Field of Science

Soggy Saturday

The midwest of North America is having a rain event. Our area is not getting flooded like down in Texas and Oklahoma, but it's plenty wet. Our fountain pond and lily pond are full to overflowing and low areas have puddles. A few recent transplants are being well watered, but the rain has stalled both field and garden work. While waiting for a lull in a local cloud burst, a young fellow said, "Have you ever seen anything like this?" Acutally yes. Us tropical biologists get a whole new perspective on rain. One year our field trip to Costa Rica got over 400 mm of rain in 6 days.  One year TPP survived a monsoonal wet season where his weather diary had the same entry for 44 straight days: low overcast with light to heavy pulses of rain interspersed with a few real deluges. Everything mildewed.  Houseplants that were just moved outside for the summer are probably enjoying getting washed off and thoroughly rehydrated, but it's too much rain for a lot of plants. Having missed a window of opportunity, TPP still needs to plant some summer squashes!  Even if things get much worse, the Phactors neighborhood is what passes for a hill here in the flatlands.   

Friday Fabulous Flower - Rare, uncommon, or just inconspicuous orchids?

Orchids are not as rare or as uncommon as most people think. Orchids are also much smaller, less colorful, less conspicuous than most people think. The reason for this is simple, the ornamental orchids with which we are familiar have been chosen for having large, colorful, and conspicuous flowers. Here is a case in point.  TPP and company have been gathering plant community data at an old field site largely dominated by goldenrod and cool season pasture grasses. But we're trying to record all the species present as well, so you have to look around closely.  So far data on 25 meter square plots have revealed what are probably several green fringed orchids (Platanthera lacera) (confirmation will have to await their flowering and a large twayblade orchid (Liparis liliifolia)(image). Yes, this large twayblade towers probably 10 cm tall with flowers at least 1 cm long!  Neither of these orchids are particularly rare or uncommon in this area, but they are inconspicuous and so seldom seen especially when growing in an old field understory. While most of plants on this old field site are naturalized non-native plants, a number of native species have established themselves particularly prairie species primarily because the site is being managed by regular burning and it has been undisturbed for decades.

Good people that were misled by bad intelligence

Gosh, so many good people were being misled about Iraq. Guys like Darth Cheney were just doing the best they could with what they knew at the time. Sure.  Tom Tomorrow has it nailed; Jeb doesn't.

Really, truly, deeply depressing news

TPP finds this really, truly, deeply depressing news.  Fewer students are taking botany classes and herbaria are shuttering their doors. What this means is that fewer and fewer people have the skill and experience to identify plants. This goes far beyond taxonomy. A new graduate student, JP, has asked TPP to serve on her committee, but her background is in microbiology and she only recently "discovered" plants and the great outdoors where biology actually happens. All of TPP's recent students who had gotten their "novice" plant ID badges have gotten jobs in part because of this knowledge. The herbarium TPP curates costs our institution very little (translation: it doesn't have a budget), but it takes up space always at a premium and it needs a somebody. Right now that person is an emeritus faculty member, but one way or another his days are numbered.  Then what? Colleagues already point to low enrollments to argue against hiring another botanist. Such decisions are always a zero-sum game or viewed as such. Part of the trouble is that human biomedicine is the tail that wags the biological dog in this country, so students often get little if any decent botany in biology courses. Their teachers are not well versed in botany and so do a poor job teaching it, and you can see how this leads to a vicious cycle of dwindling botany. They enter university thinking there are only two career paths: medical professional or high school teacher. Our undergrad program produces plenty of both, but many of them needing but one more course take a botany elective out of sheer desperation or curiosity or a course df = 0. And they are surprised, even delighted, how interesting plants are, but then they say, "Gee, discovered botany too late." Well, it isn't too late, but like most undergrads, what do they really know?  JP is working hard at learning plant ID, and like anything you work at, she will develop the necessary skill and knowledge ("square stem, opposite fragrant leaves" = mint family, and so on).  Botany has always been a ill-treated stepchild in the field of biology in the USA, always in the minority, and never having the financial support of bio-medicine. Yet all the medical afflictions together are small potatoes if you find yourself miserable, naked, and hungry, those basics provided by plants.

