Field of Science

Hot and dry

Through mid-August the summer of 2013 has been quite nice; never hot and wet enough.  But the last 2 weeks have been very hot and very dry.  Dry enough that many plants need watering.  Nothing as chronic as last summer, but you still need at least 1/2 inch of rain a week to keep plants from suffering.  So Labor Day weekend will be used to water the most sensitive sections of our gardens.  Fall crops must also be watered, and they are doing well, although cabbage butterfly larvae are after the baby bok choi, so some policing and a row cover are in order.  Mrs. Phactor was quite thrilled with her pear (singular) crop, the first fruit ever gotten from this tree.  It's a nice big pear, and hopefully it will taste really sweet and be a promise of things to come.  Although the tomatoes were an embarrassing flop, peppers, eggplant, cucumbers, and zucchini have been adequate to plentiful.  Next year some major crop rotation may be necessary to avoid the wilt prone area of the garden. Mrs. Phactor is also trying to nurse a crop out of a couple of volunteer squash vines planted by squirrels who get squash seeds as part of their winter food.  Hard to know what kind of squash the squirrels planted, perhaps acorn, seriously.  If so this will be the only winter squash grown this year. 

What a strange game!

Dear Mr. President,
Let's keep this simple.  War is a strange game; the only winning move is not to play.  This lesson should be clear to you by now.  The USA did not win in Iraq; it has not won in Afghanistan.  And now you have even less clear goals in dealing with Syria.  So let's just resist the terrible temptation to play with all those military toys no matter what the toy-makers and the people who have these toys say.  Understand that they like to make things go boom; it's good for their bidness you know.  So take in an old movie, WarGames (1983) comes to mind.  And then we'll see if you can learn.

Wow! That's some avocado!

Coming soon (?) to a market near you, megavocado (better than their name).  That's a seriously big fruit!

Gin and Tonic - a classic story

Most people don't know that some classic drinks have some great stories attached to them.  No drink or story better than that classic of the British Empire gin and tonic.  So many health benefits!  Long live the Queen!

Bill Watterson - philosopher

Is there any philosopher more cogent than Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes?  This is the thing about gardening; it's a high value activity.  When you focus more on the quality of the interaction, the quality of what is done, and when you do that the newest model car will seem quite unimportant.  Do you value what you do in life, or is it just all about the celery, oh, salary?  Sorry, got caught up in the gardening thing there.

What makes a garden botanic? They don't know in Brooklyn.

What makes a garden botanic?  Obviously botany, a science, a process conducted by botanists, botanical scientists.  Without the botany all you got is a pretty garden, nice, but it adds nothing to the future.  This is rather similar to what makes a university a university?  Simple, it's the faculty and students engaging in scholarship, learning how to learn, and without this the institution is not a university. It saddens and outrages TPP mightily when a venerable institution decides it is no longer going to be in the business of science.  The Brooklyn Gardens (formerly Brooklyn Botanic Gardens) have decided to fire their science department, put their herbarium into storage, and cease being botanical.  It's still a pretty place, but now that's all it is.  Why they actually plan on tearing down the science building and putting up condos!  Gardens are only ever in two states: improving or declining, so without question the garden president Scot Medbury is presiding over its decline.  What you don't see in his bio is telling: botany.  He's a pretty place type guy; all show, no substance.  Why this rather reminds TPP of the black comedy A very peculiar practice where an American president, Jack Daniels, convinces Lowland University in the UK that it could operate very well without students.  This is becoming a bit of a worrisome trend because the type of science done at botanical gardens is becoming rare at universities, and former bastions of taxon based research, museums and botanical gardens, are now using fiscal arguments (of a dubious nature according to TPP's inside source at BBG) to get out of the business of science (e.g., the Field Museum, Fairchild Tropical Gardens).  Science in the USA is definitely in trouble; botany the more so.

Nobody has the USA pegged as well as Tom Tomorrow!

This is Tom Tomorow, a cartoonist.  TT on whistle-blowing journalism.  TT on government transparency.  TT on politicians in your bedroom!  TT on Tea-party Republicans in charge.  And TT hasn't been locked up yet, which is a good sign.  The USA is far from perfect, but there are a lot of countries where Tom would be arrested tomorrow, like Wisconsin.

Almost 400-year-old pear tree

How long can a tree live?  Trees are nearly immortal, the result of meristems and indeterminate growth.  Many die not because they are too old, but because as a sessile organism they are subject to accidents.  Trees get bigger as the get older and as a result big old trees sort of out grow themselves.  They become too big and their structural integrity begins to fail; they just break apart usually helped by storms.  Supposedly this pear tree was planted in Plymouth nearly 400 years ago.  Pears are slow growing trees, and they can be pruned to keep their crowns in proportion to the rest of the tree.  So inspite of many near catastrophes, this colonial pear tree has survived.  Still that's quite remarkable.  TPP has a yellow pine barn beam about 6 x 7 inches from a barn constructed in the 1880s, and one corner of the beam has a strip of bark, so we can assume the tree was cut for timber in about 1880.  The growth rings do not go to the center of the tree, but you can easily count growth rings back into the early 1500s when it was already a tree 10-12 inches in diameter.  So this was probably also a 400 year old tree, there abouts.  Actually while trees this old are now news, it's because we've become a tree-destroying, lumber and paper craving culture with no respect for our elders, big, old trees. 

