Field of Science

Berry-Go-Round #48

Good news everyone!  The latest Berry-Go-Round blog carnival is up over at Moss Plants and More.  Click on over and see what nice botanical and plant related blogs you may have missed this month.  Leave a nice comment for Jessica to thank her for doing the carnival. If you have a plant related blog, think about submitting one of your blogs for next month's carnival. 

How does you know if you're winning?

The great state of Lincolnland has banned smoking in public buildings, and as a result all the addicts retreat to the out of doors, just barely, to feed their habit, thus creating a smoky corridor for all to pass.  Sometimes air intakes, doors, and windows pull the smoke back inside.  New signs have appeared at our buildings' doors: "NO SMOKING WITH IN 15 FEET OF DOORS, WINDOWS, OR AIR INTAKES". OK, but rather tricky around some of the entrances where a combination of all three exist, in multiples, unless assisted by someone with a tape measure and marker pens inscribing arcs to show smokers the nearest OK to smoke area is.  And another pet peeve: litter; all the filters flicked into the gardens and landscaping. 
Smoke free restaurants and bars are such a blessing.  The Phactors had given up on bar/nightclub entertainment because of the smoke, and nothing ruins good food more than someone else's second hand smoke.  And you don't really realize how good you have it until you go elsewhere without such bans on smoking, and then you remember how bad it was.  In other news the state is considering lifting the smoking ban in casinos based on flimsy evidence.  Guess what? Revenues have been down the last couple of years!  Can anyone think of a reason?  Yeah, it must be the smoking ban, not hard economic times.  The state may also allow local governments to relax smoking bans in bars whose revenues are not down, although they all said the ban would kill their business.  Guys, you make your money selling another addictive substance.  Lifting the smoking ban may not matter to gamblers given that they like to gamble, so smoking will just add to the risk, the thrill.  One in three odds people, and there's only one bet, your life.  So, one small step forward, and one giant step back in the offing.  Hard to know when you're making any progress. 

Darwin Day Planning

Every year the Phactor hosts a little birthday party for Charles Darwin, but this year Feb. 12th falls on a Sunday.  Since my Mondays and Tuesdays are just impossible, and Wednesdays are for catching up things ignored the previous two days, the celebration will have to be on Thursday Feb. 16th.  Charles probably won't mind.  All the majors and anyone else who happens by can get some birthday cake and have a look at Darwin's publications, at least the 10 books from my library.  Last year a local supermarket employee in the bakery didn't want to decorate a Darwin cake, an unusual source for censorship it seemed.  While not necessarily more open-minded, the store manager wasn't about to turn away business, and a regular customer, over a birthday cake.  Maybe this year the celebration will get picketed by a campus religious group to  really help draw attention and get more visitors than ever.  The Phactor will offer them all cake, but they may have to be careful because of biological transubstantiation!  Yes, if it works for them, then it can work for us.  Eating Darwin cake will enhance your scientific thinking, especially the big frosting flowers.

Got the blues?

There are things that may be bigger crimes against nature than artificial hybrid orchids, and blue-dyed white moth orchids are one of them.  OK, this really doesn't affect nature in any particular way because such exotic pets have no negative impact on nature; they're just a creepy, somewhat deceptive marketing device akin to getting a black cat only to have the dye wash out to reveal a white cat.  Oh, is that a neat idea!  Designer colored pets!  The idea of shockingly blue white orchid flowers is an idea that seems to have come from Alice in Wonderland where white roses get painted red to please the Queen of Hearts. It also reminds the Phactor of coloring white carnations by putting their cut stems in food-coloring dyes.  What will they think of next? 

Biology of carnivorous plants

People have a certain funny fondness for carnivorous plants: pitcher plants, venus fly traps, sundews (maybe my favorite), Audrey II, bladderworts, and so on.  They are among the favorites of visitors to our glasshouse.  These are all green plants, and therefore photosynthetic autotrophs, but they live in nutrient poor environments, so the prey they capture, mostly insects, provide those nutrients.  HT to AoB blog for pointing out this review of the biology of carnivorous plants.  And so we feed your curiosity.

Si tu vois ma mere

Last night was a typical Friday night for the Phactors: Chinese carryout and a DVD.  Mrs. Phactor picked the movie, Midnight in Paris, a nice enough piece of Woody Allen fluff for nothing but an evening's entertainment.  However, the theme music is a magical piece, Si tu vois ma mere, recorded in the early 1950s by one of the Phactor's favorite jazz artists, Sidney Bechet.  In case you don't know Bechet, he played a soprano saxaphone like no one before or after.  Get your self a nice cocktail, something sort of New Orleansy, and give this a listen. 

Friday fabulous flower - a Bignon

Bignoniacae, the bignon family, are largely tropical trees and lianas, and most of them have large showy flowers adapted to different pollinators.  Catalpa trees and trumpet creeper are our temperate members of this family.  Here's one of my captive tropical bignons, Tecomaria capensis, a species widely used as an ornamental in warmer climates.  This is just such a classic example of a flower adapted to hummingbird pollination.  It's fairly large, it's oriented laterally, it's bright red, has ample nectar, and is scentless.  The corolla is highly asymmetrical with the lateral and lower corolla lobes folded back and an over arching upper corolla lobe.  The stigma is exerted to contact the bird's head as it arrives, and as the bird moves in closer to get it's beak and tongue down into the corolla tube, then the head contacts the two pair of anthers picking up more pollen.  It's a great showy plant and a cheerful mid-winter display.

