Field of Science

This week's lab - quad spring field trip

Today and yesterday have been the first two days this semester when you could actually conduct some out door instruction and not be cold or wet, or both.  One of the problems with lab instruction is that the bits and pieces, the specimens, the pickled items, the microscopic slides, don't get integrated into the minds of many students because they didn't take them apart to begin with.  This is why it's so useful to take people and show them where everything came from, i.e., that cones and flowers are actually attached to plants, in particular ways, in certain places, and that if you observe closely you can see some things you've never noticed before, like the North American corkwood (Leitneria floridana) in full glorious bloom!  OK, actually some pretty unremarkable catkins, but the plant is plenty unusual.  The only problem today is that the entire campus is outside too and inevitably somebody has made the mistake of choosing some space under the only "male" ginkgo on the campus, or the only doug-fir with nice cones, and so on.  TPP tried to include them, you know, make them feel like part of the group, show them what's going on, and some seem happy enough to play along, and others give you let's-leave-the-weirdos-alone stare.  You can even suggest they shift their lounging over to a flowering crab or some other inconsequential tree.  If they get a bit crabby TPP points out that this is his classroom, and they are welcome visitors, but he's got a class to teach.    

As slow as what?

TPP knows a thing or two about patience.  Getting publishable results when you're doing field studies can take years; plant communities change, just slowly.  Unfortunately because the whole academic publishing thing is based on quantity, this seems to put people doing such research at a disadvantage compared to people who say do the same type of work with microbes. Yes, having life cycles measured in minutes is very different from plants whose life cycles are measured in years, sometimes hundreds of them.  But that's nothing like this.  Here's a report on what was claimed to be the longest continuously running scientific experiment.  Pitch is one of those weird substances that looks and acts like a solid, but it's really a very, very viscous (thick in the molasses sense) liquid, but way way thicker.  Since the experiment was begun in 1927, only 8 drops of pitch have fallen from the funnel, and the ninth is due to fall soon.  Wow!  Is this exciting!  Wonder when they'll get enough data to publish?  A good reviewer will insist that they duplicate their results.  It'll only take another 86 years!  Guess they should have thought of that back in 1927 when the experiment was set up.
Now this is a quite amusing news report, but quite inaccurate in fact. The longest continuously running experiment was set up by Dr. Beal in 1886 to see how long the seeds of 21 species of plant would remain viable.  The last batch was taken from storage in 2000 and the germination results reported in 2002 in the American Journal of Botany.  Only 3 species' seeds have survived this long, but the Verbascum blatteria (moth mullein) still germinated at 50%!  Since 5 or 6 more bottles of seeds remain in storage the experiment is still on going. 

Botanical field work and snakes

Mostly TPP has a laissez-faire relationship with snakes: if they don't bother me, TPP won't bother them.  For about a decade, a great deal of TPP's field work was done in Queensland, the wet tropics in the vicinity of Cairns (one of my study sites can be seen from the city's harbor, in the distance).  If there's anything you need to learn quickly in Queensland before venturing into its rainforests, it's that virtually every snake that isn't a python is poisonous and certain bushes and trees have vicious stinging hairs.  So when an Aussie field hockey player tries to remove a snake from the field and gets bitten in the process, and dies because it's one of the truly dangerously toxic venomous snakes, you have to sort of wonder about where he was brought up.  Dang, TPP had just one encounter with a taipan, and an image of this sleek snake was burned into his skull after shooing one out of the parking area behind his QLD apartment.  His study site was alive with the common brown snake, another top 10 venomous snake (see linked article for a top 10 rundown), but a rather shy and rather easily intimidated snake.  Good thing!  This makes TPP's current study site in Costa Rica relatively safe what with only fer-de-lances lurking everywhere in the leaves.  There are lots of other little vipers around: eye-lash viper, hog-nosed viper, and the not so little bushmaster, and in spite of nearly stepping on a hog-nosed viper on his first day at this field station, TPP still feels safer than when in Australia. So what was the field hockey player's big, and fatal, mistake?  Not wearing Wellington boots!  Hey, got any field work volunteers out there? 

Bugs are on my bush! Or not.

Bugs are on my bush!  And I've never seen them before!  Ah, an alarming observation, so naturally you call your local neighborhood botanist. Here they are.  Are the related to ladybugs? I'm sure they've never been there before.  Now before even going for a look, TPP had explained that "bugs"
are not his forte, but in this case not to worry.  One part of this is correct. This person had probably not ever seen these on their bush before, either because they just never noticed these pretty small but rather attractive structures or because their plant finally got mature enough and reached a reproductive age.  By now you've probably figured out both the plant and the true nature of the "bugs".  Yes?  This is actually a bit tricky from just seeing a bit of the leafy twigs, but this is the genus Chamaecyparis, a so-called "false cypress".  These are pollen cones, rather colorful ones, and they don't last long.  Once the pollen is dumped the cones, which are only 4-5 mm long are quickly shed.  This would have been funner if only they had called their friendly, local entomologist first.  That would have been amusing.

Friday fabulous flower - white trout lily

Running a bit late this week, but the last two days have been really busy.  It's always like this at the end of the semester and the beginning of the field and gardening season.  And even worse, TPP had to waste time mowing some lawn, which was a bit tricky because of the clusters of bulb leaves to avoid.  Some times when you're busy and when you've got a lot to do you tend to overlook the little quiet things that are happening here and there.  In various places in our gardens are patches of native plants that pretty much take care of themselves.  Along the fence separating our gardens from the neighbors' dog run is a large patch of trout lily (Erythronium albidum).  This plant appears in many places around our shade gardens, and generally you simply look down on it from above, but when you get down and take a squirrel's eye view you really get to see just how fabulous this flower is.  It's a wonderful wild flower and easily naturalizes; it spreads, but slowly. 

Leafy fun!

