Field of Science

GnOPe - Nattering nabobs of negativism

When it became obvious that the minority party was simply going to be opposed to everything and anything proposed by the Obama administration as a matter of principle, TPP decided to start calling them the GnOPe, where the G is silent, NOPE being the operative word.  As annoying and counter productive as this approach to governing is, it pales in comparison to the latest manufactured "scandals".  No question there were mistakes made, people made some poor decisions, but scandals, surely you jest.  In thinking about the GnOPe long-delayed, over-reaction to these events, it reminds you of a small dog worrying the pant cuff of the mailman, for no other reason than to keep Obama from doing anything, and an old phrase came to mind, "Nattering nabobs of negativism."  Thank you, Spiro, such a great phrase, to describe your own party, which of course you would not recognize.

The mid-west is wet

Drove across northern Missouri yesterday to get to KC.  The overall impression is one of a giant mud puddle.  All in all pretty wet places were getting inches of rainfall, and not all of it is coming down gently.  In general this is quite a depressing and annoying weather pattern this year, and quite different from the weather of a year ago.  Our field work is suffering, our gardens are suffering, and the grass is growing.  Presently the prairie canopy is at about 1 meter, and we had to add our tall flags to plots so that they can be found fairly easily at least for another month or so.  Does TPP have to mention that one of our treatments is nutrient augmentation?  Oh, will this make things grow?  Oh, yes!  Our soil is on the heavy side and when it's wet it gets sticky, and you just shouldn't mess with it, but you still want to get some stuff planted.  The windows of opportunity have been few and brief.  It's been easier to keep up with mowing the lawn, and that's been hard enough.  Farmers aren't just dealing with wet soil; they've got flooding.  A lot of flood plain agricultural fields are way too wet for planting, or flooded, and if they have been planted, they will probably need to be replanted, but it's getting late in the season to plant maize.  Because of the demand and the price, maize has been plenty popular, so lots of frugal farmers have bought their seed already to get a discount, so it won't be easy, or cost effective, to switch to soybeans.  Planting early on flood plains is a bit risky, but the USA's crop insurance program basically assured farmers of getting 80% of their anticipated sale no matter what, so while everyone likes the idea of insurance to iron out the ups and downs, the current program seems to encourage risky agricultural behavior.  These are the things you think about when driving across the great midwestern farm belt.  Also observed some very poor conservation where rather steep fields were plowed without any contouring or other erosion suppressing practices, and torrents of reddish-brown water were washing off of them.  Some farmers need a dope slap; why they treat soil like everyone treats water, as if it were an inexaustable resource. In one area the wind preceding a storm was kicking up clouds of dust, top soil, and even in flat places like these fine soil erodes at a rate of 5 tons per acre, yet many people fail to believe this is happening.  And then another line of storms moves in, and you begin to listen to the radio in case of tornado warmings.  About the time you think perhaps things aren't being so violent, you pass a wooded area by a river where the tops of all the trees have been snapped off, recently.  So it was a bit of a surprise when the sky turned a funny color this afternoon, blue.  Delightful, as the heat and humity soared.  Welcome to the great midwest!

Friday Fabulous Flower - another yellow peony

Well, it was just two weeks ago that the FFF blog was a yellow tree peony, but here's another one.  In this instance flowering about two weeks later is a Itoh hybrid, a cross between a tree peony and a herbaceous peony, so it's not a shrub but has a fairly robust form, sturdier than the standard herbaceous peony, and yellow flowers!  This one was planted three years ago and this year is a three foot diameter mound.  It flowers at the same time as herbaceous peonies, but unlike herbaceous peonies that tend to have flop-pot flowers, flowers literally too big for their stems.  But the Itoh holds its flowers up quite nicely, and you would almost think this is a tree peony except it dies back over the winter although it may be a little woody at the base.  What's not to like?  Sorry TPP was less than enthusiastic about the flowers, they were smaller last year and fewer. 

Soggy Memorial Weekend

Oh, the gardening plans we had!  Very ambitious, indeed, but over 3 inches of rain will sort of dampen your enthusiasm for gardening.  Things are so wet that water is standing in all the low areas and not only did very little gardening get done, but it will be days before things are dry enough to plant some things.  Well, this puts the Phactors way behind schedule, and as if that weren't bad enough, a couple of editors are telling TPP that he's behind schedule too.  Quite a number of weeds met their demise due to Mrs. Phactor's diligence.  Clearly she's a mudder.  And the weather has been cool too; in the 30s just 4 nights ago. It's keeping some cool loving plants in flower longer, but pushing back the flowering time for others.  A couple of large Deutzia have been in a flowering holding pattern for several days as well as a Kousa dogwood.  Ah well, it's a very different year from last year which was so warm, so early, and this year is late. 

Artist on a roll does gather moss

TPP has a great fondness for botanical art in one form or another.  So it was with great interest that he
read about the sculptural art of Mineo Mizuno that uses moss to create a living component.  These are very appealing, but immediately there was a strong feeling of deja vu all over again.  A few years ago at the Chelsea Garden show one of the small garden displays was all moss: a moss covered table and chair under a moss-covered roof, and so on.  One of TPP's great friends, the Mighty Michael, as he is know to a few of us, is more than a little creative, was even closer to the mark with a bit of creative play with his research organism, in this case genetic variants of a moss arranged in a worldly manner.  This particular "image" graced the November 1999 cover of the American Journal of Botany (you can see more cover images here). It's pretty clear which image is from the artist and which from the botanist (artists don't use petri plates to display their medium).  So take a little time to appreciate those little green things in life, moss.