Don't step on the snake

TPP has several useful rules for tropical field work.  Among the most important are don't sit on ant hills and don't step on snakes.  Large snakes have rules too; eat anything you can catch.  A very large boa was found on one field trip across a 5 foot wide grassy path with both ends hidden by dense vegetation.  It was just a 5 foot long cylinder of snake.  Who knew which direction it was "going" since it was not moving at all.  You leave organisms like that alone. TPP once tripped over an 8 foot boa. It pissed off the snake and shot my adrenaline dangerously high, but neither of us was in any real danger.  That is the old primate alarm system that gears you up for fight or flight when scared or startled.  And that system exists because us primates are prey to a few big predators.  Monkeys are very mobile, very observant, and they don't miss much, so big snakes don't catch monkeys very often, but if the monkey makes a "misnake", it will probably be their last.  TPP has seen a big boa consume a sloth of comparable size, but monkeys are considerably faster.

When you can't afford onions

People can put up with quite a bit, and while annoying, if some non-necessity or luxury item is beyond your means, well, you wait or change your mind and generally endure.  But when you cannot afford the staples of life, you get really, really upset.  Many of my readers may not be as familiar with India and Indian food as TPP, but right now India is having some problems because one of their food staples is undergoing rapid inflationary pricing.  Onions.  Other than maybe some desserts, every Indian recipe begin with cooking onions and spices in oil.  Generally you think of onions as one of those pretty reasonable commodities that's always available.  When the price of onions goes up 5-fold from 20 rupees a kilo to 100 rupees a kilo, people get really upset.  Imagine a truck hijacking for 20 tons of onions?  How are you supposed to eat?  Indeed!  Let them eat pizza? Today the rupee hit an all time low against the dollar (approx. 1.5 cents/rupee), so imported onions would be expensive too.  And you know it's not the farmers who are reaping the benefits of the price increase. 

Everything as usual

Let's see.  TPP is too much of a mother hen; TPP doesn't give enough instructions.  One week into a two week lesson, and two out of 24 people have uploaded material.  A mother hen warning was delivered.  People in the empty seats didn't get it.  The best of my students can keep pace with anyone anywhere; the worst of my students still belong in high school.  That's public education for you.  We provide opportunities, but a great many students fail to take advantage of what we provide, and then they wonder why they haven't learned much since high school.  On one hand my undergrad students are showing that they can operate at a graduate level; at the other extreme they are totally lost.  Well, it makes it easy to separate the sheep from the goats. 

How to bring me down

A beautiful, although dry, Saturday is happening outside. What could possibly bum me out so bad?  It's been quite a long time since TPP thought about any of this, but a review of the new book "Kill anything that moves" was depressing.  The Vietnam War was a war fought by my generation; friends died over there, but we all knew that what was happening to the Vietnamese was even worse, much worse.  But you hate to keep thinking about horrible things.  If this book is true, and no reason at present to think it isn't, then this war was ever worse than our worst impressions.  How can TPP not read this book?  TPP narrowly missed getting drafted; he was just a few weeks to young and was not draft age until after he was in college, and then a couple of years later, he won the draft lottery.  Lucky.  Nonetheless Vietnam was burned into your brain, and a lot of people turned to drugs to stop thinking about it.  Still books like this have to be written and read least we forget, and least we ever begin to think it wasn't so bad.  Crap.  It was.

First in freedom - tops in voter suppression

The first in freedom state has been making news for now being tops in voter suppression, and it's not just racial minorities who are the target!  Now funny things happen when you plop a university down in a little town somewhere in the boondocks, a town like Boone NC (Eee,Ha! Remember the HeeHaw bit?).  You know students come there from fer away places, like Charlotte, and bring in them funny foreign ideas, like the right to vote.  And the faculty, well, some of them might even come from up North!  Why that doggone college done messed things up so bad, why this here district almost voted for Obama in the last election.  Now you just caint have that so the local voting board, controlled by the "right" people removed the voting precincts from campus after checking if they could just take the vote away from students period.  Oh, we caint?  Well, then let's just make it good and hard for them to vote; let's make them walk clear across Boone to vote (probably take 20 min), and then wait in line because too many people have now been assigned to the remaining precinct.  Now there's a perfectly nice young woman going to school there, TPP's niece, and now she knows what it's like to be a disenfranchised voter, although she can get from campus to the voting precinct in probably 4 min. on foot; most students would be considerably slower.  But now she knows how a lot of minorities feel too.  Wonder what she and her fellow students at Appalachian State are going to do about it?  People, make them keep those poles open all night if you have too!

On the sunny side of the street - the problem with monocultures

Three years ago three large white ash trees lined the street in front of my house and my neighbors spaced about 60 feet apart (all over 3 foot diameter trunks).  The city just removed the last one; it was clearly moribund.  Thank you emerald ash borer.  Three really big trees make a lot of shade and when you remove all three essentially at once you notice the difference.  The lesson here is simple: monocultures don't work.  They are inherently unstable and unworkable ecologically.  Someone about 70 years ago decided to plant a monoculture of white ash trees down our side of the street.  They were getting old, but you expect as they age, one by one, for them to be replaced, and someone chose white ash trees.  No imagination.  The newest trees are more diverse, red oaks, white oaks, new elms, and some smaller ornamentals.  The problem with monocultures is when one is susceptable to something, they all are, and they all die at once, and at about the same stage of life rather than being staggered.  There are virtually no exceptions, and yet is this not the most common of human cultivational strategies?  Our landscaping in part reflects the sun-shade environment as it was a decade ago with healthy shade trees.  A few of our beds suffered in last summer's heat and drought made worse by they more open exposure.  Fortunately our city arborist is being more proactive diversifying plantings and planning ahead and getting replacements going a few years before trees in decline are removed.  That's the way to do it.

