Field of Science

Botany and Art

Now gentle readers, the data show that among your diverse interests, the art-botany intersection is not your favorite.  Well, TPP will try and try again to introduce some culture and art appreciation.  Here's a nice article where a colleague of mine, Tim Gerber, has been collaborating with an artist and science educator so that students can explore the intersection of art and botany.  This study was published in the journal Science and Children published by the National Science Teachers Association.  Any elementary teachers out there should have a look. 

Friday Fabulous Flower - Royal Poinciana

It's the last day of November, and while the local weather is mild, the onset of winter always has TPP longing for the tropics a bit.  So here's a fabulous bit of the tropics, and what may well be the most fantastic of all ornamental flowering trees, the royal poinciana (Delonix regia, Fabaceae).  This is a classic rain tree.  First at maturity the tree has a remarkably broad, spreading, and low crown, clearly not the form of a forest tree, but one from an open, seasonally dry savanna.  While native to Madagascar, where it's endangered in the wild, it's cultivars are found as UTF (ubiquitous tropical flora).  Second, rain trees tend to be big bang flowerers with a large number of flowers open all at once making for a flamboyant display.  Although the scale makes this tree look really low to the ground, you can easily walk under its branches with no danger of bonking your head.  In Queensland a colleague had one of these that covered the whole lawn in front of his house.  Good thing there is no commandment to not covet your neighbors' trees.   

Could the Dust Bowl return? It never left.

After watching Ken Burns’ documentary on the Dust Bowl recently broadcast on PBS, the Phactor was intending to write a blog about how easy it would be for those conditions to return, and that the additional problem of global warming will make it all the harder to forestall, but as this link demonstrates, someone did a great job on this already. The drought conditions of this past summer need only persist for a hand full of years for dust bowl problems to return. Another big problem is that farmers still fail to realize how much soil is being lost by wind erosion annually, a problem easily reduced in scale by cover crops, no-till farming, and the elimination of fall plowing.  Ignoring this potential problem is especially worrisome because so many of our politicians just don’t like to listen to science and prefer living in their own world of make believe. You’d think those OK and TX politicians would be clamoring for action, but the actual farm bill being framed will eliminate incentives for conservation, that being a no-no, ironically, for conservatives.  At any rate, if you have not seen this terrific documentary, do not miss the chance.  Sorry, it doesn’t seem to be available on line; if this is wrong, a correction would be appreciated.  HT to Agricultural Biodiversity for being on the spot as usual.  And just found even more discussion and resources if you are so interested.

Chemicals in food - Oh My!

The Phactor's opinion about the UK's Guardian online news is generally positive.  However, it must be admitted that large portions always remain unread, so hard to judge the overall quality except to say better than HuffPo.  But when they run a contest for a science book give-away, well, that attracts your attention.  OK, so here's one of the science questions.  Ready?
Food that doesn't contain any chemicals  1. is known as organic; 2. was grown without pesticides; 3. will help you lose weight; 4.  is much healthier
Well, what was you answer?  As a biologist the Phactor has what may be a surprising answer.  None of them are correct.  Food that doesn't contain any chemicals doesn't exist.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but food is nothing but a bunch of chemicals.  Some are not digestable (cellulose), some are used primarily for the energy locked up in their chemical bonds (starch), and virtually all that can be digested are used for raw materials for making people chemicals.  Maybe the Guardian quiz makers should read some of the books they're giving away.  This is a great example of a common error in thinking.  "Chemical" has gotten such a negative connotation that people fail to realize that stuff is made of chemicals.  Misuse of terms causes many such errors.  "Natural" isn't necessarily good or better than its opposite, artificial; starting with A, arsenic is natural; aspirin is artificial.  Take your pick.  Now time for some lunch chemicals.   

Crimson Tide causes trouble in Australia

You see the headline, Crimson Tide closes beaches in Australia, and you wonder how can Alabama's football team be causing trouble way 'down under'?  But clearly this is what that 'Bama team is named after, a toxic dinoflagellate, a unicellular organism, and when they have a population explosion these tiny, microscopic, organisms can tint the water red in their uncountable numbers.  Their toxins can produce problems up the food chain because when consumed by slightly larger zooplankton and then eventually fish, or when consumed by filter feeding shell fish, they become toxic.  So such blooms as they are called are usually refered to as red tides, and one wonders how Moses got such a population explosion in the Nile just when he needed one.  But calling the red tide, crimson, certainly fooled me for a moment.  This news is from Sydney Australia whose huge harbor has dozens of little beaches and inlets that are usually not so red.  The normal colored, darker water has pushed the dinoflagellates close to shore, concentrated them, to produce the eerie red color.   

Helpful cats

People without cats just don't know how helpful cats can be around the house.  How can beds get made, clothes folded, doors closed (or opened), or shoes tied without their helpful paws being involved?  So with the holidays approaching, and perhaps to show how helpful they could possibly be, like a kid trying hard to be extra good, our older, larger cat fixed her own breakfast.  And like a little kid fixing their own breakfast, there was some spillage, and this also meant that no portion control was being exercised by a kitty with a persistent weight problem.  Of course the Phactor enabled this self-help exercise by failing to secure the kibble in a cupboard.  It has been several years since our loveable "bad cat" died, the one who exploited every single available opportunity to break the rules to the point of being extraordinarily reliable.  And you think, well, we miss him, but now we're living with such good cats, but actually there may not be any such thing.  Even the best of cats cannot resist the temptation to break the rules when opportunity presents itself.  Something about cat situational ethics makes it so.  Or is it because she's black?

Jurassic mimicry

Botanists have always known what was really in Jurassic Park: gymnosperms and ferns.  But this is a pretty neat paleo-story about a Jurassic hanging fly whose wings appear to mimic Jurassic age ginkgo leaves.  That's pretty cool. Such relationships certainly extisted, but it's so seldom that you find good evidence of it.   

