Field of Science

Friday Fabulous Flower - Maackia

Since there won't be a new blog posted for a couple of days at least, here's a FFF a bit early.  This is the first time this tree has flowered on our campus, a bit of a new addition, and it's sort of a surprise in that TPP was told it wasn't very handsome even in flower.  This is Maackia amurensis, the Amur maackia, quite obviously a legume, and based on all description a very tough tree tolerant of dry, poor soil conditions, and is hardy to zone 3 to boot. While not spectacular like a royal Poinciana, it did catch my eye right away, and not many other trees flower this time of year.  At any rate, it's not a species you see very often outside of botanical gardens and arboreta, but it's worth thinking about if you have a tough place for a flowering tree.  It also might make a good street tree reaching 20-30 feet in height and crown width. 

Officially official retirement

TPP's academic alter ego retires - today, although there was a long, unpleasant discussion about that date with the university that eventually confirmed the faculty member could indeed retire on this date, but that's a rather long and boring story of administrative SNAFUs.  Hmm, just checked some online records and the long, boring record of administrative SNAFUs continues because a sum of money was to be deposited in my account today, and it has NOT!  Great, HR has a clear, unblemished record of getting nothing right on this one at all.  It doesn't feel any different than any other day, but that's because it's late summer and not a whole lot is going on anyways.  When classes start again is when it will really feel different, and there will probably be a twinge or two because teaching botany has been such a big part of life for so very long a time. Giving and grading exams; won't miss them for a nanosecond. Mostly the interactions with students will be missed except when those interactions were no fun at all, so mostly. Now let's be clear about this, The Phytophactor is not, repeat, not retiring. The world still needs plant pundits, and hopefully, TPP will not have to monetize this blog to keep the kitty-girls in kibble. The retiree is going to celebrate this event by swearing off margaritas for one entire month, as a change of pace, while residing in Italy.  Hello, negronis!  

Blog update

FYI.  No domestic internet access for the past 3-4 days, and no time to sit around on hold waiting for the techies, and now the Phactors will be traveling at the end of the week, so expect another blogging hiatus of a couple of days then.

Summer flowering woodland perennial - ramp

While woodlands are alive with spring flowers, there isn't much flowering going on in the forest understory during the summer.  The reason for this is simple: there isn't much light and making fruit and seeds requires energy. However in the spring before the canopy closes off the light, lots of plants must compete for the limited number of pollinators.  A few plants have a different solution. Geophytes, plants with underground perennial structures (bulbs or corms), store energy during a photosynthetic season and then use their stored energy to flower and fruit either before or after their green, leafy growth period in the spring.  You are probably used to geophytes that flower before their leaves come up, but in our woodland areas a few flower after the leaves die back, and you often miss seeing them in flower because you aren't out there looking for flowers except in the spring. TPP wasn't looking for them either, but just stumbled upon some summer flowering in the wooded nether regions of the gardens: wild leek/ramp (Allium tricoccum).  This was a surprise because this species while having resided in the wildish, wooded portions of our gardens for a few years now, has never flowered before. So it gets added to the list!  All you see is a cluster of naked scapes about 30 cm tall with a terminal umbel of white flowers typical enough of whatever family the genus is now placed in. In case you didn't know, the lily family has been chopped up quite a bit by molecular data. OK, quick check, and Allium is now in the Amaryllis family many of which bear their flowers in umbels. Didn't have time to photograph it, so this image is courtesy of Fritzflohrreynolds via the Wikimedia Creative Commons. 

Cargo bikes in service

Why it was just 3 weeks ago that TPP did a blog about cargo bikes in Germany, and now here's an article about Whole Foods in Brooklyn NY delivering groceries by cargo bike. Where do they get those bikes?   

