Field of Science

Frosty, unpleasant end to 2017 - It's cold out there!

It's cold here in the upper Midwest.  Barely above zero degrees, which for civilized people translates into -17 C.  Tonight, New Year's eve the low will drop to -15F or -27 C.  This is nearly as cold as it ever gets in this part of the world.  This will be result in some sad gardening news come spring.  The 6-7 inches of snow on the ground is fortunate because it provides some insulation for low-growing plants.  TPP's magnolias and other exotics have all survived -17 C, but another 10 degrees colder is an unknown factor for many.  Our hope is that buds low on the plants survive and help the tree or shrub recover from die back.  This demonstrates very well how plants' distributions particularly cold-hardiness is based upon the extremes not the means.  Our means may be higher, but the extremes have not changed, they are just less frequent.  It's been at least 2 decades since we had temperatures this cold.  And plants are terrible at cold avoidance although some plants are freezing avoiders using something called deep super-cooling. They can only handle temps down to about -28 C, then the water freezes. It will be hard for TPP to look at the ice in his drink without thinking about ihs poor plants out there.  

Friday Fabulous Flower - Frost "flowers"

Isn't this pretty nifty?  Pretty apropos for our fridgid weather right now.  Although called a frost flower, it is neither frost nor flower.  This is a thin ribbon of ice extruded from the dead aerial stem of a wingstem.  TPP supposes that the living root system is still taking in water, and root pressure is pushing it upward in the xylem.  Above ground it freezes ruptures the stem and as more water is pushed upward, the ribbon continues to grow. Dr. Jim Carter at ISU has a lot of pictures of these on his web pages.  Unfortunately this is not one of TPP's images, it was just published on the front page of The Harbinger (Dec. 2017, 34(4)), the latest issue of the Illinois Native Plant Society's newsletter, and it remains behind (way behind) a membership firewall on their web page.  TPP has plenty of wingstem, but has never seen it do this.  And now it is too bloody cold.  

Snow & cold avoidance

Erie PA made news for the big snow storm ( 50+") they got for Christmas, but TPP is a native of the upstate NY snow belt and you simply would not believe what can happen.  A long time ago like when TPP was starting college at the SUNY college in Oswego NY, the city got a 104" snow fall in 48 hrs.  When you hear something like that is possible, you go out and buy a week's worth of supplies, and in those days that would have been beer, milk, bread, eggs, Ping-Pong balls, pinochle cards, and not necessarily in that order.  And you parked your car where it could be dug out and was safe from snow plows that don't stop for anything. 
You'd tie an old fishing rod with a flag at the top to the front bumper so people could see you at intersections.  So the news from Erie brought back some memories.  Wow, glad that was when TPP was young.
Right now here in the upper Midwest, a few inches of snow covers the ground, but the snow was followed by a high pressure front that brought along really cold temps. The night time lows are hitting a few degrees below zero, but remember on the goofy temperature scale here in the USA zero is well below freezing, out -4 F is equivalent to -20 C.  The only solution for this kind of weather is avoidance, to leave, and that's what the Phactors are doing.  (You didn't think we'd go to Florida did you?)  Just after Jan. 1st the Phactors are heading for the southern hemisphere, New Zealand to be exact.  And all the really cold weather should happen while we are inverted.  TPP wants to see some Nothofagus, the southern beech, no matter what the scientific name means, in the wild.  It's on his bucket list.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Mother of thousands

Popped in to the University glasshouse to see what was in flower, and this wonderful succulent was most accommodating.  In general TPP loves this plant because you can use it to illustrate so many things.  Like many members of the stonecrop family (Crassulaceae), this plant is primarily grown for its succulent ornamental leaves.  It's tough and deals with winter time household temps and humidity (and lack thereof) quite well.  However the flowers are quite nice and are good for illustrating flowers with parts in multiples of 4s, including 4 pistils.  And ever so delightfully it produces plantlets on its leaf margins that are easily removed and grown.  They also fall off and quickly populate an area, thus the mother of thousands common name, a great example of asexual reproduction.  The genus is Kalanchoe (kal-an-Koh-ee).

Christmas time in the city, and around here that means Chi-town

Took a one day train trip with the family to visit Chi-town in all its holiday finery.  Sadly the weather was mild so everybody, and their cousins, uncles, and aunts were out for the day.  It was actually too crowded to really have fun especially at the Christmas Market, but we tried.  Near the Millennium Park skating rink stands the city's tree, a big Norway spruce with lots of lights.  And everybody was photographing everything and everybody, at a least one bride & groom, two Quinceañera parties (one pink and out in traffic (not smart), and one purple), ice skaters, families of all sorts, just a nice big mob.  It was truly a scene, and a very nice, well-behaved scene too.  How nice!  So here's a view of the big tree (right center) and the skyline as reflected in the "bean".  Happy Holidays, folks!