National Rum Day

How could TPP have missed this?  Somehow, somebody, somebody probably named Bacardi, or Jack Sparrow, named August 16th National Rum Day.  What nation?  Puerto Rico?  Jamaica?  Dominica?  In honor of this great holiday, have a nice mojito and read this nice historial piece about rum from Clio's Intemperance, a blog that likes boozy topics.  You might be surprised to learn that rum, actually molasses, played bigger role in the riling up the colonists against British rule than tea.  But if the tea party became the rum party, it would ruin a whole lot of drinking for me, so let's not go there.  Some years ago TPP toured the Bacardi factory and it's pretty interesting, a very integrated industry.  You raise sugar cane for sugar and molasses, ferment the molasses to get rum, but then you also get carbon dioxide.  Who do you think is the Puerto Rican bottler of Coca-Cola?  Did you guess Bacardi?  Funny how well that goes with rum.  Just add sugar, water, and carbon dioxide, which they happen to have plenty of.  Did anyone mention that they have a big tasting pavilion at the end of the tour?  At least TPP thinks he remembers that? 

Stuff you never think about - Gum Arabic

You've probably never ever thought about gum arabic, so it was quite a surprise to TPP, who teaches about plant products like gum arabic, to find such a good article on the subject (The Guardian).  It's a bark exudate of an Acacia tree.  Plant gums do many things; some are elastic and are chewed, but the more important ones are emulsifiers.  They have several functions: they help ingredients blend together and stay blended, the help preserve flavor, and they help things adhere to each other.  You encounter them daily in various uses.  Gum arabic helps the printers ink stick to the pages of your newspaper.  And gum arabic is used in the formulation of sodas, including the big two: Coke & Pepsi.  Here's the problem: where does gum arabic come from?  A lot or even the majority of the world's supply is harvested from wild plants in the Sudan, and on an international level this vital commodity could be financing terrorism, assisting international arms deals, and promoting civil wars.  Yes, companies try to stay away from such things, but they still need their gum arabic.  To avoid any issues of who, what, when, or where, Coca-Cola Inc. buys purified gum acacia from European sources without any regard for where it came.  The classic, "Hey, who knew?" approach to what may be happening a couple of steps down the supply line.  Such is the problem with international commodities today.  It's not a simple buyer-seller enterprise, and it's hard to know who you may be financing with your purchase.  So good to see an article about this. 

How-to lesson on climate denialism - USA Senate version

One of the big worries in science is interpreting the facts correctly, and if you don't you look stupid, so most scientists are really, really careful about making very solid interpretations.  Now the key thing here is that you start with facts.  If someone has a different interpretation, they still had to deal with all the same facts, and if they don't, well, then their explanation usually just doesn't cut it.  But in the through the looking-glass world of science denialism, facts are simply things to be ignored or made up.  Here's a good example: Huckahofe in action where these two characters simply waltz along carefree with a total lack of knowledge and seemingly not even the least bit worried about ever being brought to task for it.  Too often the media is complicit acting as if everything is just an opinion, you have an opinion, they have an opinion, we just report both; you have facts, they have facts, you're both entitled to them. So how nice to see an article with nice links to what is known to show you what these two don't know. And, yeah, you sound stupid.  Thank you, thank you. 

cutting the environmental deficit

The GnOPe "conservatives" of the USA embrace two diametrically opposing ideas: governments must live within their means, and only in this way can deficits be cut and eliminated, and under no means should the USA ever try to live within its environmental means, i.e., sustainably.  Today is Earth Overshoot Day (EOD), the day on which we have consumed as much material as can be sustainably replaced by the Earth in a year.  "Live without limits" is the slogan of Jeep, makers of archetypal, gas guzzling off-road vehicles. However, if you tried to, you wouldn't live very long. By accumulating too much ecological debt, we are losing the climate to which we are adapted [my emphasis]. Historically speaking, the public debt is at relatively low levels, while our ecological debt is larger than ever and growing. That is the issue that should be at the top of the political agenda."  So it's EOD, and we've got September, October, November, and December to go.  This is like running out of salary money on the 20th of each month and then borrowing for the rest of the month.  How can you ever catch up?  Living within our environmental means would seem an important conservative concept, but you see so many industries and companies make their gobs of money by pretending there is not an environmental cost, by deferring the environmental cost, by claiming they have the rights to exploit the Earth's resource for profit at what ever the environmental cost.  The more we overshoot the more we are living beyond our means.  When TPP asked his students to study and discuss the idea of human carrying capacity, the population level that can be sustained without degrading the environment, one woman in explaining her conclusion that we were all "doomed" broke into tears and cried, "I'm never having children!"  It was not intended to be that dramatic of a discussion, but her research and reasoning were sound.  For our GnOPe the environment is simply something to be exploited for the purposes of making money, and that they like, so screw the environment.  We buy things and its disposal, its recycling, its junking, its end-of-life handling is not included in the price.  So start asking your GnOPe representatives and candidates about cutting our environmental deficit.  It should make for some good babbling.

Spooks are spooky

Here's a news item about the "chance" detainment of a partner of a journalist, a clear misuse of an anti-terrorism law whose name is Miranda. Ironic, no?  You see this is the problem with spooks; they're paranoid, secretive, conspiratorial, and they cannot help themselves.  Given access to spy, they will spy. Is anyone so naive as to think the USA's NSA was not involved?  Doesn't  matter really because it shows that any such organization or agency will violate it's own directives when it wants to.  It becomes imperative.  So far all the USA's reassurances and guarantees have been false, so how can you trust them?  Protecting the activities of spooks requires you to lie.  So that's it folks. If you give them permission to spy, they will abuse it sooner or later, and that we are just learning about all of this now because of principled whistle-blowers basically means we're all mushrooms (kept in the dark and fed BS).   