Parking spaces - bikes vs. cars

Our local municipality did a pretty neat thing.  It constructed a big bicycle rack, one big enough for a dozen or so bikes and placed it in a parking space right in front of our favorite coffee shoppe.  How cool is that?  Does TPP have to tell you that car drivers, most of whom now lack the skill to parallel park anyways, complained.  That's right, take away one car parking space and the complaints came rolling in even though in the process a dozen or more people get to park their bikes in front of the coffee shoppe (which is also near the post office, bank, theater, etc.).  Here's the math simplified from an article found at the Treehugger.  Take away even more car parking and you've got room for trees.  Take away more car parking and you've got room for sidewalk cafes. Or should we pave paradise and put up a parking lot. Oh, so you live too far out in the burbs to make biking efficient, well then, you chose poorly didn't you? Contemplate this while you search for a car parking spot. 

Fundamentalists try to set those godless Unitarian-Universalist heathens straight

In a total and absolute reversal of the golden rule, a group of fundamentalist Christians (they come in other flavors) invaded a UU church, well known to be a “Synagogue of Satan", during a service to "witness" to that congregation of godless heathens that they were all bound for Christian hell (hell comes in other flavors too).  This is sort of sadly amusing.  Amusing because TPP can readily imagine the confusion and bewilderment such an intrusion would make upon a UU congregation.  Also amusing because TPP can also assure you that such a presentation of the gospel would make just a huge impression upon Unitarians; not!  And sad because the fundies would think just the opposite and congratulate themselves upon a job well done, even  bragging about it, without an inkling of how they had reinforced, and readily demonstrated, what about other religions had turned people to the UUs in the first place.  Well, done guys. You scored an own goal.    

That's one strange Thai temple

TPP has been to Thailand several times, and in the process traveled the country from top to bottom and side to side. Somehow TPP missed (?) this temple, Wat Rong Khun, a contemporary religious study in white with some pretty strange features. It's one of those things that you simply have to say is "interesting".  Another "interesting" modern place is the aptly named Ancient City (now called Ancient Siam) outside of Bangkok, which is a huge (couple of hundred acres) outdoor museum of scale models of historic structures originally intended to be a features on a golf course. So in
this case, the "ruins" are recreations, and actually rather impressive if only to demonstrate one man's obsession with preserving historical places in replica.  Pardon the image quality; it was a very early digital camera.

Great mid-summer flowering - bottle-brush buckeye

A native to south-eastern North America, the bottle-brush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) is hard to beat for summer flowering.  The Phactors have several growing as part of a semi-shady border, and they are a great plant.  The specimen shown is from our university campus where several shrubs (possibly a clone) hides a dirt bank.  Even in closeup the flowering is quite lovely and attracts a big diversity of insects, including, unfortunately Japanese beetles, who last year really devastated the flowers. The big display this year has not been so affected. TPP gives this plant a big thumb's up. Although native to the SE rock-bottom zone 5 temperatures did not damage ours at all.  

Bad news

Sometimes you don't know whether to laugh or cry after reading or watching the news. There's the middle eastern living laboratory for demonstrating that tit-for-tat (or is it tit-for-TAT?) is always a loosing strategy.  You'd think they'd learn, but for some reason, probably a historical deafness, leaders of nations don't.  Our country doesn't seem to have learned anything about our "big stick" foreign policy since the Vietnam war because people keep listening to old, dead-wrong, but still alive policy makers like Darth Cheney and Krusty Kissenger.  Meanwhile Putin isn't going to worry about an airliner or two, or the world's reaction to their destruction, in his quest to rebuild the Russian empire. As a result of international condemnation, Putin's popularity at home is probably at an all time high. So once again, who nails the news situation? Tom Tomorrow!    

Weeds, weeds, weeds!

The Phactors don't want to talk about weeds; it's been a very bad year.  Black nightshade, poke weed, wild lettuce, lambs quarter, and Oxalis (Not sure about the species, probably O. stricta; too busy pulling it to ID it.) have been plentiful, robust, and aggressive, some growing to impressive sizes. In an effort to prevent them from producing more seeds, weeding has been a primary garden activity this year.  But even after weeding one area, you return to an earlier area, and you've got another crop on your hands.  And let's not talk about sugar maple or redbud seedlings, but it the Phactors had a nickel for everyone they've pulled, we'd have enough for a merry old time. Fortunately, the abundant rain that makes for good weed growing conditions also makes for softer ground and better weed pulling.  Perhaps we be needing an assistant, one with younger knees and a younger back.  How about $7/hr and all the weeds you can eat? 