Friday Fabulous Flower - Queen's Tears

The Queen's tears (Billbergia nutans) is without question TPP's favorite winter flowering house plant.  It's been feature on FFF before, so it's just something to look forward to each year.  This year more than a dozen of the pink inflorescences emerged from within whorls of leaves, and tonight the Phactors are hosting and open house, so a few plant fanciers will get a treat.  The flowers are just so attractive with their blue eye-liner petals and pink sepals.  So hoping you enjoy this as much as TPP.

Ouch! Spiny Chayote

TPP always pokes through markets and produce sections just to see what there is to see, and you know you keep finding new things.  And indeed, this spiny chayote is something new.  Chayote is quite common in Central America and in North American markets it's fairly common.  But they've always had smooth skin.  But these were covered in rather stiff spines.  Otherwise they look quite the same.  Some poking around on the interweb confirms that these are spiny chayotes (Sechium edule) filling a bin in the produce section of the largest Latino grocery in our area.  Spines are not unusual on fruits of the Cucurbit family: cucumbers have spines that are easily rubbed off, and the kiwano is sort of all spines on the outside, but this was a real surprise.  Anyone else seeing these in their markets?  Do they have a different season from smooth chayote? 

Field guide for your fone

This is quite a good recommendation for the iNaturalist smart phone app, and it also earns the TPP seal of approval.  It does a great deal for you. TPP supervises a master naturalist project to document the flora of a conservation area.  Each observation is not only recorded digitally it is GPS located and pinned on a map.  Some things don't work as well as others in terms of suggested identifications, but it will put you in the ball park.  For example, SYCs, which stands for stinking yellow composites (sunflowers).  You need more than a picture of a flower/inflorescence to sort them out. The app also works well on animals too. And it's free.  If you like nature and like knowing the names of things (a human trait), then you must get iNaturalist.

Friday Fabulous Flower -Clivia

TPP finally settled on a new camera for his travels and field work.  His left shoulder is still sore, stiff, and a little lower for all those years that he carried a modest sized gadget bag around the world.  The laziness of age plus the improved technology allows cameras to be very modest in size, and still go from close focus for flowers and such to quite an impressive telephoto, and all in a quite smallish point and shoot size.  This camera still has a reasonable ability to be adjusted, certainly as much as a photographer with modest skills requires.  Sorry about no name, TPP doesn't get paid for endorsements and the blog remains totally free.  But if you are a longtime reader, and drop TPP and email, he might give you a make & model.
A couple of years ago a dear friend gifted TPP with a Clivia.  An easier and more handsome house plant does not exist.  It flowers now and again, so the camera gets some exercise.  The plants like to dry out and seem generally unfazed by the cooler, drier household climate of winter.  The foliage is quite handsome, dark green, almost cat proof.  Clivia  is a honorific, but without his plant name book, TPP has forgotten the person, but Wikipedia to the memory rescue: Charlotte Florentia Percy, Duchess of Northumberland (née Lady Charlotte Florentia Clive).

Blue, blue Christmas, Tain't natural

Elvis' blue Christmas is one of TPP's favorite songs this time of year.  But that's not what he thought of when he saw these terribly disfigured poinsettias at the store.  Only a Blue Meanie would like these poinsettias.  If TPP's aesthetic compass is way off, do say so.  They actually made the blue moth orchids look nice.

Kindness to squirrels and falling gourds

In an act of kindness, Mrs. Phactor was upcycling decorative gourds, but cracking them and then leaving them under the big sugar maple just beyond the patio, long a feeding station for local wild life.  Now you must watch out because every now and again a gourd drops down out of the sugar maple, generally, botanically, an unexpected event.  Spent a couple of hours yesterday relocating fencing to keep rabbits away from young trees and shrubs.  They get shifted to more tender shoots in the spring and summer.  Weather is predicted to turn drastically colder soon, so finishing up garden work was necessary. Everything is pretty well put to bed for the winter now.

Bad pruning

One of the easiest gardening no-nos to observe (just walk anywhere) is bad pruning.  This is a so-so bad example here.  The lowest whorl of branches was too low, and by the way, not pruning off the lowest branches of lawn trees is another easily observed no-no.  Here the branches 2-3" in diameter were just wacked off, sloppily cut off leaving a stub.  The tree may grow out and around such stubs, but this injury will remain internalized to the end of this tree's life.  The normal decay of such stubs may also lead to a hollow tree because this becomes an avenue to the heartwood of the tree.  This hurts so much to see.  If you look up tree pruning on the web & just try a little it will come out better than this.  However, this tree is in the lawn of a rental and this fairly demonstrates the attention, or more usually the lack there of, to landscaping around these buildings.

