Field of Science

What gardeners like - bargains

Those of us infected by the gardening virus can develop quite a plant habit. TPP has never dared keep track of what he spends annually on plants purchases and other gardening expenses.  However, when you are sitting on your patio sipping a margarita while surveying your gardening domain, the only word that comes to mind is priceless. Nonetheless TPP keeps his eye open for bargains, as an excuse if nothing else.  As Mrs. Phactor points out that at our age buying a 1-gallon-sized tree because it's cheap isn't really any bargain.  Still the lure of a good bargain is hard to pass up. In the fall of 2014 TPP was looking at the sale items leftovers in the garden shop of a big box store and there were some sort of bushy magnolias in 5 gallon pots and they looked quite nice considering. The tag indicated that they were Magnolia x. loebneri 'Leonard Messel', a hybrid between Magnolia kobus and a pink variety of M. stellata, but the two are rather similar species anyways, so no surprise the plants quite look like a Star magnolia, but pink flowered.  But the kicker, the thing that brought joy to TPP's heart was that a magnolia he lacked cost $20.  And it's proving to be a lovely plant so far, an absolute bargain by anyone's standard. 

Native plant sort of

TPP is not a native plant purist because he is also a compulsive plant collector.  Hey, everything is native somewhere.  However in a rather gray area are cultivars of native plants where the species is native, but cultivars exist.  Generally these grow fine because the basic genome is adapted to your area.  Here's one of these problematic plants that is a quite handsome spring woodland ephemeral, rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides formerly Anemonella thalictroides - buttercup family)(Yes, another taxonomic change that is messing with 40+ years of memory)The cultivar has pinky-purple foliage more or less retaining a juvenile character because young shoots are more pigmented than the mature foliage.  The cultivar also has some pigmentation in the flowers, which are more or less white in the wild.  And the flower is doubled, so stamens develop as petalloid sepals.  In the wild the flowers can have 5-10 petalloid sepals (It always bothered students when the number was 6 and they head the wrong way in the ID key) and the color is variable with naturally occurring pinky flowers not uncommon, but never seen a wild one doubled.  However this is not an unusual type of developmental aberration in the buttercup family. How can you not like this little plant? It's cute. Those flowers are not quite an inch in diameter and as you can determine both  from the date and the leaf litter, they flower early.

Blogger tech problems function of 10

That's a function of windows 10.  For reasons still uncertain TPP's laptop upgraded itself (never gave it permission) to Windows 10 and for the most part it has not been a problem, but for some reason, the new browser will not open blogger from my blog.  Of course, Blogger is quite long in the tooth, but FoS operates my blog from it, so now sure if a switch can be made.  Anyone?  Anyone?  This is by way of saying that new entries may be a bit brief and/or less common until a solution can be found. Any solutions you guys know about would be appreciated. This blog has had a long standing problem of signing onto blogger after consolidation with google; it deals with an ancient unused gmail address that TPP cannot seem to get rid of safely.  But now it just may be that Win10 renders the blogger problem moot.

Pretty exciting without the noise

TPP has long wondered if motorcycle people would still ride them if they were made to run quietly, or is there something about the screaming "here-I-come/go" noise that makes such machines appealing?  So, while this machine looks pretty ZOOM, ZOOM, it's electric so unless it comes with an obnoxious noise emitting option, it's quiet, although pretty exciting otherwise. This may be the trusty stead of futuristic westerns, where ol' Ohm is plugged into a charging station in front of the local saloon. While this nifty looking machine looks like a unicycle, it's actually a bicycle, but both wheels are side by side. This is a pretty nifty looking machine, the UNO, for getting around town. Makes a Segway look pretty dull, eh?