How to kill an iZombie

Sometime back TPP commented on iPhone zombies, but a similar affliction can also occur due to ear buds and whatever they are delivering from an iPod, so the result is an iZombie. Like all zombies, you have to know the right way to kill them, but based on recent events that may not be too difficult. You turn an ordinary person, often a student around here, into an iZombie by giving them a smart phone and a set of ear buds either attached to the iphone or an ipod, either or both transform the user into an iZombie. To kill an iZombie, you simply must steer them gently into an intersection or actually any urban street at all and in no time at all the traffic will claim another iZombie. So much easier than axes or swords or shotguns. Yes, why they might even get hit by a bicycle going at a good clip. Now this concerns TPP, the bicyclist could get hurt seriously, particularly when they are a senior citizen. So it is quite lucky, although no small amount of bicycling skill was involved, that TPP was able to avoid narrowly such a collision not because of his concern for the iZombie, but who wants to get a broken bone in the process?  And who but an iZombie would walk down a driveway and into the street without a single hesitation or a glance in either direction?  But maybe it would be wise to find that old Chinese meat cleaver built rather like a heavy-duty machete and mount it on the handle bars.  Abe Lincoln would approve.

Barbarians and their enablers

You give a kid a BB gun, and sooner or later he'll shoot it at some windows. It's a given of human nature. You give rebels, terrorists, or even some other type of militia under limited central control some big boom-booms, and sooner or later they'll shoot at something they shouldn't have.  And of course giving an implement of destruction to anybody who is more likely to shoot than to think makes you partly responsible for the outcome. This means you really have to think about what kind of weapons you give to trigger happy groups.  In this case Russian-backed separatists in the Ukraine were apparently given a big boom-boom, one capable of shooting down a high-flying passenger jet, so Vlad, some of the responsibility falls upon the person who gave them the boom-boom.  And the world is quite right to be both angry and seek some redress because these irresponsible actions, both providing the weapon and hitting the launch button, allowed this local conflict to transition into an international problem in a single act of violence against non-combatants. Such acts are those of pure barbarians, those who destroy for the simple act of destroying. So what do you do with such barbarians?  That's not so easy.

Useless research done here!

TPP must make a confession: in his long scientific career he has never studied a damned thing that was “useful” meaning studies that had immediately useful results for human problems. TPP's research was never designed to be useful or answer useful questions from the perspective of a politician, and the scientific funding that does exist already has a hugely human bio-medical bias. Mostly TPP wanted to figure out how flowers worked, and indeed, some of his work should be very useful to nutmeg growers if only they would pay attention to botanical research, but even then, would this be of value to citizens of our state or country?  Also, please understand that a very, very  small number of research studies yield immediately useful results.  You can't just say "I'm going to cure cancer" because so many other biological questions have to be answered first.  According to some members of Congress grant funds for "useless research" wastes taxpayer money.  So they have proposed the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science and Technology (FIRST)  bill that requires written justification for proposed grants.  This is nothing new of course. TPP is old enough to remember Proxmire’s Golden Fleece awards where he’d present a grant proposal’s title out of context and then declare it a funding boondoggle.  A Lincolnland legislator was visiting our campus and wanted to visit our greenhouse, a plant fancier of sorts, and upon finding out that TPP was a tropical botanist, they asked, “What good does studying rainforest do for the people of LIncolnland?”  This is the same type of question really, the idea being that that portion of my job that requires scholarship is being wasted by studying something in the tropics.  My initial response was to ask in return, “What relevance is the arbitrary political boundary of this state to the world's biology?”  TPP studies the flowering and reproduction of tropical trees because it’s very interesting, and science doesn’t know or understand how most tropical organisms operate and interact to produce something as complex as a rain forest, something that may be very important to know on a warming planet. No one study will tell you how a rainforest operates or sequesters carbon dioxide, so many parts must be studied to assemble an understanding.  TPP does scholarship firstly because he likes doing science and secondly because one of my primary jobs is to apprentice students in the process of science.  Most politicians simply think we teach about the knowledge accumulated by science.  So in one sense it doesn’t matter what TPP studies so long as it asks biologically interesting and valid questions because all such studies allow him to interact with students who want to learn how do science (active learning), a pretty useful skill that. TPP has "wasted" very little grant money in his career, meaning mostly that his science was done on the cheap, without many grants, but that’s a shame because it also means fewer students have been involved than could have been involved if TPP could have kept them fed. The idea that all science must be immediately “useful” is a very ignorant perspective of limited value. It's an attitude born of the idea that unfettered science tells us things we don't like so let's rein in those liberal elitists who tell us things we don't want to hear. The history of science is littered with useless research that proved very useful either unexpectedly or at a later point in time.  Political dumb asses will certainly not be able to guess what will or will not be useful. But even still, there is a cultural value to asking, “Why does that happen?” or “How does it do that?” or “Huh?”  Often in the course of doing useful research you find unexpected results that are more interesting than the question you sought to answer. Cultivating a healthy scientific curiosity about the world would seem to be a perfectly useful thing to do, but if dumbos like Rep. Bucshon and Rep. Smith (does TPP have to say they’re GnOPe?) have their way, there will be no public funding for just plain innovating and interesting research for the sake of learning.  Science will be one more area where the USA used to be a leader and now its stature will be diminish all because of political ignorance and bad attitudes about science, a pretty un-American course of action.  TPP feels very sorry for his younger colleagues.   

