Field of Science


How to run a university - more cost cutting measures

The Phactor is all for cost cutting measures around the university, so long as they are smart and big enough to provide a meager raise for faculty.  Now there's a dry spell we could talk about, but don't get me started.  For decades the "restrooms" were stocked with the venerable tri-fold paper towels for drying your hands.  Then those were replaced by what we must assume were a cheaper product that was more like drying your hands with a piece of newsprint, but at least they filled the same dispensers.  But now, an even greater cost cutting measure has replaced those old dispensers with new paper towel dispenser that holds a roll of paper, and when you pull down on the corners of the tab of toweling that protrudes, it measures off and cuts a towel for you.  Well, as you can see in this image, this is going to save a lot of money because rather than getting a paper towel you usually get two wet corners.  And one hand just won't do it.  The handy diagram in case you can't figure this sophisticated device out doesn't help because not enough of the towel protrudes to grasp it thusly; it sticks out as much as it does because it was just pulled down.  Does cost cutting have to be so annoying?  The data based on observations about 80% of people take two towels because a single one seems inadequate to dry your hands, although it sort of is just barely enough unless you've lost the two corners.  Now if these paper towels aren't half the price of the old ones per unit area, these cheaper made-to-order towels may actually cost as much or more than the old paper towels.  Will anyone wonder if the building service personnel (= janitors) have to take more time to clean up the little pieces of paper on the floor?  Wonder if anyone will make the actual cost analysis comparing these paper towels to the old ones, or if it will just be assumed that there were savings.  No doubt what with the new dispersers, the university will be stuck with this product for some time.  The next move seems predictable; a new BYOT policy: Bring Your Own Towel.   

Berry Go Round plant blog round up for July 2012

Drat!  Completely lost track of what number BGR this is, but guess it doesn't matter so long as you have a link to click.  So here it is, the July round up of plant blogs from over at the The Daily Plant, where Daniel Chamovitz is able to leap tall buildings in a single bound while he keeps his identity secret by portraying a mild mannered botanist, or something like that.  So zip on over and have a look see; you can never have too many plant blogs to read. 

Farmers' Market Etiquette

Farmers' markets are great things.  My Father used to like to take his young son to fading remnants of a big city market every now and then, and then such markets, where in days gone by grocers and restaurants used to buy their produce, just sort of disappeared.  How grand that they are making a come back across the country.  The Saturday morning affair in our city has continued to get bigger and more popular, however, some people need to be reminded about proper behavior at these markets.
1. Bring a market basket.  Why do you think they call them market baskets?  Traditionally a market basket is one-fourth of a bushel, but they need not be quite so big.  When you see people crowding around to purchase local, organic produce, but then requiring the vendor to put their fruits and veggies in plastic bags, you know they don't quite get it.  You can also just carry some reusable bags, but the point is you know you are coming to the market to buy produce and bakery items, so bring something to carry them.
2. Don't poke the produce.  You do not have to finger or handle each tomato or peach or apple.  Yes, you can ask how ripe something is, and a good vendor will show you or even have a melon or ear of corn displayed so you can see what they look like.
3. No dogs.  Why do people seem to think that the crowded throngs of a market are a good place to take you dog?  OK, it isn't.  So don't bring your dog.  Take you dog on a walk; take you dog to a park.  But do not take your dog to a market. 
4. Strollers.  Now this is getting a bit touchy here, but first there are strollers and then there are things about the size of small cars, and when one of these monsters rams into the back of your heel, you notice.  If you bring a dog too, you should be arrested.  So please consider the size of your stroller. 
5. Do not block the path.  The only place for people to move is down the center between the two opposing rows of stalls.  This is not the place to suddenly stop to discuss the latest non-events in your totally boring life.  Yes, you are in the way.  So excuse you!  Step to the side and have a nice chat.  Get a cup of coffee or a nice bloody mary (a new feature at our market!) at a sidewalk cafe, which is out of the path.
6. Bring a wad of cash in small denomination.  Sorry, but getting change for that $100 bill is not all that easy after you decided to buy that 50 cent zucchini.  So carry small bills and lots of quarters.  The vendors will love you and so will the people waiting in line behind you.
7. Display the quality of your goods.  Yes, vendors have to behave properly too.  The Phactor has been in more markets in more countries than you can imagine.  And giving you a bit of a taste, or at least having a melon or the like sliced open for a look is quite universal.  As many vendors are rather new at this, it falls into the category of a promotional to increase sales.  Anything new and unusual always needs some help, for example, the young couple selling some rather small cape gooseberries (Physalis edulis) were giving out tastes.  Oh, and if this is a family enterprise, make sure your kids are well enough versed in your produce to answer  people's questions.
8.  Do not disparage the goods.  People worked hard to bring their produce to market, and it's hard work, so no one wants to hear about the fact that their zucchini are too damned bit.  So be polite about the produce.
9. Bargaining.  Under some circumstances, bargaining is OK.  Like you decide to buy an entire box or bushel of apples or tomatoes or habanero peppers, then it's OK to ask "how much" for the whole thing?  But don't quibble about 5 for a dollar when the price is marked 4 for a dollar.  If you think it isn't such a good deal the stand down the block is probably offering them at 5 for a dollar.
What rules have been missed?

