Field of Science


Neotropical morning

This was an unusual morning for the upper midwest.  The weekend was dreary, cold, gray, and rainy, so not much gardening got done, but the Phactor did help the F1 move her belongings to a nice little house.  Monday dawned gray and drizzly looking like more of the same, but the temperature was a surprise because it was much warmer than you would anticipate just looking out of the window.  By 8 AM it was quite a comfortable temperature, although still overcast.  Water from overnight rain still dripped from the lush spring vegetation and everything smelled organic and looked green. While standing there taking in the moment, you could hear quite a remarkable number of bird calls including some migrants that added an exotic touch to the usual residents.  Ah, just like early morning in Costa Rica where well-watered lush vegetation of the rain forest is more the norm than the exception and the birds eagerly greet the coming day.  These are very fine mornings, the prettiest part of the day, and like a good coffee something to be savored, but the last week of classes were calling so the revery was brief, which is sad because such mornings are so rare here.

Plant this weed - Sure!

There are plants that just should not be planted.  The Phactor has already warned you about plume poppy and presently is struggling to eradicate Houttoynia crodata, the newest addition to my do-not-plant-this-plant list,  from an planting enclosure (even that did not work to contain it).  So here's one of the darlings of the Chelsea Flower Show, and just looking at this and my gardeners instinct rebells at the idea of planting this plant.  See!  It's clearly a weed; too closely related to a troublesome weed to be worth the risk even it this species (Chenopodium giganteum) is prettier than its well known weedy relative.  Read the endorsement!  It's edible.  Big deal.  Most chenopods, indeed, most weeds are edible when young (and there's a biological reason why).  It's free seeding!!!  Yikes, that should be warning enough.  Translation: This is a bloody weed whose seedlings will drive you crazy.  Oh, just thought of another entry for the do-not-plant-this-plant list, but it will wait for another blog.  So who does Chelsea think she's kidding.  It'll take more than an appearance at a famous flower show to convince this gardener that planting this plant is worth while. 

How to run a University - coaches (rhymes with roaches)

A long time ago, the Phactor thought there were three member classes that composed a university: students, faculty, and administrators, of which only the first two are absolutely essential.  Now with years of experience it is apparent that there is a fourth member class, one superior to the other three, and even less essential, a laothsome category called coaches.  In high school coaches were just teachers who did coaching as sort of a hobby, although years ago Mrs. Phactor, who would have been a great high school teacher, began to figure out what schools' priorities really were when she was asked in interview if she could coach soccer.  Yes, we advertised for a civics and history teacher, but what we really want is a soccer coach, so take your honors degrees and history scholarship for a walk and we'll hire a soccer jock who had a history course, once, and passed!  At the university there is never even the thinnest pretense of a coach being part of the academic enterprise.  A successful coach at our institution had just accepted a new 5 year contract for about $500,000 a year, which makes the coach the highest paid person at our institution by about $100,000.  Then someone offers this coach a position of coach in waiting, not even head coach, but for almost twice as much money, and he jumps at the chance.  His hesitancy about bailing out on this contract and his team had nothing to do about 2nd thoughts; it was a strategy for upping the ante.  This is exactly what a coach actually teaches.  It's not about sportmanship, it's not about winning or losing, it's not about building character, it's not about honoring your obligations and commitments, it's not about building a team or team spirit, it's not about a love of the game, it's about the money.  So much for a university's mission and values and highly vaunted scholarship.  It's coaches that get the most money, ignore the standards that everyone else adheres to, and then breaks their contract, stiffing their promising team, as soon as someone waves a bigger check under their nose.  But what does one expect?  They are products of exactly this system, and they learned their one le$$on really well. 

Friday Fabulous Flower - Purple Trillium

Among the denizens lurking in the shadier wooded recesses of our gardens are several species of Trillium.  They flower over quite a range of the spring time and some are showier than others.  This purple trillium (Trillium erectum)   frequently gets over looked although it can form some large clumps with quite a few aerial stems.  Although given the name you might not expect it, the flowers nod and the petals are dark purple, broader, shorter, and darker on our specimens than many you see.  The flowers are fragrant, but not pleasing except to small flies that swarm about them, thus yielding the common name "stinking Benjamin", and you wonder about its origin.  Such plants are quite a joy because they provide you with something a bit unexpected to discover when poking about.  

