Field of Science

Inbetween holidays

The days between Christmas and New Years have always been a tough time.  Boxing day was a-seasonally warm so the Phactors took a decent walk that pushed us over the 10,000 steps threshold. Not sure why that's the arbitrary but round number goal, but it is? Also managed to clean up some leaves, and the net that had collected them and pick up all the newly downed limbs around the place. Then had the neighbors over for cocktails. Bulbs are already pushing up in places. TPP usually renews all his society memberships and makes some donations to worth while causes. This year supporting the Union of Concerned Scientists and ACLU seems like a good idea.  Both organizations may have a busy year. 
Worked in a dental checkup just because not much else is going on.  Have to do some grocery shopping later for a dinner party tomorrow evening, but first have to finish planning the dinner menu. Will waste New Year's Eve at a party with long-time friends, who have been doing this for more than 35 years. 
Not much else going on. Dumbly trying to figure out the smart part of new smart TV. So far it doesn't seem very bright really, but everyone says there are things you can do, if you ever do do those things. Don't even have to return any gifts.  Took a new painting/collage (mixed media) to have it framed well, and the nature of the piece makes it a bit tricky. High hopes it will look terrific and then begins the problem of hanging it in the right place and any resulting domino effect.  The other new piece of art is a blown glass vase so just have to find the right place, a not easy problem because of its size. A couple of weeks ago we attended a friends open house, and it is an art museum of major proportions. A large closet, several pieces of furniture, a basement store room, a couple of dozen sets of storage shelves in the basement housed the pieces not on display (a collection of glass and ceramics in the thousands, along with hundreds of prints, paintings, sculptures (some outside), and even art furniture. Terribly impressive as was his explanation that using eBay to downsize his collection had backfired into more acquisitions. Did get to meet the creator of our newest vase. Nice.
Hmm, killing some time with a not very inspired blog post; maybe some coffee would stimulate the little gray cells.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Is poinsettia a real flower?

'Tis Christmas eve, and all through the house the Phactors are fixing a dinner for friends and family.  Unfortunately not much is blooming to mention, but while stopping by his favorite garden shoppe, an old favorite question popped up.  A woman asked, "Is this [referencing a poinsettia] a real flower?"  As opposed to being artificial, this is surely a real plant. But if she was asking, is the attractive part of this plant a flower?  Then the answer is no.  Poinsettias have large, colorful bracts, leaves associated with flowers, and usually flowers are present, and they are a bit hard to explain and often not noticed. The plants have "male" pollen flowers, and "female flowers", unisexual flowers, and they are clustered together variously giving the superficial appearance of bisexual flowers, but they lack the usual attractive petals.  The most conspicuous floral parts are the oblong yellow nectaries.  Male flowers here have anthers with yellow pollen showing. Female flowers have a conspicuous rounded ovary with red style/stigma branches at the top.  Quite a few flowers can be found here at the center of just one "bloom" surrounded by a couple of dozen bracts.  So yes, these are real flowers, just maybe not what you were thinking.  Here's a link to a past FFF about another Euphorbia that looks even more like a flower.
The mini-lecture was ended and another woman said, "I wouldn't have such a poisonous plant in my house." What crap!  Poinsettias are in the spurge family, and many plants in this family are charmingly toxic, but not this one. You'd have to eat every red leaf in sight to maybe get a toxic dose.  Unlikely.  Poinsettia's toxicity however is a quite common myth about the plant.  No need to worry about having one around the house.  She still didn't buy one, but probably because she didn't know who she was talking with.

What is milk?