Bad and Ugly

Landscaping is usually either pretty good, or pretty bad and very ugly, and nothing serves up the latter category any better than poodled shrubs.  So the dear people over at Garden Rant really get it right with regard to KnockOut roses.  What you get when you poodle the very over-used, and seldom cared for correctly, KnockOut roses it's not just a crime against nature, but an abomination!  So here is my warning; the images are horrifying!  Somebody should have their hedge pruners & clippers taken away.  Keep them away from junipers and yews.  These roses are not big favorites, in fact they come close to TPP's do not plant list, but he actually has some and they do provide a lot of color. Their care is about the same as raspberries, but this is apparently beyond most people. 

Horrible, terrible, no-good, very bad semester start

Today is a Monday morning in August of 2013.  Your printer announces that it is out of toner as soon as you turn it on, this being as inconvenient a time as can be imagined.  TPP is not looking and feeling his finest because of the lingering effects of a stomach flu.  And it's the first day of a semester which always borders on chaos even under the best of circumstances.  No amount of coffee can make this better, and you want to set a good tone for the whole semester.  Cancelling your first class would not be the way to do that, but a lack-luster introduction may even be worse.  Revision of health prognosis - lingering is too positive; GI tract turmoil is unrelenting.  However when you are up in the middle of the night visiting your toilet with the excellent garden view, you do get to see the raccoons foraging through your garbage.  Even from inside the 2nd floor window, they make the felines nervous.  TPP will not even consider trying to figure out the online software used for our courses because that requires a much more positive attitude than can be mustered at present.  Generally TPP likes new semesters, the new beginnings, the quickly fading eagerness to learn when it turns out to involve work.  Oh, dear, see how this is going?  Abort!  Abort!     

Friday Fabulous Flower - large-flowered yellow foxglove

The large-flowered yellow foxglove (Aureolaria grandiflora) is a hemiparasitic plants; it's green and photosynthetic and it's also a parasite on surrounding plants.  This particular yellow foxglove likes to grow in open oak-hickory glades. A cluster of axes can stand 4 feet tall, and with flowers over 1.5" across, it's quite striking. We observed both bumblebees and hummingbirds visiting the flowers and they both might affect pollination. Yellow foxgloves have generated a lot of taxonomic confusion various ones having been placed in the genus Gerardia or Agalinus.  All of these genera used to be in the snapdragon family, but now are in the Orobanchaceae with the familiar parasitic plants, the Indian pipes.  In our herbarium, specimens of yellow foxglove were mis-identified, placed under the wrong genus, and generally generated a mess that TPP hopes he finally got straightened out. 

Feeling really crappy

The semester begins on Monday, but that's not the reason TPP is ill.  Friday was our last day without any classes or commitments for some time, so the afternoon was used for a field trip to find some hemiparasitic plants (green and parasitic), members of the Orobanchaceae, in this case yellow foxgloves.  The field trip was successful and two species were located and recorded for seed collection later.  But by the time TPP got home he was feeling light headed and fuzzy, unusual feelings.  Tried medicating this with coffee and then with a margarita, but the uncomfortableness just got worse.  Gradually it dawned upon me that this was an illness that probably involved a fever. Yes, TPP was shivery and sweaty, and the medical thermometer recorded a nice solid 102 F.  Yikes!  Later this came down a degree but persisted all night, a most uncomfortable night with many trips to the toilet, each time accompanied with a fluffy black cat who for some reason likes rubbing on your legs while you sit there.  You sort of have to hate purry happiness when you feel so miserable.  Today the fever seems to be dissipating, but the feeling of being tired and drained and uncomfortable persists.  Sure does seem like some sort of flu.  It's a beautiful weekend, and TPP hates to waste it as there are things to do.  Hopefully full recovery will happen before Monday.

Arlington Texas doesn't like organic gardening or gardeners

The Garden of Eden organic gardeners were getting grief from the city of Arlington TX.  They were cited for "grass that was too tall, bushes growing too close to the street, a couch and piano in the yard, chopped wood that was not properly stacked, a piece of siding that was missing from the side of the house, and generally unclean premises."  Well, now you can certainly understand Arlington's urgency in correcting this problem. So now you can understand why the police carried out a raid with a SWAT team complete with drones and aircraft circling the area.   The police seized "17 blackberry bushes, 15 okra plants, 14 tomatillo plants ... native grasses and sunflowers."  Eventually they produced a search warrant that claimed they were seeking cannabis plants and the resulting harvest for distribution.  This makes perfect sense because organic gardeners are all hippies and that means "drugs".  Of course they had no evidence to back up their warrant and found nothing going to pot other than maybe the house siding.  Several things are clear here.  SWAT cops don't know crap about plant identification, so they are the real dope in this story.  Smoke that okra boys, or better yet the tomatillo leaves.  TPP looked for a link to  the 24 8x10 glossy photos  with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each explaining what it was about.  Ultimately, only a single arrest was made based on unrelated outstanding traffic violations.  During the 10 hour raid the residents were handcuffed because they were dangerous criminals and all.  Did they take away their shoe laces so they couldn't hang themselves?  Looks like Arlington TX knows how to violate peoples' rights, or they really really don't like organic gardens and gardeners. 



