Field of Science

Over dose of cooking, but guests pleased, sated

Yesterday was the day the Phactors cooked a margarita and tapas dinner having auctioned off this event to raise money for church remodeling.  In general TPP regards cooking as fun, but when you are cooking for 12 and preparing several newish recipes, it's also a lot of work.  The menu consisted of the following dishes: 1st - banderillas with olives, cheese, chorizo, pickles, salami, marinated mushrooms, etc. in various combinations of 3, sauted portabello mushroom and goat cheese quesadillas, and grilled, marinated shrimp.  2nd - roasted sweet pepper salad, asparagus wrapped in Spanish ham, and sherried eggplant.  3d - "Russian" potato salad, salmon in mojo sauce, and lastly, almond tacos (think thin cookies shaped like taco shells) filled with seasonal berries and topped with whipped cream.  Of course you want it all to look nice and be prettily presented, and not use a lot of last minute preparation; after all you have guests.  The first course was served with margaritas; the rest with a white sangria.  The weather all day was on-and-off rain, and it was off for the evening, so the party took place in our garden pavilion, but it was a bit cool, not really the best setting for summery food and cold drinks.  Nonetheless, everyone seemed to enjoy themselves and the dinner fare, or were at least polite enough to say so.  The four most liked dishes were the roasted pepper salad, the asparagus wrapped in ham, the grilled shrimp, and the berry taco.  This dinner took considerable planning and preparation, and it kept us busy for a full day having started the evening before.  TPP has great admiration for people who do this, and do it well, on a restaurant sized scale. So enough cooking for a day or so, and enough left-overs to allow that. 

Rodents break probation - herbivore enforcement returns

For purposes of last week's garden tours, our most obtrusive plant cages were removed and hidden away.  The less obtrusive cages remained in place.  All the activity, the patio construction and the hundreds of visitors annoyed the resident woodchuck enough that they moved to green pastures.  The bun-buns and tree rats just stayed out of sight.  But presently the Phactors are feeling rather gullible because just because the tree rats and bun-buns didn't chew anything up for a few days, you right away fall into a complacency that is remarkably stupid.  Of course at times it matters not.  The dill remained fenced to protect all the seedlings, but they are gone, victims of a very small hungry bun-bun, one small enough to fit through the fence openings.  Next year we are upgrading our defensive perimeter with a critter border fence (did you get that NSA?) that has much smaller openings.  Among the bed of bellflowers the woodchuck neatly cropped, a new species (name somewhere in the records) re-appeared much to our surprise having narrowly survived a not only herbivory but a reduction in the bed size.  So now the exclusion cages are being repositioned.  It still raises a question about why a tropical bonsai bougainvillea was so attractive?  Perhaps a tree-rat keeps a life list of bark chewed off limbs.  Still our list of bun-bun favorites is showing its accuracy.  So the probationary period is over.  The rodents broke probation as we cynically knew they would, so it's back to caged plants as usual.  Things were going so well there for a few days.  Sigh.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Compass Plant

As mentioned yesterday, the prairie is in bloom, and given the reasonably abundant rain, the vegetation is lush and tall.  The compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) is one of the prairie emergents whose inflorescence emerges above the other prairie vegetation at least at this time of year.  The inflorescences are around 6-6.5 feet tall and it is just beginning to flower, and as this image shows it is quite stunning.  Each "flower" is actually an inflorescence typical of the sunflower/aster family.  The image of a flower, and without question the image floral visitors react to is the whole "bloom", is presented by the ray flowers around the periphery each with a strap-like corolla lobe and the central disk flowers each with a smaller 5-lobed corolla.  Each "bloom" is around 3 inches across.  This is a common enough strategy; when you have small flowers, cluster them together for a bigger display. 

Hot, humid summer field work

Humidty on our prairie study site was about 300% (based on how it felt) this morning especially down in the vegetation where we had little seedling plots to photograph.  The emergent vegetation, e.g., compass plant, is already about 6 feet tall and getting ready to flower.  The grasses will wait until later to shoot upward for flowering.  Quite different from the stunted growth of last year's heat and drought.  This area has had rain for the past few days so the plants can transpire a lot, and that makes the humity down in the vegetation as high as it can get.  And as the morning wore on, the heat rose, and you just became soaked in sweat.  Now the only complaint here is that when you're trying to see things, bending over, you keep getting sweat on the lens of your glasses, and that's really annoying.  The other problem is the prairie vegetation has lots of rough edges, and wearing short sleeves for comfort, your arms get quite scratched from pawing through the leaves searching for your well marked plots that nonetheless are hard to find.  It's not just sedges that have edges.  In compensation it's a nice meadow of flowers this time of year, fleabane asters, yarrow, wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium, shown with beetle floral
visitor), cone flowers purple and pale, pinks, black-eyed susans, sunflowers, lead plant.  Tomorrow morning will be a repeat.

