Field of Science

Friday Fabulous Flower - Bleeding Hearts

Oh, April is such a pretty time for our gardens!  Wait, it's still only March!  In another day, when the tally for March is complete the Phactor will reveal some stunning data that promises for a duller April-May.  At any rate one of Mrs. Phactor's gardens develops a wonderful blue-yellow-pink display of bluebells, celandine poppy, and bleeding hearts all kind of patch-worked together.  This is almost a surefire combination, easy enough for almost anyone to grow, tough and hardy, and cheerful beyond saying.  The bleeding hearts (Dicentra spectabilis) are quite a spectacular flower on their own, here showing the two rounded "spurs" that account for their generic name.  Bleeding hearts are now also a member of the poppy family the result of the small fumatory family having been found to nest within. 

Chocolate is good for you

Well, duh!  But just in case you think this is simply a good "healthy" rationalization for indulging, here's the actual list of health benefits attributed to chocolate. Whether chocolate will actually extend you life expectancy or not matters little because without such delectables life would seem short and miserable indeed.  So this falls into the "that's nice" category because even if someone gives the Phactor 10 reasons why eating chocolate was bad, he still intends to enjoy it, in moderation.  This is why it is hard to understand all these people who deprive themselves of so many things simply because they heard somewhere that something was bad for them.  It's not how long you live people, but the quality of the life you live.  This is why in spite of a entering an era of weight consciousness, the Phactors enjoyed their spring asparagus with a big dab of aioli.  Unfortunately, chocolate does not go with asparagus.  

College faculty compensation & rising college costs - analysis of a moron

Do college faculty work hard enough? What an intriguing question? So in a counterpoint, the Phactor asks, who is David Levy and why is he such a moron? The issue Levy wants to discuss is that “college costs have risen faster than inflation for three decades”. Without question this is true, and as educational costs rise, this becomes a real concern. Now here is where Levy jumps onto the crazy, stupid bus, and rides out of town. He tells us the cost increases are the result of “outmoded employment policies that overcompensate faculty for inefficient teaching schedules”. Well, here’s something the Phactor knows a great deal about, and that is faculty compensation over the past three decades. Now it is true the Phactor’s salary has gone up, but so has the cost of living, and as ridiculous as it seems, and when you figure cost of living that into the equation, over compensation becomes sort of a bad joke.
Now here’s why Levy is a complete moron. The Phactor is pure faculty, well-connected without question; he works with deans, VPs, and the President regularly, and he knows why the cost of college education has gone up faster than inflation, but Levy doesn’t and he was a high ranking administrator. So if he doesn’t know what the Phactor knows he’s one really dense admin, which given his conclusion – faculty are overcompensated, seems very realistic.
Let’s use my own public institution as an example. In 1978, Lincolnland subsidized 68% of the cost of higher education. Tuition covered the rest. Now over the past 34 years, the state has gradually withdrawn support, and at present the state pays for about 23% of the cost of a college education. OK, did you get that David? 68% down to 23%, so tuition had to make up the difference, and of course there were real cost of living increases to cover too. That’s part one.  Actually when you factor in the diminished support, the university is operating more efficiently now than 30 years ago, but do we get any thanks here?
Part two is unfunded mandates. In the process of cutting costs, the state decides it doesn’t want to pay for something it wants, and then it simply mandates that the university covers the cost after the state cut its support. So again tuition has to cover the difference.  You would not believe how many millions of dollars this costs.
Now David is this so hard to understand? The brilliance of this is "educational plan" is that no one ever passed a bill saying the state of Lincolnland is going to cut support for public education and pass the costs on to students and their families; they just gradually did it. Clever, but the true brilliance is that the very politicians who did this then jumped on the band wagon of dunning the universities for increasing tuition faster than inflation! Yes, they blame the university too. Is Levy just a political tool?  Some blunt implement?
So Levy is a moron because he presumes to write authoritatively about something he apparently knows nothing about. He also probably doesn’t know that faculty at our institution work about 55 hrs/week in comparison to our official 37.5 hr work week. Yes, we have an outmoded compensation system that pays no overtime.  Mrs. Phactor claims the Phactor has never taken a vacation in his whole career, and there’s Levy saying we take all these vacations, a week here, a week there, a month between semesters, and three months in the summer. This moron has never done research, let alone field research. And those breaks at Christmas and mid-semester, and the other 3 months of the year, are not vacations; it’s when we do our research, and train students to do research.
But here’s the Phactor, blogging away, for free, and there’s Levy publishing his moronic and insulting analysis in the WashPo.  It speaks poorly of the publication too.  And people wonder why we get so annoyed by people by Levy. Oh yes, we had a president who told it like it was, publicly, loudly, and it cost him his job!

