Field of Science

Botany 2016

Each year the Botanical Society of America, with a number of its sister organizations, get together for a 4 day phantasmagorical orgy of botanical science and socializing. As you may guess us botanists are spread rather thinly across the landscape, and since the human bio-medical tail, and its attendant money, wags the biological dog, there just aren't that many of us. So getting together once a year is a big deal. Some of these people are our bestest buddies, colleagues, collaborators, former students, former mentors, and so on. This year the event is in Savannah GA, and you're saying TPP, isn't it a touch hot and humid this time of year. Well, yeah, which is why the botanists get such a good deal here, and other places like NOLA, Mobile, San Antonio, and Stillwater (actually still can't believe this last one), but the meetings are indoors in refrigerated conference centers except when way back they were on university campuses.  
So the Phactors are enroute and stopped for margaritas in Chattanooga, not famous for its drinks, but if you look back a couple of blogs you'll see that some people travel with their own supply.
The next few days will be jam packed with research and teaching talks, and posters, and meetings (don't like them, but you have to do science's business too.), and social events too. Ah, you're jealous. TPP has been to all but a hand full of these annual meetings since 1972. Understand the schedule doesn't leave much time for blogging.  

Friday Fabulous Flowers - a Grass

TPP admits to some bias with regard to flowers: the grasses, the sedges, and the rushes tend to get ignored, so here's a large semi-showy grass that is growing in a plot outside our building having been transplanted there by a colleague a couple of decades ago.  This is Eastern Gama Grass, Tripsacum dactyloides.  Here in the upper midwest this robust grass can be seen particularly in unmowed ditches.  This grass is in the same tribe as it's much more common, but non-native, cousin, maize.  Here you can see the staminate spikelets with the dangling anthers common to many wind-pollinated grasses, above a double row of pistillate flowers that are quite like those of teosintes, maize's direct ancestors.  Big, feathery, purple tri-branched stigmas, also quite common to many wind-pollinated grasses, are gone as this is just past pollination. It has a handsome teosinte like quality.

Goodies for being good

Since TPP was holding down the fort, while Mrs. Phactor, F1 & her Guy were off to Oxford Univ. for a graduation ( a niece) and some fish & chips (can't get good ones locally), Mrs. Phactor brought home a present for not getting into trouble during her absence.  Doesn't that look good? A whole array of sour gumminess at its best!

Today is International Tequila Day

What? Today 24 July is international tequila day?  TPP doesn't understand, every day is international tequila day!  In a remarkable coincidence, six years ago today, TPP provided you with his margarita recipe for travel and survival of vehicle breakdown in Provo Utah (where you certainly cannot get a margarita unless you be having your own materials (salt was borrowed from a tolerant motel host as the camp kitchen was inaccessible.)). Cannot understand how this has not become a way more popular post than artichokes.  A bit later today tequila shall be celebrated including road trip memories, and to help withstand the heat index which is around 110 or basically miserable.    

Ants! Cats!

Ants! You really do have to admire them! Although tiny they function as a super organism, and when you've spent any time in the tropics you begin to appreciate their ubiquity and diversity.  The field station where TPP does research and teaches claims upwards of 500 species live there.  Up here in the temperate zone they aren't quite so plentiful, or so diverse, but we do seem to have lots of them around, and you forget their corporate determination.  Unfortunately one of our kitty girls is both a nibbler and a damned messy eater, so lots of little crumbs are left even if you have a member of your household staff watch over her bowl constantly.  Now the trick will be to find the chink in our stucco armor, actually more like finding which chink in the stucco is the problem area; so it is with old houses.  Actually just so identified the location and it's half way around the house from where the ant problem is manifest. These are little (1/8th inch long), black bitey ants and based on the traffic pattern a nest of a few billion jillion ants probably resides beneath the stucco where it has somewhat detached from the lath beneath (the problem is on the house entropy list, but maybe needs to be moved up), but finding a stucco person, a good one, is not easy as the craft has largely disappeared.  The houses last pretty well, but nobody builds them this way any more.
And then to buy some time you decide to relocate the cat dining area just a few feet, to remove the attraction of food, and put down a nice place mats for messy eaters and not quite so messy eaters, and what a problem you create.
You want us to eat where? But I eat over here, where I am now. In unison: Which bowl is mine (although relative positions and distance were maintained)? Where did my bowl go?  Why? Why? Why? Ants? What ants? Gads, somethings are in my bowl!  This is intolerable!  Who runs this place?
Cat confusion and indignation knows no bounds when it comes to feeding time, and place. Good thing it wasn't new food to boot.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Clivia