This isn't the best image.  These leaves are fresh from our glasshouse as of a couple of hours ago, and then scanned as opposed to photographed for this blog.  Naturally you wonder what plants have these leaves.  Now here's the challenge, one of these leaves is different from the other three in a very significant way.  One of these leaves comes from a basal lineage of flowering plants - star anise.  Two of them are from magnolialean families - nutmeg and eupomatia.  The other leaf is from a gymnosperm - Gnetum.  Isn't that something?  Did you ever figure it would be this tough to pick out a gymnosperm from a group of angiosperms?  Look how similar they all are in terms of shape; same apex, same base. They all have short "stumpy" (not a technical term) petioles. TPP will deliver an answer after we see if anybody out there is very perceptive.  BTW all four plants are dicots, but none of them are part of the "true dicot" clade of flowering plants.  How crazy is that? 

Cretaceous to present - in 4 lectures

Well, as usual when teaching plant diversity, you get to angiosperms just at the end of the semester, but only by moving through gymnosperms rather quickly.  Angiosperms are the last major plant group to appear in the fossil record, and that appearance is about 135 million years ago.  So let's see that's almost 45 million years a lecture. Wow!  Time to get moving; a lot can happen in this period of time.  Consider this, the extinction of the dinosaurs perhaps due to a major asteroid impact occurred 65 million years ago, the event that defined the end of the Cretaceous. The vast majority of mammal evolution has taken place since then. Think about this. Grasses hadn't evolved yet, some thing that was necessary before the large mammalian herbivores could evolve, something that turned little forest understory browsers into the horse you are familiar with today.  Some of the dinosaurs were pretty big browsers too, but their primary food was ferns, conifers, and cycads.  What a change!  And of course the very recent intimate interaction between humans and plants in the form of agriculture has produced some winners (maize, soybeans) and some losers (tallgrass prairie plants). 

This week's lab - angiosperm leaf diversity

Not only do flowering plants have a tremendous diversity of leaf shapes and forms, they are adapted to many different habitats and they have specialized for many other purposes as well.  First all those floral parts are modified leaves. Then there are all the other funky things angiosperms have done with leaves: protection, coevolution, traps, succulent leaves, vestigial leaves, climbing aids (tendrils, grappling hooks), attraction, flotation, xerophytic leaves.  Why this will be just like a leaf scavenger hunt through the glasshouse, and that's good because the weather outside is appalling: wintery mix (April 23d) at just above freezing.  Here's a nice tropical leaf with adaptations for dealing with heavy rainfall: a drip tip and vein gutters.  Both help shed water quickly.  So what plant has this leaf? 

This is war! Seriously! Bunnies beware!

"You don't tug on superman's cape, you don't spit into the wind, you don't pull the mask from the old long ranger" and you don't mess around with Mrs. Phactor by sitting there outside the breakfast nook window and eating her fancy tulips.  So let this be a warning to all lagomorph rodents, Mrs. Phactor all riled up is not someone to be trifled with.  By the time you had finished your tulip entree she was looking in the adverts to see if any "retired" greyhounds were available, you know, dogs with a name like Zap, or Flash, or Zip, or Bullet, or Death to Rabbits.  Yes, it's bad enough that you consume her flowers in her absence, but to sit there in full view and eat a bouquet of her tulips for breakfast, oh, that's a brazen bunny.  It's hard to get higher on the garden hit list than squirrels, but the bunnies this year are giving it a real go.  And TPP hasn't told her about the row of tulips you polished off behind the garden shed yet.  That could be the last straw.  Our wildlife friendly garden might become a bit less friendly.  Obviously the top predators are not doing their job, and need some help.  The joys of seeing a fox in the yard almost daily seem like such distant history (3 years ago), and the red-tailed hawks have not been seen now for a week.  Is someone out there offering them a better deal?  Nothing, nothing is better than tulip-fattened rabbit.  Top predators may send their applications to TPP.  We have immediate openings. 

Over-planted ornamentals - Bradford pear, and they stink too.

Bradford pears (Pyrus calleryana of Callery pear) has to be one of the champions of over-planted ornamentals especially in the tree category.  They do grow quickly, and then because of their anatomical weakness, they fall apart just as quickly.  They do have nice foliage, dense, dark-green, so don't expect grass to grow underneath one.  And they do have a nice fall foliage color, and quite a nice lacey white flowering display.  Locally they just began to flower, so it came as no surprise when the phone rang and someone was asking TPP the usual question: What smells so bad?  In flower Bradford pears stink; they smell just awful.  It's hard to describe some odors especially in the broad category referred to as "rank".  This term is used to describe a set of offensive (to the human sense of smell) odors.  The pears odor is strong and reminds TPP of the odors emitted from sewers in Bangkok. No question about it; the smell is disagreeable.  This seems to puzzle many people, but these people have never worked with flowers or their biology.  Flowers do not exist to please our senses, and even though these flowers are pretty enough, they do not use the same pollinators as say apples which have a very similar flower, both being in the same sub-family of the rose family.  As is often the case, it's still pretty cool weather because Bradford's flower in the early spring, and one of the most reliable pollinators of the early spring are syrphid flies.  Here's an image if you aren't familiar with them; you probably thought they were bees, but they hold their wings differently.  Now when it comes to odors, bees and flies have very different likes and dislikes.  There's a reason for that old saying, "Whew, that could gag a maggot!"  Flies look for rotten things to use as a brood substrate for their offspring, although in the case of the pear, they don't get that, although they probably do get some nectar as a reward. And now that we've gotten this far, why is such a flawed tree so widely planted?  It's got three strikes against it: dense shade, weak limbs, and it stinks.  Best thing that ever happened around here was a very early, wet, heavy snowfall in late November when the Bradford's were still holding their leaves and the snapping of the trees sounded like fire works.  A walk around just a few blocks and over 40 Bradford pears were just so much fire wood; such a good start!

Earth Day - we have met the enemy

TPP has been around since the first Earth Day, and while a lot of people now pay at least some lip service to the topic, progress has been pretty slow.  Recycling has been a bright spot, here and there, and it's nice to see more thought being given to energy-efficient architecture.  In a few places wind energy has begun to have a presence.  But tough questions about carbon emissions, population, and climate change, go wanting largely because of gutless politicians, the media, and miserable state of politics just about everywhere.  So it's nice to see the Earth Day events, but the enormity of what needs to be done is quite daunting to the point of being depressing.  We seem to be a species that cannot act except in response to crisis.  Ah well.  Here's a reminder of how long Earth Day has been around as a "happening".  Although the famous phrase was first used in Walt Kelly's Pogo Earth Day poster in 1970, it was repeated the next year in a 2 frame strip where Pogo famously says ....

