Field of Science


Bamboo bicycle for two

The North American Handmade Bicycle show would be fun to visit.  The 2013 show just happened.  As regular readers know, TPP has a thing for funky bikes and for funky stuff made from plant material, so it's no surprise he thinks it's doubly cool to have a funky bike mad from plant materials.  Here's a look at the Calfee Design tandem "bamboo for two" bicycle (you can see more of the Calfee bikes at the link above).  Man, you gonna turn some heads with this set of wheels.  You might get chased down the road by some giant pandas.  Start saving up your wooden nickels.   

Tree Tunnels

Tree tunnels can be pretty spectacular.  Lots of cities used to have American elm tree tunnels lining residential streets.  And in the tropics, rain forest vegetation often makes tunnels out of trails by closing in over your head, and this can be pretty exciting at night when bats use these tunnels as flyways.  Of course, ornamental tunnels are amazing sites too.  One of TPPs favorites is a tunnel of golden chain trees (Laburnum) as shown here.  A colleague started all of this with sending me the link to this pictorial of the 10 prettiest tree tunnels.  TPP has personally seen only one of the 10; guess which one.  Which one is your favorite?  Even our estate is too small for a tunnel, but TPP is thinking of a golden chain tree gate. 

Beware the glow

Plants attract animals for various purposes, mostly dispersal of pollen and seeds, but no uses more nefarious than to supplement their nutrients.  So called carnivorous plants don't eat animals for food, but they grow in nutrient poor habitats and capture prey to provide mineral nutrients.  Floral biologists have know for years that flowers absorb and reflect ultraviolet light providing very distinctive patterns for insects whose vision extends into the UV wavelengths.  But this is quite a surprise; pitcher plants also reflect UV light, or glow in UV light, to attract insects to their deaths.  The image here, borrowed from the authors of this study reported at the National Geographic web site, shows a tropical pitcher plant (Nepenthes), in both white and UV light, and the lip of the pit fall trap glows brightly when illuminated with UV light.  How many times has TPP looked at these things and never had it occur to him that they might use UV to enhance their effectiveness?  Dang, but this happens all the time in science, in biology.  So kudos to the authors for seeing more than the rest of us. 

What? No strobili! That's OK, it goes with no observations

Plants can be so uncooperative.  The Equisetum (3 species) in our glasshouse was most untimely and no strobili were available (other than pickled) for lab.  Probably that was OK because my way too many of my students were in an uncooperative, non-observational mood.  They broke all the "make observations" rules.  Clicking pictures of things they didn't study is the worst, especially when the fossils are too small to see anything.  You might as well turn in an image of green water in a test tube and label it "Chlamydomonas"; it's been done, and it pretty well demonstrates that the student in question didn't observe a damned thing.  This is the down side of digital.  It promotes a superficial, fast and easy approach, a non-learning approach.  The don't pay attention attitude was so bad that at the end of class TPP had to re-sort all of the microscope slides because students didn't pay enough attention, read the labels, and match them with the correct slide trays.  Pure sloppiness.  Now of course this was not universal; the gap just widens between the attentive and the inattentive.  It makes it easy to sort the sheep from the goats, which is part of my job, but you wish you had enough time to promote better study habits.   

Wintery mix

What could be more delightful?  Nothing improves upon the dreadful mid continental weather more than wintery mix, that combination of precipitation that occurs when the temperature is hovering right at freezing and things could go one way or the other.  In the search for alternative terms, ones that can be printed here on a family blog, TPP did not find any obvious winners.  Slushify.  Slushify does sort of have a nice sounding feel to it, a bit of cold onomatopoeia (did that get enough vowels in it?).  A colleague, obviously one with a young child, suggested ooblek, as if TPP wouldn't know the stuff outside was the wrong color and has a different melting point.  Crud was suggested at the coffee shoppe, but that more describes the person's mood and feelings about our late winter weather.  With spring break looming a student suggested that wintery mix sounded better if you thought of it as a frozen alcoholic concoction to be consumed at some beach bar.  Actually TPP rather likes this suggestion.  A round of Wintery Mix for the crowd!  You can hear the blender whirring right now!  Hmm, now all we need is an appropriate cocktail recipe.  Is it time for a cocktail contest?  Yes, we're taking suggestions for a new cocktail called Wintery Mix!  And no, your suggestions for a drink named Ooblek must be saved for another time when everyone is really, really desperately thirsty.  The winning cocktail recipe will be celebrated on these pages thus receiving world-wide acclaim.

