Field of Science

2015 - Another fine year shot to heck! Year end musings

What's a tree worth? This interesting thought came to me while watching the chainsaw pros quickly clean up the ice storm tree debris.  As TPP watched a nearly 20 foot limber pine zip through the chipper, you know you only paid $130 for the tree plus the cost of delivery and planting (too big), but even if someone were to give you $200 for a replacement, you can't get back the 8-10 years of growth. That begins to tell you how much a really big tree is worth, they're really priceless and they should not be taken down without damned good cause.
So instead of a tree limb mess there now exists a 15 foot wide 20 foot long empty space although TPP's Sinocalycanthus appears to have escaped tree fall damage.  Good thin it'd be pretty tough to replace.  So the Phactors get to rethink this border garden and maybe try something different; it was a bit too shady for the limber pine. 
This ends TPPs first full year of retirement and the most surprising thing has been how busy his life has been. So no daytime TV, no shortage of chores, no shortage of gardening jobs, no boredom at all. On the positive side, he cooks more Italian food and shops more for groceries. Further he resolves to clean up all of the kitchen messes he creates. 
This blog is also almost 8 years old. Although very few people noticed at first, readership has been pretty steady for the last few years. Hope you all appreciate the total and complete absence of annoying popup ads or pathetic bloggers begging for donations. Heck, TPP hasn't even tried to flog his real life counterparts book; hard to do when writing under a pseudonym. The assumption is that readers appreciate these efforts.  Hard to know what my readers think because - in general silence. TPP admits that the primary purpose of this blog is to get things off my mind, to blow off steam, and lower the blood pressure in a semi-constructive manner.
Politics is so very bad this year that TPP can hardly write anything at all because it all comes out sounding so very pessimistic that it doesn't help the old state of mind at all. Seriously thinking that candidates should be asked if they garden, and if not, then we should forget them completely. Hoe some weeds, mow some grass, grow some tomatoes and then we'll talk.  Maybe 2016 should be the year of Gardening for better government, then we sharpen our hoes and weed out all of the baddies.
Send your local politicians some seeds and see what they do with them. Maybe we can grow some better government, a real grassroots effort.  Tell the blogger what you thinks. Time to cleanup the kitchen.

Garden toll and cleanup is exercise

Monday was such nasty weather.  The ice storm cleanup took the Phactors about 2.5 hrs of hauling twigs and limbs to the street for pick up.  How many calories do you burn dragging big limbs 300 feet to the street?  This is definitely not just exercise, but work because it accomplishes something. A big piece of a white fir heavily laden with ice required some chain saw therapy to make moveable pieces and that was just the top 30 feet or so that fell into our garden; the rest remains in the neighbors' driveway, but limbs hung on power and cable wires prevented us from doing any more cleanup.  The large limb from a tulip tree crown shown in the earlier blog still awaits professional attention. It squashed our hedgerow garden along the neighbors' driveway like bug and then sprawled another 25 feet or so across lawn.  The toll is adding up, but what are you going to do? Two beautiful 9-foot-tall western arborvitae trees were snapped off, half the limbs were stripped from a 15 foot tall limber pine, an oakleaf hydrangea, three dwarf pink hydrangeas, and a little lime hydrangea were flattened into the ground. However a small 2-year old seedling of Sinocalycanthus was miraculously missed, but doubt it will survive the cleanup because it's not easy to notice.  This is not an easy plant to replace, so TPP hopes for the best. Elsewhere the fir attempted to squash some newly planted shrubs, an Itea and several winter berry hollies. Damaged they are, but they will probably fully recover; their anti-bunny cages not so much. Mature spirea bushes provided some cushioning, and they bend but don't break. On the whole it could have been much worse; fortunately there was little damage elsewhere. If the tulip tree had fallen just 4 feet further north it would have missed our garden but then the neighbors' garage would have been squashed like a bug instead of the arborvitae. Would that have been worth it?  Hmmm?

It's not nice to tempt Mother Nature when she's in a bad mood already


Just an hour ago, TPP tempted fate and the fickle finger of Mother Nature delivered.  The pixels on TPP's last blog were hardly dry when a largish limb split from the neighbor's big Liriodendron (tulip tree) and narrowly missed squashing their garage like a bug. As it is the damage is minimal but no one is going anywhere any time too soon. This is a job well beyond TPP's abilities with a chair saw although in younger and more foolish days he has handled an even bigger job, but then it was his own garage on the line, and it was only a weekender cabin. Of course a couple of nice Thuja plicata's are under that limb and the limber pine may have taken a beating. Not to mention his tiny Sinocalycanthus is where it can get trampled during the clean up.  Of course, this kind of weather will have every qualified arborist in the area working overtime for a week or two.

Ice! Not nice!

Nothing quite like an ice storm when you live in a neighborhood of big trees. With an accumulation of about 1/4" on twigs and limbs, every gust of wind, and it is windy, and it rains twigs and limbs, and it is raining, heavily.  On the whole a lovely day! A biggish limb had fallen from the rhododendron-hating oak, but a weeping mulberry caught it before it could smash a new azalea, but each gust of wind was smashing the limb into a sun porch window.  So no choice, TPP had to suit up and pull the limb loose.  A really big limb was blocking the street and the driveways of two neighbors, but the intrepid botanist was able to pull enough out of the way to open the street and one of the two driveways.  Sorry, across the street neighbor, but the limb in your driveway is way to big for this one old guy to pull.  To continue the good-deeding, accumulations of limbs were blocking the sidewalk and drives of two more neighbors, so since you can't get wetter, TPP pulled all of those limbs out of the way too. Should be charging by the pound, but that diminishes the goodness of the deed.
The Phactors back gardens are a  stream where the flooded upper half is running down into the flooded lower half, and, wow!, another limb just came crashing down, but out where it doesn't need to be moved just now. Birds are packing into the covered birdfeeder, but a red-bellied woodpecker keeps zipping in and rousting everyone else. Guess they like to eat alone
Ooo! Another limb just came down in the back garden, and the air temp 31 F at 7 AM is still stubbornly stuck on 32, so this isn't going to abate very soon.  So far so good in terms of no serious damage to ornamentals or structures. A more detailed inspection will happen when it stops raining ice cubes.  Have a nice day!

New toy - iphone adapter

TPP got himself a new toy! It's a photo adapter for his iphone, once you get the adapter adjusted for your particular iphone, the adapter easily attaches to any occular, a telescope, half of a pair of binoculars, or your favorite research microscope.  TPP has several excellent microscopes but they were all made for film photography, and so this adapter is a cheap, under $50, means of readapting so you can digitally record data again.  Of course, you don't drag you favorite microscope home for the holidays, they are big and heavy, so your telescope will have to do.  Although the initial adjustment is a bit tricky and TPP's model of iphone is right at the limits of what will fit in the adapter size-wise, it works pretty well.  This is an image of one of our feathered free-loaders taken by this new setup.  So far this seems like a pretty good  toy, one that you might enjoy having.  See for yourself, the results are pretty good even when taken through the kitchen window out to a bird feeder some 30-40 feet away.

