Field of Science

Flowering street lights

You have to absolutely love these flower street lights that "bloom" when you approach. And they look really cool at night too. TPP really wants one of these. Here's the link to read and see more at Bored Panda. So what do you think? Poppy? Mallow? 

That's one very spooky plant!

TPP was thinking about trying to find a really spooky plant for a Halloween post, but it wasn't going well. Then a colleague hit upon a nomination that just can't be beat, so what the heck, here's the link to one truly spooky plant from the In Defense of Plants blog. You can see more of these bizarre flowers here

Halloween, yawn.

TPP just doesn't get all the excitement about Halloween. OK, as a kid it's understandable. You get to dress up in costumes, run around the neighborhood, and score some epic amounts of candy. Yes, that gets kids excited, and will keep them that way for awhile. But TPP grew up. Lot's of adult people seem excited about Halloween and it just makes no sense. The best adult thing to get excited about is the Rocky Horror Show being performed at the local theater. That's fun. Maybe they just want an excuse to have a fall party with costumes thrown in for giggles. While walking to the coffee shoppe, this decorated yard caught TPP's eye, and really folks? All this for Halloween? This isn't actually scary, just tacky. Former neighbors used to have a minimalist Halloween display that scared the crap out of kids, especially the spooky music and lighting and a witch at a spinning wheel who turned out to be alive once you got close, along with a couple of other surprises. Kids would cross the street rather than take the risk for a little chunk of candy. Wonder if the tacky house gives away something really good, or maybe they blew their budget on decor and give away pieces of laughee taffee, which is as awful tasting and as good at pulling fillings as you may imagine. The big prize when TPP was a kid was a house high on a hill with about a thousand step sidewalk, but they gave out full-sized candy bars to reward the intrepid climbers. Presently, our neighborhood with its large yards has a low house to distance ratio so trick-or-treaters seek denser neighborhoods to maximize their return on investment. Some optimal foraging there folks. 

Cucurbit creativity

This time of year some really creative pumpkin/squash carving appears, and it's really great to see what talented and imaginative people can do with big old squashes. This one is from the Brooklyn Botanical Garden (HT to the Guardian) for a Día de los Muertos display, a different celebration that just happens to share this bit of calendar time. This is just terrific carving. How many pumpkins and squash were used? 

Friday Fabulous Flower - black cohosh & total flowering events for 2015

The waning days of October finally feel, and look, like fall having transitioned from summer like weather all in 30 days. Enough leaves have now fallen that the lawn is now hidden in many places, and in a couple of weeks we'll eagerly await the magic of leaf elves to clean them all up. TPP used to fight with a monstrous machine, a Billy Goat, to vacuum up leaves 8 cubic feet at a time, but all the lugging of the bags of leaves, not to mention the exertion of yanking on its pull starting motor a few dozen times, just got to be too much. Ah, well, the point here was to extol some spots of fall color, some fall flowering. The last flower standing this year, sort of a hellebore in seasonal reverse, was a black cohosh (or snakeroot) (Actea, formerly Cimicifugaracemosa), funny family those buttercups. It was one genus when it was planted, now it's another and you would hardly notice any difference at all. This year it easily beat the wolfbane for last place not flowering until 20 October, and if our records are correct, and they always are, the addition of some new species combined with relatively few "did not flower" entries, helped our total number of perennial flowering events in the garden top out at 302, the first time the total was over 300. The Phactors are very pleased, but until the database if brought up to date, and the data entered for 2015, 2014, and 2013, it won't be official.

Is a double bacon cheese burger a death sentence?

The news that bacon has been found to increase your risk of cancer make a double bacon cheese burger a death sentence. Well, it's not the healthiest sandwich on Earth.  Too many calories, which is a health risk.  A slice of "American" orange plastic cheese, which may not be bad for you, but eating it shows such poor judgment that you are probably making a lot of questionable health decisions. Grilled beef is both fatty and the grilling makes some sort of nasty stuff that also increases you risk of cancer. However, lots of things can increase your risk of cancer, the question is by how much? The answer in this case is bacon is not a big risk, unless you're eating piles of bacon, and then the fat will probably get you before the cancer. Bacon is not in the same league with smoking, and for those of us who only eat bacon every now and again, it doesn't figure to be a problem. Speaking of bacon one of the cooking magazines that just arrived had a wonderful sounding stuffed, roasted boneless turkey breast recipe that was completely wrapped in bacon. Sounds great and you'll be OK although the turkey did die, but it still wasn't the bacon. The fact that news organizations jumped all over the bacon-cancer news none of the articles TPP has seen so far offered any analysis of how great the risk was. No expert was interviewed and asked to explain. And that's what's wrong with science reporting these days. All they cared about was a sensationalist title, not providing any useful information. The cooking magazine by ignoring the warning altogether and publishing a bacon heavy recipe was more honest. 