The unified theory of gumbo

The Botanical Society of America is meeting in New Orleans Louisiana about a month from now.  The fact that it will be hot and humid hardly matters because botanists are basically cheap-skates and they like the off-season rates.  Besides, convention centers are always AC-ed to near meat-locker temperatures anyways, and you rarely get to see daylight at meetings so condensed are the programs.  Since lots of us are field workers anyways, you do get used to dealing with difficult conditions, but some of the lab people can be kind of wimpy.  TPP hasn't been in NO in a long time, actually since the last time the botanical meetings were there, decades ago, and it's always nice when the area offers food and music as a sort of bonus.  Now here's a freebie for you (don't think this is behind a fire-wall), The unified theory of gumbo (a pdf) (complete with Mrs. Elie's gumbo recipe!).  Don't miss out on this one.  None of this "new-voh" cajun food, oh, no.  This one is authentic!  TPP does anticipate eating well; to those ends reservations have been make at NOLA. The results will be blog fodder for certain.   


In the category of outrageous "news" stories about plants, can TPP play?  Just a couple of days after seeing the blooming of a spiny pineapple touted as a "sheep-eating" plant, another image comes to the fore that shows something even more stunning.  After all, there were no pictures of dead sheep hung up on these spiny pineapples, but this image is quite clear.  This alga can and will consume humans!  This poor kid is just about toast as he is dragged under by a bloom of green algae (probably Cladophora).  What happens next is just too gruesome to relate.  Algal blooms happen almost every summer and you would think people would learn to be more careful.  This can happen at your swiming hole too, so let's watch that nitrogen pollution people.  Don't feed those killer algae, or they will feed on you! 

RE coastal property as an investment

If you actually thought about taking TPP's suggestion about buying coastal property before it becomes coastal property as an investment, you might need to shorten your timetable a bit according to some estimates that say sea levels are rising 60% faster than expected.  Some cities will need to be renamed soon; maybe Miami, Florida will become Atlantis. 

Plan ahead - invest in coastal property

Here's an idea for you long-term investors.  Get a contour map and figure out where coastlines are going to be once the ice caps in the Arctic and Antarctic have melted.  Buy cheapo property now, far inland, and then sell it off for beach front condos and resorts once the water gets there.  What could be simpler?  Heck, even global warming denial dummies like the Trumped-up may decide to invest like this.  He does believe in making money. The map shown portrays the estimated coast line of North America should the ice sheets totally melt.  A long time ago in the Carboniferous a great bay occupied a similar location in what is the Mississippi River drainage.  Coal swamp forests of clubmosses, horsetails, and ferns grew around its margins.  This is really exciting! Lincolnland will have some welcome access to fresh seafood!  If you own land in Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, or Florida, sell now. 

Helping the NSA keep us safe

So the NSA is spying on us to keep us safe and sound from terrorism while trampling on our constitutional rights, even though that is what the terrorists so despise, our freedoms.  Did it ever occur to anyone who knew the secret, which was so secret they could not even tell you it was secret, that they’re aiding and abetting a terrorists’ goal?  Now the primary problem with spooks is that they get so wound up in their spookiness that they quickly lose touch with reality.  To even be in this business requires a level of paranoia well beyond everyone but the loony fringe, and now they’re so far gone, their paranoia and conspiratorial thinking fueled by the NSA’s spookiness, that they’ll never believe Elvis is actually dead and not just feeling a little under the weather.  The general lack of outrage among the USA public sort of shows you how you begin the slide into a totalitarian government by cowing the general public (the “proles”) with surveillance. “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about” is such a stupid platitude, oh, but it came from Senator Lindsey Graham, because it implies that if TPP opposes this intrusion he has something to hide, and most assuredly he has much less to hide than most senators.   And the “our spying is keeping you safe, and it’s already stopped 50, 500, 5000, or so terrible things from happening, and nothing, nothing makes TPP madder than how scaredy-cat people have to be to fall for this, and you almost, almost think they deserve it.  So it serves the spooks to keep the people’s alarm rising, to keep people worried, to keep them in the dark, so the secrecy is quite necessary.   Now here is the problem;  the Spooks never know when to stop, so it won’t be long before someone decides “we got the data, so we may as well use it”, until everyone gets GPS ear tags like the cattle they’ve become.  Will this blog now land me in some NSA file labeled “questionable”?  Probably.  TPP’s blood is already in the CDC (brought home a tropical disease) and both Naval Intelligence and the FBI have a file on me somewhere labeled “long-haired lefty” (it was long back then).  Maybe TPP should just make it easy for the NSA and get a cell phone and a gps unit.   The Pres says “trust us”, but how can you when they have been keeping secrets from us while they whittle away at constitutional rights using secret courts.  So don’t be surprised when some crooks or drug dealers get arrested using this NSA data and they say, “see what we can do!”  But now the secret is out, but like an onion there are layers upon layers of deception, and you wonder what anyone really knows.   Clearly all of this costs more than a little bit of money, and would it not be nice if we knew what we were getting in return in addition to reassurances  from some of the less bright senators.  What if we all just started inserting red button words in every email and every cell phone call?  Would it be like everyone flushing their toilet at the same time?   Would this over whelm their inbox? 

