Field of Science

North Carolina takes new approach to global warming - make it illegal.

States and countries with significant coastlines should be quite concerned as Greenland's ice cap melts because low lying areas along their shore lines will be submerged, although NC is luckier than most because most of its significant cities are not coastal.  A meter rise in sea level is predicted within a century, but since the melting is probably not a steady rate, things may change significantly faster.  So what do concerned leaders do about a rising sea level?  It's so simple!  Make it illegal in North Carolina for the sea level to rise.  You hear that Atlantic Ocean?  You hear that Arctic ice?  And to really cap it off, they made it illegal to measure rising sea levels so that politicians who don't like what science tells them never, ever have to confront reality.  Wow!  Those NC politicians really know how to take care of things, in never-never land.  Good bye Wilmington; hello Asheville!  Actually the reason for posting this is that it's one way to feel good about your own state representatives.  HT to Scientific American blogs.

Genomic studies confirm the tomato is a fruit. Duh!

Really?  Genomics confirms that the tomato is a fruit, not a vegetable?  No, probably just Gisela's lame attempt at humor.  There are a lot of good reasons for genomic research, comparing one genome to another, but it doesn't seem that this science writer touched on any of them. Genomic research wasn't needed to identify the domestic tomato's closest wild ancestor; yes, it confirmed it, but it was already known, well known.  And yes, tomato is pretty close to potato too, but that was already so well known that tomato has been transferred back into the genus Solanum, discarding its colorful genus Lycopersicon ("edible wolf peach", maybe distinguishing it from other toxic red-fruited nightshades), a triumph for Linnaeus who put it there in the first place.  So what did we learn from this fluffy bit of science news?  Not much.  

And now for something completely different

You see a lot of different things wandering around college campuses, and a few enter into the area of strange, but you get used to different.  So it was this morning while wheeling along between the coffee shoppe and my office that the Phactor noticed a very short person under a very large head of red hair strolling, if that be the right term because it was not a standard gait, in a flouncy sort of skirt.  Nothing strange here, although the costume was a bit unusual for summer when t-shirt, gym shorts, and flip-flops are the norm.  But how often do you see a red-headed hobbit playing a blue ukelele?  Now we got major different and maybe border line strange.  So some four hours later, the Phactor hears the unmistakable sound of a ukelele outside his office door, and then a knock.  A red-headed, ukelele-playing hobbit wants to visit the greenhouse, and with the normal student and faculty traffic down to a trickle, the door was locked.  At least she didn't ask to play for the plants.  Apparently red-headed, ukelele-playing hobbits like greenhouses filled with plants, especially the hibiscus, the frangipani ("smells fantastic"), and a mimosa sensitive plant ("did I kill it?").  "Are you like the herbalist professor at Hogworts?"  No, the Phactor is just a botanist.  "What's this?"  It's a sweet acacia.  "It smells like lemon fresh Joy."  Yes, that's pretty accurate description of the floral fragrance.  "And if you listen to it closely will you hear Whos?"  It takes a few seconds for the Phactor to realize that this is not a reference to a musical group, but a literary reference (Horton hears a Who).  Well, yes, this is in the same plant family as Horton's clover.  Well, have a nice look around, and make sure the door is locked when you leave.  "You trust me?"  Sure, red-headed ukelele players are notoriously honest.  "That's right! This is even my real hair color."  Ah, an almost certain untruth, but no one is perfect.  She picks an hibiscus for her hair.  "Oh, was that OK?"  It will grow more.  Every day needs a little bit of a different for an interlude, a musical interlude, in this case.   

Gumming up the works

There are lots of plant products that you have almost daily contact with of which you are largely unaware, and one of these is plant gums used mostly as thickeners and emulsifiers.  So unless you are the curious sort who reads all of those labels and wonders what some of those things are you probably don't know much about plant gums.  Now in this particular case the gums in question are not the elastic latexes that are, or were, the stuff of chewing gum.  One very interesting plant gum has gone from obscure to valuable, and if you had told the Phactor that guar gum (cluster bean) was suddenly a hot commodity and in high demand, the plant would have been familiar, but no clue why guar was suddenly important.  The reason is fracking.  Guar gum helps water flow and generates a precise viscosity, so a minor agricultural commodity is in demand by the fracking gas/oil industry.  Not much guar is grown in the USA, but it can grow in pretty hot, dry areas, so farmers in India are suddenly finding their crop worth more than ever before.  Good for them.  And this is one of those crazy connections between world events and some plant commodity that pop up every now and again pushing some obscure plant to the forefront, for awhile.  HT to the Agricultural Biodiversity blog.

Dry, dry, dry

Some things are meant to be dry: wine, towels, gin, martinis, gun powder, humor.  Gardens are not in that category, and now the early heat, the lack of seasonal rain, and the minimal winter precipitation are all combining to make the end of May way too dry, and it's a deep dry.  Advice: water the crap out of any newly plantings if you have any hope of having them survive. Think of it as insurance to protect your investment.  Water the crap out of any trees or shrubs you planted last year too.  Trees that were under watered last year are basically toast; some are already going down for the count.  A further note to inexperienced waterers: long and slow is the way to go.  Once you think you've actually watered something adequately, dig a plug and see just how deeply you watering penetrated.  You may be in for a big surprise at how superficial your watering is, and this is doubly bad because you leave with the impression that you have watered.  The combination of near drought conditions and political rhetoric, which can dessicate your brain, bode badly for the summer months. 