A discussion of this question caught TPP's attention while driving across town the other day.  It basically involved someone representing the dairy industry, and people who produced/consumed "plant milks", soy milk, almond milk, etc. (it's quite a list).  Milk/milky is one of those not very precise words that some people are trying to narrowly define usually because of an economic interest in doing so.  Milk in the dairy sense is a secretion of mammary glands, and while primarily cow, goat, camel, and others also produce milk, as do the rest of mammals, and to some extent monotremes as well.  
These milks are emulsions, complex mixtures of organics suspended in water. And generally they are milky, a somewhat whitish, liquid.  The word even gets used in astronomy; galaxia refers to milk and our galaxy, also referred to as the milky way, is because the disk of distant stars across our sky looks "milky" to the naked eye.  As a side note, a small neighboring galaxy is called Snickers because next to the Milky Way it's just peanuts. 
Now the plant milks are basically an emulsion made by grinding up seeds and extracting the cell contents to make a milky emulsion.  Although the liquid endosperm of a coconut (big seed), the coconut milk, is a similar but self-made emulsion.  
This still leaves another category not mentioned or even recognized by the people in this program. Lots of plants probably 7-8% produce some form of latex, a milky liquid, that in some species contains elastic and non-elastic molecules that can make gums and rubbers.  The plants that secrete such latexes are sometimes so labeled, like milkweed.  This is what the botanist thought of when asked what milk is, something secreted by laticifers, specialized cells or ducts.  These are usually considered protective secretions to prevent or limit herbivory.  Raw opioids are obtained from a gummy latex secreted by injured poppy capsules.  
So sorry dairy people you do not get to co-opt the word milk and prevent everyone else from using it (their actual mission).  It's just too general a descriptive term.

Damned cold day

It's a clear, sunny day and the air temperature has soared from 0 to 5, but that's on the Fahrenheit scale, so for the rest of the educated world our high temp today is -15 C. That's cold! It was a great weather sequence, starting Friday evening with freezing rain, so Saturday starts out ice-coated and it's one of those you can barely see it coatings of ice. TPP slipped down his own front steps, while being terribly careful because it was obviously slippery, and the newspaper was out there somewhere, but it was slippery-er than was imagined, and fortunately no physical damage was done beyond slightly spraining a thumb. Then riding in on a blast of Arctic air a layer of snow was deposited on the ice. Actually at this low a temperature, it's way less slippery now than 24 hrs ago.  Tonight may well be our coldest temperature of the calendar year, and the '16-'17 winter season; the temperature is expected to be 3 to 4 degrees below zero F (-20 C).  
Plant-wise this is close to the hardiness limits for a number of plants so come spring, TPP expects some die back.  For example, one species of beauty berry is less hardy than the other and Callicarpa  bodinieri may well die back to the ground level.  Last time it took it two years to recover and flower again (this year), so the clock will get turned back again.  TPP worries about his big leafed Asch magnolia, endemic to the Florida panhandle.  It survived 0 F last year without damage but 3 to 4 degrees colder pushes the  envelop a bit further, so to help out it was heavily mulched and the bit of snow will also help. The Sinocalycanthus is also a worry at these temperatures.  This is no where near how cold it could get here, and twice in the past 40 years the low temperature has hit -19 F.  The neighbors have a very tough mimosa tree, and it may well die back and come spring they'll just have to wait and see where it sprouts, and then prune back accordingly.  
Yesterday was spent in part making currant-cherry-berry jelly, outstanding taste and bright red. Currants tend to ripen when it's too busy to make jelly, but they are easily frozen and then wait patiently for our attention. These are from the 2015 season. 2016s are waiting. 
Today will be a soup-making day - parsnip, sausage, and lentil will be a good choice. 

