Field of Science

Ice is nice, and will suffice

This scene is enough to make you cry for a coniferous forest.  Here's a forest scene from Durham, NC, after a 2-day ice storm in early March this year.  Ouch!  It hurts just to look at this. Any tree that didn't get ripped limb by limb is bent in half.  Any time you want to complain about snow, just be thankful you're not a woody plant and it isn't ice. Of course, this might not seem so tragic if TPP hadn't spent most of the afternoon dragging winter fall branches from around the estate out to the street, and there's still a lot more to do even though the pile of limbs is quite impressive already. 

You state/country is what you eat?

At first TPP thought that the maps might be trying to represent the diversity of foods characteristic of a particular country, but Australia is considerably more than some shrimp on the barbie.  Too bad the maps aren't that because that would be quite a challenge, but none the less these are still sort of interesting maps. But what is this? Lincolnland is garlic?  Wow, is that wrong.  Gilroy, California area maybe, but here abouts it's maize and soybeans, and Idaho has the maize rather than potatoes. Oh, well, something different must have been intended. Here's the link to the rest of the maps.

Boldly brewing what no one has ever brewed before

OK, Klingon beer is mighty geeky even for a Star-Trek fan from days of yore.  But Klingon beer? If memory serves TPP rightly, Romulan ale was way more famous, but probably too hard to get the shipments across the neutral zone without shelf-life problems. TPP's Klingon is a bit rusty, but shouldn't beer be spelled "wornagh" or is that just phonetic? You know these little things do matter. So what do you think it tastes like? Supposedly brewed from rye, which is ridiculous because everyone knows the grain should have beenTriticale (quadro- or quinto-? Never can remember, one from TV, one from the animated version), and with banana-clove highlights. Sounds a bit frou-frou for a Klingon don't you think?

Starry, starry night

Who doesn't know about Vincent's painting?  TPP took one look at this image, and von Gogh's painting came immediately to mind.  And it turns out this image was by a Vincent too, Vincent Brady.  But what is it other than pretty amazing?  Fireflies in time lapse. Wow! It's just too cool for words.  Check the link for many more equally mesmerizing images. And remember it's all about sex, finding and choosing mates, and the gaudier the better, an insect's summer cabaret. Enjoy. 

Feeling less depressed about that article - retraction has been issued!

Well, TPP was feeling down when be blogged about a depressing news article on climate change based on a published study, which has now been retracted because the journal was worried about legal problems the article might generate. That actually cheers TPP up considerably, although no academic problems were at the root of the retraction. However, when the title of the article is "Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation" the ideation is that it can be ignored. TPP's regard for Frontiers of Psychology has fallen to an all time low among psychology journals that he regularly reads, which is none.  HT to Stoat over at Science Blogs for calling my attention to Retraction Watch blog.

Lab materials getting thin

Come on spring!  It's hard to teach a plant taxonomy lab without some spring flora to work on.  Some Cornus mas and some Bradford pear finally decided to flower after a week and a half in the glasshouse. A couple of mimosoid legumes are starting to flower, and TPP missed an opportunity with a tropical caesalpinioid tree that flowered over the weekend by surprise (all at once it drops whole new twigs bearing several leaves, and flowers out of very large buds - managed to catch it once for some pictures), but some pickled Cassia and Wisteria flowers will help the students get an idea of the bean family sensu lato.  Same goes for some members of the lily family to compare to some walking iris (Dietes).  Pickled specimens are never the best, but they are better than nothing. So far it's only been snowdrops. 

A very depressing perspective on climate change

As an educator, you try to stay optimistic. But then at times you run into a commentary that just has the ring of truth, the clarity of severe pragmatism, and you don't like the conclusions it reaches.  See what you think.  Here it is.  TPP found this commentary very depressing, on a rather depressing day, just what wasn't needed. 

A green, sustainable New York City?

Well, if you can do it for NYC, you can do it for almost anywhere, but really, folks?  Think about it for a moment. If you only consider food, you have to have an area about the size of Connecticut just to grow enough food for the population of NYC. There is no magic; the food must come from somewhere, in fact it comes from thousands of somewhere that in total are larger areas than the neighboring state, and all that transportation does have a cost in terms of energy and pollution, and food quality too. It's an interesting idea, but easier to visualize and realize on much smaller scales, e.g., Salem, OR.  Places like Detroit might be easier too because they have so much less population and so much more green space available. A green NYC would be a much nicer place to live just in terms of easier on the eyes. Even out here in the agricultural heartland, TPP grieves to see uncontrolled and sprawling growth convert some of the best farm land in the world into dozer-blighted 'burbs'. It should be criminal, and it shows that even modest-sized, university cities are headed in the wrong direction, but it is government by and for developers who do not bear the cost of ruining farmland and making mass transit unworkable. 