Someone else's so-so Magnolia collection

OK, maybe Kew Gardens has a magnolia collection a bit better than the Phactor's, but then they are a bit bigger, and a bit older too.  Enjoy.

Four years of the Phytophactor

There was a lot going on Feb. 12, 2012: Darwin Day, Lincoln’s birthday, oh, and my kid sister’s birthday too. Hmm, she is the youngest of the three. So with all those things going on somehow the Phactor slipped right by the 4th anniversary of this blog. Let’s check in and see where we were and where we be. Well, a year ago, for the 3d anniversary, this blog had just passed its 600th post, and during the last 12 months almost another 600 posts were made, and at present the Phytophactor stands just short of 1200 published posts.  A year ago, this blog was averaging about 150 hits per day, which was about three times the readership at the time of the 2nd anniversary. At present readership is running well over 600 hits per day, and still increasing.  March will probably record more than 20,000 hits, and you will notice no tacky ads in the side bars either. This year's increase was the result of joining Fields of Science collective in August. According to the Nature Blogs Network, the Phytophactor presently ranks 9th among plant-related blogs, around 100th out of all the nearly 2000 nature blogs they record traffic for.
One year ago marked the addition of the 50th Phactor Phollower, and as of today there are 93, not quite doubled in the past year. The Phactor remains grateful and flattered that so many disturbed and desperate people are out there. And it remains very positive that new Phollowers are still adding themselves faster than the old ones are dying. Good going people!
Not everything is necessarily better. With less time to spend, the blogs have gotten shorter, simpler. But this is not because the Phactor has not been writing. During the past 12 months he has co-authored 3 scientific manuscripts, 2 published, 1 still in press, and the book is nearing completion.  For some reason my university gives credit for that writing, but not for this.  What's wrong with them?  After all how many people have read my last scientific paper?  It'll be fewer than read this.  This year the Phactor was fairly religious about the Friday Fabulous Flower.  So this still remains an amusing activity, so the Phactor will keep blogging away, even if artichokes remains the most read blog!  Thanks for all your support and comments, although that remains the one area where the rate has not gone up.

Violet lawn

In addition to our blue lawn, which has now faded, and a bit quickly because of the unseasonal heat, the Phactors also have some areas of violet lawn.  Here's what it looks like. Without question this is attractive, but unfortunately this is one portion of lawn that would be "nicer" if it had half as many violets and correspondingly more grass. This tells you that the Phactor does not get to dictate lawn care for the entire lawn.  In other parts of the lawn, spring beauty has turned things white-pink. Labrador violets have also invaded our lawns (along with bluebells, wild ginger, Trillium, and more), but they are much better behaved, less competitive.  Unfortunately, violets are a bit tough to get rid of, and they produce lots of viable seed which is how this whole problem got started.  So maybe the Phactors get used to a violet lawn.

New neighbors - Hmmm.

The Phactor tries to keep an open mind.  New neighbors just moved in across the street so enough of the neighborhood must have thought them OK to have gotten through the rigorous screening process.  All the best neighborhoods have them.  But the large blue garden gazing ball that they are obviously proud of, because why else would it be in their front yard, does give one pause.  Now blue gazing balls are not quite in the same category with ceramic ducks, a goose with clothes, or pink flamingos, but it is a GARDEN gazing ball and just does not belong in the front yard.  It's just like clothes lines; they are fine in their place.  So its tastefulness, or lack thereof, does deal with place.  Things that are just plain tacky, can, if properly placed, transform from kitsch to funky.  This topic was brought up with dining friends and the funkiest of them mentioned his neighbors bowling ball lawn sculpture!  Things could be worse.  Your opinions are sought.  

Friday Fabulous Flower - Strange & Exotic

The fabulous thing about today's flower is that you don't see this particular plant very often, unless one is growing in your glasshouse, and it flowers even more uncommonly.  The flowers open in a most curious fashion, and the flowers are such that mostly people don't notice, and there is a reason for this.  So this is a quiz for all the plant ID sharpies out there.  What is this Neotropical (see, a hint!) plant?  You want a bit more help?  OK, it's a vine.  

Dear Me

Sometime back the Telegraph asked their writers to write a letter of advice to their 16-year-old selves. This seemed like a good idea, and thus this letter, although then forgotten, and only now finished.