Yard waste pickup - Just in time

Spring cleanup in the Phactors' gardens takes quite an effort. Although a large proportion of our leaves get composted, a lot of leaves gather in and about shrubs, bushes, and the dead aerial stems of herbaceous perennials. And as the buds and shoots issue forth its time to clean up all this stuff. All the twigs and stems make this difficult stuff to compost without grinding it first, and TPP once had a brute of a chopper-grinder that could make mince out of anything smaller than 3" in diameter. However, it was hard to start (a lot of weight to turn over), and frankly, it was a scary beast to use. It was traded to a nice flower-growing lady who teaches 3d grade; she's not afraid of anything. So now the garden "waste" gets composted by our municipality, but they only begin the yard "waste" pickup this coming week.  Bone to pick: please stop calling it waste because it gets composed. Our garden compostables get stuffed into those 30 gallon paper bags, with the help of a nifty plastic funnel that fits just inside the bag providing a wide mouth and a sleeve that keeps twigs and hard stems from puncturing or ripping the bag when you stuff it. Right now the garage is the holding pen for at least a dozen full bags.  So without a pickup this week, Ms. Phactor would have to park her car outside; TPP's is the official "new" car so it stays in.  Oh, the things you do to recycle and compost. It will take many more bags before the cleanup is finished, but this warmish March has moved the work schedule up and with fewer excuses, TPP has gotten an earlier start. 

Friday Fabulous Flower - Bloodroot

Our persistently warm March weather has really pushed along the flowering.  Here's a wonderful spring ephemeral, bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis, featured this week in our gardens.  It's a small, easy to grow, woodland wild flower in the poppy family, and like many members of the family, it has laticifers and oozes latex when injured, red-orange latex in this case thus both the common name and the generic name referencing blood.  In the days of "likes cure likes" medicinal botany, such likes were avidly sought and thought to be clues to the plant's usefulness. The plant multiplies vegetatively forming such patches in just a couple of years, and here and there seedlings will also appear.  But even a smallish woodland garden has room for lots of these. Each flower has a leaf  wrapped around its flower stalk, a leaf whose rounded apex has characteristic apical sinuses, although they can hardly be seen at flowering stage. 

Down computer memory lane

TPP can't remember all the diverse PC storage media he has been through in just his career.  Let's see: punch cards (older than dirt), magnetic tape, 5" floppy disks, 3.25" floppy disks, zip disks (the worst ever), Bernoulli disks (still a couple in a drawer somewhere & one ancient IBM PC with a functional drive just in case - who remembers DOS commands?), CDs, thumb drives, chip memory (256 mb was considered a lot of memory). Not a pleasant trip down memory lane that, but now they have invented a nano-structured glass disk about the size of a large coin and it's got quite the memory capacity and very stable.  Those of us who've been at this for awhile have all lost some data because not all formats were as reliable as others, like zip disks that were so named because their reliability was zip, and TPP can see from where he sits 3.25" disks, still reliable, but who has a drive for one? (afore mentioned PC) So this new disk can store nearly 300 terabytes (tera- meaning a trillion or one thousand billion) and at regular conditions totally stable for 13.8 billion years, the present age of the universe. Never will you lose those emails or inane twitters again!  But where did you put the dang thing?

What use is a library of dead plants?

What use if s library of dead plants?  When it comes right down to it, that's what an herbarium is. TPP curates one such collection of dead plants, and sooner or later every curator of an herbarium gets asked a similar question at one time or another, either out of genuine curiosity (rare) or because the asker is a Philistine (increasingly common).  This is often followed with some proposal to move or get rid of the collection to make way for something important.
TPP curates a smallish collection, 50,000+ specimens whose primary purpose is in support of teaching and conservation, and it contains some surprisingly important specimens dating back some 200 years, including irreplaceable information about the local flora. 

An ongoing project involves Master Naturalists doing some citizen science.  The idea is to document the flora of a nearby county park with a large area devoted to conservation.  How are you going to know how good of a job you are doing in conserving if you don’t have a baseline for comparison?  Unfortunately 150 years ago the idea of conservation was not a biological concept and my first predecessors were not collecting with an eye toward posterity.  They had no idea how important their collections would be, but if today biologists are so remiss, there is no excuse; it’s important.  In many cases the collection tells us what we are missing already, what formerly grew here. 
A big push is on to digitalize such collections so the data has more wide spread value and use. Someone asked, “Can we throw out the specimens after they have been photographed?” No! Try getting DNA from a photograph, even a high resolution one. And quite frankly even a high-res image isn't the same thing.  It’s interesting that modern students, at least some of them, remain interested and find the collection fascinating to work in.  Which is important too because botanists with TPP’s skill set are disappearing across the USA, as are botany departments, organismal botany courses, and botany majors. Citizen science is a  means of building support and interest among the general public while supporting conservation efforts.