Fracking threatens - wait for it - quality beer!

OK, the possibility of polluting the environment doesn't seem to arouse public officials into action to strictly regulate fracking, but German beer makers, serious beer makers and consumers, worry about what fracking will do to the main ingredient of beer, water.  German beer is brewed according to the oldest food purity law, the "Beer Purity Law" (Reinheitsgebot) of 1516, and according to this law, high quality water sources are to be protected.  Allowing fracking has the potential to violate this law.  Now it would seem that in terms of what matters in life, beer should always be a higher priority than energy production because if you've been drinking you shouldn't be driving anyways. Unfortunately here in Lincolnland, TPP guesses that most of our state legislators think Bud Lite is pretty good beer.  Sigh.  In a way it makes sense, light beer will ruin the environment!  Will the quality beer brewers here in Lincolnland get going on the anti-fracking program?  Bring this up when in your local brew-pub.

Tree pruning - man with a machete

Pruning trees correctly is a skill; pruning trees well is an art.  When you see a person, OK, in this case it will always be a man, heading toward a tree with the intent of pruning it and he's carrying a machete, nothing good will come of this.  No connection exists between pruning and a machete.  Most certainly the tree will suffer and more than likely the machete wielder will injure themselves in the bargain, and yes, TPP hears some of you out there saying, he got what he deserved.  Anybody who desides to use a machete to prune a tree knows so little about pruning, or the use of a machete, that they should not be allowed near either one.  To someone who knows pruning, you can see the results of bad pruning decades afterwards, tsk, tsk. Now of course taking a machete away from someone may not be easy.  But maybe they can be distracted by that shiny new saw!

Styrofungus, mycolastic - saving us from styrofoam

To interplanetary archeologists our particular civilization will probably be know as the "styrofoam makers".  Styrofoam and its cousin polystrene (those white coffee cups, packing "peanuts", and fast-food clam-shell containers) are for all their convenience almost forever because nothing out there has the enzymes needed to decompose this stuff, so it tends to last, and accumulate.  Worse, when it does eventually breakdown, polystrene breaks down into its monomers, styrene, a know carcinogen.  On one hand you have to admire our bravery in drinking and eating out of these containers, but ignorance is bliss, so pass the asbestos platter and let's eat!  These foamy plasticy things are great because of their strength and very light weight, so each and every one of us has unpacked something we bought that had those foamy form-fitting inserts to hold the object in place in the center of a carton.  While excellent for this particular use, this is stuff has to be on the top 10 list of least green products.  Wouldn't it be nice if someone found a substitute product?  Well, a couple of guys out of RPI (Rensslaer Polytechnic Institute) are growing a fungal based alternative.  The basic recipe is plant waste material (think shredded corn stalks) and a fungal mycelium, a bit of the filamentous body of a fungus that you typically don't see because it's growing under ground or in dead wood.  Add water put into a form and the mycelium grows until it fills the space.  Dry it out and voila, you've got a tough, light packing material custom-made to pack that Italian espresso maker you've ordered online.  The best thing is that this biomaterial will break down quickly.  The product is being made by Ecovative Design, sort of a nifty name.  TPP learned of this via an article in the New Yorker published about 2 weeks ago.  Wonder if it would make a good soil additive because if so we could begin to solve the peat moss problem at the same time.  Remember this slogan, "Better living through fungus."

Flower parts and then some

Most if not all of the readers of this blog know their basic floral parts.  Generally there's a perianth in two whorls, sepals and petals, and then there's the androecium composed of a whorl of stamens, and lastly one or more pistils.  But not all flowers are so constructed.  So here's Calycanthus, Carolina spice bush.  It has a lot of floral parts. Perhaps you've never taken one of these flowers apart, part by part to have a look see, but TPP just loves taking flowers apart to see what makes them tick.  Not only does this flower have lots of parts to some extent they grade one into another and don't fall neatly into the usual categories. 
Below the flower is a pair of bracts, leaves of reduced size.  One is shown.  Then you start peeling off the perianth parts which are not differentiated into sepals and petals.  They are longer and greener at first (l-r, top to bottom in order of removal), and then they get broader and purple-red.  They are all spirally arranged.  As the perianth moves inward the parts get smaller and more curved.  The tip becomes yellow in color (row three, 4th one).  After the 31st perianth part (the number you find may vary), the next part is abruptly smaller, a stamen, which is not your typical stamen in form, no filament, sort of a chunky version of a perianth part with two pair of microsporangia.  These continue to spiral inward and downward into the receptacle.  In this flower there were thirteen stamens.  The next parts were too small to easily remove so what remains in this image is the top of the receptacle with a transitional stamen-pistil and then the rest of the pistils.
The pistils are sort of semi-embedded in the receptacle, each pistil topped with a creamy-white stigmatic area.  It's hard to know how many there are 14-15, because the small vestiges are probably not viable and barely visible light areas.  The spiral of parts continues with the pistils getting smaller, which you can see starting with the largest pistil at about 5 o'clock (reddish structure is the base of a stamen, white oval inwardly adjacent is the largest pistil), then the next biggest one is at about 10 o'clock, and so on.  Altogether there are 60 floral parts, often a multiple of 3, but often off one or two as well.  Maybe now you understand why textbooks illustrate flowers with simple things like a lily as if it were typical.  This is a flower for advanced learners, so take your shoes off and get to counting the parts!  Enjoy.