Nutmeg - a sordid history

Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans) is without doubt the Phactor's favorite plant and the nutmegs his favorite plant family.  Yes, magnolias are a big deal too, but primarily because you can't grow nutmeg in Lincolnland except in a glass house (yes, a nutmeg or two are there).  Now nutmeg has actually never done anything sordid, but the people who craved, coveted, and sought nutmeg (the seed, here in half its fruit) and its twin spice mace (red aril around the seed), have done lots of bad things which is sort of ironic for a spice that makes you feel good.  Although the whole story is quite involved (Nathaniel's Nutmeg: Or the True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History), one of the punch lines is it tells you how New Amsterdam became New York.  At any rate some people consider this a seasonal story, so it was no surprise that it appeared recently on NPR. This will add some spice to your eggnog.  Image source: Brocken Inaglory, Wikimedia Creative Commons. 

USA Exceptionalism

The Phactor likes the USA as much as anyone, it has come good qualities and some good opportunities, some in education, but you try not to let that feeling blind you to its obvious faults and even the decline of some of these good things, like education.  As this recent election demonstrated, anyone who doesn't fervently believe "This is the greatest country on Earth!" doesn't deserve to even be a citizen let alone a candidate for office.  This doesn't leave much room for dealing with reality.  When you've traveled a lot, and not as part of some "coddle the tourist" tour, but when you've lived in a place for awhile and had the opportunity to view your country through the eyes of others, you find our that view is not very pretty.  The simple fact is that most of the people who live in one of those awful socialist countries wouldn't trade their health care, or education, or sick leave benefits for those in the USA.  And you also realize that virtually every European country has much better public transport that the USA who put everything into cars, a road system, and planes, and now even our interstate road system is crumbling and over burdened with vehicles.  The big problem is that our politicians are living in bubble that insulates them from reality.  So when a real critique of the USA gets published, the usual response is to dismiss it.  Get real people.

Doom Looms - end of the semester version

While looking forward to the end of the semester, the last couple of weeks are not the Phactor's favorite time of the semester because now it all comes home to roost and you end up explaining the sad reality of their situations to students. 
Upon learning that their potential grade in your course is nothing to brag about, you're asked, "Can I get some extra credit?"  Now of course this student has cut nearly 50% of the classes and turned in none of the required lab reports, but now they want an extra chance to get some credits.  Sorry, but you should have made more of the opportunities you had all semester, so you got some nerve to ask me to make some new opportunities just for you.  Besides fairness requires me to offer similar extra credit opportunities to everyone in the class.
A student has complained about being treated unfairly.  Class participation made up a fixed % of their grade and they never said a peep, never contributed to any discussion, and had they not answered, present, in response to the initial enrollment check, you might think them mute.  They also failed to post any of their ideas or comments on the alternative non-vocal course e-bulletin board, or enter into any of those discussions.  The professor didn't explain that this was an alternative, yet everyone else in the class knew about it, and used it.  Deaf perhaps too. 
A student concerned with poor exam scores comes for help, and when you discover they have very poor study skills, basically last minute cramming, you offer to help them construct an approach for dealing with content heavy advanced courses.  Hesitancy.  No, they really don't want that kind of help, they just want to get enough credits to graduate.  Don't you think you'll ever have to learn anything again for the rest of you life?  Don't you think effective learning is one of the most marketable of skills?  Bottom line, effective studying is just too much work and takes too much time to fit into their life style.  Think they'll come to me later for a letter of recommendation?  Think maybe a former student now in a position to hire will notice they took a course with one of their professors?  Believe it or not, they might ask for a recommendation.  It happens all the time and the Phactor always tells them that perhaps they should seek a recommendation from someone else because they can't understand that we are bound to provide an assessment of their abilities based on our experiences with them, and not obliged to simply say, "They're really, really nice."  Even if true, and it may well be true, our recommendations are our gold standard.  You can't fudge it for one because in the end that may well be detrimental to all the really really good ones who also sought your recommendation.  And yes, even if you don't ask for a recommendation, people come to me and ask me to evaluate students I've had all the time.  The person you're interviewing with may have been in my class 20 years ago, but they still remember.
Well, that's if for now, but there's still 2 weeks of classes left before final exams, so this is probably not the last. 

Black Friday - Green Saturday

After shopping until you dropped yesterday on Black Friday, a event religiously avoided by TPP, the Christmas season officially begins.  This means that people will be shopping for a conifer tree.  It turns out that 364 days ago, while avoiding Black Friday, TPP posted a blog providing simple description of how to distinguish your basic conifer genera, pines, firs, and doug-firs used as Christmas trees here in easter North America.  Our tree will be bought today, not because it will be put on display right away, but because all these trees have been harvested and are just sitting around.  So buy one now, and put it in a bucket of water until you're ready to move it into the house.  It also helps to spray the tree with WiltProof, if you have any left over from spraying the rhododendrons. 
Of course, in Australia, in Queensland, who knows what our tree was?  Somehow that information was lost from memory.  And in the early days of our wedded life the Phactors had a large, spiny Euphorb that served as our tree, an aberration that probably warped our poor daughter during her infancy.  Ultimately this tree out grew our house so we changed to the traditional conifer. 

Fox squirrel

Here's one of our big garden problems.  One of the dozen and a half or so fox squirrels that live on our estate.  Of the three species of squirrel that live in eastern N. America, this is the largest by far.  This particular fellow found the decorative gourds that were just discarded and cucurbit seeds are one of the favorite foods of this mob even if they have to take them from the squash still growing on your vine.  Of course, you detect the biggest problem of all, they're cute, almost adorable, animals even though in general they act more like sewer rats with a big fluffy tail. OK, TPP hates to admit that they like their wildlife, even the troublesome ones. Within 2 hours all of these gourds were quite hollow.  Notice how starved and under nourished our squirrel looks.  Life is tough.   