Saturday AM field trip

TPP is generous and supportive of a number of nonprofit organizations and lots of starving artists.  So this AM he found himself leading three couples on a field trip wild flower foray.  It seems TPP's expertise was auctioned off along with fancy brunch for a fund-raiser; yes, botanically prostituted by his own wife.  Since 2013 has been a pretty cool and late, it was hard to know what to expect out in woodlands, but when you teach plant taxonomy for a few years, you learn about all the good places to find nice wild flowers.  So here's the rundown for April 20, 2013: early whitlow grass, cottonwood, cutleaf toothwort, dutchman's breeches, bloodroot (almost gone), troutlily (white), bluebells (only on south facing slopes), yellow violet, spring beauty, and a buttercup, and after a bit of searching, liverleaf - Hepatica.  And like any good field trip this one finished with a nice dry Spanish champagne, a mushroom quiche, sauted asparagus with avocado butter, a fruit salad with ataulfo mango, a lemon-cream cake, and bacon.  So as you can see Mrs. Phactor made it quite worth my while, and quite worth their while to have made a generous contribution for this field trip.  It was fun all the way around.

Master Gardeners - what to make of them?

Over at the Garden Rant blog there's quite a discussion about the Master Gardener designation, and the rule that people so educated not use the MG as a credential commercially.  On one hand, these extension programs to provide interested amateurs with a lot of information and knowledge is a great thing, it's educational outreach, one of a university's missions, but the term Master Gardener is ridiculous really.  Locally, TPP corrected a Master Gardener, where upon she bristled, and said, "I'm a Master Gardener."  Yes, you're the plant amateur, I'm the plant professional and you got that wrong.  Of course, TPP isn't a master gardener either; he's a doctor of botany with decades of experience, who grew up with gardens, has always had a garden and now gardens as a hobby and for mental health, but it's a funny thing about botany, it applies to gardening.  TPP can't even count how many gardens he's visited around the world, and he learns things about plants at a level that most amateurs cannot comprehend.  This is not an ego trip about intelligence; it's the simple consequence of an ever increasing knowledge network where the more you know the easier it is to learn still more.  TPP didn't understand this until the accelerated learning effect started to kick in sometime during his 2nd year in graduate school; that was 40 years ago.  Think about that.  Someone who has been learning botany at a rate an amateur can't imagine for more than 4 decades.  A real master gardener would be someone who has degrees in botany and horticulture and years of experience running an actual garden or arboretum.  Locally an amateur Master Gardener writes a gardening column for the newspaper and it's pretty well done.  The extra education has given her the confidence to look things up and pass them along accurately.  The MG program gave her access to a whole new world of information.  A similar program exists for Master Naturalists, and a group of them are presently collaborating with TPP because they still need the expertise and direction of a professional "naturalist", and yes, it's not a stretch to say TPP is a professional naturalist, to do useful, meaningful "citizen science".  Fortunately there are some things that dedicated and interested amateur naturalists can do that might get overlooked or ignored by professionals because of the different levels at which we operate.  So my master naturalists are going to conduct a floristic survey of natural areas to generate a vouchered database of plant diversity because 100 years from now someone will be interested to find out how well these conservation areas have done at conserving.  It would be great if someone had done this 100 years ago, great but discouraging, which is likely to be the same reaction 100 years from now, but 100 years ago the idea of conservation, of protecting diversity, was really not on their radar screens, so the collections were rather haphazard in this regard.  Even still they tell us what is missing; locally: Indian paintbrush, yellow ladyslippers, and more.  These programs are certainly worth the effort for the people involved if they can find something useful to do with this education, but at the same time, they remain amateurs. In the present day it's hard for amateurs to make a useful contribution to science (doing a floristic survey will not add to TPP's credentials in any way really) unless in collaboration; the usefulness of master gardeners is less clear to me, but a horticultural colleague says they have been very important as volunteers in the development of a horticultural center, under the direction of a professional gardener.  So TPP supports such programs so long as the participants don't make overly much about the resulting designation. And that was probably the purpose of the MG rules about use of the designation.    

Messing with nature - you never can do just one thing

One of the most basic of ecological lessons, and a lesson most commonly ignored, is that you never can do just one thing.  Interactions among organisms and between organisms and their environment are complex and complicated, and when you willingly change one thing it can set off an entire chain or worse, an entire cascade of events.  Knock over one domino and it knocks down the next and so on, this is the simple case; what if when you knock over one domino, it knocks down three, and so on?  This lesson is at the absolute base of the problem of invasive species.  Here's an example.  Kudzu is a legume, a bean, and a vine.  It's a handsome enough plant under some circumstances and it was imported to North America as an ornamental species decades ago.  Because it can fix nitrogen like other legumes, kudzu will grow well on poor soil, so it was promoted across the south to help prevent soil erosion and help reclaim strip mine moonscapes.  But kudzu didn't stop there, and now the vine towers of kudzu are a familiar sight across the south as the vine clamors over trees, and fences, and barns, and anything else that isn't too fast moving.  The next event started in 2009 when a kudzu eating stink bug, also from Asia, was found in Georgia.  Somebody imported it because stink bugs just don't disperse that far on their own, and supposedly kudzu was its favorite food, but favorite doesn't mean only food.  What can possibly go wrong?  Well, what if this stink bug developed a taste for other legumes?  What if the legume was the soybean?  Somebody tries to be a do-gooder and import a bug that eats an invasive vine and the bug becomes a potential agricultural pest on a crop that is one of the USA's most important agricultural commodities.  See those dominos dropping?  Kudzu is also adapting to cooler climates and has been reported in Lincolnland as far north as Peoria, right in the middle of the maize and soybean desert.  And it appears this new invasive bug may be able to survive anywhere soybeans can grow.  So, there's the lesson.  Remember, you can't do just one thing.  Organisms just don't do what you expect them to do or want them to do, and you just start another cascade of unintended and unexpected events.  Let that be your lesson.