How dumb is too dumb? We still don't know!

A very excited out-of-work sports caster called TPP on the phone last night.  “Now’s the time!”  And after reeling off the current set of anti-Obama sound bites asked me to sign a petition in support of Sarah Palindrone (someone who sounds just as dumb forward as backward) running for the Senate from Alaska.  Oh, yes, and a little donation to the effort would be nice too.  However the response that TPP wanted to leave was not an option.  
Now this raises quite an interesting question about politics that this recording could not answer.  How dumb is too dumb in ‘Mercan politics?  TPP figured that we’d bottomed out and people would come to their senses after electing Reagan.  This shows TPP's political acumen.  And then along comes W who made Ron sound and look like a Rhodes Scholar.  In the next election cycle, the afore mentioned Palindrone was given way more attention than anyone with so little to say and so little reason to say it and who will then say it anyways with so much dumbth should ever be given.  And she hasn’t improved.  Perhaps it was Gov. Perry of Taxes who so lowered the bar that Ms. Palindrone’s IQ rose in comparison because now some near breathless people want her in the Senate. 
"The mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself." Ralph Waldo Emerson offered that observation in 1837, but his words echo with painful prescience in today's very different United States (from an old WashPo article).  What would Ralph think now about our virulent mixture of anti-intellectualism, anti-rationalism, ideology, and low expectations?  There are smart capable people in the USA, but almost none of them are electable in this era of you-can’t-be-too-dumb politics.

Open letter to a new president

Dear New President,
Welcome.  TPP has lost track of exactly how many presidents this university has had in his academic career here; that's because most of them were pretty forgettable.  You always remember the good ones (exactly one) and the really terrible ones (my first), but most of them were inbetween.  If they managed to do one or two good things before moving on we considered ourselves lucky.  Our last one has done quite a few good things, mostly on the financial and PR side of things, areas where presidents tend to be pretty influential.  Try to do the same.  Most of the administration is competent and tries to help you do your job. At times the business office and provost seem bent on the opposite, mostly by failing to understand that a university does not actually run like a business.  This will not be a rant about the provost's pseudo-business policies other than if you want units to be financially responsible for everything then you have to give those units the fiscal resources they generate.  You're not a new president and you've been around the block a few times, so it's no news to you that coaches and ADs lack institutional loyalty, period.  So why do they always get golden parachutes when they stiff the university?  My advice is hire a lawyer that knows how to write a contract that will screw anybody that screws the university.  Glad you got a raise in salary; boy, those northeastern state colleges must really pay crap for top administrators if coming here to Lincolnland is a good fiscal move.  While on this subject, us faculty could use a decent raise, all of us; it's been a good long time since we had one of those and believe it or not, we got expenses.  Makes TPP wish it were as easy to move on as it is for administrators, coaches, and ADs.  It's hard to know where exactly you should start.  Everyone, like TPP, will offer you advice.  Us old-timers know what the bad old days were all about, so don't change anything that's actually working.  However, you need to do something positive to get the ball rolling, so here's my advice: get us some decent ice cream in the student union.  How can you be any kind of half-way decent academic institution without ice cream?  And not that frozen yogurt stuff that can't make up it's mind if it's a health food or not, we been there, tasted that, and voted with our pocket books.  It folded.  There's no shortage of good ice cream locally (have them tell you about Carl's), but the rent in the student center is such that a good business man knows a bad deal when they see it.  So screw the money, we need ice cream.  This would be a good way to make your mark on the university and improve the institution.  TPP has been complaining about this for over 2 decades, and clearly lacks any clout what so ever.  Hope the move goes well.  You got a lot to learn about the great midwest and Lincolnland in particular.  People out here didn't even know what bagels were when TPP arrived all those decades ago.  Lots of people from up East don't like it here.  They get depressed when they go outside the city limits and experience the maize and soybean desert.  Well, that's all for now.  Truly your success matters to us and you can count on us to let you know how you're doing. 
Best regards,  TPP.

Garden Sunday

Today May 19th, really seems like the first full-fledged day of summer. The temp is in the upper 80s; thunderstorms threatened half the day.  Yesterday the daughter of long-time friends got married in a delightful, non-traditional ceremony outside on a lake.  Utterly charming.  The neighbors' lovely daughter is graduating from high school today at the top of her class.  How nice.  Their dogs still bark too much.  And today the Phactors are busily getting the gardens into summer mode.  The herb garden was easiest, but no lemon grass is around.  How do you live without lemon grass?  We cannot imagine such deprivation, but Thai basil was in good supply.  Colorful birds were around all day: gold finches and scarlet tanagers; how nice.  Planting of the kitchen garden got off to a good start, but the peas are probably too late to be a really good crop.  Unfortunately the lily pond filters needed cleaning and it's a terrifically messy job washing the green-brown bio-slime out of everything.  Quite a number of early summer plants started to flower; Sinocalycanthus, tulip tree, golden chain tree, Niellia, beauty bush, and more.  Now to construct a nice summertime supper: spicy fried chicken livers on fresh greens with a soy sauce-sesame oil dressing.  And it's a good thing we got ourselves going because in another month the Phactors' garden is part of a garden tour.  Contact TPP if you want confidential information about the tour.   