Discriminating examination

If you really want to find out how good students are, how well they are learning, how well they are mastering the material, all you have to do is push them just past their comfort zone, stress the system a little, and the results will be very discriminating, and quite discouraging.  My last botany exam covered too much material, that is, too much material to be easily reviewed just before the exam.  Not only that but the lecture material involved a couple of key concepts that are rather beyond a textbook to explain (a classic textbook weakness).  And without any particular intent to create more of a problem, the exam asked students to demonstrate their understanding of the land plant life cycle, a topic the Phactor has been beating his head against the wall for decades to teach effectively.  This subject has the ability to separate the memorizers from the conceptualizers.  Now as freshmen about 70% of college students are memorizers (concrete thinkers) and 15% conceptualizers with the remaining 15% sort of transitional.  By the time they get to be 3d and 4th year students you certainly expect a larger percent of conceptualizers, but my class breaks down almost exactly like 1st year students which indicates that we, a collective we, are doing a very poor job of changing the way they learn.  From the view of the concrete thinkers, the Phactor is a poor teacher and gave them an unfair exam.  However at the other end of the class, the exam was considered easy with two nearly perfect papers (out of 22).  The Phactor was unaware of how drastic the problem was because it was not readily apparent until the system was stressed by the amount and nature of the material covered.
Here's an example.  The diagram is a typical moss.  Here are the questions asked.  1. In terms of its life cycle, what does the leafy bottom half represent?  2. What is the ploidy level of the portion indicated by D?  3. What type of cell is produced by the organ labeled A?  4. What cellular process produces these cells (ref. #3)?  5. What sex organ is/was located at the position indicated by B?
Their answers exposed a lot of conceptual misunderstandings when they mismatch their answers to 1-4 with ploidy level or process.  To get B correct they have to think backwards in the process to understand what took place before this stage in the life cycle.  And for those who grasp the concept, it was so easy.  The problem is that no matter how you present the material, concrete thinkers resort to memorization, even when the lab endeavors to create an investigatory approach.  When the Phactor first encountered such material as a freshman biology major, the professor, Dr. Marsh, aptly named because he studied cattails, deducted for logical inconsistencies because it was evidence you were guessing.  Even then there were howls of protest and indignation.  
Some things just don't seem to change, but Marsh is proud of me.  And the exam did one thing it was supposed to do; it discriminated among my students and will make the final grading relatively easy even if the memorizers must be cut some slack.  Sadly this was just too difficult for most of our students.  Sorry, kids; sorry, world.  You try, but sometimes you fail.  However, you may be guaranteed that those top students are quite impressive, and really understand the land plant life cycle.  
Have at it readers.  

Hippy Mulch

The people over at the Garden Rant blog are far too nice about hippy mulch.  Has your mulch faded my friends?  Is it looking a bit dingy and dull?  Are your neighbors looking over the fence and clucking their tongues?  Are you too busy to spread some fresh mulch?  Well, here's the answer to your problems: hippy mulch!  And not only that, but for absolutely free this one time offer will throw in two dyes to match your favorite team's colors!  That will look just great out front!  This spray on dye job is to real mulch as the spray paint cover ups for male-patterned baldness is to hair, just not quite as creepy.  Does this mean Ron Popeil is back?  This product is something that no real gardener would want or use.  Colorizing your mulch?  Next you will be dying your Shasta daisies garish colors; what, oh no, crazy daises (or is it just dyesies, think Australian) are for real!  However, maybe the two products can be combined!  The Queen of Hearts will be so pleased; white roses dyed red and right along with her faded mulch.  And lastly these folks mix up the early 60s hippy era with the flower children of the late 60s and early 70s.  Scheesh!  

Ah, yes, the purported GOP alternative for healthcare

This just in, and what fool expected anything else other than a tax cut and privatize "solution"?  

Don't need no stinkin' Obamacare?

Then try the private option, and all that it entails, if you can afford it.  HT to the Pump Handle.

Coffee, bugs, and death

Tiny minds are at work worrying about tiny things, in this case whether a dye from ground up insects ruins your vegan diet when used in a coffee drink.  Well, not as much as a strawberry frappacino (it's a red dye).  Ah, the vegan belief system in fundamentalist, fanatic mode, and the Gleaming Retort has said it with more humor and information than the Phactor can muster today.  This craziness had to have originated in California; I mean you're getting drinks from Starbucks and you worry about a dye from an insect in your drink?  Just be happy it isn't a fly or cockroach swimming around.  But just remember vegans, fungi and animals are each others most recent common ancestors forming a single lineage, so phylogenetically eu-vegans (true vegans) you should probably avoid fungi and their metabolic products too, just to be safe.  Leave the beer and bread for us poor omnivores.

Every day is Earth Day

Today is the official Earth day, but what day isn't Earth day?  It's the only planet we've got and it's regularly and routinely mistreated as if another could be had for the asking.  The Phactor remembers the first Earth Day very well; it was my senior year in college, but another thing weighed heavy on my mind at the time: the war in Vietnam.  About 10 days later the shootings at Kent State happened and everything descended into chaos, and Earth day things were lost.  How nice it would be to recount all the wonderful things that have happened in the past 40 years, but so little progress and so much more damage.  Forty years ago we simply thought that all that was needed was education; explain to people what was happening, what action was needed, and things would turn around.  Back then some people used to ignore the facts, now they deny the facts by sowing disinformation thereby making more of a problem.  For an educator, this is very discouraging, so this year Earth Day finds my state of mind rather pessimistic, a bit depressed when thinking about how far humans have surpassed the carrying capacity of Earth. 