Sheep-eating plant?

Sure. TPP calls BS on a sheep-eating plant.  Puya chiliensis, a member of the pineapple family, is a tough, spiny native of the Andes.  Sheep ain't, so right there the story falters.  How does a plant become adapted to snaring fluffy sheeps with its "razor-sharp" spines so it can receive nutrition from their rotting remains interact so intimately with a recently, in evolutionary terms, introduced species?  Oh, maybe it's really an alpaca predator!  Note also that the spiny part consists of the bracts of the inflorescence, so here's a plant that only flowers every now and then, that uses its reproductive parts to snare sheep (or alpaca?).  Actually when bromeliads flower the apical meristem of that shoot gets used to produce the inflorescence, and after flowering and fruiting, that stem dies, but branches below continue its growth.  It would work better if the plant figured out how to fertilize itself prior to reaching reproductive size/age.  If you haven't looked up some images, this plant is like a yucca with a spiny pineapple atop a flowering stalk.  So this story doesn't work on several levels showing that some people will believe anything.  Maybe once someone found a dead sheep with its fleece entangled in the emerging inflorescence, but sorry, TPP doesn't believe this story for even a second.  And there it is reported (secondarily) with nary a smidgen of disbelief (but it is the HuffPo, so...).  Good grief, what kind of science reporting is that?  It is a cool plant, and if mine flowered after 15 years, TPP wouldn't be sheepish about seeking some publicity, but made up stories wouldn't be part of it.

Garden walkers' reactions

Mrs. Phactor is pretty pleased; the yard and garden look very neat and tidy, just a bit raw in some small areas, some new projects got done in time, and enough flowers are open to provide some color (but several flowering events are going to just miss).  Living as we do in the middle of a city, the initial reaction is one of total surprise as you round the house and see the expanse of garden beyond.  Then they usually ask if we take care of the whole thing ourselves.  Yes, we certainly do.  Then they assume we're retired.  Nope, we both work full-time.  The secret is perennials; they largely take care of themselves.  Some of the other gardens included in this year's tour are quite impressive, meticulously planned and perfectly manicured, lawn like a carpet.  A photographer put it quite another way, "Beautiful, but they had no soul, no personality."  So there you have it, we gots the soul-food version of a garden.  The large trees and spaces generate a park-like quality, a very restful and calming place, if you aren't overly fixated on weeds.  One woman simply stated that she wasn't leaving and asked what time breakfast was, a curious complement. Several plants generated quite the buzz among visitors: our massive bald cypress, a very impressive weeping purple European beech, the fragrance of the sweet bay magnolia (in the early evening), and the foxtail lilies (nearly done).  On the whole Mrs. Phactor was very gratified that her work and money was paying off.  Our hard scape contractor's work generated considerable interest (hope we get a kick back!) since we let him display his sign.  However, having chided my better half on being a bit too concerned about everything being just so, like how she got a contractor to finish a long over-due job by painting her fence the day before the tours, and then one of the first comments she got was how much someone loved her white fence.  OK TPP lost that one, and it does look nice.  Today the tour continues and it's supposed to hit 92 F.  Yesterday evenings thunderstorms provided a nice watering, and today they generate some fantastic humidity.  We'll provide some nice cool water for the thirsty visitors.