Please don't eat the petunias

Since the Phactors were not cooking a whole dinner for Thanksgiving, some late season yard work was possible, and to make way for holiday greenery Mrs. Phactor summarily ended the petunia's record-breaking season.  Petunias in full bloom on Thanksgiving; who would have thunk it?  Well, today the weather took a turn for the cold side and the low tonight will probably be around 20 F, so the petunias would have bought the farm tonight anyways.  For the same reason, the garden season was terminated by harvesting some baby bok choi and some young romaine lettuce from our cold frame.  A big bag of herbs was cut for some upcoming cooking because even the cold hardy herbs begin to suffer some damage.  Ah well, the end of a so-so, actually a pretty poor, garden year.  But like all gardeners we're already planning for next year and counting on things to be better. 

Alcohol and empty calories

TPP's employer is so concerned about us that healthy missives are circulated among us quite regularly warning about unprotected sex, risky life styles, and the perils of climbing Mt. Everest in just a bath robe and slippers.  Generally TPP treats these missives rather like the sincere, well-meaning, and utterly simple-minded Mormon missionaries that come to your door, and politely send them on their way.  But the latest one shows a total lack of understanding about life that borders on disrespect.  According to the latest health missive, alcoholic beverages are nutritionally empty providing nothing but calories.  A moment, please, TPP must take a sip of bourbon to fortify himself before continuing.  OK health and wellness people, you're only doing your job, but here's a news flash for you.  Alcoholic beverages are not consumed for nutritional reasons, rather they provide not just a taste treat but an important attitude adjustment, a lowering of blood pressure and reducing of stress that is certainly important to healthy living!  The people who take such jobs are always so sincere in their concern, and so dedicated to living the healthiest of lives that seem to wring all enjoyment out of food, drink, and at times it seems, life itself.  Why follow their advice just to live a few hundred extra days in misery?  And if that weren't enough, this missive included a pumpkin pie recipe made from tofu.  Who in ever loving hell expects pumpkin pie to be healthy?  Don't they know that most flavor molecules are lipid soluble?  You don't eat a piece of pie because it's health food, you eat it because it's rich, and decadent, and insanely delicious.  Nothing made of tofu has ever been put in the category of delicious.  Ah, a bit more bourbon.  Yes, bourbon (and here you may substitute your favorite tipple) provides something quite beyond nutrition, something psychologically important, a medicine for good mental,and shall TPP have to say it, health.  So in a final response, let TPP respond, "Providing nothing but empty calories my foot!"  If they want us to pay more attention to their advice, it had better reflect reality more than tofu pumpkin pie.


Oops, sorry to bring this up, but TPP missed publishing this in time for the election, but the sentiment, the message still are appropriate as nothing much has changed, and why waste a perfectly good blog rant.  Just a couple of days before election day, TPP got a flyer in the mail from the GnOPe of Lincolnland;  they wanted my vote, not for anyone in particular, not for any particular issue or agenda, just in general, more or less for everything.  In fact the missive only featured one word in bold, red letters: LIBERAL.  Yes, vote against anything liberal; vote against the liberal agenda; vote against Washington liberals (if only we really had some!); meaning vote for the GnOPe.  Personally TPP is insulted.  The GnOPe seems to think that the word LIBERAL will affect me the way the word SQUIRREL affected the dog in the movie UP.  Well, TPP has stopped associating with the GnOPe since they became the party of stupid.  However this increases the likelihood that this message resonated quite well with their party's main base, but liberal doesn't mean what they think it means.  TPP has long embraced a liberal philosophy of equality and justice supporting free and fair elections, freedom of speech, religion, and press, a right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. If the GnOPe is serious about opposing a liberal agenda, then they should be more specific about which of these rights and freedoms they wish to limit or take away.  Well, in a manner of speaking all of them, for one group or another.  The GnOPe doesn't want minorities or people who vote against the "conservative" agenda to vote.  The GnOPe doesn't want women to have any rights at all.  And freedom of religion is OK as long as it's the right religion, theirs, and even when this is pretty confusing for the them trying to convince the religious right that Obama is the wrong kind of Christian while at the same time sort of side stepping the issue that Mittens isn't any kind of Christian at all by their own standards.  Before receiving this missive, TPP was actually thinking (uh oh, a GnOPe no-no) of voting for at least one GnOPe candidate for state office, by all accounts a reasonable, nuanced fellow, but his party, the party of stupid, managed to alienate another voter.  So maybe he'll get this message and think about what he stands for.  Nah!  The R next to your name virtually assures your election in the sea of red surrounding our university town.

Turkey tales

Common names are the bane of biologists because they can be applied, misapplied, multiplied, and codified, all without any rhyme or reason.  Such it is with the Turkey.  What you may ask does the Republic of Turkey have to do with this native N. American bird?  Short answer: nothing.  When good old Columbus stumbled upon the Americas, he thought he had reached the western most portions of Asia.  Thus the natives of the "east Indies" must be Indians, and neither people so referred to has been very happy about this ever since.  When Europeans first observed this N. American bird they mistakenly thought it to be similar to the guinea fowl, which was also called the Turkey fowl as it had been imported to Europe via the great trading centers of Turkey and the far-flung Ottoman Empire.  The name turkey stuck probably because that is what it was known as to European immigrants who followed.  The same fate was in store for maize (the native N. America name for this native grain), so please, it's not corn, which only means common grain of the region (as for corn in Scotland and see what you get).  In Gerarde's (1597) great herbal (get a pdf of the whole damned book for free!) maize was called "turkie wheate" (p. 97, to save you the trouble of the index) and it did not receive a glowing recommendation as the grain was "hard and evill digestion, a more convenient foode for swine than for men".  Naming new things after the country of origin, or their supposed country of origin is very common.  Next where is the crane in craneberry? 