First flower of winter


December 25th, Christmas Day, 2015.  After a morning of exchanging gifts and eating breakfast, the Phactors took a 6000+ stride walk, according to Mrs. Phactor's new fitness accessory, basically TPP's round trip to campus, a lovely walk during which a friend photographed a black squirrel.  TPP knows about melanistic squirrels but had never seen one around here. Checked out the surrounding neighborhood to see where things were going well and where things need some work. But upon our return home and while picking up all the downed limbs from a recent windy night, you have perhaps heard of our oak tree that hates rhododendrons (an anti-rabbit fence made a save), well that limb had many companions around the property. But there it was defiantly yellow in the middle of our ecologically diverse lawn, the first flower of winter, and here it was only the 4th official day of winter, i.e., since the solstice.  Technically it's an inflorescence, so dozens of flowers, but  you know what TPP means. 
What an unexpected splash of color totally emphasizing the unusual nature of our weather of late. US weather services report so many temperature records and other stuff that December 2015 will go down as one of the most anomalous months in weather history.  So no wonder plants are confused, and in the long haul, confused plants are not a good thing. Now our lawn flora is nothing to worry about, but when fruit trees flower too early, you lose your crop to the cold snap that follows.  Highly unpredictable weather will have an impact on our food supply.  So yes, you may look upon the 1st flower of winter as a harbinger of things to come that will not be good. Welcome to the weather of climate change. 

I'm dreaming of spring bulbs for Christmas

It's 61 degrees outside after a morning of thunderstorms that dumped a couple of inches of rain on us. Not only isn't this going to be a white Christmas, but spring bulbs: scilla, snow drops, daffodils, and spring beauty shoots are appearing all over the place.  Helleborus niger flower buds are showing and Helleborus foetidus is flowering. TPP is surprised witchhazel isn't in flower.  For two people who grew up in the snowbelt this is pretty unusual, but it's unusually warm across the whole eastern half of North America.
The Phactors got an alumni newletter the other day from Oswego State on the east end of Lake Ontario, and it listed the 10 biggest snow accumulation school years and Mrs. Phactor was there for two of the top 10 '69-'70 and '70-'71.  Around 230" of snow each year.  In '66-'67 TPP witnessed their largest single event snowfall, 102" in 32 hours!!!  Hard to imagine isn't it?  But both of us grew up in places that got 100-150" of snow a year, so it wasn't that big of a deal.
But the Phactors have gotten older and softer, so not sure how to handle that much snow any more. Glugwine and a fire place sounds about right.  Mostly the spring plants will be OK especially if some snow finally provides some protection.
Oh, now the weather says expect winds up to 50 mph! At least the snow won't be drifting.

Santa's helpers - elves not cats


Today not much was going on.  TPP was to obtain provisions for a dinner party, a Christmas breakfast, and a dinner for two. So why not take a little time to wrap presents? A whole bunch of little things needed to be organized and then wrapped so it took a little time, but TPP had so much help. One of the two kitty-girls decided to help.  Crinkly paper, ribbons, especially when wrapped around something soft and of just the right size, like a pair of mittens, are just so much fun; they can be pounced on, bitten, clawed, tossed, and just in general played with like the cat toy they are not. I'm sure everyone involved will understand if their gift package is a bit rumply and a litte perforated. Needless to say the whole thing took considerably longer than estimated. Wrapping paper is hard to cut to the right size when a cat is upon it, or under it, or grabbing at it or worse the scissors. And in the end you understand why Santa uses elves for helpers not cats. But she is cute and funny.

Cookie animation

Here's a link to a funny and pretty clever animation suitable for children of all ages.  This came via Treehugger, a holiday greeting of sorts from a website that is always worth visiting.  The patience and ingenuity and technology to do things like this have always been intriguing, but  not knowing or understanding how things are done is part of the magic.

Worcestershire sauce

One crazy thing can lead to another and often does. The last blog, Big Mango, led to thinking and mentioning a big tamarind pod in Thailand, so when visiting the basement fridge to get some cold drinks a jar of tarmarind concentrate caught TPP's attention, and that reminded him that it was time to make a new batch of worcestershire sauce, which is in part tamarind based, and since cooking is one way he passes time and Mrs. Phactor has commanded "no sugary temptations", this condiment would be a good diversion. This is a great recipe and makes a wonderful sauce (no offense to Lazano's Salsa from Costa Rica). As always best to check the cupboards to see if you have all the fixings before you begin, and our well-stocked spice hoard delivered all the necessary bits. Technically this is a bit sugary (melted caramelized sugar), but isn't the sort of temptation that was prohibited, besides it has to steep for a couple three weeks to develop some depth and authority. So too late to use as a homemade gift.

Big Mango

Somehow, somewhere, a story came to TPP's attention about the Big Mango, a roadside attraction outside of Bowen, Australia. Bowen is also the name of a popular variety of mango; it isn't a coincidence. Perhaps what registered was another roadside attraction some 50 km or so north of Townsville, the Frosty Mango.  You haven't lived until you've had their black sapote ice cream.TPP has also seen the biggest tamarind pod in Thailand. And the Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD to complete all of the roadside, out-sized fruits he can think of. Funniest thing is that somebody once stole the big mango.  Really? Shy would you, and where do you hide such a thing? Not that stealing a few mangos is above this author (the flying foxes were rather disturbed), but the big mango, that doesn't make sense. Any other big fruit attractions TPP needs on his bucket list?

Mangroves - more important than ever



Most of you have probably never seen or visited a mangrove forest.  They are by and large inaccessible, a muddy tangle of roots and stems at low tide, and flooded at high tide. But mangrove forests are vitally important.  Mangroves are the primary producers and nursery locations for coastal fisheries. Not only that but mangroves buffer storm surges protecting villages and cities just inland. But in too many places mangroves have been destroyed looked upon as wasted space by developers ever lusting after still more coastal property. in one case in Thailand mangroves were being destroyed to create ponds for growing shrimp, but at the same time damaging coastal fisheries.  However some progress is being made when local people begin to see the relationship between mangroves and their food and storm survival. In a world of rising seas levels, mangroves will be more important than ever. So if you live in southern Florida or other low areas, plant mangroves, don't build condos. That's TPP's wise but certain to be ignored advice.

Lucky duck skeptic edition

Wow!  Is TPP a lucky duck or what?  I mean nearly 2.5 million dollars as a "random choice"?  Here's the confidential, high importance message.
Hi,
My name is Jeffrey Skoll, a philanthropist and the founder of one of the largest private foundations in the world. I believe strongly in ‘giving while living.’ I had one idea that never changed in my mind — that you should use your wealth to help people and I have decided to secretly give USD2.498 Million to a randomly selected individual. On receipt of this email, you should count yourself as the individual. Your email address was chosen online while searching at random. Kindly get back to me at your earliest convenience, so I know your email address is valid.
Visit the web page to know more about me:
http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/meet-the-canadian-billionaire-whos-giving-it-all-away/article4209888/ or you can read an article of me on Wikipedia.
Regards,
Jeffrey Skoll



You know if perhaps Jeff had mentioned giving TPP $$$ for botanical education or something like that it might have been a better gimmick.  And using a real person's identity was interesting, but not all that creative, even if TPP had never heard of him, but really, a famous guy using a university email address?  And searches are not random by definition.  Does someone need tuition or perhaps you are working on a creative writing degree and criminal record package.  Sorry kid, you're trying to scam a professional skeptic. Pretending to be someone real is creative, better than an Ethiopian prince, but it's not believable to have been singled out at random, although the scam was probably randomly targeted.  Hi, is a bit too informal, but better than Hey!  But no name?  Now just to help your career out and out of the holiday spirirt your email was forwarded to your university's security people, which was easy enough to find on line, so have a nice holiday break.  It'll give them time to track down the phony email account you created at Bergische Universit√§t Wuppertal. The jig (slang) is up, but unfortunately what your next move would have been remains unknown, and we so wanted to know as this just left us hanging in suspense.