Life isn't fair; science isn't fair

TPP is in a bit of a funk. This happens to many people who anticipating some hints of spring wake up instead to an overnight snow fall. First, my watch thinks it's Jan. 1, 2005, and then my toast gets overdone. How much can one human stand? A scan of the news finds a both laughable and yet depressing item: creationists in the USA, mostly fundamentalist Christians, want equal time because the new science program Cosmos isn't being fair. Well, science isn't about fairness. What is most troubling is that there are that many people who think science is just a "belief", an "opinion", on an equal footing with 2000 year old creation myths. Will they being going to see the movie Noah and think it a documentary?  Well, TPP is not up to it this AM, so here's a quote from the Botanical Society of America's statement on evolution (get the full-text here) with which TPP is intimately acquainted.

"The fairness argument implies that creationism is a scientifically valid alternative to evolution, and that is not true. Science is not about fairness, and all explanations are not equal. Some scientific explanations are highly speculative with little in the way of supporting evidence, and they will stand or fall based upon rigorous testing. The history of science is littered with discarded explanations, e.g., inheritance of acquired characters, but these weren’t discarded because of public opinion or general popularity; each one earned that distinction by being scientifically falsified. Scientists may jump on a “band wagon” for some new explanation, particularly if it has tremendous explanatory power, something that makes sense out of previously unexplained phenomena. But for an explanation to become a mainstream component of a theory, it must be tested and found useful in doing science."

"To make progress, to learn more about botanical organisms, hypotheses, the subcomponents of theories, are tested by attempting to falsify logically derived predictions. This is why scientists use and teach evolution; evolution offers testable explanations of observed biological phenomena. Evolution continues to be of paramount usefulness, and so, based on simple pragmatism, scientists use this theory to improve our understanding of the biology of organisms. Over and over again, evolutionary theory has generated predictions that have proven to be true. Any hypothesis that doesn’t prove true is discarded in favor of a new one, and so the component hypotheses of evolutionary theory change as knowledge and understanding grow. Phylogenetic hypotheses, patterns of ancestral relatedness, based on one set of data, for example, base sequences in DNA, are generated, and when the results make logical sense out of formerly disparate observations, confidence in the truth of the hypothesis increases. The theory of evolution so permeates botany that frequently it is not mentioned explicitly, but the overwhelming majority of published studies are based upon evolutionary hypotheses, each of which constitutes a test of an hypothesis. Evolution has been very successful as a scientific explanation because it has been useful in advancing our understanding of organisms and applying that knowledge to the solution of many human problems, e.g., host-pathogen interactions, origin of crop plants, herbicide resistance, disease susceptibility of crops, and invasive plants."

Milkweed pollen?

Here's a pretty interesting science news article about a study by an Argentine colleague of mine, Dr. Andrea Cocucci (Hi!), and it's about pollen completion of sorts, but look what someone used to illustrate "milkweed pollen".  It's milkweed all right, but pollen?  It is pretty hard to believe that anybody could fail to recognize a milkweed seed with its characteristic "fluff"?  At an art gallery the other night an artist of our acquaintance used milkweed fluff in a sculptural piece, and he knew what is was. TPP is very glad to see an article about such an interesting study, but how can you make such an embarrassing mistake?  Always check with your friendly, neighborhood botanist to be sure, folks.
This milkweed pollen may seem gentle, but some of its relatives have developed horns to fight each other.

Giving ourselves a treat after a hard week

It was a too busy week for the Phactors, but let's not dwell on that. The Phactors treated themselves to a nice dinner out at a quite wonderful new twist on dining out. A couple of young (comparatively speaking that's most of the population from our perspective) chefs with a locovore, field to table philosophy, have taken a slightly different perspective on casual semi-top end dining that doesn't put a big dent in your wallet. The menu is rather eclectic. Our meal consisted of a dynamite pork ramen soup with a fresh egg and seaweed (and a big thanks to the chef for selecting it for us), a smoked salmon sushi, a rustic mushroom, ricotta, and fresh mustard greens pizza (it takes about 90 sec for the pizza to cook in their 500 C oven), some Korean style (sweet hot sesame) Buffalo wings, and a pickled vegetable, rice, fried roll appetizer. Wow!  It was great. And very entertaining too with ring-side seats by the pizza making station. Man, those guys were cranking out a lot pizzas. Very importantly, while there are a couple of flat-screen TVs by the bar, sports programs were not being shown, but some funky Korean kung-fu farce without sound or sub-titles. The Phactors may have a new favorite restaurant.

Girdling the hedge

Let TPP show you the privet hedge bordering his driveway along the property line. This is where the snow gets piled when, and if, the driveway gets shoveled. What is notable this year is just how thoroughly, completely, the bark was stripped from the stems, and privet is a species the bun-buns have never paid any attention to before. Of course, lots of other shrubs and small trees were protected by fencing, so perhaps this just shifted the bun-buns' preferences further down the species list. But a walk around the gardens showed lots of "bleached bones" limbs and stems, striped of bark to the wood. Our bunnies aren't very large, but as the snow piled up, they gained access to ever higher portions of the stems. Of course, none of this mattered at all if the stem was already girdled near its base. Here because of the snow accumulation, the hedge's stems have been gnawed cleanly from about 6 inches to about 30 inches. Not much to do but prune the entire hedge back almost to the ground and see how it grows back. More amusing, and much less harmful was a largish pile of hackberry branches from a large branch that broke off a big tree during a wind storm. But right now the branches look so strange because they've been gnawed clean of bark, starkly white, just like bleached bones. But our bunny population seems to be in good shape and eagerly awaiting the first green shoots that appear.