Green Guilt

The Phactors  bought themselves a new TV.  It's a bit of an understatement to say that the technology has changed considerably in the last 25 years. As hard as it is to believe our still fully functional TV was 25 years old. By the standards of the industry, our new TV is far, far from the biggest, fastest, highest res, smartest TV you can buy.  Now here's the problem: TVs are not very green, and no one is even trying to figure out how to recycle them.  It costs money just to  recover a few materials, and while paying is OK with us, no one wants to help.  It hurts environmentally conscious people like us to be forced to recycle a perfectly good, functional appliance that doesn't recycle very well. When you ask a sales assistant (Do you have any questions?), "How well does this type of TV recycle?" They give you a quite strange look. Such a concept had never ever entered their mind before. And what is the expected functional life of this TV? And you know they're thinking, "Well, Grandpa, since you've bought a model that is already outmoded by about 2 years, it's about 6 months."  No one else seems to care. Manufacturers of such things have no environmental ethic at all, and if you were to require them to build in a recycling plan and front load it into cost, there would be a huge outcry.  "It would make our product too expensive!"  This is an example of letting the environment pay part of the cost, and it then results in the public subsidizing of an environmentally unethical business. Just as if there isn't enough money out there in all the programming, delivery, receiving, aspects of the industry combined to pay for the environmental cost of recycling TVs.  There just isn't a will to do anything.  And it leaves the tiny  portion of their market that has an environmental ethic suffering from green guilt, while enjoying greatly improved image quality.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Winter Orchids

People always are surprised that orchids are relatively easy house plants to grow.  A certain few rules to follow and the results are quite fun.  The flowers of cultivated orchids tend to be large and showy and often a bit exotic as is today's FFF, and while they look fragile that might last several weeks before wilting, unless you pollinate them, and then they wilt overnight.
All to TPP's orchids are in the process of flowering, which they do each year after summering outside. This particular orchid is a Zygopetalum hybrid, but don't know which. Orchid hybrids are common because they hybridize easily, and there is a biologicial reason for this.  TPP doesn't like hybrids like this grown for the exotic flowers they produce because such a flower is a hopeful monster; an orchid species can be just as "exotic" looking, but it's flower is the product of natural selection, evolution, an interaction between animal behavior and plant genetic variability, but the hybrids are not such a product, their features do not correspond to anything biologically meaningful, and for someone who studies flowers, a waste.  But this orchid was a gift, and it grows well, flowers easily, and the waxy flowers last, so it remains a pet. And this time of year FFFs are hard to come by.

Really smart people

TPP has had a long career in a business, higher education, loaded with very smart people.  And one of the initial reaction to the POTUS elect is that he really doesn't know any really smart people, and this does not mean TPP thinks generals and captains of industry are stupids, just people with rather different priorities.  So no yard stick exists for measuring himself other than having made more money than you, but smarts doesn't directly equal money.   And over at the Just Visiting Blog a similar conclusion was reached:

In response to criticism that he only attends the daily intelligence briefing weekly (or so), Donald Trump told Chris Wallace, “I’m, like, a smart person. I don’t have to be told the same thing in the same words every single day for the next eight years.”
President-elect Trump has a habit of telling people he’s smart, frequently boasting of having gone to the Wharton School, and using the exact same, “I’m like, a smart person” formulation in one of his earliest primary rallies.
This got me thinking about the smart people I’ve known.
The smartest people I’ve known never tell you how smart they are. In fact, it’s the opposite, as they’re more than willing to tell you about the things they’re ignorant of.
The smartest people I’ve known are insatiably curious. Everything is interesting to them and that interest often takes the form of enthusiasm.
The smartest people I’ve known read constantly and widely in order to feed their curiosity. Their intelligence is reflected in their knowledge.
When you remark to smart people that you think they’re smart they wince and deflect and say they know lots of smarter people.
If my criteria for identifying smart people is accurate, then it’s safe to say that Donald J. Trump will be, by far, the dumbest President of the United States in history.

Gift ideas for the gardener

If you have a gardener on you shopping list this holiday season, as a public service, TPP is making some gift suggestions for the gardener in your life. As a general rule you are not going to find garden gifts on the cool end to the spectrum at big box stores.  Because of his no endorsement, no plugs without payment policy of bringing you the best in free blogs, no links or vendors are provided but with a bit of web searching you can find everything.

Thai spirit house - Almost every home and business in Thailand has a spirit house, and they are decorated with flowers and burning incense sticks every day to keep the spirits happy. TPP thinks they are quite charming and need to become more of a thing.  In upstate NY many gardens had up ended bathtubs turned into Catholic shrines.  Sort of the same thing here but less plumbing.

