Field of Science

Friday Fabulous Flower - Squashes & pumpkins

The Phactors went foraging for apples and squashes, and having said something about apples, here's a Friday fabulous flower offering about flowers at the stage of seed dispersal, fruits. And in this case some of the largest fruits, squashes.  All of these are in the genus Cucurbita, in one of four species. C. pepo, C. mixta, C. moshata, and C. maxima.  Don't ask TPP to sort all these varieties into the correct species for you, it isn't easy or logical in many respects because you can't really go by color or shape or size.  At any rate fruits of all four species are shown here, the rest is left to you.  A lot of genetic diversity is represented here, and yet only 4 species!  This pile of squashes can be seen at the Great Pumpkin Patch in Arthur, Illinois, though the end of October. No you can't have the big blue pumpkin at the bottom center; bad things will happen if you move it. You can also find seeds for most or all of these from Heritage Seeds at the same link.  They also have the best pumpkin ice cream, but you can't get it online. Our gardens are too small and too shady for squashes, so our supply of winter squash is purchased here. Bins and bins and bins of them, all labeled and sorted for their primary uses, some so big they are hard to lift.   

Think big-leafed magnolia

Here's a TPP TIP for avid gardeners and magnolia aficionados.  Here's a link to a nursery in NJ where you can purchase a Magnolia ashei (Ashe's magnolia), a smallish statured big-leafed magnolia.  TPP has two big-leafed magnolias, M. tripetala and M. ashei.  Their large leaves, often 2 feet long, clustered in whorls at the end of branches is so tropical looking, so different from our native vegetation that they really stand our even when not in flower. M. tripetala and M. macrophylla both seem quite hardy here in zone 5.  Ashe's magnolia is endemic to the Florida panhandle, but it isn't so limited in range due to a lack of cold-hardiness.  TPP's survived a low temperature very close to 0 F last winter, and it's rated as hardy to zone 6.  It has large flowers and flowers at a small size/young age.  TPP bought his as a seedling from a native plant nursery in Tallahassee for $10, but it was just a 12" tall, unbranched whip. The plants for sale at this site are much bigger.  Hmm, where to plant another one? 

Apple evaluation

With October looming, it was time to get out the baskets and ladders and harvest the apple crop.  As this was the first of what is hoped to be many crops (and perhaps a larger crop also), the correct harvest time is unknown, but in general the Urban Apples are varieties that are mid-season type apples, and as the risk and worry of losing the entire crop to tree rats increased, the crop was picked as these types usually are ripe in late September, although it has been so warm that many apple varieties have stayed quite green.  So color may not be a good guide to ripeness.  Another part of the reason was that yesterday the Phactors foraged successfully for squashes and apples, and as a result had Jonathon, winesap, Jonagold, and northern spy apples on hand for tasting and comparison with our Tart lime urban apple. Our evaluation was that the apple was perfectly ripe, firm and crisp but not hard.  It was juicy, with a nice apply sweet tart flavor. Not as complex perhaps as the spy, but certainly not bad.  The F1 was quite impressed and our overall finding for the Tart Lime Urban Apple was highly favorable. Just so you know, the Phactors like firmer, tarter apples than many people, who seem to prefer softer, sweeter apples.  As kids a macintosh was fine, but our palate matured. 
And it's the same with apple cider. It isn't and shouldn't be just apple juice. It needs some of that tartness and maybe just a hint of cold-stored fermentation to be any good.  Got some grocery store cider that was just too sweet apple juice, and to sweeten and flavor a curried squash soup it was fine, but no good to drink.  Maybe it needs a pinch of champagne yeast and a week or so of cold curing? 