Rainforest field trip - not this year

Sixteen years ago TPP initiated a rainforest ecology class with a field trip which is now taken over the 9-day long Thanksgiving break plus a day or two.  Owing in part to its popularity, and in part to wishing to be around for holidays with family, every now and then, a rotation of instructors means that now TPP only teaches "his" course two out of every four years.  It was a wonderful weekend in Lincolnland to mostly finish up fall yard work and begin helping Mrs. Phactor with holiday decorations.  But as beautiful as it was TPP found himself wanting to take a walk through the rainforest, not necessarily teach the class, but just to soak in the sounds, smells, and sights that are rainforest.  It's just such an endlessly fascinating place, and having spent so much time there, the things that put off many people just go unnoticed, but these days the majority of people are not actually comfortable out in nature so accustomed they are to totally tame human environs.  A few emails have arrived from students to tell TPP what a great time they are having, or what wonderful thing they've seen, or that it's been raining.  A colleague reports that a study tree of our interest has stiffed us once again by not flowering when one of us is there.  One of the best things we do is provide such experiences for our students, even though it represents a considerable undertaking for the faculty involved.  Foreign travel with college students remains fraught with real and potential problems, logistical nightmares, but when you put students in a stimulating environment you find that it becomes very easy to teach.  The image is from an area in the middle of a long-time study site that has an improved trail for quicker access. 

2012 Garden Log

This is the 3d year TPP has kept a garden flowering log for all perennials.  Rather than bore everyone with a month by month run down, this year only the year end summary will be foisted upon you.  Here's the summary data.  Flowering in 2012 started on Feb. 18th (snowdrops, witchhazel), an unusually early spring in comparison to 2011 (Mar. 11) and 2020 (Mar. 1).  2012 also extended the flowering season until Oct. 28th when a black snakeroot finally flowered a few days after the monk's hood (Oct. 25th).  Last year the last flowering was Oct. 21st, the monk's hood,.just 4 days earlier.  In 2010 our gardens had 275 different perennials flower.  In 2011 there were 293 different perennials that flowered (and we group many varieties based on their seasons, so this is closer to species than varieties.).  In 2012 in spite of the heat and drought in June and July, 283 perennials flowered, but that includes 17 new perennials, so there werequite  a few no-shows and a couple of deaths.  The increase from 2011 to 2012 was largely due to new plantings and some woody plants coming of reproductive age.  If plants recover next year, the number of flowering perennials may break the 300 barrier.  Winter now seems constrained to a little less than three months: December, January, and early February.  Today was a lovely November day, with a high of about 54 F, and the petunias in the window boxes are still flowering although we have had a few real freezing nights.  Having planted quite a number of new trees and shrubs to landscape the rennovated lily pond. The Phactors had little choice but to water or lose these new plants, not without some significant cost.  Fortunately the water situation was such that watering was possible.  All of these newbies look like they will survive, but a dwarf mountain laurel has us worried.  In general flowering was not as poor as might be expected considering the severity of the summer.  A very early and quite warm spring pushed some spring perennials though flowering very quickly: bloodroot emerged, flowered, and way done in just 3 days.  More analysis will have to wait until the data is entered into the data base and analyzed in more detail.

Dinner club

For almost 35 years now the Phactors have been members of a dinner club.  The year starts with an appetizer/tapas and wine social to plan themes for the year, and it always ends with a brunch.  In between there are 6 dinners, each with a theme.  The hosts and co-hosts for each dinner plan a menu and then each participant (not all are couples) cooks one of the items for the group and the costs are divided evenly among the diners.  Right now a magnificent pan of osso buco is simmering on the stove and filling the kitchen with a wonderful herby, Italian aroma.  The taste tests indicate that something wonderful is cooking.  This is a wonderful way to spend an evening, and we certainly encourage people to consider forming a similar social group.  The hosts usually don't cook, but they supply the seats, the wine, and the bread.  The menus are sometimes ethnic, sometimes other themes, and you get to try a lot of dishes, a lot of recipes that you would not probably try by yourself.  This is a classic Italian dish, and having grown up in Italian NY, this is quite familiar.  My point is quite simple.  Life is short, we have to eat, so why not make it into a social event once a month, and don't give me this crap that you're too busy.  Our dinners are often quite spectacular and at a fraction of the price you would pay to get similar fare in a restaurant, and then without the company and socializing.  Of course the Phactor is forbidden from discussing, however intellectually, religion or politics.  Good thing the food is good. 

Hostess memories

Hostess is going out of business.  Wow!  That evokes some strong childhood memories.  There was a Hostess factory near where my Father worked, and they had a day-old shop where all the Hostess products that came back on the delivery trucks were sold greatly discounted; in those days packages of Twinkies and Cupcakes were 20 for a dollar, and worth every cent.  As a result of the economics, my parents bought these quantity and froze them.  Literally every day a Twinkie, a Cupcake, or a Snowball, a hemispherical cupcake with an elastic, spongy, coconut covered overcoat sometimes in pink(!), would show up in my lunch, sometimes with the luscious cream filling still frozen by lunch time so you could easily eat around it saving it for last.  My Mother was an excellent baker, but for 2.5 cents a day, it was hard to argue for homemade, and duh, we were kids.  However my adult reaction beyond the childhood nostalgia is to say, "So what?"  TPP hasn't purchased a Hostess product in at least 30 years having probably consumed a life time of sugar by the end of grade school.  My last recollection of buying a Hostess product was a big box of HoHos that were taken as a "Hostess gift" to a "Bad Taste" theme party (a twofer of bad taste).  The news reports that Hostess blames their workers' union, a corporate meme so popular of late, but did it ever occur to them that the world was changing and their gag-worthy, overly-sugared confections and squeezably soft and mushy bread were no longer very popular in a more health and sugar-conscious consumer world?  What?  Could it be our crummy product?  No, the corporation can never take the blame.  So long Hostess.  Yes, there are some fond memories, but not a tear will be shed.  