Wildlife friendly lawns - Not!

Yes, everyone needs money, but in general you don't see money buy such strange bed fellows as Scots Miracle-Gro and the National Wildlife Federation, so you figure a pretty hefty corporate donation was involved to allow Scots to brandish the NWF logo around in a pretty blatant type of greenwashing.  Let's face it, when you think Scots, you think of products that you use as little as possible to be friendly to wildlife, and when you think Scots you think of "beautiful lawns", barren monocultures of diagonally mowed grass for the aesthetically handicapped.  This is even bad if it were a table cloth.  You might as well pave paradise and paint it green.  Turns out my violets and creeping charlie hardly need any fertilizer at all because nobody knows ecological lawn care any better than the Phactor.  HT to Garden Rant

Orchids are fun

Orchids, more precisely, orchid flowers are fun.  Who can argue?  First a couple of caveats.  Most orchids have pretty small flowers; only a few have big, really gaudy flowers, and people are more familiar with these for the obvious reason that they are the ones most commonly cultivated and pinned on prom dresses.  Second, a lot of cultivated orchids are hybrids, artificial things, and therefore no matter how fantastic looking the flower, it's a flower that only exists as a curiosity; it doesn't function in nature.  What could be duller to a floral biologist?  People's fascination with the unnatural contrivances has always puzzled the Phactor because real species have some truly fantastic floral forms, and these are shaped by natural selection to be functional, to interact with their pollinator is sometimes a very specific manner.  This is one of the reasons why making hybrids is so unchallenging; pollinator specificity and pollinator behaviors are the isolating mechanisms that keep even closely related species from swapping genes, so without other isolating mechanisms it's easy for humans to hand pollinate them and generate hybrids sometimes with fantastic floral forms, but forms not adapted to do anything.  The photography displayed here is enough to make you envious, but you don't expect less form National Geographic.  (Prosthechea fragrans is shown here.) 

Universal chemistry

The Phactor has a penchant for starting at the beginning, and the botany textbook for this new course is strangely written in places. For example, the textbook correctly notes that only 6 elements constitute >99% of all living matter, and then it's sounds as if this was somehow amazing that out of 92 naturally occurring elements, only these 6 constitute life. And there the discussion is dropped! If you can't offer a better explanation than that, don't bother! OK, have you decided what 6 elements constitute living matter? CHNOPS - carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosporus, and sulfur. How did you do? Don't feel bad my class only got 4.
First if you step back from things a bit, the universe is even simpler: hydrogen is 71% of everything, helium is 28% of everything (a direct "fossil" of the Big Bang), which leaves just 1% for everything else to be composed of the other elements. Stellar fusion accounts for all the other elements, and they are dispersed when a dying star goes super nova, and the Sol system is composed of such star death debris.
Now if you look at CHNOPS in living organisms, you get the following proportions: H - 62%, O - 27%, C - 8.5%, N - 1.9%, S -0.1%, P - 0.1% (99.6% in total). If you compare that to the volatile fraction of comets, thoserocky ice balls left over from the formation of the solar system you get the following proportions: H - 56%, O - 31%, C - 10%, N - 2.7%, S - 0.3%, P - 0.08%. Well, there you have it. Living matter is made up of the 6 most common elements in the universe, except for helium that seems to exist just for filling balloons, and in the approximate same proportions. So life is common star stuff in the unusal proportions, and that doesn't seem so amazing now does it?

Love those weird interactions

Biologists figured out that chloroplasts were descended from free-living cyanobacteria about 50 years ago, and lots of evidence has been accumulated since then, but many people have trouble understanding how this could occur even after it has been clearly demonstrated that it did occur. Well, at the unicellular level lots of similar interactions are still happening, and here's a newly described species that still operates by keeping its options open by generating a hetertrophic offspring and a photosynthetic autotroph, via a symbiosis, with each cell cycle. One daughter cell keeps the photosynthetic symbiont, the other by necessity returns to a heterotrophic life style, until it happens upon the right photosynthetic prey allowing it to switch back. This will be a great new example of what an intermediate stage in the evolution of chloroplasts was thought to be. HT to Lab Rat.

Can a film dinosaur adapt to the digital age?