Unique bird pollination adaptation - poofty anthers

Here's a link to a newly published study describing and documenting a very unique bird pollination adaptation. The anthers have a "spongy" bulb of tissue and they are attractive to birds.  When a bird grasps the "bulb" to pluck it from the flower, the tissue collapses and blows a puff of pollen onto the face/head of the bird, thus placing the pollen in a location to be transferred to another flower's stigma. This is a totally unique anther adaptation. The common ornamental called the "wishbone" flower (Torenia) has levers on its anthers that when pushed squeeze out pollen like toothpaste from a tube, but that's still quite different.  In the bird pollination paper the flowers are part of the Melastome family, a group of plants that tend to have large, gaudy stamens (for example), but TPP has never seen anything like this.  Cool. 

Join the HMS Beagle book club!

This is just great!  The mapping voyage of the HMS Beagle was to last at least a year. This was the voyage of discovery that launched Charles Darwin's career in case you have never read about the voyage in Darwin's first major publications.  Here's the ship's library recreated online so you can read what Darwin was reading!.  It'll take you some time to get through it all because it totals almost 200,000 pages, and a lot of the books were in French. And he had Smith's Grammar of Botany, a real oldie but goodie. 

Lotus flowering on Chinese time

Never stopped to think about it before, but the Phactors' lotus always starts flowering in July too, and apparently this is when they flower in China, and why not?  While halfway around the world, it's still the northern temperate zone. Here's a really pretty photo essay which shows exactly why people revere the lotus.  It is a very photogenic flower and terribly lovely flower, and it not only graces the lead graphic for this blog, but it's been the Friday Fabulous Flower more than once (here).  It is a lovely plant, and it does overwinter in our lily pond (used a big livestock tank as a pot to keep the loveliness from taking over).

Quiet fountain in a hosta bed

Here's another very charming feature in Mrs. Phactor's gardens. In a shady copse under a couple of huge sugar maple trees Mrs. Phactor has a large bed of big old hostas that surround a small fountain water feature that just dribbles water out of a blue and white glass bowl. So when the hostas are in flower, as they are right now in early July, the hosta-fountain combination makes for a lovely color-water-sound garden feature especially when a spot light of sun shines through a hole in the canopy. And of course there's the quiet music of dribbling water. It all has a very calming effect just beyond the patio area behind the house, a perfect place for early evening cocktail.

Oh, no, she's back!