Stone or concrete sculpture - You can find all sorts of garden sculpture made of stone or concrete, the trick is to find something nice, like an elephant down spout deflector. TPP is still waiting for his. Simple is oft times better than fancy.

Garden Bar - Every real gardener needs a garden bar, some place to stop, sip a cocktail, and enjoy your garden. They can be big, but honestly if your idea of sophisticated is a tiki bar, you're shopping in the wrong place.  Some garden bars for the small gardens can be mounted onto a fence, wall, or out building.  This is a really cool idea.  At the other end of the spectrum TPP has been collecting green, standard wine bottles with the idea of using them to construct a bar or wall in the garden. The best part of this idea is that you have to empty them first.

Citrus fruit juicers - These come TPP approved. Some of you may argue that this is a kitchen gadget not a garden tool, if so, please go back one item. 

Gardening Attire for the stylish gardener - Actually one of the more practical items of gardening attire is a simple shop apron. They tend to be darker in color than kitchen aprons so they don't show the soil so much.  Not much else is needed when you get right down to is.

Garden Sink - The more TPP thought about the last suggestion it became obvious that another great suggestion would be an outdoor sink for washing up. And before you run out and get a laundry utility sink, look around a bit for something a bit nicer. This if for your garden after all, not your guest bathroom. 

Sanitized for your protection

TPP hates uncontrolled experiments. As a senior citizen my physician insisted upon providing a flu shot, and now TPP has a "flu-like substance", a low-grade fever, achy discomfort, general malaise, and a bad attitude about being sick. Is it flu?  Probably, and it would have been worse if you hadn't gotten a flu shot.  Sure.  Maybe, but how would we know?  But just so you know this blog has been sanitized for your protection. You may be subjected to whatever affects this brain, but you won't catch anything worse than an idea. 
TPP also used to hate the dress warmly or you'll catch cold admonishment from his Mother. You dress warmly to stay warm when it's cold, but how does that in any way ward off virus?  It doesn't.  And you are more likely to catch something inside than outside.
Not only isn't it a controlled experiment, a biased observer is involved recording the data. Blowing off steam is just another avoidance device to delay writing a holiday greetings letter. Maybe TPP will feel better later.

Holiday floral display - tropical version

OK this isn't actually a holiday floral display, but it is quite the flowering extravaganza, a rather large Clerodendron doing its thing is a study in red and green our druidic colors of the season.  This is really quite an amazing display because you would expect the flowers at the bottom to be older and further along in flowering, but they all appear generally to be at the same stage. Sorry about not snipping the image, but it isn't mine and if you don't click over Garden Tropics you'll miss the other flower pictures.  You may want to bookmark that page.  Enjoy.

How green is your evergreen tree?

TPP gets asked all the time about which is better for the environment, a "live" cut tree or an artificial tree for your holiday decorations? When you take the usual case, the answer is pretty simple. First please understand that no one is cutting down a forest anywhere to provide your tree.  They are farmed; they just take 7-10 years for the crop to get to a harvest-able stage. This means that the soil isn't being tilled/disturbed annually, so soil erosion is minimized, and some wildlife can live there too.  You natural tree can be mulched at the end of the season, totally recycled, so long as you don't use the stooopid plastic bags to stop a few needles from dropping on your carpets.  Just sweep them up. 
Most artificial trees are made of materials that are not recyclable, so even when you use such a tree for several seasons, it has a trash/land fill cost. You would probably have to use an artificial tree for 20 years to reduce the cost to a par with a natural tree. In TPP's opinion you can use natural trees with a more or less clear ecological conscience. Of course if you want a shocking pink tree to complement the leg in a net stocking lamp, well, then artificial is the way to go. Of course you could also flock your tree thus turning a natural tree into something nearly artificial. Who knows what that stuff is?
Signs for flocked trees generates some fond memories for TPP of his ancient school days when the assistant principle, a former Marine drill instructor turned punitive educator, used to impose detention upon students he caught cursing.  Now a good malediction is a useful thing for dealing with life's misfortunes and mishaps, particularly the unjust ones, but detention was awful. As bright, young enterprising youth interested in increasing our word power, a search was commenced for obscure words that sounded like swearing, but weren't. They just had to have a certain quality when said a certain way at the right time.  Our favorites were "scud" and "flock".  After being dragged to the Principal's office for saying, FLOCK!, because the contents of your locker spilled out onto the floor between classes.  And when asked about the swearing, you said, you explain "All I said was, flock, a group of sheep". The fun came from the look the Principal gave his Assistant.  
Now what was your question?

