are being dunned. The cheap drives out the dear. No matter that the highest form of teaching is original investigation, and those who do not investigate themselves are in no position to teach students this skill. Do you disagree? Well, substitute “swimming” for investigate in the previous sentence to see how ridiculous your position is. It’s hard to maintain a research endeavor, it takes time and resources; it’s even harder to keep it funded, especially at smaller universities, but time spent on research just doesn’t count with our provost, although they always accept the indirect costs from research grants. The fact that our students are regularly exposed to and engage in not just little tiddles or keep-em busy projects, but participate in scientific scholarship of the highest caliber, makes little impression upon our provost. This doesn’t mean the provost is an evil person, but somewhere along the line they just lost sight, assuming they ever had it, of the fact that the highest calling of university faculty is to investigate so that they can teach not just what we know, but how we know it. So by all means, do find out what those job candidates think about the role of research in science teaching. Years ago, one dean hopeful said, “Research is encouraged, but not completely necessary at this type of university.” We all got up and headed for the door. The candidate asked, “Don’t you have any more question?” “No,” was the answer, “you got the first one wrong, so the rest don’t matter.”

Friday Fabulous Flower - Basal Angiosperm Flower at the stage of seed dispersal

An old, but very sturdy TV antenna tower (remember those?) stands at the corner of our house, and it seemed like a good idea to plant a vine next to such a good climbing structure. The vine is Kadsura japonica, magnolia vine, and it occupies an interesting phylogenetic position that you are probably not aware of. Angiosperm taxonomy used to be easy: monocots and dicots. Monocots are still pretty easy, but not dicots. At the base of the flowering plant "family" tree are three lineages that have the most ancient common ancestries with the rest of the flowering plants. And one of these three lineages includes the Schisandraceae, the Schisandra family, which has two genera: Kadsura and Schisandra. The flowers of this species have either lots of pistils or leafy anthers, but not both, surrounded by a perianth not differentiated into petals and sepals, and all the parts are spirally arranged. Each pistil develops into a red fruitlet borne upon a much elongated receptacle (think long skinny strawberry). In the two flowers shown, at the stage of seed dispersal, you can see both the mature fruitlets and abortive ones that didn't get pollinated. The red fruitlets are edible, although pretty tart, and if enough of them could be reached (the vine is now 15+ feet above the roof of our house) some basal angiosperm jelly would be in the offing. Soon a flock of cedar waxwings, or some other dinosaurian relative (how appropriate for such an ancient lineage!) will appear, and the fruitlets will disappear. Although sensitive to late spring frosts, the vine is hardy in zone 5 and probably in zone 4 too. Just the thing to hide that old antenna tower!

Quince rust?

Belette asks, "Do you happen to know anything interesting about Quince Rust?" (image)

Well, yes, and the most interesting thing the Phactor knows, in this particular instance, is that the image you sent the link for (above) shows quince scab, not quince rust. Scab is caused by a fungus called Venturia inaequalis. Cedar (actually Juniperus)-apple rust is caused by Gymnosporangium cavipes with its typical alternate host, lots of stages, terminology nightmare, rust life cycle. The quince scab also causes the leaf spots you mentioned. You can achieve some control over the scab fungus by removing the fallen infected leaves this fall which is where the fungus over winters. Spores are released in the spring to reinfect new leaves and fruit. It can be controlled at that stage by fungicidal orchard sprays too. So you won't have to cut down your neighbor's red cedars after all.

FoS happened

Sometime during my afternoon of manuscript revision, FoS happened, and so did lots of other little things. Great! Annoying! Even had trouble getting to the Blogger dashboard to dash this off! Always knew that the Blogger-Google thing would be trouble account-wise given that this mortal exists as a trinity, me, myself, and the other guy. So whatever changes you observe from just a couple of hours ago, it was not yours truly messing around; it was FoS messing around. For now, perhaps best to let things settle down before full assessment. Let me know of any thing goofy from your end.

Peach Julip

Aw, she done gone and made my day! Peaches and bourbon play well together, but keep the damn chickens out of my drink!