Garden spruce up & rain paradox

Our garden/yard spruce up is going well and things are looking pretty nice.  A new patio area and a flagstone pathway were finished up on Monday and look very nice.  Mrs. Phactor's perennial flower garden looks pretty good thanks to lilies, penstemons, and delphiniums along with a few other plants, but since over 225 different plants have already flowered in our gardens this year, flowering diversity by the official beginning of summer is on the downhill slide.  Unfortunately, while it's been good weather for doing garden maintenance, some rain would be nice.  That's the paradox, you need both the good weather and the rain, but you can't have both, and you don't get to choose.  Of course, some of our new plantings don't need so much watering. With a yard full of blue violets, who would have guessed that bun-buns liked a nice foliage leaf violet?  Duh!  They looked wonderful for a whole afternoon.  So a bit of watering will be added to the day's to-do list.  Lastly TPP is feeling pretty good.  About 25 cubic yards of mulch was spread and his back did not move an once of it.  What a relief! That much mulch is not an annual or even biennial event, but an area of garden under development needed mulching so what's a few more yards?  Oh, a thinner wallet, but a healtheir back.

Eyewitness testimony - illusions of movement

These are very interesting illusions.  Most of them work on me especially the one shown here, as long as my eyes keep scanning.  You can stop them by concentrating on one point.  Some of them don't work or don't work as well on me.  Pretty hard to trust your eyes when they fool you like this.  Anyone out there red-green color blind?  Do these illusions work on you?  What ones did you like or dislike?  Could you paint your car with one of these patterns?  He was moving really fast, officer.  Would that be dangerous? Wonder if natural selection has ever produced such a pattern in the biological world?

Ask the professor: What do you do with yourself over the summer?

Yeah!  That just makes my morning!  What do us lazy professors do with our 3 month long summer vacation?  Well, let TPP offer a couple of answers.  First, we don't get paid.  Maybe you think we aren't working, but not to worry because we're not getting paid either.  That's an equation you can perhaps understand.  Certainly TV right now doesn't have much to offer.  Let's see both hockey and basketball are still playing and dominating the TV, and it's June, so how could anyone care?  Of course the locally favorite baseball team had already sunk to the basement of the league so we can't even be amused by their usual summer collapse.  So you know, you just sort of sit around doin' nuthin'.  Summer is when field biologists get to actually visit the field.  That's were this picture came from, and soon it will be time to revisit these plots, re-photograph them and collect some more data.  Hmm, actually haven't collected any data yet; still analyzing the images from the last time collection period.  Finished revising a journal manuscript because the author wanted us to cite a paper of his that is going to appear in the same volume so we had no way to knowing about it yet.  Bloody thanks for that bother.  Finished revising and re-formatting about 150 figures for a book manuscript, then checking all the chapters, figure captions, indexes, contents, keyword lists, and size/magnification spread sheets to make certain all the references to these figures were still all correct.  Even just assembling the entire thing (you'd think this would all be digital wouldn't you?) in hard copy (2) for submission took three days because you notice that not all of those things above were quite correct, so you fix everything on the fly.  A steady stream of recommendation requests, internship notifications, and other student-centered requests need to be done ASAP, and did TPP mention we don't get paid in the summer even though we continue to deliver the services students count on?  In his ample spare time TPP tries to keep entropy at bay with respect to his old house and his gardens.  Did a biological presentation, actually just a question and answer session, to explain to Unitarians how the biological world works (topics covered: biological magnification of heavy metal pollutants, phytoplankton productivity, bees and biodiversity, soy food products, antibiotics in food, coral reefs and global warming, nutrient cycling, and so on); received many thanks, many complements, no honorarium.  But rather than rant at him, told my dentist I was so bored with nothing to do that I was thinking of taking up golf (his game). 

Woody weeds - the bane of shade gardens

The biggest problem with shade gardens are the tree seedlings, woody weeds.  Red bud are the worst  because their roots go so deep so soon.  A six inch seedling can be impossible to pull by hand with roots somewhere down in the Carboniferous.  Sugar maple seeds like only a truly mammoth tree can produce are a somewhat different type of problem; they're easy enough to pull but at a density of a couple of dozen per square foot it's a major chore. Same goes for have a couple of dozen red bud trees; pretty and pretty prolific.  Hackberry and cherry are concentrated under roost trees where their bird dispersers leave the seeds.  When very young hackberry are easy enough, but give them enough of a start and they have a deep root too.  The weed wrench only helps when the seedlings are big enough and you don't want them to grow that long.  Even the kitchen garden is not immune and the maple seedling weeds are so thick you have to look close to find smaller garden plants.  And the squirrels just couldn't get much fatter, and no, more squirrels is not any sort of solution.  Between us we've clear cut a forests of trees, just at a seedling stage.  Whew! 

How does your garden grow?