World Vegetable Center

Sometimes it seems that the BIG crops get all the attention and you begin to wonder who's paying the least bit of attention to all those other crops humans eat.  Good nutrition depends upon the diversity of foods, not to mention making food more interesting.  Nothing will convince you that you still have lots to learn about food plants more quickly than a visit to a farmer's market in Asia.  Via the Agriculture Biodiversity Blog, here's the link to the World Vegetable Center web page; people who are paying attention to things like cucumbers, okra, and various other fruits and veggies.  This organization first came to the Phactor's attention during one of my several working visits to Thailand.  At the time it wasn't clear to me that this was an international effort, but it is truly a world organization now.  This is an international, nonprofit research and development institute, that (to quote their mission statement) "is committed to alleviating poverty and malnutrition in the developing world through the increased production and consumption of nutritious and health-promoting vegetables".  Hard to argue with that.  And you can help support them by being the first person in your neighborhood to have a nice field hat or a hand painted fan. 

Friday Fabulous Flower - Globe Thistle, a drought survivor

While lots of plants are looking rather sad, the globe thistle (Echinops and uncertain of the cultivar or its origin), while a bit shorter than usual, is flowering pretty normally.  These are tough plants and quite drought tolerant, up to a point, and the upper midwest is getting to that point awfully fast.  As you can tell from the inflorescence, this is a member of the Aster or Sunflower family.  Rather than forming a flat head, the globe thistle gets its name from having a globose head.  It also has no ray flowers, the ones that form the "petals" in sunflowers.  This one is just beginning to flower and it will attract a pretty wide array of visitors.  The individual flowers with 5 corolla lobes are pretty easy to see while in things like sunflowers you have to look much closer.  The plant's foliage is a bit coarse, thistly, so best to plant them among other perennials of similar height.  It's good to have some tough plants around that will provide some color no matter what.

Drought triage

Almost 2 weeks ago our gardens got 1.5" of rain, and nothing since all the while baking in what is for this area extreme heat.  And remember that rain came after nearly 3 weeks of no significant rain.  Some tough decisions will probably have to be made.  Big investments in new trees and shrubs require the insurance of watering, but small investments, like our kitchen garden, which is doing so poorly anyways, make the triage easy.  You can hardly blame the wildlife for eating things they should leave alone; they are having a hard time finding good fodder, and the Phactor is watering his garden to grow some vegetation.  Their misunderstanding is understandable.  Still this may be the second year in a row, and the only times in his 40+ years of gardening, that the Phactor managed to harvest no zucchini!  It's still rather hard to believe.  Maybe the F1 will feel sorry for us.  A few very drought sensitive plants have already given up the ghost; this area has always been a bit too dry for them, e.g., Clethra alnifolia, even when planted near the end of a downspout, some whimpy blueberries, an unestablished azalea.  And the Phactor refuses to ignore some pet plants, although in general they are doing as well as anything else (e.g. Scaidopitys, a new weeping hemlock).  But there you have it.  Tough choices to be made, but unlike the farmers, at least we have choices.

What should bourbon taste like?