End of summer &

Today seemed a lot like a Monday, primarily because it was a Monday & TPP had to get up and go to a meeting.  In this case for a good reason, but TPP is getting used to this retired sort of life.  But it was the first day since sometime last spring when a light jacket seeded necessary to be comfortable. The high today should be right around 70 degrees, quite comfortable, but the upper 50s this morning seemed cold after hot, muggy weather for so long.  Nothing so unusual here except it's September 26th, almost the end of the month. This is a good 1-2 weeks later than usual.  And indeed the fall is upon us.  Tomorrow is our first quest to find apples and squashes for the winter.  Found some year old (or so) frozen cooked squash deep within the freezer and well beyond its "sell by" date, but still perfectly good especially to make curried squash soup for an ill friend. The whole house smells great as a result of our cooking, and this soup is certain to make you feel better especially when the garnished with a crumble of blue cheese and accompanied by a crust loaf of bread, and eaten after the weather turns cool. Perhaps if asked nicely TPP can publish the recipe for you.   

Friday Fabulous Flower - Black snake root

Black snake root (Actea (formerly Cimicifuga) simplex) is a great shade-loving, fall flowering plant. The bright white bottle brush inflorescences standing up 3-4' tall are quite striking in shady borders that don't have much else going on this time of year.  Another member of the buttercup family, you don't have to worry about them getting nibbled on.  The showiness of the flowers is primarily the function of the stamen filaments with a little bit of help from some petal like bracts. The flowers are very fragrant in a sweetish, musky, pheromone sort of fashion attracting quite an array of insects so no idea which are effective pollinators.  Many new varieties exist with bronze to purple vegetation of much dissected leaves.  These are terrific plants for shady border areas.

Climate change plays havoc with sophisticated gardening

What!  No tequila?  How could this happen? Well, summer's warm weather has lasted up to and past the first day of fall, so the need for a margarita after gardening has continued for much longer than normal, and as a result the usually well-stocked survivalist liquor cabinet and wine cellar were caught short, so no margaritas!  How can you garden without margaritas?  You can but why bother?  It was quite disconcerting to have things so out of sync, and it's all because of climate change?  How will civilization survive? Of course, limes may become a backyard fruit tree for us and blue agave may become a cash crop in Oklahoma, so things may even out, but you begin to understand how climate change begins to affect everything.

Rare Ferns

Here's a plug for one of TPP's favorite plant purveyors, Charles Alford.  He recently got a web site up and running, Rare Ferns, and it's worth a look see if only to window shop.  Everything ever purchased from him has been received in excellent condition and looking very good, and often surprisingly large.  The last two plants were a tropical Ophioglossum pendulum and a Psilotum complanatum.  Let TPP emphasize that RARE is not an exaggeration. The ant plant ferns are particularly cool, although apparently they come sans ants (none of the rest of the ants plants in our glass house have any either).  You'll also find some other curious odds & ends that may be of interest. At any rate since our institution is state assisted, or as many say, state hampered, our budget for new specimens is non-existent. But maybe you're in better shape and wish to by us an ant plant fern as a gift. 
For those of you unfamiliar with ant plants (myrmecophytes), such plants offer ants a reward, food and/or lodging, and in return the ants fend off herbivores and sometimes even other plants to protect their plant. Careful if you encounter one in the wild and try to collect a piece.  TPP discovered a new ant plant that way once.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Smooth blue Aster

Mrs. Phactor has done pretty well at getting more fall color into her perennial flower beds. Growing together in the center of one bed are two "blue asters" that are easy to confuse with each other. This species is taller and has larger flowering heads, Aster laevis, the smooth blue aster. Is the aster smooth and blue, or is smooth blue a particular hue?  The former it would seem as the leaves and stems are hairless and sort of a bluish green.  In a mass the flower heads, only about 1" in diameter, are quite handsome. Growing to over 1 m tall, they tend to be rather floppy, but maybe they would be better if grown among other flowers and grasses of similar stature.  Missed Friday last week completely so this is late not early.

A very merry un-birthday to us!