At long last spring?

Yesterday was the vernal equinox, a bit of a misnomer because if TPP understands it correctly, the night and day light hours are not exactly equal because of something or other about when the day is declared started and finished.  But this doesn't matter because spring is declared when our plants start to flower. Today the snowdrops, one small cluster, were declared in flower, our first flowers of the 2014 season, so it's spring. Today was the first day the Phactors took a tour of the estate, and the damage was pretty grim, a combination of bad bun-buns and severe cold. Both took a toll. Spring clean up will be quite a chore.

Is the tomato a fruit or a vegetable?

For the jillionth time, the tomato is a fruit. That this question went to the Supreme Court is totally silly, but then to add that the justices had to consult a DICTIONARY, well, that's just insulting! You consult your friendly neighborhood botanist to answer such questions.  That's what we're here for. Typical though that SCOTUS justices didn't know enough to know who to consult. Very simply they should have just contacted a botanist, someone like John Kress (the Indiana Jones of ginger) at the Smithsonian, and gotten an authoritative answer in 5 sec or so, if he was in the country. So the next time you get your tomato jam out (often called ketchup), remember the tomato is a fruit.

Does the world need a glow-in-the-dark bicycle?

Well, hell, yes!  A glow in the dark bike might even be enough to get TPP to ride at night. A glow bike is just plain nifty, and much cooler than the light bikes seen riding around NYC in Men in Black. It certainly makes the vehicle a lot more visible, and bike riders need all the visibility they can get. Now does this come in a semi-recumbent?

Forcing flowering

What's a guy to do? Spring is not cooperating, and my taxonomy class needs some flowers. Some of the early flowering tree/shrub species are showing swelling buds, so it's time to force some flowering. Most woody species at this stage can be forced into flower.  First you just cut some branches, and then as soon as possible you pound the base of the stem with a hammer to sort of pulverize it. This helps the wood wick up more water. The branch is then placed in a bucket of water. It works best to put branches is a cool place, but if you need flowering sooner, put it in a warmer place, like a glasshouse. So what's available?  Silver and red maple, witchhazel, alder, birch, filbert, Cornelian cherry, an ornamental pear.  Not bad, but our forsythia flower buds are toast. The shrub is hardier than the flower buds, so if any flowering happens this year all the cheerful yellow flowers will be low to the ground where they were insulated by snow. The silver maple flowered overnight, which was way too fast, but TPP will get some more now that he knows. The Cornelian cherry is showing some color, and other buds are still swelling, so we'll see what happens. Hope the students appreciate my efforts. As for Ms. Phactor, she got some artificial forsythia for St. Patrick's Day because there won't be any others.

Here's a local tribute to the Irish - weird, but a tribute

St. Patrick's day celebrations here about has a lot to do with cabin fever. Here in the upper Midwest, people get a bit crazy after a couple of months of winter, and as a result do some pretty weird stuff. Generally this cooped up craziness surfaces just about on the 17th of March, so people do things like this.  What you are looking at is the Chi-town river just a few hundred yards before it flows into Lake Michigan. What the hell is everyone thinking? Who thinks it's a great idea to dye a whole river green? What about the whitefish? TPP must report a chat with a Chi-town fireman whose job, duty perhaps, short straw more likely, was to be prepared to jump into the green river, not just green, but cold and icy too, to rescue any drunken revelers who might fall in. No question about it, he was more worried about the color of the water than its temperature. So what can TPP tell you? People get crazy, and it's just the Irish that deserve the blame, maybe a little, but not the total blame. But at least none of the drinkers who surrounded us fell in, so our loyal public servant did not have to worry about his skin color for the rest of the week. BTW, we Irish prefer a darker shade. 

Cleaning out the freezer now a lower priority

Things stay preserved better frozen than generally believed. This is such a relief. Let's not worry about that bag of cranberries residing in the lower strata of our freezer, although every now and then we get quite a surprise because of a faulty memories and no database of deposits what so ever. Nothing too surprising then to discover moss spores surviving a couple of thousand years in a permafrost deep freeze.  Some place TPP read about a lupine seed that had been frozen for 10,000 years or so in a tundra deep freeze.  Now this makes those paleo-porkchops not so scary when you find out they've exceeded their freezer limits by a couple of years. Wonder if they will grow? 


One thing is certain based on the experience of 40+ years of teaching botany; very few people know what they are really eating or where it comes from. Providing such information, enlightening a few people, is part of the fun of teaching the botany of economically important plants. So TPP was delighted to find this rather nicely illustrated article about cinnamon at the HuffPo. Last year the Cinnamomum shrub in our glasshouse up and died, and as yet a replacement hasn't been obtained.  So if anyone has a trip planned to Sri Lanka, pick up a seedling for TPP; he'll be very grateful. Oh, yes, the cinnamon fern (Osmunda) has nothing to do with cinnamon; however it does describe the color of the mature fertile fronds and its spores.