Friday Fabulous Flower - Yellow tree peony and friend

Next to magnolias and other magnoliales TPP's favorite flowers are tree peonies, and among those nothing is better looking than my yellow tree peonies.  This particular plant is about 4 feet tall and 4 feet in diameter.  This year it has a couple of dozen of these huge yellow flowers.  This year the bastard balm (yes, that's its common name), one of the showier members of the mint family was in full bloom at the same time so everyone gets a two-fer to make up for some of the Friday's missed.  As this is being typed the peony is about 6 feet to my left just below the window, and the floral fragrance, such that it is, a hard to describe floral muskiness is quite evident.  Eh, you don't grow them for their fragrance.  The yellow-flowered tree peonies routinely flower several days behind the white and pink flowered ones.  TPP has one of the Itoh hybrids with yellow flowers but they just aren't as commanding a presence.  They lack the red highlights in the center.  The hybrids are hardy, fast-growing, and vigorous, but they still seem as light beer is to a full-bodied lager.     

Fiddling while Rome burns - climate edition

"So why are we behaving like this?" asks Martin Wolfe of the Financial Times.
"A second reason is opposition to any interventions in the free market. Some of this, no doubt, is driven by narrowly economic interests. But do not underestimate the power of ideas. To admit that a free economy generates a vast global external cost is to admit that the large-scale government regulation so often proposed by hated environmentalists is justified. For many libertarians or classical liberals, the very idea is unsupportable. It is far easier to deny the relevance of the science."

It will be interesting to see the reaction to a commentary that really hits the nail on the head.
HT to Gravity's Rainbow.

Tacky is as tacky does

Garden gazing balls (even when the size of the one in Millennium Park), plywood cutouts of some one bending over in their garden, and, yes, especially, garden gnomes are tacky, as are plastic ducks and deer.  Sorry, that's just the way it is.  Not even the fact that after 100 years the Chelsea Garden Show is allowing celebrity decorated garden gnomes to be auctioned for charity changes the fact that they are tacky.  You have to take a large hop, skip, and jump to get from tacky to whimsical, which in gardens is actually OK.  Now you may ask how do you know what's tacky and what's whimsical?  A fair question, and the answer is simple enough: something has to be a bit clever, a bit creatively odd, a bit tastefully fanciful to be whimsical, and you know it when you see it.  Mostly you do not get whimsy ready made; it has to be transformed from ordinary, so there's a chance that a gnome decorated by Elton John just might make the grade to whimsical, or like Liberace, it may end up just wildly, fantastically, grandly tacky, but tacky nonetheless. Hope this raises a lot of money for a worthwhile charity because how else could Chelsea bear the indignity?   

Red bud fracking instead of hydraulic fracking

Hydraulic fracking is quite an issue just now in Lincolnland.  One of the key issues is how much water must be used to fracture deep sediments.  This is one of those things where industry wants to pretend the resource is free, the water is free, without an environmental cost.  It would be nice if there were an alternative to using water to fracture those deep sediments.  Then came this idea.  Plant red buds, lots of them over the sediment you wish to fracture. Based upon the effort needed to pull a tiny red bud seedling from the ground and the length and depth of its root penetration, by the time the red bud stem reaches about the diameter of your finger, it's roots should have penetrated the sediments in question and simply pulling the red buds will certainly fracture the sediments in question.  This is a simple extrapolation of the finding that 3-4 inch tall red bud seedlings, some with the cotyledons still attached, have a root penetration somewhere around a mile and a half based upon those TPP has pulled.  By the time you notice red bud seedlings, they are already too deeply rooted to pull even if you have a weed wrench. Hmm, that's the problem obviously, nothing we've invented can pull up such roots.  Drat!  So close to a solution. 

Average weather

Weather people like to tell you how much below or above average the current weather is.  Of course here in the great midwest of North America this is largely complete crap.  You can average the weather data, but there is no average weather around here.  Basically you go from too cold spring weather to summer instantly, and then back and forth a few times more.  It just depends upon what particular weather front is winning the push and pull battle as they cross the plains.  Three days ago the heat was on in our house because the temps at night were in the 30s.  Now it's in the 80s and you have to turn the heat off and get the window screens in place.  Ceiling fans get turned on in the bedrooms just a couple of days after you needed a blanket.  Plants have to be tough to deal with such weather.  On the good news side, cold weather has kept our field work in check and we're only running about 2 weeks late, and a few plants have had some prolonged flowering because of the cool nights.  On the bad side, grass is growing like crazy and TPP doesn't like to mow.  New street trees, a red oak, a swamp white oak, and an Accolade elm have been planted (by the city) to replace two huge white ash trees that had to be taken down because of emerald ash borer.  Now some rain is needed.  April was real wet, but May has been dry, oh, and you can average their rainfall amounts, but it's never just average.  Welcome to a continental climate. 

Pollination success - waiting, waiting.