A stranger in a strange land

As a world traveler the Phactor has awakened in many a strange place.  But having bummed some floor space and an inflatable mattress from our city friends following our pig-out dine-out, the Phactor awakened to realize he was truly a stranger in a strange land.  Not to brag, but the view from our toilet is one of the best there is, looking as it does out across the expanse of our garden, and since nothing else is within view, the blinds stay open.  So it is rather disconcerting to wake up and be able to wave to a counterpart just awakening in the adjacent high rise.  He doesn't wear pajamas and decides to roll over and go back to sleep.  His wife has nice rose pink PJs and she leaves him to sleep in.  This is the world of high-rise human fish bowls designed to bring out every ounce of voyeurism and/or exhibitionism you may harbor.  Five up and three over a blonde lady in a white robe checks out the morning view of Lake Michigan, steely green gray and choppy.  Two over and one down makes no pretenses about your privacy; a telescope sits by the window, undoubtably to watch the birds on the decks of the yachets in the yachet basin below although this just isn't the season for that type of bird watching.  Oh, pink PJs lady is back to awaken no PJs fellow and mets with no obvious success.  Two down and four over a tyke plays with some toys.  While the chances of ever meeting or even recognizing any of your observational subjects is low, this fish bowl world is very disconcerting for a country mouse like the Phactor.  How funny to be more comfortable and at ease in a tropical jungle than in a big city high rise in the urban jungle.  Two over and five up a lady opens the blinds to greet the morning sun, but she is not appropriately dressed to greet polite company.  Is this just part of the fish bowl life that takes some getting used to just as some city visitors find the "wilderness" in view of our toilet disconcerting?  A day of this each year is about as much as the Phactor can stand.  Wonder where we'll eat next year? 

"Pigging" out in Chi-town

The occasion of the Chicago Plant Science Symposium left us with a choice: head home in the Chi-town mad rush hour, or stick around and go out to dinner with friends.  Some choices are easier than others.  Having a friend who keeps their eye on the Chi-town food scene also helps with the choice of restaurant, thus making it simple to choose the Publican at the Fulton Market.  It was about a year ago that we previously visited and on that occasion had a very satisfying dinner at the Girl and Goat, and the Publican was even better.  This is not a dining destination for the vegetarian as the primary focus is pork (See the print of the patron saint on the wall?), and beer, although the daily pickle plate was a complete delight, especially the pickled red onions with a hint of clove and the dynamite bread and butter pickles.  Our unanimous favorite seemed an unlikely menu item and it was chosen out of curiosity: fried smelt, with sweet potatoes and a garlic black olive aioli. Simple and wonderful, and who would have thought to match smelt with sweet potatoes?  Of course, anything dabbed with aioli always seems better.  The Publican's signature menu item is a pork charcuterie plate.  Of the many diverse items the pork pie that just oozes peppery pork goodness was without question the best.  Apparently you can buy whole meat pies across the street at an associated butchery.  Like many trendy eateries the Publican operates with a small plate format although some plates are entree sized.  The Phactor finds this a fun and entertaining format because you not only get to sample many more items, but the diners really share in the experience and that is largely missing in the big plate format.  Not only that but you get to select a just right amount of food rather than having to ask for a doggy bag.  The former owner of the Goose Island Brewery who sold out to Bud Lite Corp has returned to the fermentation business with cider, and one of the new premier products is a remarkable champagne-like Red Streak cider, and while the others gave the cider rave reviews, the Phactor enjoyed the Harvest Ale (Victory Brewing Co.).  When it comes to food, Chi-town doesn't take a back seat to any other city.  So, sorry Tom (famous paleobotanist), that's the reason the Phactor could not stay to hear your talk about the role of fungi in the evolution of land plants.  Again, choices had to be made, and man does not live by science alone, beer and pork help.  Oh, and fungi plays an important role here too!

Friday Fabulous Flower - Magnolia tripetala

It's not every day that you have a new species of Magnolia flower, in this case Magnolia tripetala, one of the big-leafed species.  The flowers are borne at the ends of the branches and sort of sit upon a whorl of partially expanded leaves.  When fully expanded the leaves can be two feet long.  The species name comes from the outer three perianth parts that reflex downwards.  The inner perianth parts are 8-9 big white upright "petals" that spread a bit more than seen in this image.  This tree is about 5 years old and some 9-10 feet tall.  The flowers are not all that showy, but the tree has a great exotic tropical look to it, but it's worst enemy may be our midwestern winds. 
This has been a terrifically busy week, and science business is taking the Phactor out of town tomorrow, so posting the FFF early is the only way.  Otherwise you would have been reading my general botany exam instead of a flower blog.

English bluebells from Brooklyn

English bluebells are very different from our bluebells; the only similarity is that both are a blue and nodding bell-shaped flowers.  These are a hyacinth-like flower (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) that flower later than our native bluebells, and are among our later bulbs.  Mrs. Phactor first saw a huge display of these covering an area of a few acres under some huge oak trees at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden on our first botanical geek tour.  Since then she has been waging war on the lily-of-the-valley under a burr oak and replacing them with English bluebells.  This is a minerature re-creation of the display at the BBG.  These might have been the FFF except that a new magnolia flowered.  Stage three of this project will be planted this fall.