The Phactors are busy assessing the condition of their garden prior to opening our garden grounds to a few hundred visitors.  The drought of 2012, which continued right through the winter, did a lot of damage to a lot of plants.  On the grand scale, on the sit back and just take in your surroundings scale, our garden looks just fine. It's big, spacious, park-like, lovely.  It's in the fine detail where you notice the severe damage to the lawn, yes, even our diverse lawn ecosystem took a beating from a brutally dry summer and a too wet spring.  If you examine gardens up close, the blank spaces here and there tell the story.  All the watering last year was highly beneficial because watered areas had very little if any damage, and without the TLC things would have been worse.  Local nurseries report there was a lot of damage to Japanese maples and other somewhat finicky plants, particularly new plantings of all types and they are being inundated by replacement demands based on their sales agreement, but they know, and TPP knows, that most of those plant deaths were avoidable with adequate watering.  Just a pointer here; if you water with a nozzle on the end of the hose you almost certainly do not water things well.  So nurseries are doing a brisk business in replacements for plants not under warranty.  One of the problems of liking less common plants is that they are not easy to replace.  If your plum yew dies, no body here abouts is going to sell you a replacement.  Say what?  A plum, yew want a plum?  Thank you anyways.  Another interesting phenomenon that someone may wish to comment on is chlorosis, the yellowing of leaves where the veins tend to remain green, a sign of nitrogen deficiency.  For some reason a broad cross section of plants, some of which never looked chlorotic before, are showing need of some nutrients.  Rhododendrons and their heathy relatives always look that way, but the magnolias, crabapples, silver bells, and others are showing the symptoms.  Somehow this must be related to the 2012 drought for this to be so widespread.  Everybody got a dose of foliar fertilizer but it will take some time for the symptoms to subside.  Some long planned hardscaping is under way: a new flag stone path through the back garden looks very nice and will make planning the rest of the area easier (knowing where people will walk always helps).  However the new patio area by the garage and garden shed is just way too pretty for messing up with lawnmowers and wheelbarrows and the like, but that's its destiny.  Someone asked if we had furniture for the area!  Sure.  Furniture.  Prediction: the newness is going to be worn off pretty fast. 

Friday Fabulous Flower - Ragwort

Ragwort - not a very impressive name, and not at all certain why it's called ragwort; maybe the sort of torn/worn margins of the upper leaves. Senecio has 1000-1500 species ranging from herbs like this to vines, shrubs, and even trees.  The ragwort shown is Senecio plattensis and the reason the Phactors have this species in their gardens is that it grew in a sand prairie-oak savanna that surrounded our Mississippi River cabin.  When we sold the place a piece of the ragwort was among a few plant souvenirs.  This ragwort grows near the outer edge of the shady area under the crown of a huge burr oak, on the south side, so it's a area of dry light shade, a tough place for any plant.  But the ragwort does pretty well there even though our soil is far, far from sandy.  It does spread, but not rapidly, maybe due to the much heavier soil, it's very hardy, and it's a quite cheerful late spring, early summer flowerer.  Lastly, it's a native plant.  What's not to like? 

Congratulations! A winner for the FFF plant ID Quiz!

BloggerMarek Michalski  said...
I've found this !!! I've found this !!!
Alangium platanifolium, isn't it ? Very strange flowers and leaves...

Yes, correct, and TPP knows how Marek feels.  My first guess was something in the Styraceae (see here for Styrax americana): yellow exerted stamens, reflexed white corolla, pendent flowers - dead wrong leaves, but that was my best guess.  If you use Chinese traditional herbal medicines, Alangium is commonly used for something under its Chinese name.  While it has long been placed in its own family, molecular studies now place this genus closer to the dogwoods which is not a relationship that just jumps out at you.  But don't feel bad, this was a real tough one.  Too bad my students didn't get to see TPP floundering.  They can be tough on me.  On our last field trip to a botanical garden, one of them asked about a strange looking tree while we were still several meters away, and TPP suggested it looked like a Cyndonia.  One of them checked the label and crowed, "He's wrong; it's Pseudocyndonia"! 