Kodak was king where the Phactor grew up. It was a mighty juggernaut of the film photography industry, unassailable, but Kodak failed to invest in emerging technologies, in innovative research, and the digital tsunami all but washed Kodak away. Not only did the Phactor grow up with Kodak, but film photography. Please do not misunderstand; the cost of film, the cost of photochemicals, the countless hours spent in dark rooms, and the difficulty of it all are not missed in the least. So here's the thing, the Phactor has yet to really adapt to the digital age. Film photography always had cost-limitations for a cash straped student and botanist, so careful judgement, skill, experience, and care had to be exercised to get some quality shots. Even the professional necessities of photography took some restraint, a bit of pragmatism, and a thrifty attitude to keep from breaking the budget. Now these life long habits encounter the digital age as exemplified by a visiting graduate student, a child of the digital age from Europe, taking pictures of birds in our feeder. She shoots away with abandon, grabbing image after image, and the F1 shots pictures like this too. So even though my technology allows it, the Phactor still finds it impossible to blaze away taking picture after picture. It would not be a boast to say that the percentage of my pictures that turn out good is much better than the digital gun slingers, but the sheer volume of shots generates many good results as does the ability to get immediate quality feedback rather than much later disappointment. While known and understood, the habits of a lifetime are hard to change. Of course, children of the digital age should understand that even though you obtain 2,000 images during an afternoon's walk in a park, no one wants to see them all, just the hand full that are really good. This dinosaur's struggle to adapt will continue and one personal pledge was to grab more images of interesting things that the Phactor just happens upon to take advantage of the convenient size of today's cameras. The walk home the other day provided an opportunity to take a further step into the digital age.

Squirrel appreciation day - you must be joking

According to an authoritative source today, or yesterday, is Squirrel appreciation day. As this is being written about a half dozen well-fed fox squirrels are hanging, literally, around our bird feeders and this is after accepting corn and squash seeds as bribes to not do so. They are indeed handsome animals, and so the Phactor wishes to express his appreciation. Squirrels are appreciated when they don't gnaw the bark off tree limbs and the trunks of Japanese maples and bonsai trees. Squirrels are appreciated when they don't dig up bulbs and newly planted garden beds. Squirrels are appreciated when they don't eat your strawberries, all your strawberries, or your not yet mature squash. Squirrels are appreciated by our black and white "death to all squirrels" (in theory only, but her effort is appreciated) feline. Squirrels are truly appreciated by the purveyors of the hundreds of feet of fencing and stakes used to improve our squirrel appreciation. So the next time a hawk or fox dismembered squirrel carcass, or a squirrel pancake is in the road, it shall be very much appreciated, and not just today, but every day.

Picky, picky, picky

Scientific publishing is not for the faint of heart or the delicate, sensitive personality. The blog title pretty well describes the reviewers, the editors, and scientific journals: picky, picky, picky. Reviewers start with the assumption that the authors are drooling idiots who don't know the first thing about the research they have labored over, and probably don't know the pertinent literature either, and odds on no one knows statistics better than they. You really come to appreciate constructive reviews however rare. Editors are chosen to he picky hard-asses it seems, bent on maintaining scientific standards, meaning the science they do as opposed to the science you do. And the rules and regs constructed for journals makes your basic immigration process pale by comparison. Yet, in spite of this, it does seem to work out, and the Phactor has not had nearly so bad a time as all this, except for that one time, oh, and that other one, and a couple of more here and there, although the next to last one was the biggest breeze in my entire career (yea!). The most recent paper involved editorial demands to keep jumping through ever smaller hoops, and then gaining some small satisfaction when some of the changes insisted upon by the editor, which seemed at odds with the journal's own format instructions, were changed back (yes, the authors got it right!) by the copy editor, but it doesn't do to point such things out. So after all this masochism of doing and publishing science, there is a certain sense of satisfaction for getting a manuscript done, submitted, reviewed, and revised, today! And if the stoopid editor doesn't swoon in delight over these efforts, well, the Phactor will probably do what they ask, meekly.

Friday Fabulous Flower - a tropical cucurbit

On miserably cold bleak days, a reminder of the tropics is always welcome. Although squash flowers can be pretty big, members of the gourd family, generally called cucurbits, are not thought of as having very many attractive flowers. Here's Gurania makoyana from Costa Rica that makes a pretty dramatic display to attract pollinators, in this case butterflies for certain. The sepals are the orange part of the display; the yellow corolla doesn't open very wide making sort of a tube and doesn't contribute much to the display. Since the vine is often scrambling through the rainforest understory along dense and dim edges, this inflorescence really stands out. Greenish-white, finger-sized cucumbery fruit follow.

The slumbering giant awakes

University campuses are strange beasts. They can transform from desolate ghost towns to crowded dynamos of activity almost over night. Over the holiday break the Phactor marveled at the solitude of walking home through the central quad, which today is bustling with people. It is a transformation as marvelous as watching Lee Marvin's drunken sot become Kid Shaleen, one bright moment in an otherwise forgettable movie. Uh oh, students! That means classes have started and it's time to check the schedule for teaching obligations! Yes, in exactly one hour the semester begins, and for the first time in a very long time, about 15 years, the Phactor will be teaching a new course to fill in for a colleague on leave. The subject, general plant biology, is neither difficult nor unknown, but it has been at least 35 years since last the Phactor taught this subject, and it's surprising how much work a new course actually is. It doesn't really help to have gotten class materials from a colleague once you discover that you really don't think alike at all. So now to get ready to meet the eager young faces ready to do battle with ignorance and push back the frontiers of knowledge, and just maybe figure out that plants are not just green animals.