This time of year it's unusual for a house plant to be the featured FFF, but this is one of the house plants that could go outside for the summer, but doesn't. Not sure why.  This was a gift from a friend who got the plant from her Mother (?) and having propagated some off shoots decided to hand them out.  Clivias are pretty easy, pretty spectacular house plants. There are lots of varieties and TPP doesn't know how many species are in cultivation; this is probably cultivar of  Clivia minuata.  It's pretty obviously a amaryllid and they are native to S. Africa.  The dark green leathery leaves are quite handsome and it does well in bright indirect light. Around here it would grow outside OK, but as it prefers very well drained soil and drying out between waterings, the upper midwest is probably too wet, too humid (right now our weather is beastly hot and humid).  Every now and again, about once a year, a many flowered inflorescence appears from within a fan of leaves.  The flowers are large, bright, and long lasting. It almost thrives on neglect. Maybe Linda will give you a plant too.

Fermented nectar - key to primate evolution?

This is sort of a neat observation, based on 3 captive animals, so you know, let's not go crazy and suggest things like preferring fermented nectar has anything to do with primate evolution.  It's just that beetle grubs taste better when served with the correct vintage. Every one knows that. 

Very uncomfortable weather

Today is a hot, humid day, the worst so far this summer.  Some thunder storms may roll in later.  Hmm, the actually humidity is 70% and the temperature 91 F, so the heat index is 109, swell. You can look up a chart to figure the index out. The kitty girls are used to lounging in north window sills, but under these conditions the windows will stay closed.  TPP got caught up on lawn mowing this morning when it was somewhat cooler. The crab grass is trying to take over the world along with a number of other summer weeds. This is when mulching earlier in the year will pay off. 
Our house handles the heat fairly well, but it has limitations. When the night time temperature drops into the low 70s or upper 60s, the house will stay comfortable without AC. But under these conditions the low tonight will probably be in the upper 70s.  The house is massive, white, and well-shaded for much of the day. It has good flow through ventilation and a lot of rooms have ceiling fans.  An evaluation for solar power came out as are you kidding?  So the economics may not work out so well for us although the shading is nice. Our electrical usage is below average anyways. 
TPP must venture out again soon because even though it's hot out there several plants may need water especially those in pots or planters, or those that are just newly planted period.  

Plagiarism, never a good thing and always so obvious

Plagiarism, now this is something us oldish professor types know about. No question about it, entire sentences from Michelle Obama's speech were lifted and used in the speech written for Melania Trump. This tells us two things: one, Trump employs some really dumb speech writers because no way does anyone let Melania Trump write her own stuff, two, yes, it was plagiarism, but what were they going to do, footnote the first lady? You see no one and no way, anyone even when writing about the exact same thing gets things that similar. So the lame excuses of same topics, same ideas, same feelings, being offered don't cut it, and these days all you have to do is take a phrase of sentence like that and search the internet, and up pops the source. But, it takes a special kind of dumbness to plagiarize the President's wife.
Once upon a time TPP had twins in one of his classes, one of several bad experiences with twins, and you know the old, they look alike, they talk alike, they act alike, they finish each others sentences, and they liked doing one report and each getting credit for it. Well, one their reports was just too, too similar to the other so TPP didn't give them credit and like good little entitled students they complained to a student judicial board who were far more credible.  Well, we both were taking the class, we study together, we work together, and of course, we are twins (said in unison with a cute little head nod), so naturally our reports come out sounding alike. Well, none of the other student reports are even remotely similar and there are at least 3 study groups in the class, so it all must be the twin thing, so let's test it, TPP suggested.  Let's give them both a couple of minutes to write 2 or 3 sentences about something that they shared and knew intimately. And further suggested that the judicial board make the final pick. The topics were things like: a favorite pet, the house we grew up in, our favorite food, our best birthday ever.  The board decided this was cool, and each twin wrote about the house they both grew up in.  Ta da!  No similarity in the descriptions at all. And then TPP suggested that they might examine the twins' records to see in how many courses they should have gotten half credit for their shared efforts. So back to the writers, Trump should fire them; it's something he really can do.  

Nausea and dread - Was it something I ate?