Conservatives' fascination with Sarah Palindrone is a puzzling phenomenon. TPP has never heard the woman say anything interesting, clear, or remotely profound. Her chatter consists of political sound bites strung together, as if anything intellectually deeper than a TV commercial is beyond her mental grasp.  Her sentences are a word-salad of phrases that literally make her a Palindrone, (someone who sounds just as dumb forward as backward), a term TPP coined just for her. Her recent plea to impeach the President is no exception. Let's see. Sarah said, "His [Obama’s] unsecured border crisis is the last straw that makes the battered wife say, 'no mas.'" Now that's a pretty amazingly dumb sentence, so the bar is set pretty high (or is it low?).  Let's try it backwards: No mas, says the battered wife, that is the last straw, his [Obama’s] unsecured border crisis.  That is pretty amazing because in some weird way it makes more sense backwards than forwards!  Oh! The only way that could happen is that her brain is in backwards! Perhaps people could take up a collection, have it reversed, and dumber could become just dumb, although she probably will forever be confused about the left and the right (hands). Maybe then she wouldn't have for attention so hard to vie.     

Mrs. Phactor's gardens

A number of readers have requested that TPP feature Mrs. Phactor's gardens in some of his blogs. Well, they are completely right; he should and will. A number of the flowers have been featured on various Fridays, but not the garden as a whole, or even small portions thereof.  Mostly these gardens are intended to be viewed as a whole, a melange of flowers and colors and textures that change through the seasons. Right now there are some pretty vivid colors which are quite a change from early June. Even since this image was taken, a rose mallow, Queen of the prairie, and a couple of bee-balms have added themselves to the mix. From our patios, the perennial gardens sit in front of a dark, wooded background. Pretty and cheerful, and loaded with butterflies. Enjoy.  

Goodbye Florida; so long NOLA

A warming global climate will result in a sea level rise, period.  How much of a rise depends upon lots of variables.  But in many areas even a fraction of the potential rise will endanger really stupid shore-line development, and people just don't want to hear about it.  Unfortunately, the USA seems to have fewer and fewer politicians who are willing and able to take a longer view of any topic. When you have politicians claiming that scientific reports of global warming and sea level rise are frauds, conspiracies, cooked up for some nefarious scheme, well, then your elected officials have lost touch with reality, which is never a good thing. Now it remains a perfectly reasonable thing to debate what and how much should be done in terms of actions, but to deny that global warming is happening, or that since "dinosaurs survived climate changes" maybe we shouldn't do anything, is dangerous stuff, the actions of politicians who really do not have people's best interests in mind.  For those of you with a much longer view, perhaps this map can help you figure out where to invest to cash in on that high-priced shore front property in the future. 

There was a cake, so it must be official.

Over the weekend Mrs. Phactor and the F1 organized a retirement party for TPP, and there was a cake.  It said: "Retired botanists plant themselves" (in green frosting script!).  Not sure what to make of that exactly, but when they get you a cake, it must be official. The exact point of my retirement is rather hard to pinpoint.  When you work on 9-month contracts, every year you have 3-months when you aren't under contract, when you don't have defined duties, and when you don't get paid. And no, it's not a summer vacation! In fact, technically speaking, TPP has never gotten any vacation, ever. Yes, TPP engages in some leisure activities, which at times are very similar to his job, and travel, which always involves some botany, but it's your time to do with as you see fit. Some of my colleagues think of retirement as a long sabbatical, and perhaps that's not such a bad model. TPP has one youngish colleague whose emeritus research career is now one year longer than his regular academic career, which is quite a notable achievement. For the record, TPP will not, cannot, beat that record. The food for this party was most excellent starting with a fried turkey, injected with a chipotle marinade, and a watermelon, feta cheese, and arugula salad. The amount of food was pretty impressive, but 50-60 of TPP's close intimate friends lent a hand, and a mouth. They also drank some wine, an impressive amount of wine, but not very impressive wine, which is sort of symmetrical, somehow. And of course they had cake. Now TPP will have to adopt a more retiring attitude. Right.  Now, gimme a piece of cake!