Now why didn't the Phactor think of this?

The Garden Rant blog has a cocktail hour! Now why didn't the Phactor think of that, first? What a heck of a good idea! You have to give credit where credit is due for blog creativity. And this is said while sipping at a margarita. Cheers to the Garden Rant. Maybe if they'd link to the Phactor he'd buy the next round.

Don't drink water - green Lake Erie edition

Now the term "algae" is not very precise; it refers to any number of small green aquatic organisms, members of several clades (kingdoms), both prokaryotic and eukaryotic organisms. Under the right conditions unicellular green organisms can multiply at a remarkable rate (2, 4, 8, 16, 32, keep going for a few hours) resulting in algal blooms, vast population explosions of tiny green organisms. Blooms are not usually good things. Here's a great picture of an incredibly massive algal bloom in the shallow western basin of Lake Erie. That end of the lake is the warmest and it gets a lot of nitrogen laden runoff via a river from agricultural lands. The organism in question is Microcystis, a blue-green algae or more accurately a cyanobacterium, what my old phycology professor used to call "itty-bitty blue-green cells" in a Texas drawl. The number of cells it takes to turn a big lake green such that it can be seen from Earth orbit boggles the mind. Now here's the problem: it's toxic. Don't drink it; don't touch it. Don't let your dopey Lab lap it up. Now stop and think about how many people rely on Lake Erie for their drinking water. If what comes out of the tap looks like what's in this glass, that's a warning. Actually water purification plants do a pretty good job and you really have to concentrate a fantastic number of these tiny cells to get that much green, but you get the idea. These algal blooms are nothing new, but a warming climate will make such algal blooms larger, longer, and more frequent, something to get excited about. And to top it off, then human activities add fertilizer!

Climate change denial - the bad side of blogging

The Phactor admits he is unable to read or completely understand research that is outside his area of expertise. Oh, here and there you make mistakes, interpret or explain something incorrectly, but generally if you want to be an authority, to speak with some expertise, knowledgeably, you must first have an expertise in something and second stick to it. As a result, my reaction to blog reports that cosmic rays, not human activities, are affecting climate change and global warming was skeptical, always a good initial position, because you simply have to wait for people with real expertise to explain things. Unfortunately, as residents of the blogosphere know, blogs have a way to propagating, link by link, and spreading, especially if the purported information appears to support a favorite position or cause. So it is always a pleasure when someone with real expertise, someone who can read the actual research paper on cosmic rays, and then explain what it really says, and what it doesn't say, and then show how bloggers who can't and don't read such papers spread disinformation on climate change. However we live in a world where disinformation works quite well to convince the easy to convince that they have it right and the experts have it wrong. The Phactor gives the little video on climate change at the link above 2 thumbs up.

A reader with an interest in C4 plants

"Hi, I was wondering if you could tell me a big list of all the flowering plants that use c4 photosynthesis. also which ones are available in Washignton state during the fall season."

For those of you who don't know C4 plants have an alternative photosynthetic system where the 1st product of photosynthesis if a 4-carbon molecule, thus C4. The great advantage over "regular" C3 photosynthesis is that carbon fixed isn't lost to photorespiration, which increases at higher temperatures.
So let's pull out our big list of Washington state plants that use C4. Oops, well, no such list exists. Without knowing the reason for this query, it's hard to offer much direction. C4 plants should be easy to find, even during the fall, but C4 crops may be in seasonal decline. Here's the easy ones, most of which can be found in WA, all tropical grasses: maize, sugarcane, sorghum, also switch grass and Bremuda grass. A lot of desert plants are C4, but not sure how hot and dry Washington state deserts are. If native plants are sought, then best check with the
WA Native Plant Society.