An advertisement caught my attention for cherry, spices, and honey tea flavored bourbon.  Having struggled to control my gag reflex, here's my take on this.  In some sense the Phactor understands flavored vodkas.  Ethanol is a colorless, flavorless, clear liquid that mixes totally in any proportion with water, another colorless, flavorless, clear liquid, so adding some sort of flavor to vodka makes a little bit of sense.  On the other hand bourbon tastes like bourbon, and some taste better than others, and some are better values than others.  Now if you do not like bourbon, fine, but apparently the whole point of flavoring bourbon is to get people who don't like bourbon to drink bourbon, and the assumption must be made that if the bourbon was any good to begin with, people would drink it for the bourbon flavor, not some other flavor.  And when it comes to flavored spirits, the Phactor doubts that these flavors are subtle. 
Great minds must think somewhat alike because over at the Garden Rant, someone is also in a tizzy about cocktails and what has happened to them when they become too, too fashionable.  We are on the same page; they call it an old fashioned cocktail that because it is, so don't mess around with some infusion of orange blossoms and cucumber slices. 
So this makes two problems to deal with.  First you have spirit makers trying to cater to a generation that grew up on sweet, fruity drinks, and then you have overly fashionable cocktails.  How the Phactor hates ordering a margarita and then being asked if it is to be frozen, sugar or salt rimmed, or on the rocks.  A margarita is served on the rocks with a salted rim.  Anything else is another drink which is why they call frozen margaritas frozen margaritas.  It's a different drink.  But some purveyors do get it.  One of the best small, locovore, farm to table, creative restaurants in our area always features a couple of classic, we-didn't-mess-with-it cocktails. 

Dun, da, dun, done!

Processes always have quite a number of more or less continuous steps leading from here to there, from a start to a finish, but for purposes of our mental health certain stages of processes are celebrated to mark our progress along the path.  Yesterday was one such day.  After having had this manuscript nagging at me for the past couple of  years, the Phactor declared his book manuscript done knowing full well that it is not done done, but it was at a stage where little else was being accomplished so with a semester looming, and knowing that progress on big projects does not happen during semesters, a big pile of paper (That's a 4.5" tall coffee cup for comparison.) was shipped off to the publisher.  Also a certain very patient editor had been promised that the book would be done this summer, and as mentioned above, with a semester's arrival ready to destroy August, if a book was to be done this summer, this was the week.  But more than a feeling of accomplishment, it was a wave of relief that passed over me.  It will be a couple of weeks at least before an editor kindly explains that this or that should have been done that way or this way.  This is to be expected, but these are only details.  It was the ideas that counted anyways.  It is way premature to be flogging my book to readers; that will come later, when it actually has a cover and a title (it remains tentative).  Suffice it to say that the Phactor's academic alter ego has attempted to explain a great deal about what we know about plant diversity in a manner accessible to the interested amateur, which is very different from most botany books.  So botany textbook it is not.  Now to go and update my CV and indicate the status as "In press", which is sort of more impressive than "manuscript in limbo" or "manuscript progress incredibly slow" or one of the many other euphemisms for "not published".  Actually it has been accepted for publication.  The next task is to clear enough of the book debris out of the office that there's room for a new semester.  Who knows what will be discovered in the lower strata?

Hot summer garden pointers

Here's a few pointers for gardeners suffering through a hot, dry summer.

1. Do not water lawns.  Grasses naturally go dormant in hot, dry weather, so don't go against nature.

2. Plant okra.  This isn't my favorite fruit, but when young and tender there are several interesting ways to cook it.  And this is important because okra likes hot weather, and seems to be the one garden item the Phactor has that may do well this season.  For some reason, probably because they were filled by dining on broccoli, beans, peas and the like, the bun-buns and woodchucks have left the okra alone.  A good surrounding fence may have helped.

3. If you do water plants, water them well.  At our last TGIF one of impatient friends, the always in a hurry type, mentioned that even watering her garden twice a day did nothing and the garden looked awful.  So how long was she watering?  Probably 10-15 mins.  And she was using a nozzle on a hose, and almost no one has the patience, or time, to water well using that equipment.  Generally a nozzle applied too much water over a small area too quickly providing the illusion that you have watered well when in fact the water is just running off.  When instructing amateurs, the Phactor lets them water until they think they have done it thoroughly.  Then they get handed a screw driver or trowel, and asked to make a little trench across the area they just watered, and seldom has the water penetrated more than a quarter of an inch.  Get a sprinkler and let it run, and the bigger the area you are watering the longer you must let the water run.  If you don't notice the difference in your water bill you aren't watering enough to matter. 

4. Pay particular attention to new plantings.  New plants, those in the ground less than 12-15 months, need special attention in hot, dry weather.  If you want to limit water use, then you must concentrate on new plantings or write off your purchases and efforts as losses. 

5. Don't prune anything now!  You really don't know whether trees or shrubs have died back or just dropped some leaves to in reponse to the drought.  Some plants will just go dormant, so wait until next season before doing anything drastic.  Of course, a few plants may actually be dead and there are ways of checking for certain, but even then some types of plants will resprout from the base. 

6. Put out some water for birds and other wildlife.  Yes, be kind to wildlife.  Our lilypond is one gigantic bird bath-watering hole, but just a shallow bowl of water will provide lots of relief.