Small garden creativity at the Chelsea Flower Show

Visiting the annual Chelsea Flower Show at least once should be a must for every garden enthusiast. The big landscape gardens are terribly impressive, but the smaller gardens can be quite lovely, very creative, and totally appealing. Here's another small photo essay complements of Treehugger showing some of the small gardens featured this year. TPP has always admired moss in gardens, but here in the upper Midwest moss pretty quickly turns into toast. Enjoy.  

Testing a placebo blocker

Oooo!  This really is a hard experiment to design.  Placebo effect is real, and this xkcd cartoon posted nearby at the Curious Wavefunction hints at some of the complications. Warning: science nerds only; ordinary people may not find this funny. 

Date the 200th plant flowered

Wow!  It was not quite a month ago that TPP posted his 100th-plant-flowered blog. Here in the northern temperate zone, May is a really busy month for flowering plants, and while May still has another 6 days to go, the 200th plant flowered on May 24th. This is the second earliest date when this many plants flowered in the 6 years of recorded data: 2010-June 2, 2011-May 30, 2012-May 10 (!), 2013-June 2, 2014-June 2.  June 2 has been quite popular as the date in 3 out of 6 years. To give you some idea of how spring-loaded our temperate zone flowering is our garden flowering has been topping our just shy of 300 plants. So 200 plants flower by late May or early June, then fewer than 100 flower the rest of the growing season that usually finishes with monk's hood flowering in late October. Without being able to check right now, this year's date may have been moved up a few days by additions to our woodland garden, but then you get losses too. Until all of this data gets put into a proper database (a work in progress), it's hard to know, but lots of plants are flowering a bit early here in late May like our sweet bay magnolia that usually waits until June. There's also the possibility that some trees got missed especially the wind pollinated ones. The basic dweller of the burbs with a few yews planted around the foundation of their house cannot imagine how 200 different plants is possible. One thing that is noticeable is that largish gardens have room for some of the "old-fashioned" flowering shrubs to grow to mature size where their natural form has not been ruined by "poodling": forsythia, spirea, spicebush, kerria, Carolina spicebush, beauty bush, mock orange. The problem is that these plants are sold as nice little rounded bushes and people pay no attention to the mature size information usually provided. The main intent here is that our gardens keep us watchful and give us an excuse to walk around each day with a cocktail to see what's new.

Garden views - wisteria and yellow flag iris

Our gardens are settling into summer mode and other than a bumper crop of silver maple fruits/seeds, now germinating everywhere, adding to the unharvested sugar maple seedlings from last year, things are looking pretty good so far. The neighborhood is pretty quiet this holiday weekend, but with no where to go, and no desire to go there, our primary activity this weekend is to neaten up the gardens and attack the afore mentioned weeds. About this time of year you begin to learn if your plantings and movings last year were really a good idea or not. One good idea was the wisteria that Mrs. Phactor had been wanting to grow upon a sturdy pergola (A previous wisteria basically tore down a not very sturdy pergola TPP had constructed.). The purple clusters of mildly fragrant flowers are just great and here they constrast nicely with the intense yellow of an iris (I. pseudacorus) growing at the margin of the lily pond.

Oyama magnolia flower bud

This fairly large (5-6 cm) flower bud superimposed naturally on the plant's leaf was interesting to observe and it made an interesting image; a mature flower bud of our Oyama magnolia (Magnolia sieboldii) adjacent to one of its leaves.  The perianth of the flowers are a very pure white so the buds made a stark contrast.  It's been described as looking like a shrub bearing hard-boiled eggs. How lovely that descriptive image!  The flowers are pendant on the plant and the red androecium contrasts nicely against the white perianth, but they are a bit hard to see until the plant gets taller than yourself.  This is a very attractive late spring flowering magnolia, and while not in the common nursery trade it can be bought mail order from several sources. It seems fairly hardy in zone 5.

Botanical art and endangered species

TPP assumes that many of his readers may like botanical art, and that at least some also care about endangered species. Here's an item from the Association or Society (sorry forgot exactly) of Botanical Artists that may be of interest: paintings of endangered plant species. Get a copy now before the model is gone. 

Tuberiffic! Tuber display wins gold medalat Chelsea flower show!