Kibble and bits

The Phactors like to cook, especially when we can't garden, for our general amusement and to get food you just can't buy out on the town.  Like all foodies, recipes accumulate, and sometimes sit around a couple of years before you give them a try, and this was no exception.  This recipe came in the Bon Appetit cooking magazine in 2009.  Last night was the first time we gave this a try, a stir fry of pork loin, baby bok choi, and whole clementines cut into 8ths, skin and all.  The picture shows the clementines cut into wedges, but we cut the whole fruit in half cross ways and then quartered the halves.  The dish is flavored with minced ginger, soy sauce, sesame oil, and Thai-style sweet chili sauce.  It was fast and easy and amazingly good, a real taste sensation. Fantastic!  Try this; you'll like it.  Let us know what you think. 

Fabulous Flower - winter edition

It's been a tough go for Friday Fabulous Flowers, sort of a seasonal drought of flowering, and with limited diversity to begin with, you've seen most of them.  TPP does have a few bonsai trees of the sort that thrive upon neglect, but over the years they've become old friends.  The oldest was a house plant of some considerable size, Pittosporum tobira, a cheapy plant picked up down in Florida somewhere where they use them as foundation plantings and hedges.  The genus is pretty ancient with a distribution over the former super continent Gondwana.  Ours was kept by a south window in our hallway for years, but things changed and it became necessary to reduce this shrub's size, so TPP came up with the idea of turning it into a bonsai specimen with some pretty drastic pruning.  That must have been at least 20 years ago.  Now it stands about 18 inches tall with a rounded crown about 27 inches across, and a gnarled trunk about 2 inches in diameter, which bears the scars of several mishaps: a cat who missed judged his jump and broke a limb, a fall from a display bench that broke a limb, a huge chunk bitten out of the trunk by a stupid, stupid squirrel, and getting in the way of a fallen limb from a much bigger tree while summering outside, which broke off still another limb, but they give it character.  Train and prune all you want, mishaps happen.  Most years it flowers in February, and while pretty enough up close, the floral display of white flowers is nothing to bragg about, but they smell great, something sort of mid-way between orange blossoms and camellias, so during the winter the house gets a nice dose of floral fragrance. Too bad the "scratch and sniff" computer screen has not yet been perfected. 

Pitcher Plant Predator Micro Terrarium

Who wouldn't want one of these?  Hey, kids let's grow a pitcher plant predator!  TPP discovered an entire display of "micro -terraria", basically a plastic egg with a jiffy 5 (? smaller than a jiffy 7) inside and a tiny packet of seeds (2 and a third doubtful one).  Well, for under $3 why not try this out for fun?  Now the materials here are all of 30 cents worth, so clearly a lot of the cost is in the marketing, a handsome, dramatic display in one of those dreadful hobby shops (TPP had a print to frame.) where kids must be regularly placated to deal with the boredom.  The instructions say that this is indeed a Sarracenia, a pitcher plant, probably a hybrid.  After hydrating the jiffy 5, planting the seeds, and assembling the micro-terrarium, all of 10 mins of intense fun, the whole thing was placed in a fridge for a 6 week period of vernalization, a cold treatment to promote germination.  Yeah, the kids will certainly get a thrill out of this item; imagine their excitement as they check out their micro-terrarium week after week and see that nothing whatever is happening.  Heck, TPP has lost interest and it's only been 4 weeks, and you think what the heck is that red egg thingy?  Even forgot taking the picture of the packaging.   Wonder how long a pitcher plant seedling will take to out grow its micro-terrarium?  Sure hope my plant has a nice big red tongue like that so it can be watched eating bugs alive!  Okay, kids, TPP hates to burst your balloon, but this trap doesn't move, but watching a fly drown is mighty exciting stuff, just like the rest of the botany.  You do have to wonder how much interest this type of hype promotes?  Ah, professional curiosity is a weakness.

Swamp gas? UFOs?