TPP used to have a birthday in September, but it just got to be too much and too frequent and it just all added up to too much. So in lieu of having birthdays, TPP cooks for his friends and family in a somewhat hobbit-like once-a-year celebration. Guests, if observing good taste, should fail to mention the approach of old age.  Food can be as good as ever, and perhaps even rise to the level of the best ever.  It avoids the awkwardness of throwing a party for yourself and all the gift-giving stuff because you are throwing the party for everyone else. And so TPP makes something he likes, something special, in this case fish soup, a recipe that has evolved into a massive batch of something west of cioppino and east of bouillabaisse limited only by the upper midwest's notorious proximity to seawater and the size of TPP's outdoor cooker,which is not small. But once a year you just pay for seafood's air fare and enjoy it regardless of the cost. Native mid-westerners are notoriously suspicious of seafood and anything with tubes and tentacles usually puts them right off their feed. Having raised the F1 correctly, she selects such people to sit next to so as to get all their rejected bits. The weather yesterday was perfect as were the loaves of French bread and apple pies provided by Mrs. Phactor.  So as another un-birthday slips into history, the leftovers will happily remind us of friends and a very good time. And even a couple of pieces of pie for breakfast!  

The apple crop

TPP has not had the best luck with apples.  Previous attempts to have a few apples have been failures in one way or another. The most recent failure was a dwarf Novaspy, the first time Northern Spy has been successfully dwarfed. Of the two trees planted, both were initially vigouous and one flowered and fruited nicely in its 3d year, but then it went into a decline and died. The 2nd tree stayed vigorous, but it never flowered and fruited and seemed determined to grow into a larger sized tree. The one crop of apples was great, real Northern Spys, a superb variety that is hard to find.  
So try, try again, and two Colonnade apple trees were planted, both the same variety, Flamenco, derived from orange pippin ancestry. These are a columnar dwarf, growing 10-12 feet tall and 3-4 feet in diameter, and the nursery stock was beautiful. However a pollinator was needed and only one variety of Colonnade was available, so an Urban Apple columnar tree was gotten from another vendor. This was a Tart Lime, a granny smith type apple that TPP was not so keen to have, but biology. This tree was half as big and half the price (notice how that works),  but the flowering of these varieties may not work out in terms of flowering time, but no matter as the Colonnade trees did not flower in their 2nd season, while the Urban Apple did. Now crab apples of the ornamental type can pollinate apples if their flower color is similar. And the image above shows the apple crop, the whole apple crop, one apple, on the tree bought as a pollinator.  It's a start.

Friday Fabulous Flowers - SYCs

As any good field botanist knows SYCs are the birder's equivalent of LBJs (little brown jobs).  SYC stands for Stinking Yellow Composites, composites being the old irregular name for the Aster family, plants with daisy-like, dandelion-like inflorescences, which many people wrongly take as single flowers.  In the late summer and fall lots of them come into flower, especially on the prairie, and they are largely yellow.  Not the easiest group of plants to sort out accurately even for us professionals.  Here are three that TPP collected yesterday on a local prairie and with no more than 3 hours of effort using field guides, online resource, and the Flora of North America, three reasonable like 85% positive identifications were made.  All three SYCs are in the genus Helianthus, sunflowers as the name says. The trick is, which species?  At this point they would be H. grosseserratus, the sawtoothed sunflower, H. pauciflorus, the stiff sunflower, and H. tuberosus, the Jerusalem artichoke or sunchoke, which is native, no matter what the name suggest (top to bottom). The goldenrods collected at the same time were even harder.
In the bottom image you can see the ray flowers around the outside looking like petals. In the center, making the button or disk, are star-shaped flowers, all these small flowers arranged to present the image to pollinators of a big flower. 