TPP's apple and pear trees have flowered, and it wasn't the absolute best weather for flowering, and we had a close call the other night with a low temperature near freezing, so now just waiting to see if we have pollination success.  Last year an early spring and a late freeze combined to nuke the entire upper midwest apple crop.  It was grim.  Had to have northern spys shipped in from NY.  It's just a tad to early to judge whether the pollinators did their job or not. Plenty of crab apples were in flower too, so lot's of nearby pollen sources, and no crab apple pollen will not affect the apples, just the apple offspring (seeds).  The pear tree did not flower well, so the display might not have been big enough for good pollination.  Combination of drought and bunnies required redoing most of the raspberry bed this week as well, and this was after giving up on the blue berries.  In the process discovered that the neighbors property adjoining ours is raising a bumper crop of garlic mustard. Each year their seeds repopulate our gardens, so no matter how zealously the Phactors weed, we get more.  Does the military sell surplus flame throwers?  TPP will attempt to widen the weed-free zone along the fence line (on their side!) one way or another.  But guess we're to gardening as Cub fans are to the Cubs, always hopefull, often disappointed.      

Please don't smoke the tomatoes!

How ya doin New Yawk?  The NY Boys in Blue busted a rooftop marijuana growing operation except it turned out to be tomatoes.  Yes, tomatoes.  Which of course are grown for their berries not their smokable leaves.  This is a good thing because the smoking tomato leaves is way worse than smoking tobacco leaves, both nightshades, and similar enough that you can graft tomatoes onto tobacco root stock and grow some high nicotine tomatoes (not recommended for several reason taste being the primary one), however you will not get tomato hornworms on them.  Like most nightshades, the green foliage of tomatoes contain one or more of the tropane alkaloids, primarily hyoscyamine.  It's not good for you when ingested, and European so well knew this that the edibility of tomatoes was very much in question when newly introduced from the New World. The rooftop gardeners were turned in by the building super who said it was marijuana.  The police never checked it out (good police work, boys) and came busting in on the tomato patch.  As stupid as this sounds, these be city boys.  People so far removed from the production and source of their food that they probably thought tomatoes grew on trees.  TPP remembers a college friend from Brooklyn who recoiled in total revulsion once he actually saw, up close, first hand, where milk comes from.  He was also incredulous about the actual size of a cow.  "Tings like dis belong in zoos!"  If his remark is recalled accurately.  So from TPP's perspective, in their vegetative state, neither the super nor the cops could be expected to make an accurate ID of any plant foliage.  Wonder what they'd pay for doing some plant ID work for the NYC police? 

Blue lawn to green slime

A month ago a large portion of our lawn was a carpet of blue scilla.  It took decades for the scilla to multiply so prolifically, and it's a wonderful and lovely harbinger of spring.  What could be the problem?  A month has passed and lawns need mowing.  The blue lawn is now a verdant thicket of green scilla leaves, but they mow right?  Sort of.  The leaves of scilla contain a considerable amount of mucilage and moisture.  The discharge from you mower is basically green slime.  Generally the best strategy is to simply wait until the scilla leaves begin to yellow and fade before mowing the densest parts.  Even where the scilla isn't solid, it can get so slippery, you can barely get enough purchase to push the mower!  Ah, well, nothing's perfect. 

Friday Fabulous Flower - Fern-leafed Peony

Several years ago a long-time employee of TPP's favorite neighborhood garden shoppe was offering us several perennials at significant discounts rather than trying to over winter them and sell them the next spring.  And three fern-leafed peonies (Peonia tenuifolia) were among the lot, at least 3 pots labelled as such. They were a bit slow to get started but now all three produce 2 foot high mounds of very finely dissected foliage.  Their single flowers are bright scarlet red, one at the end of each aerial shoot, and they are the earliest of the peonies, even beating the tree peonies by a week.  Unfortunately, while very handsome, the flowering display does not last long, but then again, few flowering displays do.  The foliage remains attractive enough, so do think of putting these into a middle position is a partly shady bed.  They particularly look great in the morning sun.  Actually just checking the data, and our Japanese peonies flowered at the same time, a woodland, herbaceous perennial.  Something tells TPP he's done this as a FFF before, but so what.   

Upcycling rather than recycling

Alternatives to waste, alternatives to over consumption, alternatives to filling more land-fills are always welcome ideas, and here's a very nice and interesting video of upcycling in Greece.  Now TPP figures that many of you are pretty conscious of and maybe even conscientious about recycling.  Further many of you are in one way or another associated with universities.  Now where else would be a better place to initiate the concept of upcycling than in a university town?  You've got the arty types.  You've got the techie types.  You've got the junk generating types!  And they all need jobs and cash.  Upcycling isn't exactly a new idea. 
TPP grew up with old New England farmers who never threw out anything.  When you needed something, you visited your junk pile, found some bits and pieces, and built it.  The manner, and the creative way these people upcycle is impressive and shows what some imagination can do?  So pass this on; upcycle it so to speak.