Wow, Moby Dick - Quasimodo version

This is pretty cool, a white humpback (hunchback?) whale.  Albinism can occur in virtually any vertebrate the result of inheriting a defective recessive gene from each of two normal-appearing parents, a gene that does not produce a functional enzyme needed to produce melanin, a skin pigment.  Does it have pink eyes?  Of course, the Moby Dick of literary fame was a sperm whale.     

Friday Fabulous Flower(s) - all around weirdness

OK, now before you read on, what family of flowering plants does this specimen belong to?  In fact some may wonder if it is a monocot or a dicot given that the flower parts are in multiples of three.  Although virtually all textbooks and field guides so delineate monocots and dicots, actually flowers with parts in multiples of three are a shared character between monocots and dicots.  And you just might notice the very dicot palmately compound leaves.  TPP remembers the first time he encountered this vine.  As a new botany teaching assistant my assignment was to provide a specimen of a monoecious plant, one with both staminate and pistillate flowers, i.e., "unisexual" flowers, on the same plant.  Wow! What a find.  Dragged it into the lab and labelled it "monoecious".  Job done.  The professor in charge, a grand old man of the department, wasn't satisfied.  "What is this?"  Why, Professor, surely you recognize that!  Where upon TPP decides maybe it would be a good time to grab his Gleason and Cronquist and figure out what this actually was.  A bit later the Professor seeks me out in my office with the plant in question in hand.  "Exactly what family do you think this is in?" he asked.  After looking at it carefully, TPP replied calmly.  Well, Professor, this is a bit unusual, and it is a new one on me, but if a guess has to be made about the family, it would be Lardazabalaceae.  "Harrumpf!"  Yes, did you get it right?  The Lardazabala family, just your plain ordinary totally weird family.  Firstly, this cultivar has cream colored flowers and the wild type has purple (pistillate) or lighter lavender colored (staminate) flowers.  Each inflorescence consists of one larger pistillate flower with 6-9 (mostly 6, this one 8?) protruding and cylindrical pistils, and three petalloid perianth parts (neatly side stepping the sepal or petal question).  The rest of the flowers are staminate, each with 6 stamens that have rather broad, flat, one might say leafy, anthers.  (If you looked closely with a lens or dissecting scope you would find rudimentary stamens and pistils in the pistillate and staminate flowers respectively.  When actually hanging free, the pistillate flower hangs above the staminate flowers.  TPP often wonders how this whole thing works in the wild; here in N. America the plant doesn't seem to have any takers.  Akebia quinata is an ornamental vine from east Asia that does sometimes escape or more often over grows its boundaries.  Although it seems to ignore warnings of impending cold, the vine is quite hardy.  This one hides our recyling and trash bins quite effectively. 

Does anyone else see something wrong here

Our faculty were just notified that our pre-dental student association will be holding a fund raiser over the next couple of days.  They'll be selling Krispy Kreme doughnuts (Yes, yes, Ks not Cs; it's a British spelling actually.), and for those of you who do not know, these are great big nuclear sugar bombs.  Now this just seems fundamentally wrong.  It's like an oncologist handing out cigarettes.  Make some money, and give your chosen profession a boost in patients at the same time!  Wonder if they thought this through thoroughly?  If so, maybe at least one of their members could have a career in Rove-style politics.

Botanical Art

Plants have always been good subjects for art because pattern (genetics) combined with variation (environment) yields design.  And of course prior to photography, and for many reasons still superior, botanical illustration was quite significant and a bridge between science and art.  For reasons still unclear in his mind TPP minored in art, which was somewhat unusual for a biology major, but having limited artistic talent, this interest was turned toward acquiring whatever art attracted my attention.  Funny, TPP never set out to be an art "collector", but after awhile it sort of accumulates and why before you know it you have a collection, a big collection, and yes, a great many have a botanical theme.  Of the many things TPP likes about his second home Australia, one is that they have a great tradition of natural history art.  One of TPP's prized possessions is a print by Leslie van der Sluys (google him to see examples of his work), and since his untimely and recent death his prints are getting harder to find and pricier.  They are stunning B&W prints each hand colored.  So naturally it came as no surprise to find that an online clearing house for botanical art had Australia as its base although botanical art from many countries is represented.  This water color of lotus so brazenly displayed here is the work of another Australian artist, Jenny Phillips, whose work TPP saw at a recent botanical congress in Melbourne.  Yes, TPP is tempted to buy this piece, but his art allowance has been sort of depleted of late. 