Happy lettuce for unhappy days

Yesterday, April 17th TPP harvested several nice bibb lettuces for our din-dins.  Wonderful!  Bibb lettuce grows very well in a cold frame; try it next spring.  Little things like this make us happy when crappy things are happening all over.  Here in Lincolnland, our ban against concealed guns was found to infringe upon people's rights by those who misread the 2nd amendment for a living.  People want to carry guns for personal protection, so they must be scared, and scared people are not who you want carrying guns.  And nationally even the least restrictive measures on gun ownership remain an anathema to people who think the solution to gun violence is more guns.  Yes, these people would advocate throwing a bucket of water to people who are drowning.  Such happenings are sad and demonstrate what a pathetic excuse for a country we really are.  So, when depression rears its ugly head, the only therapy readily available is to grow something; plant a tree, raise some lettuce.  It should grow well with the unending supply of manure we get from our elected representatives and the media that gives them a forum for their nonsense.  Perhaps if we only vote for people who garden, the world would be a better place.  Yes, Chauncey Gardener for congress!

Under planted and under appreciated perennials - winter hazel

While many people are familiar with witchhazel (Hamamelis), very few people know about winter hazel (Corylopsis), a close relative.  The two are similar in being early spring flowering shrubs, and in TPP's experience, both are dearly loved by bad bunnies.  Both shrubs have a nice fall color display too.  Winter hazel is also a bit less hardy, so check on cold hardiness as the species differ (TPP has C. spicata shown in flower.), and it would suffer dieback at the bottom end temperatures of zone 5, which haven't been realized in quite a few years now.  Winter hazel is a handsome, somewhat delicate looking, but graceful shrub, but the pale to lemon yellow inflorescences are the real eye-catcher.  This is certainly not a feature plant, but finding room for one in a shrub border works very well.  Unfortunately the plant is rather hard to find in the trade, so TPP started with just a stick, and it's slow initial growth and it's delectability to bunnies got things off to a slow start, and as Mrs. Phactor keeps pointing out to me, when it comes to woody plants, time is not on my side, so buy the biggest you can find.  The images above are from the Wikimedia Creative Commons courtesy of Kenraiz and Kenpei respectively.

Academic hiring and coaches

Without question the most highly overpaid, least loyal members of the academic community, and here TPP plays very loose with the concept of academic community because most coaches, having been jocks themselves, have little interest in scholarship.  Coaches are employees of the same institution as are faculty, but that's it.  Not only are coaches among the most highly paid employees of a university, a double standard exists in their hiring.  TPP has been in charge of hiring several of his junior colleagues and the prescribed rules are very precise.  Positions have to be advertised nationally, and you must convince the powers that be that the ads are placed where job-seekers will look for them, although now online postings have made this much easier.  A deadline for applying must be set not less than 4 weeks after the ads are scheduled to appear.  Only after the deadline can you start to sort through the applications.  Generally a committee winnows the applicants to a list of 10 to 12, and then each is contacted and a telephone conference interview is arranged and each of these applicants is interviewed by the committee.  After this you decide on 3-4 applicants you wish to invite to campus for extensive visits, a seminar, meetings with other faculty and students, meetings with your chair, your dean, the provost's underling (provosts are very busy people).  But before you can extend any invitations affirmative action must examine the data on all of your applicants and be convinced that you are not discriminating in an improper manner.  Then you arrange the interview visits, some 2 days long, for each of the three or four applicants.  Everyone sends in their evaluations, and finally the committee makes a recommendation to the chair who then does pretty much as they choose (sigh), and if the dean OKs things, an offer is made.  There are usually some negotiations that take place about salary, labs, and the things that go in them, and finally when all parties agree to everything a formal offer is made and accepted, in writing, and when the acceptance letter arrives you officially announce the hiring.  As you can guess this takes no small amount of time, usually 4 to 6 months from the point in time the dean says you can search for a position.  So what happens when one of your coaches announces that big-time university has bought their services?  They drop everything and leave no matter what their contract says. They leave so quickly they must have their bags permanently packed and behind their office door.  The university announces that they will conduct an intensive national search for a replacement and two weeks later they announce the name of the new coach.  Me thinks they cheat.  OK, let's be fair to athletics, me thinks they play fast and loose with the hiring rules.  Or by some total double standard, hiring rules apply not to coaches.  Well, why not?  None of the other rules apply to them either.  The new coach always costs more than the old coach for some reason, and they arrive expressing their total delight at joining such a great institution, inheriting such a great team, explaining how they will attain new levels of athletic success, and they will leave as soon as they get a better offer.  Coaches can behave worse and misbehave more often than any other member of the institution, and even then only get fired if the general public finds out and it embarrasses the university, like Rutgers.  Here's my point you get jerks as coaches because you hired a jerk, and could the greatly truncated, behind closed doors hiring process prevent anyone from properly vetting the person you're trying to buy (not even an applicant because there was no time for them to apply).  Every time a coach gets fired or leaves for another job before their contract ends, the AD (athletic director) who hired them should get fired too. 

Leave us alone; we be gardenin'

Spring garden cleanup is no small chore. The primary salvation is that lots of pretty narcissi are in bloom everywhere.  Now that the bun-buns have tulips to eat, the various shrubs can be released from their cages.  By now swelling buds pretty well reveal where and what requires pruning.  An ancient Nanking cherry died and had to be removed. It's lacy white flowering was always so attractive. It was massive and now an area about 20 x 25 feet is in need of a new plant(s) that can deal with the semi-shade and a large black walnut's chemical warfare.  Perhaps a new magnolia, or an Asian lilac, or a magnolia, or the new Exochorda racemosa (image courtesy of Nadiatalent, Creative Commons) already ordered, or a magnolia, or a Pterostyrax.  What do you think?