Extinction is forever - A close call for an ebony

Islands are evolutionary laboratories providing genetic isolation of any organism that disperses there with the result that new and novel species often arise that grow no where else.  Then there are those species (just 1) that build boats so that they may disperse more easily, and bring with them their pigs and goats, much to the detriment of endemic species that arose in isolation from such organisms.  Here's a story of a near brush with extinction, the St. Helena's ebony.  Long thought extinct, two bushes were found growing on a cliff beyond the reach of grazing goats.  With the assistance of Kew Gardens, this species' extinction has been forestalled for now, by using these two survivors to propogate new plants, something not easily done without today's biotechnical tools.  Without botanical gardens with such conservation programs the situation around the world would be much worse.  Of course, what difference does such a species make?  Why should we care?  Why should we expend so many resources rescuing this tree?  Maybe next time the species will be something really important, and knowing how to do it would be a good thing.  And who are you to judge this species of no consequence?  And to give you some idea what TPP means, parochial dolts, unfortunately dolts put in charge of higher education, wonder why we "waste" time and money teaching our students about rain forest as if all that matters, or should matter, takes place within the non-biological borders of Lincolnland. 

Observations on the final week of a semester

The end of a semester and the possibility of graduation for some, survival for others, puts a lot of strain on the system.  After many years on a university campus you sort of get used to a certain amount of manic activity and stressed out behaviors.  And there are other hallmarks that the semester is nearly over.  Let's see what we have.  A fellow just ran down the hallway screaming and throwing papers every which way.  Hmm. Based on the papers, perhaps he was happy to be done with this particular chemistry class, one way or another.  Presumably done in such a manner as to never need those notes again.  A corner of our staff parking lot was vacant because someone had tossed a rather largish TV out of an apartment window, and it sort of exploded upon impact.  Perhaps they were aiming at someone's car (faculty?)?  Perhaps they had finally figured out that its addictive nature had caused them to spend more time with reality shows than with the reality of studying.  Perhaps it was a physics experiment done as a final project.  A student sporting a rather deep tan shows up to explain why they haven't had time to finish their final paper yet.  Hmmm.  A student stopped by to say goodbye and introduce TPP to their parental unit, show them the greenhouse, and try to impress them with how much they had learned.  Those exams haven't been read yet, but it's a good bet they did pretty well.  A student who seemed to have steadfastly ignored by advice all semester stopped by to see if they could get a letter of recommendation.  TPP explained his perspective that would have to be part of his letter; they seemed surprised that you just didn't write how nice they were.  Four cars of studenty looking people, no one of which seemed to know which way they were going, were in wrong lanes, going opposite ways, and everyone was yelling at everyone else.  This is why TPP never rides to campus on his bike until the crazies have gone home.  Grades get posted for a big introductory class in a hallway display case.  The first student to arrive looks up their grade and gestures with a fist, yelling, "Yes!"; the second arrives, looks, and breaks into tears.  That's the long and short of it.  A nicely dressed young lady is strolling through the quad taking pictures; with all the crab apples in flower, the campus does look lovely.  Piles of refuse are growing upon the curbs and around apartment dumpsters.  It looks a lot like the aftermath of a flood or some other natural disaster. Years ago it was the custom among out students to haul ruined, or just slightly used, furniture out into an intersection and torch it.  This custom was frowned upon.  Still the amount of waste is appalling; the concept of recycling has not caught on and slum-lords throw out everything left behind.  Garbage cruisers are having a big time, which is the only sort of recycling going on.  Fast food delivery is going on every where.  One place near campus has bike delivery to anywhere on campus, fast!  Yes, a semester is coming to an end; you can tell.

5-8-13 Fibonacci day

The infamous Fibonacci series is recalled on this May 8th, 2013, part of the series which is constructed when each element is a sum of the previous 2 elements in the series.  So 1 - 1- 2 - 3 - 5 - 8 - 13 - 21 etc.  Lots of things in biology are arranged in helices, spirals, which can be described in terms of a Fibonacci series.  This has been around a long time because, Fibonacci was actually Leonardo of Pisa (not of Vinci), who must have been one hell of a mathematician.  This is just about all TPP knows about this other than some of the flowers whose development he has studied involve Fibonacci spirals describing the arrangement of multiple parts. Such dates don't come around very often, so glad some math geek was around to point it out. 

Post semester clean-up and end-of-the-semester rant

In addition to grading and grades, followed by tears and gripes, TPP's research lab and teaching classroom/lab are basically a pit.  The debris left over by a semester of student work is considerable.  Fortunately disposable petri dishes may just be disposed of.  OK, this isn't green, but it is ultra convenient.  Bits and pieces of student research projects either get removed or discarded as well.  Much of it was recycled material anyways.  Glasswear gets washed.  The refridgerator, oh, this can be very scary.  Maybe you've never had a lab fridge, but you don't want to put your lunch in there, although ours is safe for food, safe in a certified sense.  All sorts of slides and specimens must find their way back to there respective homes, their cabinets, drawers, and cupboards.  Most people have no idea how much of this stuff it takes to teach botany labs, but it takes up more space than the classroom itself.  This is why it's so helpful when a facility manager declares that "they [biolog] have plenty of room if they'd just throw out all the junk the keep around."  Yes, "all the junk" we use to put biology into the hot little hands of students. "All the junk" that makes us a university not a high school.  Remind me again why faculty must tolerate such morons?  Students come into two flavors with respect to general lab cleanup; those who take care of their own messes and trash, and those who expect someone else to follow them around and deal with it.  Whose apartment would you want to visit?  The fun part is rediscovering things you had sort of forgotten about.  It's like re-discovering a toy you hadn't played with in a great while. Some things have for unknown reasons taken a beating like the four balls of clay used to demonstrate a tetrad of spores and the fomation of trilete scars on the spore wall following meiosis.  Yes, clay.  What do you use?  Fortunately it can be remolded. And lastly you have to make a list of supplies and commodities that got used up so that when the new budget year arrives, and if some budget actually arrives with the new year, you can get replacements.  Lab stools dropped like flies having demonstrated that their have a 12 year useful half-life; exactly half the stools broke during the last 2 semester.  Wonder if we can get some new stools or continue to display a stool/chair museum.  This is the latest outrage in misguided and phoney baloney cost accounting.  Since the lab classroom is only used by our department, buying furniture for the lab is the dept's responsibility.  OK you can understand this, but, and this is a big BUT, the dept never gets any of the revenue the teaching generates.  So no tuition money to buy stools exists in the dept, but it's the dept's responsibility.  It must take the combined intellects of at least 3 assistant provosts to think of stuff like this.  Oh, so now TPP is back to grading.   