Vicious circle cycle



You know those days when the hurried-er you go the behinder you get.  Or when you feel like you're going as fast as  you can just to keep up.  Well, here's the vehicle for you, or for any provost-initiated committee where you can work hard, and end up spinning your wheels and going no where. Just this would be more fun. As regular readers know TPP has long been fascinated with person-powered transportation, and without question this bike is high on innovation, very whimsical, sort of crazy, but pretty low on practicality. The really cool thing is that you don't need a kickstand or a cycle lock; it won't fall over and no one is going to hop on and ride it away.  Still one of these in the middle of the quad would keep 6-8 students out of trouble at a time and think of the exercise.  Very intellectually relaxing since there are no decisions to make. 

That was some spicy soup - a typo?

The Phactors have been part of a monthly dinner group for nearly 40 years. Out last meeting featured a Portuguese spicy kale soup (caldo verde), almost a national dish.  It's made with a spicy sausage, chicken broth, and a lot of kale.  The soup turned out extremely spicy even though the person who prepared the soup only used half of the 14 teaspoons of black pepper the recipe called for.  Now that is a crap load of black pepper by anyone's standards and even with just 7 tsp the soup was on the edge of what most of us could deal with.  This number, 14 tsp bothered TPP, because having made this soup years ago, he had no memory of extreme spiciness, and a quick google search could not find a recipe calling for so much pepper. The soup basically relies on the sausage for the spicy taste and most to the recipes called for 1/4 tsp of black pepper for a recipe using 12 to 16 ounces of sausage, a typical batch for 6-8 servings.  14 was such an odd number, but what if the recipe got copied or transcribed wrongly deleting the / between the 1 and 4 thus increasing the amount of black pepper by 56 times.  Now that is spicy, although we sometimes don't think of black pepper as that spicy.  At least the anti-bacterial qualities of that much black pepper certainly protected us from any contamination on the kale.

Compassionate mousers

Mrs. Phactor noted a very realistic cat toy at the bottom of the basement stairs; it looked real because it was real.  Every now and again a mouse finds its way into the house and if noticed it gets the kitty-girls very excited. This came to TPP's attention because of the number of decorative items that got knocked over during the excitement and some general house disarray. The extent of the excitement wasn't apparent at first because everybody was taking a nap (necessary after a good workout)  by the time TPP got home. Mrs. Phactor wanted the carcass removed and it was in quite good repair and as it turned out it wasn't actually dead, just exhausted. As mentioned before our thoroughly domesticated pets have no killer instinct although their stalking, chasing, and pouncing instincts are quite good.  So even after being pounced on by well-armed, terribly big predators some 200-250 times bigger than itself, the mouse was undamaged.  So it would appear that neither of our kitty-girls learned how to kill prey. And so this blog ends well for the mouse who is back outside probably living quite well on spilled bird seed.

What the flock?

As mentioned just a couple of blogs ago, the Phactors do live cut trees for Christmas decorating. Not everyone has the same tradition, so there are many other trees out there to satisfy all tastes.  So is this to your taste? Is this to anyone's taste?  Well, it is there and you can hardly miss it, so someone did purchase this tree. And guess what?  Under all that petrified cotton candy is a real tree. Sort of hard to identify the species of tree when they've been so throughly flocked. Always thought flocking was to make a tree look like it had snow on it's branches.  So what's this Barbie nightmare supposed to represent? Some controversy among the regulars (it's at our coffee shop) whether its red or pink?  And then wrapped with toilet paper another questionable decision.
Nothing quite says Merry Christmas like a flocked tree.

Climate change on Cruise control - annotated

Here's a link to a science blog that annotates the whole NPR interview.  Cruise control is very consistent in that virtually every statement made about climate change was wrong! A very presidential performance!!

Inflammatory rhetoric - It does work

The "Be afraid, Boo!" inflammatory rhetoric being spewed forth during this political campaign is aimed at the fearful base of our culture.  And no surprise at all, it works.  It makes people fearful and scared people can, and some will, do terrible things. The easy access to guns only makes this situation worse, so those that use such rhetoric have to accept responsibility for instigating the very ugly attitude and resulting actions in the USA at present.  This account from Minnesota Vikings game is an illustration of what has been wrought in an attempt to win votes. 

Skepticism justified

Yes, biologists are confirmed skeptics, meaning that we like to be really convinced, and the 800 year old squash seed story seemed just too good to be completely true.  Turns out to be somewhat more mundane of a story, but common enough for many varieties of food plants. 

Climate change on cruise control

TPP usually starts his day listening to NPR, but this AM the news was enough to put him off his toasted muffin. The interview was with Ted Cruise [sic]. TPP learned that Ted thinks all climate scientists are dishonest conspirators who ignore satellite data so that they can reach conclusions on climate change for liberal political purposes. Because you know they used to say the climate was cooling, don't you know, and now they've changed their tune.  Wow, they're all liberals in their political outlook? How do you explain such a skew? Since it can't be due to chance alone, does this  mean that  the conservative mind just cannot handle science?  And that's why all those fossil fuel industries whose by-products drive climate change support conservative candidates, to proclaim the truth about all those dishonest climate scientists. And so Ted isn't a denialist because he knows what the true data interpreted without bias actually says, "no change at all".  TPP felt like he needed another shower.

ancient Native American squash revived


This is one very good looking squash.  It's from a news report of viable 800-yr old squash seeds was sent to TPP. Could squash seeds actually be viable 800 years after burial?  Good question. That they are old is without question, but how old. The article says the clay pot was dated to 800 years of age, but were the seed also carbon-dated?  12 yr-old is not necessarily in a12-yr-old bottle, a 100 yr old bottle does not make the scotch any older. The point being that the age of the vessel doesn't necessarily date the contents. But even so these seeds were buried for a long time and it's pretty interesting to see such a fine-looking variety of squash revived. 800 year old viable seed of any plant is pretty extraordinary, so skepticism is warrented. The article also says the "species" was thought extinct. What? How did they know it existed? Clearly that is just wrong, this is not a different species of squash or an extinct species, it would be a unique old heritage variety lost from cultivation, which is still pretty neat, but this is just sloppy reporting TPP thinks. A lot of people throw taxonomic labels around willy-nilly without understanding their significance. There are over 400 varieties of squash, but only 4 species. Personally TPP would like to see what the molecular data says in the hands of a Cucurbita taxonomist. Hey Mac are you paying attention here?