Standard shift hold-outs

The Phactors have standard transmission cars, one brand new (a Subaru Forester) and one an aging, Toyota sport sedan (cranberry red). You may decide whose is whose. Part of this is familiarity; TPP has always had stick shift vehicles. Part of this is longevity; our cars are driven for many years (a VW vanagon still looked like new after 18 years) so you get used to things as they are. Part is history; stick shifts are great in the wintery weather of our youth. But the signs are clearly there, stick shifts are going to be a thing of the past. But if the Forester lasts long enough, it may not matter, and Mrs. Phactor is talking of an all electric run-around. Of course TPP can still parallel park, on both the passenger and driver's side of the car! Even when taking one of the cars in for service, the younger garage employees cannot drive a standard shift, and they shouldn't be taught on mine! Like parallel parking, TPP thinks of shifting as a skill and therefore considers modern drivers to be unskilled. The F1 carries on the family tradition because learning to drive on our cars provided the skill and experience, and, oh yeah, who has our previous Forester? Unavailability will simply force her to change in a few years, sadly.  Even if automatic transmissions have improved greatly,  they don't use engine breaking near as well as a standard, and they do not seem, based primarily on experience with rental cars, to downshift conveniently when a lower gear would be beneficial, but all electric cars may put an end to those problems as well (especially if they recover power from braking).  Ah well, TPP doesn't have a typewriter any more, and although it doesn't get used often, his turntable still works, and it just came to mind yesterday because of the death Corey Wells (lead singer of Three Dog Night: Joy to the World, Mama told me not to come, Eli's coming, On the road to Shambala) reminded me of some of my vinyl.

Ideology is no way to do science

Ideology is no way to govern, and ideology is no way to do science either. And yet, the GnOPe seems bent on giving it a try. For those of us who know the history of science, ideologically driven science has been tried, and it was an abysmal failure known now as Lysenkoism, named after its chief proponent. It took Russian agricultural science a couple of decades to recover even after it ended. You know you just can't let scientists, real experts, decide what research merits government support via grants because you just don't know if you will like the results or not. Now by all rational accounts, science is a description of objective reality, but that doesn't matter. Reality is apparently what the GnOPe says it is. So the chair of the congressional science committee, Lamar Smith)(TX, but you guessed that already) wants to do away with peer review, he wants his staff to be able to analyze your climate change data (Wow, huh?), and only wants to fund science whose outcomes will support their ideological perspective, which presently focuses on climate change. Can you guess what industries have supported Rep. Smith's career? When ideological science is put together with the dismantling of higher education, you can see where things are headed, a new hotter and darker ages. Well, when you vote for fundamentalist ideology, that's what you get. Good thing TPP is not on their radar or their committee may be investigating his "useless" botanical studies done without a cent of federal money (at least recently).   

Seeking a raccoon equilibrium

Our garage got ransacked. Everything was tossed everywhere, a terrible mess, and it wasn't all that neat to begin with. The culprit sort of signed their work in foot prints across Mrs. Phactor's windshield. Wildlife hanging around is no big deal for the Phactors' estate; it's got cover, food, and water, an urban oasis. Had TPP been more aware of our lodger, the door would have been left open so the intruder could have left the way they arrived. But it was late, after an evening of being well wined and dined so it wasn't until the next morning that the situation became clear. And so began the search for a raccoon equilibrium. The rear door was left open so our garage trasher could leave, but it also leaves open the possibility of another raccoon entering (or returning!). Somewhere there should be an equilibrium where the number of raccoons entering equals the number leaving, but from our perspective the idea is to hope that this equilibrium is such that TPP can close the door at one of those times when the number leaving is greater than the number entering. No idea how this is going so far, but the bird food container, a garbage can, might be an indicator.  If the lid stays on tonight, it should indicate that the raccoon comings and goings are exactly equal for now.

Friday Fabulous Flower - fall color edition

Here's another nice little garden tree used for fall color, a tupelo or black gum (Nyssa sylvatica)(but can't remember the variety), and in this case a dwarf variety.  It stands about 6 feet tall and it's very tough, undemanding. Here the foliage is just beginning to turn and it will continue to change until its a very scarlet red color. It's located behind Mrs. Phactor's perennial garden and positioned for a nice view from a patio.  