Friday Fabulous Flower - Gunnera

Gunnera is one strange plant. It is found at higher altitudes in the wet tropics, and it's a huge leafed herbaceous perennial.  People say it looks like a big, coarse rhubarb. Really? The rounded radially-veined, lobed leaf blades can be more than a meter across, and stand a couple of meters high on a stout, prickly looking petiole, big enough to provide shelter from a rain. This young plant isn't that big yet.  Systematically this genus is a basal lineage of the true dicots (eudicots), that includes most of what used to be called dicots. The problem here is that "dicot" plants having a pair of cotyledons, embryonic leaves, does not form a single lineage because the Magnoliids are dicots, and so are the ANA basal lineages of flowering plants except for waterlilies that have one cotyledon (monocot) but otherwise have dicot characters, and then there are gymnosperms that have two cotyledons as well. Monocots remain a lineage, a good taxonomic group, dicots aren't. So remember the old monocot/dicot how to tell them apart table. No? Then don't bother. This nice image is courtesy of my old friend Dr. Chips who lives in a mild enough, wet enough climate that Gunnera can grow there (lucky duck) if mulched in their winterish season.  It has quite strange flowers that are borne on large columnar inflorescences; even TPP isn't sure what constitutes a single flower, but he's never had flowering specimens to examine first hand.  Pretty weirdly fabulous on the whole. 

Brrrrr! Send wine, winter clothing, and money.

This is a bit of an appeal as this is the season when need is felt the greatest: the end of the semester and the start of winter.  How many r's have to follow the B to indicate -7 C? And the wind chill factor makes it feel much colder.  This is our real first blast of winter, and it will serve to convince any still confused plants that it is indeed time to drop your leaves, if deciduous.  The lily pond has its first shell of ice except where the bubbler is keeping the water open; of yes, the leaf net was removed just in time.  But our tree pruners have yet to return and finish the job they started several weeks ago. Are arborists difficult guys to pin down where you are?  Ours all seem to be extremely busy, free spirits who show up magically long after you think they've forgotten you exist. Of course, if they want to get paid.....
This time of year can weigh heavy on a botanist.  Revised manuscript is just about done, except even before it was ready to return to my colleague, the discussion had been revised again.  Mrs. Phactor wants a Christmas tree set up (after it has been thawed!).  A mouse continues to thwart all trapping attempts, and the kitty girls have not managed to get this one although it has tempted fate several times. They get nothing but a little exercise. One quite lethal trap has not been used because it must be placed where kitty paws cannot get at it.
Sadly one of the best herbarium interns ever is graduating, and looking for something meaningful to do. If anyone needs an intern or a horticulturalist, contact The Phactor in the comments with the necessary info. She has a twin, but they do not come as a set.  The gap between college and a job that can keep you alive is a tough transition that TPP has helped many students bridge, but while they represent cheap willing labor at this stage, even that small amount of money is so hard to come by.  You could double my herbarium budget and not have to give a cent. But seriously if someone is well off, TPP needs a patron of botany. You have no idea how much value and experience can be squeezed out of a few thousand dollars.  Do you see how much money they spend on people who can kick, throw, hit, or bounce a ball?  Research money for doing field work has just about disappeared as the prairie and rain forest continue to disappear too.  Clearly government is not going to support science, especially that liberal, greenie, unimportant ecology and systematics, of plants no less.  More on this to come.