7. Keep your eye on well established plants for signs of stress.  When you see a plant looking water stressed, it's a good idea to give it a deep watering.  Plants that wilt during the heat of the day, but recover in early evening is probably doing OK.  Wilting actually reduces the heat stresss because droopy leaves absorb less sunlight and therefore lose less water through transpiration.  If wilted plants do not recover, then water them well.  Look for scorched, browing tips and edges on leaves.  The Phactor missed noticing  this on a witchhazel, and now the leaves are really damaged although the plant will be OK.

8. Perennials that die back are probably OK.  Many perennials can and will die back under conditions of drought, and they will probably recover next season, assuming conditions get better.  Some ferns, lily of the valley, and wild ginger have all died back, but we're not worried.  They will survive.  There will probably be a few things that do not survive.  The wax bells are a bit of a worry.

9. Ice cubes.  No matter how severe the water restrictions, margaritas must be served on the rocks.  This is very important for maintaining a proper attitude about weather and gardens.  Cocktail hours are exactly for attitude adjustment.  For example, one new perennial has flowered for the first time, a nodding onion.  Of course this prairie native is plenty tough, but it had been forgotten until up popped the flowers.  There are always some bright spots.  Now to find a recipe for a gumbo.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Waterlily

With so many summer flowers withering in the heat and drought, it stands to reason that the only flowers that are looking good are aquatics.  Our waterlilies are just cultivars of Nympaea odorata, which is a pretty good looking wildflower.  So these have just been flowering and flowering throughout the July.  As the Phactor has mentioned before, these flowers have lots of parts and rather than being in discrete and separate whorls (e.g., sepals, petals, stamens, pistils), waterlilies have a continous helix with one type of floral organ grading into the next.  In addition waterlilies occupy a basal grade and this means they have one the oldest common ancestries with the rest of flowering plants.     


Pluot?  Wasn't that formerly a planet?  Actually it's plum-like fruit that is a back-cross hybrid between a plum-apricot hybrid and a plum, all part of the genus Prunus.  In general they are most like a plum, but with the flavor intensified by the apricot parent.  They are actually better than either parent.  Pluots are a good summer fruit, and here's a good idea.  If you are BBQing some chicken, grill a few pluot halves for a few minutes on each side.  Their flavor when hot is just great, tart-sweet intense plumness.

Breaking more records than predicted

As midwestern North America continues to swelter in high temperatures and become more parched, you still haven't heard much in the news about global warming.  Now as more and more crops in this bread basket region are threatened, you have to take a long-term view if you are a responsible politician.  You must consider that rather than being a rare bad weather year, such weather could become, is becoming, much more common.  Here's a nice set of pie charts based on record high and low temperatures, and of course, if the climate is staying more-or-less steady, you basically expect to get a similar number of record highs and lows each year for a 50:50 pie chart.  Now let's look at the actual data, especially in recent years.  Hmm, are these showing the "no-climate-change" prediction?  Which years are deviating the most in terms of record highs?  So not only is it getting warmer, it's getting warmer faster! Cheerful thought, no?   Although little considered by anyone, our present day human culture has been constructed during a very equitable climatic period.  Arrogantly we think our instutions are now immune to such changes, and yet we have precious little buffer.  Who is to say another famine cannot occur?  Well, what's going to happen if 2, or 3, or 4 such years occur in a row?  Some of those fields that will produce little if any maize crop this year were planted for seed corn destined to become next year's crop.  That's just one domino.  But there are lots more.  How many years of crop failure across this region can the USA, a well-off country, sustain?  Everyone acts like next year won't be like this year?  What if it is?  What impact will greatly reduced yields have on maize and soybean related agri-businesses?   On food prices?  On farmers?  Lot's of questions and no good answers.  Time for people to start shouting at any and all politicos to take climate change seriously.  HT to Climate Central. 

Tallgrass prairie not so tall this year

Yesterday was some planned maintenance work at our prairie research site.  The weather was just right for field work: hot and humid, sweltering, a word based on the root "swell".  It was a pretty simple job: find our research plots marked on their SW corner with white pvc pipe standing about 30" tall and stick in it a 5-6' bamboo stake with bright pink flagging on the upper end so we can find the plots later in the year.  In the late spring the poles seem quite absurd in their conspicuousness, but later in the season that changes even when the plot is covered with black 50% shade cloth.  See the difference from May to August?  In this case the treatment, removal of a hemiparasitic plant plus added fertilizer is having an effect (very positive on grasses).  Actually the late season plot isn't marked with a tall pole because this isn't one of the plots that's hard to find. Usually they are marked in early June, and by now it would be a problem with the vegetation at 5-6 feet tall.  But this year because of the draught only a few species were standing above 4 feet tall (compass plant, big blue stem, tall coreopsis).  Most of the prairie species looked fine, just shorter, and the flowering was mostly on schedule.  Unfortunately for the researchers, it isn't so much how tall the prairie is, but how dense the vegetation is, and it was dense, so it was hard to find our pvc pipes anyways, especially the one that was lying on the ground.  You see these research plots are not on some nice neat grid, but scattered around, and even after you sort of become familiar with the pattern, they can be hard to locate in the tall, dense vegetation.