Glo-cat is too spooky

The Phactor really likes cats, and as every cat owner can tell you, cats can be pretty sneaky. Just this morning a feline houseguest did something that bonked something into the wall somewhere, but upon investigating, everyone was sitting in the hallway looking innocent. And now a cat that glows green! It's bad enough when the big black one sticks her face in yours at 4 AM and opens those big green eyes, but to have the whole face glowing green, maybe not. To be fair, the cat only glows under a certain type of illumination, so maybe the specter of green glowing cats prowling your house at night is over wrought. But why make a cat glow green? In this particular case the gene causing the green glow is a marker to show that an anti-viral gene was also inserted into the cell. Feline immunodeficiency virus, or FIV, is decimating cat populations in many parts of the world, so the idea is to genetically modify old Purrpuss to possess an antiviral gene. The green glowing marker is what tells you the gene that was inserted into a fertilized egg, a zygote, was successfully replicated and passed on to each and every cell in the cat's body. But let us hope that no idiot will get the idea of genetically modifying cats to glow different colors for reasons of appealing to super-idiots who want something different in a tabby. Hmm, could you make an orange-green calico glo-cat?

Keep watering!

The Phactor is issuing a general warning that the great inequalities of precipitation we have been experiencing pose a grave danger to plants, especially any planted this year. After two weeks of no rain locally, a day of light rain helped a little, but not a lot. The rain gauge said it was barely 1/3d of an inch, barely wetting the surface, and not even that under the crowns of some of our large trees that not only are tremendous competitors for water but creators of their own rain shadows. So in marked constrast to the eastern USA, it remains a drought out here. Now here's the problem. Many people noted the recent rainy day and are mistakenly thinking things are OK for awhile, but they aren't. The soil water was not replenished and many plants are suffering stress. If you do not keep watering newly planted trees in the mistaken belief that nature has taken care of them they will die during the winter, fail to leaf out or grow in the spring, and winter cold will take the blame for your neglect. You see winter is actually a drought season, a cold dry desert effect takes place which is bad enough by itself, but when the plant enters winter already water stressed, the deck is stacked against survival. A number of new plantings around our town are already good bets for "winter kill" including almost all the city's mandated landscaping around new buildings because after meeting the letter of the regulation, the plants are routinely ignored, and the town is not very diligent at holding feet to the fire for replacement plantings. Some official exqamines the required landscaping, check, everything in compliance, everything dies, no one cares. So what's wrong with a 1 year check up? So unless the weather patterns change considerably the fall looks to be dry so lots of plants will die as a result. When you purchase a plant, especially a nice big expensive one, in my case an 8 foot tall weeping white pine,you must protect your investment by watering, watering, watering, and yes that costs money, but so does buying a replacement. Don't waste any water on the lawn; any grass in your lawn will just go dormant, so no worries. The general rule of thumb is that it takes at least an inch of rain a week to keep things in good shape. Lastly my apologies to those readers who have gotten way, way too much precipitation; it just isn't fair, it's nature, who just doesn't care.

Sept 11 in middle America - 2011

Watching the videos of the planes crashing into the world trade center and the buildings collapsing was pretty surreal out here in the Midwest where if you had left the TV off you would not have noticed a single damn thing that was any way different. The most interesting part of the whole 9/11 thing was having a German student living with us at the time because viewing the events through their young eyes was most interesting. Her parents were quite concerned, and it took a couple of telephone calls to convince them that things out here were quite normal, and the worst thing that could happen was that their daughter might have to spend a bit longer in the USA than originally planned, but that was it. Another German girl is here today; she would have been 14 10 years ago, so she remembers the news of that day, but she too fails to grasp that you might not have noticed out here. Today was one of those wonderful September days, the month of my birth, warm, but not too warm, and simply gorgeous. Although not at all planned the Phactor spent the day moving thick slabs of old concrete to the street-side for pickup and recycling, and it did not occur to me until after having settled his tired body on a bench to enjoy both a margarita and the new pond/waterfall, that moving slabs of concrete was a fitting memorial for my remembrance of events 10 years ago. And like the WTC site, out of the destruction of something old, something new arose. However, it is unlikely the new pond and the 9/11 events will remain tied together in my mind because it was more of a coincidence than anything else. And on days like this, when a golden sunset filters through your garden, it is hard to understand how anyone could so hate the idea of people who are just different from you. It does not make me all that happy to remember how much time has passed with little to show for this terrorism than the quagmire of foreign conflicts which only seems to fan the fires of hatred that gave rise to the initial event. Only wish our leaders could understand that tit for tat is a game you cannot win.