Watermelon apple

TPP's Washington State friends sent him a fun picture of a pink-fleshed apple, a so-called watermelon apple.  The names of horticultural varieties are not quite as bad as plain old common names, but at times they are close because these names are not used with precision. You can see why someone might call this a watermelon apple; it's green on the outside and has pink flesh.  They say the taste reminds them of a Granny Smith, but not quite as tart. Although you might have never seen such a thing, apples with pink to red flesh are well known although not widely marketed or grown. According to TPP's references, watermelon apple is another name for Burford's Redflesh apple, an apple developed a couple of decades ago at the Burford Brothers' Nursery in Virginia. But images and descriptions of this apple do not report a green skin, but it does have a very tart flavor. So it would appear the 'watermelon' appellation (or apple-ation?) was appropriated for another apple variety. Here's a list of pink-red fleshed apple varieties complements of the Hocking Hills Orchard and none of them actually fit the description of the apple shown above, including the listing for watermelon, but this is probably not an exhaustive list. OK, a follow-up yielded the name Mountain Rose apple, which according to one online grower, is a rare variety grown only in the Mount Hood River Valley of Oregon by a small group of dedicated family farms. Guess this justifies the $10 per pound price!

Suppressed memories may be a good thing

This week heralded the beginning of the harvest of permanent prairie plots to get biomass data. Fortunately your memory of previous harvest seasons and how much work it entails dims, and you get newbie graduate students who know no better. Only 1/4th of a square meter is harvested but it can be a pretty impressive amount of vegetation in a community where the herbaceous vegetation reaches 2.5 meters in height and so dense it impedes your movement through it. While others were snipping TPP was marking out the portions to harvest and after just 1.5 hrs my hands and arms were covered in little scrapes, punctures, and abrasions such is the nature of prairie vegetation this time of year: hard, dry, sharp-ended and sharp-edged, like little hack saws. Unfortunately TPP's high mileage back was sore, so attention turned to sorting the bags of vegetation into piles back in the lab: grasses, forbs, various legumes, any exotic species, and a hemiparasitic plant. This is a really "fun" activity and much harder visually than you might imagine, but not so hard on the body. Harvesting is half done, and the sorting just barely started. Pile on the lower left is silky bush clover (Lespedeza cuneata), an invasive Asian legume. The 2nd image shows a thicket of this legume where it has all but replaced the prairie vegetation (except for the big grasses). It's so thick you have trouble walking through it, and it's essentially impossible to get rid of. Even if you nuked it with herbicide a sizable seed bank remains. Sad.

If you were a flower, what flower would it be?

You've asked yourself this many times. Well, thanks to the AoB blog you can take a personality quiz that then based upon who knows what old notions of the character of certain flowers to find out the answer to that question. Here's the link to the AoB blog; the next link will take you directly to the flower-personality quiz at the Linnaean garden web page.  You know this will be fun.  But frankly, TPP is not all that enthralled with his own results although it could be much worse than columbine; it could have been cannonball tree.

Evidence of early life on Earth?

How old is life on Earth? The Earth itself is 4.5 billion years old, give or take a few million. The oldest rocks on Earth are 4.28 billion years old, and the oldest fossil evidence of life is about 3.55 billion years old. The chemistry of the universe seems to be very life friendly leading some to speculate that life of simple sorts may be very common especially because 20 years ago planets around other stars were unknown and now some 5000 have been detected. So planets are pretty common too. Back to Earth, prior to the oldest fossils there are some biochemical signatures of life, skewed carbon and sulfur isotope ratios now only associated with metabolic activities.  Now some zircons have been found that are 4.1 billion years old, and some graphite (carbon) inclusions showing skewed carbon isotope ratios of the type associated with photosynthesis. This has nothing to do with radioactivity (carbon 14), but the primary, and very ancient carbon fixing enzyme nick-named "rubisco" has a preference for carbon 12 over the much less common carbon 13, so in carbon from an organic source the ratio is skewed toward carbon 12, i.e., there is more present than expected from its 90:1 natural ratio. This may seem like rather skimpy evidence, but to say this isn't evidence of life requires that you explain the carbon isotope skew, how it happened in the absence of life. This is how science works. You don't get to deny what is known.