Cucurbit hybrid questions

In a comment to last week's Friday Fabulous Squash flower Erin is perplexed."While you're on the topic of cucurbits, I have a question for which I have not been able to find a satisfactory answer. Last year I was given a few poona kheera cucumber seeds. It was a lovely vegetable that I planted right next to some other variety of cucumber. At the end of the season, however, I decided I would save the seeds from one of the poona kheera, despite the fact that it had likely crossed with its neighbor. This year, rather late in the season, I planted those seeds, the only seeds I personally saved from last season. When they sprouted and began to grow, I was very surprised to find that they had watermelon leaves. There were watermelons growing nearby in my garden last year, but I didn't have any worry about any kind of cross between a Cucumis and Citrullus. I know what I planted, though, and I know the difference between a cucumber leaf and a watermelon leaf. Unfortunately, none of the plants have grown much and have not flowered. I would love to seed the fruit it would produce, if it could produce fruit. What in the world happened here, Science? I'm dumbfounded."
The honest answer is that TPP doesn't know what happened. But let's examine what is known. Erin grew poona kheera cucumbers, an Indian variety of which there are several,e.g., dosakkai, sambar, as well as other varieties. Erin correctly understands that pollination of one variety by other varieties is both possible and likely depending upon flowering. Watermelon is a different genus, and as far at TPP knows, this intergeneric cross does not occur. Cucumis melo, all of the other melons, might cross with a cucumber, but that isn't the question. The suspected hybrid seeds had incised leaves (assumption - no picture?) that looked like watermelon leaves rather than cucumber leaves. So there it is, only one observation, watermelony leaves, that anything happened at all, and in no way does TPP doubt the accuracy of the observation. We will also assume that the seed looked like typical cucumber seeds, and nothing like watermelon seed or Erin would have noticed.
The first thing to try is to see if a cucumber fruit, any variety, will develop if pollinated by watermelon pollen.  Bag a female cucumber flower and the morning it opens, pollinate it with pollen from a watermelon. Pipe cleaners work OK as artificial bees. Rebag for a day, and mark the fruit stalk with a tag. See what happens.  5-10 trials should suffice.
Sorry to leave this little mystery unsolved, a rather unsatisfying situation, but that's how science is, no answers without data even though Erin was correct about everything.

That takes the cake! Paw-paw flavor!

TPP took a couple of visiting colleagues to lunch at a local cafe.  The food is quite good and a case of their pastries sits right next to the cashier to tempt you severely.  Sitting on top was a lovely 3-layered yellow cake - a paw-paw cake made by a local baker; it was wonderful.  As best TPP can tell it was a yellow cake with yellow cream cheese paw-paw frosting.  Paw-paws and virtually all its tropical relatives that have fleshy fruits have a somewhat similar after taste, very distinctive, sort of kerosene-like, but not so strong as to be offensive to most people. Not too many people seek and use paw-paws as a result, but the fruits are nearly ripe here in the upper midwest which is about as far north as this "tropical plant family" gets. Flowers have several pistils and one or more fruitlets can result. The skin is rather leathery and inedible. A banana like flesh surrounds several smooth dark seeds (not unlike banana seeds if you have ever eaten non-sterile banana).  Fruits of the genus Annona: custard apples, soursops, sweetsops, cherimoya, are similar, although constructed of many pistils, many fruitlets fused into a single multiple fruit. These all have a hint of the same chemical. Maybe the odor includes amyl acetate or some similar ester; organic chemistry was not TPP's best subject. Grows in woodland under story and is food plant of larvae of zebra swallowtail butterflies. These are the type of flowers TPP studies in the tropics where the family is common.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Squash

This squash vine is clamoring through a hosta bed next to the patio. No one planted any squashes any where near here, but the tree rats must have missed one of the seeds provided as winter fodder. Hostas have nice leaves, but these are long done flowering, so each morning the new squash flowers are quite cheerful. They open with the dawn and by midday they are wilted. Squashes are monoecious (one-house) plants meaning that they have separate flowers for producing pollen and for producing fruit and seed. This is a pollen flower and the anthers are fused into a central column where the pollen is presented as a pollinator reward. Oh, wait, that's a floral visitor, a potenial pollinator, emerging with a considerable dusting of pollen having pretty well cleaned this flower out. The stigma of fruiting flowers is quite similar but offers no reward, a case of deception. The flowers, both kinds, are edible and can be used in cooking, usually in the bud stage. Best squash dish TPP ever had was a squash blossom souffle in Italy.