How long does an experiment take in biology?

A potential student asked this question, a good question, but the answer isn't easy.  It takes however long it takes for the treatments to result in significant results, or until you are quite certain that nothing significant is going to happen.  In the area of community ecology, this can take years depending upon what you are recording.  This is particularly significant this Monday AM because along with a collaborator and a couple of students field work is planned, maintenance really, on an experiment that was started in 2006.  Publishable results in terms of differences in biomass were forthcoming at the end of the third year, but we remain uncertain if species composition has actually changed.  Prairie perennials are long-lived plants and while their sizes may be plastic, changeable, based on different environmental conditions and different competitions, they do not come and go quickly, except for perhaps one invasive species.  Short term experiments are like a snap shot in ecological/evolutionary time.  This is sort of like looking at one still photo and trying to understand the whole movie.  But long-term experiments eat up your time and resources.  My friends and colleagues the Clarks, Deb and David, have been running an experiment, or really monitoring rain forest tree growth for what is going on 30 years, and their data is perfectly parallel to carbon dioxide concentrations and warmer temperatures, and these are not encouraging data.  But anything of shorter duration would not have shown these trends.  They have been working with people around the world to set up similar long-term projects.  The Phactor doubts that anyone will want to inherit our project, and we remain uncertain how long it will be maintained.  The data and scholarly productivity output have been small in comparison to the labor involved, but we remain reluctant to cut and run just yet.  In part, we'd like to see is species composition is actually changing, so we will gather more data next spring and summer to find out.  Science isn't necessarily fast.  Damn those microbiologists!

Tree size in relative measures

One of the big troubles with having a lot of big trees, really big trees, is that they make lots of other trees look small, or smaller, by comparision.  Now this is not a problem unless one of them dies, and one did, which for its species, was a quite large specimen, an American smoketree.  Actually that is not a problem either unless like the Phactor you decide to take down the dead tree yourself because, well, it won't be that big of a job as it was not so large.  But it was.  Actually the dead smoketree was probably 50 or so feet tall and the trunk was nearly 12" across in the long axis.  Even this isn't a problem except that Mrs. Phactor would not want a falling tree to clobber her hosta bed and other assorted shrubs.  Fortunately, the Phactor's time in forestry was not wasted, and cutting down trees is a learned skill, but in hot, humid conditions, work like this becomes a real job, and one considerably bigger than one initially imagines.  So nothing bigger will be attempted by the Phactor, not without professional assistance.  However, as pointed out, perhaps it was good that the Phactor's accidental death and dismemberment insurance was renewed as of the first of the month.   

A drought reprieve

The Phactor has never been more pleased to have his BBQ dinner delayed (Thai marinaded chicken).  After 3 weeks of no rain (1/10th of an inch doesn't really count), some very mannerly thunderstorm activity dropped a bit over 1.5" of rain on our parched gardens.  It was amazing to see how quickly some plants recovered particularly the bamboos and ornamental grasses.  Unfortunately while a reprieve, one good rain is not a solution.  This will take many regular rains.  If it doesn't rain again, in a week some plants will need watering again, but no complaints here; this rain was a welcome relief.  The lily pond is topped up too.  Unfortunately now the hot weather will seem a bit worse feeling by adding a nice high humidity component.  So perhaps a bit of gardening will get done today.  Yesterday also resulted in a new animal record for our estate, in fact a new record for us in this neighborhood where we have resided for 34 years: a chipmunk.  Sigh.  Well, why not have one more cute, garden destroying rodent around?  This will excite the kitty girls should they make this discovery too.  