Organic seeds - save your money

TPP went to his favorite garden shoppe to buy a few packs of seeds, some lettuce & spinach to put in his cold frame for some early season salad. And there, prominently displayed, was an entire rack of "organic" seeds. Now other than the absurdity of the name (the alternative is inorganic?) this is nothing but pure green-washing, marketing for the sake of making money from people who don't know much but want to do the right thing. There is not one single biologically relevant difference between organic lettuce seed and "inorganic" lettuce seed. The one real reason for considering foods produced by organic gardening is to reduce pesticides in the environment and their residues in your food. This is a real and valid concern, but mostly the danger is greatly exaggerated, but still, OK, go with organic if you choose. It is better for the environment, and without question pesticides are overused and many times needless. If you think fertilizer is the issue, and again it is overused, plants don't know or care where than nitrate ion came from. If you think organic foods are more nutritious then you are among the gullible who just might pay more for organic seeds even though this will have no impact what so ever on your raising and eating of these crops. You don't need organic seed to garden organically. The only meaningful argument is again organic farming is better for the environment, and this is quite small segment of agriculture when measured against the whole, and a reasonable cost-benefit analysis is that they aren't worth the difference in price, which may not be justified at all by differences in the cost of production. So then who is pocketing that difference in price? Yes, by all means, do the right thing, but no reason to be a sucker in the process. Oh, yes, over there are the organic tobacco cigarettes.

Winter post-mortem and triage

Well, most the glaciers have retreated, and even the mid-week snowfall has melted, and it's getting easier to assess the damage and the cause.
Privet hedge - seriously wounded by bunnies; amputation recommended - recovery probable.
Plum yew (Cephalotaxus) - terminal, COD: cold.
Dwarf Japanese white pine - seriously wounded by cold; recovery in doubt.
Young hemlock (Tsuga) - terminally wounded by bunnies; no recovery possible.
Japanese umbrella pine (Scaidopitys) - older foliage damaged by cold; recovery likely.
Dwarf scotch pine - seriously wounded, 2/3s of crown removed by bunnies; recovery likely but it won't look the same.
Sedum ground cover has been nibbled to the ground by bunnies; full recovery anticipated.
Other shrubs will require more time before it can be determined what leaves out and where it leaves out.
That's the assessment at this time. Conifers really took a beating. Not everything is so grim. A clumping bamboo of doubtful hardiness appears to be quite alive probably due to snow cover. A young Helleborus foetidus of doubtful hardiness (winter cold killed a previous one) seems to be fine, and again the heavy snow cover may have helped. Otherwise the rest of the yards and gardens look like hell heavily littered by twigs and limbs, dead perennials, leaves, and wind-blown junk from who knows where. Clean up will take quite an effort.

Friday Fabulous Fern

Too much politics and not enough botany and your brain begins to rot, so let's have a Friday Fabulous Fern! Further in a effort to change the seasons, TPP will change gears and provide you with a botanical treat from the tropics.  Yes, our spring thaw was interrupted by several inches of snow, thus setting a record for snowiest winter ever in this location. Swell.  So here you go, no plant quiz on this one because the genus is too easy to get, and you'd never get the right species because this fern is a pretty narrow endemic, but TPP had a study site and lived within its range in far northern Queensland. This is Cyathea woollsiana, a really beautiful tree fern, and TPP does like looking up through their whorl of fronds. More correctly this is an arborescent fern, a fern with a tree-like growth habit, but they aren't trees because they don't make any wood, or branches.  Even still this species can grow to 6 m tall. Oh, yes, there were platypuses in the adjacent creek.

Science itself has many laws, but it doesn’t give a damn about ours.

This postings title is a quote from Phil Plait's column over at Slate. This in response to yet another GnOPe (the G is silent in case you didn't know) controlled state, Wyoming, trying to legislate the content of science. With the "we'd rather be ignorant than right" party in control in so many places, science is taking a drubbing once again, and again at the level of grade school and high school students. In a classic LA LA LA LA I CAN'T HEAR YOU move the state legislature passed a measure to prevent the state board of education from even reviewing anything that might lead to curricular changes, and specifically aimed at keeping troublesome ideas out of the classroom (evolution, climate change, inconvenient historical facts, etc.). You know the GnOPe is beginning to act more like the Ministry of Truth in 1984 all the time. Is this a road the USA wants to travel?  People are going to have to make up their minds, are we going to be mushrooms (kept in the dark and fed horse manure) or not? 

Now that was a political speech to remember. Not!