Just a little bit busy this spring

The end of the semester, the beginning of field season, a publishing deadline, and home gardening are all colliding here in May when the days just don't have enough hours.  At the coffee shoppe this morning, at least 5 colleagues were sitting there with piles of papers.  Only one of them was in a semi-good mood.  What a terrific person she must be.  Students want to know their grades, and TPP wants to provide them as soon as possible.  However, a bit of patience is a virtue and so is a careful, thoughtful evaluation.  Same goes for the field work and gardening. This afternoon will be spent in the field looking for our permanent plots.  They are marked in the SW corner by a big spike and a inch and a half numbered aluminum tag.  It's hard enough to find them when the prairie has been burned, but this year is didn't get burned.  When the plot gets found, a 36-inch pvc pipe is shoved over the spike at the corner.  When the vegetation really gets up there, it's hard to even find the pvc.  An observant person can be within inches of a tag and not see it.  This is sure to be fun.  At home, plants are showing up faster than the Phactors can plant them, and it's always good to take time to plant things well and in the best location possible.  One particularly well-placed plant is an orange flowered azalea that sits in a nice copse among old spruces, a bald cypress, and big hostas.  In flower, it really lights up the space, which faces the street.  Yesterday a passer-by noticed it and braked their car suddenly for a better look and almost got rear-ended.  That would have been an expensive look.  People have actually stopped, parked, and come to the door to ask what variety it is (spicy lights).  Just planted a new azalea in the same series that has white and yellow flowers (highlights). TPP will try hard to get some more plant placements like this.        

The 100th flowering plant Index - 2010-2013

TPP's 1st day of flowering log provides some interesting data. On May 5th, the 100th different plant in our gardens flowered. This is considerably later than a typical year, if such a thing exists.  In 2010 the 100th flowering event was reached on April 21st, and in 2011 it came on April 27th.  So 2013 is 8 to 16 days behind.  However last year was just much abnormal. The 100th flowering event took place on March 25th!  It was ridiculous!  The 100th flowering event sort of evens things out by taking into account a large number of plants and their reactions to weather events.  In general this date is reached in late April, but obviously a great deal of variation occurs with spring weather events.  Now if something like the melting of the Arctic ice cap alters the pattern of the jet stream, then things may get earlier or later, depending.  Too often we tend to say things, like, it's a late spring, or an early spring, but only when you have some data do you have some real information and the ability to compare.  Only wish our flowering log contained several more years of data.

A quiet, seldom-seen woodland wildflower in these parts - blue cohosh

In over 3 decades of botany here in the upper midwest, TPP has seen blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) in the wild exactly twice. As the specific epithet suggests, the thrice compound foliage looks quite like the leaves of the meadow rue (Thalictrum, in the buttercup family).  Blue coshosh might be a bit more common that suspected, but it tends to escape notice.  Appropriately enough one hides in our woodland behind a screen of bluebells.  One of the reasons it escapes notice is that it's purplish-blue hue tends to help it hide. What confuses quite a few people is that the flowers are 3-parted and the same greenish, bluish color as the foliage, however three-parted flowers are common enough among basal dicots.  It's a member of the Berberidaceae, and most of the members of the family with which people are familiar are shrubs rather than spring ephemerals.  Blue cohosh has quite a reputation as a medicinal plant and was widely used by native americans as an abortive agent atesting to its toxicity, which may explain why it's one thing the bun-buns don't eat.

Mob scene turns ugly!

Mobs can be pretty ugly; unruly mobs even more so.  When they all surge in the same direction their energy is like being caught in a tsunami.  Kids, senior citizens, small electric vehicles, all get bowled over in seconds as the relentless mob rolls on.  An NFL offensive line wouldn't stand a chance. Checked the time; it was still a few minutes before 8 AM, which was when our annual arboretum plant sale was scheduled to begin, but this morning cabin-fevered gardeners  were a mob not to be denied as they swarmed into the sale early. When you see two elderly women duking it out, a cane versus a walker, to obtain the last queen of the prairie, you realize that plant sales with limited quantities are not for the faint of heart.  There was more pushing and shoving over Amish paste tomatoes, a great favorite, but not worth risking your life over.  With impeccable timing, Mrs. Phactor was late to the fray and emerged completely unscathed with several bloodroots for our woodland garden. Gardeners, usually such nice people, show their ugly side at plant sales.  Such animals!

