Field of Science

Friday Fabulous Foliage

Fairly new Japanese maple is becoming quite large, making itself a real presence in our front garden. The brand new foliage is quite striking and the pattern produced by the emerging leaves and elongating twigs is very handsome.  This one is the largest in our gardens, even on the day it was planted.  It was money well spent.  Bought a small "full moon" maple when it was pretty small, a hard to find variety, and it's taken several years to get to be noticable.  Mrs. Phactor says TPP is getting too old to buy small trees anymore. With trees size/cost correlation is positive and not necessarily linear. It also costs more because old gardeners have old backs, so you have to hire young backs to plant them (and then make sure they get them planted straight).  

Whose testicles?

Here's one of those newsy little articles that's supposed to make us go wow!  Imagine that!  But really people you don't know much of anything.  Here's the article: "Turns out the word avocado comes from the Aztec word āhuacatlwhich means “testicle"". Naming plants after what they look like is nothing new, people have been doing it for centuries, and bawdy is not the least uncommon.  Walnuts, the genus Juglans, refers to Jupiter's testicles.  Does anyone need to be drawn a picture of the flowers in the legume genus Clitoria? Anyone want to guess why the maiden hair fern is so called? Leaf pinnae have a venation pattern that resembles pubic hair. TPP could go on, but you get the picture.  And oh, just one more example, the giant corpse flower (a really, really big jack-in-the-pulpit) is flowering at the Chicago Botanic Garden - "Sprout's" name is Amorphophallus titanum.  Is there anything phallic about it?  See for yourself.

Success week!

Success Week. What a great euphemism! Somebody (Asst. dean of students?) will claim this as a great achievement and get rewarded for it. So what is Success Week? It's the last week of classes before finals. There are a whole bunch of rules about what you can and cannot do the last week of classes, however it can all be boiled down to don't further stress out stressed out students. Too many things must be finished this week along with studying for finals.  TPP never did any of the "don'ts" and it was because the big project due was their lab portfolios, and they've known about this from day one (syllabus). And he never gave comprehensive finals, although because ideas and concepts build on each other the 4th exam has the most comprehensiveness. Here's the thing. It wouldn't really make any difference because you can't make up in a week what you should have been doing all semester. "But we need time to study." No, you need time to review, studying was, or should have been, done day by day, week by week as the class went along. This means a lot of students didn't really study at all, and then try to make it all up in one week, and we're not to make matters worse. OK, TPP can buy that, but it should be called "It's too late week."  This is one of those things you learn or you only go so far with your education. But euphemisms like this make you want to gag, or choke a deanlet.

Botanical Art Online Sale

Dear Readers, 
Here you go! The American Society of Botanical Artists are having an online sale.  Some terrific illustrations and a few pieces of art are for sale to raise money for their activities.  Grab your credit cards and go here.
TPP has his eye on a piece already, although why are there no magnolias?  At any rate here's your opportunity to get an excellent piece of botanical art.  Remember it doesn't have to match your sofa; it's art. The Phactors started collecting art a long time ago, and now without really having tried a considerable collection has been acquired.  Be warned this is going to be forwarded to a guy who loves plants, loves art, and makes TPP look like a tightwad. But giving you a heads up.  You are welcome ASBA.

Friday Fabulous Flower - wildflowers in gardens

Happy Earth Day!  Lots of people ask about using prairie and woodland wild flowers in gardening. They're mostly interested in what and how.  In honor of the day some examples will be given.  One of the easiest, and a fairly showy spring wildflower other than the weedy bluebells that grow all over our gardens is bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora). They grow in clumps, sometimes dense ones, but they aren't weedy or unruly spreaders, and they are easily divided so they grow here and there around our spring gardens.  But the foliage persists and in the fall makes a nice cinnamon brown cluster. The flowers are pendent and have the curiously twisted petals.
Liverleaf (Hepatica acutiloba) is small and a very early wildflower.  They are also picky. While a woodland flower they like shady slopes where they don't get covered in leaves. Lacking that ours like being plants at the base of large trees again where they don't get buried.  The flowers can vary from white to pale pink to deep pink (rare). Very nice, but for many people a why bother plant. Sorry couldn't find a flower picture.
OK so lastly, one of TPP's favorite garden wildflowers. It isn't showy, it isn't common, it is easy enough once established if you have a nice woodland habitat for it, but only a wild flower fancier will appreciate it: blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides).  It's just nice to know you have it.
The foliage and flowers have that bluish cast, but as can be seen not very showy. It's also kind of neat because the flowers are constructed in multiples of 3s, so that should say to you "monocot", but this is a dicot, a member of the barberry family. So TPP finds that fun too. Many of the tropical magnoliid plants have a similar situation of having 3-parted flowers.  This one is surrounded by blue bells that almost hide it from all but the most discerning eyes. 