Just like a Monday, Monday

Memorial Day is just like a Monday because actually it is a Monday.  It started with a loud crack at about 2 AM, and it was very loud because it woke me up and the windows were closed because we finally gave up and turned the AC on.  Nothing else happened and sleep was returning when the emergency flashing lights appeared.  The connection between the two wasn't obvious, nor was it clear what the emergency vehicle was doing out there, but no one was knocking on our door, so close to sleep again, but then new brighter emergency lights appeared, and all became obvious.  A large (2 foot diam) branch from the basswood across the street had cracked, and a very large limb was blocking the entire street and resting on the utility wires across the street right above our driveway.  OK this might affect the AC and the fans.  But these emergency tree guys have the best toys, and they are experienced, and after deciding how to attack the problem it probably only took them one and a half hours to clear up the whole thing, and they did so without bringing down the wires!  So morning arrived at the usual time a bit sleep deprived, fought with the need the coffee to make the coffee paradox and lost with the result of coffee grounds spilled across the kitchen.  Ah, well, that's why it's a paradox.  And then to further enforce the Mondayness of it all, our bi-weekly Monday cleaning crew showed up because they would rather clean and get paid than have a Monday off.  So while shuffling off to get out of their path, more coffee gets spilled (Understand why cleaners are needed?), so the safest thing to do, perhaps, is see if the cable is working and blog.  But if the Phactor waits too much longer the heat of the day and sun will reach his kitchen garden, and there are things to plant.  Coffee is needed before launching into anything productive, so back to the paradox, and Mrs. Phactor reminds me that need of coffee has been satisfied (?) so the paradox and other excuses no longer apply.  Without question it is a Monday. 

Music to my ears!

It's 91 F (32.8C) today, and tomorrow promises to be hotter.  Even though the spring was early, our herb and kitchen gardens are late.  So naturally, hot weather arrives to better assist us in gardening, that and the lack of rain, a great duo.  Terrific.  Ah, but what's that marvelous sound?  Why it's the sound of a 20-something back shoveling some of the 10 cubic yards of wood mulch and shipping it around the gardens.  Yes.  This is money being well spent and well earned, the more so because a colleague is happy to have her son actually outside doing physical labor for a decent wage ($2.65 an hour and all the grass he can eat).  It actually isn't so bad as many parts of our yard are always shaded, so you can move your efforts around during the day, and our massive white house withstands the heat quite well without the AC.  Most of our neighbors have already started theirs running.  The most important thing about such early dry heat is to keep the mulch spreader and all of our newly planted trees and shrubs well watered.  In the meantime, having worn himself out, the Phactor is pondering the deep meaning of margarita while planning a "treat yourself well" dinner.

Helping a reader with a dandelion experiment

Shannon writes: "So, while thinking about the effectiveness of other commonly recommended methods (pulling, eating, bleaching, salting) I thought, why not just remove all the leaves? Over and over again, starving the root.  I started doing just that, pulling all the buds as well when it occurred to me that I should leave the buds (until just before they go to seed) since the plant would theoretically invest energy in the seed production thereby starving the root even faster.  What do you think? Does either idea (pulling leaves and buds vs just the leaves) sound like it would work? I don't see it as being any harder than trying to pull the root or bending over all day trying to spot spray them with vinegar or Roundup."

First, let me ask, Shannon, where were you when the Phactor needed help doing an eradication treatment for a field experiment?  Believe me Shannon, you've got what it takes if you would even contemplate pulling all the leaves off the dandelions in your yard.
Now about trimming off the leaves of dandelions to kill the root.  Yes, this will work, if the world does not come to an untimely end sometime during the next 10 million years.  Plants are pretty conservative in their use of stored food.  We've been destroying shoots of trumpet creeper and bind weed as they appear for over a decade, and yet root systems somewhere near China keeps sending up new shoots.  That big taproot that dandelions have is going to be hard to deplete.  And all of this makes the Phactor wonder about your life Shannon.  Is this the best thing you can do with your time?  In a yard the size of ours pruning the leaves off dandelions would be a never ending task; just as you finished it would be time to start all over again.  Actually given the Phactor's situation, it might also be the case that physically pulling or digging out each weed would be never ending too.   If you really want the perverse pleasure of watching the dandelion die, you could use a blowtorch to kill the plant crown.  So chemical treatment has certain advantages, but don't use vinegar or Roundup.   Roundup kills everything, as do other such things as vinegar, although usually done as a spot treatment.  Weed killers target dicots while not affecting the grass, so get yourself a 1 gallon plastic sprayer, a small bottle of weed killer, and follow the directions to spot treat the dandelions.  Then either sign on to help with my field work or get a nice hobby like blogging.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Goat's beard

Some plants struggle along, and then for one of a variety of reasons you move them, and voila, they prosper.  And so it was with this species of goat's beard (Aruncus dioicus).  After struggling along in obscurity for several years, it survived a near miss when rather than discarding it, we transplanted this goat's beard just to fill in some space vacated by removal of a gigantic old honeysuckle.  And what a transformation!  For the first time in our garden, it looks quite handsome topped with its lacy white inflorescences.  Apparently the combination of a heavier soil and heavier shade was not to its liking, and a silver bell shrub has also prospered by a move to a nearby site.  For many people the other surprising thing about this genus is that it belongs to the rose family.  It just doesn't look rosy to most people, but the foliage is purely rose family.  If you compare it to something like Sorbaria, you begin to see the connection to spireas and other small flowered roses.  