Woke up this AM feeling unwell; it was the usual time when the black paws alarm went off, but usually Mrs. Phactor turns it off (diverts its attention), but she's off to merry old England for a niece's Oxford graduation. The feeling is just a general ill feeling of foreboding and it had nothing to do with anything TPP ate or drank.  But of late just reading the newspapers or online news services provides very little good news and plenty of bad news such that TPP has totally stayed away from blogging therapy so as not to pass it along and bum out readers. The other problem is being at a rather loss for any words of wisdom or even any lofty thoughts.  
With regards to all the policing gun violence, tit for tat is always a losing strategy, and then when some moron of a mayor or chief of police or congress person says this isn't a "gun problem" you want to give them a dope slap because that is exactly why all of this is killing so many people. When everyone is carrying a gun around you can't tell who the supposed "good" guys are, and they carry guns because they're scared, and then they scare everyone else including police who are just trying to do their job, and unfortunately making too many mistakes in the process.
The nausea may well be related just to listening to news snippets and nibbling upon choice tidbits from the GnOPe convention like good old Jovial Giuliani. So much doom and gloom that only the chosen one, a great leader who has never led, can save us from. The politics of fear never does good things, ever. It is sadly disappointing that so many people fall for this line of crap.
TPP understands that people want to be better off than they are/were and they want to be safe, but fails to understand how anyone can think a narcissistic billionaire who was born on 3d base and thinks he hit a triple can help. It's the ultimate in trickle down, voodoo economics. Such people don't care about the little people.
Lastly, T-rump reminds TPP of a type of person you sometimes meet in the academic world. They have a pretty good opinion of themselves; they feel pretty smart, but they usually have a rather insular, or limited background, lacking wider experience beyond their particular expertise, which is often education administration, for example. OK in the academic world, no one is a total slow coach, but you do run into some very, very smart people to help you keep your own ego in check.  Where in a world of business where money equals power does a bully ever discover just how smart he isn't, and even if he proves to be fairly smart, it's a largely untrained, un-exercised intellect. And it shows, but it can still seem impressive to others. 
Are others out there suffering as well? Time to work out the rest by mowing some lawn. 

Flowers at the stage of seed dispersal

Of course TPP is talking about fruits, flowers at the stage of seed dispersal. These particularly handsome berries were among the best part of our kitchen garden this season, so far. Note the past tense. Now begins the whining of a gardener with a small garden.  One of the major problems with small gardens is that they cannot sustain much damage. The person who plants 50 tomatoes at her Father's place in the country doesn't have to worry about losing a plant or two, or a variety that doesn't like the weather this year, or an animal eating their fill. A rather violent thunderstorm toppled one of our tomato trees (5 feet tall) in a cage and the fall snapped off the stem about 8 inches above the soil.  It would grow back and probably even produce some fruit, but that was one sixth of our tomato orchard; it was replaced by a late season bargain from a garden shop closeout sale. So far this year the eggplant had been a stand out; vigorous, healthy plants, early prolific fruiting. Yea!  Then some miscreant who hadn't read or decided to ignore "wildlife friendly yard" agreement picked almost all the leaves off the eggplants at the base of the petioles, and dropped them.  They weren't to their taste, but in a classic slow learner response, they tried another, and another, and so on down the row. This was not one of the usual suspects, not neat enough for bun-buns or tree rats, and neither ever pays any attention to eggplant (nightshades generally are not their thing).  A couple of small eggplant were chewed on a bit, and TPP suspects perhaps an opossum.  The thing is that eggplant without many or any leaves don't produce much fruit until they recover. On the good news side of things the Japanese beetle season is about over; it was fairly brief and the beetles were not very numerous. Big cannas and a June berry bush were the only plants significantly damaged. 

Friday Fabulous Flower - Rose Mallow

It's hard to argue with this herbaceous perennial in terms of flower size, fully open flowers of the rose mallow may be 7-8 inches in diameter. The flowers appear in mid-summer and are borne at the top of 3-4 foot tall stems. Colors range from white, through pinks to red.  Of course they exhibit the hallmarks of the mallow family.  The only problem is that mallows are a favorite food of Japanese beetles, so in years of a bad infestation, these big, beautiful flowers get chewed up pretty badly.  You can't get much of an easier plant to grow. So you just have to ask, "Why don't I have one of these?"  TPP assumes that the rose mallow is a cultivar of Hibiscus moshceutos, and not far off from the marsh mallow, better known for the confection named after it than as the plant itself. 

Robot worries

According to an article at the HuffPo this robot is a security guard at a shopping mall garage.  It's 5 foot tall and weighs 300 lbs, and has a friendly demeanor.  It ran over a toddler "by accident" and didn't notice.  If TPP runs into this guy in a parking garage, and it starts shouting "Exterminate!" "Exterminate!", it's definitely time to run.  Where is the Dr. when you need him?