Homeopathy Awareness Week

And of what should you be aware?  Well, homeopathy has no scientific basis what so ever and is nothing more than magic water and magical thinking (look up placebo effect).  However, here's another approach, pay for your homeopathic remedies with homeopathic money

Naturally naturalized bulb

In the far dim wilderness recesses of our gardens, our property abuts properties on both the east and west in places where no human foot has tread for decades.  The Phactor has been thinking of contacting the discovery channel when exploring back there.  In such places the surviving plants are generally weeds or cultivars that have a tremendous ability to naturalize, and so late in April a few years back, a patch of flowers appeared in a quite shady area of long-time neglect, and they looked great, a shade-loving (or at least tolerating) plant that is attractive in flower and clearly requiring little care or maintenance.  What's not to like, so what is it?  Now that poses an interesting problem.  Unless it capable of escaping cultivation completely, it will not be in field guides that stick to natives or escaped, naturalized exotics. Since the Phactor had never seen it before, it was not one of these.  It was clearly a liliaceous (OK, someone did scale the fence to get a closer look.  So what?), spring bulb of some sort, but an unfamiliar one.  That does not narrow the possibilities very much, and it took some time for a positive ID to be made by chance while thumbing through one of those big bulb catalogs.  A more definitive check with encyclopedic reference books (that do not have ID keys!) the following spring confirmed that this was Ornithagolum nutans, sometimes called silver bells.  Our lawn and gardens are littered sparingly with the more common species O. umbellatum, star of Bethlehem, which is a tad invasive, if not a down right pest if you are one of those monocultures of grass types.  However, these silver bells showed no sign of being so invasive having stayed in one patch for decades, so a few dozen bulbs were purchased and planted in patches here  and there around some of the shadier recesses of our gardens.  This spring the new silver bells look quite nice, flowering after the earlier bulbs, although a bit understated with a perianth more of a pale green-white color than the bright white of umbellatum, and borne laterally on a taller raceme rather than in a flat topped, pseudo-umbel.  Still best to plant in a cluster to have a visual impression of any impact.  

Tax Day - My wife is back and decompressing

Well, the Phactors have survived another tax season, physically, financially, and psychologically.  Today has been a long day, for both of us, and we still have a couple of hours to go because the late shuttle bus from Ohare arrives at 9:40 pm and we must meet it.  By coincidence of scheduling our big black feline is adopting her newest German graduate student today.  She seems to have a particular penchant for them, or to put it another way, visiting graduate students staying in our guest room find out that it comes complete with cat, but from the cat perspective, all this is mine, including any bodies sleeping in my bed, and these young females seem to really like cats, a nice mutualism. It's quite a marvelous thing that tax season has a very definitive end, unlike field research that never ends.  But the long hours are taxing too.  In more normal years, the gardening begins in earnest just after tax season, but so much needed to be done earlier this year, more gardening than usual had to squeezed into tax season.  Well, so much for that.  Mrs. Phactor & F1 are chilling on the couch, decompressing, with the assistance of their yoga class, and the most fine Italian dinner prepared by none other than yours truly.  However, having paid his fair share for running this country and Lincolnland too, it would be nice to get some higher quality government, you know getting your monies worth so to speak. So having amply compensated my own personal tax preparer via a handsome gift, and a stint in the Missouri Botanical Garden gift shoppe, which has cost me dearly in the past, we officially close the book on the 2012 tax season, with an exhausted spouse back and recovering.

It never rains on field trips

The drive to St. Louis was pretty wet; it rained the whole way and hard at times.  The traffic going into St. Louis was terrible as usual just crawling along the last few miles to cross the Mississippi via the bottleneck bridge.  By the time we arrived at the Missouri Botanical Garden it was nearly 1 pm, so we grabbed a bite to eat, and by then the rain had stopped.  So just as the Phactor tells his students; it never rains on a field trip, although it can storm.  A bridezilla was showing her true stripes (do you know what you're getting, fellow?) because the garden had the temerity to let a deluge turn her wedding site into a soggy mess.  Heels and chair legs would have sunk in immediately, and the area would not have been kind to the hem of that white dress either.  Here's a nice view across the garden's pond, and remember, it's still just mid-April.  The NRA was in town, but didn't see any of them taking in the garden.  Funniest thing we saw was this morning while returning from a coffee safari; a butler/doorman (?) in a tux and white tie, trying to maintain his dignity while walking a toy poodle at 8 am.  Who wears a tux at 8 am on a Sunday for dog walking?  Did he have his little plastic baggy?  A penguin and a dog are out for a walk,....