Climate change - Ignore the man behind the curtain

TPP is a scientist, but a botanist not a climate scientist. Still it seems that some people want assurance from someone who speaks and reads science about scientific conclusions about climate change. What bothers this scientist the most about climate change is what is not being talked about, and that what is human population growth. In many places the rate of growth has slowed but in other places, mainly African & Middle East, the growth rate is unabated.  It's a simple equation, more people means more energy, more food, more water, more waste, more contributions to the things causing global warming. Even with our reduced rate of reproduction, the population of the USA will grow by 50% in the next 80 years. There are countries on Earth where that growth may be as high as 400%!!  This tends to make for a pessimistic attitude, where the potential movers and shakers act as if population growth were no matter at all.  A few people are daring to broach this topic, so whether this gets any traction or not will be seen. There have been so few people willing to act on population, willing to even acknowledge this if a problem, that should you bring it up legions of denialists will arise. It's as if all of human culture has been constructed as a huge population Ponzi scheme, such that without a constantly expanding base the whole pyramid would come tumbling down.  Sorry to bring this up what with so much cheerful news of late to buoy your spirits and optimism.  So to end with something positive alternative energy technologies are increasing in importance and getting more economically feasible and at a faster pace than anyone could have guessed. And it's a Monday.

Society calls. And we answer.

It's that season again, where the social invitations begin to pile up. Yesterday the Phactors & F1 went tree shopping and then some cooking. First was an ecological openhouse immediately followed by a student pot-luck Christmas party complete with ugly Christmas sweater competition.  There was a spirited contest but it was for 2nd place because who can beat a green sweater embroidered with a sasquatch wearing a red bikini? Today begins the Martha Stewart transformation of the abode, and also is a very nice dinner party for which we made some spicy marinated shrimp which are presently residing in two mason jars in the fridge. Later this week we have at least three social engagements in a tight sequence.  Oh to be so loved! And you get lots of nice snacks. When oh when will TPP get time to bake cookies?  And then he is reminded that he is retired and can bake cookies anytime, and yes, that's much more fun than final exams, whether taking them or giving and grading them.  So when do you blog? When Mrs. Phactor is running errands and TPP is supposed to be doing this or that.  So best keep this short. Grinches seem to get burned out  by socializing, but in general it's rather fun to chat with people not frequently seen and to meet a few new people and try to remember their names (not one of TPP's strong suits unless its Latin). People are a bit subdued because of recent event, crappy politics, and all but glad for some distraction.  

Christmas tree time

Issues:
Live or artificial?  Mrs. Phactor is no neutral on this score it must be a live tree, abeit one soon to die.
It's the sense of it, the presence of the foliage, the aroma.
Fir or pine: Again no neutrality; it will be fir, it's the aroma.  The preferred tree is a balsam, but as nice ones have proven so hard to find in recent years, Fraser it will be.
Sooner vs. later:  Sooner! Buy as soon as trees arrive in your area and put their trunks in a bucket of water in a cool place, they don't get any fresher. Our tree will be bought tomorrow & placed in water until the house is ready for it's installation. Ours stays in the unheated garage.  Sometimes the tree gets a spray of wiltproof, ask for it by name, but timing on this is tricky. This year it was too warm to spray rhododendrons & other evergreen dicots before this.  Often it then gets too cold. Tomorrow may be mild enough to do them all.  Wreaths do better with a dunking in water over night and then wilt -proofed.  Just wish the bloody stuff wasn't so expensive. 
Is this  a green crop?  Yes, the trees are a crop and its sustainable. Trees are not being cut in the wild unless your name is Arlan (a Texan) and you like field grown Junipers, red cedars. They do smell good too, but oh do prickly. 
How do you keep cats out of your tree?  How do you keep cats from doing anything? Our current kitty-girls find the trees interesting, but they don't try climbing them. Drinking from the tree stand's water is more interesting, but still as an old practice indestructible ornaments including some bells get hung on the lowest branches just in case, and any ornament that looks too much like a kitty toy must be hidden up high or it becomes a kitty toy.  The young of our two has broken a couple of small ornaments that attracted her attention (making it their fault).



Peculiar "forest" caption

Congratulations to everyone who recognized this was a kelp forest.


COVER ILLUSTRATION: Kelps use a basal growth strategy that positions younger tissue at the base of the blade. This younger tissue is more fl exible and extensible than older tissue at the blade’s distal end. In contrast, red algae have an apical meristem that produces new tissue at the distal end of the blade, positioning older tissue near the blade’s base. In “Divergent growth strategies between red algae and kelps infl uence biomechanical properties” on pp. 1938–1944, Krumhansl et al. hypothesize that the location of older tissues relative to the blade’s attachment point to the substratum infl uences the species’ performance in wave-swept habitats. The authors propose that the positioning of younger, more fl exible and extensible tissue at the blade base in kelps may contribute to their ability to obtain large blade sizes and dominate in hydrodynamically stressful environments (Laminaria setchellii). (Photo credit: Kyle W. Demes.)
************
What this means is that unlike apical growth brown seaweeds have an intercalary meristem at the base of their stipes (stem-like part) next to the holdfast (root-like anchoring organ). As juvenile tissue, the cell walls are thinner and more flexible, so the stipes bend without breakingor buckling, a useful trait when growing in a heavy wave zone what with a lot of water washing to and fro. As you can see in the image posted on the previous blog, this Laminaria has pretty broad blades, a lot of surface area for water to push against. However in filamentous green algae, anchored filaments in zones of moving water have apical growth while filamentous green algae growing in still water have intercalary growth. The first form is stronger at the base, but slower growing.  The second form has weak zones where ever the cells have divided, but it grows faster. This difference in comparison to the brown algae is probably due to limited structural strength to a filament to a multicellular stipe.

A very peculiar "forest"


Here's the cover image from the November issue of the American Journal of Boany, and it shows a rather peculiar forest. No one even tried to figure out the last cover image challenge on waterlilies which was rather difficult. But it hut TPP's feelings that no one so much as tried. So this one demands more active participation. As with most of the cover photos they relate to a research paper covered in that issue. So if you figure out what you are looking at TPP will tell you what the research was all about.  How's that for a deal?  In this case the color tells you a lot.  What a great canopy shot!

Tough transition - Tropics to temperate

The tropical to temperate shift is difficult during the winter especially. Going from green to brown, warm to cold, often wet to dry, is a difficult transition psychologically. No wonder everyone just wants to say to heck with it, I'm going tropo. TPP hadn't worn socks or shoes since the 18th so they feel pretty funny. And everything in the rainforest is so green and here the green is gone mostly until next spring. This transition has been harder, deeper into the winter.  And it was easier when the participants were younger, but there you go.  It would be much harder on any native of the tropics to come to this part of the world where they would wonder how people actually live here.  In the dead of winter, TPP sometimes wonders this as well. Then he had a friend from Duluth, which isn't the end of the Earth, but you can see it if you stand on a car's fender. Anyone from so far south as Lincolnland shouldn't complain. So in part it is all perspective. And for us there was no jet-lag to deal with either just a shift from earlier to bed & up with the sun to see 'early birds'.