Monday morning random bits

FIELD WORK - There's a full schedule of field work this week to harvest biomass from our permanent research plots. At least the weather looks good all week, and although rain is needed, now hope it waits until the "harvest" is in. Biggest problem is a sore back; got to find some of those young student backs to do the heavy bending.
FIRST FROST - Came close to having our first frosts Friday & Saturday nights, but not quite cold enough to really frost things. Very light frost on 2nd night close to the ground so late pole beans survived.
CUCUMBERS IN OCTOBER - TPP picked a cucumber on the 18th of October!  Never, ever had them so late in the year and the reason is that the vines always die of a bacterial blight much earlier in the year. The blight is vectored by cucumber beetles so once they show up your vines days are pretty much numbered. Insect covers help, but when flowering starts you have to let pollinators in. So what happened to the beetles this year? Similarly the Japanese beetles were a near no show and June "bugs" were also near no-shows. And cicadas were not plentiful either. Was all the rain early in the season to blame either by drowning pupae or assisting fungi like milky spore? 
BEST NEW RECIPE - Apple, avocado, blue cheese, & walnut salad! 
CANNA RHIZOMES - The Phactors dug out a bed of landscape cannas, tall ones with purple foliage. Too bad these are not edible plants because the crop of rhizomes they produce is amazing. Oh, wait, maybe they are edible.  Who knew?
TRAVEL PLANS - Got our travel plans today for a rainforest field trip to Costa Rica. TPP used to do this every year with a class of students in tow. Amazing how much less stressful it is when the students become someone else's responsibility. Hope the el Niño weather does not result in a real wet field trip although having some rain is basically a given. Record for one 9 day field trip was over 400 mm.
FACULTY MEETING TO DISCUSS EVALUATION DOCUMENTS - Faculty meetings of any type are bad, but when the faculty are discussing evaluation it becomes especially dreadful. TPP stopped reading his yearly evaluations long before his retirement and became a much happier person especially when the money involved was too little to really matter. This is not recommended behavior for my younger colleagues. 

Are pumpkins squashes?

Somehow the near annual arrival of a reporter to interview TPP about leaf color was unintentionally avoided; they were sent to find my lair, but TPP was out and about collecting seeds. The also nearly annual question arrived by email: are pumpkins squashes?  Short version: yes. Here's a link to a nice discussion of pumpkin/squash diversity. As an added bonus, and in case you did not notice the recent post on the Botanist in the Kitchen blog, here's a very good discussion about giant pumpkin/squashes. Growing up, TPP's Father got a big kick out of growing big pumpkins, but he never had any as big as these although they remained impressive anyways. The pumpkin TPP is posing with is a mere 901 pounds, while this year's big pumpkin is 2.5 times bigger! And as long as TPP is on the subject, a couple of weeks are left to visit the Great Pumpkin Patch near Arthur, Illinois. Can't think of any place where you can see more varieties of pumpkins and squashes than there (300+!). And do try the pumpkin ice cream.   

Friday Fabulous Flower - teeny orchid

Friday again?  Were did the week go? Here's a great fabulous flower that TPP just happened to notice in the greenhouse the other day. But it's easy to miss even though it is one of the few really orange flowers in our collection. This is an orchid, and contrary to what most people think, most orchid flowers are fairly small, if not tiny, although the smallest orchid flower is a ridiculous 2 mm tall. In comparison this orchid, Pleurothallis guanacastensis, is a whopping three times bigger at 6-7 mm tall. When you see flowers like this, obviously providing a visual display, you do wonder what type of little critter is attracted to them and pollinates them? Whatever it is you can see the little space they fit into between the labellum (lower center petal) and the column above housing the stigma and pollinia, a space which is all of 1-1.5 mm. In the tropics such little puzzles abound, organisms about which we know next to nothing. It's been named, it lives in lowland tropical forests as an epiphyte in Costa Rica. And that's about it. 
And congratulations to my Tico friends for their big "football" win over the USA. 