Garden color palate of mid-April

A lot of plants are in flower right now across a range of colors. A couple of pearl bushes (Exochorda), still on the smallish side (garden age - 3 yrs), add big splashes of white (above). A dozen or so redbuds spread a lacy pink-purple around our gardens aided a bit by flowering crabapples. A Carolina silverbell (Halesia) suddenly showed up (it's flowers start green and turn white) its lacy display out beyond the perennial bed. An orange spicy-lights Azalea is beginning to turn up the heat. Bluebells, poppies, tulips and late narcissas provide lots of accents. All of this as the magnolias fade. 
Wait! A blond fox squirrel just arrived. Just a couple of blocks from our gardens is a population of black fox squirrels, but the blond one is a new comer. Just what we need, immigrants.
 In the spring things just pop up it seems, but a couple of replacement arbor-vitae trees were planted yesterday in TPP's absence (8 footers), so they really did pop up! Wished they had popped straight up (planted with a bit of tilt)(Yes, fussy, but that was paid-for planting.) And so a border garden reappears.  It's a bit sad, but the lawn needs to be mowed; while shaggy, the violets and spring beauty are nice, and it has a nice meadow quality to it. Basically mowing lawns is like poodle pruning shrubs.  

How to buy trees and shrubs

Here's some great tips for buying trees and shrubs from the good folks over at the Garden Rant, who we likes even if they don't link to us. To these tips, let TPP add a couple. 
1. Balled and burlaped trees are preferable to potted ones, but if potted is only choice then make certain that roots are not bound into a tight cylinder. You must, MUST, tease out the root ball during planting; TPP's weapon of choice is a huge old screw driver used to pry the root ball apart. Failure to do this kills more trees and shrubs than anything but total neglect. 
2. Plants grow people, so plan ahead. Read the label and check the size in 10 years. TPP just saw a whole row of little yews, big box cheapies, planted in a 18" wide bed between a wall and a sidewalk. They're too big for the location from the get go! No way this works. If you did plant too many trees for a hedge, bite the bullet and cut out every other one, and remember this lesson. It cost you money. TPP wishes he knew who planted 3 hack berries in a row 20 feet apart across his yard; now they are 90 feet tall and not easily or cheaply removed. Who would plant 3 hack berry trees anyways! Of course even TPP makes his mistakes. Hard to believe how quickly that Chamaecyparis shrub grew! 

Gardening spring fever, exercise spring ferver

As per usual our weather goes from rather cold to warm-hot more or less directly. Our gardens look quite lovely, very colorful with a combination of bulbs, perennials, trees, and shrubs all in flower. Even the spring beauty/violet infested lawn is beautiful, in fact, spring beauty and violets are the lawn. It's the peak for bluebells, our most prominent and numerous wild flower. In one place yellow celandine poppies contrast nicely with the blue, and usually accented by the pink of bleeding hearts, but the freeze of a week ago (what a difference a week makes!) did them damage. For Mrs. Phactor the transition from tax season (very taxing) transitions immediately to garden season. Anyone who wants to experience our whole body garden-your-butt-off exercise program need only stop by and we'll see that you get a workout. Why is it that exercise zealots are never gardeners? Gardening is exercise that accomplishes something, or does that make it work and therefore ineligible as exercise? 
Last week's freeze demonstrated some plants' susceptibility to freezes: flower buds on a Butterflies Magnolia got totally toasted, so did the emerging leaf buds on a Oyama magnolia (and hopefully the damage is not too severe). Yet our tulip and saucer magnolias were unscathed because they were purposely sited to delay their flowering, and this year it worked. The freeze caught most of the saucer magnolias in full bloom and they suddenly went from magnificent flowering displays to toast.  Sudden heat causes plant to flower quickly and fade just as quickly. TPP has also begun replanting the boundary garden where a huge limb from their tulip tree broke during an ice storm and squashed three conifers like bugs; they did not survive. The 'Techny' arbor vitaes will be replaced, but not the limber pine. A new 'black tulp' magnolia has been planted too. TPP also got to replace his Japanese umbrella pine (Scaidopitys), but you cannot replace 6 years of growth.  
New trees and shrubs means digging holes; you have no idea how many muscle groups get a workout digging holes, so again stop by, a stake marks the spot for the next hole twice the diameter of the root ball please. Get your back into it! This is for your own good! In another exercise challenge, yesterday TPP rebuilt a pedestal for a objet d'art out of large 
pavers, a non-leaning pedestal, and this AM his right hand is feeling the effects of that exercise as he types this blog. Stop on by, he'll show you which keys to hit.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Trout lily

The spring, woodland ephemerals are a special pleasure this time of year.  The Phactors share a largish patch of these white trout lilies with the neighbors to the east. Lots of plants have no respect for fences or property boundaries. The only thing transgressing from the neighbors to the west is garlic mustard. TPP grew up with the yellow trout lily, but locally Erythronium albidum is the prevalent species.  It's smaller, has more bluish tints to the leaf, and of course a white flower.  But altogether charming especially when you get down to their level. 