Readers ask the strangest questions.  Here's the question from MarkO:

Thanks for taking up the challenge, TPP! It's a complicated story, but I'll try to be succinct.
It involves a famous wave of UFO sightings in southern Michigan in March, 1966. Over the two nights in question, the 20th & 21st, in two different locations, dozens of sober, reliable witnesses saw what seemed to be car-sized objects swoop down from the sky and settle over swampy areas. No one got within 500 yards of the objects on either night, so descriptions of its size, shape and appearance are varied. But all witnesses described white, blue, red, yellow, green and silver lights that moved up and down and side-to-side, changed in intensity and vanished whenever any other light source was pointed at them.
The US Air Force expert who was called in to investigate the sightings, Northwestern University astronomy professor J. Allen Hynek, was rushed into making a premature assessment of the sightings and declared that the witnesses may have seen swamp gas. It made some sense to Hynek that decaying organic matter in the swamps, released by the spring thaw, could create pockets of luminescent floating gas...
This set off a national furor, and Hynek's verdict was resoundingly mocked and condemned.
No one has ever been able to prove that the lights were or were not swamp gas, but there is one significant clue that, to my knowledge, has never been considered.
The first night, the 20th, was clear and in the 40s. The second night, the 21st, was also in the 40s, but there were terrible thunderstorms across the region, and the mystery lights were spotted shortly after the rain stopped.
My question is this: would the heavy rain on the 21st have inhibited the release and combustion of swamp gas, or would there have been no difference between the dry conditions of the 20th and the rainy conditions of the 21st.
Seems to me that the rain factor would have made some difference, but I don't know!
Can you help?

Quite simply MarkO, TPP can't.  Who the hell knows what happened out there?  Here's what you can be pretty certain about, people saw something, or thought they did, and it wasn't from outer space.  Swamp gas, methane, occurs when organic matter decomposes under anaerobic condtions, which are common at the bottoms of ponds and lakes during the winter.  The only thing that may have mattered in this situation, is that distant lightening may have illuminated some low-lying swamp gas.  Otherwise it's hard to think of any way the weather was a factor.  Personally, it's always bothered me that people like Hynek never witnessed such things first ahnd, you know, a credible witness.  Why was Hynek mocked? He offered a credible explanation, a skeptics explanation because lacking any evidence of anything else, you go with something that's at least possible, but these are not usually the answers people want.  Maybe some readers have their own ideas. 

Tapas for dinner

A tapas dinner party is planned for a week from now.  Tapas are small plate dishes in the Spanish tradition.  The trick is to have a array of dishes with some diversity, some hot, some cold, some with or on bread, some with seafood or ham or sausage, some with pickles and/or olives.  But yet you don't want just willy-nilly either. For reasons not quite clear to the Phactors we probably have more tapas cookbooks than any other category except for maybe Italian.  Tapas dinners are a good excuse, as if one was needed, for drinking a cold Spanish rose wine.  The Phactor had a stash of Spanish chorizo, not at all like the Mexican version, but he used it to make a lentil, chorizo, and kale soup, which proved mildly sensational. Now talk about thoughtful, Mrs. Phactor has replenished my supply of chorizo from her favorite online source of Latin food, Amigo Foods, including Lizano Sauce (Costa Rica) and the passionfruit concentrate (Brazil) she spikes her orange juice with, a behavior left over from our times in the tropics. This does not violate TPP's non-endorsement policy, which would turn this into just one more sell-out blog because it is in our own best interest to keep this place in business, but our volume alone isn't going to do it.  Why not have some reader participation?  What would you suggest we include in our menu? 

About to have some winter

So far the winter of 2012-2013 has been pretty much a no show except for some cold temps, but nothing terribly cold.  it has been quite windy, so it's seemed colder.  Basically it's been a brown winter with only 3 inches of snow; no need to even shovel except wanting to keep the sidewalks clear of ice.  Now a big storm seems to be bearing right down on us promising more snow than we've had all winter so far.  From the perspective of precipitation, the area needs the moisture in whatever form it comes.  Even though the temperature has not dropped below 0 F (-18 C), our plants have been subjected to the worst of it having been deprived of an insulating cover of snow.  Guess we'll see what's hardy and what's not hardy at those temperatures.  None of this even begins to compare to the massive, unbelievably massive, snowfalls of my youth in the snow belt, lake effect snow belt, of upstate NY.  Yes, TPP's personal record was a 104" (264 cm) snow fall in 48 hours.  Hard to imagine isn't it?  So this storm is nothing really, but it comes during a particularly dry winter.  If we get a lot of snow, we'll have to see how the Norwegian forest cat, an indoor marshmallow pet, handles it just for fun.  Let's check the radar.  Storm front is about 80 miles SW on a direct bearing for us, so in about 3 hours we'll see how it goes.  No worries about driving when you're on foot; just worries abour drivers unused to winter conditions. 