Mostly Unicellular

"Unicellular organisms are so successful, so numerous, and so diverse that an unbiased description of life on Earth could be summed up with just two words: mostly unicellular." This is the 1st sentence from the 3d chapter of the book the Phactor is supposed to be finishing, soon. This of course paraphrases the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe's description of Earth: mostly harmless. As a big conspicuous organism living at a macroscopic level, it's very hard to understand just how many unicellular organisms there are, but just as a hint, your body harbors more unicellular organisms than you have cells making up your body, and both are really big numbers. The other thing about this is that organisms seem to have become big, and this happened because lots of small cells teamed up to produce big organisms, rather quickly, at least in geological terms, which means over millions of years. Recent research has shown that under selection pressure, yeast, usually a unicellular organism, becomes multicellular rather quickly. Although this seems to be getting a lot of attention, it doesn't actually surprise the Phactor very much for two reasons. One yeast undoubtably has a multicellular ancestry among filamentous fungi, in other words, it was reduced to unicellularity and it isn't unreasonable to think that some of its multicellular genetic heritage still resides within. When dividing quickly, yeast cells divide by budding, an asymmetrical division, that can produce short chains of cells although evetually they separate. Second, research with other unicellular organisms, in this instance a unicellular algae called Chlorella that lives free-floating in its aquatic environment, has shown similar tendencies. If predators are in the environment, the selection pressure upon unicells (getting eaten), selects for larger multicellular organisms where several cells hang together after division rather than separating. This makes them larger and not so prone to predation, and therefore more successful in reproducing. This is just what evolution is about, non-random reproduction. If anyone says they don't understand how random processes can produce biological diversity they have demonstrated that they have no idea at all of what they speak. What is being altered by the selection is developmental timing, the onset of cell wall synthesis, which if it begins prior to cell separation effectively "glues" the two daughter cells together. Note that no new genes were needed, no new genetic information, just a bit of inheritable variation in developmental timing. In the absence of predators, the selection pressure shifts back and unicellular types again dominate because the bigger multicelled algae have a faster sinking rate and aren't as successful as free-floating algae under these conditions. No big surprises here although certainly a very nice piece of research, and when the actual publication is released, we shall see if the algae work is cited in their literature or not.

Fun and Games with super PAC, man!

You've got to love those guys, Steven Colbert & John Stewart; they may be the best political comedians ever, and nothing shows the ridiculous, the absurdities, better than satirical humor. How better to show people how super PACs abuse the democratic process than to have one and use it to steal the show. But rather than George trying to interview Colbert as a serious candidate (As Colbert says, "Good luck with that.") why isn't he asking about the real issue, the misuse, the abuse, of super PACs? Colbert says is plainly, it's about free speech, and the money, because the more money you have the more speech you can buy. Why aren't people outraged when they can see how sleasy the whole business is when someone is right up front about it? Hand over the fund to a buddy, who does your dirty work, while the candidate disavows all knowledge, all connections, and all responsibility for the attack ads. Why is it taking a couple of comedians to bring up serious issues that threaten our democratic process? At least the USA isn't so far gone that it resorts to censoring such political satire, and this is the best since Pat Paulsen sort of ran for president with his flag-lined suit. And Paulsen might be the only person as hard to interview as Colbert.

kumquats - a salad recipe

Kumquats are in season! But what do you do with the little beggers? They were one of those funny little fruits that the Phactor had never actually figured out what they were good for until the Phactor happened upon a book of recipes that use uncommon fruits and vegetables, but then it sits around for a year or so until you actually sit down only to find a kumquat recipe: broccoli salad with kumquats and olives. So here you go. Cut up a 1 lb bunch of broccoli in the usual manner and steam lightly until just tender, then rinse in cold water, and let come to room temp. Blanch 10 kumquats in boiling water for 15 seconds. Put in cold water. Slice 6 cross-wise thinly. Quarter the other 4 removing the seeds. Lightly saute a tsp of minced garlic in 3 tbsp of olive oil. In a food processor combine 2 tbsp of lemon juice, 1/2 tsp sugar, 1/4 tsp salt, a decent grind of pepper, the quartered kumquats, the oil, and garlic, and liquify to make a dressing. Toss broccoli & kumquats with dressing, and allow to set an hour or so, adjust seasoning to taste, add 8-10 cured black olives, pitted, and quartered. Enjoy! Oh, and don't over saute the garlic or Mrs. Phactor will give you grief about being careful the next time.

Saturday winter fun - cooking

In a strange departure from normal, a Saturday arrives when the Phactors had no pressing errands to run and no other activities of note, and of course, with the outside temperature in the teens and a 6 inch snow cover, gardening activities were much curtailed. Lacking any motivation to take on or start any major projects, nothing left to do but cook. So what better thing to do than make some curried meat balls, or try a new chocolate chip muffin recipe, and the matter was settled by the newest addition to the household, a visiting graduate student from Germany. Let's make both. How sensible! And so the Phactors found themselves with a willing sous-chef. The curry recipe uses an amazing amount of spice, especially coriander and its juvenile alter ego cilantro. Problems arise in the conflict between a metric person encountering antiquated recipes leaving to yours-truly, the one who flips back and forth daily between the metric and English world of measurements. Why the USA lacks the spine to simply adopt the metric system is a mystery. The discovery that teaspoon and cup are actually standardized measures and not just approximations based on spoons or cups in your kitchen helped explain why some attempts at cooking using USA recipes was less than successful. The next discovery, a measuring cup with dual metric/English markings adds a must buy item to the shopping list. Both the meatballs and muffins were very successful. And it was easier to explain than football.