Ants in your pants

Gardening and field biology have some common ground; both make you get outside and interact with nature.  So TPP was replacing a rather sad juniper with a more shade tolerant shrub, and like most of our gardening, one thing has to be removed to make room for planting.  Now this was not a large or well-off juniper so you don't expect much resistance, but from the very first shovel thrust a great protest erupts.  This particular colony of ants was quite irate about the removal of their shrub or at the very least the overall disturbance generated in the process.  What fun when they rush right up the shovel handle.  Fortunately while this ant swarms aggressively, it doesn't sting very much, and in case you didn't know, one of the worst insect stings in the world belongs to the bullet ant of Central America.  Phase one complete, TPP went to harvest some compost for phase 2 the planting of a new shrub.  Digging into the bottom of one of our composers and filling a bucket with nice rich organic material, TPP began to notice a series of stinging sensations.  It was an extremely irate colony of ants registering their annoyance with my disturbance of their nest in the compost bin.  This was a much smaller species of ant but with a rather nasty little sting, and worse they were everywhere, yes everywhere!  As a tropical biologist TPP has dealt with ants, red ones, black ones, green ones, army ones, all kinds and in all sizes, so even little bitty ones can get your attention when they attack in large numbers. To add to the fun, several hundred were transported to the planting site so that they could continue to harass the gardener.  Fortunately our climate is too cold for any really nasty ants, but these were quite annoying, and you know, there are times when you just don't want that much interaction with nature.  Anyone want to trade an anteater for some bunnies? 

FFF plant ID quiz has readers stumped!

Well, it has been a long time since the plant hotshots who read this blog didn't score the right answer on a plant ID quiz in about 10 nanoseconds, but apparently this one has you stumped.  It's not even remotely related to nightshades or cucurbits, the two maybe guesses so far.  Here's a taxonomic clue - it's closest relatives may be the dogwoods, but it's often classified in its own family.

Death by crazy and willful ignorance

There's crazy, and then there's stupid crazy, and the latter can result in your death.  Now you can be crazy and put a gun to your head, or you can be like this lady and kill yourself ever so slowly.  A crazy lady named Navenna Shine, or Moonbean Butterfly, or Feelgood Featherweight, or something similar has this idea that she can live on just water, light, and air.  Wow!  Nuclear grade stupidity on display right there!  Guess what city she's from?  If you don't get Seattle in three guesses then you don't know much about where goofy new age thinking is concentrated.  Read a basic biology book, lady, concentrate on the differences between autotrophs and heterotrophs, producers and consumers.  Lady, autotrophy requires some metabolic machinery you ain't got, not to mention the pigmentation.  So here's the results of your "experiment" accurately predicted: you'll starve to death; you aren't living on air, water, and light, you're just dying very slowly.  With enough will power and stubbornness you will die, and probably get a listing in the Darwin awards except you look to be beyond your reproductive prime so you may have passed the genes for your particular intellectual gifts on to offspring already.  OK this "news" was in the HuffPo, but the news article fails to deliver this message as if there were some small chance she might just pull it off.  In all probabilty the communications major that wrote the article didn't understand that part of Bio 101. Why is this much crazy stupidity news at all?  Is it mildly amusing that this lady has decided to ignore everything known about biology and thus endangers herself?  Sometime a very long time ago, a cyanobacterium destined to become food for what was probably a amoeboid organism survived, entered into a symbiotic relationship with its consumer converting a heterotroph into an autotroph.  Humans last had a common ancestry with this lineage a couple to 3 billion years ago.  Here's the only truth there is.  Us heterotrophs need premade organic molecules for raw materials and energy, and their only source is from other organisms.  Get real, lady, or get help.  You crazy! 

Planting, re-planting, re-re-planting

Dear garden denizens, please allow me to explain.  For gardeners and farmers, planting is a hopeful, optimistic activity.  The outcome of those small beginnings captures our imagination so the effort seems well justified.  It would seem this effort is anticipated by yourselves as well.  But this has been one of those years, when because of the weather, seeds and plants have not jumped off to a great start, instead little plants have stayed just the right snack size to be you meals.  Now that brings us to May, and the necessity of re-planting.  Re-planting is not optimistic, it's pragmatic.  Re-plant or you get nothing.  Re-plant because a short season is better than no season.  So we do it with a certain fatalistic resignation that there just isn't anything else to do.  This brings us to June and the realization that some things are going to need re-re-planting because our wildlife friendly yard is just too damned friendly.  TPP's attitude about re-re-planting is pretty ugly; it generates a deep deep resentment where you think about declaring war on your friendly wildlife.  One woodchuck has been relocated.  Four possums caught up in the sweep by accident were encouraged to move along anyways.  Four possums at once, a one trap record that some claim should be nullified because it wasn't that you caught 4, but that you caught a mother with 3 pups aboard. Whatever.  It's still a record.  Another woodchuck is being far more difficult, a wary, careful, well-fed beast with the audacity to dig beneath the garden shed!  Please understand this is a woodchuck relocation program, not a death sentence.  So dear bunny, the one that ate that row of impatiens this morning for their breakfast, things may get considerably less friendly.  The next pepper plant to disappear will not be taken with a resigned shrug.  Just remember, re-re-planting generates an ugly mood, and we're only human.  Yours, TPP.