GPS for bicycles

A very nifty GPS device for use on bicycles is on the market.  Wow!  You'll know exactly where you are on the surface of the Earth while on your bicycle.  How often has TPP wondered what state he was in while riding?  OK, you more or less know where you are on a bicycle, but you can still be looking for some particular address or location, or you can get lost on rural roads, and like other GPS devices this one signels which way to turn without having to look down at the device, something that can get you bonked faster on a bicycle than it can while driving a car.  And then there's a mini-BBQ grill for a bicycle too. That's how to trip out your ride.  And today a fellow was riding by with a container on the back in which road his dog. Now to get the dog to do some pedalling. 

In lab today - clubmosses

Clubmosses are a favorite group of plants, the oldest lineage of living vascular plants, relicts of the Devonian and Carboniferous, a glimpse into the primeval world.  What a great group of organisms.  They retain all sorts of features that used to be commonplace, but presently are unusual.  They exhibit dichotomous branching, an equal branching into two axes, both the stems and roots.  They have microphyllous leaves, leaves with a different origin than all the rest of vascular plants, although that origin is a bit uncertain.  The morning was spent rounding up all the specimens, fossils, slides, perserved specimens, herbarium specimens, and live specimens.  Integrating all of this is an educational challenge for the students, but e-portfolios in lieu of lab reports seems to help.  The specimen show is a bit of an aerial shoot of Selaginella pallescens.  It's an upright species that has its sporangia aggregated at the ends of shoots and somewhat differentiated sporophylls producing strobili, cones, with both megaspores and microspores in separate sporangia, and with some care they can be cultured into mature gametophytes, which after fertilization will produce new sporophytes. 

Blog clout!

Oh, yeah!  That's right!  You don't want TPP coming down on you!  So from the perspective of this keyboard, no big surprise really that the makers of Maker's Mark decided maybe it wasn't such a good idea to water down their bourbon.  See, there's something that people, well, people who drink bourbon, do agree upon.  Since MM has decided not to dilute the good stuff, TPP is calling off his personal boycott.  This shows you the tremendous clout that bloggers have upon the state of affairs.  You feel like the verbal Hulk, although probably a little bit more articulate, although just as green.

Got your meteorite insurance?

The recent meteorite event in Siberia, has a number of people wondering just how great is the risk of riding on a planet racing through rock littered space?  Other than TPP’s gut reaction that if this is the sort of worry that keeps you awake at night, you need some help, botanists really don't know about such things.  However, this was an interesting question and people with more data have thought about it as well.  Meteor Crater in Arizona is quite a blemish on the surface of the Earth, and according to the people who have studied it, an area of 1000 square kilometers was devastated by this meteorite strike.  Based upon the number of such craters on Earth, a meteorite strike this big happens about every 1500 years.  The Earth is pretty  big in comparison with a surface area of about 510,000,000 square kilometers, so your chance of being in the wrong 1000 square kilometers, is 1 in 510,000, but this is only going to happen once every 1500 years, so that’s one in 765,000,000 chances of getting slammed by a meteorite in a year's time.  (And in the process TPP figured out the “calculate” command buried deeply in MSWord.)  To put this another way, about 1 person will get killed by a meteorite somewhere on Earth about every 50 years.  Some people worry about the “big one”, a meteorite big enough to pretty much wipe out most of life on Earth, the sort hypothesized to have caused the big extinction event at the end of the Cretaceous.  Now we have the technology to be able to observe such a threat and predict where and when the impact will occur.  For one of these events, best get an extra large margarita, sit back and just watch the show.  The dinosaurs never knew what hit them, but that’s how we differ from them.  HT to bandolier.