It never rains on field trips - sure

In a quite unusual break from field work, gardening, and taxes, the Phactors are off to St. Louis for some botanical doings, and the plan is to work in a walk through the Missouri Botanical Garden, which is always well worth the time, but a bit of a tease for us because at one full hardiness zone south of us, MBG can grow lots of things we can't.  Although most people haven't noticed, the upper midwest has not only been unusually warm, but unusually dry, so the area needs rain.  And today it is raining all the way from Oklahoma to Chicago in a diagonal storm track, so that covers us, our route, and St. Louis, but as the Phactor tells his students it never rains on a field trip.  But it's raining, so this must not be a field trip.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Fern-leafed peony

With your kind indulgence, the Phactor shall feature another species of peony (it was either that or another Magnolia).  Actually the most spectacular floral display in our gardens right now is the dark-red flowered tree peony featured on the blog banner; it's just wow!  This peony seems rather diminutive in contrast, but the fern-leafed peony (Paeonia tenuifolia) is quite a handsome herbaceous plant that forms a clump of stems with highly dissected foliage (but not real ferny actually), although handsome, and each stem ends in a 7-8 cm diameter bright scarlet flower, probably the reddest of spring flowers.  They are very showy and slightly earlier than the tree peonies in most years.  This is a very nice species of peony for almost any garden, although they can be a bit pricey (ours came via an end of season sale for about 1/3 regular price but at the time (they were dormant) who knew exactly what they were.  So they were planted, and forgotten about, until the brush-like foliage poked up the following spring.  It took about 3 years for the plant to reach full size, but otherwise they have been tough and trouble free. 

Dodged a bullet

Tuesday night's frost warning predictions varied from 28-32 degrees depending upon the source.  Wednesday night's frost warning had a pretty uniform prediction of 28 degrees.  That is more than cold enough to do lots of damage to tender new foliage, so this was a bit worrisome.  A quick survey after Tuesday night only showed some minor frost damage to some hydrangeas, so within our little heat island, it suggested a low temperature of just under 32 F.  Another 2-3 degrees below freezing was possible last night, but a look around this morning suggests, that for us, the 2nd night of frost was a non-event.  Just in case a few garden items were covered.  Most of our gardens are protected by tree crowns and that also seems to help.  Hopefully this will be the last bullet to be dodged this spring, but since it's only April 12th, this is pretty unrealistic.  Just a bit of an interlude will give my Magnolia tripetala a chance to flower.  Out of town the frost could have been more severe.  Last week's frost did no damage in our gardens, nor to all the plants on our prairie study site, with one exception, an invasive bush clover was damaged significantly, which is not a bad thing.  In other news, this looks like a good year for garlic mustard, so our neighbors in our shady neighborhood will have to be encouraged to do some eradication, but like pruning, which is either over done or never done, people seem to be afraid to pull obvious weeds. 

Pretty interesting money

In his many travels around the world in pursuit of plants, (for income tax purposes all travel is for professional reasons, of course) the Phactor has observed that virtually every other country in the world has prettier, more interesting money than the USA, whose currency is plain and boring even when used as clues in rather dopey Nick Cage treasure hunt movies.  But this, this is just too much!  How you go, Canada!  A glow-in-the-dark dinosaur coin!  Wow!  No wonder the Susan B. Anthony coin was a flop; dreary is all you could say about her coin.  Come on US Mint, get us a nice new dollar coin with a glow-in-the-dark southern magnolia on it, just to toss off an idea. 

Goofy botanical questions

Probably because the Phactor does such a good job of it, all of the goofy, off-the-wall botanical questions that one way or another arrive at our university get routed to my office.  So you never know what to expect.  Today's was typical enough.  "With this early spring has the ginkgo flowered yet?"  No.  It has not flowered and it never will because it's a gymnosperm and it does not have flowers.  However, based on some specimens collected for a botany lab the other day, pollination has taken place.  "If it doesn't have flowers, then where do the smelly fruits come from."  Well, these are seeds, and the outer seed coat is fleshy and the inner seed coat is a stony shell protecting the female and her embryo within, and it's the fleshy seed coat that smells pretty badly, but no one understands the function of the smell.  Like a lot of plants, Ginkgo seeds ripen and disperse in the fall. 

Jack Frost threatens

Frosts in April are no surprise, and very hard frosts can occur as late as the middle of the month, and five years ago, after a warmish March, such a frost (mid-20s F) damaged lots of plants that sprouted growth too early, but not near as early as this year.  As another nasty imported Canadian front pushes down out of the northwest, tonight treatens to have a frost, but probably not a very hard one. Living in the city center, a heat island, provides a 2-3 degree buffer.  But still the Phactor worries because his Magnolia tripetala has flower buds, a new addition to my collection that is just 4-5 years old.  It will really be annoying if those buds get damaged, and even more annoying if such plants get frozen back.  In the perennial bed, a Vitex gives evidence to the mildness of the winter.  Vitex was formerly a verb, an aromatic somewhat woody plant that until this year was only hardy basally with good mulching so each year new growth  sprouted up from the base.  This year it did not die back at all, and has sprouted out acting like a hardy shrub.  A frost may well damage plants like this severely, although no more than most winters.  Not much to do but wait and see.  So you'll either be treated to a blog about a new Magnolia in flower or more ranting about weather ruining my spring.  Stay tuned. 

Late breaking news - Faculty member was not whiny; thermostat was actually broken.