Teach the controversy column?

Jay Mathews column the other day at the WashPo seemed to be promoting the idea that it would be a good educational idea to teach the controversy, to teach evolution and some form of creationism or intelligent design, so that students could make up their own minds. It's so annoying, annoying enough that the Phactor sent him an email saying, in part: Please, not teach the controversy again. There is no scientific controversy because to be a scientific theory, an explanation, it has to be useful, able to be used to do science. Creationism & ID aren't just wrong; they're useless making no predictions. And gave him the link to the statement on evolution from the Botanical Society of America. And he responds: thanks, but column doesnt say teach the controversy. It says teach the scientific method.---jay. So I re-read his column, and it still sounds like he thinks Santorum's idea to teach the controversy is a good one. Have a look, see what you think.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Kohleria

Gesneriaceae is best known for African violets, but many other members are showier and even easier to grow, of course, my F1 grows better African violets, so the Phactor is not the best authority on their cultivation. This neotropical species, probably Kohleria eriantha, grows as a very vigorous, almost constantly flowering, sub-shrub in our glasshouse. The reason people like this genus is obvious; the flowers are fairly large, bright in color, fuzzy, and the corolla has very bold nectar guides. Nectar guides like this usually absorb UV light and the areas between reflect it, so in those wavelengths, they are very bold. This tells you they are not adapted for human eyes. Numerous hybrids exist, but in general they are avoided in our use as real species are prefered for teaching botany. If you wish to learn how flowers work these are a nice example of how a "bisexual" (bisporangiate really) flower uses movement of floral parts and sequential functionality to promote outcrossing. When this flower first opens the two pair of stamens are positioned at the top and front of the corolla tube thus ready to daub pollen on the back of any visitor, which based on the floral size and features, will be a bee. The style is above and below the anthers, out of the way, and the bilobed stigma remains closed. After a day of dispersing pollen the spent anthers fold back, and the style takes their place with an open stigma, thus changing the flower to pollen accepting. It's a good exercise to assign this to students for them to figure out how this flower works.

Just in time field work

At about 3 pm yesterday it occurred to the Phactor that should he want a collection of winter condition twigs for a lab exercise, it would be one hell of a lot smarter to collection them while a nice 50 degrees outside. That began a concerted two and a half hours of field work, only briefly interrupted by campus police wishing to know what was going on. Officer: What is going on here? Phactor: Collecting specimens for a lab. Officer: Do you have permission? Phactor: Permission? This campus is my classroom. Any other questions? By the time the collecting was done a huge plastic bag was quite awkwardly full and reasonably heavy, but enough diversity was collected, included at least 2 species in 4 or 5 genera, so that students will be able to observe, sort, and organize twig characters, all before they get any terminology, and then use this data for construction of a dichotomous key, and then finally to figure out the species and evaluate how successful their efforts were. And this morning, awakening to a cold, windy, white winter scene, well, actually awakening to a black paw on my cheek announcing that cat breakfast time was nigh, the Phactor was congratulating himself for his emergency field work. Those fingers work so much better when well above freezing. Yes, it's good to have one of life's little triumphs every now and then.

Catnip and cats

The effect of catnip on cats is obvious to anyone who's ever dosed their usually docile, lazy pet and watched them turn into a wide-eyed, crazed maniac. So as you would have guessed, cats have a receptor for nepetalactone (OK you might not have guessed that part.) (Nepeta is the genus of cat mints.) in catnip that gets them "excited". Perhaps because of this dramatic effect on cats,or maybe because it is a member of the mint family in general, humans have used catnip medicinally, herbally, but not to the same effect. For humans catnip is a bit of a sedative. Bummer. Those little furry mice look like fun.

The good, the bad, and the ugly - bad & ugly landscaping

My daily walk through the student ghetto that surrounds our campus provides many examples of landscaping that meets the minimum municiple requirements placed upon the slumlords. One of the requirements is a sight barrier for parking areas and here's an excellent example of the bad, ugly landscaping that results. This is their 2nd try to grow a row of arborvitae here (the one on the far end alone survived the 1st planting). It would appear a 2nd one survived this time! So how many more plantings will have to be done? Probably none unless the town holds their feet to the fire. Now you can all guess what happened here. First, no thought went into the landscaping at all. Dull, dull, dull, and probably not the best choice of plant either. Second, the trees were just stuck in a hole with no attempt to tease out the tangle of pot-bound roots. Third, they put down a weed barrier & stones (so attractive - not) rather than organic mulch. Fourth, they didn't protect their investment during a hot, dry late summer by watering them. And this place is supposed to be upscale as residences go. Totally lame, what else is there to say? Next it'll be a fence because "trees just won't grow there".