Endurance record?

My dear younglings, you will probably find this not only remarkable, but an unbelievable record of endurance, one that only someone of some age could achieve, and by no means all of us.  Yes, so here it is.  On my daily walk to and from work, the Phactor goes without any musical input, telephone or internet access for 20 minutes!  As best can be determined, this is longer than anyone under 30 has gone in over a decade by at least a factor of 10.  What deprivation!  What endurance!  Why nothing whatever to do but think, alone with your own thoughts, an experience without precedent among students of my acquaintance.  But there you have it; a record nonetheless.

Good news, everyone! Drink coffee and live longer and better!

Not that this information actually means anything to the addict, but it appears that not only is the modest imbibing of coffee not harmful, caffeine may actually help you live a longer life.  Back when coffee was being panned as unhealthy by really unhappy people, the Phactor figured that the people who didn't drink coffee didn't really live longer; it was just that their miserable existence seemed longer. One does wonder about all the factors involved.  Perhaps the socializing in the convivial company of coffee house patrons improves your outlook on life, which in turn provides a positive impact on your health, if only everyone didn't talk so fast.  But even if such studies did not exist, a true caffeine addict is not easily guilted into quitting their morning upper.  Such a study also should not be used as an excuse for over indulgence so as to increase your chances of living to 120.  So, to Mr. 4 shots, straight up, you're probably near the limit.  HT to Scientific American blog.  And a wag of the finger for their stupid commercial delay.  None of that stuff here, folks! 

Understand this?

It is no shame to admit that you have no understanding of particle physics.  An old episode of Big Bang Theory had Sherman and his girl friend arguing about whose field of science was the more all inclusive to the end of claiming who was really the smartest.  When one of the other characters butts in to say, Hey, you're not the only two scientists here, they looked at him like he'd said, "I study botany."  Well, the botanist does not claim to understand particle physics or the Higgs Bozon (except to fun them), but this is a very clever cartoon by the producer of PhD Comics to explain what the folks at the Big Hadron Collider are doing.  So join the crowd; try to understand mass, and why things have it, or don't, and then admit that you just don't get it.  

Bacterial fuel cell turns sewage into juice

Everytime you flush or put something down the sink disposal, energy is going down the drain.  BOD stands for biological oxygen demand, the amount of oxygen needed to turn all those carbon molecules into CO2 via aerobic respiration.  The world's best decomposers, bacteria, may accomplish this in a different way, anaerobically, which works but generally more slowly.  Now scientists have created a fuel cell that turns 13% of the energy in sewage into electricity. Now this is a great thing because now treating sewage costs energy rather than generating energy.  Image all that sewage sludge turned into electricity!  Wow!  This is very cool. Now maybe if some of those pig farms could just put their by-products into fuel cells, some akin to Bartertown's electrical system (Mad Max 3), now that would be progress if only an apocalypse can be avoided first.

Cyanide producing plants

A reader asks the Phactor: "I understand some plants, seeds etc. contain cyanide. If ingested and the source of the cyanide is not immediately known, can any test determine the specific source of the poison i.e. it came from apple seeds or peach pits. Or is the chemical compound simply the same no matter what the source?"  
Technically plants do not contain cyanide.  What they do contain are cyanogenic (= cyanide generating) compounds, molecules that when acted upon release cyanide as one of the products.  Cyanogenic compounds are of two types: glycosides (something linked to a glucose) and lipids (fats/oils).  In the case of apple seeds the compound is called amygdalin (a glycoside), and when glucose is removed, what's left (it has a name, but does it matter to you?) forms a molecule of cyanide and another characteristic molecule.  So if this product can be detected, and here we must assume biochemists are clever enough to do so, it would demonstrate that the source of the cyanide was amygdalin, but that could come from a number of different plants (Could be apple or peach seeds, both members of the rose family.). It would limit the suspect list because there are cyanogenic plants that do not have amygdalin.  Glucosides taste bitter, our warning sign of potential toxicity, so sweet almonds (a close relative to peaches and apricots) are not actually so sweet as they are not bitter, indicating their lack of toxicity. The link (above) to the reference is pure biochemistry, but there you go.

Nasty imported soil yields new weeds

Mrs. Phactor is death on weeds, and she knows the worst ones by name, reputation, and depth  of rooting.  An interesting thing happened as a result of refurbishing our lily pond.  A load of topsoil was imported to landscape the cascade, and it came with its own population of weed seeds.  Naturally a fine crop of weeds popped up on this massive disturbance, and as we slowly get this area tamed, the weeds have to go.  Oh, but Mrs. Phactor got quite a surprise because alien topsoil brought in some new species of weeds, ones not already in our estate, unfamiliar to her, and very, very unfortunately one of them happened to be Urtica dioica, stinging nettle.  Now she actually knows this plant, but was not expecting to see very juvenile seedlings, which are still quite capable of giving you a nasty surprise, and pulling them by hand, without gloves, well, you know what happened.  Do not bet on the nettles; Mrs. Phactor will extract her revenge upon them. 