Figgy fruit

With a few minutes to spare, which is largely an illusion, so let's say, while wasting a few minutes, TPP stepped into our teaching greenhouse a few short steps from his botany classroom to inhale humid air laden with the smell of luxuriant plant growth.  Especially in the winter this is great therapy.  And there on the floor was a strange, slightly bell-shaped, and for an indoor plant, unusual fruit upon the floor beneath a potted banana (no, clearly not a banana), which was under a Gnetum (which is a gymnosperm, so quite impossible as a fruit producer although it does have a somewhat fleshy seed coat), and so further up was the source.  The entire north end of our glasshouse is home to a quite large fig, the creeping fig, Ficus pumila.  Although rather hard to find and seldom noticed the trunk of this vertically sprawling/climbing fig is about 15 cm in diameter.  And most certainly the fruit was an immature fig syncomium.  This is a tough fruit to understand, and a tough one to explain (TPP has tried before).  OK, lets start with a strawberry.  The fleshy "fruit" is the receptacle (an accessory fruit) and the many pistils of the strawberry flower form fruitlets, little achenes on its surface.  Now if instead of achenes they were drupelets like in raspberries, and if instead of being individual pistils in a single flower they were each a flower, and instead of being bisexual as in the strawberry, the flowers were unisexual, and if the entire thing were then turned inside out, well, simple as that, you'd have a syncomium.  The fleshy outer wall is the receptacle, and on the inner facing wall are unisexual flowers, whitish, male pollen-producing flowers just below the apex (although the syncomium is often pendant) and below them reddish female fruit-producing flowers (Thanks to Gerry Carr for posting this image).  Each fig is pollinated by a species of wasp that requires the fig as a location for mating and rearing its young, and enclosed the way they are, figs also need this particular pollinator, producing an obligate mutualism.  Here's a link to this interaction diagrammed.  Female wasps carrying pollen enter through the apical pore (left) where the inward orientation of bracts prevents leaving.  The next generation of female wasps require males, who never leave the syncomium (try not to think about this too much when eating your next newton) to chew an exit through the syncomium wall.  See, time well wasted.

Post-hoc thoughts on Sandy

No question about it, Hurricane Sandy socked the greater NY-NJ metro area good and solid.  There are a couple of real good points to consider.  Notice how fragile our modern infrastructure actually is.  There are still people without electricity, and a robust public transport system was shut down so completely bicycles where the most reliable form of transportation.  Naturally you feel bad for people whose houses were damaged or destroyed, and whose belongings were lost.  Tragic, but it wasn't actually a "natural disaster".  It was a human error in planning, pure human hubris, to allow people to build in low-lying, flood prone areas, on stormy coasts, and such.  You're living on borrowed time.  The same thing happens out here in the midwest.  Rivers flood towns, farms, and houses, and it's a natural disaster.  Well, it's natural OK, but you built your towns and houses on a flood plain.  What did you expect!  As the human population grows, more and more people are going to "get in the way" of natural events, so more and bigger damage to our trappings of civilization are to be expected.  Raise sea level just a meter from global warming, and the number of people potentially affected increases dramatically.  All of our edifices have such a feeling of firmness, solidness, and permanence, yet all are so fragile.  If the electricity stays out for even longer, you end up with high-rise tombs.  Expect more of the same, but it's hard to get creatures with short lives, short memories, and even shorter attention spans to look for long-term solutions.  We praise politicians for their reactions, but really their failure to be proactive was the cause of much of the destruction.   

Seared fruit lasagna

OK, almost forgot that you all were promised a new recipe that the Phactors recently worked out.  The major innovation is searing the fruits.
Ingredients: 6-8 tsp olive oil; 6 cups peeled diced eggplant; 1 medium zucchini, diced; ½ cup chopped green pepper;
1 pound fresh portabella mushrooms, diced;
1 small onion, chopped; 2 cloves garlic, minced; 28 oz can Italian tomatoes, chopped w. juice; 1 bay leaf; 2 tsp oregano; salt & pepper; 16 oz ricotta cheese; 2 eggs, beaten;
½ cup parsley chopped; ¼ tsp salt; 12 sheets no boil lasagna noodles; 1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese; ¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese.

Instructions: Using 1 tsp of olive oil for each the zucchini & pepper, mushrooms, and eggplant, sear the diced fruits (yes, these are fruits or fruiting bodies) separately and in one layer, on high heat until a bit of browning occurs on the surfaces and corners.  A non-stick pan is almost essential.  Set the seared fruits aside. 
Saute the onion & garlic in 1 tsp of olive oil.  When transparent and softened, add chopped tomato & juice then bay leaf, oregano, salt & pepper to taste.  Simmer until thickened.  Combine with seared fruits.
Combine ricotta cheese, eggs, parsley, and salt.  Oil a 9x12” baking dish.  Put a scanty layer of the sauce/fruit mix in the bottom.  Cover with 4 sheets of lasagna noodle.  Spoon about 1/3d of the ricotta cheese over the noodles.  Top with about 1/3 of the sauce mixture.  Sprinkle with 1/3 of the mozzarella cheese.  Repeat the noodle, ricotta, sauce, & mozzarella layer twice more.  Cover with foil and bake at 350 F for 50 min.  Uncover and sprinkle top with Parmesan cheese.  Return to oven bake for another 5-10 min.   

Notes: Searing the fruits dehydrates them, intensifies their flavors, and makes them denser.  The resulting lasagna will be less runny and richer in flavor.

Give them an mile, and they'll still take more

TPP likes breaks and days off as much as anybody, but he was instilled with a good old-fashioned work ethic that meant you didn't take days off just because and you only took sick days when you literally couldn't physically get out of bed.  The big bugaboo break has always been Thanksgiving.  In days of yore, students were only given Thursday and Friday off for Thanksgiving making it a 4-day weekend.  Of course most of our students were in-state and that meant that they were only at most a 4 hour drive away from home.  Still you had so few students in class on Wednesday that it became foolish to try to cover any material, but you still had a few students, probably townies, to whom you owed an obligation.  So the university caved in and included Wednesday into the official Thanksgiving break. This was the first inch.  What happened was that the majority of students thought, "what the heck, if I cut classes on Monday and Tuesday, we get a 9-day break".  So classes on the two days prior to the 5-day Thanksgiving break were really poorly attended, so poorly attended that faculty complained that the extra day off made things worse than ever.  In a fit of creativity, the university then removed a 3-day fall break -weekend from the middle of the semester, took another holiday away, and using the two days off from other places made the Thanksgiving break 9-days long!  Woo hoo!  So the Phactor ends up with an exam scheduled on this coming Friday.  Now before you call me some kind of crank, the day was chosen by the class within a certain set of parameters (exam this week or you come back from break to an exam - yes, a sort of lesser of two evils decision, but with a week's notice; let's have no exam would have won in a landslide if on the ballot (TPP's only control).  And as predictable as eclipses, one student whines, "But I'm leaving this Wednesday."  Yes, give them a mile, and they take another mile.  "It's my parents; they planned this."  Fine, give me their telephone number and I'll explain the situation to them.  This kindly offer always is met with an interesting change in perspective and such that one if given to suspect their parents never heard of such a thing.  Now here TPP must admit that he is responsible for just such a transgression for some students because he figured out that this would be a fantastic time to take students on a rain forest biology field trip to Costa Rica rather than waiting to the end of the semester.  Generally instructors have no problem with students needing time off for good academic reasons, or even athletics.  The real trouble is not matter what the university regulations are, it's up to faculty to be the bad guys if they inforce draconian rules.  So there's your real choice: be a bad guy or a good guy.  Let's see teaching evaluations are being performed the week after break, so let's think about this.  How does TPP maximize his outcome?  Hmmm. 