Waterlilies cover illustration American Journal of Botany

Cover image expansion
Always enjoy getting the newest issue of the American Journal of Botany and they have piled up a bit over the years, some 50 years worth, TPP's own 43 years worth plus a few extra years from somewhere. But what to do with them? Hard to believe that nobody wants journals like this any more. At any rate the cover illustration for the October 2015 issue is just great. Waterlilies! The whole order. But probably some you've not seen before unless you've hung out with the people who study them. At any rate here's the caption:
Flowers of Nymphaeales (water lilies). Water lilies are considerably diverse in their ecological and morphological traits, including pollen characters, relative to other early-divergent angiosperm lineages and, therefore, are an excellent system for investigating the evolution of reproductive traits in early-diverging angiosperms. In this issue, Taylor et al. (see “Pollen structure and development in Nymphaeales: Insights into character evolution in an ancient angiosperm lineage” on pp. 1685–1702) provide new morphological and ultrastructural data for pollen of Nymphaeales and synthesize the available data on mature pollen and pollen ontogeny in water lilies. This comprehensive, comparative evaluation provides insight into the evolution of pollen characters in Nymphaeales. (Image credit: Mackenzie Taylor.)
Take it from TPP, the pollen while interesting isn't as pretty as the flowers. And drat, what were they thinking? What was the editor thinking! Of course you didn't find out what you wanted to know, what everyone wants to know. You want to know what the flowers are. Let's see how many of the genera of Nymphaeales, in three families, can be named?
Trithuria, Brasenia, Cabomba, Nuphar, Nymphaea,Victoria, Euryale. Hmm? That's only 7 and there are 9 images. Your challenge is to put the genera in their order of appearance and explain the discrepancy, including, if possible, a faulty memory. TPP is just happy to have remembered this much.

Still looking good, here and there

Except for tree leaf color, which hasn't arrived at its peak just yet, the gardens begin to look pretty drab in the fall. Quite a bit of color still can be found lurking around our gardens here and there. In one shady nook best observed from our neighbor's dining room a couple of azure beauty berries are aglow with shiny purple berries on the gracefully arching branchs. This is a terrific low shrub for shady places, and since it flowers and fruits on new wood, it doesn't matter when the bunnies nibble it down. The beauty berry has several clumps of monk's hood/wolfbane growing up behind it, and it regularly produces clusters of blue-purple flowers on its 4-5 foot tall stems in October. Also a good plant for shade although the stems may need some support. The hydrangeas look great, still flowering like fools until they get frosted which could happen within a few days. A new varigated Diervillea sessifolia, dwarf bush honeysuckle, looks great in spite of the drought and is still flowering, much to the bees' delight, and it will also handle some shade. 

Uncrowning trees

Oh, yes, it's that time of year when having lots of big trees makes for quite a bit of work because of their uncrowning (leaf fall).  Two really large sugar maples and two really large burr oaks are the primary leaf biomass producers, and today's image shows a sculptural bird bath that weighs a couple of tons catching the first of the maple leaves. The hardest part is to keep as many leaves as possible out of the lily pond. And still the drought persists, so some new trees and shrubs must be watered, and the bird bath filled, as the xeric conditions of winter approach. It also means that the fall color season will be brief because leaf fall should be fast given a bit of water stress all around. Good to see that some of the plants that were new last year handling this dry period pretty well meaning that they are now have well established root systems. If anything were still wilting before everything else it would indicate the opposite and be worrisome. Tomorrow will be the start of field work, so research will be competing with garden work, cut it is a nice time of year to be outside. Some graduate students are just now figuring out how much time they'll be spending during this data gathering stage. It'll eat their lunch. TPP will try to be a good guy and help out. 

Why we have color vision?

Here's a nice post about color vision from a blog TPP often enjoys In Defense of Plants. The two images are great because it shows you how fruit would look without color vision.  The answers given here were always part of my lectures on fruits. But in modern grocery stores you still have to know how to pick fruit that is/will be ripe especially the tropical fruits. For example, in general you cannot go by color on mangos or papaya. The flesh should just give under moderate pressure, and in TPP's opinion both are better just a tad underripe.

Apple doughnuts!!

Fried dough dusted in sugar and cinnamon is a wonderful confection, especially if you ignore the unhealthy quibbles about fat and sugar. So what can be better than fried dough with tart apple bits included? The answer is nothing! One of the great things about having a supply of great cooking apples (Northern spys) is that you can make apple doughnuts. Totally terrific!

Mangroves - very important forests

A news article from Treehugger reminded TPP that mangroves are a very special type of forest, and like forests everywhere, deforestation threatens them.  The "Republic of Change" is raising money to restore mangroves in the area of Madagascar, a place where deforestation of all sorts has been brutal and taken a toll on biological diversity. There are several reasons why this is a good idea. First, mangrove forests are very carbon rich, that is they are big biological reservoirs for carbon which they get from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Second, mangroves grow at the interface between ocean and land where they act as buffers against storms and tsunamis. Third, they are the nurseries and primary producers that drive coastal fisheries throughout the tropics and subtropics. Yet, most people just see a tangle of stems, roots, and mud, something standing in the way of human coastal development. TPP has heard coastal development enthusiasts call mangroves "scrub", "waste areas" and "junk vegetation". In what can only be regarded as extremely wrong headed thinking, mangroves in some areas have and are being destroyed to farm shrimp while quite ignoring the role mangroves have in supporting coastal fisheries, a classic robbing ecologically rich peter to pay paul poorly.  To learn more about mangroves here's an old internet photo essay about mangroves that may be hard to get to without this link (and even then the link to the last 2 photos has been broken. Thanks IT!). This is one type of forest that even relatively few botanists have wandered through. Some of the photos show a mangrove restoration project southwest of Bangkok along the coast where mangrove destruction has taken place for shrimp farming. The mangrove image is courtesy of Ji-Elle, Wikimedia Creative Commons.