Why not a gardening president?

Wouldn't it be refreshing if we had a candidate for president (chancellor, prime minister, dog catcher) who declared their interest in plants and gardening? This would indicate many good qualities of the sort that some of us seek in our elected leaders. They'd understand about work. They'd be pragmatic about things like weather that are largely beyond our control. They'd understand that you often plant things, like trees, and do things for their long-term outcomes rather than just planting annuals for their immediate but short-term effect. They might understand that you really do reap what you sow. They need to understand that getting down on your knees to weed, rather than pray, actually accomplishes something. Perhaps they would understand that pruning is necessary, but it must be done deliberately and carefully rather than just hacking away. They would understand the true nature of anticipation and hope in a way that only farmers and gardeners truly grasp. How refreshing if would be to have a president who says economic indicators are up and it looks like I'm going to get some nice tomatoes. This is the sort of values and character traits people really need in public office rather than the legal weasel attitude. Oh, no! Just realized this sounds like Chauncey Gardener, whose simplistic garden utterances were mistaken for profound insights! Well, that might not be so bad given the alternatives.

Reductionist vs. synthetic science

No question a reductionist approach to biology has been pretty successful from the cellular level on down. But at some point you can take reductionism too far. Does analyzing a bit of pigment to determine its components help you appreciate Dogs Playing Poker any better? Somethings are just meant to be enjoyed, appreciated for what they are, and one wonders if this research will make beer any better, as if that were possible.

Back at FoS - once again

The Phytophactor is once again back to being published at Field of Science (FoS), although still not an official part of the collective. The change to a newer format was necessary to make the transition easier, and especially to bring along all the botany blog feeds. The Phactor has been assured it is only a matter of time, perhaps indicating a probation, a super, double secret probation, so please nothing but classy, erudite comments from the botanical rabble until the voting is complete and my presence is official.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Yellow wax bells

What with one thing and another, a couple of Fridays have slipped away without a fabulous flower, a situation up with which we will not put. Late summer is a tough time for gardens especially when in drought conditions. Yellow wax bells (Kirengeshoma palmata) is a large herbacous perennial plant hardy to zone 5 and they make a nice late summer flowering cluster in a shady corner. They needed some watering during this hot, dry spell. Ours are sandwiched between azure beauty berry shrubs that line the neighbor's driveway and an anise Magnolia tree. This was planned so that the view from their dining room was quite attractive, a view that only seen by yours truly when trespassing upon their driveway (our garden does actually extend right to the edge of their driveway). What good neighbors are we! For a member of the hydrangea family, the flowers are pretty large, and the thick, fleshy petals are arranged like a pin-wheel (jargon avoided). The "ki" part of the strange generic name means yellow in Japanese (Guess where this species is native?) but the Phactor is at a loss to explain "rengeshoma". Any takers?

What about Photinia x fraseri?

Anonymous (he asks lots of questions) asks: I have a plant called a Photinia fraseri and I was wondering if i could get infromation on it. Such as how big do they get, what facts are unusual about the Photinia fraseri, whats the best way to take care of it,etc.
Photinia x fraseri is a dirt common shrub in zones 7-9. Although often listed as a species, this is of hybrid origin and named, like many other introduced Asian species, after the great British plant collector John Fraser (Maybe you've heard of Fraser fir?). While not liking cold weather at all, it will require regular watering in hot weather. It's mostly evergreen and its most striking feature is that the new foliage flushes bright red, a feature common to many tropical plants. This Photinia is mostly used as a large foundation shrub or for hedges. If not poodle pruned it should reach 8-10 feet tall and 8-10 feet wide. The genus is part of the rose family, but the flowers are rather small reminding me of Spirea, but not producing much of a floral display.

YEC Chemist tells it like it isn't.