Energy-saving lights with biological theme

The library used to have tall, decorative (?) architectural fixtures studded with big, glowing incandescent bulbs that were expensive (and hard) to replace and as incandescent bulbs get phased out, impossible to replace. Since they were decorative in function, it's pretty hard to argue that they weren't a big waste of energy. So what do you do? This is no idle problem. The plant dryer, a box that holds plant presses, in our herbarium is heated by the tremendous inefficiency of four 100-watt incandescent bulbs. Now what? Trying to find just the right heating element is a problem. One tech suggested just buying a case of 100w bulbs and putting the problem off a couple of years. Given this type of committment to energy savings and solving technological problems, it was quite a surprise to see new what look like LED light fixtures being installed. And as a bonus, they were designed in a double helix, the shape of DNA, except for the lack of the paired nucleotide bases between the two strands in four different colors (a necessity). OK, so they didn't consult with a biologist, but it does solve the bulb/energy/decorative problem with more imagination than usual. We gots a whole aging building of bandaid fixes. Good old low bid planning.

Fungal bio-coating & soft cheeses

Fungi are some pretty amazing organisms. Molds in particular can grow in some fantastically hostile environments for example on the surface of our maple syrup. Generally things like syrups and jellies and honey are self-preserving because any bacterial cell or fungal spore that falls onto its surface is subjected to a huge osmotic differential and the tiny bit of water in the cell gets pulled into the sugary portion diluting it by some teeny-tiny amount, but of course killing the cell. But some molds can happily grow on the surface of such sugary things. The general biology of spoilage bacteria and fungi is to compete with big organisms like us for our food, and they do this by making things look, smell, and taste yucky thereby winning the competition. If they did not do this, they would simply be eaten and digested along with the food (strong negative selection). Humans have developed a taste for certain yucky things that result from controlled spoilage, for example certain cheeses that are infected on their surface by molds. In particular molds form a protective rind on the surface of soft cheeses of the camembert type that prevent infections by other spoilage organisms and keep the cheese surface dry, but the interior moist, while the mold slowly consumes and alters it with its enzymes. This rind has some pretty fantastic qualities as a bio-coating, and once this protective coating is broken the cheese needs to be consumed pretty quickly. Biologists are now looking at such bio-coatings to determine if they can have other potential uses. Research supplies: flock of goats, big cave, lots of crackers and wine. Sounds like a project it would be easy to like. Here’s a heads up for readers: try Humboldt Fog cheese, a semi-ripe soft cheese with a layer of gray plant ash running through the middle. It’s fantastic! Image credit: Artisanal Cheese. HT to the Science line.

new semester + new course = unprepared

Uh-oh! Sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel is a train headed your way! In 8 days, a class of bright, eager, faces will be wanting to learn some botany, and all that other course stuff like a syllabus, grading, a lecture/lab schedule, and the like. This is not usually a problem, but in an effort to help a colleague and help the department provide the best array of courses, the Phactor got talked, nudged, cajoled, blackmailed, into teaching a new course - basic plant biology. How could this be a problem? Well, let's see when was the last time the Phactor taught general botany? Hmmm,let's think. OMG, 25 years ago!? Yikes! So now to come up with 40 some odd new lectures and a dozen or so new labs. To demonstrate his desperation the Phactor actually looked to see if any of the end-of-the-world predictions might bail him out. But no, May 27th is too late; that's nearly 3 weeks after finals. But what was that? You find new material in the funniest places. Plants were created in heaven and just transported to the garden of Eden! Well, let's grab that link and work it into a lecture. That doesn't explain a lot of things, actually it explains nothing, but when you're desperate, you do desperate things. So, first off, plants are not uniformly green; all the green is in itty-bitty green things that without a microscope you cannot resolve as individual points of green. It's a start.
Image from Botany Blogs.

What if winter never comes?

For the 7th and 8th of January, this has been extremely mild weather this weekend. Gave us a chance to police the yard and pick up all the limbs deposited during a wind storm a week ago. A few buds on the witch hazel are showing color; snowdrops are poking up here and there. Of course winter still has plenty of time to show up, but to be a no show at this late date is very atypical. At this rate the Phactor will be rethinking some of those zone 6 plants he's been coveting. But because we had 2 weeks of modestly cold weather, and now much milder temperatures, some plants could get fooled. It will be interesting to see how long this trend lasts.

Stalking the wild death cap mushroom

As purveyor of plant identifications, the Phactor gets lots of requests and even urgent calls for help. Identifications require both knowledge and experience, and a good reference collection also helps a lot. Now we all make mistakes, but amateurs are going to make more mistakes than us pros. Making IDs gets harder the further away you are from your home base because you are less familiar with the flora. The Phactor would never offer his services to an emergency room in China, for example. Here's a story of a fatal mistake: a Chinese chef visiting Australia finds what he thinks are edible mushrooms and makes a delectable stir fry that kills both the chef and his assistant. Now this fellow was obviously not even a good amateur because major mushroom genera are quite widespread and much more similar around the world than seed plants, which suggests that mushroom genera are quite ancient. Death caps are in the genus Amanita, large handsome mushrooms with white spores, a persistent veil, and a cup at the base of the stipe, which isn't always this obvious. Any gatherer of wild mushrooms should know this, and that combination of traits should have warned them. A few years ago an emergency room asked me to identify some bits and pieces of mushrooms a fellow had collected and eaten, but then he felt flushed and had what felt like palpitations, so he got scared and headed for the hospital. The bits did not allow a certain ID by a long way, but they were not consistent with a death cap either. But it really didn't matter; if the mushrooms had been death caps the fellow would have been a walking deadman. The toxins can destroy your kidneys before you even feel ill. Fortunately this fellow recovered, but his enthusiasm for wild mushrooms was greatly reduced. Mycophobia can go too far too. A woman almost got physically ill after learning that the delicious mushrooms being served had been collected in my own yard (Carefully IDed.). But do be careful out there folks, some plants and some fungi don't give you a second chance. The image of Amanita phalloides (the destroying angel) is courtesy of Arvenzo and the Creative Commons.