End of the line for the field trip

Field trips tend to end with a whimper rather than a bang.  It's because people get tired physically and mentally; you begin to long for the comfort of the familiar, and the ease of you regular day-to-day life although TPP has on several occasions gotten into a new field trip routine where it feels familiar, sort of.  Usually that takes a few weeks.  So tomorrow the troops get packed up and depart. The mud gets washed off the boots and everything that has gotten strewn around gets gathered back up and stowed. How did it expand in size? Everything is heavier because of the humidity. Repacking is rather a depressing thing to do the more so that TPP is suffering from some sort of GI tract discomfort.  Never fun, especially when getting ready to travel overseas.  Another bit of last minute business is to make an order for Costa Rican coffee.  As you may know TPP never endorses anyone, but should you be in San Jose, TPP cannot say enough good things about Cafe Trebol, a 100 year old coffee roasting business located on the Calle 8 side of the Mercado Central. It's top notch coffee at fair prices, and TPP has been buying it for over 20 years now. Coffee is an easy to pack gift being nearly non-breakable. They also have cacoa of several grades.  Time to wrap up a few things for packing especially the plant press. 

Giving thanks for our dinner - a unique version


For a long time this field season has had a Thanksgiving dinner having co-opted the idea of being thankful for things, including their staff, and doing something nice for visiting gringos a long ways from family and friends. They had roast turkey and a most excellent fresh cranberry sauce (anadano rojo) along with potatoes and dressing, and some vegetables, but the really extraordinary part is this magnificent goody table of breads, and sweets, and fruits, and all manner of strange but wonderful treats (coffee-flavored flan, some sort of glazed roasted cheese, salad ala Waldorf?, sweet and savory breads & rolls) and then decorative fruit sculptures.  What a wonderful spread. This image will give you some idea of the extent and diversity of the array of items to choose among, and this is only about half of the spread. As if all of that wasn't enough they even had chicha (a truly wicked brew of Mesoamerican origin). For all of this we were most grateful and thankful for the good company and a most bountiful feast.

Something for a slow afternoon - Sloth


Tropical afternoons are a quiet time; it's hot and humid, unless it's raining, and generally the forest gets real quiet because no one is doing anything. For several days now this charming fellow has been doing just that, not much, while feasting upon the same tree, so it must be tasty, and because the tree isn't very big, sloth viewing has been pretty good. This is a three-toed sloth, and this locale also has the two-toed sloth, which we have also seen, but it wasn't so photogenic. This fellow looks a bit bedraggled because there had been a drenching rain all the night before. But as you can see he still looks pretty happy. Later this sloth was observed running up to the next branch, hand,...............over hand, ............over hand, .................just like that. Almost a blur of activity.  Next day, still there.

Damn big bromeliad


Bromeliads are members of the pineapple family; here in the tropics many are epiphytes, others are terrestrial. This particular bromeliad (Aechmea magdalenae) is one of the larger terrestrial ones. It has no discernable stem but the leaves can be 2 m tall. Many whorls of such leaves form dense patches, probably a clone, and with the sharp spiny margins on their leaves they make nearly impenetrable thickets. TPP has been walking by this one big patch for years never noticing anything special, but this time there was an inflorescence that couldn't be missed because it was as big as your head and bright red. Amazing since nothing in that patch had ever been seen to flower before. TPP seems to remember someone saying that this bromeliad was used for fiber which would be no surprise because many monocot leaves produce long parallel structural fibers (vascular bundles like Manila hemp from Musa textilis). So this plant could have been moved around with people quite a bit so no idea how "native" this plant is.

Leafy passion for phony eggs


One of the best things about rain forest when you're teaching or studying rainforest is the myriad of interactions among organisms. You just see them everywhere. The leaf above is from a vine found growing on top of a clump of Heliconia near our cabina. It's a passion vine, Passiflora biflora. Notice the 8 conspicuous fake eggs on the leaf. Butterflies that specialize on Passiflora vines for their larvae to feed on see these fake eggs and decide not to add another egg to a leaf where other larvae will be feeding first.  But these fake eggs are also nectaries on the back side, glands that secrete nectar and attract ants that will defend their nectar source thus providing another protection from herbivory. Indeed the back side of this leaf had several ants on board.  Note that the top of the 2-lobed leaf is oriented upside down in this image with the apex, a tiny tip pointing down

Rainy day thoughts

This is a rainy day blog. The day started out very early when a bat needed to be chased from out room. A few hours later the day dawned all blue, clear, and beautiful. If it stayed that way the afternoon would be hot and humid. But some overcast moved in gradually, so the day stayed relatively cool, and just as gradually the rain began, first just a mist, then a light sprinkle, then a drizzle, then it rained. It's the kind of rain that gets you wet when you're out in the rain forest even when you have boots and an umbrella. At least it isn't cold rain. Since the front stretches south of Puerto Limon, so it'll rain most of the afternoon.
The big find of the morning was a fishtail palm that had had its frond's secondary veins nipped to form a tent for bats, fuzzy white ewok sort of bats (but Honduran? Sure. Not.). Couldn't get a picture because the tent was low to the ground and back lit, and only later did someone think maybe an iphone set on selfie mode might have done the trick where fancy flash & lens had failed. These are really, really hard to find in the wild. You learn to look for the leaf tents among palms and heliconia. These were most certainly not the bats interrupting the Phactors' sleep.
None of us are cooking our Thanksgiving dinner so no preparations to make. Our modest contribution are 6 cans of cranberry jellied cranberry sauce, with and without whole berries. Since the cran(e)berry is one of the few native North American fruits to be domesticated, it isn't well known or easy to find down here in Costa Rica. The Ticos always regard the cranberry jelly with suspicion, and they like such things sweeter anyways. This dinner is done especially for us gringos, and having been here for this dinner many times, it's most appreciated. The Germans don't get cranberries either, or Turkey for that matter? (Why a European bird for your American holiday feast? Turkey is a native of North America. So why the name turkey? European taxonomists were a bit mixed up about where this bird was from.)
It's fun to not be barraged by the horrible, negative news cycle in the USA, but then you start feeling guilty about not really giving a crap. You do really, but the break is such a relief. Costa Ricans have already asked if we would really even ever consider making Trump president showing that their contact with our fellow citizens is quite biased by mostly knowing the scientific types. This makes TPP think about immigrants and the immigration problem. The thing people in the USA don't understand is that Costa Ricans don't want to move to the USA, while most conservatives think that immigration to the USA is what ALL people want. If you want to fix the immigrant problem, the USA should do things that make people's lives better where they actually want to live and do live. Bullets and bombs don't do that. Think about it; Costa Rica doesn't have an army! How do you think they have the money to afford universal health care and free higher education? 
Just to show you the deprivation TPP endures in the field, here's the view from a coffee drinking perch during the rain.


Ants! Equals Tropics! Aargh!