Horsetails are not ferns!

Common names cause a lot of grief, but they remain friendly, although often uninformative or misleading, easy to remember, and at times they are useful as shorthand references.  They certainly have their place in teaching and outreach.  Now here's the particular problem.  Molecular data nests the horsetails within the lineage of what traditionally have been called ferns.  OK, fair enough, but that does not make horsetails into ferns.  In a classification of extant (living) ferns published in 2006 my colleagues label the whole lineage "ferns".  Right now the Phactor does not wish to argue about whisk ferns (also called psilophytes) in this same context.  But horsetails have been  distinct from ferns back to the point when there were neither ferns nor horsetails, but merely a group of plants that were the likely common ancestors of ferns and horsetails, and even within this group their respective ancestors were different.  Traditionally, the lower vascular plants (those without seeds) were called the pteridophytes - the fern-like plants.  Now this is fine and everyone understood what was meant, but the beautiful people have decided that because pteridophytes used to include the clubmosses, the term must be avoided.  True, the clubmosses are a separate lineage, so you must re-define pteridophyte to exclude the clubmosses, and this type of thing is done all the time.  Pteridophyte always had a broader connotation than the term "fern"; it basically meant the "ferns and fern allies (which also included clubmosses)".  When you say fern, the image your mind forms is not at all what you see when someone says "horsetail".  Until people get used to the narrower definition of pteridophyte there will be some confusion, but certainly that produces no greater confusion than calling horsetails "ferns".  Part of the trouble is that the plants traditionally considered "ferns" do not form a single lineage; no lineage of ferns exists unless you include the whisk ferns and horsetails, but now you've got pteridophytes.  So the Phactor still sees considerable utility to pteridophyte to label the whole lineage, although now redefined to exclude clubmosses, because he cannot bring himself to call a horsetail a fern. If anyone wants this publication, go to this link (Kathleen Pryer's web page), scroll down to 2006; it's the 1st entry.  What think you RE ferns and horsetails?

Creative botany

Here's a very creative video about ginko, which is the creative way of spelling ginkgo.  Does it really matter if you misspell the main character of your little creative work?  After all what was the point, to show that you have a creative flair, or to show that you learned some botany?  The Phactor certainly appreciates creativity (and truth be known, he minored in art), but he also appreciates some accuracy.  Wonder why they didn't do a video about Psilotum and Tmesipteris

Climate change - Something to beef about

Many people who deny climate change don't want to pay the cost of doing anything about it, but there will be other costs.  My colleague over at the Wild Plants Post explains the ecology of grasslands at elevated temperatures and the consequences for large grazers.  It's a pretty simple equation: heat causes grasslands to lose nitrogen, the food quality of the grassland vegetation drops, so grazers get less nutrition and grow smaller.  This may not mean much to a natural ecosystem, but if the grazers happen to be beef cattle and they take longer to gain weight or just simply grow to a smaller size, well, now you got something to beef about.  The cost to the beef industry will be huge.

A minor garden triumph over wildlife

The biggest problem with having a wildlife friendly property is that it is wild life friendly.  Sometime this spring a member of our native species of marmot, locally called a woodchuck (as in "How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood.")  These are nice attractive animals, quite like a large, voracious guinea pig.  So far this season, our lettuce and broccoli has been eaten to nubs three times.  Fortunately spinach is not in the woodchuck play list.  Parsley, cilantro, and especially bellflowers are favorites, and this fellow would pass through Mrs. Phactor's perennial garden like it was a cafeteria.  Ah, but that ended yesterday when the lure of a nice big chunk of apple (one of the best uses of red delicious taken out of storage). This was a very well-fed healthy young fellow of interdeterminate sex, and they were relocated to a woodchuck preserve maintained by our local municipality.  However, as the season is deep into May, our chances of getting very much more in the way of lettuce or broccoli are limited until fall.  Now if only something could be done to reduce the populations of squirrels and rabbits.  Part of the problem is that the local idiots go crazy everything they see a red fox, call the city, and their animal control people remove them from the area (usually permanently).  Here foxy, foxy, foxy!  Nice juicy bunnies!  This is how to stay friendly to wild life. 

Back to the wild wild west

A rural Oregon county has decided not to fund government.  Is this progress?  Is this a return to the "good ole days"?  Is this really what Americans want?  Where's the freedom?  Is this civilized?  What's the matter with people?

Friday Fabulous Flower - Eggs on a bush

Last Friday the Phactor failed to post a fabulous flower for a very interesting reason; the hotel internet cafe had their filter set way high and it denied access to my blog on the basis of its "adult" content.  Well, this is hardly a kiddie blog; we are all adults and most of you act accordingly, but do you think it was the algal orgy or just the naked truth about sex (an attempt to pander for hits) that failed to filter?  At any rate, today's fabulous flower buds look like eggs on a bush, and here to negate the adult status of this blog it is necessary to point out we mean egg as in bird egg, not egg as in gamete or sex cell.  Oops!  Both the Morris Arboretum and the Scott Arboretum have collections of magnolias, but given our early spring, the BGT was a bit late for their flowering.  However the Oyama magnolia (Magnolia sieboldii) flowers later along with the sweet bay magnolia.  The flowers are pendent and have quite striking whorl of red stamens to contrast with the creamy white perianth so they look quite good when viewed from below, which means this shrubby species will have to get fairly tall to afford you this view.  Our 5 yr old specimen  is 7-8 feet tall but has yet to flower.  It seems marginally hardy in our area but did well with the just past mild winter (no die-back).  