Dear Me,

To be perfectly honest, the details of being 16 are pretty fuzzy memories; high school is remembered more or less as an era. Don’t worry so much about being a geek; you end up in a profession where almost everyone was a geek at that age, except maybe for Paula. Most of the people you think have it made at 16 pretty much peak out in high school, and you’ll keep getting better for a long time. So don’t worry about these people; you won’t be coming back here, you won’t see hardly any of them ever again. But you’ll get a whole cadre of professional colleagues to hang out with who are ever so much more interesting and fun. Sadly you are going to be a bit slow to mature, to develop coordination, and to get comfortable with being yourself, so success at sports is pretty much not going to happen. You will find out something you sort of knew; smart girls are more interesting than pretty girls, and pretty girls who are also smart girls are fabulous. You think you’re not very good at anything, but actually you have some as yet undeveloped talents, some physical, some intellectual, but it’s still true that you have no aptitude for foreign language. Sixteen was not a particularly good time in your life, but you have a lot to look forward to, and in particular you are quite right in thinking that you can literally hit the reset button and remake yourself in college into someone you like much better than your high school self who was too much a creature of other people’s making. It’s funny but a basic fascination with growing plants becomes a successful career even if you only sort of stumble into it, finding out, finally, that you can make a living doing what you like.

Best regards from your future,


Field work commences

Although a stack of exams awaits, field work begins this afternoon.  The prolonged early warmth of spring 2012 has moved up our field work schedule by at least 3 weeks.  And you cannot just decide to wait until later.  In this sense field work domineers your life; your needs and wants are subordinated to those of your research organism.  The prairie lousewort is one of the 1st plants up on the prairie, seen here emerging after a burn, next to a partially melted marker, inflorescence already formed and ready to go.  Fortunately some young backs have decided to get involved in our research, and their assistance will be most welcome.  When studying rain forest trees, one of my student field assistants was afraid of heights and would not climb a ladder.  With prairie field work operating down at ground level one of the students is a pole vaulter!  As usual our first act is to find all of our research plots, and although marked by a permanent metal tag and corner spikes, and although mapped, it's amazing how tough it is to find some of them even after a vegetation clearing burn.  In full vegetation finding the plots is next to impossible.  Every now and then something pulls a tag out making things really difficult.  However, only one plot has been totally lost, misplaced if you will, since 2006, and fortunately it was a second control so we can operate without it.  In particular my collaborator has lost many pens and several pairs of sunglasses, and some of them do get found.  Last year this was quite an experience because several large Nerodia (water snakes) were emerging from dens and sunning themselves, and giving my snake nervous colleague quite a bad startle.  This will not be brought up, as bad field episodes are best forgotten.  

Queen of Spring - Ann

As some of you probably know by now, the Phactor has a thing for magnolias.  Why he just bought a new "Butterflies" magnolia the other day and eagerly awaits it arrival, although no flowers will be forthcoming until next spring.  The acceleration of spring afforded by two weeks of summer temperatures in March have also compressed flowering, and three species of Magnolia that usually flower in a sequence are in flower all at the same time: star, saucer, and tulip.  They look quite lovely together, as the occupy the same portion of the garden and are spaced such that they do not overlap when viewed from either the street or across the gardens.  But the undoubted queen is Magnolia liliiflora, sometimes called the "tulip" magnolia because it has rather dark pink tepals that it holds in an erect position.  Both the star and saucer magnolia are more popular, and more widely planted, leaving the less popular Ann a much under appreciated plant.  Do consider getting one.  Here's the star and saucer (not quite fully open as the tepals spread widely) magnolia flowers for comparison.  Briefly the Phactor thought about letting you vote on this, but actually on this topic, your opinion matters not at all.  

Something wicked this way comes - book report.

Not too long ago the Phactor asked for help about wicked plants, an interesting idea, for a colleague.  After your helpful comments and suggestions, the Phactor decided he had better read the book that sparked my colleague to seek some wicked plants.  At any rate, here's my report on Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart.  The Phactor would recommend this book for an interesting, convenient read, nice short installments for time challenged people.  Well over 200 plants are included with interesting essays.  The book has an old-timey feel with tinted papers and illustrations.  The essays are quite readable, non-technical, although strangely the author chooses to use scientific names rather than common names for families, which is rather at odds with the low-key approach.  As someone who teaches these things, only two entries were new to me.  Now our definitions of wicked may also differ: Illegal, dangerous, deadly, painful, intoxicating, offensive, or destructive.  Personally the Phactor doesn't think of plants as wicked, although they may be all of these 7 things.  People can be wicked, but plants just have biologies and these features tell us how the plant evolved, but the quality of being wicked seems a peculiarly human trait, but that's just what kind of cynical guy the Phactor is.  The book is quite well researched with only a couple of things that could be called errors.  Almost anybody who likes plants will find this little book interesting, and it's quite economically priced. 