Squash pollination & fruiting

The F1 has a huge zucchini plant, but yet she reports not many fruit; "They're little and fall off." Ah, a pollination problem, right up TPP's alley.  Garden squash plants are what we call monoecious, one house; they produce two kinds of flowers on the same plant, those producing pollen ("males") and those producing fruit and seed ("female").  They aren't actually male and female, but the explanation takes more effort that TPP has right now.  The plants usually start out producing male flowers, they use less energy to make so plants can start flowering at a smaller size.  The female flowers are easy to distinguish because you can see the immature fruit below the yellow corolla (right side), which is lacking on the males (left). If not pollinated, no more energy is wasted and the flower aborts. This can happen in a small garden, maybe with only 1 zucchini plant because maybe no males flowers were produced on a particular day. However it also could be because you don't have any bees around to move the pollen for you (or you have left a row cover in place too long keeping the pollinating insects our along with the bad guys). If you lack bees you can pick a male flower, tear off the yellow corolla, and swab the anthers on the stigma of one or more female flowers effecting pollination yourself. This can also happen with cucumbers. Bees visit male flowers and collect pollen as a reward; females flowers have stigmas that mimics the males, thus deceiving pollinators into visiting and delivering pollen.  Tricksy plants! Note the flowers are edible themselves, so if you are getting too many squash, try eating some at their smallest stage.
For more information on raising squash and their relatives go to Renee's Garden.  The image used above is from this site.

A teaching manifesto of merit

The tattooed professor is new to TPP, but TPP likes this guy, and we likes his teaching manifesto as well. For the first 2/3 of his career TPP taught in large introductory biology classes, both majors and nonmajors, and how well he remembers needing summers to recharge until finally it got to the point where that burned out feeling would not go away. Only then did TPP begin a second career teaching botany to people who wanted to learn it. 
As a long-time observer of higher education here in Lincolnland, the cost of higher education is not because of the high salaries paid to lazy faculty, it's not because of having too many administrators, and it's not because of inefficiences and waste, it's because a long time ago, 30 or so years, our legislators decided to shift the responsibility of paying for higher education to the student and their families. They did this by simply gradually withdrawing state support. So tuition had to cover the difference and real cost increases and unfunded mandates as well, as a result tuition has been rising faster than the cost of living.  TPP has seen state support drop from around 60% of the cost to 16% of the cost, to no state support at all this past year.  So higher education is no longer affordable to many people, and this was a choice our state made, but not by coming right out and saying it. Cleverly the very people who made these decisions found it easy to criticize the educational institutions themselves, blaming the educators!  State supported colleges and universities have been great equalizers, and TPP appreciates the opportunities they afforded him; no ivy-league or private schools in TPP's background, just plain blue-collar botany bought and paid for by his own effort.
But at least it was possible. It should be again.

A lot of water under the bridge...

On or about 45 years ago, and a few hours ago, the Phactors were wed.  It is quite hard to believe. 45 years is a long time and yet it doesn't seem so very long.  Over our evening cocktails (Mrs. Phactor was drinking a cold sparkling rose out of a silver goblet from the wedding, but they just don't work for margaritas. Our monogrammed silver mint julip cups, a wedding present from KY cousin Dan, continue to function just fine.) we were trying to remember certain events that took place on or about this time so many years ago, but with not very good recall on several issues.  Memory just fails us.  It's crazy what you do remember but sad what you forget. A best friend's wedding at which we apparently took no pictures.  And were TPP's parents present?  Not certain at all.  One thing is certain, and that is tomorrow is Mrs. Phactor's birthday, 49 me thinks, and not to be forgotten because of juxtaposition with this wedding thing as TPP was reminded so very many years ago. So yes, he  faithfully has gotten his bride a birthday gift.  The monstrous Hostapedia should keep her amused for a day or two, but even it may not help ID a couple of unknown varieties.  

Friday Fabulous Flower - prettiest no-no you can plant

TPP just reminded himself about one of his most important garden rules: never plant a loosestrife. They simply will not behave and they are difficult to eradicate once they are in your garden. Last year (one year after planting) a small patch of Lysimachia ciliata looked grand next to our pond, but this spring it erupted to occupy a greatly expanded area; yikes! After a rugged extraction, TPP now notices that bits of rhizome survived and are trying to reestablish the patch. It won't happen, but you pays the price for being stupid and planting a loosestrife in the first place.  Now today's feature plant the gooseneck loosestrife (Lysimachia clethroides) is not quite so explosively invasive, and it is a totally lovely plant, but the patch covers a pretty extensive area and Mrs. Phactor has decided it's coming out, just not yet.  But it is quite attractive what with the white flowers in a shady area and the graceful curve of the raceme. Don't be seduced!