The Long (wood) and short of it

Longwood Garden is the best known and largest of the gardens included on this geek tour.  It does not disappoint.  Longwood has lots of everything, lightly managed natural appearing areas, vistas, a pretty good diversity of plants, a few impressive specimens but nothing extraordinary, manicured formal gardens, fountains and water features (my favorite was water gushing down a now re purposed broad cement staircase), topiary (and you known my feelings about poodling shrubs - some of these were poodles!), and acres of pretty impressive conservatory specimens.  Of course if you had DuPont money to fund your garden it could be pretty fancy too.  While a bit of a Disneyland of gardens, Longwood is worth a walk around, once, and without doubt you'll find something of interest, something that charms you, something very attractive. You want trees; they got trees.  You want azaleas; they got azaleas.  You want fountains; they got fountains (set to music).  You want orchids; they got orchids.  And so on down a long, long list. It is pretty spectacular when you see many gardens there are and how much TLC is lavished upon them, pretty much the complete opposite of Bartram's Garden, and that's the long and short of this BGT.  It is worth mentioning that their cafeteria/lunch counter is way above average in terms of food quality (e.g., a brie and smoked turkey on a whole wheat hoagie).  So if you go, make sure you have your walking shoes on.  No figuring out what single image best illustrates this garden.  None of them, really, so here's an artificial vista albeit a very nice one.

Bartram's Garden - a botanical Mecca

Perhaps it should be Bartrams' Garden (rather than Bartram's Garden because although the garden was started by John Bartram (1699-1777), his son William (1739-1823) inherited not only the garden but his Father's interest in botany and natural history.  Although John Bartram had limited education, Linnaeus, one of the foremost scientists of the day, called him the "greatest natural botanist in the world".  The Bartrams were responsible for collecting and introducing an estimated 150-200 new species to science via specimens sent to Europe collected in the eastern states from upstate New York to Florida and west to the Ohio River.  These included the famous Franklinia alatamaha (named by William to honor Ben Franklin, a friend and associate of his Father).  Franklinia had a very limited distribution and has been extinct in the wild since about 1800, and all the specimens of this beautiful tree alive today are descended from seeds the Bartrams collected and propagated in their garden, North America's first real botanic garden.  Bartram's garden is small, probably occupying no more than 10-12 acres although the property is 3 or 4 times bigger, and it is located just 3 miles from downtown Philadelphia on the bank of the Schuykill River.  This is not a particularly impressive garden in terms of being well kept or having extraordinary diversity (see BGT participants: Mrs. Phactor, Dean of Green & lovely wife Carol,  in the arboretum), but it has a great quality to it.  John's house, built by his own hands, still stands strong, the mark of an excellent stone mason, and a few trees of distinction are still found there.  The oldest Ginkgo in North America grows there, the last of the first three to be introduced to North America from China (via London).  Another notable specimen is a huge (largest in N. America?) yellow wood tree (Cladrastis kentukea) (see image of the tree in flower!) another species collected by the Bartrams.  The Garden is part of the Philadelphia park system now (since 1891) and is surrounded by a rather shabby run-down neighborhood.  But how can you not go and pay homage to this important part of botanical history?  

Stranger in a strange land - Magic Gardens

Without question BGT (Botanical Geek Tour) #4 included a range of gardens and garden personalities probably greater than the span of all gardens previously visited, no small number, and that was largely, but not wholly, because of the intriguing Magic Gardens.  When you're on a garden tour, how can you not look for some magic.  But nothing, nothing, nothing can prepare you for the strangeness, the audacity,  of Magic Gardens, the epic creation of 73 year old artist, Isaiah Zagas.  It's like falling down the rabbit hole and landing in a wonderland of mosaic sculpture, one that covers the entire inside and outside of a house, or two, and then flows rampantly into the patio, onto the sidewalk, overflowing and growing beyond eventually covering over 100 walls on Philadelphia's south side.  Magic Gardens is somewhere in the neighborhood of genius with a good measure of manic, compulsive crazy thrown in for added flavor.  At times you find a fragmented mosaic of yourself looking back from mirrored portions, and then you take a step back and a face suddenly resolves itself from the apparent chaos of pieces of china, mirror, tiles, bottles, and the like.  And a garden it is, fertile, sprouting, growing, rampant, more organic than its material components.  There's some flowers, you might imagine, or a starry, starry night.  Words do not do it justice because quite simply it is magical, and whimsical, and crazy, but if you get to Philly, don't miss it. Without question this is the weirdest, wonderful-est garden the Phactor has ever visited.  This puts a new spin on recycling.  