What next? Now threat to cacao.

Only two days after reporting to you that climate change is threatening wild coffee in its native land, now cacao is threatened in western Africa, not its native land, but an area that provides a lot of the world's chocolate, because climate change is making the area too hot.  1st coffee, now chocolate.  What next you may well ask?  Who knows?  But here is an absolute promise; this is only the beginning.  When will politicians figure out what is begining to happen?  More and more crops in more and more places will no longer be able to grow where they have been growing.  Hard to predict exactly how bad things will get, but finding viable alternatives, new places to grow displaced crops, new crops for farmers who have lost their traditional crops, is not at all easy.  When coffee and chocolate are threatened, so is civilization! 

Garden challenge of terrible difficulty

Not much fall color is left by the time you get to early November, and actually, it's quite surprising that any is left at all.  This is the northwest margin of the Phactors' estate.  Can you find the Japanese maple?  Wonder if my old Texan friend and collaborator can see it?  Of course, he's red green color blind and red against green is a difficult task for him.  Hopefully this is not too difficult for the rest of you and helps build your self esteem.  You're welcome. 

Sad news; glad news

Naked, hungry, and miserable.  That's what we'd be without plants, or at the very least fur-clad carnivores.  Dreadful thought!  Nothing contributes more to our "happiness" than caffeine, facing the start of our day with a cuppa coffee (or tea, or exchanging a CH3 for a H), hot chocolate).  A study by the famous Kew Gardens warns that wild populations of Caffea arabica, a native of Ethiopia, may go extinct in the wild, a victim of global warming and climate change.  Now of course coffee is raised in many places now so what is the problem?  All of the coffee being grown on plantations comes from a very few initial sources so it possesses very little genetic diversity, and this is why wild coffee is so important; it's our only reservoir of genetic diversity.  Low diversity crops are at risk of diseases and pests.  Such things happen slowly, so no, TPP isn't worried about his coffee tomorrow, or next year, or next decade, but by the end of the century this could be a done deal. The idea of doing without something so pleasantly comforting is profoundly sad.  Sounds like time to begin trying to save some of this diversity before it's too late.
TPP, a long time Mets and Jets fan, sort of likes supporting underdogs and takes perverse delight when the high and mighty get taken down a peg.  In this case, acording to CBS News, the Sunlight Foundation reports that only 1.29% of the $104 million mostly in dark money spent to defeat Bronco Bama and other Hemicrats had the desired result.  Most of this money came from a relatively few extremely wealthy people (e.g., Joe Ricketts, Bob Perry, Sheldon Adelson, the Kochs, Harold Simmons), people who like The Donald were clearly dumbfounded and outraged that they were unable to get their way by throwing their money at the situation.  This is not something they are used to and political con-men like Karl Rove got some splainin to do.  Even here in Lincolnland, a ton of money was spent on electing T-party favorite Joe Walsh who lost, and to add to the outrage, to a woman!  The thought of these good fellows spending so much money on a losing effort cheers TPP greatly, almost as much as a cuppa coffee.

New Petunia Record

A couple of window boxes sit just below our front, 2nd story windows, and as the house is white, trailing petunias, usually in a nice bright pink-red color are planted there to add some color.  As of today November 8th they are still going strong and in full bloom.  With at least a week of seasonally mild weather in the offing, they should last another 6-7 days at least.  Usually they last between 4 and 5 months, surviving 2-3 weeks into October.  So far a couple of light frosts did not harm these petunias, so on and on they go.  This is going to bust the previous record by 2-3 weeks. 

Berry-go-round #56 - plant blog roundup for October

Hey, plant lovers, the latest plant blog carnival has been posted over at Seeds Aside.  Click the link and go have a look at all the goodies you may have missed or not known about.  No question about it, at least one kindred spirit was found, someone who claims the exalted title of botanist.  There can be no higher calling. 

Election cactus totally misses with its prediction

For the past two months, TPPs election cactus has listened to nothing but political rhetoric, pundits, and predictions.  The point was to distill all of this input and indicate the outcome of the election by producing red or blue flowers.  As of last night, every single flower bud was RED!  My cactus was predicting a Republican landslide, no doubt about it.  Well, how nice that this cactus was largely wrong especially here in Lincolnland where 3 GnOPe congresspersons were replaced by Hemicrats. Especially pleasing was Tammy Duckworth's defeat of the extremely annoying Joe "T-Party" Walsh after she was outspent 3:1 by a flood of Dark Money 

Dark Money

The very rich are trying to buy elections secretly and this certainly jeopardizes our democracy as an obscene amount of undisclosed contributions (aka Dark Money) not only buys elections it buys influence over the candidates so elected.  The Sunlight Foundation does its best to keep track of where it comes from and where it goes, which is mostly to Republicans.  Take a look, but it isn't pretty.  Hopefully TPP's votes today will help cost some of these dark donors some big bucks.  HT to Dispatches from the Culture Wars.