Saturday morning quest

It comes as no surprise that two busy, working professionals end up running errands on Saturday mornings.  When else do you do it?  This particular Saturday finds Mrs. Phactor at a workshop, which always sound like dismal affairs to be avoided whenever possible.  TPP's experience with workshops has ranged from a general waste of time on the good end of the scale to send the facilitator home in a box.  So better she than me, which leaves the me with the list.  Let's see, 1. return universal replacement plumbing part because it did not fit.  Hmm, something here about universal seems to be a problem, and we're not even talking about a sink somewhere else in the galaxy, just one here on Earth.  2.  Buy star anise.  3.  Buy large bottle of good soysauce.  It's a safe bet these last two items are related and have something to do with the ducks thawing in the fridge.  A check on the calendar, and yes, our dinner club meets tonight, and a duck dish is on the menu.  Wonder what we're to make?  Check the supply of ginger rhizome while questing for Asian condiments.  This particular Asian supermarket also is the local emporium for Indian food as well, and you can buy dosa batter and sambar frozen!  Has TPP ever mentioned dosa?  Dosa are lightly fermented white lentil and rice crepes that are wonderful especially when stuffed with spicy potatoes (masala dosa) and dunked in a flavorful tart, lentil-tomato curry called sambhar.  This is southern Indian food, and just the best stuff for diversifying your vegetarian and/or international diet.  Time for a shopping run to southern Asia.

Official first day of spring

It's only Feb. 13th, but spring has officially arrived for the Phactors' gardens.  The calendar means nothing in this reckoning; the first flower has opened.  And the winner is ....wait for it....witchhazel!  The snowdrops only got beat out by a day by the looks of things, while the 3d contender, winter aconite, is lagging behind.  This moves up the date of earliest flowering by quite a few days, 10-12, but haven't checked the data files yet.  This particular shrub is not going to have a large floral display.  It suffered quite a bit of stress last summer and this may have limited the number of flower buds.  So to celebrate TPP walked to campus. 

Unmaking Maker's

The whole thing about whiskey is the proof. The whole idea of proof is a test of the strength, the alcohol content of the distilled beverage.  The way they used to test whiskey, seeing if a 1:1 mixture of whiskey and gunpowder burned evenly (if too watery it wouldn't burn, and you can figure out what would happen with more ethanol!), which turned out to be about 50% ethanol and was termed 100% proved, or 100 proof, later set to be exactly 50% ethanol, setting the scale for proof from 0-200 for 0-100% ethanol.  Watering down whiskey is a time honored way to cheat the customer.  Now Maker's Mark has a pretty good reputation, a modestly good bourbon at a reasonable price, so it's gotten rather popular although by no means the best even in this price range based upon TPP's extensive testing.  It would seem that any and every manufacturer of anything wants to be so popular that the demand exceeds the supply because if TPP remembers his economics lesson, probably learned from Father Guido Sarducci, when demand exceeds supply you get to charge more and make more money!  So where the heck did MM makers learn their bidness economics?  Instead of riding the demand to higher profits these morons are watering down the product there by assuring that the demand will go down!  Yes indeed, MM bourbon is going from 90 proof (45%) to 84 proof (42%).  Now this isn't probably enough to notice unless an expert was doing a side by side comparison, but it's basically 'old fashioned' crooked dealing, not to mention stupid, even if you put the information on the label.  So glad this isn't my bourbon. You begin to wonder who's the Mark. 

Happy Birthday, Charles, Abe, and my baby Sister

Here in Lincolnland, Abe's birthday is a pretty big deal.  Of course for us biologists, Charles Darwin's birthday is a big deal too in that this day is used to remember his contributions and encourage our students to be a bit more scholarly.  And it's also my kid sister's birthday, but we won't mention her age mostly because no matter what TPP is much older.  Unfortunately Tuesdays are a very busy day; the moss lab just doesn't set up or teach itself.  So for lack of time here's a link to Darwin, Darwinism, Darwinist, and Darwinian, all of which does seem a bit over used, but if ever you make a contribution as large as his, hopefully you'll be remembered for as well as Charles has.  Here's something you may not have seen, a complete list of Darwin's publications.  Copies of those in bold sit on TPP's bookshelves.

Year of the Snake

A couple of former students from Asian students emailed to wish TPP Happy New Year, and now we enter the year of the snake.  Now far be it for this biologist to suggest any type of discrimination exists about snakes, but why does it have to be snakes?  In his many field trips to the tropics, TPP has seen a heck of a lot of organisms, yet for some reason, none of them set off the startle reflex or get the adrenaline pumping as fast as snakes especially when your perception suddenly focuses and pulls one out of the background.  Some sort of ancient primate instinct that even a biologist doesn't overcome.  Hardwired.  Something rustles in the grass and you jump.  The snakes TPP has encountered most in recent years are quite cryptically colored, especially against a forest floor background, so BANG!  You just suddenly see them!  Often this happens because you're looking up to see if a tree is in flower, then you glance down and realize you're about to trip on one like this, and it's a bloody Bothrops asper, locally known as terciopelo, and to most gringos as fer-de-lance.  Yikes!  This is not a pit viper to mess with.  (See the head? Lower center, with it's rusty top thus the common name.)  Your heart races, and then of course because you're a biologist you resist the  instinct to flee and take it's picture.  Smile.  Even worse, if you happen to have a herpetologist along, and they delight in pointing out all the snakes you missed. Now a whole year long reminder.  Sigh.    