One of the more distinctive and typical features of the tropics is the inordinate prevalence of ants. This comes to mind because one little fellow just a few seconds ago, a critter only 2 mm long, just crawled out of my laptop's keyboard and stung TPP! What sheer affrontry! No where else are there so many ants, both in terms of numbers and diversity as in the tropics. At our location there are hundreds of species of ants (a colleague says over 500), mostly harmless, and a few real nasty critters, like the inch long black "bullet" ants, to some miniscule ants way less than a mm long that were found in a flower. It's pretty amazing that a 2 mm long insect can sting an organism several orders of magnitude its size, and while not debilitating it still hurt and you don't want the number a swarm of ants can deliver. But what the heck was it (TPP tends to think of an ant colony as a super-organism) doing? The answer is simple: foraging. Your first thought upon finding ants like this is to find the attractant and get rid of it ASAP. Several potential attractants were sharing the table in our cabina, some cookies, some lemon & salt plantain chips (wonderful! try them!), but not much else, and having had experience with ants in several tropical locales, all these goodies were safely being stored inside zip lock bags, a field work necessity for many reasons including excluding ants. But these bloody little ants were everywhere and they seemed centered on my laptop, and then the reason was found, a scent line had been laid along the charging cord! Not that they found anything making this foraging worthwhile, so eventually they would have left, but not before being very annoying. So first you clean off the cord, and then the floor around the cord, and then you shake out your laptop and clean under it, and of course they are coming from under the baseboard, and then you clean off the table and wipe everything down. TPP only got stung another 10 times or so in the process, and a few lingering trouble makers may get him some more. Hmm, forgot about the 3 or 4 stings to the toes. Ouch! Earlier today, a foraging trail of army ants wasn't noticed until quite a few were on TPP's boots. This particular column was raiding a wasp nest, and the wasps were swarming about helplessly while the army ants cleaned out their nest: eggs, larvae, young, trapped adults. Army ants can bite pretty hard, not scary hard, but they make up for that in sheer numbers and the speed of their over whelming attack. So best to watch out. It wouldn't be a tropical field trip unless something like this happened. This is where it would be great to have a graphic of an ant crawl up your screen.

Read this sign? Risk your life?


Every now and again you see a sign that just makes you wonder. TPP ran in to this one yesterday while on a trail through the rainforest. Now think about it. How long would you have stood at that location, positioning your body where the X was on the path, if you hadn't stopped to read that sign?  Made you wonder if you had missed a sign some steps back that said, "Don't stop to read the next sign." While still musing about the sign, some meters along the path, a huge limb up in the canopy let lose and crashed to the forest floor some 15 meters to TTP's left. Where was that sign? Made you wonder if some group of people just regularly came to that spot for their morning coffee to stand around thereby needlessly endangering their lives. And of course, as an alternative to the sign, there is the very practical response of cutting the bloody tree down if it was too threatening in that location!  Probably took a committee to decide. Reminded TPP of the time he found a "Danger: falling rocks" sign smashed under a boulder. 

Seeing red in the rainforest

Bright red and orange colors dot the rainforest here and there for the purpose of calling attention to an organism or a part of an organism for a number of reasons. Since such signals are readily noticed by humans, with the exception of red-green color blind people like my old friend and colleague, Dr. What-red-flower, they get a lot of attention. This time of year in Costa Rica many people will call attention to the vivid bright orange floral display of the llame del bosque, the flame of the forest, but mostly they are referring to Spathodea campanulata, a member of the Bignoniaceae with big displays of orange flowers.  But this plant is a native of Africa escaped from cultivation here in Costa Rica, but this doesn't seem to be noticed by many people who should know better. The native Costa Rican plant known as flame of the forest is a Rubiad (coffee family) with the name Warszewiczia coccinea that TPP has featured before. This was an exmple of the infuriating nature of common names.
Now of course these plants are using color to attract in this case pollinators. But bright red colors can also deliver other messages like notice me but leave me alone. The following image is a common sight, a bright red spot in the dense understory. A tiny frog whose color and voice call attention to itself, which you might think could put a male seeking a mate in danger, especially when so readily seen and bite sized. These frogs are way less than an inch long. However this is Dendrobates pumilio, the strawberry or blue-jeans frog, a poison arrow frog who benefits from gaudiness by reminding potential predators how nasty is was to have tried to eat one of these little morsels. Biologists call this aposomatic coloring. Sorry about the bright eyes, a bit of flash reflection. A young lady on the field trip is using 3D printed little frogs and a recording of their call to study what the ladies prefer. Hmm, have any of these frogs moved? It's not nice to fool TPP!  Nah, they're real.

On the trail again


The search for research specimens is at times quite arduous. So TPP and his long time friend & collaborator were on the trail looking for a tree that never flowers, in our experience, at least at this time of year, but probably because we desire it to flower so much, but somehow manages to reproduce anyways. Actually, it has flowered once in the last 8 trips. Well, here's what it looks like on one of the main trails through the forest. TPP stopped to take a picture while his colleague hiked on ahead.  You can see how the shallow tree roots form regular, or is it irregular, obstacles to hinder your progress. Add to this the slipperiness of tropical lateritic clay and you have quite some fun getting around, which only adds to the joy of not finding any flowers on your trees. This also shows you how far you have to go, which is not very far, to disappear from view even when the location is generally devoid of vegetation. Oh, and that's a six and a half foot guy who's almost out of sight. The great thing is that you see so many things along the way. Soon TPP will post a nice vista rainforest view that is very uncommon because generally you can't see very far. 

What is this concept of snow?


Hah! The Phactors got out of Dodge just ahead of the first real winter weather! It's really hot and humid here, and most people here have never heard of and cannot conceive of snow falling from the sky. The whole idea of being that cold just does not compute and that may be why this can of Imperial (La Cerveza de Costa Rica) tastes so good. At any rate all that snow must be cleaned up and melted before anyone here will entertain any thought of travel home. Do you think any of these people believe in snow? No way! Somehow this just doesn't look like the weather news from home. TPP should say that the transition from tropics to instant winter doesn't actually kill you, but there is nothing good about it at all.

Welcome to the rain forest!


This has got to be the front door to the rain forest. Somehow a buttress formed along a root making it a doorway arch. At any rate this was at the beginning of the trail followed today. Nice rain forest is unrelenting green from bottom to top. This particular rain forest in Costa Rica has several layers: herbs and seedlings, small shrubs & palms, large shrubs & taller palms, subcanopy palms and trees, canopy trees, and emergent trees. And it's dense with so much vegetation, and with the sun more or less above your head or if it's overcast, it is really easy to get turned around and have no idea about which way you came or are going. TPP pays real close attention when off a trail. Got turned around badly in the S. Hemisphere a few times because of having the sun on the wrong side.  At any rate it was a pretty good walk. Scored a few new birds, nothing new botanically though. Ah, good, thunderheads have moved in and it's gotten seriously dark, like after sundown dark, but it's only 3 pm, and it hasn't really gushed here yet. Temperature has come down a few degrees and that's quite nice. Rain has arrived, drumming upon the metal roof as only tropical rain can. Some thunder and lightening which is unusual here but common as dirt in the upper midwest. Students out in the field will soon learn about tropical rain and the necessity of umbrellas and zip lock bags for anything that doesn't like getting wet. 