Spring sprung, sprang!

According to my data, the Phactors ususally have 5-6 plants that flower in March.  So far this year 35 plants have flowered in March, and there's still quite a few days left!  Unfortunately, the metabolisms of many early spring flowers are just not adapted for temperatures in the high 70s and low 80s, so at these temperatures, things do not last long.  Bloodroot popped up, flowered, and was done in 3 days.  Three days!  It's like watching regular spring flowering in super fast speed.  Wow!  Today was spent removing rabbit barrier fences and pruning some trees and shrubs.  Two dwarf apples, Nova spys (terrific new dwarf version of a great, superb, apple variety), and one is growing wonderfully, lots of spur shoots and flowering, the other is reaching for the sky, no spurs, no flowering.  The pruning will be severe.  After pounding on a dwarf pear for the last couple of years, it's beginning to shape up, and is going to flower for the first time.  Mrs. Phactor will be most pleased as the pear tree was for her.  But if the heat isn't turned down soon, the flowering timeline will really get things our of whack.  Fortunately, pollinators have been active too, and carpenter bees were busy at the bush cherry. 

Mitt called - The Phactor is feeling popular!

Mitt called.  He wants my vote.  In fact he’s called at least 3 times.  He said that if the Phactor stayed on the line my questions could be part of an online town hall meeting.  Too bad it would have interrupted my annual St. Pat’s corned beef dinner.  In the first call Mitt reminded me what a terrible person Rick Sanctimonious was, and how Rick had actually vote funding for Planned Parenthood (but only because it was buried in a bill with lots of other worthwhile things).  The Phactor was unaware that Rick had ever done one single worthwhile thing, so unfortunately for Mitt, point Rick. Planned Parenthood is a great organization.  It is too bad we did not get a chance to chat.  Mitt’s views on getting so much support from very rich people, who think they don’t get enough voice in our country, and from corporate people, who think they don’t get enough voice in our country, but are getting more and more, would be interesting because why would they be supporting him if they did not think a president like Mitt would help the rich and powerful and the corporate persons?  And if they are right, then voting for Mitt would be like hosing yourself, fiscally, politically.  So wish he could have explained how his concept of democracy works.  It might have been interesting to ask how anyone knows what Mitt actually stands for having changed his position on so many issues so many times.  How does one know when a politician is pandering, saying what they think you want to hear just to get your vote, or when they actually are being sincere?  Of course anyone from the northeast or upper Midwest who tries to say “Y’all”, or says they like cheesy grits, is pandering, period.  So unfortunately Mitt is the least trustworthy of all the GnOPe candidates, but somehow the most reasonable?  What does that say about the other 3?  However, this year’s corned beef was superb. 

Friday Fabulous Flower - Blue lawn

A few years ago, quite a few years ago, somebody planted Scilla in the yard currently owned by the Phactors.  And in terms of naturalization, this introduction was more than a little bit successful.  Large portions of our lawns and gardens are now populated by hundreds of Scilla bulbs per square yard.  For a week or so the blue lawnt is quite charming, downright jolly, and a very welcoming sign of spring.  Later as the vegetation matures, these areas have to be avoided especially by the lawn mower or they get slimed by the mucilage in Scilla leaves.  Virtually nothing else grows in some of these areas at least until the Scilla dies back, and fortunately it does so by early summer.  In a fine color counterpoint, the Rhododendron mucronulatum, Korean azalea, also began flowering today displaying their clouds of bright pink flowers. You need this plant.  It's hardy, the easiest species to grow, and the earliest to flower.  The rest of the gardens are basically yellow: forsythia, spice bush, Cornus mas, winter hazel, daffodils, aconite.  And boy, is it all early!  

Homeopathic water - thanks for the memories.

Sometimes, just sometimes, it takes a philosopher to figure out why non-scientific treatments appeal to so many people.  Damon Young's brief essay on homeopathy gets right to the point, although what is the solution?  Have a read.  

Something new - Balmy weather in March

It was quite a day here in the upper midwest.  The high was near 80 and while dinner was cooking the Phactor was sitting on his patio at 7:15 pm nursing a margarita in the dwindling twilight and mid-70s temperatures.  This was definitely something new, for March, with the exception of that one year March 14th was spent in Ft. Lauderdale Florida because the Phactors had friends whose car could dependably cover the distance to Florida, and because Uncle Jim the judge offered to let us sponge lodging off him.  While his political and career advice left much to be desired, this was many, many years ago, he is generous to relatives and very big hearted.  Lots of plants develop very quickly at this temperature.  Hate to see the apple buds swelling so quickly.  Bloodroot popped up and flowered overnight, new plantings, rescues from sprawling development.  Our Abeliophyllum has never looked better, a cloud of pink-white flowers.  If you don't have one in you garden, do think of getting one.  But it was a delightful evening, an attractive sunset, so no complaints, except maybe needing a sarong-clad young woman to deal with the empty margarita glass, a regular tropical fantasy.  The Phactor needs a pinch; this is still March!