Hear those crispy rice grains calling for help? Snap! Crackle! Pop!

New scientific findings are often fun and interesting, but how some "journalists" write about such things is annoying to the nth degree.  Xylem consists of a series of cellulosic tubes and during water stress, the transpirational pull upon the water columns, a force generated by water loss from leaves, can generate air embolisms.  In a manner of speaking, xylem gets the bends.  A research group has found that formation of these air bubbles makes sounds.  Now that's not all that unexpected or surprising.  Ever listen to the bubbles of carbon dioxide rising from your carbonated beverage?  That hiss you hear is the sound of all those bursting bubbles. If you had sufficiently fine listening devices, and slowed down the sounds recorded, you could probably listen to each individual bursting bubble.  Or how about the sound of air bubbles being made in a drinking straw when your sucking has lowered the level of the liquid to nearly the bottom?  Now the finding that air bubbles in the tiny xylem "straws" in a tree make a noise when forming is somewhat interesting but mostly because people don't think about trees making any noise.  Now here's where the newsy report goes seriously arwy.  It's not a "drought distress call" any more than your crispy rice cereal is calling for help to keep from drowning in the milk.  Scheesh!  This puts this report into a category of bad journalism by making a physical thing that can be explained in a non-technical way into something vaguely anthropomorphic. Was embolism too technical?  Or xylem? Where do the find these writers?  Oh, yeah, far away from science.

Friday fabulous flower - yellow-flowered wild ginger

The warm weather this week pushed a great many spring plants into flower; many of them had been in a swollen bud stage for a couple of weeks held back by the unseasonal cold weather.  Oh, yeah, like the weather today.  This particular spring flower does well in shade and our gardens are so shady, there is a constant quest for new shade-loving plants.  TPP well remembers the first time he observed this plant at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden on our 1st botanical geek tour.  We knew we'd never seen it before, but the family was clear; it was a member of the Aristolochiaceae, the birthworts.  A bit of searching in the patch failed to find an identifying label, so it took some research to discover that this yellow-flowered upright wild ginger, as it is sometimes called, was Saruma henryi, a native to China. Some diligent searching finally discovered a nursery selling some and it's been in our garden ever since, a small presence, but not very vigorous either.  It's doesn't seem to like leafy mulch, or maybe it's in a bit too much shade as a result of the growth of a biggish anise magnolia. At any rate, rather than hiding it's flowers like native wild ginger, and rather than having purple-brown flowers, this ginger (not a real ginger) has bright yellow flowers that it holds upon top of dullish, hairy but typical heart-shaped leaves on annual stems that will stand some 8-12 inches tall at maturity.  Now the plant is relatively common in the nursery trade; what a difference a decade makes.

National day of unreason

Today is actually the national day of prayer here in the USA a day when that one religious segment of the country, albeit a majority, gets some pseudo-official sanction as the one true religion of this country no matter what our constitution says. This seems pretty unreasonable, but probably it will be found constitutional as has the phrase that was only recently inserted into our pledge of allegiance and put on our money, which isn’t for religious purposes, or to promote one particular religion, wink, wink, but just see who howls if you try to remove it.  Today will allow the sanctimonious to declare that all of our national problems would be solved if only we were more religious, and prayed more, or at least were reasonable enough to let the most religious run things the way they wish.  Could we pray that the sanctimonious learn that theocracies of all flavors have a terrible track record on human rights and freedoms, the kind of things that keep blogs like this from being declared blasphemous because it might hurt someone’s religious feelings?   Is that being unreasonable?  Now if we all would just pray for reason to prevail, and our prayers were answered, would religion just totally disappear thus proving the power of prayer once and for all, but when it’s too late? There must be some paper clips to sort or something else even less useful to do rather than think about this. 

End of the semester for good or bad

Semesters end, for good or bad, and TPP has seen this happen for the past 40+ years.  The worst aspect of semesters' ends is that they are hectic, rushed, cramped, and just plain ugly what with everything that must be done.  Just about now, or maybe up to a week ago, some students are realizing that it's too late; you can't do a semester's work in a week.  A few are learning that all their effort and hard work have paid off.  It's TPP's job to let the grades reflect this difference; please understand that it's nothing personal.  Here is the annoying part; students' excuses don't matter.  Some of the reasons students did what they did are good, some are bad, all are part of life, and you just deal with it.  TPP has earned at least one of every grade we give, so yes, he understands.  Life goes on; a D in psychology from a psychotic professor who has been terminated at the end of the semester dwindles in importance with time.  Your view of psychology however remains forever framed by this singular event.  Many of TPP's students are going to graduate and they will do just fine; a few still need to learn about the relationship between their effort and outcomes.  A very few, those who found ways to ruin my semester and my mood may find the semester ending most unpleasant as the learn about the consequences of their actions.  The successes and achievements of students way out weigh the failures of one sort or another, so you cannot let the few weigh too heavy on your mind.  Most of students think their "teachers" are ready to embark upon a summer vacation, and a few are, but field work and the other activities of scholarship ratchet up to high gear for the active scientist, and the only difference is that if you don't have grant money, you don't get paid.  You deal with it.   Mrs. Phactor deals with it.  Some students have decided that such activities may make a difference and they are joining in the research in one form or another, and you hope to make it rewarding, informative, and fun, especially the eradication treatment.