Los Angeles anti-gardening statutes

What!  Gardeners having to uproot fruit trees and garden plants because they violate a city statute?  This is outrageous!  Where is the problem?  Oh, these gardens are along the parkway, and anything other than grass or mulch seems to violate the delicate sensibilities of LA's city councilmen.  Might somebody slip on a tomato and turn their ankle, and because this is city land, sue LA?  Might somebody twist their ankle on concrete curbs or catch a bicycle wheel in a storm sewer drain cover and get thrown over the handlebars?  Want to bet on the relative frequency of these two types of events?  And even worse are cities that say you can't garden in your own front lawn, no matter how neat or how tidy.  Such ordinances are crimes against civilization, and quite frankly citizens must resist.  Back in the TPP's  college days, my college town had alley ways bisecting the blocks, and the local toytown cops were all for "drug" busts, especially when they found cannabis plants growing in these alleys.  A local activist group began tossing pot seeds at the back of properties owned by city council members and other prominent citizens; soon pot was growing everywhere.  Tossing some pumpkin seeds under mulched trees or along parkways everywhere should keep their attentions divided.  Let's think, how to pick the right neighborhoods?  Using the city directory would be a good place to start.  The NSA is spying on everyone, but this is just outright Big Brother anti-gardening and that's unAmerican (or unCanadian for that matter too)!  HT to Agricultural Biodiversity. 

Fall crops for the kitchen garden

Here's a practical advice posting for all of you not so experienced kitchen gardeners out there.  Gardens are not almost done!  Now is the time to plant some fall crops.  Mostly these are like spring crops, but planted now.  TPP's favorite fall crops are salad greens, especially mesclun, a mixture of lettuces & mustards, spinach, bok choi and other Chinese cabbages.   These will all grow well in cool weather and the shorter days of fall.  They mature rapidly (less than 50 days) so you still have time, but get going on this.  Bok choi and cabbages are really tough and they have remained in my garden sometimes until late November if given just a little protection.  If you have limited space then the champion has to be baby (dwarf) bok choi (image).  You can even grow them and the salad greens in containers (window boxes are a good choice) which are easy to move to more protected locations if necessary.  Since these are all leafy vegetables, giving them a dose of fertilizer early on is a good idea especially if they are being grown in an area vacated by other crops.  For nice heads of leafy lettuce follow this simple rule based on the fundamental understanding that everyone plants small seeds too densely.  Once the seeds have germinated, pinch out enough such that their spacing is at least 1 inch.  By the time the seedlings are 2" tall, thin them to 2" apart.  Eat the thinnings.  You know how much they get for baby greens?  By the time the seedlings are 4" tall, thin them to 4" between plants (keep eating).  Then continue thinning as the plants grow to 8" or so in spread.  The baby bok choi doesn't need quite so much thinning; they do OK at 4-6" between plants.  The biggest problem is that early on you need to gently water them because the surface soil tends to dry quickly this time of year and you want these crops to get going.  The bigger cabbages need more thinning.  Row covers, a fine netting work well at keeping insects at bay, but slugs can be a problem.  Put out slug traps, shallow pans, baited with some disgusting light beer that you would never drink anyways, to control the slug population.  Slugs are no more discriminating than the acquaintance who brought and left the light beer for your enjoyment. 

Where have all the beetles gone, long time passing?

This year was a no-show year for Japanese beetles, a relatively new pest in our area.  Flea beetles usually turn my potato's and eggplants' leaves into lace unless they are regularly dusted.  Bean beetles usually eat every legume in sight, and cucumber beetles usually deliver a bacterial wilt while feeding terminating the cucumber season by now.  June "bugs" just never appeared at all.  Populations of insects do fluctuate and oscillate, but such a coincidence makes you think that last year's drought and heat had a very negative impact on these populations.  For certain some of these beetles pupate underground, and for some reason, last year's extreme drought and heat may have killed them during this life stage.  Also, cicadas do not seem as numerous this year as they often are, and they may have been affected as well.  The chiggers were not affected at all; pardon while TPP stops and scratches his ankles.  What actual cause of these population declines remains uncertain.  Maybe conditions favored or encouraged or allowed more fungal infections (e.g., milky spore).  Hard to say the actual cause, but you tend to think environmental factors when it affects a multiple species particularly ones that either live in the same place or belong to the same group.  Hope it takes a few years for these populations to recover.

USA's science in trouble

When so many of your elected representatives refuse to accept science as a very successful way of knowing how can it be anything of a surprise when science funding slumps?  Here's a story about how bad things are for bio-medical researchers.  Colleagues who have worked on panels that determing the rankings say that as many as 50% of all grant submissions are for science that should be supported, but the percent of grants being funded is one-fifth of that.  And if you think things are tough for these bio-medical guys at NIH, no more than 5% of evolution and ecology grants get funded by NSF.  Fortunately for some of us, our research is cheap so we can keep going by funding our own research, but it's students who get stiffed.  It just costs too much to feed them!  They need to do summer field work, but there's no money to pay them; TPP doesn't need it for himself.  And compared to the cost of bio-medical research, us ecologists are "dirt" cheap.  This is why TPP has sought a patron of botany to help out but all for naught so far probably because my organism isn't cute enough.  So our greatest patriots, people who love the USA more than we do, our GnOPe, want to diminish the one thing where the USA really was number 1, science. 

Botanical garden refugee camps for plants

Please understand that every botanist TPP knows would like to take measures to stop or reduce global warming.  However, botanists are a pragmatic bunch and here is a news article about an endangered plant rescue plan that uses botanical gardens as refugee camps and way stations.  Let's consider the two closest big botanical gardens: the Missouri Botanical Garden and the Chicago Botanical Garden.  It takes about 5 hours to drive between them on a largely north-south vector.  But there is a good one and a half to two climate zones between them.  If things keep going the way they seem to be going in another 40 years the climate at the Chicago Botanic Garden will be like it is now in Missouri.  Of course then Missouri will be even hotter and drier (?) maybe something like the Texas panhandle.  So the idea is to shift endangered species from one refugee camp to another as way stations because there is no way they could migrate on their own, and they are setting up a network for this purpose now.  How grimly pragmatic is that?