Most physical scientists really don't know hardly anything about biology. Chemists take physics and math, physicists take chemistry and math, but most of them, with the exception of biochemists, take no biology at all, and if they do take biology, it's always at the cellular-molecular level and from a reductionist perspective, so no surprise that few chemists know much about the synthetic parts of biology. Here's a couple of excerpts from an interview with a YEC (young Earth creationist) who's a chemist.
What about the contrary evidence from scientific dating methods?
"There are always assumptions behind dating methods. They're not infallible. They can be made to point to a young Earth, as well as an old Earth.
The evidence is not what people think. For example, people think that carbon 14 dating proves millions of years, but carbon 14 dating itself argues against millions of years."

Wow! Now remember, he's a chemist. First he makes "assumptions" sound like 18 impossible things you have to believe before breakfast, but the assumptions of radioactive dating methods can be and have been tested, i.e., rates of decay and their constancy under different environmental conditions. For a chemist to make that statement about carbon 14 dating they either have to be a really pathetic chemist or a bloody liar. Carbon 14 can only date relatively young things because of its rapid decay rate, so beyond 50,000 years carbon 14 dating just doesn't work, and no credible scientist would claim it did. You want to age charcoal from an archaeological site in North America? Fine. Age of the Earth? Millions of years? Ridiculous!
What do you believe are the chief flaws in the theory?
"First, the origin of first life, chemical evolution, makes no sense at all."
This reminds the Phactor of engaging a similar YEC chemist in a discussion/debate about 20 years ago, and he said almost the same thing, and to demonstrate his case, and what is meant by that sentence, he dumps a hand full of paper clips into a can, shakes it (to add energy), and then dumps out the contents, still just a bunch of paper clips, and declares, "No amount of time or energy can add order or information to these paper clips and it's just like that with chemistry. Elements don't combine at random to make something organized."
In response, the Phactor borrowed his demonstration, and asked him, "Are all atoms, all molecules the same shape and size?" "OK rhetorical question because everyone knows that they are different." "So let's say the basic paper clip is carbon." "Well, we know that life is also composed of hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and phosphorous, different elements with different properties (an aside - It's on your periodic table.) but our chemist only started out with one element which isn't realistic chemistry at all." And after bending paper clips into different shapes, some at right angles, some straightened into an S, and so on to represent different elements, dumped them back into the can, gave it a few shakes, and out pours a tangle of paper clips. "Now there's some organization." "Nothing awesome but maybe useful in some way, to hang something or to wear as a bracelet." "Now imagine you have thousands of such entities, each a bit different, but now the most useful organizations will produce the most copies of themselves." "That's natural selection, Darwin's contribution to biology, and it's through generations of such reproductin, variation, and selection that more useful organizations appear." "Now the only question to ask our chemist is simple." "Is he really such a poor chemist that he doesn't understand this, or is he deliberately trying to deceive you." He left his demonstration and didn't stay around to answer questions at the end. Even the brief responses in this recent interview demonstrate that nothing at all has changed in the unscientific world of YEC chemists.
HT to Dispatches from the Creation wars.

Can I eat wild carrots?

Well, yes, is the answer while not understanding the fascination with the wild carrot's smaller, paler, more fibrous roots. However that being said, you'd better not make a mistake in identification. Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum), not the conifer, but the carrot-like weed of Socrates fame is very similar particularly in the juvenile 1st year stage when you would want to harvest the root. And if you do make this mistake, it could well be your last. At that stage the carrot foliage is hairy and the poison hemlock hairless, but do you want to bet your life on such a character? Here's an image of both; you decide which is which. The wild carrot has a pale yellow color to the root while that of poison hemlock is white. When mature they both have flat umbels of white flowers, and many people would think the poison hemlock a wild carrot, but the purple splotches on the stem and a rank odor to the foliage readily identify the poison hemlock except you don't harvest roots at this stage because this storage organ was used having provided the energy for flowering and fruiting. Stalk the wild carrot with care. You been warned.