Another reason to dislike the sticky plastic labels on fruit

Those little oval sticky (PLU - price look up) labels applied to every piece of fruit larger than a grape in grocery stores are terrible things and TPP dislikes them very muchly.  First, they are almost impossible to remove short of damaging the fruit by removing the peel.  OK if it's an avocado or banana, but not so OK on other fruits. Or worse, you're cutting up fruit, don't notice the label and then you see it's one third gone and you have to sort through the cut up fruit to find the other 1/3. Leaving it on the fruit would get you chopped from one of those cooking programs for certain. As if you needed another reason to hate those labels, here it is. Those labels are forever! They do not decompose!
Back story: TPP decided that it was time to remove the composed material from one of our 3 composers (about 8 cubic feet each). It had been 2 or 3 years, so it was well composed, and filled with nasty little biting ants for a bonus, just the right stuff for top dressing the asparagus bed.  In the process of digging the material out several of those little plastic labels emerged, totally legible and intact, less the sticky.  So future archaeologist will find them and wonder about their significant.  Fruit tokens? Fruit totems? Reminders of what fruit it is? 
So sticky labels on fruit go into the Not Green category of useless (? not quite useless), infuriating things that should be outlawed, particularly where attached to composable items.  Grocery stores are you listening? Get some check out clerks that know the produce so they don't have to scan each piece. 

Garden hostatility to records

The 4th was a bit of a lazy day for the Phactors.  Took a road trip Sunday to big hosta, day lily, perennial nursery, Hornbaker's, and its worth visiting just to see their mini - botanical/display gardens. Warning, it isn't near anything, unless you call Princeton, IL, something (lots of antique shops). Mrs. Phactor was in particular shopping for small hosta varieties to finish up a garden next to the patio. Recent garden visitors asked about the "names" for a number of plants and it pointed up the lack of labeling, and what with aging memories, an effort to identify and label the hosta varieties that reside in our gardens seemed like a good idea. Descriptions like "it has heart-shaped blue-green leaves" doesn't help much in distinguishing between "Blue moon", "Blue angel", "Blue jay", "Blues Brothers", and so on. Nonetheless some progress was made and who's going to know if we didn't get them all correct? It looks like we knew what we were doing.  Then there's the problem of the labels themselves. Garden plant labels never seem to last, survive, from one season to another. white plastic knives and sharpee markers are the best, most economical solution so far.  Garden denizens seem oddly attracted to labels and actively seek to shift them around or hide them or remove them completely. Thus we began an effort to map portions of our gardens so plants could be identified by relative position to each other. It's harder than it sounds. Wonder if photos can be turned into maps in some way, maybe some landscaping software. Still some question marks remain. Dividing clumps just makes matters worse with poor bookkeeping. So you end up picking a leaf and looking for a match.  In the end about 7/8s got properly IDed, but still we have no complete tally.  Some of the hosta beds pre-date our purchase of the property, probably by decades.
How did the Phactors end up in such a fix? Well, at first the names of the varieties added didn't seem to matter, and then eventually it did matter, and then it got totally out of hand. Who knows how many different varieties we have 40 or so is a good estimate. Well, someone has a birthday coming up so TPP will seek a hosta reference book for a present.

Identify this unknown fruit

This is quite typical of the email TPP receives, a picture and a request to identify the item in this case a fruit.  Now the correspondent, a zoological colleague, actually asked what type of fruit this is, i.e., a category, like multiple, which is what it looks like, but really they wanted to know what they had eaten. That's all the information.  Anyone? Anyone? OK my colleague was actually in Mauritius which is more than TPP was told at the outset.  Any ideas? Anyone had this fruit?  

In the category of exotic fruits, some friends were trying to figure out what they had seen recently at the local grocery.  It was a jackfruit, and TPP saw one quite excited lady of Asian descent carting one away.  Don't know how good jackfruit are here in Lincolnland. The store also had Mrs. Phactor's favorite tropical fruit, passion fruit. And considering how nice she's been TPP naturally thought of buying her a couple at $2.49 each! Uhhh, no! When you've been places were they sell for a 5 cents, it's hard to pay such a tariff for the travel. The vine on our apartment's fence was producing several a day, and that's what got her hooked.

Friday Fabulous Flower - water nymph(aea)

OK nothing too exotic, just a water lily, but it was such a nice image, the white tepals against the darker background.  People always ask about the damned fish, to which TPP answers, "It's a lily pond that just happens to have a few fish in it."  No one even notices the difference between waterlilies and lotus. Got a half inch of rain yesterday, but pond loses water to evaporation quickly in the summer. Turning off the cascade at night reduces the rate to loss. More rain please.