Nifty plant gift ideas - Moss of the month

TPP has to admit that this one caught him quite by surprise; Harry and David it is not.  This is a gift to buy for that really dedicated gardener to help get them through those winter months.  And nothing say "green" quite like a gift of a non-vascular plant.  So here's the link for the curious about moss of the month.  Just so you know a 3-month gift subscription starts at $57.  Wait until the guys at the local garden shoppe see this one! 

Garden roundup - Flowering & diversity

TPP finally got caught up on his first day of flowering data & got his database up to date except for a few unresolved issues involving a faulty memory. Firstly, for certain plant species only groups of varieties are recorded and kept track of, e.g., hostas.  Our gardens being shady have lots of varieties b but when it comes to flowering there are early varieties, mid-season varieties (most of them), fragrant ones (a different species), late small-leafed varieties, and really late flowering varieties (like Red October).  But there are dozens of varieties altogether, but only those flowering entries.  Species are all treated individually, if known.
In total, for the 2017 season, which started for us on the 12th of February (the recently mentioned witch-hazel).  And which ended on the 4th of October (wolfbane or Monk's hood), our gardens had 337 flowering events, actually more but only herbaceous and woody perennials are counted, no annuals unless they are native & take care of themselves, to get the total diversity the 'did not flower' species and the 'new' (dnf) plants also have to be counted, bringing the total of  363 flowering plants, plus another 28 gymnosperms and 19 ferns for a total diversity of a bit over 400 species.  It keeps us busy, but wandering our gardens to see what's new is a favorite activity for the cocktail hour. Native species weigh in at around 121 species and growing as our woodland garden expands, but it won't when the leaf guys take away all the chopped leaves.  Hey, you owe us a couple of tons of leaves!
Finding new plants that will grow here is becoming more difficult.

Last flowers addendum

Or would that be spelled addendumb?  TPP knew he'd missed the witch hazel, but an alert reader who was not worried about hurting feelings, but wanted to see the gold corydalis, let me know the ball had been dropped.  Well, while checking the estate to see how well the leaf guys had done (very well), TPP noticed that these were still in flower and likely to continue for awhile.  So here are the missing blooms, the Corydalis lutea (probably better named Pseudofumaria lutea), but this hardly helps because the old Fumiariaceae (bleeding heart family) is a defunct family now submerged into the Papaveraceae, the poppy family, and it's a false fumaria anyways.  And the 4-parted witch hazel with those long narrow petals.  This same shrub can also bloom in the spring, but then the flowers are reddish in color.  Pretty cheerful, huh?  Happy?  Hope so. Because this is it for the season.

First snow - November 18

November 18 is not really early for snow and this was a slushy nearly rain type of snow that wasn't going to accumulate, but the Phactors got to see plenty of it because it was ahappenin' while errands were being run. Needed the final fixins' for a Caribbean dinner, starting with a rum-based Planter's Punch cocktail and ending with a rum cake. Sounds well rounded doesn't it. Won't bore you with the rest of the menu (what? you like boredom. OK):  Chorizo & shrimp filled lettuce rolls & fried plantains, calaloo soup, Jerk Chicken with a papaya salsa, a black beans & rice side dish with a mango topping.  On the whole quite good & everyone was happy.

Friday Fabulous Flowers - last of the season

TPP took a stroll around the estate a couple of days ago; it's what having gardens is for.  Here and there a few plants remained in flower, sort of, more like the dregs of coffee in the bottom of the pot. This idea was stolen from PlantingPosting blog (it's on the side bar), but her's was prettier and better photographed, and we have really different gardens! 
And here they are.  A couple are really tough plants, often flowering in the very early spring.  One is missing the witchhazel, sorry but only saw the flowers later.  And flowering in November is not unusual for this plant at all.  The periwinkle and golden corydalis are also among our earliest flowering plants in the spring, so a few flowers in the fall are not a surprise.  The warmth of the house protected a knockout rose from getting totally frozen so a bud or two remained, and then under the roses were a couple of volunteer petunias, probably from last year's window boxes to judge by the color & who even knew they were under the roses? The catmint had a few flowers left again a tough plant in cold weather.  The orange "sun rose" a Helianthmum is just confused after a tough summer.  The golden corydalis is amazing, flowering all season long nearly first to last.  It is a bit weedy but not too aggressive often occupying spaces not suitable for other plants like under a bald cypress.  But this is it.  These are definitely the last of the season.