Botanical Geek Tour #4 - Day 3

Another interesting and quite beautiful day for botanical touring.  Of course it was Mother's Day, and you know flowers sort of attract mothers and kids, so gardens were sure to be busy today.  This AM we did the Morris Arboretum, and everyone was quite impressed; it is a beautiful arboretum with very nice gardens as well.  Morris houses a number of very large trees, and the most impressive specimen was a Kadsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonica) of an impressive size.  More on Morris later.  Next after a stop at a brew-pub for some lunch the tour took in the Scott Arboretum that occupies the campus grounds of Swarthmore College.  It was eerily quiet as this is after graduation, and campuses never quite seem right largely devoid of people, but without question, this is the most extensive and diverse arboretum to occupy a college/university campus, and in this category, the Phactor has seen a lot of college campuses.  From somewhere the Phactor managed to recognize and remember Torreya, another huge specimen, having only seen a small tree once before.  Unfortunately our timing was off for the magnolias (too late), however some nice specimens of Styrax were seen at several locations.  The concentration of botanical gardens in the Philadelphia area is impressive and probably a greater concentration of botanical gardens does not exist anywhere in the USA.  In addition to the itinerary covered so far, there is the Camden Children's Garden, the L. W. Barton Arboretum, the Philadelphia Zoo (tomorrow), the Shofuso Japanese Garden, the Awbury Arboretum, the Highlands Gardens, the Ambler Arboretum, the Wyck House Garden, Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve, H. Schmeider Arboretum, Hortulus Farem Garden, Tyler Formal Gardens, the Hagley duPont Garden, Nemours Mansion and Gardens, Welkinweir, Wintherthur, the Arboretum at Barnes Foundation, Chanticleer, Haverford College Arboretum, Henry Botanic Garden, Jenkins Arboretum & Gardens, and Tyler Arboretum.  Can't understand how it was that we could only work in 6 in 3 and a half days.  Ah, but tree affectionados take their time.  So details will be forthcoming.  Oh, yes, and there's a bell, liberty, and all the rest too. 

Botanical Geek Tour Report - Progress report

The fourth botanical geek tour is well underway, and it's been going very well.  The Phactor would have reported in already except the bloody hotel internet connection blocked access to signing on to the Phytophactor blog because it was an "adult" site?!  Apparently the algal orgy and some other blogs about plant reproduction tripped some type of nanny filter. So how has it gone.  Yesterday was spent at Longwood Garden, and this morning at Bartrum's Garden.  Suffice it to say, two more different gardens could hardly be described.  Longwood's extensive and precise gardens are quite magnificent, but for a sophisticated gardener and botanical tourist, nothing could beat Bartrum's, a tiny 300 year old oasis of a garden surrounded by tenement row houses.  That it survived at all is amazing.  Longwood is almost too perfect, but Bartrum's displays a casual neglect that only a garden of real gardening and botanical heritage could pull off.  As a crazy counterpoint to both was the Magic Garden on South St. in Philadelphia, which while not botanical, is called a garden nonetheless.  In terms of my progress report, we have eaten extremely well.  What remarkable things have we seen so far?  The oldest gingko in the USA grows in Bartrum's garden as well as a national champion yellowwood tree which was in full bloom (good timing that).  It's hard to know, but the most remarkable plant at Longwood garden was the biggest Cyas revoluta any of us had ever seen.  They grow so slowly, that one in our collection has barely changed in 30 years, but it was but a seedling compared to this specimen.  It's age?  Who knows?  200 years, 300 years?  Did the Phactor mention seafood?  Today's lunch was at Pearl's Oyster Bar in the Reading Terminal Market, a fantastic extravagance of culinary delights.  So more details to come.  Images to come.  Stay tuned.  Why the troops have even invaded Delaware to avoid the stoopid liquor laws of PA and get wine.  So there PA!  Is this what comes of being founded by Quakers?  Can't say.  Stay tuned. 

Botanical Geek Tour #4

Final grades are not quite ready and the semester isn't quite over, but WTF.  It's time for our fourth botanical geek tour.  Our garden itinerary consists of Longwood Gardens, Bartram Gardens, the Scott Arboretum (Swarthmore), the Morris Arboretum (U Penn), and for a bit of bio-balance the Phillie Zoo.  My travel advisor has also scouted the area for restaurants because eating well is an important part of geek tours.  These may include Moshulu, the Iron Hill Brewery, and a seafood place (?) in Reading Terminal, but otherwise we'll make it up as we go along.  So this is your last chance to try to influence our travels with your recommendations.  Hopefully some blog reports and photos will follow if time and facilities allow blogging, so if Phytophactor blogs are a bit in frequent, then just eat your hearts out about the trip.  In particular this trip was planned before it was obvious our spring would be so weird in terms of early flowering times and we are curious about the conditions of these gardens.  Only our latest Rhododendrons are still flowering.

Wind power is horrible, terrible, no-good, very bad energy

If there is one thing that conservative politicians in this country are not about, it's conservation, a rather funny and tragic inconsistency.  Here in central Lincolnland wind farms have been springing up all over the place because if there is anything in excess around here, it's wind.  So, quite rationally, and for the good of the country, if the president is for wind power, conservatives are forced to think it the worst thing ever, dirty, rotten, renewable, safe energy.  So go fly a kite!  That being said the following will be no surprise at all and the simple-shallow-thinkers (SSTs) will once again be organized and led around by super-big-money interests that regularly hose these people economically.  So much for a grassroots movement.  Here's the super, double-secret plan as reported at the Guardian.  HT to Greg Laden.