A great hybrid concept!

Welcome to the Crown and Anchor a truly a great hybrid concept, a TARDIS hybridized to a tavern.  No matter when you enter it's happy hour inside, and no matter when you decide to leave, the hour is respectable outside.  No more missing the good times, no more getting yelled at for loosing track of time. You could even emerge before you went in thus eliminating the necessity of an excuse or explanation of where you were, or were not, although you do this at the risk of upsetting the space-time continuum with a time travel paradox. Who could have thought of this? 

Orchid pollination facilitated by rain

This is a really nifty study of something completely new, an orchid that gets self-pollinated by rain.  Orchids have a funny arrangement where two waxy masses of pollen are spacially separated from the stigma in such a way that it usually takes a pollinator to move pollinia to the stigma.  During the rainy season, pollinators may be rare, especially if an insect, so having a mechanism for self-fertilization is an important fail-safe.  It wasn't clear in the summary, but TPP guesses that the flower has a period, probably several days, during which it waits patiently to be pollinated, and then as it nears the end of its functional life, it changes so that, as this paper reports, the force of a rain drop hitting the cover over the pollinia releases them, and they spring out and rebound on an elastic strand to land on the stigma.  This is very unique.  There are quite a few plants that disperse propagules (seeds, plantlets, spore packets) using the force from falling rain drops.  But this is the first instance of this for pollination.  In several of these cases the fruit wall or a cuplike structure causes the falling drops to forceably rebound.  It will be interesting to see if the flower has any such structure.  How very cool.  HT to AoB Blog. 

Wilting squash plants

About this time every year, people's squash vines will often wilt, by day at first and then severely, sometimes just collapsing completely and suddenly.  The problem is quite simple: the interior of the vines are being eaten by the larvae of a day-flying moth (Melitta curcurbitae).  As the specific epithet suggests this insect is specific for cucurbits (Cucurbita): squashes & pumpkins (so not cucumbers or melons).  TPP usually applies an insecticide (cabaryl) once a week to just the stems and petiole bases from mid-June into early July, but this year my routine was not followed.  This keeps the insecticide away from flowers, fruit, and pollinators.  When the wilting just begins, sometimes you can split the stems of affected plants with a sharp, thin-bladed knife and kill the larva(e), and the plant may survive, but mostly it's too late.  If you notice small entry holes near the base of the stem a small stiff probe (paper clip, toothpick, etc.) can kill the very young larvae.  Having access to sciencey stuff, TPP once injected the center of the stem with a bit of insecticide above the entry hole, and this worked fine.  The thicker the vine, the more susceptible, so the bush varieties of squashes are much more vulnerable than the viny varieties. Some people just replant summer squashes in mid-June for a later crop.  The plants are just too small when the moths are actively reproducing.  The saddest case was some neighbor kids who had a nice pumpkin vine with some softball-sized fruits growing, but then their vine wilted and you just knew what you were going to find and that nothing could be done for their pumpkin. 

Friday Fabulous Flower - Naked Ladies

In early August "naked ladies" pop up from their napping places and flower.  TPP grew up hearing them called "magic lilies" although they are neither magic nor lilies, although what with all the taxonomic rearrangements who knows where these former amaryllids now reside.  A good friend says that low class people call them "naked ladies" (Lycoris squamigera).  Naked ladies should increase the number of hits on my blog significantly, and TPP certainly does not recommend googling this phrase nor ogling the results.  The reason for such nicknames is because the vegetative and reproductive phases are separated in time.  Masses of leaves appear in the early spring, and then like other spring bulbs, the foliage dies back leaving no evidence of their presence.  Then 2-3 months later up spring leafless flowering stalks topped by an umbel of quite handsome large pink flowers.  Last year their flowering was scant, but this year they look fabulous.  This is without question one of the easiest and most reliable of naturalizing bulbs, and they flower after our hostas at a time when flowering has diminished a bit, so their color is quite welcome.  In fact interplanting them in hosta beds works really well.  Our gardens have 50 to 100 clusters of these bulbs so the display is quite lextensive, and some clumps always surprise us at where they appear (magic?).  Some of these clusters must be decades old and still flower prolifically. 

Massive cleanup underway

TPP always makes a point to clean things up enough for the start of each semester to ascertain that his desk is still there under the piles of paper, and it's a big old wooden desk too.  Things tend to accumulate, and the amount of paper makes a farce out of the concept of a "paperless office".  Yes, you can post a syllabus, handouts, and lab guides for students online, and then 95% of them will print a copy.  TPP has worked hard to teach students how to construct e-portfolios to record their lab work, and that does help cut down on the amount of paper you get turned in.  A great deal of the piled up paper is related to the book, now officially in press, so a bit of cleanup is in order.  Do plants grow better if mulched with paper upon which botanical science has been written?  Does all that knowledge increase the nutritional value?  Some of my students did claim that recycled exams made the best paper mulch because they already were full of crap.  Nice.  So now to reduce the clutter to the point that it makes a subtle statement about professional scholarship.  Once when showing a chair candidate around the department, we entered a lab and had to wait for a minute or so.  He looked at the benches (clean & spotless), the plastic dust covers on all the bench top equipment, items neatly arranged in drawers, and then he leaned over and whispered in my ear, "Nothing going on in here is there?"  So perfectly clean desks and neat offices are a dead giveaway that you either have a personal assistant and cleaning crew or nothing at all is going on.  Ever notice how neat administrative offices are?  Immaculate. 