 The perennial beds, the herb garden, and wind-row fences accumulate an amazing volume of leaves; the Phactors probably remove more leaves from just these places than most people in the burbs remove from their whole yards.  And you have to know which perennials need to be uncovered, de-mulched first, e.g., fern-leafed peony, clematis (bush and vine), species tulips.  Once you get the leaf situation under control, the lily pond can be cleaned out.  The fish show up and indicate they are hungry; it has been 5 months since they were fed, so no big surprise.  Friday marked the end of a taxing season for Mrs. Phactor, and thankfully for those who share the same state with her, this coincides with the beginning of the serious gardening season, and garden activity not only provides exercise, but a positive therapy to recover from the tax season.  TPP trusts his were filed, properly; now to find some compensation for his tax preparer.  Maybe a magnoia?

Thorny and terrifying memories

The knock-out roses were an exception; they grew, and grew, well last year.  They look best when periodically cut back anyways, but this is not one of TPP's favorite gardening chores.  It conjures up some painful memories. In some minor way this is like the opening scene of Apocalypse Now where Martin Sheen awakens in a bad way to discover that his nightmare of hearing helicopter blades whumping the air were actually the blades of a ceiling fan, but it didn't matter because he was back in Saigon anyways.  So you lop off a two foot section of the rose bush, and you try to throw the branch to the side, but it's thorns cling to your gloves.  You try to get a new grip, but now the branch has reached over your shoulder and grabbed your shirt, and no matter which way to pull, you still are getting grabbed by your shirt sleeve. So it goes, branch after branch, thorns tugging at your clothes and ripping any exposed skin.  Then the memories come flooding back of rattan palms in the dim understory of Queensland's rain forests.  These palms climb by means of grappling hooks, recurved spines on three sides of long, whip-like modified shoots
 with the tensile strength of piano wire, and they extend across your path as if waiting to garrot the next field biologist who happens along.  There were three species of three different sizes that TPP fondly named "rip your ankle off", "rip your leg off", and "rip you head off".  As soon as you were grappled, you had to stop, immediately, reach around with a pair of pruning shears, and cut the shoot.  With the tension relieved it would usually fall off; just never try to pull away.  This gets tricky when grabbed from different sides all at once.  Locally they are called "lawyer canes" because once they get their hooks into you, .....   With the ravages of the rattans, field gear just got shreaded.  You just keep on working, branch by branch, shrub by shrub, until the bloody roses are pruned.  Then you get a margarita to help the scary memories subside.  Maybe the roses won't grow so well this year; maybe the next pruning won't be so bad.  Maybe the war won't so be horrible this tour.  And the nightmares start again.

Under planted perennials & Friday Fabulous Flower - Iris reticulata

Why not double our fun by having a FFF and presenting another under planted perennial at the same time?  This will be accomplished by highlighting Iris reticulata, a species of iris that grows like a crocus.  Rather than having a rhizome, this iris has a small bulb/corm; it will form clumps, but not spread like it would with a rhizome.  So far in TPP's experience, this little iris naturalizes very well.  You plant it just like crocus, and it flowers at about the same time of year, early spring.  The long narrow leaves hang around for awhile and then it goes dormant until next spring.  Like many small bulb flowers, planting it in clusters and sprays gives you more impressive displays.  After all it's only about 10-15 cm tall at flowering.  Everyone has room for more flowers like this; they are so showy and so cheerful.  It's also relatively cheap; you can buy 100 bulbs for something like $12.  So why isn't this more commonly planted?  Can't say.  TPP has a couple of very nice images, but they're in the laptop and the home internet connection is down, again, and not to speak ill of the provider by name, but these bumskis can't possibly be the frontier of the communications network (topic of another post perhaps).  This image is from the Creative Commons and credited to Hedwig Storch.

Under planted perennials - dwarf forsythia

There are quite a number of perennials that remain very much under planted largely because they are not so common in the trade.  Finding new plants has certainly gotten easier with e-commerce and mail-order nurseries.  Most plant purveyors take the Ohio liquor commission's approach.  After a sales survey (many years ago) discovered that 15% of their stock made up 85% of their sales, the Ohio state liquor stores removed most of their stock, so tough if you don't drink Budswater or Jim Bleem.  Most nuseries carry just the common stock that people are familiar with.  Not much appears for us discriminating gardeners.  So now and again TPP will try to turn your attention to some rather under appreciated plants that you really should consider.  Several come to mind and TPP will do an occasional series on this topic.  First off is the dwarf forsythia, Abeliophyllum distichum, which as you see isn't a forsythia at all although it is in the olive family and is a small to medium sized early spring-flowering shrub.  The flower color is white with a hint of pink, and a pinker variety is also around (var. rosea).  The overall appearance is lacey and they look especially nice against a back drop of dark green.  This shrub handles light shade quite well, and it isn't fussy about soil or water; not sure about the hardiness; zone 5 is not a problem at all.  For some reason dwarf forsythia just isn't known and seldom planted; it seems more common in Europe.   

Jimmy Carter - USA's best past president?

As this recent interview on the Daily Show demonstrates, a good case can be made for Jimmy Carter as the most successful past-president in US history.  He's used his connections and skills to help make some major improvements to world health through simple pragmatic solutions, which very much supports his claim to be the world's greatest builder of latrines.  To which Stewart quips, "Guess we should remame them Jimmy instead of calling them John."  This caused TPP to reflect upon the past presidential careers of all the presidents he can remember, and nobody even comes close to Carter.  Of course it still remains to be seen what Dubya manages to accomplish as past president now that he's also given up being a good-old-brush-clearing country boy.  While Carter got severely drubbed while president, what he's done since demonstrates that his character and abilities are quite impressive.  Hope our current president was taking some notes. 