For those of you unfortunate enough to have not attended a Chelsea flower show, well, how unfortunate indeed!  Nothing really compares. It actually isn't all about flowers, but flowers are a very big part of the show.  The display gardens are indeed very impressive, but the flower displays by plant producers are something to behold. How so many flowers of so many varieties could be gotten to flower all at once in such numbers that displays could be maintained for a week was quite amazing. TPP remembers strawberry and pepper displays, as well as an all moss, all the time (walls, roof, furniture) exhibit, but mostly it was flowers.  Well, congratulations to the tubers because for the first time they won the gold medal award!  Indeed, the only place you might see a more colorful display of potatoes would be just about any farmers' market in Bolivia or Peru. Actually what impressed TPP the most is the remarkable uniformity of the size and shape of the tubers, which is not what you would see in S. America where size, shape, and color of potatoes is quite diverse. 

Price per flower for peonies

OK, TPP is not quite done with peonies yet! Here's two peonies, both 3.5 foot diameter mounds of foliage and flowers, really big flowers!  These are Itoh peonies, hybrids between tree peonies and herbaceous peonies. They generally die down each year like herbaceous peonies, although they may have short, woody stems persist. The stems are quite stout and avoid the droopiness of herbaceous peonies, and they have the large colorful flowers of tree peonies. These are not cheap plants, generally costing between $55-$65 so many people hesitate to invest so much, but what would you pay for a great big flower?  How about $1? Well, each of these plants will produce 40-50 flowers each year, so the pay back is not too bad. These make quite a colorful presence in just 2-3 years from planting. Also, as you will note, the yellow-flowered genotype of tree peonies does show up in several of these Itoh hybrid varieties.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Red Buckeye

TPP hasn't mentioned red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) before and that can't be explained. For one thing, our red buckeyes are from the point of view of the Phactor's kitchen observatory behind the Carolina silverbell tree, which is pretty spectacular, so the buckeyes are easily overlooked from afar. The red buckeyes began flowering before the silverbell and now the silverbell is totally done and the red buckeyes still have an eye-catching display. Although they grow into a small tree, ours have remainded bushes and they do well on a shady margin. A large burr oak keeps smashing one of the red buckeyes as though it didn't like it. So clearly they can be maintained in a smaller size by careful pruning.  Although this cannot be confirmed, apparently hummingbirds like red buckeye; hummingbirds are regular but not common visitors to our gardens and since the buckeyes are way out there in the back garden, hummingbirds are too small to notice at that distance. At any rate red buckeyes are a highly recommended flowering shrub/tree and generally they are under planted. Around here the larger, ornamental horse chesnuts are becoming quite popular, which in spite of their name are another species of Aesculus; with their really gaudy inflorescences these horse chestnuts do provide quite a flowering spectacle, but they also become a big tree.  The smaller buckeyes, bottlebrush and red, are more versatile, when you can find them, and they can be a bit slow getting started especially from seed.

Watch out Texans!

Apparently the US military is going to use the ruse of "war games" to invade all of the hostile territory between Texarkana and El Paso and declare martial law for purposes of, well, that's not clear to this correspondent. Maybe they intend to solve a lot of problems by giving Texas back to Mexico. It takes some mighty shrewd thinking and deep insights into machinations of the federal government to have figured this all out without any real data. Seriously, have you folks thought about why our government floridates our water?  Yes, to weaken your precious bodily fluids, and perhaps you should drink nothing but whisky and branch water (or margaritas). What is a matter of some concern is that such paranoid conspiracy nuts would get so much attention especially from politicians or the wannabees who no longer seem to worry about how stupid they look or sound, as they pander for votes from those same people who have the least trust or use for government. Hmm, maybe we should be checking to see what's in the water. For those of you who may need them, and all presidential candidates for certain, here's Carl Sagan's rules for critical thinking.                                                                

Interesting profile in the garden - bigleaf magnolia

It's a beautiful morning, brisk and sunny following a big rain event that left things well-watered and very green. TPP is supervising young backs distributing mulch around our gardens. Having moved something like 22 cubic yards himself one summer, the younger back policy for moving mulch was adopted. From his supervisory position viewing the gardens from the kitchen table, one particular plant stands out against its back ground, not because of it's floral display, and while it is in flower, it isn't gaudy (one nearly open flower is under the top leaf whorls at the upper right), but TPP's bigleaf magnolia has quite a striking profile because of it's large leaves and their arrangement whorled near the ends of branches. Some people think it looks tropical.  This particular species is M. tripetala, a surprisingly hardy tree, but it doesn't like the upper midwest's wind and a more protected sight would be preferred. Alas, our gardens don't have a grotto. Sigh.