Ash Bored

Our street, our neighborhood, our yard is a bit more impoverished because a large (4' diam) white ash tree was taken down this week.  It's the city's tree, a boulevard tree, and two years ago they took down it's mate in size and species from the other corner of our lot.  For the last 50 or so years these trees have shaded our street, and they would have lasted considerably longer, but they fell prey to the emerald ash borer introduced to the USA right here in Lincolnland.  Even worse an up and comer boulevard tree planted some15 years ago, sort of mid-way between these two big ashes, which were about 120 feet apart (it's a big lot), was also a white ash, so rather than come back a year from now, this much smaller tree was removed as well.  It bothers your perception when such a big landmark is suddenly removed, and it comes as a shock to actually be able to tell if there is oncoming traffic before actually entering the street (not an altogether bad thing), and it's hard to locate the driveway when such a big landmark is removed.  Our city is being proactive and planting a lot of trees interspersing the young ones with all of the ash trees that have been or will be removed.  Over reliance on one species is always a dangerous thing whether your staple food or a street tree.  Two replacements appeared last year, a swamp white oak and a new elm cultivar, a replacement for the elms lost the last time we introduced a fatal disease that decimated a wide spread and common street tree, but they as yet do not make a presence.  This is the terrible thing about trees; you do not replace a large tree except with time, decades. Unfortunately, the utility wires, cable and such are on poles on our side of the street, so big trees right on the boulevard are a bit of a problem.  Although a big tree is going to be missed, a large tree isn't actually needed or wise in this general location, so a smaller, doesn't-get-in-the-wires tree is a better choice, perhaps a Chinese lilac, but only if the city nursery has one available.  Now our yard only has three trees with trunks in the 4 foot diameter category.  So think carefully about cutting down and planting trees; you choice now is one you have to live with for quite awhile.   

What to do when winter isn't winter

It's the 2nd week of February.  It's winter.  Yet the ground is bare and the high temperatures for the next week will all be above freezing.  This really sucks.  You'd think you should be able to do something garden-wise, but other than pick up the limbs that dropped on the last windy day (a never ending activity on our estate), you're left thumbing through catalogs.  How can it be winter when you've only had to use the shovel once to move about an inch of light fluffy snow just to keep the driveway and sidewalks from getting icy?  Getting out the Nordic skis is just wishful thinking because here we are in February and winter seems to be waning.  February is acting like late March.  And a thoughful neighbor asks what do botanists think about global warming?  Duh.  Still you feel antsy, anxious, eager, the typical gardener reaction to spring, but like the ground hog, we should have seen our shadow and hunkered down for another 6 weeks.  Only one thing to do.  Pass the catalogs; let's order some plants.  High on the list are a few Korean azaleas (R. mucronulatum) for mid-border areas.  If you don't have one of these tough, not too fussy, attractive shrubs, you should seriously consider it, even you zone 4 readers.  See, now you've got something to look up, something to covet, and something to plan for.  No, no, please don't thank me.  It was done for my own mental health.

Purple treats - A colorful cultural palate palette

Oh, this is so much fun!  Other than the Mardi Gras king cake, TPP is hard pressed to think of purple treats in our culture.  So how interesting to find out how common purple treats are in Filipino culture, and all because of the purple yam, ube (remember, yams are not sweet potatos).  You have to go see the ube ice cream! Jun Belen's blog is just filled with Filipino goodies and fun food information.  A great big HT to the Agricultural Biodiversity blog; where does he get all his great links? 

Visit New Orleans while you can

The botanical meetings will be in New Orleans this summer.  Perhaps this will be timely because if global warming keeps melting Arctic sea ice, and the ice caps on Greenland and Antarctica a lot of this city will disappear under water.  Depending upon the severity of the melting, it sounds like a 1 meter rise in sea level is almost certain, and the rise could be as much as 7-8 meters.   Even a 1 meter rise will inundate most of New Orleans, and parts of most of our coastal cities.   At 7 meters, say good bye to New Orleans and Miami, and goodly portions of other cities like Venice, and probably some low lying countries as well.  Will the shrewd moneyed global warming deniers nonetheless study those maps and locate the new coastal lands and invest?  Probably will never find out.  Glad my neighborhood is called Highland. 