Magnolia season has begun

Magnolia flowering season has begun, and just in time.  Our earliest magnolia is M. stellata, star magnolia, a very handsome and lacey flower tinged in pink.  About 50% of the time a frosty night ruins the flowers, so TPP planted his where it is shaded in the morning which pushes back its flowering by about 5 to 7 days, a critical amount to avoid frozen flowers.  So far (12 years now) it's been working.  However yesterday the star magnolia on campus was subject to a minor ravaging because its flowers were needed for lab.  As TPP had to explain to a couple of nosy butt-inskies, this is what the campus is for; it represents the largest and most frequently visited classroom on campus, and TPP is the instructor. Figuring out this flower poses another problem because students can only count to 20 (fingers & toes), so the numerous parts of many magnoliad flowers leaves them with basic aboriginal quantification, many parts, and they fail to discover that on average the many parts are multiples of 3.  Don't take TPP's word for it, count the parts on a couple of dozen flowers and see for yourself.  Sigh.  They take my word for it.  The stamens also confuse because they don't look like stamens are supposed to look.Where's the filaments? Where are the sepals? Are those all pistils?  And so begins the not all flowers look like textbook illustrations, in fact, most don't lesson. Just wait until Calycanthus flowers; now that's some fun.  

Is there horse meat in my burger?

Does anyone else have strange encounters while grocery shopping?  This is not TPP's usual chore; he's a pedestrian and lacks a trunk.  So perhaps this is just because such shopping is so novel to him in general that it makes grocery-shopping normal seem a little strange.  While perusing the butcher counter, and considering making a meatloaf, always a bit of an ambiguous appellation anyways, meatloaf covers a lot of categories, and a woman confides in me that she isn't going to buy any ground beef until she's sure there isn't any horse meat in it.  So TPP asked, "Why would that be a problem?"  After all if you want to worry about something in burger, worry about pink slime.  This was local, ground-in-the-store beef and they don't use pink slime, and where would the horse meat come from?  Well, just the thought of eating horse meat was just more than she could bear.  Would bear be OK, or camel, or goat?  And didn't this horsemeat thing happen in Britain, not Lincolnland?  She gave me a worried or puzzled or incomprehensible look, TPP gave her his best quizzical look, and she fled for the produce section. This is an interesting example of an American food taboo, which are largely about meat.  Horses are not seen as food animals in North America, where the horse is an exotic introduced animal.  A colleague tells of a graduate student who vomited after finding out the the delicious BBQ'ed morsel from the market in Peru was guinea pig.  TPP can understand be surprised, but vomiting?  Who's in control over there?  A few years ago, a meat packer here in the Midwest landed a major contract to supply horse meat to France, and the small town could have really used the 100 or so jobs, but protests from horse-lovers prevented the "slaughter".  Yes, that's what it's called when you kill animals for food.  TPP is just old enough, and grew up just rural enough, to know people who really knew their food; they grew it, they killed it, they ate it. People are just so far removed from their food supply that they worry about all the wrong things.  Horse meat in your burger is the least of your worries.  However, the decision was made to buy some sausage; no expectations, so no worries there.   

A berry pragmatic change in color

For several years TPP has tried to grow blueberries here in the alkaline clay soil, heat, and droughts of the midwest. Let's make a long story short; blueberries don't like these things.  Having condemed quite a number of blueberry plants to death, not without giving them a chance to make it, last summer's heat and drought was sort of the last straw.  Nothing remained but the not-acid-enough soil.  In a bit of impulse shopping, TPP decided that the thing to do is to change color, from blue to black.  Both blue and black make a pretty decent pie.  Both can make a jam or jelly.  But the Rubus will be much easier to grow especially because the modern varieties are thornless.  In the old days picking blackberries was an invitation to considerable injury and probably an infestation of chiggers.  In particular these were very vigorours looking plants, so blue was changed to black.  Now we shall wait and see.   

When does human life begin?

When does human life begin?  As a biologist, TPP gets asked about this every so often, and while this is not exactly his expertise, there are certain basic concepts that are straight forward enough.  From a biological perspective the human species began at some point in the past and it will continue for some time into the future, but most people don't mean the life of the human species although that is what actually matters in biology.  And no matter what the state of Kansas legislates, there is no simple easy answer and people of good conscience may disagree. First, understand that life is a continuous process, but people tend to focus on the individual, and doesn't the life of each individual begin at fertilization, at conception?  Well, not always.  Sometimes at a rate of about one out of every 800 conceptions, the zygote or more commonly an early embryonic stage divides and each product develops as an individual resulting in identical twins (or more rarely triplets, quads, or quints).  This can happen up to 12 days after conception. So twins do not begin their lives at conception. Sometimes people argue that a unique genetic combination begins life at conception, but doesn't this argue that twins are not unique individuals?  You can't murder one and escape punishment because an identical genetic copy still exists.  And what of genetic uniqueness?  One pair of parents can produce over 8 million genetic combinations of which only one to a few will become incorporated into an individual.  Medical research also has found that something on the order of 70% of all conceptions spontaneously abort early in development, so early most are not recognized as pregnancies, so it would seem nature puts very little value on conception, much less than the Kansas legislature.  Everyone realizes that the cost and commitment of parenting at this stage is virtually non-existent.  Another interesting point is that there is relatively little debate about when you are dead, when the individual's existence ceases, and that's when the brain stops functioning even if the body remains alive. The person's uniqueness was in their personality, memories, and thoughts, not in their genes. This is what makes organ donation ethical. But a zygote or an embryo has none of those things, just genetic instructions, a potential, but an unknown potential that cannot be predicted from the genes.  Human brain waves that define death do not appear until the beginning of the third trimester of development, and even then the fetus is not able to survive on its own.  So what does this mean?  It means that the idea of life beginning at conception is more about religion grabbing onto one particularly convenient biological event in a continuous process and embuing it with special significance, and declaring that this is when the soul appears. But now you can start the cycle over again with twins.  Do they share a soul?  Where does the soul reside?  In the chromosomes, and what happens to it when they divide?  What happened to the soul obtained by the original zygote at conception?  Do twins have hemi-souls? Such questions matter not, but show that it takes a particular type of simplistic thinking to try to legislate such matters, to try an use biology to bolster a belief system and make everyone adhere to it, something that is surely unconstitutional. This takes remarkable dumbth.  Biology doesn't provide a single, straight forward answer to this question.       