Current events with environmental bonus

Wow, Hannity, one of the prime reasons for it's low batting average (Phlox News) loses a sponsor and conservatives (anyone actually is OK) smash Keurig Coffee machines (environmentally stoopid), so it's a real two-fer!  This may also mean that both Hannity and Keurig are banned in Hamburg Germany.  Some people have standards.

Fall, where does it leave us?

2017 was a strange fall here in the upper Midwest of the USA.  September was cool, then hot and dry. A lot of trees showed stress & TPP hopes he watered enough trees and new plants well enough.  It was a $400 watering. It was a late fall staying warm until well into October, and a hard frost waiting until November.  Fall color was late to develop, and even then it was funny with some well colored trees framed against a green backdrop.  When a hard frost did come our sugar maples dropped their leaves literally overnight, covering our patios to at least a foot deep.  And then the leaf netting over the lily pond had to get dragged off for a second time, and it was heavy with leaves, walnut and hackberry mostly, and the pond doesn't want those.  
Nonetheless when some plants colored up they were  wonderful.  Foremost among those were the Japanese maples.  This image shows a pair that grow just beyond the lily pond.  The low-growing one in the foreground (Emerald lace) might develop more color if the chlorophyll fades a bit more, but the 'scolopendrifolium' behind turned a wonderful orangey hue.  So nice and bright.
Of course our lawn is a confluent carpet of leaves and the oaks are still hanging on to their leaves for later.  These will all get semi-shredded and piled on areas destined to become woodland gardens.

Friday Fabulous Foliage

Fall foliage can be very colorful.  This bed was planted for the purpose of colorful foliage in the fall, indeed, the late fall because this "flowering" kale laughs at cold weather.  And it grows pretty easily. However as my best garderner buddy likes to say, "Kale grows easily and likes cold weather, but the trouble with growing kale is that when you're done, what you have grown is kale."  TPP is not a huge fan of kale as a green, but you can make one heck of a great soup with kale, and a local farm to fork chef made us a kale slaw that was pretty good (but a bit of a chew).  At any rate after looking at the flowering kale for awhile you can make it into soup.  TPP was asked about this awhile back and another soup recipe was linked here.  TPP is making some today.

How to deal with the time change - feline style

Here is a cat dealing with the DST to Standard time change as cats do it best.  Sleeping through it on a kitchen chair.  Where else is a cat to sleep?  In this cat's case, one of two beds, one of three chairs, and anywhere else that looks comfy.  In all honesty this cat's time clock is dead accurate, but takes time to reset, and you better be getting up a 7 am to get her breakfast kibble, even it is now 6 am.  She was dead on at 6 am, and nearly frantic by 6:30, when Mrs. Phactor fearing for her life (you can get nagged to death) arose to officially start the day.

A fungus amung us

The Phactors recently visited N. Carolina for a family wedding.  While crashing at a relative's house and taking a walk around their little lake side community, these lovely and quite common mushrooms were found poking up from the pine needle mulch/litter.  It had rained the day before, so their appearance was almost expected here in the fall.  These were shaggy mane mushrooms (Coprinus comatus) and it's one of the easiest of mushrooms to identify especially because of its almost uniquely columnar cap with its coating of scales.  The long narrow gills inside are snow white when fresh, but they quickly begin to turn dark and will in a short time dissolve into a black inky ooze of spores.  This is typical of the inky cap mushrooms, which TPP featured once before, but not this species.  And the process is called autodeliquescence.  When fresh (white), they are edible, but go easy unless you've eaten them before.  And do avoid alcoholic beverages as the two sometimes produce a bad combination for some people.

Friday Fabulous foliage - Everyone needs a Nyssa

The Phytophactor lives having survived the flu-like substance, but the congestion hangs on.  Thanks for asking.  The constant sniffling, coughing, hacking, etc. has gotten very old.  When the head doesn't feel well, no blogs get written. 
In the view from our kitchen, the back drop is basically Mrs. Phactor's perennial garden with a wooded backdrop. The whole area slopes upward ever so slightly, so at the "back" or "top" of the garden are several ornamental trees, and as the fall progresses the most attractive tree is a smallish Nyssa, a tupelo, a dwarfish variety of some sort.  The flowers do not amount to  much, but the leaf display is vivid and long-lasting.  Everyone has room for one of these trees somewhere.