The most dangerous, unforgivable thing John McCain ever did was to pick Sarah Palindrone as his VP running mate; the idea that she was that close to so much power is truly scary. And now the USA seems stuck with her as a celebu-pol because she hasn't disappeared as TPP thought she would. One can only wonder how bad things might have been with such a puppet being controlled by some sort of shadow government. Without question it would have been worse than with W who let evil but very smart Darth Cheney decide way too many things. Fortunately Sarah's been reduced to a political sideshow, but she apparently still really knows how to give a speech, especially at CPAC.  "It was as singularly embarrassing a public address as any allegedly sentient primate ever has delivered...a disgrace to politics, to rhetoric, to the English language, and to seventh-grade slam books everywhere,"  according to columnist Charles Pierce.  Wow! He concludes, "She is the living representation of the infantilization of American politics, a poisonous Grimm Sister telling toxic fairy tales to audiences drunk on fear, and hate and nonsense. She respects no standards but her own. She is in perpetual tantrum, railing against her betters, which is practically everyone, and volunteering for the job of avatar to the country's reckless vandal of a political Id. It was the address of a malignant child delivered to an audience of malignant children." Wow, again! For some reason Charles was being easy on her. What do other nations think when a person like Sarah gets so much attention in the USA? Oh, yeah, the USA also invented "reality" TV and game shows.  They should wonder, and worry, about the least common denominator in the USA.  TPP does.  Where Pierce really nails it though is that the conservative politics that has so enamored so many people of late is based on fear and hate, and an alternate reality of history, facts, and science. 

Field trips versus tours

Some educational tour organization called TPP and wondered if he had ever considered organizing any educational travel for his students.  Since 1996 we've taken a rainforest ecology class to Costa Rica annually.  Who organizes your trip? We do, with the help of the university's travel agent to book flights. How long is your trip? About 2 weeks long. Great! We'd like to see your itinerary and let you compare costs with some tours that we organize. Ah. Well, we don't have an itinerary because we don't take students on tours. We take students on field trips, so we go to a destination and then they study natural history and conduct research until it's time to come back. Would you consider leading one of our tours? OK, you aren't understanding.  TPP is an instructor, a botanist, and he leads field trips; he is not a tour-guide and doesn't lead tours. Tours are educationally superficial; a field trip is an in-depth experience. Well, thank you for your time.
You cannot imagine how many times TPP has had to explain this to deans, provosts, and their administrative minions, and to parents, and even to students so that they don't get the wrong idea either (a few do get the wrong idea). Non-biologists only think in terms of tours because that's what they do mostly. One or two deans ago (they tend to come and go) TPP was invited to bring a student or two over for a luncheon with a new, heavy-duty university trustee, but it was short notice so only one student could be located: Layla. The rest of the luncheon was composed of history and language students all of whom had been on European tours, and when asked about their experience, they all cheerfully chirped about seeing this and seeing that and what a great time they had. And when finally our trustee got to Layla, she replied that she hadn't been on a tour, but on a field trip, and the only place we'd been was a tropical field station in Costa Rica for an intensive study of rainforest natural history and to conduct a field research project. Wow! And without TPP's coaching either. To his credit the trustee wanted to know what she had learned and what she had done for a research project, and her responses were just so darned impressive sounding compared to "tours".  There are times when students just make your day! TPP was so proud. Then the trustee asked TPP about university support and assistance.  There isn't any.  Faculty do it all, and the students pay the costs in total because none of the tuition gets rebated to the department to cover the expenses. Why not asked the trustee?  Good question, sir. Our dean seemed dour.

Primary season blues

Nothing can be more depressing than election season here in Lincolnland. The state presently has a governor who ascended to office when the feds locked up his predecessor in a special prison kept just for disgraced politicians. This fellow is not a crook, not ethically challenged, but not particularly effective either. Yawn. The opposition sees the governorship as a vulnerable position, so lots of wannabees have emerged and in another week we citizens get to choose among them for a worthy candidate.  It's a grim choice.  The front runner is a self-proclaimed 1%er of the 1% (i.e., a 0.1 percenter). In simple terms a filthy rich businessman who has already spent 5 or 6 million of his own money on his campaign. In and of itself that doesn't bother TPP, but where is it written that guys who've made a lot of money would be any good at running a state?  A state isn't a business and isn't run like one either. This guy is full of rhetoric and clueless otherwise.  So he comes across as arrogant do-it-my-way-or-else type of tyrant who think of themselves as "leaders".  Another local candidate also touts his business experience ignoring the fact that his business as skated along the thresh hold of bankruptcy and questionable decisions with regard to what a conflict of interest is in politics. OK, if something you are voting on stands to enrich you Mother, whose investment is being managed by yourself, sort of as a shill because you couldn't get the loan otherwise, it's a conflict of interest to vote on it.  Then there's the treasurer who shows all the signs of having reached the pinnacle of the peter principle, and now is over reaching for higher office as rumors and a law suit emerge suggesting a questionable relationship with a principle assistant that generally would be found unacceptable to conservative voters. It does little to inspire. Nonetheless, the Phactors shall try to vote for the least objectionable, least harmful of the bunch if indeed that can be determined. Anyone want to trade? 