The badly behaved gardener

Here's someone that just might be the gardening guru you are looking for: the badly behaved gardener Kim Stoddart. She sounds like someone who's philosophy of gardening is somewhat close to TPP's who is a bit of a bad-boy gardener himself, it's just that he really likes gardening and is thus perhaps a bit more engaged in the process. As for flaunting gardening rules, go for it. But as a botanist you start from a different perspective in that you know what and how plants do things, sometimes. At any rate, Kim is a breath of fresh air in gardening circles, but a book?  No!  You sit around with a cocktail!

Chemical free consumer products

This article published in Nature Chemistry will be a big boon to people who are scared of chemicals you might find in the various products they purchase. It's a comprehensive, very thorough list of chemical free consumer products. Here's the link to the article. Next perhaps they'll publish a list of all the foods that are not organic. HT to Pharyngula.

So long, thanks for all the fish

It's a quite warm and beautiful Wednesday here in early October, a day way to nice to spend inside, so TPP is actually taking advantage of being retired and doing house & garden stuff. But then what a bummer to learn that the world will end today, or so some apocalyptic religious group says. Now this is really too bad because all the really good wine was consumed while waiting for last week's apocalypse during the blood moon eclipse. Who knew apocalypses could come so close together, but supposedly it has something to do with the time it takes since the blood moon to make a list of who's naughty and who's nice. There must be money in this somewhere, for someone, but if so it's because there are some seriously gullible people out there. One thing is certain, all such predictions have been wrong, so far, so TPP is still planning on tomorrow.
Here's some planning ahead advice. If you use it, buy your canned pumpkin for holiday cooking ASAP. This year's crop of pumpkin/squash was not so good. The thing about this is that 90% of the pumpkin grown in the USA for canning grows within about a 35 mile radius of Peoria. This isn't a product the Phactors use, so no worries.
The weather forecast is not promising very much rain for quite awhile. This is good for the farmers and the soybean and maize harvest is progressing very well here in our region, but this always happens after TPP plants some replacement shrubs or has other fairly new trees and shrubs to baby as the season heads into winter. Remember, the aridity of winter is often more damaging than the cold, so you have to keep things well watered, and this means quite a bit of hose dragging to reach everything (part of today's activities). Again an apocalypse would negate this advice.
But first TPP needs some more coffee.

Botany Within Your Reach - 1. Corks

This is the inaugural edition of a new periodic feature, Botany Within Your Reach (BWYR) (TM). The idea is to encourage exploration, curiosity, and learning about some of the many rather ordinary things that surround us, things us botanists recognize and understand, but which others may just take for granted. To help people keep track, each BWYR will be numbered. Comments and questions are welcomed and encouraged. 

Botany Within Your Reach – 1. Corks

Why is it that wine bottles have such long, narrow necks?  Don’t questions like that keep you awake at night? You’ve got lots of bottles holding all sorts of things and none of the rest have such long narrow necks.  The answer is botanical involving the traditional method of keeping wine in the bottle and air (oxygen) out using corks.

Extract a cork from a wine bottle. If you are an actual child, it may be best to ask your parents to help.  Perhaps they have some previously extracted wine bottle corks lying around. These days a lot of wine bottles are stoppered with plastic or even screw top lids, and one of the reasons is that good corks are in limited supply because of where corks come from, and in part because of cork has influenced what is now the traditional shape of wine bottles.

Observe a wine bottle cork closely.  If you have more than one in what ways are they similar?  Are they all constructed the same way?  The most obvious aspects of a cork are some dark streaks on two sides and pores on the other two sides, which are two views of exactly the same thing. Why do you think they run side to side and not end to end?  Clue: side to side works; end to end doesn’t. These are not wine bottle corks; these taper, but they show essentially the same features.

You also can observe layers of tissue on the ends of the cork. Are all the layers the same width? Cork comes from the bark of the cork oak, Quecus suber, and of course trees like this can be aged by counting growth rings in their wood. If cork grows in a similar way, how many years’ growth does your cork represent?  How much does this vary among corks if you have several? Shown are two corks. Which one was growing cork the fastest? 