Suspicions confirmed - Phlox News draws its own conclusions about dinosaur greenhouse gas production

The Phactor is quite impressed by university faculty who have time to read papers this time of year, and he is grateful when a colleague actually reads the original paper about dinosaur greenhouse gas production and the climate and reports what it really says.  Suspicions confirmed, the paper's authors never said a thing about extinction.  Phlox News drew that conclusion because they liked where that idea leads.   If you rely on Phlox News for your information, you get exactly what you deserve, a regular hosing.  But be assured this will turn up in the climate change "controversy" to suggest our extant methane producing herbivores are all to blame, so what are corporations and people to do?  

State Farm hurts the Heartland (Institute)

In north central Lincolnland the corporate headquarters of State Farm Insurance arise from the maize and soybean desert like a black monolith reminiscent of the scifi movie 2001.  The president once told me in a polite email, in response to my criticism of their failure to accept climate change, that the jury was still out and he indicated that the SF corporate position was in line with that of many "experts", real experts, not just a university biologist whose opinion just doesn't count for very much.  But thank you for your concern and long association with our company.  Hello, Allstate!  Well, of course those experts may well have been the Heartland Institute's experts, those professional deniers and corporate shills.  Here's an open letter to SF from a climate scientist announcing his decision to change insurers, using the free market approach to influence their corporate behavior, and pointing out how doing nothing about the situation is going to do nothing but hurt their bottom line.  Now SF has withdrawn its support from Heartland because of its despicable ad campaign the Phactor mentioned the other day.    

What a gas! Dinosaurs breaking wind produced climate change?

When a giant sauropod broke gas, it was probably amazing, as were the size of  its “cow pies”.  And of course the gas, actually gases, were CO2 and methane.  These are some pretty interesting calculations, and similar ones have been done for nutritional values of plants, but enough dinosaur farting to change the climate and lead to their demise?  Ah, no, is the Phactor’s first skeptical reaction.  A great deal would hinge upon the size of dinosaur populations, i.e., the amount of animal biomass, and those numbers must be a huge extrapolation based upon quite a bit of intelligent guess work.  Such studies are fun, and they make you think, but so many factors are so hard to nail down that you guess this news article is a bit of hype to draw attention to the research.   And why would PHLOX news publish a news article on this study?  Well, probably because they like anything, anything at all, that  suggests that climate change is not due to humans but cattle, and the like.   HT to Zingularity.

Likes and dislikes save spinach

Everyone has likes and dislikes, and in this particular case, fortunately, woodchucks do not like spinach.  So while the Phactor's lettuce and broccoli have been "set back" for a second time, inspite of extensive fencing, the spinach was avoided because spinach, probably the oxalic acid, is on the woodchuck dislike list. In the spirit of if fate gives you lemons make lemonaide, the spinach has been avoided, so tonight we enjoyed a wilted spinach salad, made with remarkably tender greens, although who knows when we'll have any broccoli.  By the way, should you ever need to live trap a woodchuck, the Phactor would suggest that the bait that will get a woodchuck to walk into a trap is a slice of muskmelon.  They love  muskmelon, but don't like spinach. 

Mailbag - Conference Invitation

Wow!  The 7th International Conference of Climate Change Denialism is being hosted by Heartland Institute those wonderful people who used to shill for Big Tobacco by denying that smoking was harmful.  Here's some of the insightful questions that will be addressed by "Real Science" to provide you with "Real Choices".  Is carbon dioxide "pollution" or a boon to human and plant life?  Would future warming be harmful or beneficial?  In man-made global warming a fact or a theory? Sounds like Heartland has been learning from the Discovery Institute.  But you know only us left-wing nut cases, mad scientists, and environmental terrorists actually believe these things, which raises the question of why if you are only trying to counter a few far left crazies, is the HI spending so much money to throw a conference and produce all those "real science" billboards?  You would just ignore fringe cranks because obviously main line science would be on your side.  So right away you smell something a bit off.  So even though the world's leading climate scientists, policy experts, and political leaders will be at the conference, us crazies have field work to do, more of that unreal science.  

Honeydew weekend

A beautiful weekend is in the offing, not cold and rainy like a week ago, but the chores are piling up.  After working at a plant sale for an arboretum, the rest of the morning was spent planting some of the plants from the plant sale, cleaning pond filters, fixing an aeration stone, moving a garden table and chairs into the garden, cleaning out a garden fountain pond, cleaning up a fountain, installing one inside the other and adding water, moving a bird feeder so that the seed scavengering squirrels don't trample Mrs. Phactor's hosta into the ground, fixing the squirrel baffle, locating the kitchen window, balcony door, and porch door screens, cleaning said screens, cleaning said windows (but only on the outside), and it's just 12:30 pm.  But the chores will stop early because of the obligation to drink a mint julep and eat some guacamole, this being Cinco de Mayo Derby Day.  Some people may watch a horse race, but the Phactor is just in it for the bourbon, one of the justifications for growing mint and getting out the monogrammed sterling silver mint julep cups.  Oh, you don't have such cups?  As explained by the Kentucky cousin who gave them to us 42 years ago, "Y'all can't right proper be married without julep cups."  Undoubtedly the reason for our marriage's success.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Bastard Balm