Herbarium fun and games

An energetic and interested student has elected to learn about plant taxonomy and herbarium collections first hand by doing some specimen curation in our university herbarium collection.  Oh, the things you find; the things you learn.  It all starts innocently enough.  Give them a folder of old specimens, and old here means 150 year-old specimens, ones that were obtained from European botanists of the time in trade for North American specimens, a common enough practice.  Except for some reason these were never incorporated into the collection as a whole, and they’ve been just hanging around for a century and a half, and now the paper the specimens are mounted on is rapidly deteriorating, so the specimens, mostly still in good shape, need to be remounted on modern acid-free paper.  This part is easy enough.  But to add these specimens into the collection several things need to be done.  First you look to see if the species is already in the collection, and if so, then you add it to the correct species folder, filed in a genus folder alphabetically arranged within its family, which themselves are numerically arranged such that related families are placed close to each other, at least in the view of plant taxonomists of 100 years ago.  Hey, it’s just a filing system, so let’s not go crazy about a few odd placements, but some families have ceased to exist, and some families have been merged, and some have been fragmented.  Sometimes it's hard to decide how much should be updated.  OK, back to the problem at hand.  Now if you have to add a species to the list, you must make a label for a new species folder, and since those are printed on archival gummed labels, 20 to a page, you add the species name to a list until enough are accumulated.  Of course in 150 years, a lot can change, so you must check to see if this species still has this name or if now this name is a synonym of another species name.  Fortunately several databases exist for looking up plant names, e.g., here. 
Then you check this specimen against specimens already in the collection, or against some image files, to see if visually it looks like the plant was identified correctly in the first place.  So in this instance, the old specimen had an invalid name that is a synonym for Anemone numerosa, European wood anemone, which is most certainly a correct ID.  This species was in our species list, but that seemed a bit strange, so checking the three specimens already filed there, some more problems were encountered; they weren’t the same plant!  North American specimens, initially so named are now called Anemone quinquefolia, which also was in the species list.  So these N. American specimens were moved to the correct species folder and the old folder was now ready for the old European species.  But in the process one of the A. quinquefolia specimens from about 110 years ago was also obviously misidentified, but this was an easy one because it was Isopyrum biternatum, false rue anemone, except now this species is placed in the genus Enemion, which really messes with TPP’s memory banks, but you add a new genus label and a new species label to the list to relabel their folders.  So did you get all that?  Everything that was necessary to solve filing this one specimen!  Whew.  The very next old specimen is labeled Anemone sylvatica, and no such species exists or has ever existed.  Did the collector mean sylvestris instead of sylvatica?  This will take some more problem solving.  This is how it goes at times: mis-named, mis-filed, mis-identified, but this is how you learn. By solving the problems.  Now TPP only needs another 10 students with the same aptitude and interest.

New image for a new year

As much as TPP hates messing with things that work, after awhile you do sort of feel the need for a change, and no, he's not commenting on his marriage.  The tree peonies had been the header image for some time, a year or so, and it seemed like a good idea to change the header image for this blog before forgetting how to do it altogether.  Even then it took a few tries to get the image reduced in size enough so it didn't run off the screen and to get the aspect ratio correct, or at least compatible with the header.  Hope you like this, it's part of our garden showing a new addition, a pergola-bench next to the waterlily-lotus pond. 

Convenient incandescent inefficiency - on sale!

Incandescent light bulbs are very inefficient, which is why they get hot.  That's a lot of energy turned into heat not light.  Nonetheless us plant collectors have made use of this inefficiency for years.  Our home-made "Acme" plant dryer operates using two pairs of 100W light bulbs that provide just the right amount of safe heat to dry specimens in plant presses.  When collecting plants you've got lots of drying plant material sandwiched between layers of cardboard, blotters, and newsprint.  You don't want to try to heat this to about 50-55C using any heat source that could start a fire.  At any rate once you have a light-bulb heated dryer, you just want to continue with business as usual, so when the local big box store puts 100W bulbs on sale, TPP could not resist buying a few dozen bulbs to get us through this season.  Bulbs don't last long when they are on 24-7.  After this batch of bulbs, well, some other heat source will have to be found.   