Adventures in plant ID

TPP and his academic alter ego get lots of requests for plant identifications. Sometimes you get the actual plant, sometimes you get just a picture. But thanks to Eric for calling attention to this picture from a newspaper article. The article was about the penguin, but Eric wanted to know what the unmentioned plant was. Typical example of plant blindness; a penguin, obviously, but no mention of a pretty nifty looking plant.  So TPP gets the picture and that the penguin is from New Zealand. The critical piece of information is from the picture.  The plant is obviously an umbellifer, a member of the parsley/carrot family.  So some googling on NZ and the family name got us an image that provides a tentative ID: Anisotome latifolia, Campbell Island Carrot.  It's a pretty spectacular plant, so thanks Eric for giving us a challenge.  If this ID turns out to be in error, let us know.  There might be several similar species.  Oh, yeah, don't eat this "carrot"; umbellifers are bad bets for being edible. Great plant; cute penguin. 

Friday Fabulous Flower - Purple fumewort

Whenever the Phactors find some new plant it gets tested to see if it will survive under conditions of benign neglect.  Newly planted trees and shrubs are the only things that get TLC.  So it's always nice when some attractive, and even delicate looking new comer proves to be hardy and tough. A number of years ago Mrs. Phactor got Cordylis lutea, as the name suggests a yellow-flowered fumewort, a group of annual to perennial herbs that used to be in their own family, the Fumariaceae. Now they are part of the poppy family to which they are quite similar. They are sort of like a bleeding heart if you only took one-half of the flower. The yellow cordylis starts flowering early and will continue until the frost kills them back.  They have a tendency to weediness, but not so badly that you decide to nuke them.  A couple of other species have been tried unsuccessfully, but Cordylis solida, a blue-purple flowered species, more of a spring-flowering then die-back species, has proven pretty tough growing in three different beds and not showing any bad habits yet. It's quite cheerful as a low-growing edge of a bed plant that doesn't seem particularly palatable to the bun-buns. It may look delicate, but it's tough, quite frost hardy, which is important in our climate of highly changeable spring weather.

Highly palatable to cats

Highly palatable.  When this phrase is found on a box of cat meds our only reaction is to laugh and say, "sure".  As in the "highly palatable" meds will be left in the bottom of their bowls for sure. When you think of synonyms for palatable you think of words like tasty, appetizing, savory, toothsome, agreeable, pleasant to the sense of taste, but they are not using the cat dictionary where it must mean different, suspicious, avoid at all costs; heck they don't care about taste, such morsels never ever make it past the lips. Every bit of regular food down to the last speck will be removed without ever touching the medication which in this case is to assist with hair balls during shedding season. And neither of our kitty-girls are particularly fussy eaters, but anything that might be good for them somehow registers as highly inedible, a complete opposite of highly palatable. 
The manufacturers might mean well as opposed to being downright deceitful, but you have to test palatability using pampered house kitties, not some half starving, half feral feline volunteers. TPP grew up with a variable number of "outdoor" farm cats; they had their own residence hall with personal apartments within. Feeding time was pretty a raucous affair, starting with a race from the back door to their residence to choose their favored places for din-dins reflecting the current pecking order. And they would eat anything especially if served in a warm soupy stew made with leftover gravy, chopped, bite-sized leftovers of our meals, along with  the kibble de jour. Their definition of highly palatable was pretty different than our pets, and they would have appreciated being food test subjects. As a semi-random sampling, none of our cats would ever spontaneously eat something like that.  