Climate Change - What to do?

Whenever the Phactor looks too closely, or actually pays any attention at all, to our governing bodies, and what they do and what they are incapable of doing, he gets very depressed.  All the more so when they deny reality and insist on governing according to their own alternative reality. Therefore it's quite uplifting to read someone who not only studies such depressing topics, but then can turn around and think about quite practical solutions once you understand a couple of basic facts.  One, global climate change is inevitable.  Two, governing bodies cannot, will not, do anything about it, and hopefully, history will treat these dumb heads unkindly.  Three, humans are animals and part of the ecology, and whether we like it or not, our actions have a big impact on every thing.  Four, climate change may be severe enough to greatly alter the ecosystems' ability to provide for our basic needs.  So what practical things can we do?   Here's a rational article on this subject.  Let us know what you think?  

Oh, yes, a reminder!

Maybe the memory isn't what it used to be, because somehow last fall the Phactor made an unplanned purchase of some spring bulbs on sale, and then had Mrs. Phactor yammering on about who (duh!) was going to plant them and where they were to be planted, and so being smallish, they were stuck into the margins of little gardens, here and there, and then promptly forgotten until the shoots popped up this spring.  And do you think there was any memory of what kind of bulb they were, or any notes about where all they had been planted?  Nope.  But the nice thing then is you get a surprise when they flower and you get your answer, which is Iris reticulata, a very cheerful spring flower.  Now the remaining surprise will be to see where all they appear.  Spring, when things lost are found, but a big pair of loppers are still missing.  Gone. 

Silent treatment - What kind of Monday is this?

Mondays are usually a zoo; everybody wants everything from everybody and messages fly all over the place the whole day long.  Today, the phone did not ring once today.  About 25% of the usual email traffic, most easily ignored, popped up in the inbox.  Not one single knock on my office door.  Saw nary a soul in the hallway.  Emerged from the book work only to make a trip to my lab, and the men's facilities.  These are rare days in my business.  Thank you spring break! 

Rick wants my vote!

Rick Sanctimonious wants me to vote for him. This is known because he called me on the phone and left me a message to that effect. The Phactor is quite sorry he missed the opportunity to chat with Rick, but he was gardening, and on the whole, accomplishing more than talking to a politician. But still so there are no bad feelings, let me leave Rick a message in response.

Dear Rick, I’ve spent a great portion of my life getting educated and then doing my best to educate others and get them excited about really learning about things, actually thinking and sounding articulate and, well, educated. So it is with profound sadness to learn that you think my efforts, those of a self-professed liberal elitist, actually harms our country. Rick you need to understand that nothing that takes place in my classes or labs even remotely qualifies as indoctrination. As a professional the Phactor is quite careful about not presenting his own opinions, although he does admit to being a devil’s advocate frequently to provoke thought. So unlike what you seem to believe, students are not told what to think, but taught how to think. And apparently that, and that alone, generates the harm you perceive. But Rick you want to be President of the most powerful country on Earth, at this time, and yet you think higher education something harmful? Quite a number of statements have been attributed to you Rick, and they don’t sound like the sort of ideas that come of a well-educated person, yet you are. Apparently Rick, you made your way through higher education without learning anything that you didn’t already believe true. Rick, how can somebody so proud of their ignorance, so incapable of learning, think they can run something as complex as this country? You don’t think science knows anything, upon what are you going to base policy? It makes me wonder what kind of country you wish us to be, and apparently you would prefer a highly religious country to a highly educated country, a highly moral country where neither the government nor affluent citizens give a crap about others, about public welfare, public education, social security, and other things that watch out for people. But you may still get my vote Rick, and this is the reason, you may represent the easiest candidate for Obama to beat, even easier than the millionaire weather vane, and that’s the reason you found my name on GnOPe voter rolls; voting for a spoiler to game the system often seems like a good idea. So glad you called; wish we could have actually talked, but my guess is that it would have only reinforced your opinion about us educated elites.  Best regards, TPP.

Cold frame or solar hot box?