Every garden has one or two tough spots, and one of ours sits and the junction of a sidewalk and driveway, where it is shady all day, but with a shot of late afternoon direct sun, but an area that is often quite dry.  Most plants that do well in dry places also do well in full sun as the two are usually related, but this spot is too shady for such plants and this is known because many have tried (to grow there) and many have failed.  So it was that while seeking something new, the Phactor happened upon bastard balm and noted a suggestion that it might do OK in a dry semi-shady spot.  As it turns out, it does grow, quite handsomely in this very tough spot forming an biggish (40-50 cm tall) clump of lush foliage and with a very impressive floral display as well, some of the biggest of mint flowers.  And it's better behaved that most mints.  What's not to like?
The common name is a bit strange, bastard balm.  What is illegitimate about this balm?  Here the Phactor offers a guess.  The species name is Melittis melissophyllum.  The genus is derived from the Greek for bee, and bees do like it,  and the specific epithet means leaves like Melissa, another mint genus whose name is also derived from the Greek for honeybee, in other words the "bee balm".  Melittis then becomes the illegitimate balm by looking like the real thing. Anybody got a better story?   

Ending with a whimper

Some semesters end in a bang, others end in a whimper, some just end.  This one seems to be whimpering a bit and it would a kindness to put it out of its misery.  The students really seem tired, physically, intellectually, emotionally.  It's kind of sad.  But it comes mostly from having made bad decisions earlier and now things become impossible because there is just too much to do in too little time.  One fellow is probably not going to graduate, and it is a bit unfair, but not totally.  Becoming a senior slacker your last semester is not a good strategy; minimal effort, absenteeism, they don't impress.  Ah, but then you're hit with an unexpected illness and bam!  You're in trouble because there's just too much to make up; it would have been bad enough if you were right on top of things, but you were slacking.  These things do not make the Phactor happy, but part of my job is to ensure that when a transcript says you've taken a course, you actually have taken the course and mastered the material at some level of proficiency; it isn't just grabbing some credits.  Since most of the class did take the course and do all the work, my job is to protect their efforts from debasement too.  Others, some really outstanding folks, end on an upbeat, finishing up research projects, busting the curve on exams, and generally taking no prisoners.  You know they'll do well.  And it was a hard semester for yours truly as well, and not entirely satisfying because a couple of things could have gone better, but they were instructional experiments.  Still have a pile of papers to read and an exam to write, and a blog to post. Very important that.

Berry-Go-Round Plant Blog Carnival #50

It has been a long late spring over at the Seeds Aside blog, but worth it for the collection of nifty plant blogs from March & April.  Click on over and have a look.  You can find out about the different colors of pepper and why lawn mowers should be banned (cruelty to grass), and many others.  Enjoy.  

Attack of the clones!

You get a lot of funny, some funny ha-ha, some funny sad, surveys when you work at a university because lots of younglings are engaged in what passes for research in the non-sciences.  So the Phactor gets a call; it's a survey question.  Would you eat a cloned organism?  Certainly.  So, you think cloned food is OK.  Yes, cloned food is OK.  In fact you probably do not go a day of your life without eating cloned food.  No. Yes.  What?  Let's just start with potatoes and sugar.  And what makes you think cloning is bad?  And what taking a survey rule allows you to call faculty on the phone?  It's an informal survey.  Ah, yes, so actually what you are doing is not sanctioned by the university or any faculty adviser, correct?  Thanks for your time.  Click.  At least they understand that being polite is a good policy when breaking all the other rules.  It seems that some math students got all fractionated about the idea of cloned food demonstrating their serious need of some biology courses.  They didn't know how common cloning is among plants, and to teach them about the efficiency of asexual reproduction they are sentenced to weeding my strawberry bed, as soon as they learn about species, that is.   

Cracking seed germination

Let's put this bluntly; some seeds are just a bitch to germinate.  Once when using morning glories for an experiment, to get good germination all at once, the seeds were washed in concentrated sulfuric acid for a few minutes and then washed in water.  A good deal of the seed coat was dissolved, but the embryos within were undamaged and the seeds all germinated at once.  A lot of our temperate zone seeds need a cold period, often several cold periods, alternating with warmer periods to convince them that spring has sprung and they should germinate.  This is called vernalization.  Some seeds need considerable washing to remove germination inhibitors, a mechanism to assure germination just after sufficient rainfall.  Some prairie seeds actually germinate better after a fire.  In an effort to mimic a fire treatment in a safe and controlled manner, a student researcher took some difficult to germinate seeds (a legume), packaged them in little filter paper packets, constructed a lab-style double boiler, and steamed the packets for 4 mins.  They germinated like crazy after only a 1 week cold period!  Seeds collected from litter after an actual prairie fire also germinated OK, but not quite as well probably because some were cooked and some were not heated enough.  The untreated seed, no fire, no steam, just sat there week after week. The after-a-fire germination is a good strategy too because after a fire  because the accumulated dead plant material is removed so seedlings will get more sun and the ash is full of nutrients.  Now to try the steam heat method on a couple of other very stubborn seeds.