Friday Fabulous Flower - What is it?

 Oh, it's been awhile since TPP has had a plant ID quiz.  Now to be fair, much to the delight of our woody hort person,TPP himself failed this quiz being not only unable to guess the name of this plant, but being unable to put it into a family!  Of course, this was a plant he had never ever seen before, and there's always something new to see.  So it's a small tree or big shrub, and here's the flower and the leaf.  See what you can do with it, and then an answer will be posted if one of you hot-shots doesn't have it by then.  It's not a gaudy flower, but it's rather cute dangling like it does.  How about them anthers?  This might be cute in a shady sort of back border, and it's clearly hardy here in the upper midwest. 

Durian - Love it or leave it?

Experienced travelers in SE Asia would know what this sign means.  No Durian!  It would be displayed right outside your hotel along with similar no smoking, no pets, no solicitations, etc.  The only thing remotely close to this was seen in a classy motel in far upstate New York that had a sign in the bathroom that said: No Fish Cleaning In The Bathtub.  This is the only fruit TPP has known to ever be banned from buildings.  It's true, when ripe this hard, spiny rugby-sized fruit can smell something like an open sewer.  It isn't pleasant.  Yet in Thailand this fruit is a much beloved and favorite food that fetches a considerable price when of high quality.  Westerners usually have a very negative reaction like the weird food guy (Andrew Zimmeren) gagging on durian.  We laughed because it takes a lot to make that guy gag, but his reaction seemed extreme based on our experiences.  What you actually eat is a creamy colored, custardy textured aril that surrounds the seeds inside this very protective fruit.  The first record by a westerner of durian comes from no less than Darwin's younger counterpart, Alfred Russel Wallace, "To eat durian is a new sensation worth a voyage to the East to experience."  Now to be fair, he didn't say he liked it, although he did say it was worth the trip in a day and age when it took months, and it would be a new sensation.  Far from the love it or leave it extremes, there is a broad middle ground where TPP resides.  Both Phactors have had durian on more than one occasion, and our reaction is similar, it's nothing vile, nothing special; we ate enough to be polite.  Thai acquaintences snarfed up the rest.  It's rich, sort of creamy or soft cheesy in texture and taste, but rather bland, no tartness or normal friutiness at all.  We can't figure out the big deal Thai make of it, nor can we understand the negative reaction of so many people.  Durian ice cream is OK, the sweetening helps.  Only once in the continental USA have we found durian (frozen) for sale (Jungle Jim's, Cincinnati, Ohio); who knows how that is, but it was too expensive for a trial.  So for what it's worth, durian has been ticked off our bucket list.  If you've given it a try, tell us what you think.  Report on any other exotic plant foods too.     

Exotic plant food bucket list

The Telegraph has a list of 100 exotic plant foods to try before you die (which hopefully is listed in order of reverse toxicity!).  Of course they got help from an economic botanist at Kew Gardens.  TPP had a look down the list and could tick off 39 personally tried, although some, like rambutan or durian, hardly seem exotic, or else someone has become just a bit jaded, but these and others are as common as dirt in SE Asian.  And of course TPP has items on his list that Kew doesn't list, but mostly they are edible wild plants like Diploglottis (soapberry family), which has a tart golden aril, and the Atherton almond (Athertonia, Protea family), which has an nice edible seed a bit like macadamia to which it is related. The latter is really exotic because it only grows on the Atherton tablelands in far northern Queensland.  Have a look at the Telegraph list and see how you do. 
If TPP were to pick one off the list for you to try, it would be mangosteen. 
It doesn't look like much but inside the tennis ball sized fruit the almost foamy white tissue dissolves into an explosion of tasty tart juice. Part of the fun is when you are presented with a fruit and you don't know how to eat it, so you must explore a bit with your trusty Swiss army knife.  TPP should mention that hotels do not appreciate botanical work in their lobbies.  Scheesh!  Some of the tropical fruits like black sapote make pretty good ice cream if you have enough imagination to try making it. 
TPP mentions toxicity above because of an interaction with one of the fruits on this list: longan.  There are three species: lychee, rambutan, and longan, and the first two are quite good especially when fresh.  Longan is not as common and it was described as having a "hot" quality, which did not jive with the mildly grape-like flesh of the other two species.  In a market in Thailand, TPP tried longan, and it was not spicy at all, although a bit stronger in after taste than its relatives.  Nothing hot at all, puzzling, but not for long.  About 20 minutes later, TPP felt flushed, had a bit of sweat on my brow, and had an increased heart rate!  Oh, yes, hot as in the "this is toxic" sense.  Longan are large grape-sized and TPP advises not eating many until you determine it doesn't affect you negatively. 
  Naturally my list is pretty long because as a tropical botanist who has knocked around quite a bit, my opportunities have been greater than most, but you have to be actively curious, like poking around markets, and be a bit adventure-some food-wise.  And this leads to the next blog about durian.