HuffPo Science Page

Huffington Post has not been known for its rigorous reporting on science, particularly when it came to medicine. But HuffPo's new science news page looks pretty good. Who would have thunk it? And there's a really, really good statement about scientific theory too! Looks like HuffPo is turning over a new leaf. Wonder if their regular drubbing at the hands, or keyboards, of science bloggers had any influence? Let us hope so.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Bottle plant

Even though this January day feels like spring outside, it's still January, so there are limited pickings available even in our glasshouse. However, over on the succulent bench, one of the pachycaulous (thick-stemmed) succulent euphorbs is flowering, Jatropha podagrica, sometimes called bottle plant because the stem abruptly widens toward the base. While it is generally grown as a curiosity because of its thick stem even on a quite young, quite small plant, the rounded inflorescences standing out above the foliage are quite showy. Here's a close up showing the unisexual flowers characteristic of euphorbs (staminate flower to the far left, a slightly larger pistillate flower to its right with the 3-branched stigma showing prominently). The inflorescence is a cyme and the pistillate flower always occupies the terminal, central position. Even after the pistillate flowers get pollinated, drop their perianth, and begin to develop as fruit, the inflorescence continues to produce staminate flowers. This plant is easily grown if you have a warm, sunny enough window and can avoid over watering. The pachycaul image is courtesy of Bouba via the Creative Commons.

Textbooks and botany

In grade school science books generally plants get overlooked, downplayed, and portrayed as static objects, so kids come to think of plants as "boring". For those of us in the botanical education business, none of this comes as a surprise, however, it's still good to have real studies of the problem. And the errors and misconceptions about plants taught to kids; it's terrible. How many times has the Phactor seen the cotyledons of a bean seed labeled "endosperm"? Plants respire like animals, but they don't "breathe". No, no, stop before you start ranting. You would do well to check your kids science books, and if they ignore plants, or get the plant facts wrong, complain. Of course, the Phactor did this, and the middle school science teacher told me, "Well, plants just aren't interesting." In this case it was sheer ignorance of plant biology compounded by just plain poor, passive teaching. Don't stand for it. Buy them funking plants for the class room. Suggest a field trip to a botanical garden. Bring in a load of unusual fruits including those that kids think are vegetables. Which ones have seeds that grow? Help the school develop a learning garden. Generate some interest. My job depends on it!

Some students learn too late

A recent BS graduate wants the Phactor to write a letter of recommendation supporting their application to graduate school. Now this is a good student, a nice person, but our only interaction was in a seminar, so it is only within that limited context, a mere 12 hours of interaction, that my recommendation can be based, and this is not a context that will impress admissions committees. You see boys and girls, graduate school is not just about more classes and grades, and while you may have good enough grades for admission to graduate school from the university's perspective, my colleagues will be sorting through 100 or so applicants looking for 10 or 15 who have evidence of an ability to think and perform academically on a higher level, evidence of an aptitude for independent work and for conducting research. One of the biggest and most frequent undergraduate mistakes is not taking advantage of the opportunities available. One of the real benefits of our university is that you can work with faculty doing real research, and all of you who have any academic aspirations should have taken this opportunity. Our best students have been to scientific meetings, presented their research, and some even get authorship on publications, but now you have graduated, and only now do you choose to speak to me of this aspiration, so my advice comes too late. All is not lost, but now you may have to invest more time in finding an internship situation that will give you an opportunity to show your scholarly stuff. Sorry. You just found out how part of the world works too late.

Who invented the dichotomous key?

It's easy to take dichotomous keys for granted, and they are a wonderful tool for sorting through and calling your attention to significant details. After working your way through a complicated and detailed dichotomous key, and arriving successfully at an identification you get quite a feeling of achievement. One such key, Gleason and Cronquist's Manual of Vascular Plants of NE United States and adjacent Canada (NY Botanical Garden) puts a tremendous amount of taxonomic identification power in your hands (It is a bit hefty, so use 2), once you learn how to use it and get a bit of experience from a seasoned pro. In case you are unfamiliar with such devices, dichotomous keys offer you pared choices with each choice leading you to another pair of choices, and so on until an identification is reached. But who invented the idea? As best the Phactor can recall, someone said Jean Baptiste Lamarck, he of inheritance of acquired characters fame, had introduced the dichotomous key in Flora Francaise (1778), but seldom does that get mentioned as one of his scientific accomplishments. And now one of my colleagues (Lawrence Griffing) says that a botanist, Robert Waller, gave a talk to the Royal Society of London some 100 years earlier entitled: Tables of the English Herbs reduced to such an order, as to find the name of them by their external figures and shapes (27 March 1689). (The entire article may be behind a fire wall as it was just published, but us insiders can get the pdf file if anyone is truly interested.) This does not mean Lamarck got the idea from Waller, just that such a tabular approach was introduced earlier. Waller was very modern by linking his key to water color illustrations of the British flora and supposedly these illustrations are accessible online at the British Library (thus the origin of a previous post), but even after registering, the Phactor was unable to find the illustrations, or even get back in again, and not enough time to really fight with it. If anyone else is successful, do let us know.