The Modern Marvel of Travel

Always ask the students what country in South American they would hit if the traveled straight south from Chi-town. It's a trick question, but most of them fall for it. (pause for your response) You miss S. American altogether. North and South America tend to be rotated clockwise so they fit better on a rectangular page, so that's the source of the misconception that S. America is directly south of us. In the Atlanta airport, they had a new mosaic set of tiles that took us awhile to figure out; it was a narrow slice of the Earth's surface at the latitude of Atlanta GA. We passed the geography test that most people didn't even notice.
From start to finish our trip from the upper midwest to a field station in north eastern Costa Rica took 10.5 hours. That is still pretty amazing even by today's standards. In the old days when the roads were worse and the route more circuitous, and you had to boat upriver to the field station, it could take 7-9 hrs to get here just from the San Jose airport. The weather was expected to be wet, but it's actually pretty hot and dry, and very, very humid. Hey, it's the tropics, and rain can be expected at any time really, so an umbrella is part of your kit that never leaves your side. The dinner was pretty good Costa Rican food, rice with nicely stewed lentils, fried fish (corvina?), some steamed green squash that wasn't chayote, cucumber and tomato pieces, and a small custard. And there wasn't much in the food department today, so everyone was pretty hungry. Got the usual safety talk: don't mess with big black ants, watch out for pit vipers, carry your umbrella and flashlight. A small gecko is barking, but this is an invasive species native to SE Asian. Some cicadas are piercing the night with their calls and a river of leaf cutter ants is moving along our sidewalk. A swarm of some other ants already forced 3 students our of their room, but by tomorrow it will probably be theirs again. Glad this year's group of students seems pretty relaxed about such things; one fellow from the past woke up screaming that ants were crawling all over him. They weren't but he was a basket case who thought nature was out to kill him.
The wi-fi has definitely improved. Along the road, saw lots of heart-of-palm and pineapple plantations, not so many bananas. Coffee grows on the other side of the mountains; cooler places. Hope that have some orange papaya for breakfast. And now for a decent sleep. 

Field trip packing

Packing for tropical field trips really bites. TPP has real trouble with this and while my brain cranks away on the multiple problems of what to bring, the rest procrastinates. When it's fall going on winter, it is hard to remember everything you need and all the things you don't need. High on the need list: really good flashlight, compact but tough umbrella, Wellington type rubber boots. If you remember these three items and the rest will more or less work out. If you forget real field clothes, the ones you have will work out and they will be real field clothes before you know it. Nothing stains quite like lateritic clay. So no problems really. It's also hard to know what little bits and pieces you may need if you are going to conduct any investigations. Bamboo skewers are surprisingly useful things as are the essential sharpie markers. You really can't go wrong with a small roll of duct tape. Ziplock plastic bags are terrific too. This particular field trip requires some cans of jellied cranberry sauce (arandano rojo?) which is pretty hard to find in Costa Rica if you plan to have a Thanksgiving dinner. Of course cranberries are one of the few native North American domesticated plants. Also have a list of house/garden things to fix/finish up before taking off for a few days, and the weather has been so crappy it's hard to get them done (terribly windy). Good thing the F1 will watch after the kitty-girls. So now TPP has to get busy. Maybe after another coffee, but oh no, we used up the milk a day too early!  

What Costa Rica can do it does

Just two days before departing for Costa Rica and the Costa Rican ambassador to the USA (Roman Macaya) visits our campus. He gave a very good luncheon talk while the audience munched on a fairly good lunch. Costa Rica is a very progressive country and is doing quite well for a "socialist" country. Costa Rica does so many things right it's hard to know where to begin, but deciding way back in 1948 to disband their army is a good start. And of course there's all the free education and medical care, and the fact that their country will be carbon neutral by 2021 because most of their energy is coming from renewable sources. In 1993 ecotourism became their number one source of foreign cash passing coffee and bananas for the 1st time. Now it's medical technology that they export that has become number one. You know, the USA is about ready for a new president, and desperately in need of some new ideas. Wonder if Costa Rica can export any of those to the USA? Interesting that the students in attendance didn't seem upset at all that socialism in spite of the continual rhetoric in the USA against it.

Tropical field trip

The Phactors are off on a tropical field trip having pretty much gotten the gardens put to bed for the winter. It has been 3 or so years since TPP's last visit to the tropics, so this is just more or less a natural history vacay whilst my colleagues teach rain forest ecology to a class of students. Nothing makes retirement seem better than watching someone else working hard to do what you used to do. It does make you empathetic to both parties, but someone has to drink that 2nd cup of good Costa Rica coffee. Of course TPP will be called upon for his plant expertise because this is another area where no one at our institution has any similar knowledge. It is too bad Vulcan mind-melds don't work; you can only acquire this knowledge the hard way by learning it yourself, although it does help to have a mentor showing you things. One hopes that students are curious enough to explore; TPP has learned a lot by just messing with things found along the way, non-vertebrate, non-stingy, non-bitey things, and even then you get surprised by things like nettles and anacards (sumac family). Weather forecast is simple: warm, wet. Regular storms are expected this time of year, but the weather looks like the real wet season. You expect some rain in the rain forest, but too much rain keeps the students from seeing and doing a lot of things.  The worst weather TPP ever saw at this part of Costa Rica was our course record of 444 mm of rain in 8 days which is about 18 inches.  Gush. You want to hear it, see it?  Here's a very brief clip (Costa Rican Sunshine) from an early digital camera in the late evening ("first thing you need to know about rainforest"). Hopefully a few posts from the rain forest will be possible.  

Cagey response for a wildlife friendly garden

The Phactors have a large, urban garden that contains not only a surpising amount of plant diversity, but also the sort of food, shelter, and water that attracts wildlife. For the most part things are amicable. Just 10 days ago, winterberry was a featured plant showing fall color; the berries are now all gone having been transformed into wildlife fodder. Fine, although if the display had lasted longer that would have been fine too. Sigh. In another quick change, a witch hazel went from fall color to flowering in 2 weeks. However one component of our garden's wildlife does not really play well with our plants during the winter: bunnies. In the dead of winter, the bunnies turn to browsing, and our shrubs' and trees' bark bear the evidence. When heavy snow filled the privet hedge, the bunnies gnawed all the bark off the stems from 18 to 24 inches and up, and yes, girdling stems did kill the plant above. Without the snow pack shoveled from the driveway to clamber on, bunnies can't reach the younger, gnawable bark. The bunnies also crop the beauty berry bushes back to 12-18 inches every year. In these cases the hedge needed re-juvenating and a heavy pruning back to 12-16 inches did the trick, and the beautyberry flowers and fruits on new wood, so it should be pruned back each spring anyways. However, in many other cases the outcome is not so good when you find a pricey new shrub gnawed back to the ground. Last winter a cage tipped over and a Korean azalea, a very hardy and most excellent plant (R. mucronulatum) got eaten back to the ground, but fortunately their ability to recover is quite amazing and it may even flower a little if the cage stays in place this winter. So yesterday, the Phactors spent a most excellent November afternoon moving relatively unabtrusive wire cages from herbaceous perennials to trees and shrubs for the winter. And so the cycle of cages goes from herbaceous perennials in the spring and summer to trees and shrubs for the winter. Also for some reason the cost and desireability of any particular plant is directly correlated with its tastiness to bunnies, or so it seems. Eventually most trees develop heavy enough bark as the get larger, but shrubs remain more vulnerable. Run-of-the-garden hostas, meh, but fancy new variety of hosta and it'll be rabbit salad by morning. Just wish the top predator component of wildlife were a bit more common to balance out the herbivores. Great opportunity for red fox, and the year our garden was visited regularly, the bunny problem was minimal although a few partial corpses had to be disposed of.