Last week the Phactor registered his complaint that 85F was a bit too warm in his office, and it was filed in the whiny faculty complaint drawer rather than being sent to the physical plant.  The reason why was explained: the AC was not working, which was already known.  But asks the Phactor, why is the heat on?  It isn't, it only feels that way.  But when Monday started out quite the same, the Phactor's heat-shortened patience had run out.  So using my politest snarl, the Phactor pleaded with our clerk to please send in the work order, and it's not about the AC; it's about the heat.  The physical plant gives a call.  Dr. Phactor, we can't turn the AC on yet, so you'll just have to be patient.  It's not about wanting the AC on; it's about wanting the heat OFF!  And not too long after, quite to my surprise a short, stout personage of the type that you immediately know works in the bowels of buildings (yes, one of the 7 dwarfs), shows up and assesses the situation astutely and accurately.  "It's hot in here", says he.  "And we can't turn the AC on just yet, and we've got lots of complaints, but there ain't nothin' we can do".  Can you turn off the heat at least?  What?  Heat ain't on.  Tell that to my radiator.  Amazed dwarf says, "The heat is on."  30 seconds of fiddling with the thermostat, and he announces, "It's broke."  "I've got another one in the truck."  So the thermostat has been fixed for 5 hours now, and not so much heat is coming out of the vents (but some), and since the windows have been open all day when the ambient outdoor air is about 20 degrees cooler, my office temperature is way down to 79F.  Miracles, they work miracles.  Tuesday is sure to be a better day.  

Another tropical Monday - in my office!

The more seasonal weather of the past few days has been a joy.  Garden and field work have not been so sweaty.  The longevity of spring flowers has greatly increased.  So what a shock to walk into my office this morning, out of the comfortably cool hallway, into an 82 F office-oven where the heat is pouring forth from the radiator.  Now the backwards priorities of our physical plant can be understood with respect to AC, but why is the bloody heat on?  You begin to wonder if anyone has any control over the heating/cooling at all.  So the windows are open and bought and paid for energy-heated air is being diluted with free ambient air, and my morning is still punctuated by the rumble-strip sound of  the toilet next door being flushed, a problem called to their attention some 3 weeks ago.  This is not helping my Monday attitude one little bit. Time for an academic fix.  A nice big sign saying the toilet is out of order.  Sorry.   

Sunday priorities - not such a tough choice

Today, Sunday, was a beautiful day, and quite a few lawn & garden chores needed attention, and so did a pile of student papers (write a position paper on evolution for our dept).  After thinking about this for a nanosecond or two, the decision was made to attend to the lawn and garden.  With several events upcoming, none of which will accomplish anything particularly useful, and with field research on an advanced schedule, the lawn would be half a meter tall if some mowing wasn't done today.  Yes, it isn't all violets, which don't ever grow too tall, or masses of leaves left over from the blue lawn, which cannot be mowed without terminally slimming the mower (Scilla leaves are quite mucilaginous).  After that it was some replanting necessitated by the woodchuck and the garden defenses upgraded.  Several good things were observed: the new pear tree set some fruit, the rhubarb is growing well, but the asparagus is rather wane, and the raspberries in need of considerable work, ah, well.  Some time was spent patrolling the margins of the estate to seek and destroy garlic mustard that keeps creeping in from beyond our borders.  And lastly having tired myself physically, my attentions turned to a nice bourbon cocktail and the afore mentioned stack of papers, which were quite uninspired and generally indicating that the information about the nature of a position statement were lost on the majority.  But late in the game, the day was won finally by a nicely grilled marinated leg of lamb, my nod to Easter traditions, and a decent syrah.  

How to run a university - liability & risk assessment

The Phactor and his colleagues got a bit of a surprise yesterday.  It turns out that the university has had a release from liability form to be filled out and signed by any student who goes out on field trips or does field research with biology faculty.  Yes, some cubicle residing nimrod decided that the risk of field work is so great that a release form is called for.  Who knew?  No one ever told us, but of course, this in itself could be an ingenious ploy where the university leaves faculty butts hanging out to dry while covering their own ass.  What do you suppose the students feel about this?  In their opinion it is much riskier living in the dorms than going on field trips.  Visiting big cities is far riskier than working in rain forest.  Without question this person has never seen  anything wilder than a city park, nor any wildlife except out a car window, so who could they not think the "field" is a risky place.  Driving to campus is probably riskier than doing research out in the field.  Driving to the field is riskier, and never ever would this bureaucrat not take such a risk.  And they want us to enumerate all the possible risks of being in the field, everything from rabid field mice to getting hit by a meteorite.  Enumerate all the risks of being on campus: food poisoning in a cafeteria, falling out of a dorm room window (18 floors & surviving!), breaking legs and/or arms falling from a tree in the quad, knocking out teeth while skate boarding/rope skipping/bike riding; and all of these things have actually happened.  The worst injury ever from rainforest ecology was a broken arm and that was from playing soccer with the Costa Ricans after lunch.  In a manner of speaking this shows us how alienated the general public is from nature.  Once on a field trip in S. Africa, the Phactors spent several nights in a wildlife park sleeping in a small stilted cabin overlooking a stream.  It had canvas sides and mosquito netting and was about 100 meters away from the lodge.  Hardly wilderness at all, but you could hear lions at night and you do not sleep through it when a herd of buffalo (not to be confused with bison) decides to cross the stream about 80 meters down stream in the middle of the night.  One hardy visitor, who earlier was posing for his portrait on a land rover with his hunter's hat and big game rifle in hand, was found sleeping in a VW van because the cabin was too scary.  Who would have guessed that this fellow would end up at our university in a nice cubicle somewhere deciding on policy relative to field trips.  Must have been very traumatic for him to hear those lions.  So everyone decided it was best to just keep ignoring the forms, but here's a prediction, it will be imposed on people awarded grants for field work first because of the fiscal leverage.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Tree Peony