Spring thaw and debris moraines

Presently the area is getting it's first significant thaw since mid-December. Since the amount of snow was a local record (a piddly amount compared to snow belt snowfalls) masses of snow got piled in lots of places, sort of small man-made glaciers, and now they are beginning to melt. Melting glaciers deposit the sediments they've picked up in moraines. Now in a very similar manner, as all the snow-pile glaciers retreat, all the crap that was discarded all winter is being exposed and deposited as litter moraines. When you see how much crap has accumulated, you get quite discouraged that anti-littering campaigns have had so little impact, but of course it could be much worse and probably would be if not for a better ethic about trashing the world.  Nature plays a hand as well, and the amount of twigs and limbs that have accumulated over the winter in our yard and gardens is pretty impressive too. There will be quite a pile to discard. Most curiously a couple of large piles of limbs trimmed from a large trunk that spilt from a bit hackberry tree were left on the ground in December. They have largely been gnawed clean of bark leaving nothing but white tree "bones". The spring cleanup will be quite a chore.

A Rose by any other name might be a Heather

The Chi-town Trib had an article today about botanical names for people, well, actually for babies because that's when they get named, and it seems only for girls. Why are flower and plant names perceived as feminine?  Do Maple and Clover sound like girls?  What about Lilac?  What about Filbert?   That sounds rather masculine, but a bit nutty.  How about Nellia?  That one is basically undiscovered both as a flowering shrub and a baby name.  Does it have potential?  Yes, on both counts.  But it's true, quite a few flower names get used a girl names; everyone can remember when every other woman you met was Heather (#8 in the 1970s).  Rose was #16 in the 1910s.  Here's the 10 plant/flower names that are becoming more popular of late (according to the article): Lily, Violet, Willow, Hazel, Ivy, Iris, Olive, Dahlia, Juniper, and Azalea.  A couple of these are a surprise; Juniper?  Really?  Apparently Jasmine was number 29 in the 2000s probably a credit to Disney's Aladdin movie. Holly was popular some years back as TPP discovered via google.  Violet is at its most popular rank in 100 years. Poppy remains rather uncommon; only one comes to mind - Poppy Montgomery, although this is a bit of a truncated version of her given name - Poppy Petal Emma Elizabeth Deveraux Donaghue. TPP also knew women called Linnea and Nyssa, which reminds him that Dr. Chips names his pets after plants, e.g.,Typha (do you need to be told it was a cat?).  Of course a number of plant names are derived from the names of goddesses, so these might be very appropriate names for little girls.  For example, how about Hebe?  It does sort of suggest a middle name as well.  Or maybe just Flora or Terra (daughter of a former colleague) to cover a lot of bases?  Just happened to think of Laural. But no one is naming their little boys Nemestrinius or Radish. Why not? Ah, finally thought of a plant used as a boy's name: Ash.  Do readers have any good examples?  Let's hear them.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Mimiature "holly"

Not too many people notice these little pink flowers on a little shrub in our glasshouse. Most people think it's some kind of miniature holly because of its leathery leaves with spiny margins, and that's what Malpighia coccigera is called some times.  This species is a close relative of the Barbados cherry (M. glabra). The fruit of both species is a bright red berry/drupe, but the former's fruit is pretty small. It's sort of unusual to see petals on stalks, but the sepals peeking through each have a pair of glands.   Sometimes this shrub is grown as an ornamental, and for many years TPP had one as a bonsai tree that required constant pruning (a total pain because it's a stubborn plant).  Nonetheless it's charming in flower especially when seen close up.  The name is interesting because it's an honorific for Marcello Malpighi, a professor at Bologna during in mid1600s. Here's his  Wikipedia entry: Malpighi gave his name to several physiological features related to the biological excretory system such as the Malpighian corpuscles and Malpighian pyramids of the kidneys and the Malpighian tubules of insects. Well, that is just an outrage!  Marcello was one of the father's of plant anatomy, and not a mention of that or the plant genus named after him!  This is the usual human-biomedical bias about what's important in biology!  What would you rather have named after you?  Some part of the excretory system or a really attractive flower?  

An eerie, quiet calm has settled over the campus

An eerie, quiet calm has settled upon our campus.  The hallways are empty.  This can only mean one thing this time of year; spring break has begun a day early, which is the usual time it begins.  And the temperature is above freezing as if to emphasize the spring part of spring break, a break of two sorts at once.  How peaceful, how wonderful, how wonderful.

Professor or entertainer?