Chili pepper eating contest - in India!

Chili peppers, which have no relationship to black pepper (Piper nigrum), are of a neotropical origin, but like all domesticated plants as they move around with people they get changed because different genotypes end up in different places and people select for different traits.  Many Indians do not know or believe that chili peppers are a relatively recent addition to their culture and cuisine.  In fact India now has a legitimate claim for having one of the hottest of chili peppers, the ghost chili, and here's a story about it in a chili-eating contest in India.  TPP likes spicy food, but these are chilis are just ridiculous!  As an aside, at the other end of the spectrum, the fried (mild!) chili peppers at Gram and Dun, a gastropub in KC, are just grand!

Interesting flowering data

Data from our garden flowering log shows some interesting patterns.  Here's one.  So far 2013 has been above average wet and below average in temperature, and in general flowering has lagged behind and seemed late, especially last month.  However, the 200th different plant to flower event occurred this year on June 2nd.  Looking back to 2010 and 2011, the same event occurred on June 1st and June 2nd.  Everything sort of averaged out to provide a sort of benchmark of flowering consistency, and this includes various DNFs (did not flower), a few new additions, and some cancellations (deaths).  No surprise deaths and new additions tend to balance our; when something dies you replace it either in kind or with some new magnolia.  Not much of a choice really.  However, you probably noticed that 2012 was not mentioned.  Last year the 200th flowering event occurred on May 10th!  That's three weeks earlier.  Amazing.  This means that just about two-thirds of our flowering events happen by Memorial Day.  That's a shady perennial garden for you.  So that garden tour scheduled for June 16th can expect shade and not much else.  TPP will make them a list of what they've missed.  So why schedule a garden tour for June?  Well, those petunia and impatiens gardeners have to get their little annuals planted.  What kind of garden is that?  You can bet those gardens don't even have a magnolia. 

No rain? Back to field work!

What?  No rain?  Well, soggy or not, there's field work to be done.  A hard thing to figure out is the life history of some plants. Out on the prairie one of our target species is a lousewort, a green parasite, and it's been tough trying to figure out how it grows and when it dies.  So a couple of years back a whole batch (sciency term) of largish (more jargon) plants were marked and measured in various ways with the idea of coming back the next year to see how they had changed.  How many seedlings were around?  How many shoots with how many leaves did it have now?  Did it produce any plantlets via short rhizomes?  Then nature intervened and over the next winter, one with plenty of snow cover, the marked plants, clearly showing a superior delectability had been almost completely eaten by some small mammalian prairie resident.  You understand that all that before data, and the time invested in getting it, was essentially useless without the after data.  But you try again.  This year, a small 10 cm x 10 cm plots with lousewort seedlings were marked.  And the seedlings are being counted and individually identified photographically.  You expect the seedling stage to have a high mortality, but is it higher when the seedling must find a host to survive?  Well, you place your bets and then spend your time and money to find out.  Here's one of the 100 square centimeter plots (3 orange nails, 1 grey nail for orientation at the corners).  The lousewort is easy to identify from the time it's first pair of true leaves appear by the scalloped margins.  So, what you think?  How many seedling do we have here?  How many will survive?  And how long before they get big enough to reproduce? 


When you think of Kansas City, you think of barbeque. On a previous visit TPP tried one of the classic and legendary BBQ places, and it had a lot of grotty old ambience, and OK BBQ, but it was just OK.  Some exploration, and some TV promotion, got us to the WoodYard BBQ.  The down home, out-of-town, almost back-woodsie atmosphere gives you the immediate impression of some place authentic, the real deal, and it was the real deal. The big old smoker spreads the smoky aroma around pretty well, so everyone you meet for hours afterwards will know you've been doing BBQ somewhere.  The baby back ribs were simply succulent, perfect.  The F1 is quite the affectionado of pulled pork, and she was most pleased by her sandwich.  And it's only about 10 min drive from downtown KC.  You meal will be put on your table within minutes of ordering.