Inconclusive apple pollination experiment

Poor experimental design is the reason that the results of the apple pollination experiment were inconclusive. However, some pollination did occur because some young fruit are developing on both varieties of columnar apples. So whether the one variety is self-fertile remains a question. Yes, it could have been netted, and self-pollinated by hand, but then if not self-fertile it would have produced no apples at all. Botanical curiosity will go unsatisfied, but a few apples will be produced. As these are brand new trees, although of good size (6-7 feet tall) only a few apples will be allowed to grow.  The new trees have produced a very nice crown of leaves and if we can keep the Japanese beetles from defoliating them, they should get off to a nice start. Some nice bridal veil will serve nicely in that regard.  Mrs. Phactor's pear tree also has quite a few developing fruit, and it's about time it got going with the fruit production.  Perhaps the basal pruning administered to the non-producing apple tree as a lesson had some effect. The mild wet spring has also been producing some excellent lettuces, and just about the time the crop becomes over-whelming, they will begin to bolt and that will be that until August when it's time to replant. Herbivores have helped some.  The bibb lettuces planted in a parsley bed, and then fenced to no particular benefit, were just getting big enough to be harvested when they were eaten to the ground, although their tastiness spared the parsley from devistation. That kind of gluttony usually indicates a woodchuck rather than a bunny, so our watchfulness must increase, but no confirmatory sightings as yet. Well, that got rather off topic quickly.

An eerie quiet spread across the land

It was an exceptionally quiet Monday morning. TPP did not see a single other person while walking to the coffee shoppe. It had been raining for hours, and it was still a light drizzle. Things were wet, very green, fresh, and lots of new things had popped into bloom. However the strange quiet was because finals were last week and graduation took place on Saturday, so this college town had emptied and everyone went home for Mother's Day. Aside from all the new things in flower, other observations contributed to eerie nature of the morning. A lot of couches died over the weekend; fourteen were piled on the curb, four at a single address. At least they weren't hauled into the street and burned as was the fashion (very much frowned upon!) a decade or so ago.  A dismembered foosball table sat in an avenue's median. It looked sad. A dozen feet away sat a whole pineapple. One wonders if they possibly could have had any connection?  One apartment building was cordoned off by yellow caution tape.  It seemed very appropriate; TPP has no desire to investigate. The expected confluent litter of beer cups and associated drinking paraphernalia were strangely lacking except for one place where the empties were artfully stacked on a porch railing; it was all too neat. Maybe the pending arrival of parents triggered some primal survival instinct to pick things up. In contrast the coffee shoppe was bustling; a lot of faculty were getting caffeinated for a last bout of grading. Students were totally lacking. It felt really good knowing this was the first Monday after finals when grading did not ominously loom for TPP in over 4 decades! 

Friday Fabulous Flower - Silverbell tree

Oooo, TPP's yellow tree peonies are in flower, but maybe he doesn't want to over do the peony thing (but here and here anyways) . No problem; this time of year lots of things are in flower.  At the back of our perennial garden is a spectacular young tree, a Carolina silverbell (Halesia carolina). This is a great ornamental tree, native to SE North America, but completely hardy in Zone 5. They flower when quite young and are tolerant of some shade. TPP has blogged about a different genus in the same family (Styrax americana - American snowbell).  You get the idea, dangling white flowers are a thing in this family (Styracaceae - Storax family) and big bees love it. TPP also has a young Pterostyrax tree, but it hasn't flowered yet. Storax makes no sense as a common name because it's a reference to a medicinal resin from the appropriately named Liquidambar styraciflua (sweetgum) (note the specific epithet) which is in another family no matter which one this genus is now in. Seems there was some confusion way back when plant names were based on gum-resins. OK that's not your problem, but this is a highly recommended flowering tree. 