Shopping for new clothes - Part 2

Well, white text on black is not a resounding success, although images do look good against the black background. On my monitor it reads quite well, but clearly that is not the case for everyone. The white text of header/title shows up against the color picture better than the black text did, especially after finding an image providing more contrast. More diddling will follow as a new look is sought, and changes evaluated.

Shopping for new clothes

The Phytophactor's blog template was tired & old, my original, but once something works, those of us who have lots of things going on and lots to do just don't like to mess because it turns things like blogging into big time sucks instead of a small diversion. But the old template had some problems, some limitations, and when the publication was switched over to FoS, well, all the feeds from all those nice friendly botanical blogs featured on my side bar just vanished, a bit of "collateral damage" from friendly fire, to use a military euphemism. So with a dread usually reserved for shopping for new clothes, the Phactor is trying on some new templates, and somehow this minimalist approach sort of caught my fancy, and it allows such radical changes as broader columns! Oooo! For now all the botanical blogs feeds are back, and this blog, all inclusive, will end up at FoS, eventually. If you really hate it, and think it looks as bad as a Trump comb-over, then just tell me, "It's interesting, very interesting." The message will be clear.

Build Botany for National Security

Let's see, the dwindling of botany as a field of study among the biological sciences seems to suggest that no one worries about being miserable, naked, or hungry. So let's try this.
Wake up America! As botanical knowledge declines, our national security is threatened as so aptly demonstrated by this cartoon. All those alien trees creeping into our landscape could be harboring terrorists, socialists, or even tree-hugging liberals! But would you ever know, native versus indigenous? The Phactor has long wondered if the Princess Tree invasion might be at the root of China's successful espionage efforts in the USA. Didn't you notice how many and how quickly they have sprung up around the Pentagon? The camera lens protruding from the tree holes, it's a dead give away, but first you have to cure the tree blindness of our security community! Just a billion or two would give my taxonomy and plant identification class a real shot in the arm, and none of it would be wasted either, but a Phytophactor logo will be needed for the doors of the Hummer field vehicles.

Be a good example

You get to observe many sorts while traveling, and here in western North Carolina where we find ourselves this weekend, you do get to see a different cross section of the country. While availing ourselves of a mom and pop motel's pool a couple of women old enough to know better were making quite a fuss, squeeling, eeking and such. And of this alarms their children, who were not old enough to know better. The cause of it all was a poor little ole tree frog who somehow landed itself in the pool with no apparent way out. Now this is a tiny frog, and it was easily removed and returned to the landscape shrubbery, but what kind of lesson did these women provide their children? Not a very good one. Be scared of encounters with nature. Turn a potential learning, caring for wildlife opportunity into the exact opposite. Depressing.

Most popular post and what to save

Real data on this blog only go back a bit over two years ago, but nonetheless, they show an interesting picture of readership. Blog posts that have actual content can build up a considerable readership with time, although it remains a bit of a puzzle that the most popular Phytophactor blog of all time, read more than 7 times more than the 2nd most popular post, was a brief discussion of whether an artichoke is a fruit or a vegetable. Apparently a lot of people lost sleep over this question before Phactor helped settle the matter. Now this does bring up an interesting housekeeping issue, and that is what blogs to prune from the archives? Clearly those with real content of a botanical nature must be keepers. But then some rants, although spurred by current events, remain recurring themes in that after periods of quiescence they will suddenly attract considerable attention for a few days, for example, a riff about measuring learning, which suggests that this issue keeps recurring, erupting on campuses here and there like an administrative cold sore on the lip of higher education. Even a few oldies, a couple of posts with some wry observations that were ignored at the time have small eruptions of activity, for example the very epitome of campus fashion. So for now, the litter will remain until such time as hard decisions must be made. And until then this blog remains the undisputed king of artichokes.