Early season gardening - cold frame

Gardeners all, whether your garden is big or small or even lacking, everyone has room for a cold frame.  Nothing extends your gardening season more than a cold frame.  TPP likes these small cold frames because they can be easily moved, easily sited in a sunny location.  It works well to use a potting soil mix in planting boxes because they warm up faster than the soil beneath.  Here's a cold frame with bibb lettuce just a week after the seedlings were planted, and the nights have been freezing, but the days just above freezing.  The other inhabitants are some parsley, both curly and flat, and some mesclun mix.  With a cold frame you'll be harvesting salad before your regular garden hardly gets going.  This cold frame is sited on top of a sunny herb garden, and it will be gone before it's time to plant real warm weather herbs like basil, so now you get another crop from this space.  But why stop there?  Use your patio or the edge of your driveway or a porch roof (if you can reach the cold frame out of a window.  Almost everyone has room for this type of gardening.  Still make certain that you only grow cool weather crops: lettuce, spinach, mesclun, green onions, baby bok choi. 

Friday Fabulous Flower - bamboo orchid

Yes, the FFF is going up on Saturday, but Friday was an impossible day; it's getting to be that time of the semester when everyone wants everything and students are beginning to worry, some with good reason, that their efforts may be too little too late.  The bamboo orchid at home has burst into flower, and without question this orchid is like roses, a quite ungainly and rather ugly plant that produces some fabulous flowers.  This particular orchid is one that really likes being outside for the summer season hanging from a tree limb or a pergola or a shepard's hook.  So for most of the year it's an ungainly thing, and then it flowers and you understand why you bother. 

300 dpi

300 dpi - 300 dots per inch; the minimum resolution limits for a publishable figure according to my publisher.  The problem is that you can find a great many illustrations and images that look just great on a computer screen but are about 75-95 dpi, one-third the required resolution.  To increase the resolution you can reduce the size, and suddenly a decent sized image gets really tiny.  And when you're looking for very particular botanical images it gets much harder.  Not just everyone happens to have an image of a hornwort with sporophytes laying around. And if they do have a good image, one rarely used, why they very reasonably think that it's use can command a pretty good price, which works out very well for both of us except the entire illustration budget for TPP's book is zilch.  That's right, zilch, so without the remarkable generosity of colleagues and people who post great images on the Creative Commons, us publishing paupers would be toast.  Got a good image of Takakia or Tmesipteris, let TPP know.  TPP would mention the program used to generate these images and plates for publication, but it might be mistaken for an endorsement.  While a very amazing program in terms of quality of the results, it is without question the most non-intuitive computer program TPP has ever used, and he's used a lot of them. 

Crap! Student finds a way to ruin my day.

Grading exams has always been TPP's least favorite academic activity, unless you can use it as an excuse to get out of a faculty meeting, and then you had to grade them anyways, but at least that way you're using your time well.  The thing that TPP dreads most is cheating; it's so disappointing, it's such a hassle, it's so foolish, and if not for a feeling of obligation to protect the efforts of honest students, TPP might avoid dealing with cheaters altogether.  Perhaps the most annoying aspect of this is that the cheater is basically treating TPP as a dummy.  With most students you can spot a change in their writing style in nanoseconds, after all it basically goes from basic undergrad semi-illiterate to well written suddenly.  And so it was.  It took 5 words, a short phrase, and it was immediately obvious that the student did not author those words, and since this was an in-class exam, perhaps they were memorable and thus memorized, but the entire series of terminological definitions all read just like a dictionary.  So you Google the term, and sure enough, the 1st or 2nd item to pop up had the verbatim definition in each and every case.  And nobody is that good at memorization; a word here or there "or in some manner" changes.  The lack of errors, the lack of changes, is almost irrefutable proof that they were copied directly (a simple test can confirm or refute the "I memorized it hypothesis").  TPP is famous for testing the identical twin "we look alike, we dress alike, we think alike, we study together, so naturally our work is alike" hypothesis (they failed completely to create any alikeness under controlled conditions).  Smartphone technology and wifi reception throughout our buildings makes such cheating totally possible.  This isn't a big class and the students are upper class and graduate students, and at a certain on point you think you shouldn't have to wander around and peak over their shoulders as if it was junior high.  So much for that assumption, but in decades of teaching this course, this is the first time cheating has been detected, and probably it's partly because TPP doesn't necessarily see or use this technology the way his students do. Now comes the forms, the meetings, the hassle of seeing this thing through all the channels. This is necessary because if this student is a serial cheater, this is the only way the institution can know and deal with them appropriately.  And to show that there are no hard feelings TPP will help them pack their bags.   

March 2013 Berry Go Round

Hey, folks, the March Berry-go-round plant blog round-up is here, over at the Plants and Rocks blog.  Our thanks for a job well done, and for pointing the way to some plant blogs that TPP had missed along the way.  And our thanks for including TPP.  For you plant bloggers who were not included, there's a submission form posted at the Berry Go Round site, so do yourself a favor and let everyone know about your blog.  Or you can nominate a favorite plant blog. 

Today's laboratory - Conifer identification

Oh, this is so much fun!  Most people, and my students are no exception, except for a couple of the horticulture students, commonly think several incorrect things about conifers.  1. All conifers are evergreen and that evergreen and conifer are synonyms.  2. All evergreen conifers are "pine" trees.  3. All evergreen conifers basically look alike.  4. "Furs" are Christmas trees and animal pelts.  So today TPP will endeavor to correct at least one of these misconceptions.  If you set your goals too high, you get disappointed.
In a few moments, once this cup of coffee and this blog are finished, TPP will grab his clippers and wander around our arboretum to obtain some nice specimens.  After you spend a few decades at this you get pretty good at it and you recognize most common genera by sight.  On one of our Botanical Geek Tours (locale Swathmore's campus arboretum) this one almost had TPP stumped, but then from somewhere, probably a mental process of elimination based on what it could not be, and this genus popped to the fore.  So here you go school kids.  Identify this conifer.
Unfortunately this genus doesn't grow here in the upper midwest, so my ID key to common conifers (including one  uncommon genus, which is in my garden so what the heck) won't be any help.  Don't say TPP has never given you anything.  It's an indented key, so hope the formatting works here (hmm, not quite).