Rhubarb delights

Rhubarb is one of the true delights of spring. It's fairly easy to grow, a dependable, non-fussy perennial.  However it's amazing how many times people say they don't particularly care for rhubarb.  Now as TPP has mentioned before Mrs. Phactor is a very accomplished woman and pie making is one of those accomplishments (here for the record), and rhubarb makes awesomely good pie as long as you don't include strawberries, which don't make good pie. So the point is simple, when you have rhubarb pie for breakfast you've started your day out right. Now as if that wasn't enough, here's part 2 of your rhubarb double header: an Aperol Sour. Actually TPP doesn't know the actual name of this cocktail because he was looking for recipes that used a peculiar ingredient: rhubarb bitters. It happens the Phactors were in a big box liquor store buying a bottle of wine or two for the month and there was a display of bitters, and having previously discovered the value of orange bitters (try them in an Old Fashioned cocktail), Mrs. Phactor loving most things rhubarb bought the rhubarb bitters. That was like 2 years ago, but they have long shelf life apparently. OK, so here's the cocktail: 1 oz gin, 1 oz Aperol, 1 oz lime juice, 2 dashes of rhubarb bitters, and 1/4 to 1/2 oz of simple syrup well shaken with ice and served in a cocktail glass. Aperol is a red Campari like apperitif that uses rhubarb as part of its flavoring. If you like really tart drinks, omit the simple syrup. The lime was very tart, so a touch of simple syrup balanced the cocktail, but this is not a sweety type kiddy cocktail although it does look pink. This would prompt the same reaction as when TPP let his adult nieces and nephews, and even some of their parents, try a Negroni (a Florentine cocktail consisting of 1:1:1 (think ounces) gin, Campari, and sweet Vermouth) built on the rocks. Too bitter, not sweet enough was the general reaction, and then they left TPP's booze alone. Mission accomplished. Hope this pleases my readers. An endorsement for rhubarb pie for breakfast, and if anyone has a kuchen recipe with a rhubarb custard top (found in Switzerland), also eaten for breakfast, do pass it along, TPP has been looking for one, and a nice rhubarby cocktail for sipping in your garden.

Woodland peony

It's a good colorful garden this week because TPP's tree peonies and the fern-leafed peony are all in flower. TPP has blogged about his tree peonies before (here, here, here, here) and the fern-leafed peony too (here and here), and it would not bother him to do another as he isn't tired of them or proud. But lurking in a shady area are several less gaudy peonies that are native to forest communities (Paeonia japonica) so they are shade-loving herbaceous perennials and they grow rather like a trillium and are in that size range. They were slow to establish but now seem to be quite tough and some seedlings are showing up even though it usually takes two years for the seeds to germinate.  The flowers are 2-3 inches in diameter and white; growing above a colony of wild ginger they are utterly charming.

Cara Cara oranges

Cara Cara oranges have just recently shown up in local grocery stores. Novel fruits are always something TPP tries and his life list of fruits is pretty impressive. In this case, the Cara Cara is a variety of navel orange originally from Venezuela and is either a mutation or accidental hybrid, more likely the former because they are seedless like all navel oranges. This variety has only been around since the mid-1980s, and is probably showing up now because production has reached a critical mass. As navel oranges go, the Cara Cara is on the small to medium size and very round. The flesh is a reddish orange color (sometimes labelled "pink" navel orange) although not as dark red as "blood" oranges.  The samples TPP has purchased have a firm texture, and a surprisingly distinctive taste, sweeter than the usual navel orange and with some tropical fruit overtones. Rating: very good! Give them a try if you see them in the market. They worked great in a citrus based fruit salad. Image by WLU courtesy of the wikimedia creative commons. 

Friday Fabulous Flower - Goldenseal

Yes, today is Friday, and TPP is having trouble because yesterday seemed like Friday, so Friday, Friday. Hmm, Monday, Monday was a pretty good song, but Friday is just one of the every other days of the week. It's the end of the semester today, May 1st, May Day, so there are lots of people here abouts thankful for that. But on to the flower. Here's a pretty neat woodland ephemeral that grows widely in eastern North America, but how many of you have ever seen it in the wild? Let us know if you have. TPP has only seen goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis - buttercup family) a handful of times and never here in northern Lincolnland. Goldenseal grows a lot like bloodroot sending up leafy shoots in the spring terminated by it's strange, not terribly conspicuous flower, although not strange by buttercup standards, which has no perianth so the somewhat dilated stamen filaments produce the floral display such that it is. Later the pistils fuse to produce a small raspberry-like red fruit with several seeds. TPP has a couple growing in his woodland garden obtained from a reputable nursery where they were seed grown. Why so uncommon? Well, goldenseal is highly sought as a herbal medicine and it has been subject to severe over-harvesting to the point that in many areas it's just about gone. Habitat destruction is the other reason; woodland plants need woodlands.