Growing up in upstate NY, every serious gardener had one or more cold frames.  No more economical way to extend your gardening season is available than a cold frame.  These good old boys never bought cold frames, they built them.   Cold frames were what everyone did with old storm windows.  If someone was seen installing fancy new-fangled al-you-min-eeum storm windows, one of the good old boys would pull up in their old pickup and cart away the old storm windows.  The name "cold frame" correctly tells you that there was no heating element used in a cold frame.  It's simply a solar heated box that provides a bit of protection from frosts and cold nights.  Maybe cold frames would be more appealing, and better understood, if they were called solar hot boxes.  The crops that work best are those that are pretty cold hardy, crops that do well in early spring anyways; the cold frame just extends the season.  My usual cold frame inmates are lettuces and spinach grown in window boxes.  The trick is to thin them ruthlessly enough  to prevent competition; remember they sell baby greens for premium prices, so think of it as harvesting.  Here's the basic rule: lettuce seedlings 2" tall should be 2" apart; 4" tall seedlings should be 4" apart, and 8" will allow lettuces to grow to full size.  Green onions are another very easy early crop.  You can raise a lot of them in a small space.  Lettuce seedlings are also started for later transplanting.  In the fall baby bok choi is a favorite often remaining in the cold frame awaiting our pleasure until late November.  People often seem surprised that cold frames really work, but actually over heating in a solar hot box is a potential problem on any sunny day, and they need to be propped open to let some of the heat escape.  In the spring, plants are grown in boxes using a potting mix; the garden soil beneath just stays too cold.  So that will be today's main activity planting spinach, diverse  lettuces, and some romaine and bibb lettuce plantlets.  This will give us salad greens ready for eating at just about the time people without a cold frame will be planting their seeds. 

Early spring Saturday garden chores/exercise

It's a Saturday, and Spring Break!  What a relief to not be hustling around to prepare materials for the coming week.  That will be next weekend.  Let's see what's on the agenda.  Limbs.  It's only been 2 weeks since the last pick-up-sticks, but several extremely windy days have rendered this task necessary again.  Fortunately the Rhododendron hating oak hasn't damaged anything yet this spring.  Leaves.  A leaf barrier fence was erected around the west side of the pond to keep leaves from blowing in, at least some leaves, so now the wind-row of leaves needed to be removed from the fence before the fence can be removed.  Asparagus.  Time to cut off last year's aerial shoots in preparation for much anticipated goodness to follow shortly.  Woodchuck.  Drat!  Newly dug-redug burrow under the garden shed indicates a new resident.  Capture and relocation is the only viable control measure, but this is gosh awful early for them to be active.  Trellis.  A fence repair project requires that a clematis be retrained this year onto a trellis to allow the fence to be removed and replaced.  Because of gardens along both sides of the fence are gardens, the contractor must be very mindful of plants and not just trample them into oblivion.  We gladly pay more for plant watchfulness.  Neighbors are readying bicycles for some spring exercise, and surely it will be grand, but when they are exhausted what will they have accomplished?  If only they would try the Phactor's exercise program.  First, limbs. Bending and knee bends and lifting.  1, 2, 3, ..... 100 or more reps.  Next, leaves.  Twisting, and pulling, and reaching.  Keep that rake moving!  And so on.  And what a difference!  With my exercies program, things get done.  Oh, yes, always blog about garden exercise before doing garden exercies.  But now it's time for a coffee break!

Friday Fabulous Flower - ??

The family is obvious; this is an orchid, a quite colorful orchid whose flower is some 4-5 cm across, so 5 or 6 of these open on the same inflorescence makes showy display.  And orange is just not a common flower color.  Here's the problem: it is without label, so who knows what it is.  In all likelihood it is a hybrid, and therefore rather boring, that was picked up cheap at a "this-plant-is-done-flowering" sale, or even donated, and between the time it was purchased and the time it flowered again, any identification it had was lost.  Quite possibly it had no label to begin with.  Such plants end up as open house give-aways or things like that.  So any body out there with any ideas about this orchid?  Anyone?  Anyone?

Don't go nuts, go berries!

Eating berries has beneficial effects on your brain and may help prevent age-related memory loss.  Right.  Hmm, now where was this published?  Oh, yes, just ate a grape, and there it is, the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.  But grapes?  Well, yes!  A grape is a berry, and the article says blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, and other berry fruits.  Of course, two of the three are not berries technically, but apparently something (anti-oxidants?) in fresh berry fruits helps your brain function.  How about tomatoes?  Kiwifruit?  Naranjillas?  Currants?  Persimmons?  Poke berries? Clearly all berries.  Will my health insurance buy me some new strawberry plants as a preventative measure?  But here's what the Phactor really thinks; it's Berry-Go-Round that keeps your gray cells gay, er, gray.  Picture credit here.  Oh, and most of those wild berries are not edible, so know your berries.  