 In woody plants, the epidermis is replaced by cork.  Cork is a secondary plant tissue produced by a lateral meristem, the cork cambium.  Cork’s primary function is protection of the vascular tissue within.  Corks cells are small, tightly packed, and while dead at maturity, the cell walls are impregnated with a waxy substance called suberin.  Bark is a very general term for all the accumulated corky tissues, along with non-functional phloem, and functional phloem are referred to as bark.  Eventually the oldest bark is sloughed off the tree, but some trees including cork oak, the bark can become quite thick. In many trees, the cork cambium produces cork in discrete patches whose size and shape is characteristic for that tree because it produces distinctive bark patterns.  The image shows a very old cork oak where the bark has not been harvested and has accumulated for many years. An image of the crown of the tree is shown above. The tree was growing in the Orto Botanico di Firenze also known as the Giardino dei Semplici. Such thick bark can protect the tree trunk from fire, and it means the cork oak was originally native to open, savanna-like habitats that were subject to fire every now and again. 

Although all woody plants produce cork cells, commercial cork is from the very light, highly suberized cork cells of the cork oak.   Rather than sloughing off, the cork accumulates on cork oak making a very thick bark. There are a few other species with similar cork, like the Amur Cork Tree, but none are of economic importance.

So back to the original question; the shape of wine bottles. The streaks and pores are channels called lenticels. They function to provide gas exchange for the living vascular tissue beneath the bark. This means the lenticels run from the inside to the outside of the bark. You can now draw an arrow on the end of the cork parallel to the lenticels showing you the orientation of the cork in the bark. One side with pores is on the outside of the cork and the other side is the inside. This means that the maximum diameter of a cork is determined by the thickness of the bark. As you observed already, it takes several years of growth to produce bark thick enough to make wine bottle corks. So cork can only be harvested by stripping it off the tree every 10 years or so.  Even then after a decade of growth the thickness of the bark limits the diameter of the cork, so the necks of wine bottles were made long and narrow so that a long cork will fit tightly.  One image shows how a cork is cut from bark that has been trimmed to an even thickness.The outline of a typical wine bottle cork has been drawn on a piece of untrimmed bark with a scale on the left. In both images the inside of the bark is at the top

You could make a much broader diameter cork if it was cut from the cork the other direction, but the cork would be much shorter and the lenticels would run top to bottom. You can find short, broad corks like this for broad-mouthed jars, but they are not air tight.

Cork is also good as padding and an insulator, so it is often used on the bottom of heavy items and as pads for hot items. Here’s an image of a piece such a pad.  The expected cork organization is not there because it is composed of bits and pieces of cork cemented together to make a sheet. The pieces are leftovers from wine cork production.

This champagne bottle cork (below) shows some similar ingenuity. Champagne is carbonated wine and the bottle corks are mushroom shaped so that the top overlaps the top of the bottle neck where it is wired down to keep the cork in the bottle neck. The gas pressure within the bottle can push the cork out once the cork is loosened, carefully, and out pops the cork. The top is composed of cork pieces, but such construction is not air tight. Two (or three) thin layers of real cork and glued to the bottom, but as you can readily observe the lenticels are running the wrong way! (Bottom of the cork shown below) This means the layers can be cut from a thin layer of bark, but they won’t be air tight either. However, if 2 layers are are put one upon the other and rotated relative to each other, the lenticels won’t line up from one layer to the other thus making a functional cork out of bark that would otherwise be inadequate. Alternatively, they use plastic stoppers.

New technology for iZombies

iZombies are those people totally unaware of the world around them because their nose is pressed against an iPhone screen, sort of the opposite of a head's up display. It's quite clear that this iZombie epidemic is getting worse, so naturally somebody goes and invents some new technology that enables them! People stopped looking at their wrists some time ago when gazing at an iPhone became considered more convenient than glancing at a watch to tell the time, but now wrist gazing will be taking the place of phone gazing if they start using this water-proof bracelet display by Cicret. Just an aside here. The company is Paris-based, so is it pronounced "se-cray" or "si-crete"? Oh, does TPP remember correctly that secret is the same word in both languages? Still best get ready for some iZombies to begin bumping into people in locker room showers, public pools, and beaches. When will we see the first one?