Party loyalty oath

In Virginia you will now have to sign a GOP party loyalty oath in order to vote in the primary. This is one of the states, like here in Lincolnland, where you may decide in which party primary you wish to vote. The pledge will require the voter to sign and to print his name beneath a line that says: "I, the undersigned, pledge that I intend to support the nominee of the Republican Party for president." What a remarkable idea! The Phactor regularly votes in the Republican primaries in Lincolnland because often that is the only ballot where any choice exists, so you try to pick the candidate who will do the least damage if elected. This is so fundamentally undemocratic in principle that the Phactor recommends signing the oath, but having your fingers crossed while doing it. This negates any and all intent, and carries all of the same legal weight as the oath. Lying to politicians and pollsters is altogether appropriate. Now consider how absurd this is when you think about the various GOP candidates themselves. Think Newtron will swear to support anybody with 2 first names? Sure! How can you take something like this seriously?

On the Spice Trail

A great deal of the age of exploration, or when Europe discovered the rest of the world, was driven by the money that could be made by answering the demand for spices. While seeking another piece of information, the Phactor happened upon the British Library's Turning the Pages project that puts classic documents in your hands that you may virtually "flip through the pages". One exhibit that can be viewed is called The Spice Trail, images from the Raffles Family collection of natural history illustrations from SE Asia. Perhaps you've had a Singapore Sling at the Long Bar of the Raffles Hotel where the drink was invented. Yes, the Phactor has done this, a minor claim to fame. There are other botanical goodies at the same source, and hopefully the registration does not prove too onerous. It was easy enough to do, but then it promptly rejected my password upon its 2nd use. The site is neither simple or straight forward, but so many cool things to see. Perhaps others will manage better and report back.

A very merry Berry-Go-Round #47 and more

Oops. Forgot about BGR and failed to submit any blogs. My bad. But nonetheless the Roaming Naturalist rounded up some interesting December blogs for your amusement and edification.
Here's an interesting round up of recent bio-agricultural blogs from the
Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog. In particular you might like the article on guerilla grafting, a new approach to urban farming. Next garden ninjas will be crawling over our fences at night to snag some zucchini.
And then some people get a kick out of the most mundane things, and they must be happy people. So zip over to
Get Your Botany On and see the first flower of 2012. Having low expectations helps, but bragging rights are bragging rights. Actually a number of these winter rosette or winter annual plants are in flower sort of, or not, because they have what are called cleistogamous flowers; they never open beyond the bud stage and are self-pollinated in the bud. This may be the case for this little mustard.
The Phactor is having trouble, just old habits really, in remembering the current scientific name of the tomato, so it was good of the
Digital Botanic Garden to remind me. Let's fact it, after calling the tomato Lycopersicon esculenta (the juicy wolf peach) for 40 or so years, it's hard to remember that it is now Solanum lycopersicum, the nightshade wolf peach. This happened because tomato was found to be part of the nightshade lineage, and the specific epithet esculenta (um) was already in use, so they epitheticised the old generic name. And it's a simply great image of a pre-BLT tomato.

It's that time of year! Garden catalogs begin arriving

If you are a gardener, a plant-loving person of any type, you know what happens just after the Christmas mail rush: garden catalogs begin arriving! Yes, all those promissory pictures telling you that at some point in time under some particular set of circumstances where no expense was spared someone manage to photograph one of these plants is just that perfect condition. Your results might vary. Nonetheless, the Phactors love our garden catalogs. Mostly they give us ideas about what we might plant this year. For example, the garden adjacent to our patio needs an ornamental tree or shrub as a center piece, but it's not an easy place: part shade, a bit dry because of the dense sugar maple crown above, and a bit too exposed to wind from the NW (which describes way too much of our estate). Quite a bit of new landscape gardening is needed around the renovated pond. Let's see, refurbish two ancient, scraggy forsythia, or yank them out and plant a new Magnolia, maybe a yellow flowered one? OK, that's a no brainer. But this is what all those wonderful catalogs are all about - making a wish list, a type of wishful shopping, like people who wander malls with no particular intent of purchase, a mind set marketers try hard to change. Oh that we had a local nursery that carried such varied stock among which to wander, but most cater to the least common denominator. The arrival of garden catalogs means that in just 3 short, miserable, cold nasty months, a new gardening season begins, and so we imagine all those lovely things growing lushly from our dry, shady, hard, clay soil. So more than any other thing, these catalogs help us look forward to better things, a new round of phytotherapy. So how can the postal service be doing so badly if they have all these garden catalogs to deliver?