How to run a university - cutting costs one paper towel at a time

The Phactor's Scot ancestry makes him very frugal, and no one dislikes waste and inefficiency more.  But at times you have to wonder if the people in charge have any idea at all about how the university works.  In times such as these it's understandable that all units seek ways to cut costs and improve efficiencies.  So kudos to the physical plant for finding a problem and solving it.  Things like paper towels cost a big organization a lot of money what with bathrooms existing in nearly every building and use of them is free, a big employee and student perk.  But in examining the usage data, two buildings were using paper towels at a rate far above the rest, and both were science buildings housing biology, geology, and chemistry.  Physicists in both theory and practice apparently are not messy.  Where could all those towels be going?  Imagine their surprise to discover that laboratories have sinks because people in those labs have to wash things.  So the physical plant decides to cut its costs by simply deciding that sinks other than those in bathrooms are not their responsibility.  Just as the water, electricity, heat, and trash in places other than bathrooms are not their responsibility either.  So does this negate the need for sinks and paper towels in labs?  No.  So now each departmental unit will be buying paper towels, losing the economy of scale, and the physical plant gets to pin a medal on itself for a brilliant cost saving measure.  What they fail to grasp is that academic departments do not get the tuition they earn.  So where will this money come from?  Instead of purchasing educational supplies, the dept will be buying paper towels most likely at a higher cost than the physical plant.  Brilliant, no?  An astute observer will note that not only did not the university save anything, it probably ends up spending more because all one unit did was shift the cost to another unit.  Ah, but now that a dept is spending its "own" money, we will become aware of the wastage and use fewer paper towels.  Yes, let that water you spilled evaporate, it's cheaper than paper towels.  Such are the ridiculous antics at a state university, but they get their marching orders and lessons from the great state of Lincolnland itself.  Our governor has figured out that the university retirement system is a ponzi scheme that is using employees contributions to cover its obligations to retirees, conveniently eliminating the state's obligation to make employer contributions, so now they appear to be deciding that the universities should cover the employer contributions, which will be the biggest unfunded mandate ever.  So if the money is not coming from the state, where will it come from?  Anyone?  Anyone?  Oh, yes, tuition, which has risen far faster than the cost of living because of the withdrawal of state support, and who then is sharply critical of public universities as a result?  Why the very politicians who created the situation!  This mandate would cost each and every student about $1200 more tuition every year, about a 14% increase, passed on to students and their families because the state is loath to raise taxes.  The Phactor also figures the employee contribution would increase as well, thus taking an even bigger bite out of our largely stagnant salaries.  Mrs. Phactor will not be happy about that, and she has threatened to pull the plug.  Yes, this is not empty threat Lincolnland.  The Phactor will be forced to retire, take his money and run for cover.  The whole thinking in our state is just brilliant.  Of course, tea party conservatives would like to nuke public education/indoctrination mills completely.  So the stakes go up!  Hey, you, don't use a paper towel to blow  your nose; carry your own tissues.  My job is at stake!

Spring break - field season!

Well, one thing is pretty certain, spring break is next week and very, very few undergrads will be on campus.  As usual, spring break will be when the Phactor gears up for field season.  A couple of undergrads are involved with seed germination experiments: the effect of fire on germination of an invasive legume, allelopathic (chemical warfare) interference of germination of native prairie species by an invasive legume (notice a theme?).  Our first task, as it is every year, is to find our long-term study plots, whose locations in general are known, but in the exact specific, they can be hard to find.  Prairies are dynamic places, and things happen.  Who knows why?   Things get buried, things get dug up, especially if they mark the corner of a study plot.  And with an advance spring, the earliest suspects will be sprouting very soon, especially since the prairie was burned in the fall so nothing remains to burn this spring.  The blackened soil will also warm up a bit sooner too.  It's strange in the spring without any vegetation, when you can see the whole plot so easily, and when the 30 inch PVC pipes stick up so conspicuously, so it's hard to imagine how hard these will be to find (close to impossible) when the prairie vegetation reaches 7-8 feet in August.  And of course with all of this to do, the book looms, and the need to get it finished ASAP.  It'll be a great spring break.