Uh oh, something went terribly wrong!

This does explain a lot. Experiments do sometimes go wrong, and it does explain the orange complexion.  As always, Tom Tomorrow explains what happened that gave us the Incredible Trump.

Flash Gordon styled cargo trike

Shut the barn door!  The F1 used to call TPP's beloved, semi-recumbent BikeE a dork bike. Imagine what she'll say when she sees this classy bike, The Rocket!  It comes as an electrical-assisted model with the optional jet engine noise simulator! OK it's got a USB charging port, but what about the ray gun to vaporize joggers?  Or the anti-dog force field? This is the ultimate in cool rides!

Too much bad news for a Monday

Today is Tuesday.  Mondays are hard enough to handle without bad news to process, but today is a Tuesday. You can cope.  Here's a link to a nice little video about how the melting of the Greenland ice cap may upset the large scale ocean currents that carry warm water to the North Atlantic.  A cheerful and uplifting slow down. Oh, those are clips from a disaster movie, but of course the reaction of military and governmental officials was quite realistic.

'Tis the season

Shhhuuush.  Be verwy, verwy quiet.  It's tax season and that always make Mrs. Phactor a bit edgy, so on those few occasions when we do see each other, TPP tip toes around. This particular weekend TPP  \mainly tip-toed around the kitchen.  On Saturday he was cooking the main dishes for a quite nice Cuban menu for our dinner group: ropa vieja and Moros y Christianos, beef stew Cuban style and rice with black beans.  On Sunday TPP harvested his annual batch of corned beef a few days late for St. Patrick's Day. You simmer it until it's quite tender, and somewhat de-salinated. And then it's baked with an orange marmalade-whole grain Irish whisky mustard glaze (yum!) served with a lovely mushroom soup, colcannon, and apple sauce.  This year's batch came out quite well  according to those what were fed (hint: don't hurry the process; use good spices). You cannot buy corned beef like this in a store. That was a lot of cooking, but TPP did stay out of trouble by keeping the kitchen untrashed more or less and making some nice cocktails: Irish whisky - sweet vermouth (1:1) on a big rock and a dash or two of bitters.  There won't be any more entertaining until after April 15th!

Spring flowers - time lapse

This is a nice time-lapse video of common spring flowers opening. Although snow is forecast, our Korean azalea decided it was OK to flower; hope it's correct. Bright pink flowers sort of caught TPP by surprise. Can't recommend a nicer spring flower plant than R. mucronulatum. 

Friday Fabulous Flowers - Peak blueness, no glove neeeded

March 18 is just about peak blueness this year, a bit earlier than most years, but such a mild winter. And TPP had no need of a glove to abluterate the yard either, it just happens after a few decades of naturalizing.  And this is only a small portion of our blueness, which will then turn into greenness, which if you should try to mow it prior to die-back, will slime you mower green (mucilage in the leaves). Wonder how many bulbs per square yard this represents?  You could guess, but who would confirm the accuracy? In case if you are too young or too poorly edumacated in the classics to understand the reference to  glove and blueness, here's an image from the Yellow Submarine to remind you or confuse you.

Strangely appealing woman

Hmm, it's St. Patrick's Day, so a bit of green to celebrate.  Check.  Botanical themed arty idea that appeals to crazy botanists.  Check.  Makes you wonder several things about this woman from a very limited perspective. Check. Strange. Check. What's not to like?  Leafy lips and more here.   