Heat wave pushes north, way north

According to weather reports from around the world it was bloody hot in many places.  OK, when isn't it hot and muggy in Bangkok?  Usually it's hot and muggy this time of year around here, but of late the weather has been quite reasonable.  Europe is having some hot weather as some of my fellow bloggers mention, and the 90+ F highs are reaching to northern Germany.  But here's a weather report for you; the high temperature yesterday in Croker River was 84 F.  Now that seems reasonable, hot but not terribly hot.  Laredo TX was 108 F, and they would gladly take an 84 degree high.  However this is news because of where Croker River is located, western most Nunavut, Canada, about where the orange circle is located, and as you can see that's above the Arctic Circle.  The normal high temperature for these parts would be a sweltering mid-50 degrees.  This time of year it would rarely get above 65 F.  No wonder all that sea ice and tundra's permafrost are melting.  It's been a long time since it was this warm this far north, probably about 54 million years ago, when at the beginning of the Eocene warm temperate vegetation grew as far north as the Arctic Circle.  That's right magnolias at the Arctic Circle; see the current treeline (yellow) on the map?  And you can bet the climate deniers will have nunuvit.

New fern for lily pond and teaching

While messing around in New Orleans, TPP happened to visit a water garden nursery, a big one, just to see what they had.  Among the nice array of water lilies were some of the biggest water ferns TPP has ever seen, which is not to say he had never seen this fern before, but not this big.  Many people grow "water sprite" (Ceratopteris thalictroides) as a submerged aquatic fern and it has finely disected leaves and is usually of modest size, probably a combination of being submerged and in lower light.  It also grows as a floating plant.  This according to an A#1 correspondent is more likely Ceratopteris pteridoides, a larger and more robust plant. The leaves get much bigger.  Some of the leaves are broad, merely lobed, and thicker, and on older plants bearing plantlets upon these leaves (asexual reproduction).  The petioles enlarge and become robust, inflated, probably filled with aerenchyma, a ground tissue with lots of intercellular spaces, functioning as floats sort of like the floats of water hyacinth.  Some of their ferns spread their fronds more than a foot from the center of the plant forming semi-globular shape over two feet across.  Their recommendation, "better have a big pond".  This fern has some potential for student research as it obvious can grow fast under high light conditions, and it has both sexual and asexual reproduction, as well as bimorphic leaves.  They basically gave me a small plant.  It's in our lily pond now, and were this a warmer climate, and if this fern were not already loosed upon our ecosystems in places like Louisiana, TPP would worry.  (Sorry, even the Flora of North America is unclear about whether is a native or naturalized species.) No biologist wants to be responsible for releasing a fast-growing invasive species, but this tropical fern won't survive up here even if it were to get free of our pond.  It'll have to be overwintered in our university glass house.  Our cooler climate will slow down its growth, so it will be interesting to see how big it gets in what's left of our summer.   

Home again, home again, jiggity jig

The trip home yesterday was basically a straight, as straight as the Mississippi River allows, shot north up I-55 of about 800 miles.  The weather was good, the traffic was light, so it was just a 13 hour trip to Lincolnland's maize and soybean desert.  New GPS map toy was great fun, and that was good because the car radio went dead just north of Memphis.  Maybe it channeled one to many horrid on-air preachers (it was a Sunday AM) and died of depression whilst scanning for news or decent music.  The kitty-girls were pleased to see us; in our absence they were over fed and starved for attention.  Be interesting to watch their reaction when this situation gets reversed.  Several reasons exist to explain why TPP is glad to be home again.  First, TPP is totally fed up with fresh seafood.  OK, probably not, but this far from the ocean it's best to tell yourself that.  Second, the weather in New Orleans, although quite typical for late July and early August, was beastly, oppressive 90+/90+ heat and humidity.  To protect your health you had to duck into some AC'ed bar every hour or so to "rehydrate" and snack on some oysters.  Third, somewhere lurking here in August is a new semester, and it would be a good idea to figure out when that is and prepare.  Nah.  Fourth, TPP gets positively claustrophobic living in a hotel's artificial atmosphere.  Open windows, real air, familiar sounds of the night, your gardens are comforting, and without these his spirit withers.  How TPP pities shut-ins, prison inmates, and high-rise condo dwellers even though only one of these sensory deprivation experiments is self-imposed.  Too many people spend too little time out of doors.  Fortunately the weather was good during our time away, and the F1 did a great job of watching after house and garden.  For that she gets some Abita Springs beer.      

New Orleans restaurant limited time review

New Orleans is one of those cities for eating out; lots of very good restaurants and lots of seafood.   So TPP has done his best, mostly with the help of Mrs. Phactor and the recommendations of others, to sample several restaurants that are well above average.  Our choices included two well established classics and two up and coming restaurants: Mulates, NOLA, SoBou, and Kingfish. Take these comments for what they are worth; but TPP would not steer you wrong.
Mulates is old New Orleans, Cajun home cooking and live Cajun music.  Definitely family friendly and a reasonable value; you will not leave hungry; the portions are big, too big really.  But it is a classic.  You can't get a better value on food and music especially if you have kids.  Who's in the kitchen?  Someone's Cajun mother.  Here's the near perfect red beans and rice with Andouille sausage.  NOLA - This is Emeril Lagasse's casual restaurant, and it too is now a classic.  This is a good as Cajun food can get.  A few more progressive elements do sneak onto the menu like blueberry-lavender sorbet (quite memorable).  Without question this is fine dining based on Cajun classics.  TPP had a garlic-parmesan cheese crusted filet of drum.  Wonderful, although two decades ago no one would have thought of eating drum, but so it goes in a world of overfishing.  Mrs. Phactor had smoked duck, a very rich dish.  SoBou (south of Bourbon) is a relatively young restaurant that in terms of ambiance seems a bit out of place in the French Quarter.  It's décor would be more at home in New York.  The menu is sort of a New Orleans fusion.  The BBQ pork ribs came with a habanero infused cotton candy that was pretty funky, but very good.  TPP had an heirloom tomato salad with beans and corn that was excellent.  Also his Old Fashioned cocktail was the best he's ever been served, although Stephanie Izzard's (Girl and a Goat) was a close second.  Last, but not least, Kingfish is only 4 months in business, but you would never know; it was running on all cylinders. TPP would call this modern New Orleans from the nicely renovated but period décor, the Huey Long memorabilia, and an up-dated menu.  Rather than sports, the TV over the bar was playing old Doris Day movies.  Go figure, but a nice change of pace.  TPP got the best mint julep ever.  All four of us rated our meals superior, flavorful, attractive, nicely presented, and just plain excellent.  It was impossible to pick the best dish.  A warm loaf of fresh bread came to the table in its paper wrapper along with a zesty pimento cheese spread.  This was a thoroughly enjoyable dining experience.  The heat and humidity this week have been a might oppressive, but NO remains irrepressible.  Love this place.  TPP should mention that the waiters and waitresses here are the most personable, friendly, and professional you will ever experience, and it seems quite genuine, not just smoozing for tips.  Let TPP know if you've been in any of these places.