From one species many varieties - colewort

It always comes as a surprise to my students that all of these vegetables: cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, are actually just varieties, genetic variants, of one single species, Brassica oleracea, seen here.  Here's a really nice article about this to introduce a new botanical blog added to TPP's blogroll, The Botanist in the Kitchen (actually there's two of them). 

Lack of good political choices

Bronco Bama has been a rather disappointing president, but TPP must consider the alternative.  Would the use of drones or the status of unofficial wars (only congress can declare war) improve by switching presidents.  No.  Would that Obama had done more about the environment and global warming, but will this get better if we switch presidents?  You must be kidding!  The GnOPe is the party that has forsaken science and reason for an alternate ideological reality of their own construct.  The economy has been slow to improve, and would tried and failed GnOPe strategies make things better?  Not for 99% of us.  And while mulling this entire thing over, there was a new Mittens ad where he advocated himself as a supporter of bipartisanship, and that was it.  It reminded TPP that the GnOPe was obsessed with obstructing Bronco Bama at every turn, opposing every action, finding fault with every single thing the man did, indeed, demonizing the very man at every step with a venom that usually is associated with out and out hatred, a President who made the mistakes of trying to find compromise and consensus, of conceding way too much to people who were bound and determined to stop his every action, and now Mittens claims the fault was Obama’s!  After opposing Bronco Bama at every turn, then claim BB wasn’t able to accomplish very much, while knowing full well why, and then saying, so vote for us.  Do people actually fall for this?  Well, that was just too much for TPP, the last straw in a not very nice campaign all the way around.  According to PolitiFact, 41% of Mittens’ rated statements were mostly false, false, or pants on fire (9%).  Now of course all politicians mess with the facts, so to be fair, Bronco had 28% of his rated statements ranked mostly false, false, or pants on fire (2%).  It’s a pretty big difference especially in the out and out falsehood category.  You get some idea of the GnOPe mentality when NJ Gov. Crusty was chastised by his own party when he and Bronco were actually just doing their jobs following Sandy’s arrival rather than playing politics.  This epitomizes the neocon attitude that it’s all politics, all the time, no matter what, and that, my friends, means the GnOPe really doesn’t care about you or me, or what’s really good for the country,  or the world.  And to some extent that goes for the Hemicrats too.  So while not really happy, my mind is made up.  Green Party!  Yea! 

Grade exams or plant bulbs

This is not really much of a choice, but actually both have to be done.  The end of daylight savings time has provided the false sense of having some time to think about this.  The main problem with exams is that after all these years, how they are going to come out is pretty obvious.  The inattentive, the frequently absent, the crammers, the poorly disciplined, often all combined in a single person, don't really have a chance of doing well, but it still saddens TPP to be right so often although this is never known until the exams are graded.  Self-fulfilling prophecies are not allowed, so grading is done in the blind.  Yesterday was a damp cold day, and the reaction is almost always the same; cook something satisfyingly spicy, in this instance mulligatawny soup.  My version is a bit spicier than most because a home made garam masala is used in place of curry powder, and to cook the chicken and make the broth, a nice hot pimento pepper is used along with a clove studded onion.  Oh yes, quite yum, and then later to Hyde Park.  No actually later to see Argo, a quite tense, quite good movie actually, and then cocktails with friends.  Today promises to be a bit warmer, so finishing the bulb planting is almost a must do chore, as is the bloody exam grading.  What's the solution, why cook something else satisfyingly spicy for Sunday supper rather than deal with dirty exams, or dirt and exams.

Heritage apples

TPP wishes he'd thought of titling an article about heritage apples, Core Values.  This link shows some great old color illustrations and some nice notes about some famous varieties of apples, and TPP knew their source immediately, The Apples of New York (2 vol. 1905).  As an apple fancier TPP owns an excellent condition copy of these books that one of my best friends found in a used book store for $10 some 25 years ago and gave me for a birthday present.  What friends!  A facsimile version (sniff) now sells for $35-65 whereas the real thing sells for well upwards of $300, if you can find a copy.  This is the primary reference for heritage apple varieties grown in the USA and at the time of this publication over 1600 varieties of apple were being grown in New York state.  Wow!  Loss of this genetic heritage is a problem, and far fewer varieties are grown now.  A few people still try to maintain some of these varieties, e.g., the Tree-mendus Fruit farm in sw Michigan grows over 200 varieties of apple.  TPP had a great time discussing and tasting varieties with a patriarch of this family farm, and that included the Delicious, the apple that they ruined to breed the Red Delicious.   

Pretty ironic, pretty funny - Ark damaged by flooding

Production of a new movie "Noah" (I always hear "This is the Lord, Noah!" spoken in Bill Cosby's voice.) was halted in Oyster Bay, NY, because of, yes, you guessed it, flooding!  Apparently their 405 foot long Ark replica (how big is that in cubits?), just like the one not found over and over again on Mt. Ararat, isn't very sea worthy.  TPP wants to see the part where Emma Watson (guess she needs some post-Potter work) loads two of each kind of dinosaur (or is dinosaur a kind?) into their quarters along with enough fern foliage hay (what do you think grew in Jurassic park?) to keep them fed for 40 days and nights, and then some.   

Heads up on some important molecular genetics

Sometimes you wonder what if any benefit certain research programs will produce.  Not to criticize because TPP's research has never been focused on application.  But this is certainly useful and important.  Researchers have identified the yeast gene that makes the protein that coats the carbon dioxide bubbles that creates the foamy head on beer!  Now ignorance of this gene has not in the least prevented humans from using yeast to make beer over the last 8,000 years or so, but maybe the head on beer will improve thanks to this research.  HT to Agricultural Biodiversity.