Tully monster finally figured out

The state fossil of Lincolnland is the Tully monster, Tullimonstrum, named after the amateur fossil hunter who found the original specimen in the Mazon Creek formation, a place north of here. While TPP knows the land plant fossils from there very well, the marine fossils are more common and in some ways more famous.  At any rate it seems that people have finally decided that this is a lamprey-like vertebrate, and the link takes you to another Field of Science blogger who posts the Catalogue of Organisms.  It's a pretty strange beast, but no one mentions the idea that the wide spread eyes provide depth of field to its vision so that the long grabby proboscis can have a bit of precision when reaching for a meal. 

What is a shamrock?

Ah, 'tis a fine day to answer such a question.  In the local garden shoppe there were lots of quite handsome "shamrocks" for sale, and TPP has a couple of Irish women who like to be remembered with a little something on St. Patrick's day, and neither are fond of Irish whisky with a pickle juice chaser (no joke).  If anything will ruin the taste of good whisky, it's pickle brine; it can even ruin the taste of not so good whisky. But back to topic. The plants were Oxalis, wood sorrel. While a handsome enough plant this is not the true shamrock, if indeed, such a plant exists.  The whole idea of the shamrock was to commemorate the trinity via a plant with 3 leaflets, the seamrog, (accent mark in there somewhere), a common name for a clover.  Quite a few clovers have leaves with three leaflets and are appropriately names Trifolium.  At least 2 species in Ireland could be considered the true shamrock, but it certainly isn't wood sorrel.  And of course if lucky enough you may find one of those leaves with a development abnormality, 4 leaflets.  Happy St. Patrick's Day.  Oh, no wood sorrel for Mrs. Phactor, but some really bright and cheerful phony peonies for her office.

Dwarffodils - spring cuteness

Little daffodils or dwarffodils are just the brightest, cutest thing for your spring gardens.  You can stick these bulbs into gardens almost anywhere and they will form a clump in no time.  They actually aren't much earlier than the earliest of the standard daffodils even when planted in sunny locations, but they are much smaller at just 4-5 inches tall.  Ours come peaking our from around shrubs and along garden margins to follow just behind crocus and snowdrops. 

Quote for Pi day

“It's Pi Day. Mathematicians around the world celebrate Pi Day on 3/14. I admit, I'm a fan, too.

But I also find it interesting how Pi is a lot like the obstructionist agenda in this Republican Congress -- it’s irrational and never-ending.”  Senator Al Franken.

Spring cleaning

Spring garden cleanup is quite a chore no matter how well you prepare in the fall.  Where the hell do all the leaves come from? Shrubbery and the dead aerial portions of perennial plants are terrific leaf grabbers.  The high temp today will be in the upper 60s and the predicted rain looks to be heading more easterly while still south of us, so TPP will spend the day doing some garden cleanup. Gently removing the accumulated leaves from among the hellebores will be job number one. The flower buds have really begun to push up through the leaves, but things will look much better and the plants will flower better without the smothering covering of leaves. Before the cleanup is done, the Phactors will probably fill 10-12 of those large paper lawn waste bags for composted recycling by the city.  It was also windy yesterday, so today there will have to be some policing of the estate to pick up limbs also for city recycling as wood mulch. Buds on snow trillium (Trillium nivale), a very small native to local woodlands, but not common is showing color. As are the yellow flower buds of Cornus mas.  Such warm temps will push things along quite quickly, and some not so early flowering shrubs are showing swollen flower buds, e.g., pearl bushes.  So why with so much work to do, is TPP blogging instead of raking?  It requires some planning and at least one more cup of coffee.  All good gardeners know this.

Spring bulbs: winter aconite = yellow cheerfullness

Why plant spring-flowering bulbs?  An old curmudgeon TPP grew up with used to ask, "Can you eat them?" As if that were the only reason for having plants, although here in Lincolnland's maize and soybean desert it does seem as if all other plants were banished or extirpated, fortunately TPP lives in a urban area, where some diversity persists, as opposed to the country.  March has begun with a couple of weeks of mild weather and the spring bulbs are responding.  Here is an image of a property nearby where someone planted some winter aconite (Eranthis hymenalis - buttercup family) some 50-70 years ago and the plants have naturalized to the area and spread, the result of a persistent long-term neglect. Now they announce spring with a remarkable cheerfulness, which helps feed the soul as the poets might say. Even after a short winter, you need some cheering up, and this is a very cheerful plant.  A few snowdrops are thrown in for good measure. Not satisfied with just a blue lawn, and a light blue lawn, and a violet lawn, Mrs. Phactor wants a patch of yellow lawn too.