Foney Ph.D.'s - Maybe that's the problem

TPP has long noted that his university colleagues generally divide into useful, contributing colleagues or academic jerks at just about a 50:50 rate. Now here's a story about a report that more than half the PhDs obtained each year are phakes!  TPP had no idea foney degree mills were doing such a big business. But the premise that all owners of phake degrees are jerks may not necessarily be true. In all probability very few of those phoney PhDs are in botany because people usually buy themselves degrees to impress for business purposes, money purposes, in places where the degrees really aren't that necessary because degrees don't impress anybody very much in our business; it's what you've done to get the degree and afterwards that impresses, and research accomplishments are a lot harder to phake, and to buy, than degrees. So in all likelihood my jerky colleagues are just jerks with real PhDs. Over the years there have been a few job applicants whose degrees sounded a bit suspicious, institutions you've never ever heard of, working with somebody you've never heard of, and too bad all of their graduate records were destroyed in the great fire of '03, of the flood of '10, or my dog ate my diploma because it was made of real sheep skin. Sure. What do they think? That we're the college of business?

Blackberry or raspberry?

Well, there's a simple answer and a more complicated answer. Both are species (more than one) in the genus Rubus, but it has hundreds of species that also includes dewberries, cloudberries, salmon berries, thimble berries, and more, including many hybrids like boysenberry. Locally it's a bit easier. Raspberries, both cultivated and wild, red, black, orange, purple, or gold, are thimble shaped; the drupelets pull free of the receptacle, so the fruit is hollow. The receptacle stays with the drupelets on blackberries, which often are more elongate in shape. The brambles are similar, as are the flowers, but our raspberries have a powdery-waxy coating on their stems which easily rubs off. Blackberries lack this. TPP is uncertain whether this holds true for all species bearing those names or not.  But here in eastern N. America, that works. Blackberries are of course dark purple-black, but so are our wild black raspberries. So there you go. That's the simple version.

Much rooms

June was the 5th wettest on record, most because of a couple of inches of rain right at the end of the month. The gardens, new plants, and some replants got plenty of water, and the lily pond even had to be drained a little. Wish it could be kept for later. Of course, our gardens have lots of mulch, which means lots of nice organic material to decompose, so the fungi have been busy too. The shredded wood mulch has provided us with some nice fungal fruiting bodies. Remember, the fungal organism is a filamentous mycelium, and sometimes you forget they are present except when the reproductive structures appear, and appear they have. Lots of areas have bird nest fungi by the hundreds, little cups with little egg shaped packets of spores (probably a species of Cyathus, but not exactly the species shown). The cups cause rain drops to rebound dispersing the packets of spores. 
Some Boletus bicolor, the two-colored bolete, have appeared here and there. They have a rusty red cap and yellow spongy looking pores beneath. When bruised they turn a green-blue color, and they are edible. A large mushroom has appeared in several places and it has a creamy-white cap, white gills, a veil around the stem, and a cup-like bulbous base.  OK, that's not a good combination and not a good bet for trying its edibility; most likely suspect is Amanita bisporigera, the so-called destroying angel. Most interesting of the recent appearances, and most curious, has been dog phallus stinkhorns (Mutinus caninus), which tells you pretty much what these look like, a red-orange phallus. Mutinus was a phallic deity for somebody.  The muddy-brown spore mass is wet, and the odor attracts flies to disperse the spores. Most fungal spores are dispersed by wind. There was a time when TPP was very good at fungus identification, but it's a secondary subject for him and he hasn't taught mycology in about 20 years, so you lose your edge.
  Images courtesy of madjack74 and Roberto Zanon (respectively), wikimedia creative commons).

Cargo bikes

Bicycles designed to haul cargo are pretty unusual even around a bike-popular college town.  TPP's own BikeE has a nice nylon pack behind the seat and it's big enough to pick up produce at the farmer's market near the university. But beyond that, carrying more stuff is a bit tough.  Here's a pretty cool looking cargo bike that puts the load low and amid ships.  Looks like it could certainly handle several bags of groceries. However, the sprawl of our urban areas can defeat the concept of using bicycles for deliveries. A friend has worked out based on time and costs how far he could make garden shop deliveries by bike. The denser urban areas of Europe increase the utility of cargo bikes, and apparently Germany gets it.  HT to Treehugger.