Pedestrians be us

TPP has been really fortunate career/job-wise. Living in a smallish college city in a pretty prosperous agricultural belt is a pretty decent, unless you've got some fetish about mountains and beaches. As mentioned many times the Phactors own a remarkable piece of urban property, a small personal botanical garden of sorts.  And the most amazing thing is that it is within easy walking distance to the university where TPP was long employted, although most of the other people in this neighborhood don't walk to work.  Actually in thinking back for only 2 out of the 46 years of his career has TPP had to commute by car, or if truly desperate by city bus (not convenient or anything in those days).  This adds a great deal to the quality of life compared to people with long commutes; you may get some affordable space, but when do you get time to do anything with it?  Being a committed pedestrian has the obvious health benefits and the time for creative reflection is both necessary and useful for your mental well-being.  TPP wonders and worries about the young people who maintain a constant sound input even when walking such that they take no time for the brain to free-wheel.  Such times are when you learn to think. Lots of times if a problem has been nagging a solution or an idea arises during the morning commute, but you have to let it surface from your subconscious, and then you have to learn to grab it and hang on to it before it escapes like a dream.  
Wednesday last, the first Wednesday in April, was National Walking Day, and nothing special was done to celebrate.  Mrs. Phactor can walk to work as well, but it's more complicated for her.  It's about three times farther, and her business and activities make for lots of appointments here and there, so there are practical reasons for driving. Three of TPP's colleagues lives about 3 blocks closer to campus and one doesn't even own a car unless her ancient VW rabbit was buried in her back yard after it quit for good. Another one walks, the third drives. A grocery is within walking distance in the opposite direction, and TPP often walks to get just an item or two. But our 'Mercan habit of buying food for several days produces a load to heavy to carry very far, so that remains a problem even if a cart were used. Unfortunately shopping in general moved from neighorhoods and urban centers to you-must-drive peripheral areas starting 5-6 decades ago, and only now is there some little tendency to shift back to some neighborhood shopping, but some places remain food deserts with no local shopping at all.  Even worse shopping in the myriad of little rural towns dotting our agricultural landscape at a frequency of about one every 10 miles (reasonable distance for horse drawn transportation) has disappeared almost completely leaving many of these towns with a library, a grain elevator, maybe a gas station/convenience store, and a lot of shuttered store fronts. Thus shopping for anything means a substantial trip. So glad our employment situation afforded us the luxury of being pedestrians.

GnOPe is bumming me out

Every where you look the bloody GnOPe is doing something that is bumming me out. Let's see there's the T-rump/Screws race for most incompetent candidate, voter suppression, more dumping on Planned Parenthood and women's rights in general, bigotry in the guise of religious freedom abounds, and the obstructionism of anything and everything Obama might do.  If there is a lesson here it is that the GnOPe is focused on the negative, thus my use of GnOPe where the G is silent. It is clear that they cannot be trusted to run things. Look at Kansas and Wisconsin where the experiment has been done, the GnOPe could do as they pleased, and their policies have failed spectacularly, but still they double down, a special form of stupidity. The GnOPe must be relegated to minority party status which limits the damage that they can do.  In particular the attempts to legalize discrimination demonstrates how far the South has come, and it's not very far. In all it is very depressing, and April weather doesn't need any help. 

April brings rotten weather

  Something about April, maybe the pushing and shoving of fronts from the north and south but so far April's weather has been rotten.  The previous two days have been two of the windiest consecutive days in recent memory.  Gusts of wind over 40 mph were common, and at times gusts over 50 mph would occur, and you began watching your trees flex.  Since the area already had an ice storm, a lot of weak limbs had already been pruned by nature, not a lot more came down in spite of the violent weather. A large basswood (above) whose base had been damaged a few years earlier by sewer work finally collapsed onto the front lawns, porches, and a driveway of the neighbors across the street. It took a city crew the rest of the day to clean up the debris, and no major damage was done, except that is the 4th major street tree to go from just a 4 house portion of our block.  Replacements will take years to have the same tree-lined street impact if they ever do. Everything loose blew every where.  Two small pot cover tepees TPP set up to cover and protect  broccoli seedlings ended up in the neighbor's gold fish pond, but no damage.  Everything that was in flower got wind whipped pretty badly, so now as that transition weather has passed, a low in the 20s is predicted tonight, and it it ruins the flowering of my Magnolia liliflora, it would be very sad indeed. Yesterday's high was in the low 70s showing how changeable the weather can be this time of year.

Friday fabulous flower - Trillium whatever

A few years ago TPP got a bargain bag (and gardeners love bargains) of 6 "white" Trillium rhizomes.  So there was no illusion about knowing what was in the bag.  Actually at least 3 species, 3 T. flexipes (locally a fairly common white flowered species), T. erectum (not white flowered, shoots coming up behind this plant), and the rather lovely plant shown above (also not white-flowered). Was there a 6th plant?  Don't think so. But what grows here?  TPP's first thought was T. sessile, but the plant has grown up a bit now and the flower is decidely larger, longer petalled, and has sepals colored almost as darkly as the petals.  Hmm. Now the most likely identification is T. cuneatum.  It also looks like T. kurabayashii from N. Calif. & Oregon, which seems rather unlikely just based on geography, but since the location of origin is unknown, it is possible.  However it is a quite handsome plant no matter what.  Do others want to weigh in on the identification of this non-white, sessile-flowered, mottled-leaf Trillium?  But hey, what a bargain!  5 Trilliums, 3 species!