Yesterday was National Cookie Day and you just naturally know the Cookie Monster to be the spokes-monster for the celebration. Who else? The Phactors did not consciously decide to celebrate, but making cookies just happened to be the order of the day. First, Mrs. Phactor made corn meal muffins with a cranberry-orange relish filling. One of the best uses of one of the best Thanksgiving leftovers.  Let's see the cookie parade included a dried cranberry-pistachio cookies, cut-out Christmas cookies (an old family recipe), evergreen tree spritz cookies, and sugared nutballs (using pecans -another family recipe). What a load of colorful, cheerful, sugary confections!  Several people will get a share just so they know we were thinking of them and cared. In the past students from a number of foreign countries have helped with the cookie decorations, and when they come from different cultures with different aesthetics, and no preconceived notions about what snowmen (something they may have never seen), or Santas, or wreaths should look like, the outcomes can be quite surprising. The human sweet tooth always prevails in the end, and all get eaten.  Many of them were Thai (colorful), and then Chad and Togo once (interesting designs). 
Yesterday was also our first snowfall of the winter; wet, sticky stuff, but attractive. Note gardeners: shake it off trees and bushes that get bent with the weight.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Geranium?

This time of year often requires a visit to the glasshouse to find something nice in flower, and this lovely "geranium" reminded TPP of another common name/scientific name source of common confusion.  In your local garden shop this plant was without doubt sold as a Geranium, and TPP has a number of Geranium species in his garden, but all of them have radially symmetrical flowers where five lines can be drawn that will divide the flower into identical halves.  Clearly this flower has a single line of symmetry, so it is bilaterally symmetrical, or zygomorphic.  This works well for lining up with potential pollinators which are also bilateral, and the floral markings serve as a guide probably absorbing in the infrared wavelengths.  The five lobed stigma is radially symmetrical. Well, this "geranium" is actually the genus Pelargonium (probably a hybrid, P. x hortorum). These make nice potted plants because they are fairly drought tolerant, many having a Mediterranean origin. Most gardeners though do call these plants a geranium, which is also a genus, and both genera are in the same family so naturally they have quite a few similarities. Pelargonium cultivars are not winter hardy and there are no native species in N. America.

Help for the digitally impaired?

Is there any help out there for the digitally impaired and out of date?  A commercial on TV had a young relative describe her grandparents' house as hell, no internet, etc.  TPP is sort of feeling a bit like that was modeled after his situation. 

The Phactors have been together for a long time; we’ve already been through a primary, secondary, and in some cases tertiary and quaternary episodes of appliance meltdowns and replacements. They’ve tended to come in waves where several old, reliable appliances all give up the ghost at the same budget-busting time. On the whole things have lasted well for us.  Our luck with dishwashers and microwave ovens being the worst.  One old hot water heater became a collector’s display piece at a local business because of its age and uniqueness after they stopped laughing about "can it be fixed?" At our stage of life it becomes hard to remember how old some items are. 
In the last few days the CD players on two stereos both ceased to function, and "Martha Stewart" demands Christmas music while decorating and making cookies and the like.  Young ones, should any read this blog (doubtful), may not really remember CDs or their advantages over 8-track tapes, 33 1/3 LPs (mostly stereo, but the oldest are mono), 45s (TPP never actually collected them), and 78s.  One stereo was easily fixed by bringing an ancient, but seldom used CD player home from TPP’s office, which is fine for the compact system in the kitchen.  But the main stereo had a 5 disk changer, and a still powerful 150w per channel tuner/amp to push some pretty fine speakers to their limits.  TPP used Tusk (1979)(there's also a version using the USC Trojan marching band) by Fleetwood Mac to signal the F1 that it was time to rise and shine (usually in the vicinity of noon). So as the Phactors contemplate a new TV, it just doesn’t seem right to embrace too much change all at once.  But whether to update or not will be debated, but TPP just doesn’t want to give up his stereo equipment just yet; it'd  be like giving up a Corvette for a Prius. While that's OK for cars; this is sounds! Might have to go find that King Crimson album (front and back cover illustration above) and test the turntable.