Sowing botanical ignorance - common names

From a botanical perspective, common names are generally a nuisance, but at times the misinform the amateur.  So understand this, common names don't mean a thing.  A common and very annoying purveyor of terrible made-up common names is the mail-order, you've seen their cheap ass ads in the Sunday newspaper inserts, Blech's, or something very similar to that.  They tend to sell very young plants for very cheap prices thereby providing you exactly get your money's worth, but nothing at all like what is illustrated to the point that it's only a short step away from fraud.  Their ads tend to show a pretty spectacular picture with only a common name leaving you to guess what it may actually be.  Today's paper from a great midwestern city featured a striking "flowering fern".  Now anyone who knows anything about plants knows that ferns do not flower, but lots of plants have "ferny" leaves, dissected or compound leaves thought by people who never ever look at venation to look like ferns.  So so it is with this plant.  The image is probably Incarvillea delavayi, a member of the bignon family, mostly tropical trees and lianas.  Species of this genus are herbaceous Asian alpine plants, so they are hardy, but in my experience they hate hot summers, and this brings up yet another plant-selling fraud, alpines sold as hardy, i.e., winter hardy, which they are, but very heat intolerant, so not hardy at all in that respect.  Now calling this plant "flowering fern" really sends the wrong message to the botanically naive; many people will just accept that this is indeed a fern.  Nothing in the fine print even hints at its real name.  A better common name, one that has been used for this species, is fern-leafed trumpet flower which correctly suggests a relationship to trumpet vine, Campsis radicans, one of my don't plant this plants.  Other species are sometimes called hardy gloxinias, which implies a wrong family relationship, although bignon flowers do look a lot like some gesneriads.  So someday it will happen.  Some gardener without a clue will ask the Phactor what is the fern that has big pink flowers?  Gad!  And he will answer, "Ferns don't have flowers."  And they will say, "Oh, this one does."   So to play purveyors, if you must use common names, use well accepted ones, and then put the real species name in parentheses after wards, and if you cannot do this, then get out of the business.  To gardeners everywhere, beware the "hardy" alpine scam

Friday Fabulous Flower - Walking Iris

This is actually a quite fabulous flower in particular the contrast between the white upper half of the falls and the blue standards, both with the yellow-brown mottled bases.  A while back another species of walking iris was featured as the FFF, one with yellow flowers, but this one (Neomarica candida) has larger, showier, more striking flowers.  One of these days the Phactor will have to put this flower under some UV light to see the pattern.  Presumably the 3-branched style will show up brightly against a darker background.  These are members of the iris family, not the genus Iris, and they are easily propagated by the plantlets that form after the flowering is done.  Ours occupy otherwise almost wasted space under other larger plants against the north wall of our glasshouse.  Other than liking their heat and humidity they seem easy enough to grow , but you had better live where it doesn't get very cold.  

Davy Jones has stopped Monkeeing around

The Phactor was never a Monkees fan, too bubble gum, too cutesy, too lame, but for a reason that will shortly be revealed, he knows the words to almost all of their songs.  You see my dear departed Mother-in-law gave the F1 a record player, and all those nursery rhyme songs were terminally lame, so rather than listen to them one more time, the Phactor got the great idea of taking her to the local oldies rock and roll emporium and buying her a bunch of bubble gum band records, and that included the Monkees.  So now you get the idea; they got played over and over again, and there is no doubt at all that she still knows all of those songs, a great talent.  So it was rather sad to learn of Davy's death, just as the Phactor gets very sad over anyone dying in their 60s.  Yes,we know what those survivorship curves look like. 

Berry-go-round #49

Bora over at Blog around the clock did a great job of rounding up a bunch of plant related blogs even though February was a shortish, but slightly longer this leap year, month.  It does my heart good to see so many interesting plant blogs and makes me wonder how it is that people cannot find these wonderful offerings interesting.  So click on over to BATC and have a look at all the postings you may have missed.  Thanks, Bora.

Windy day blues

Yesterday was a terribly windy day even by the standards of the upper midwest where it's almost always windy thus explaining all those hundreds of wind turbines standing only a few miles outside our fair city.  Windy days depress the Phactor for several reasons.  Firstly, out estate has lots of big old trees and after every windy day, especially gusty ones, it takes an hour or so just to pick up all the limbs that fall.  Secondly, all kinds of crap blows around in the wind, and being down wind from a hospital construction project, all kinds of construction refuse ended up lodged in our shrubs and trees.  Thirdly, leaves left over from the fall blow all over the place, and most of them seem to land in our lily pond.  Fourthly, as if another reason were needed, and actually the primary reason for disliking wind, the Phactor is quite fond of broad brimmed hats, one might say attached, but while my constant companions, hats are not literally attached, and a short loss of concentration might mean a favorite hat could end up in the next county where it could be found by an agricultural peasant, the kind that thinks grain or tractor caps are stylish.  Now that's scary.