Tree peonies are not trees; they aren't even very good shrubs.  Let's just say they are somewhat woody subshrubs, but their flowers are amazing.  Flowers as big as your head, flowers more than a hand span across, and some marvelous colors too.  All with the look of having been made of tissue paper.  This particular variety has white flowers with an ever so slight pinkish cast, and it is a single meaning that it wasn't bred to have huge numbers of petals.  This one beats all my other tree peonies, a range of pink, rose, coral, and purple flowered ones, and they all beat the yellow tree peonies by about a week.  Until they started marketing intersectional hybrids, yellow flowers were only found in the tree peonies. They can be very slow to establish, remaining rather wimpy sprigs for years in some cases, or they can bush out and become spectacular.  With tree peonies you get what you pay for (except maybe the color - the Phactor has been stiffed a couple of times); older plants cost more, but 3-5 yr old ones will blossom sooner and more reliably.  Since they don't like being transplanted, even older ones are just not in the trade.

Too good to be true!

Nuts, doesn't it just make your day when you find out that something you really really wanted to think was true, probably isn't?  My Father was one who always said, "If it seems too good to be true, it probably isn't."  So all these stinking wonderful stories about the health benefits of chocolate are probably bad science at work!  Well, drat!  What a buzzkill that sort of thing is.  What to do?  Well, deny it of course!  What kind of left-wing, commie-pinko, agenda is being pushed here?   As a good chocolate-eating, red-meat consuming (Oh wait, that's not as bad as they thought!  Sorry.) partiotic 'Mercan, the Phactor is just plain suspicious of their motives here, or just doesn't care all that much to change habits.  So, get that steak over here; hold the chocolate sauce.

Marmot hits the salad reset button

One of the great thing about having a spacious estate is that it is attractive to wild life, and this is also a problem, a two seasonal problem.  During the winter, rabbits rather indiscriminately prune any trees or shrubs to which they have access, and each year hundreds of feet of fencing are  deployed to establish no bark/twig-eating zones with varying degrees of success (this year - poor Kerria, but look, the flowering quince is recovering from last year).   Then comes spring, and rabbits get better fodder in other places.  Each year, actually several times each year, a woodchuck sets up residence either under the garden shed or the pavilion, and they are such nice animals, really, but their appetites are beyond the ability of small gardens to provide, especially early in the season.  Later in the season they may be content to simply strip all the tasty leaves off your okra (they really like okra) or squash vines, or eat all your parsley (they love parsley; leaves their breath so fresh), but early in the season, the plants are small with limited amounts of biomass.  So all of our just-getting-nicely-established broccoli and bib lettuce seedlings provided a rather small salad the other night.  Of course this is still earlier in the season than such seedlings are usually planted, but such gluttony always proves to be a tad annoying, especially since the seedling bed was protected by some garden fencing.  Maybe Mrs. Phactor will now allow me to revisit plans for a mine field.  

How to run a university - priorities: who gets AC first?

Universities are composed of three groups: students, faculty, and administrators, but from the educational perspective, only 2 of these groups are absolutely necessary.  Traditionally members of the two essential groups created the 3d group when the first two groups stopped be transients and constructed an academic institution, and the 3d group became necessary to take over the tedious job of just running the physical part of the university so the two scholarly groups could focus on education. In today's view a university consists of the place and the same three groups, but somewhere along the line the view is that the administration and the physical plant are the two essential parts, and students and faculty are once again viewed as transients.  Now big campuses are hard to heat and cool; they don't just switch on and off like a home system, so this is not a criticism of the guys who work to keep the physical plant running.  The unusually warm spring weather caught people off guard with respect to the timetable for changing over from heating to cooling, but which building do you suppose got the highest priority?  Oh, yes, the administration building!  Students and faculty can go for weeks, months, even whole semesters without any need of going to the administration building.  But offices, classrooms, lecture halls, and labs?  Why they get used daily, and still nary a bit of temperature regulation.  So yesterday, a temperature record was set outside and inside.  The Phactor's office was a nice steamy 85 F; it was actually cooler in the greenhouse because it has fans to pull in outside air.  Far be it for the Phactor to say that administrators need no AC (ditch the suit coats guys), but the problem is that when they are cool and comfy they draw the logical conclusion that everyone is similarly comfortable because they go to real academic buildings even less than academics go to the administration building.  If we could move a VP or two into real, necessary buildings, the priorities for getting things done must might change a tad.  Catering to the administration is how the physical plant guys show the people in charge how efficiently and how well they do their job, and won't those whiny students and faculty please just put a cork in it!  Everything is fine. The university is being well run and everything is as it should be. After all, everyone knows what is essential.