National cereal Day

National cereal day?  Who knew?  Well, in this case, Treehugger knew, so kudos to them and a link to a pretty amusing article. TPP grew up on breakfast cereals because breakfast cereals were the advertising fuel of Saturday morning cartoons on TV, and us kids weren't going to miss those! They were GRRREEEAAATE! Generally though our cereals were healthy enough, corn flakes, kix, cheerios, shreaded wheat, although sugared versions, frosted flakes, sugar smacks, and  sugar corn pops, were lurking not too far away.  But this was way before the day of the garishly colored pure sugar cereals like froot loops and trix and many others now forgotten or never known. Yes, back then breakfast cereals, and even white wonder bread (red, yellow, and blue balloons)(builds strong bodies 8, 12, 16 ways, it kept increasing), still purported to be healthy harking back to the early days of  the Kellogg brothers, the health nut and the cereal baron.  Battle Creek Michigan must have been a pretty weird place, and it was where you entered the contests and cashed in the coupons from eating hundreds of boxes of their product. If you don't know much about the history of this, it's pretty amusing, and tells you who the real nuts were. Cereals, the blander the better, were healthy, so grape nuts had to be super healthy. Although waning in popularity for years, breakfast cereals are fast fading in popularity among millenials.  One reason given is that breakfast cereal is too much trouble, too much work, which does make one wonder, and worry, about out future when the effort bar is set so low. Here's TPP's healthy advice: Any cereal that changes the color of the milk should be avoided. The new version of healthy uses breakfast cereals glued together by sugar probably, and coated with something healthy like chocolate, a candy/cereal hybrid, called a "nutrition bar" is the food of students on the go any time before a decent wake up time like 2 pm.

Who will "make America a proud, rich land again, punish nations that defy him, and raise wages very high while keeping prices very low"?

It was a real flash of deja vu all over again when Sinclair Lewis' book It can't happen here was brought up. It was a long time ago the TPP read this book, and was reminded of it once before when one of the candidates for state representative was named Buzz, and his opponent was  a crazy guy named Bang, who ran a little road house filled with antique arcade machines.  TPP did not make this up, Buzz vs. Bang, a crook vs. a clown.  A couple of decades later Buzz made it as far as the US Congress before things caught up to him (he was a crook, just as  Bang stated years before). Lewis' book is about a different Buzz, and it was written a bit over 80 years ago (TPP had to look it up.).  So who did you think this title was about?  If this question doesn't create a bit of a shiver going down your spine, then you may be part of the problem, part of the mass of people who want simplistic slogans and probably fictional answers for complex issues. So do you really think it can't happen here? It's just too scary that so many people want it to happen. 

TGIF - 4 March

It's a wonderful day for early March. Winter is sputtering out and the spring awakening has begun.  So today is the official start of the garden margarita season.  Make yourself a cocktail, take it outside into your garden, sit in the sun, and then imagine how things are going to look this year. Think about what you will plant to replace the arborvitaes that got smashed like a bug by a huge tulip tree branch that broke during an ice storm.  And feel fortunate that your Sinocalycanthus seeding has not only survived it's 2nd winter, but narrowly escaped the afore-mentioned smashing.  It was a surprisingly busy week, helped two different sets of people prepare for a visit to a tropical field station in Costa Rica.  Worked on fiscal development for the Botanical Society of America. Made a really good hot kumquat-mango salsa for an herb-roasted pork loin for dinner. Got our garden flowering log more or less in working order.  According to the list, there are 88 species of Illinois native plants in our gardens, almost one-third, but not counting ferns or gymnosperms yet. Somehow managed to not record two years of flowering for our many red-buds.  How did that happen?  Probably not enough margaritas. Let's go fix that problem.  