An outing in Louisiana - Fontainebleu and Abita Springs

TPP can only stand being in a big city for so long, like maybe five days.  Today's outing required us to cross the 25 mile causeway across Lake Pontchartrain. Quite near the north end of the causeway is a state park that occupies the grounds of the old Fontainebleau plantation; the double row of live oaks that must have lined the road in are still present, but strangely they aren't labeled as such.  The idea was to do a bit of birding/botanizing on a not very long hike, and we liked the sound of their marsh board walk.  However it appears that it wasn't just damaged by Katrina, the boardwalk was wiped out.  A piece of boardwalk was spotted in debris under some live oaks at least 400 yards from the marsh.  Although a hot, humid, near oppressive day, our nature walk was fine.  Glad to have had a dew rag.  The drive over and the walk consumed the AM so drove a bit further to Abita Springs and had lunch at the Abita Springs Brew-pub and visited the Abita Brewery.  If you haven't yet discovered their beers, well, you be missing some very good beer.  TPP is especially fond of their Turbodog Abita Beer (once voted the best dark beer in the USA) and their Amber Ale (image shows four glasses of Amber).  You can tell this is Louisiana by the condiments to the right: hot sauce, ketchup, and mayo.  If you visit their web page you can download an app for your iphone or ipad that will tell you how to get to the nearest place that sells their beer.  Hope it isn't more than a state or country or two away.  However, judging by the brewery expansion underway, a lot more Abita beer will be coming our way.  No bad news there.

Insectarium visit

On the way to the French Quarter for some oyster po-boys, there was a window full of tropical butterflies fluttering around.  This is not something you usually see in the windows of big federal looking buildings so it caught our attention.  A few yards beyond was the entrance to the Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium located weirdly within the US Customs House.  OK, this made sense of the butterflies inside a federal looking building, except why that's where it was placed anyways?  Well, as the only adults unaccompanied by kids we sort of looked out of place, and a lot of the exhibits required you to bend down real low, but this was really a quite nice exhibit, so sayeth the biologists and aficionados of natural history.  Of course you saw the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Some exhibits did a great job of grabbing kids attention and directing their activity.  Some parents did a good job at helping their kids focus on things.  Some of the exhibits just didn't work.  It would take a while, watching them to figure out why, and then some ideas about how to fix them.  One thing is clear, kids don't read signs.  They don't notice them or if they do, they don't even try.  They simply ignore them and seek to investigate on their own.  This means that taxonomically organized displays just fall flat.  Even if the organism is a cool as all get out, the lesson is lost.  The Seattle Aquarium (not sure if the name is right) took a different and simpler approach.  How do fish hide?  How do fish swim?  and then each question was followed by a series of examples and a nice illustrative diagram.  To heck with the names although they were there.  The ugly was seeing adults giving eeky, icky, yucky, repulsive, physical displays of negativity, great role models for the kids. You know how hard this is for us teachers to knock this type of behavior out of students because they grew up with parents who provide poor role models?  One of the best exhibits was a butterfly room, and it was quite lovely, quite nicely done, which we'd seen from the outside.  Here's a bird wing on a feeding station.  TPP was familiar with many of the neotropical butterflies, or their close relatives.  Of course lots of kids were totally ignoring the "don't touch" rule, so not only don't they read, they don't listen.  People you got your work cut out for you to teach your kids how to be patient, curious observers and listeners. 

Conference aftermath

Scientific conferences are almost frantic activity packed into 4 days, a fevered orgy of interaction, a once a year event celebrating the social, personal aspects of our particular science.  At the end you feel a bit of relief and fatigue, however, TPP, a cagey veteran, has learned how to pace himself and not worry overly about what you missed or could not attend.  Last night was the big banquet (reasonably good, but fire the cook that made the gumbo, or fire whoever told them to wimp out), the awards, a presidential address (pretty good, but overly long - hey, there was a social  going on), and a farewell to friends and colleagues for another year.  Along the way you learn a good many things, you make some new contacts and friends, you get some new ideas (these are all creative people), you admire those who distinguish  themselves with hard work, cleverness, and sometimes luck that opens new doors.  Forty percent of the attendees were students, impressive young people, and you are glad when you can help some of them out and even surprised by the rare one who knows who you are.  But TPP isn't saying farewell to New Orleans just yet; he doesn't get here often and some friends have arrived and we'll take a few days just to mess around because conferences don't leave much time for leisure.  Maybe a drive down into Cajun country would be nice.