Field of Science

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.

You say tomayto, they say tomahto, everybody says big

Tomatoes are one of those garden fruits that everybody loves. And some people want to raise the earliest one each year. And some people want to raise the biggest one, and some succeed wildly.  So here's what may be the largest tomato ever raised, even if not the ripest. Perhaps the grower is red-green color blind. This particular tomato was raised in France and it weighs in at 3.795 kilograms (that's 8.4 pounds for the metric challenged). The Guinness book of records lists a tomato from the USA at 3.814 kg, so this particular fruit isn't the biggest ever. It isn't the nice round, plump, smooth fruit that you might be envisioning. Wild type tomatoes are composed of 2 or 3 carpels, sort of like cherry tomatoes but smaller. If you look at a big tomato it's composed of many more carpels or subunits, so tomatoes get bigger by adding fruiting units. It's also possible that two adjacent flowers fused during early fruit development, and not sure that should be counted for a thing like a record. Nonetheless that's an impressive tomato even is not quite the record. HT to Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog

Fall color - Winterberry

Winterberry is a great landscape shrub for fall and winter color.  It's almost native to the upper midwest, but not quite, but it has no trouble growing here at all. It's actually a holly, a deciduous holly, Ilex verticillata. In particular the dwarf variety is a nicely compact, relatively slow growing shrub, rather unobtrusive until fall and then zowie! The bright red berries just light up the area, and eventually they will become bird fodder. They look particularly good in front of evergreens or other shrubs.  One small thing to note. Hollies are dioecious, so trees either bear fruiting flowers or pollen flowers not both, however you only need one male for every few females. For some reason the males are not as tough nor as hardy as the females and they tend to die a bit more frequently, but they can be pretty easily replaced. As one friend put it, the berries are so lovely they could be artificial. Not sure but TPP thinks that was a complement.

How to run a university - Adminspeak

Once you've been around a college or university long enough you learn Adminspeak. For those of you new to this jargon, here's a few pointers.
"Strategic reorganization" - This means "we're going to fire some people and the way we're going to do it is by reorganizing to make a division, department, office, etc. disappear on the organization chart".  Yes, rather than just fire people, terminate jobs, admins like to reorganize such that the desired object for termination ceases to exist.  Poof, no more job, so no more person in that position.
"Performance assessment" - In higher education, everything must be assessed. This is why people in higher education collect and count beans. Never mind that there are no complaints, no problems, no omissions, no excuses, no evidence of anything but a job well done, you must be assessed. The problem is they don't know how to do it. Do you never, sometimes, often miss deadlines? Yes, assessments eat up my time that could be done doing something useful.
"Special Study Group" - Groups like this are formed to reinforce preconceived notions and deliver expected results. Some times 2 or 3 such groups must be formed and dismissed to get the desired result. Then the Admin can announce, "A special study group has recommended ...".  TPP had a chair who constructed a new curriculum this way.
"Shared Governance" - Mostly this means faculty are thrown a few bones, placed on committees and such, where their input can be ignored. While membership on a committee can look quite inclusive, unwanted opinions are frequently, conveniently, left out of reports by the lapdog appointed chair. You can also just be left out of strategic discussions, candidate interviews, etc. And that's only if the organization pays any lip service to shared governance at all.
"Program review" - This is the academic equivalent of strategic reorganization. Tenured faculty are hard to fire, but read the fine print. You can be terminated if your program ceases to exist, i.e., it is deemed out dated, too small, too expensive, too specialized, etc. based upon "assessment", which is really bean counting. The lesson here is simple, only make big, broad programs for majors. Minors are always suspect and liable for cutting, as if this was anything but a bookkeeping problem, so make sequences which can accomplish the same thing for students but are not on admin radar.
This is just too depressing to continue.  But maybe you have some suggestions to submit in the comments?

Leftovers - Halloween treat department

The cold miserable rain stopped in time for kids to get out for trick or treat last evening. That was nice for everyone concerned, but as TPP explained just a couple of days ago, the housing density is lower in our neighborhood and in terms of optimal foraging this area is sort of a dead end. So mostly it's just the neighborhood kids. This year during the two hour trick or treat window of opportunity, our house was visited by just 15 kids. Limiting the time extent has improved the quality of the activity greatly and before this limit was enforced as the hour got later the tricker-or-treaters got older and less cute, and more entitled. But few beggers that means leftover treats. One rule is never buy treats that you yourself wouldn't eat, however, while a little chocolate-covered coconut or peanut butter is OK every now and again, having too much temptation around is not a good thing. So given that there's lots of lab work going on, just plain old sorting piles of prairie vegetation, a stash of nutritive rewards is a good thing to have available. Each bag sorted lets you dip into the treat jar. College students, both undergraduate and graduate, too sophisticated and too old for trick-or-treating are still quite happy to have such treats available. TPP will also stock up on post-Halloween treat sales and take some along to Costa Rica at the end of the month. The Ticos don't get to see this kind of USA candy and they do have a sweet tooth. Cheap and easy way to be nice and provide a nice surprise. One of TPP's Costa Rican friends kids grew up while my visits were annual and nearer to Christmas, and the first year TPP missed a trip, his kids were so disappointed. Hmm, those might even have been more seasonal treats of a Christmas nature. Same concept though.