Darth Cheney's book

Over the years, the Phactor has developed a healthy dislike of several politicians, and never in my wildest imagination did it seem anyone could ever top Tricky Dick, although Agnew had a run at it. Oh, but Darth Cheney proves that no matter how tall the hurdle someone will manage to vault it. Please understand, under no circumstances will his book be purchased or read by yours truly, there being so many other worthwhile books around like a retrospective of TV guides. This contemptible man will show no remorse or any second thoughts about the actions that he promoted or proposed, and were this actually an influential blog, perhaps old Darth would propose sending a Death Star to vaporize it for this affront. It has been suggested elsewhere that people take his book and move it to the crime section of the book store and insert a handy bookmark with a reminder that international war criminals should be arrested. Let's see? Will a country somewhere ask that the USA kindly hand him over for trial in their country? Hard to say. He's more machine now than man, and he lies and blames others with such ease at this point you wonder if there is any truth left in him. We can be more certain about his book.

It's happening!

Yes, like little internet elves, they sneak in at night and tiggle with this and that, and there you have it, the Phytophactor is now being published at , and other than a brief tug, it was completely painless. So far so good. On the home front it is happening too. Lincolnland is trying to emulate OK's summer weather having come within one degree of a new heat record yesterday and a promise of even hotter today. And everything is parched, bone-dry; the kind of weather that beats up on any plants that have failed to establish a decent root-system. Several newer plantings are in serious trouble as are the few moisture loving plants the Phactor foolishly, but he doesn't care, harbors. Can some presidential candidates please pray for some blue state rain? Unfortunately family matters require us to travel this weekend so nobody gets watered, and we officially declare this a drought. However on the bright side, the renovated pond looks and sounds lovely.

pitcher plant video

My buddy and colleague Chris Martine is working on a project to produce interesting videos about plants as a much needed counter point to all of the animal biology shows. One of my former students tried selling a similar idea, sort of an Indiana Jones of botany type program to TV producers in Chicago, and he was told, a few people like gardening shows, but we don't need more of them, and no one else is interested in plants any other way. Stop wasting my time; end of conversation. Chris with the assistance of the Botanical Society of America is producing some pilot videos that feature interesting plants that some of our colleagues are studying. Here's one about pitcher plants in Louisiana. Clearly the video is pitched at a very general audience. Personally some real close up details would have jazzed up the video a bit, and they may be added later. Let me know what you think; I'll pass along your comments to Chris. But don't let him kid you about sweet tea; he was near Abita Springs, LA, home of Turbo Dog Abita Beer.

Changes they be coming to this blog

The Phytophactor passed the 900th blog millstone (sp.?) a short time back (this is post #918), just some three and a half years after its inception as a fiercely independent, no money accepted from anyone (and sadly none was ever offered), stand alone, is-anyone-out-there blog. But after a very slow start things have changed. It took almost 2 years before the average readership per month pushed beyond 1000. By my third anniversary the average readership had pushed beyond 3000 per month, and now just six months later, the readership is flirting with 5000 visits per month. So now what? By invitation, the Phytophactor is moving to the Field of Science blog collective, but actually you won't notice hardly a thing (that's the promise). No dopey ads in the side bars, no heavy hand complaining about the frequency blogging or blog topics, no standardized format, but hopefully a higher profile (a promise). FoS has already shown good taste in inviting another botanical blogger aboard, Moss Plants and More. Oh, it may sting a little that such a youngster was invited before the Phactor, but just think of it, two botany blogs! At this point people will just think we're both not quite right. But if they get a third botany blog, why people may think it's an organization. And can you imagine 50 blogs! Why it'll be a movement! We may even hear a presidential candidate promise to return botany to a place of prominance among the biological sciences! So you have to start somewhere.
My dear readers don't have to do a dang thing (another promise). This address will simply zip you right to the new address, and with the exception of the FoS top bar consisting of initials representing the various blogs, the Phytophactor will look just the same, and yes, it probably should be updated, but life is so busy. Now this pending, seamless change over (another promise) could happen at any time. I'm not supposed to notice myself (another promise), although it was almost a deal breaker when FoS proposed providing the Phytophactor with the ignominious initials TP, which while technically correct have long been used as an abbrieviation for a common household paper product, and this could not be tolerated. Several weeks of intense negotiations resulted in a compromise, and this blog will be represented in the top bar by the initials TPP. And so let us see what and when this happens.