An article on Slate asks "how entertaining does education have to be?"  The answer is simple; not at all.  Entertainment is a diversion; education requires engagement. Very little entertainment requires more than your passive attention. The most entertaining professor TPP has ever personally witnessed, a colleague, was quite amazing; he would roll out a steady stream of titillating stories and salacious factoids, and, oh, did the students think he was great. And his exams were easy, so in combination, his "teaching" evaluations were astronomical.  TPP is no slouch as a lecturer, but in comparison, when team-teaching with my entertaining colleague, my evaluations were more than 1 point lower (on a 5 point system) than when teaching with a variety of other colleagues. Statistics also demonstrated that TPP's portion of the course was determining the grade for 4/5s of the class because my colleague's exams were not discriminating.  Education should be engaging, interesting, and if you like learning, fun. Of course, now, especially in larger classes many students would rather engage with their smart phones and aren't even passively attentive. So anytime you think you must be entertaining as a teacher, you're heading the wrong way. Put something interesting in the hands of students; get them to engage with it, and you won't have to be easy to get good evaluations. TPP isn't a hard professor, although he is reasonably demanding, and botany isn't rocket science (it's more important and more interesting actually) and a solid work ethic almost always yields good results. Lazy students, students who avoid engagement, students who try to low-ball learning are in trouble, and fortunately in the minority, way less than 10%, but then TPP is mostly teaching upper division undergrads in elective courses.  It wasn't always that way and for nearly 2 decades TPP taught freshmen biology courses to both majors and non-majors. TPP was interesting but not entertaining.  And yes, his evaluations are higher than the Slate article's author.

Do as we say, not as we do

John Kerry said, “You just don’t invade another country on phony pretext in order to assert your interests. This [Russian troops in Crimea] is an act of aggression that is completely trumped up in terms of its pretext. It’s really 19th century behavior in the 21st century.
What?  That’s enough to make other countries laugh. You’d think Kerry would know our history better than this.  Can John say WMDs in Iraq?  And John’s old enough to remember Vietnam and the Gulf of Tonkin, too?  And our government wants the world to take us seriously? 

Plant cold hardiness - It's the extremes, people!

When it comes to plant distributions based on temperature, it's the extremes that determine the limits.  Unfortunately, there also is a lot of misinformation, some might call it fraud, in the nursery business.  Now understand, there's a big difference between a plant that is hardy to zone 6 versus one that is hardy in zone 5, about 10 degrees (F) of cold tolerance.  And a lot more territory in which to sell a plant labeled zone 5.  TPP remarked in a workshop presentation that cedars (Cedrus) are not reliably hardy in zone 5.  A woman replied that she bought a Cedrus libani (cedar of Lebanon) that was labeled zone 5, oh yes, and it had died this year. According to a very authoritative source, one variety (var. stenocoma) is supposedly hardy "in the warmer parts of zone 5", which ain't here!  There is a lot of north-south territory in this part of zone 5 in the great Midwest.  The tree in question had been planted 4 years ago, and for the past three winters our minimum temperature has been about 0 F (32 degrees F below freezing for the rest of the world), but this year we've had temperatures below zero weekly for two months reaching a minimum of -17 F, nearly two cold hardiness zones, near the minimum expected temperature for zone 5 (-20 F), and certainly not in keeping with being the warmer part of zone 5, which is probably about 100 miles south of here. Even then how confident can you be that the tree in question was the "hardy variety"?  To label such a tree as hardy in zone 5 is a fraud.  This species of cedar prefers a zone 7 climate, but can handle zone 6, and with little exception, is not hardy in zone 5.  Now TPP regularly plants things that are zone 6 plants, and just as regularly some of them die, but not all.  Unfortunately because cedars are wonderful trees, cedars don't appear to be one of the tough ones. This winter will sort out the real cold hardiness.  One of TPP's range extension plants is Helianthemum (Cistaceae), a good Mediterranean shrub. Hopefully the snow cover has protected this low-growing plant, and the bunnies have ignored it. Some plants will die back and re-sprout from the base (e.g., Vitex). A sweet bay magnolia was struggling, and was replaced by a hardier variety, and hopefully it will survive.  Generally, it's best to select plants grown north of your area.  Plants grown further south are a poor bet; northwestern grown plants are nearly always losers.  It's like Californians that move to Chi-town. It is to laugh. Always ask about the nursery source. So while really cold winters are becoming less frequent, as you would expect with global warming, the extremes have not shifted northward as yet, so you pays you money and you takes you chances.

Airline food isn't very good anyways

Well, TPP wishes he had known this over the years because those darned trans-oceanic flights and the resulting jet-lag hasn't gotten any easier over the years.  Supposedly, and it is a research study, your stomach can reset your circadian clock quickly by simply fasting for 12-16 hours before you would normally eat breakfast at your point of destination.  Hey, it's not like airline food is all that worth eating anyways.  Of course, airlines tend to arrange their trans-oceanic flights so you arrive early in the day, but they wake you up a couple of hours ahead and provide you with a breakfast. So the idea is to not fall for this jet-lag inducing feeding and wait until you can grab an egg mcmuffin upon your arrival in Hong Kong having flown from Detroit (this used to be one of the longest flights you could take). In a way it's comforting to find out that your stomach rules in such matters. Naturally, when they say fast, they are talking about food, not booze, since it would be totally insane not to have a drink or two to help you forget that you are hurtling along 500 mph at an altitude of 40,000 feet in a ridiculous aluminum tube, however, no matter how hungry you might be TPP cannot recommend getting a "big breakfast" after arriving in Sydney just to reset your sleep cycle because it will truly ruin your GI tract for days to come.  Better not to sleep than to have hotdogs for brekkies. 