Stupor Bowl Sunday

Today, Sunday, there is a sporting event, or rather there are lots of sporting events, just like every other Sunday, but one of them is a football playoff.  BFD; Big Deal.  Generally in sports you can count on one thing; the greater the hype, the more of a snoozer the game is.  This is called a playoff, but it's not really.  Baseball has playoffs; the teams meet for a series of games thus taking away the little quirks, chance events, luck, referees, more or less, so you have some certainty which is the better team.  That's not the way it is in football.  Even the goofy shaped ball is designed to bounce funny to add some more randomness to the out come.  The time was TPP liked sports, pretty much, but never at the level of rabid fan.  Mostly it didn't matter who won as long as the event was entertaining, and should any of you have forgotten, that's what pro sports is, entertainment.  One of the things that makes the Stupor Bowl boring is that all the commercial breaks interrupt the flow of the game, but to make enough money to pay for at least one of the quarterbacks, the show has to be dragged out as long as possible with commentators using inane remarks in a sad effort to inject energy.  My best analysis of why pro sports seem so boring to me in particular can be summed up on a two-fold basis.  One, maturity, intellectually.  It's boring because it's actually boring, mostly.  Two, free agency.  You used to know who was on your team, who played for your team, who your guys were, and now with players and coaches functioning as interchangeable pieces, you're supposed to cheer for the uniform, the city/region, who, what?  TTP is old enough to remember that baseball was the only major sport, football and basketball were minor sports.  My college had two winter sports that were bigger fan draws than basketball (hockey and wrestling), and there was no football team at all.  Being a team fan all came to an end when Pete Rose became a free-agent and was bought by the Phillies.  What the heck was this!  How are such things possible?  And then it hit you. The athletic entertainers do it for the money, not the fans.  Good thing Downton Abbey is on PBS.

No ground hogs day celebration

No ground hogs saw their shadow today on the Phactors' estate.  There are two reasons for this.  One, if any ground hog was in residence, it would still be hibernating.  Two, there are no ground hogs in residence because when one takes up residence it gets relocated to a more rural venue.  TPP is quite happy for each and every no ground hogs day, although for obscure reasons, ground hogs were always called woodchucks in our part of the world.  And no one ever called them marmots.  In their proper place they are nice animals, rather like big guinea pigs.  A family acquaintance had a tame one as a pet, but they had orchards and therefore a lot of area for rodent grazing.  Their pet woodchuck liked being petted, but each spring upon emerging from his den under their barn he seemed a bit fuzzy about everything.  Their banishment is for simple reasons: they are such gluttons, they can eat you out of house and garden.  They do things like bend down the okra stalks to eat the leaves.  And light weight garden fencing that works to keep rabbits at bay can't stop these heavy weights.  So we celebrate not just February 2nd, but every no ground hogs day.

Botanical art

The next best thing to having house plants is having botanical art, or considering the ease of day-to-day care and the consistent attractiveness, maybe the art is even better.  Here's a link to a gallery of Ruth Ana Lyons paintings.  Oh, these will color up your living room wall.  Remember, art does not match your couch, and you don't just hang a single piece centered on the wall.  The Phactors have more than 50 pieces of wall art, much of it sort of botanical, on just the first floor.  This doesn't count the glass or the stoneware.  So get out there an help feed a starving artist.

Friday Fabulously Foul Flowers

No way TPP could possibly pass up sending this along.  Because humans seem to share a floral aesthetic with birds, bees, and butterflies, there is a mistaken impression that all flowers are attractive visually and pleasant smelling.  Suffice it to say that lots of pollinators have very different likes and things like beetles and flies pollinate lots of plants.  Someone put together this nice little photoessay of rather bad smelling flowers.  Perhaps the most famous of these, the corpse flower, was a subject of a blog sometime back.  Three of these are aroids, and the structures shown are not flowers, but inflorescences (a spike called a spadix) and a bract (called a spathe) that both subtends and wraps around the spadix.  The individual flowers are small and unattractive, and often unisexual and spatially separated.  TPP made the mistake of allowing one of these aroids to flower in his house, in February, and it smelled like a very dead cow.  Someone wasn't so fascinated by this!  The star-flowers (Stapelia) not only smell like carrion, their flowers look like carrion (hairy, fatty and dried blood colored, sort of leathery).  Very nice house plants.  Enjoy!