Drought - Garden news during dry times

It's been a bit over 3 weeks since any significant rain has fallen, and it's getting tough on plants.  New plantings are being pampered with regular watering because the only alternative is to let them die.  The natives are struggling, but they will survive.  A number of our perennials have just folded their tents and probably won't be seen until next season, e.g., wax bells, late flowering snake root, and quite a few others.  Some of the hate-to-be-dry plants may have bought the farm: e.g., Clethra alnifolia struggles in our summers in a good year; now it's toast, which is too bad because it's really cute in flower.  It's so dry now that some well established plants are struggling, e.g., the bottle brush buckeye.  A couple of magnolias are showing some signs of stress too.  You may notice certain trees shedding more bark, which is because tree trunks actually shrink in diameter during dry times.  Others plants are doing surprisingly well considering.  When it was younger and during it's growing season, our Japanese parasol pine wilted very easily, but now it has been weathering the hot, dry pretty well in a location where it is protected from the afternoon heat and sun.  A couple of new mountain laurels and a new ornamental black gum are proving pretty tough, and having had rather bad results with ornamental hemlocks in the past, a new one, a quite pretty one, has been watered regularly, and so far so good.  Nothing usually affects wild ginger, but now ours has died back, which it has never done before.  Many of our ferns have packed it in for the season, e.g., the osmundas (3 sp) especially.  The flowering displays of our hostas and native forbs are reduced in size, number, and duration.  The yellow cone flowers seem to be an exception.  However, having seen many maize fields that are clearly a total loss across Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, the Phactor is happy enough that his livelihood does not depend upon his garden.  Lastly, the bun-buns are eating things they've never touched before showing that they are getting a bit desperate. This morning dawned overcast, but no rain seems to be in the offing, and if this front passes without rain, it will likely be another week before any precipitation is possible. 

Friday Fabulous Flower - Salt Rush

In the grip of a pretty severe drought, nice flower pictures are a bit hard to come by locally, but really spectacular flower pictures are pretty regularly featured in the annual Botanical Society's Triarch student travel award for best botanical images competition.  This image of a salt rush inflorescence (Juncus breweri) shows that it pays to look closely sometimes.  This is a wind pollinated plant, so you wouldn't usually expect showy flowers, but up close these flowers are really pretty, pretty neat.  To capture pollen blowing in the wind, such plants often have big, feathery stigmas (surface area), and here the stigma's three branches are twisted into cork screws and pigmented pink (pink to red is pretty common color for such stigmas - not certain why).  The cork screw shapes probably cause air eddies that enhance sedimentation of pollen.  At any rate this was an award winner for Glenn Shelton of Humboldt State, and here's where you can see the other submissions for 2012.  The monetary awards help cover their travel costs to the meetings.  See if you can spot any of the other award winners.  Our young botanists can really take some great pictures. 

Another fine botanical meeting shot to heck

Well, it's over. Another botanical meeting finished.  The Phactor has attended 30 some odd of them now having started 40 years ago, but missing a few.  Had a last drink with several friends after the banquet and awards ceremony, and now the Phactor needs some sleep before driving home.  Listened to quite a few student talks today, and without question Roxaneh (neat spelling) talking about her palm reproduction was the best, and as if the judges were listening, she won the best student presentation award.  Her major professor, a very good friend, will be most pleased.  Met a few new people that were on my list, but still failed to get time to chat with fast Eddie.  As a fern guy we just don't listen to too many of the same talks, and it can be hard to run into some people as a result.  Although this may be hard to believe, but had dinner with my undergraduate adviser who will be starting his 43d academic year, and the last 10 years have been his most productive in research, so some people do get older and better.  The Phactor helped auction off a bunch of items to raise money for lecture honoring a curmudgeon in our field.  And the day started with an alumni breakfast for botanists who worked or studied at Miami University at one time or another.  Looking around everyone looks  beat.  Meetings are marathons, but great fun in all respects.

Botanical meetings - Day 3

What happened to Day 2?  It vanished into the dozens of conversations with friends and colleagues, multiple sessions of scientific talks, research discussions, mixers, and business meetings.  Events started at 8 AM and continued through an overly long business meeting that ended at about 9 PM.  Can you exist on a diet of snacks, beer, and wine?  Well, yes!  In this case the evening schedule was so daunting that the decision was made to have a larger than usual lunch, and because the food court has some pretty nice items, including Indian with freshly baked tandoori naan.  So while fortified with food, as soon as the lights were dimmed for a talk, the urge to doze off had to be fought, with great difficulty in a couple of them.  And then a young colleague seeks you out because you possess knowledge in a particular subject area that almost everyone else has forgotten, and you are surprised how much of it you still remember from over 25 years ago.  And what's even more surprising is how many older colleagues are still attending these meetings, and are still active botanists.  You see it isn't just a job, or a career, or an expertise, it's an advocation and these people just love what they do, and the students begin to figure out that you've been a professional botanist for more than twice as long as they've been alive.  Now it's Day 3 and a bit of fatigue is setting in. This afternoon the Phactor delivers a research paper on an invasive legume and the impact of several environmental factors have on its growth.  Not much good news here; the invasive legume will "win", prairie diversity will lose.  And at this very moment, other than knowing that nothing critical is happening, the Phactor has lost his custom-made schedule and has no idea what to attend next.  Sounds like more coffee is in order.  Maybe then the next evo-devo presentation will make more sense.  Let's see what has been learned?  Well, the scanty development of diploid endosperm of waterlilies and their relatives may represent an intermediate stage between the female gametophyte of gymnosperms and the full-fledged triploid endosperm of most flowering plants.  A little gnetophyte, Ephedra monosperma (or E. minima) is easy to propogate and grow for research and teaching.  Have to see if it's available from an online nursery.  Time to run.