Expected witch-hazel, got more snow instead

Well, isn't this just a fine development?  By this time the witch-hazels should be in bloom and probably the silver maples too. Instead it snowed some more and the forecast is for another week of winter weather at least. Blast that woodchuck! This is not helping TPP teach plant taxonomy and ID at all. You see, things have to flower so that you can identify them using a field manual. Granted, plants are not usually cooperative in this regard, but that's the way of it. Now woody plants usually provide enough material that you can identify them on the basis of winter or leafy twigs if you have the right field guide and if the bun-buns have left you any twigs, but otherwise you need flowers. TPP will be reduced to begging for leftovers at the local florist shoppes. How demeaning! The glasshouse helps and this past week it provided examples of several important families: dogbane, euphorb, mallow, cactus, and dutchman's pipe. But that doesn't help with the local flora. So what is a guy to do? Hmm, let's put a nice beef brisket in the spiced brine to "corn" it (takes about 2 weeks), and maybe make some gumbo to cover all the holidays in view. 

When can you shoot a student? Inquiring faculty want to know.

A distant correspondent and long-time friend has provided TPP with this letter written by a biological colleague at Boise State. 

The Opinion Pages
Op-Ed Contributor
When May I Shoot a Student?
FEB. 27, 2014
BOISE, Idaho — TO the chief counsel of the Idaho State Legislature:
In light of the bill permitting guns on our state’s college and university campuses, which is likely to be approved by the state House of Representatives in the coming days, I have a matter of practical concern that I hope you can help with: When may I shoot a student?
I am a biology professor, not a lawyer, and I had never considered bringing a gun to work until now. But since many of my students are likely to be armed, I thought it would be a good idea to even the playing field.
I have had encounters with disgruntled students over the years, some of whom seemed quite upset, but I always assumed that when they reached into their backpacks they were going for a pencil. Since I carry a pen to lecture, I did not feel outgunned; and because there are no working sharpeners in the lecture hall, the most they could get off is a single point. But now that we’ll all be packing heat, I would like legal instruction in the rules of classroom engagement.
At present, the harshest penalty available here at Boise State is expulsion, used only for the most heinous crimes, like cheating on Scantron exams. But now that lethal force is an option, I need to know which infractions may be treated as de facto capital crimes.
I assume that if a student shoots first, I am allowed to empty my clip; but given the velocity of firearms, and my aging reflexes, I’d like to be proactive. For example, if I am working out a long equation on the board and several students try to correct me using their laser sights, am I allowed to fire a warning shot?
If two armed students are arguing over who should be served next at the coffee bar and I sense escalating hostility, should I aim for the legs and remind them of the campus Shared-Values Statement (which reads, in part, “Boise State strives to provide a culture of civility and success where all feel safe and free from discrimination, harassment, threats or intimidation”)?
While our city police chief has expressed grave concerns about allowing guns on campus, I would point out that he already has one. I’m glad that you were not intimidated by him, and did not allow him to speak at the public hearing on the bill (though I really enjoyed the 40 minutes you gave to the National Rifle Association spokesman).
Knee-jerk reactions from law enforcement officials and university presidents are best set aside. Ignore, for example, the lame argument that some drunken frat boys will fire their weapons in violation of best practices. This view is based on stereotypical depictions of drunken frat boys, a group whose dignity no one seems willing to defend.
The problem, of course, is not that drunken frat boys will be armed; it is that they are drunken frat boys. Arming them is clearly not the issue. They would cause damage with or without guns. I would point out that urinating against a building or firing a few rounds into a sorority house are both violations of the same honor code.
In terms of the campus murder rate — zero at present — I think that we can all agree that guns don’t kill people, people with guns do. Which is why encouraging guns on campus makes so much sense. Bad guys go where there are no guns, so by adding guns to campus more bad guys will spend their year abroad in London. Britain has incredibly restrictive laws — their cops don’t even have guns! — and gun deaths there are a tiny fraction of what they are in America. It’s a perfect place for bad guys.
Some of my colleagues are concerned that you are encouraging firearms within a densely packed concentration of young people who are away from home for the first time, and are coincidentally the age associated with alcohol and drug experimentation, and the commission of felonies.
Once again, this reflects outdated thinking about students. My current students have grown up learning responsible weapon use through virtual training available on the Xbox and PlayStation. Far from being enamored of violence, many studies have shown, they are numb to it. These creative young minds will certainly be stimulated by access to more technology at the university, items like autoloaders, silencers and hollow points. I am sure that it has not escaped your attention that the library would make an excellent shooting range, and the bookstore could do with fewer books and more ammo choices.
I want to applaud the Legislature’s courage. On a final note: I hope its members will consider my amendment for bulletproof office windows and faculty body armor in Boise State blue and orange.

Greg Hampikian is a professor of biology and criminal justice at Boise State University and a co-author of “Exit to Freedom.”