Another reason to become a botanist

Here's an interview with one of my colleagues at the New York Botanical Garden about what he does and why he does it.  Unfortunately, universities find doing this type of research much less desireable so it falls to botanical gardens to carry this ball.  It remains a struggle to keep herbarium collections from being sold or given away, or stashed in some attic or basement corner, or simply thrown out.  Fortunately, interest in botany remains just high enough to keep things going at my institution, but not without a lot of constant pressure to maintain diversity. 

Impact factor - Treemendous!

This won't mean much to most of you, but this is a very nice article about the accomplishments of Dr. Alex Shigo, a guy who actually single-handedly revolutionized tree care and urban forestry.  He did this with a great deal of energy, a redwood-sized personality, a lot of research, and he summarized a lot of this information in non-technical publications.  Some of you might be interested in some of his many publications, so here's the link to Alex's publications.  Tell them the Phytophactor sent you.  Many moons have since passed since the Phactor did his post-doctoral research with Shigo and one of his associates; it was a great learning experience; we dissected a lot of trees, but unfortunately, one of the things learned was that my future was not in forestry, which at the time was quite disappointing.  In the process the Phactor met Alex's ever so lovely daughter and her husband, the ever effervescent Dr. Chips, and it was she who called my attention to this article.  She has good reason to be very proud.  Very, very few people have such a great impact on their fields.  So here's a freebie; keep those darned lawn mowers away from your tree trunks.  

Hard habit to kick

As the Phactor sits here reading science news and getting bits and pieces together for today's classes, here's a not very surprising scientific finding, nicotine addiction is really old.  For how ever long humans have occupied Mesoamerica, there has been nicotine addiction.  Cultures really know their plant resources, until they become urbanized or even worse sub-urbanized, so almost as soon as people discovered the wonderful kick you got from chewing on the leaves or smoking the tobacco plant, it was an addiction.  How could it be any other way?  So do we expect humans to give up their stimulants any time soon?  Pass the coffee.

March is over, no fooling! Here's the data.

After this year's March, the Phactor wonders what May will bring.  What's that old saying, "April showers bring May flowers."  That won't happen this year because as best can be determined, nothing will be left to flower.  Now this is one of the problems with data, you actually have numbers not just some feeling that things are flowering earlier this year.  In both 2010 and 2011 17 different plants flowered in our gardens.  Now let's check the 2012 data, hmm, let's see, oh yes, 100 plants flowered!!!  Yes that includes about 6 new plants, but 4 or 5 from previous years did not flower (like the anise magnolia - darn!).  Now 2011 averaged 10-15 days later than 2010, but the plants presently flowering, e.g., red buckeye and everything that follows below, flowered between April 15 and May 8 in the last 2 years. 
Here's what has flowered so far, in sequence, a mixture of names and formality.  
witchhazel, snowdrops, early crocus, late crocus, aconite, hellebore hybrids, scilla, tiny crocus sp., American filbert, Iris reticulata, dwarf daffodils, lungwort, cornelian cherry, standard daffodils, Helleborus niger, European filbert, abeliophyllum, glecoma hederacea, vinca minor, spicebush, bloodroot, forsythia, Japanese pachysandra, Korean azalea, Nanking cherry, kaufmanni tulip, pieris, winterhazel, spring beauty, star magnolia, rue anemone, grape hyacinth, pjm rhododendron, tulip magnolia, pushkinia, tulip sp., tulip bakeri, bluebells, redbud, flowering quince, sessile trillium, common violet, celandine poppy, Labrador violet, hyacinth, brunnera, saucer magnolia, sugar maple, late daffodils, bleeding hearts, service berry, yellow archangel, epimedium yellow, pear, flowering crag, fothergilla, golden corydalis, nodding trillium, jacob's ladder, marsh marigold, hackberry, white trout lily, varigated sedge, kerria, wild ginger, tulip tarda, hepatica, akebia, Siberian bush pea, yellow ginger, magnolia vine, mahonia, prairie trillium, red trillium, Carolina silver bells, currants, clue cohosh, red buckeye, fragrant sumac, pawpaw, bellwort, lilac, tulip sp., epimedium red, phlox divaricata, crabapple, mulberry, spicy light azalea, American holly, flowering dogwood, oaks (3 sp.), shooting stars, tree peony (white), giant ajuga, european ginger, blueberry, strawberry, blackhaw viburnum, Narcissus poeticus.  
So with so much warm weather in March, the sequence of flowering has not been much changed, but the duration of flowering has been much foreshortened.  Bing, bang, boom, and done.  What is really amazing about this, is that the Phactors had about 285 plants flowering last year and 275 the year before that.  So more than one-third of our total for the whole season are in flower or flowered in March.  One-third!  So what's left for May given that most of the things that flower in May will flower in April.  So nothing to do but look forward to my soon to flower Aprilapple.  Is this what we have to look forward to if our climate is warming?  And along with the warmth, it's much dryer than normal too.  This is most disturbing, and should we have a late hard frost, something neither unlikely or unknown for early April, a lot of plants are toast.  Last time that happened, the magnolia vine froze back to the ground.