Botany 2012

The annual botany meetings are in Columbus Ohio, so no big change of scenery for the Phactor, but honestly, sometimes you don't even leave the hotel-conference center.  The best part of these meetings is reconnecting with your longtime friends and colleagues, meeting the new young ones, and that feeling that you belong to an organization, a profession.  So far, so good.  Having been fatigued from driving, and with no cat alarm, one time zone to the east, the Phactor is refreshed but running late.  The first action will be the quest for coffee, and then fortified, figure out when and where everything is happening.  Conference centers are not known for their logical organization.  Last night the kickoff lecture, a rather standard sounding retrospective but embrace the future type of thing, was quite well done by Sir Peter (yes, a knighted botanist!).  Here's an interesting note for people who wonder about how well women fare in science: all of the botanical society's new officers are women, and botany has the highest percentage of women of all the sciences.  Now time to go to a symposium on gnetophytes, those 3 enigmatic genera: Gnetum (silent G), Welwitschia, and Ephedra.

Hot weather predator-prey relationships

As mentioned in a recent blog, by definition our summer begins, at least in terms of hot weather, when the cicadas begin to sing.  So far the singing is not the deafening roar it sometimes becomes, but cicada season is definitely upon us in total conjunction with the hot, dry weather.  Of course, shortly after the cicadas appear, so do the cicada-killers, the largest of the digger wasps.  In spite of the fact that they can act rather aggressively, the females who prey upon cicadas seldom sting humans and the males are sting less.  Cicada killers love dry, sandy soil because those are the conditions best for digging their nests.  So what is bad for the plants is good for the cicada-killers, and boy, are we harboring a population of these very specialized predators!  Unfortunately a choice area for cicada-killer nests is near our new pergola, so as you approach you get buzzed, aggressively confronted, by a 3-4 cm long wasp, which, in spite of our great size advantage, is pretty intimidating, and no matter how often you think humans seldom get stung, you tend to react with those well refined primate behaviors to avoid yellow and black buzzy things.  Avoidance, in general is a good behavior, so let's not sell it short just because our knowledge of natural history tells us there is no reason to run unless you are a cicada.  However, Mrs. Phactor is no one to mess with if your are a black & yellow buzzy beast, so if they know what's good for them, avoidance would be a good behavior because if her enjoyment of this new pergola is reduced by buzzy behavior of nesting cicada-killers, they would be well to look elsewhere for a nesting site.  But another possibility exists.  Are these some type of super, double-secret miniature drone designed to instigate panic in human behavior?  Were those little antennas?  And right here in middle America; what gall!  Remember, you heard this first here, but quiet, we don't want homeland security to be trampling the gardens.  The image is from Bill Bucanhan of the US Fish and Wildlife Service; the Phactor was not going to get close enough to photograph one.


Hi folks, Mad Dog here, as in only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the mid-day sun, and having just ridden my bicycle home, in 103 F, that would put me in the mad dog category.  It was actually an eerie experience because nothing at all was moving, nobody was out; it was still and quiet except for the buzzing of a couple of cicadas.  The first job is to decide what needs watering the most, and right now that is not an easy task with so much need.  The second job is to get a margarita and then find a cool place to do a bit of blogging.
Now here's the real issue.  For reasons that remain beyond comprehension the Phactors got married 41 years ago the day before her birthday, and that's the problem, it's a double whammy.  To complicate matters in addition to the mandate that both anniversaries require proper recognition, the Phactor is off to the botanical meetings on Sunday and will actually be gone for both anniversary and birthday.  How about some great gift ideas for a great gardener and wonderful wife?  Oh, did the Phactor mention wonderful in case she actually reads this blog?  Did the Phactor say she's attractive and personable?  Without your help this could be a desperate hour.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Lotus

Not everything suffers from the heat; some plants like it especially when they have their roots firmly planted in a aquatic habitat.  The Phactor also knows he's done lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) before for a previous FFF post and another just musing (here and here), but they're such a wonderful flower and they photograph so nicely.  The lotus used to own the entire pond, but in these economic times it's had to downsize to a 60 gallon pot, and we will endeavor to keep it so confined.  As you can see the renovated pond is looking pretty good. 