Tree rat predators in evidence

Presently a fluffy-tailed tree rat sometimes called a squirrel is sitting about 4' from me cleaning out a small bird feeder affixed to the kitchen window.  The feeder was purchased to amuse the kitty-girls, but the tree rats found it before the birds.  No matter one of the kitty-girls is amused greatly by being nose to nose.  Another tree-rat is cleaning up some field corn kernels under a nearby tree.  Both of them bear superficial injuries with a distinctly talon-like pattern.  The scars on one have healed leaving some longish scars with whitish fur running nearly perpendicular to the back bone.  The nearest one has some fairly deep gouges, healing but still pretty raw looking. Both are evidence of near misses by the neighborhood's resident to predator, red-tailed hawks.  Generally these are country birds, but a pair has been nesting atop stadium lights of a nearby baseball field. At least one offspring has been seen, so perhaps these hawks are becoming a bit more urban adapted. A pest control guy reported that the density of small mammals was several times greater in the city than in the country, which is a maize and soybean desert, so prey may be plentiful. If two of our dozen resident tree-rats bear evidence of predation, TPP wonders how many are missing.  Unfortunately we have no apparent shortage so far.  Here birdy, birdy, nice juicy well-fed tree rats.
Every now and then a Cooper's hawk, usually a juvenile, has been seen having a go at tree-rats or young bunnies, but even though fairly common in our immediate area, they are song bird specialists adept at making cardinals disappear in a poof of feathers using a power dive from the crown of an oak.

Forcing Flowering

Now is the right time to prune Forsythia and Abeliophyllum (sometimes called dwarf pink or white forsythia).  Both of these are early flowering shrubs in the olive family. Both sometimes need pruning to keep them in check. The do not need and should not be poodled thereby turning a graceful shape into an ugly ovoid chess piece. You simply look for branches that are ungainly and out of place and cut them off.  Then you take the pieces bearing flower buds cut them to reasonable lengths, split the base of the twigs an inch or so, and place them in a vase of water. In 5 to 7 days they usually flower. They do best in a cool place. A vase of charming Forsythia sits atop a bookshelf in our kitchen right now. TPP suggests you consider Abeliophyllum as a medium border plant; it handles shade pretty well and is so pretty in the early spring, more delicate and lacy appearing than its yellow cousin.

Large totally strange flower

Crazy that these large crazy strange flowers from Borneo should come to attention twice in a week (here and here).  Is everybody but yours truly wandering around in SE Asian tropical forests?  No matter, it's TPP's job to call you attention to them, so that if one blooms in you yard, you'll recognize them. 

Bean seed redux

You try your best, you really do, but it never seems to be  enough.  This is the single most commonly encountered error that TPP sees.  He has certainly corrected it in enough biology textbooks (always accurately identifies botanically ignorant authorship), and quite recently posted a lesson on bean seeds. Of course, no one should actually read the Huffington Post for their science reporting, and although memory fails TPP on the specifics, he's certain he has corrected Landess Kearns (the author) before.  So here it is once again, sorry, Landess you are incorrect in your identification of a peanut "embryo".
 The "little" nub at the right is identified as the peanut embryo.  WRONG!  What do you think those two big things are?  This peanut plant at the embryonic  stage consists of a pair of cotyledons that function in food storage, and they are attached the main axis of the embryo.  The pointy end to the right is the embryonic root axis and above the attachment point (node) of the cotyledons is at least one pair of heart-shaped true leaves (each neatly folded in half).  The whole DANG thing is the embryo; this illustration shows 
2 peanuts, 2 embryos.  At maturity there is no endosperm in this seed, just a seed coat (removed in this case) and the embryo.  The endosperm was absorbed by the embryo as it grew.  But so many textbooks say seeds have endosperm that this misconception continues, perhaps because people cannot grasp that at this embryonic stage two leaves are so much bigger than the rest of the plant. So Landess, here's a helpful hint: split peas aren't split!  But they still make good cotyledon soup. And please don't try to figure out "pine nuts" on your own.