1. Leaves small, scale-like, hugging the stem in pairs or threes. 

  2.  Scale leaves with glandular dot in center; leafy stems more or less flattened, leaves on two sides flat and on two sides folded or keeled. 

3.  Leafy branches flattened into 2-dimensional sprays, leaf keel convexly rounded such that apex points inward toward stem; cones oblong...............................Arbor-vitae (Thuja)

3'. Leafy branches not flattened into sprays, or only slightly so, leaf keel straight or concavely curved such that apex points upward along stem axis; cones globose  ……………… ………………………….………………………….. White cedar (Chamaecyparis)

  2'. Scale leaves without glandular dots; leafy stems rounded or 4 sided.
               3.  Leaves in pairs or threes, vestigial, fused into papery sheath around green stems with widely spaced nodes...........................................................Mormon Tea (Ephedra)
                             3’. Scale leaves small, but not vestigial, some leaves may be needle-like in whorls of 3 around
                                                stem; nodes closely spaced………………………...Red Cedar, Juniper (Juniperus)

  1'. Leaves linear, long and narrow, or broad and flat, borne on stems singly, in clusters or whorls.

4. Leaves borne in bundles of 2s, 3s, or 5s, needle-like, stout to long and flexible,..........Pine (Pinus)

4’. Leaves borne in helical whorls on short side shoots and at the ends of twigs.

5.  Whorls of flat strap-like leaves (greater than 3 inches long) borne at ends of elongate shoots, each leaf subtended by a bract ……………………………………Japanese Umbrella Pine (Scaidopitys)

5’.  Whorls of leaves borne on short, stubby, lateral branches (spur shoots); broad leaves or needle leaves (3-sided or flat and less than 3 inches long). 

6. Leaves stiff, sharp, 3-sided; cones erect on branches, 2-3” long, evergreen; not hardy in our  region ...............................................................................Cedar (Cedrus)

6'. Leaves soft, flat needles or broad, flat, fan-shaped; deciduous.

7. Spur shoots  less than 5 mm diam., leaf scars tiny, hard to see; Leaves long, flat, linear, soft and flexible; cones persistent, pendant or surrounding branch, oval, 1-1.5”; tree branches more or less at right angles to trunk …………….......…Larch (Larix)

7'. Spur shoots greater than 5 mm diam., leaf scars >2 mm wide; leaves broad and fan-shaped, no cones; tree branches angle upwards ………………….Ginkgo (Ginkgo)

                4”.  Leaves borne individually along stems (spur shoots absent), sometimes arranged or arrayed in 2 ranks.

8. Leaves on side shoots arranged in 2 ranks producing  feather-like lateral shoots; leaves all soft and flexible; leafy shoots deciduous.

9.  Leaves usually less than 1 cm long; leafy shoots (or scars) alternate on main stem …………………...........................................................................Bald Cypress (Taxodium)

9’. Leaves mostly greater than 1.5 cm long; leafy shoots (or scars) opposite on main stem.............................. ……………………………………….Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia)

8'. Leaves mostly spirally arranged (sometimes reoriented to present flattened array of leaves); leaves thick, leathery or stiff and needle-like; leafy shoots evergreen.

                                                10. Leaves 4-sided needles, very stiff..............................................Spruce (Picea)

                                                10'. Leaves flattened (cannot roll between fingers), linear.

                                                                11. Leaves narrow abruptly to short discrete stalks; foliage not aromatic.

12. Leaves with 2 white bands on lower surface; needles on top of twigs upside down, pointing to twig apex; small seed cones (1 cm long) …. ....................... ………………………………....Hemlock (Tsuga)

12'. Leaves all green on both sides (lighter below), stems showing segments at base of leaf stalks; ovules terminal on short shoots, seeds  with red aril at maturity…………...............................................Yew (Taxus)

                                                                11'. Leaves not on short stalks, but taper narrowing to base; foliage aromatic

13. Leaves narrowing to an elliptical base, raised from twig at lower edge; buds dry, conical .................................................Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga)

13'. Leaves narrowing to a flat, circular base; buds coated in resin, dome shaped …………………......................….....................Fir (Abies)


Non-green gardening - giving up peat

Peat is the partially decomposed remains of plants from peat bogs, primarily the Sphagnum, i.e., peat moss.  As such peat bogs are long-term repositories of carbon.  When that peat is "mined" and  removed from its low oxygen, low pH, water-logged environment, and spread around our gardens in the form of a soil additive or a potting mix or a starter pot, it finishes its decomposition rather quickly releasing all that stored carbon as carbon dioxide.  It's hard to think about giving up a common gardening practice because it's akin to coal mining and "dirty" coal, but it actually is, so we should.  And because peat bogs are drained so that the peat can be mined, a valuable wetland is destroyed, and the rather unique organisms that inhabit bogs have the habitat destroyed in the process.  Bogs like this formed very slowly, and they can regenerate, but they do so at a terribly slow rate, so peat use is like deforestation, a non-sustainable practice.  In this respect, TPP is as guilty as anyone.  In come places alternatives to peat, other bio-materials that would regularly decompose quickly anyways, are being sought, but so far TPP has seen no significant move in that direction in these parts.  The use of used newsprint and coconut fiber to make "peaty" pots is being to show up in the trade.  Fortunately the local municipality mulches and composts yard, garden, and wood waste which can be used to augment soil instead.  It's hard to get numbers on how big of a carbon footprint the use of peat generates; global warming is speeding up the decomposition of peat in nature as well.  Peat is more common in higher latitudes where the cold keeps things locked up for longer periods of time.  The peat problem is a particularly ironic one because gardeners in general like to think of themselves as the good guys, advancing the front of "green" living, and then it turns out our carbon footprint is bigger than anyone thought.  Besides peat is too valuable for other uses such as making that smoky malt used for whisky production.  The image above is the property of Kristian Peters, used under the terms of the Wikimedia Creative Commons.