Summer Lawn Care

Hot, dry conditions are always a challenge especially for lawns, so the Phactor is here to provide the advice you need.  The basic principles of ecological lawn care must apply.  So please understand the following.  Lawn grasses go dormant under hot dry conditions, so to deal with this you must do nothing.  Yes, that's right, do nothing.  On my commute to work this AM a fellow was doing it completely backwards, the lawn was being watered and stressed young trees were being ignored.  Wrong, wrong, wrong, and to compound the error this fellow will have be out there mowing his lawn in 103 F temperatures.  On the other hand if you have planted any trees or shrubs within the past 12-15 months, water, water, water them.  If no amount of water seems to help, then in all liklihood the root ball was not properly spread at the time of planting (Yes, you've been instructed about that too.), so now you will pay the price, and if it makes you feel any better the Phactor learned this lesson the hard way.  Hot, dry conditions provide the proving ground for proper planting, although at times there's just nothing you can do.  Three Japanese yews were planted in different locations; two are doing fine, and the third is showing severe stress and may not survive and who knows why.  At any rate, when you hear that comforting crunch under foot you know you are treating your lawn correctly.

A black walnut problem

Nuts!  Ages ago someone planted a black walnut tree on the property line way back there, or some squirrel helped increase the tree diversity by one species, but now it's there so you deal with it.  In general it's not such a big problem that it requires any action on our part, just don't plant any tomatoes close by.  Now this brings me to a current problem: the flow of the cascade into the lily-lotus pond was diminished and it remained so even after the massive filters were flushed out.  So the problem must be at the intake end of things.  One intake is in 4.5 feet of water, so the Phactor began by examining the accessible intake at the overflow gate. Both a net and a bottle-brush filter keep crap from getting to the intake, but somehow an immature black walnut had found its way in and it would get sucked up into the intake without totally blocking it.  You find all of this out by frogging around in the bottom of a pump box with your hand not quite knowing what you will find.  And that was all there was to it.  Remove walnut, plug pump back in, cascade flow restored.  Good thing that walnuts do not regularly fall into the pond and make their way past the pump defenses. Good thing it was just a pond pump and not the intake to a jet engine or nuclear reactor.  Good thing walnut removal is within the Phactor's technical abilities.

Leaf windows

While easily bored, the Phactor also can easily amuse himself as long as there is some nature to play with.  And you just never know what new thing you will see ifyou look carefully enough.  So while the various cousins amused themselves with the aquatic equivalent of motorcycles, the Phactor poked around in a nearby salt marsh just to see what you could see.  The seaside ox-eye (Borrichia frutescens) is a pretty common plant in such places in our part of the world.  If you know anything at all about plants it would not surprise you to find that the leaves were thick, succulent, and waxy, common features of plants in dry or salty environments that present similar problems for plants. But did you look closer?  The lower side of the leaf when held up to the light shows this attractive veiny pattern. The lighter green pattern is produced by clear areas, windows to the leaf's interior. Such windows are pretty common in other succulents, but came as an unexpected surprise here. The plant tends to hold its leaves more or less upright, thus presenting this windowed lower surface to the outside presumably so the morning or afternoon rays of sunlight can enter through the windows illuminating the green palisade layer from the bottom side. Most of the leaf mesophyll is almost devoid of chloroplasts.  This is an educated guess; anyone know for sure?

Home again

The Phactor likes to travel, but hates traveling.  Going new and/or different places is great; getting there is a pain.  Unfortunately out trip home set a new travel record from southeastern most NC to its border with TN on rt 40;  It took eight and a half hours!  With no diddling around!  The problem was simply too many people in too many cars rendering our intra- and interstate road system wholly inadequate, then you compound that with hot weather, the attendant car breakdowns, poor driving habits, and short tempers, and you have near gridlock appearing at the slightest provocation that increased our usual trip by nearly 2 hours mostly spent standing still in traffic, and none of it was due to road construction.  It tried our patience and endurance.  On the good news front our cat-plant sitter did a great job and things looked well-watered and well-nourished, although something ate half our zucchini plants.  The plans for the garden moat and mine field must get completed if our wildlife friendly yard is going to stay that way.