Sweet teeth are growing up

A thought occurred to TPP this AM after seeing an ad for a new flavored gin from the little distillery visited yesterday. Why are these sweet, flavored things so popular? The answer is both pragmatic and reflective of market reality, although not all that pleasing on a personal level. While the buying power of my baby-boomer generation still has an impact (was not Mick Jagger host of SNL last night, and hilarious to boot?) on marketing, sweet flavored things are all over the place, but of no interest to people of my generation. TPP first noticed it in his coffee shoppe. Order a latte and the young thing operating the touch screen asks, "Do you want any flavoring in that?" No, I rather like the taste of coffee. And at that nice boutique distillery, along with some fine whiskeys there were several flavored whiskeys (chili pepper seems to be a flavor of immediate choice), but there are cherry-flavored, and cinnamon-flavored ones, and others TPP has barely noticed. Why a new little brewery in Snohomish WA had a beer flavored with roasted green chilis, and all that can be said is at least it wasn't sweet. The simplistic answer to all of this is that the sweet teeth of millennials has come of age, so the corollary is that TPP is becoming as old as dirt. The problem with all these flavored whiskeys (coffee, etc.) is that the thing that turns up missing is the flavor of whiskey drown in a sea of cloyingly-sweet flavor. TPP also noted this with young-adult nieces and nephews who while visiting at his Tuscan villa found the taste of negroni cocktails too bitter.  One asked if it would be OK to add sugar? They have grown up, but their palate hasn't. The makers of whiskey, the purveyors of coffee, and other flavored liquors don't necessarily like their products this way, but they are catering to a new market, young adults with kiddie sweet teeth, or is it tooths when used this way? Will their palates eventually grow up too? In some cases, yes. The nieces and nephews seemed to enjoy decent wine (especially when they weren't paying). If these flavor adulterated items begin to push out the real thing, then it will get ugly. Hmm, TPP left one store the other day when they failed to have a single anejo rum that was not spice flavored! That comes from shopping too close to a college campus.

Apple quest 2015

A local failure of our favorite variety of apple (Northern spys) provided some motivation to drive 3.5 hr to SW Michigan to the Tree-Mendus Fruit Farm. They grow a couple of hundred varieties of apples, and you can taste many of them so you will certainly get to try something you've never had before. Now this is not exactly a selfish action as a number of our friends are counting on us to import enough apples for everybody. Last year the Phactors made the same trip and it was cold, wet, and completely miserable, and the apples were not their best so picking wasn't easy. "Apple pickin' weather" according to a senior member of the Mendus family. This year was a nice fall day and dry! And the apples were in much better shape and the trees were loaded so picking was easy. If any of our N. Spy friends are reading this, you will get apples, a few. A brief discussion with the apple patriarch turned to the Holiday apple, a variety TPP was unfamiliar with. This is a fabulous apple! The flesh is pure white and very crispy, but bursting with juice. The taste is a complex sweet tart combo. Excellent. According to the description this is a hybrid between a Jonathon and a Macoun developed in Ohio. Travel suggestion: the route to this orchard will take you close to Three Oaks which is worth a visit. First and foremost is Drier's Meat Market. The sawdust on the floor will be fresh. Try a ring of bologna or liverwurst; you will not be disappointed. Further down the street is an old corset factory that now houses a theater, a restaurant, and the Journeyman Distillery. The quite peppery rye whiskey is special. The white whiskey is (think fancy moonshine) is surprisingly fruity, and strong!  Everything is 100 proof. For an October afternoon, the joint was jumping. So think apples, sausage, and whiskey, all in a one day trip! Success!

Bye, bye styrofoam! Hello, mealworm brownies!

Some things decompose readily; some things decompose slowly; some thing essentially decompose so slowly that they essentially don't decompose; a very few things are forever. Waxes decompose very slowly, which is why cuticles of fossil leaves persist so well for millions of years. Sporopollenin is the stuff that land plant spore and pollen walls are made of and it doesn't decompose at all. No organism has an enzyme that breaks these molecules down. Wonder if they've tried feeding pollen to meal worms? TPP asks this because humans have invented a few nasty things that do not decompose either, so they hang around and accumulate. Styrofoam and other polystyrenes being some of the more common ones. But say what? Mealworms can eat styrofoam and subsist on it? That's just amazing! A colleague of mine used to keep a colony going and hand out the mealworms (beetle larvae really) to visiting school kids as a snack because they are edible. The real funny part came when he'd turn to their teacher and say, "Your teacher will show you how to try new foods." Ha! They were worse than the kids.  So now you can raise mealworms on styrofoam, one of the nastiest kinds of plastic pollutants, and then use the mealworms as a stir-fry ingredient, or chicken or fish food, or energy bars, or something. Where is my Man Eating Bugs cookbook?  This is such a handy discovery.