Don't pick on philosophers

These days higher education and its practitioners are neither respected or valued, and TPP has thought that our conservative politicians express such disregard because they don't like people who can think, especially those that might think, and vote, differently from them. From this perspective the humanities, which never seems to get respect, and the sciences, which are no longer trusted by conservatives, have never been closer. And the rising cost of higher education also annoys and troubles people, leading them to further question the value of higher education, but the primary component of the rise in public education cost has been the withdraw of state support thereby transferring the cost to the student since higher education is no longer seen as a public good, and in a grand bit of politicking, it's the universities that get dunned for something they have little control over by those who caused the problem. At any rate, the latest bit of this bashing of higher education comes from an undistinguished senator from Florida who doesn't think the world needs philosophers. No surprise really. A conservative in-law from Florida recently asked TPP what good was a degree in philosophy, the same uncle who advised TPP to not go into higher education many years ago, so this is by no means a new or surprising attitude on his part, or his party's part, but if you're going to criticize a literate field of thinkers you had better be prepared for some well-written blow back.  Honestly, botanists would fare no better if politicians ever thought of us at all. 

Friday Fabulous Flower - not even close



An old friend of TPP, Dr. Chips, sent along this image, a nomination for a FFF posting, and that isn't such a bad idea, so this is pretty unusual for him. This isn't a flower, or even in the technical sense, a plant, although it is a photosynthetic autotroph that can really take your breath away upon first seeing it. This is a lichen, more of a fungus, especially reproductively, but not wholly so either. Lichens are truly symbiotic organisms, a functional and morphological association between a fungus and an algae. The curious thing about the lichen as an organism is that it only looks like this when the association is taking place, but both the algae and the fungus can live apart from the other, however when free-living neither looks like this! Somehow the association of algae and fungus produces a new form, one that is recognized as a lichen. About a year ago TPP posted a blog about the birth of a lichen, how a lichen fungus captures the algae and begins forming a lichen.
This one has a flat, lobed thallus that reminds one of thalloid liverworts to some extent, but there is no real plant tissue present only a highly organized filamentous mycelium. Weird. Dr. Chips took this image on Vancouver Island, and just based on appearance, this lichen may be Peltigera neopolydactyla (the "new many fingered" lichen?).  Perhaps someone more knowledgeable of lichens can assist and provide a verification or a correct ID.  It would be appreciated.

Botany Within Your Reach – 2. Onion rings

When TPP asked a group of youths if they had any botany questions, one bright young thing asked how they make onion rings?  Now clearly here’s a youth who never helps in the kitchen, which is probably not their fault, or from one of those unfortunate families that don’t actually need a kitchen since they never use it to cook. Now here’s an interesting image of something not so common, and yet not rare or unusual either, and it provides you a hint for answering the onion ring question.  So before moving on.  Anyone?  Anyone?

It also helps if you can answer the question about what part of the plant you are eating when you eat onions? (Hint: The range of answers is root, stem, leaf.)  Clue: it isn't a root or a stem.  To proceed further, cut any available onion down the middle, top to bottom, and look at what you have - a short, broad stem (the button at the bottom) bearing modified leaves.  If the outer layer(s) are yellow brown, the “skin”, you have some dehydrated leaves whose cuticles on the top and bottom epidermis provides some water-proofing, a natural wax paper, to protect the fleshier leaves within.  There may even be a few bits of dried roots attached to the bottom of the stem, but generally you cut the stem off and discard it.  So the oldest leaves are on the outside and they get progressively younger as you move up (inward) the stem. 

Get another onion. Now cut this one in cross section in the middle and you see concentric circles of modified leaves, a lot like the image above. Make a second cut parallel to your first slice and, voila, onion rings. Here’s the interesting thing, in most monocots and a few basal dicots leaves encircle the stem. This poses as engineering problem as each successively younger leaf is within the next oldest leaf, so how do it get out? Sometimes part of the leaf is discarded (e.g., Magnolias, Pipers), or the younger leaf grows out through a hole of slit in the older leaf.

So you don’t make onion rings in a manufacturing sense, but you must cut your onion the correct way. The image above is from a leek, a relative of onions; another species in the same genus, an ingredient in cock-a-leekie soup, a nice recipe from the homeland. In the case of leeks, the leaves are white at the bottom and turn green as you go upward.  These cross sections were cut near the point where a slit of the side of each leaf forms to let the next oldest leaf grow out.The larger vascular bundles in the leaves show up as darker green spots. So now you know what onion rings are. 

It's also OK to let your kids use knives in the kitchen. TPP finds that after losing one or two fingers they tend to be better students who are more attentive even if they cannot count as high.

University of Misery

Mizzou has been in the news and most of it isn't good. TPP spent a couple of years at Mizzou in his early career and worked with some real nice people some of whom are still good friends. But having come from upeast, a New England part of NY state, the whole state seemed like the deep south, acted like the deep south, basically a largely, over-whelmingly white campus whose diversity was largely recruited for sports. So none of the racial tension in the news surprises at all. Two years of Misery were all we could stand in those days, so the Phactors left for Lincolnland when the opportunity presented itself. The town and campus were pretty segregated and as poor recently graduated types our residence was in a "bad" part of town and our insurance was really high, of course that was because our lower, middle class neighborhood was red-lined into a "high crime" block by being in the middle between two apartment complexes with a lot of break-ins and other trouble, so those of us inbetween were being soaked and the local insurance company was not happy when this dubious practice was pointed out in the local newspaper. The most appalling part of the racial situation at the university is the student response of denying even local reporters free-speech after having used it to themselves to get a change in administration. Bloody awful, but fortunately non-violent. TPP remembers the racial tensions on the 60s that left cities in flames. So remember folks, it's best just to hang presidents in Effigy, which is a small town about 85 miles south of Springfield.  

Very late fall weather

Here's your basic hand full of green pole beans fresh from the garden. Not a huge amount but enough for a couple of servings which is enough since the kitty girls don't like them. What makes this news worthy, blog worthy, is that TPP picked these on the 7th of November, about a month later than you could possibly imagine them still growing. They got this far by dodging 3 near, but not quite frosts. And here in the upper midwest, the average date for the first frost was a month ago. Picking pole beans and raking leaves are generally not same day activities, but our falls have been gradually getting later and our springs earlier. You think maybe this might be a trend? Maybe TPP should ask his local GnOPe representatives? Depends if this is a trend or if just a rare as in 99 percentile event. And the beans were quite lovely. Also picked a big bowl of young romaine lettuce, but under a row cover, lettuce can grow quite late into the fall surviving frosts with no difficulty.  

Field work season at an end - finally

Today will be our last day of field work for this season. All of our plots have been harvested, so now it's time to gather in the PVC plot markers and taller bamboo stakes added to the poles to almost make them visible in the taller vegetation. Next spring the process will be started all over again by trying to find our plots. You see prairie fires make it impossible to leave anything combustable out there, and bits and pieces of field gear lost during the year will get the spring melt down. The permanent markers are actually spikes driven into the ground, permanent yes, but hard to see. Thank goodness for metal detectors. Nobody got shot by bow hunters and that's always a good thing. In some years the last of our field work has been done with snow flurries in the air; this year TPP is still picking pole beans in his garden! That's evidence of a very mild fall so far, but temps promise to be more seasonal now. Of course the lab is still filled with bags of vegetation to sort and dry, and here's hoping that gets done before the field trip to Costa Rica. Hmm, guess the field work isn't really over, it's just shifting to the lower latitudes.