Fabulous Flora - Fern

It's not the time of year when you expect to see much going on in the forest, but you know, going for a walk with birders in search for the "confusing fall warblers".  So as TPP is always looking down, this fern popped right out.  Like spring wild flowers this little fern was expected in the spring, although this particular species has leaves that turn bronze and persist until spring. It was not expected to have fertile fronds.  This is one of the rattlesnake ferns, formerly the genus Botrychium, but now Sceptridium, S. dissectum obliquum,  the bronze fern.  TPP really hates this name change, as the older genus has been in the memory banks for at least 45 years.  This plant consists of either one or two leaves, one sterile frond, which can be somewhat bigger, and more dissected, than this one, and a second frond that consists largely of sporangia (cream colored here), which when present rises above the fertile frond (the petioles can be fused appearing as one).  The gametophytes are subterranean and so are seldom seen.  The whole fern is only about 5-6 inches tall.  It's not actually rare but seldom noticed.  This fern may be a bit mixed up because of the weather like a few other plants. Because such plants are seldom noticed, many people think they are rare plants; sort of but not as much as they think.

Post travel illness

TPP feels horrible; he is in the grips of a flu-like substance. The Phactors were in rural North Carolina for a wedding of a nephew, and Mrs. Phactor's family does love these opportunities to get together and whoop it up, and to be fair they are pretty good fun.  On one hand it would be unfair to blame them for my illness, but they are a group of huggers and kissers.  Let's check the flu-like substance symptoms:  fever, check.  Not very high, but enough to make you feel miserable.  Congestion, check. My sinuses feel like they will burst and TPP feels like he's already swallowed a bucketful running down his throat.  Headache, check.  Every cough (check), makes the old head feel like it will explode. Watery eyes, ? not sure about this one.  The eyes are definitely watery, but not sure if this belongs to the flu-like substance or not; they've been watery for weeks and attributed to harvest dust. General fatigue, check. Good thing Mrs. Phactor & F1 could take over driving.  Even fell asleep while listening to a damned-good pod cast (S-Town, This American Life). Highly recommended.  This was after relinquishing the driver's seat.  Runny nose, check.  Annoying as hell; tissues always within reach.  Sore throat, not so much.  Sneezing, check.  Redness of skin & eyes, the latter are plenty red, but not the skin.  Well, not a bad run of symptoms, all but one at least in part.  And TPP did not yet get a flu shot for this year.  Hard to know if they work or not now. 

Erasing Nature

Erasing Nature is a title stolen/borrowed/reused from the Garden Rant blog (love those people).  TPP has long fought against plant blindness, but this goes to the level of replacing nature with digital technology.  TPP finds this totally appalling. 
Acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow; all these words have been left out of the new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary and here's the new words added: attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail.  Of course 2/3s of the cuts are botanical.
And because they have so little experience with nature many teachers are no help at all.  Damn, TPP tries not to read news about the POTUS, so he turns to gardening blogs, and gets all depressed anyways. 

Help out the Phytophactor

Dear Readers, The Phytophactor is in the planning phases of a field trip to New Zealand; it's been at least 30 years since he last visited.  So what he needs is a decent plant identification book that does not come in a 10 volume set.  Traveling light and limited luggage you know.  For recording those plants (and scenery), while iphone cameras are far better than they used to be, TPP still likes to have a camera with controls that go beyond point and shoot.  Liked my Nikon P7000, but it's getting a bit long in the tooth.  Love the close up focusing of those Nikon lens.  Traveled for years with lens and camera backs and lots more, but as the years have accumulated, the convenience of a compact camera has increased.  So what advice do people out there have for TPP?  Advise me well grasshoppers, and you will be rewarded with many fine blogs. 

Friday Fabulous Flower - Finally, a Sunflower sort of

The screwy weather of 2017 has some of TPP's plants confused. June was quite hot, July & August were cooler and wetter, September started cool but then got hot and very dry. And as Fall continued and the days shortened, the weather got cooler and rains finally relieved the drought.  But no cold weather even into early October (except for the last 24 hrs). so some plants are a bit confused about what time of year it is.  Today's sunflower, or more usually a rock rose, an ornamental variety generally placed in the species Helianthemum nummularium, a member of the Cistaceae.  The genus means sun flower, but so does Helianthus.  Members of this family, and this genus, and this species are pretty common ornamentals of the Mediterranean region, but most of them are not hardy here in zone 5.  It's a small, low, evergreen shrub that makes a nice border and ground cover.  After looking sort of rough most of the early summer and not flowering then (perhaps recovering from winter), one of two plants decided to flower now!  Pretty bright flower, but not a big display.  Nice in a  protected area. 
Busy weekend has put TPP behind.  

Dinosaur renderings in fruit

This was pretty interesting.  Stylized dinosaurs rendered as fruits by computer intelligence, although clearly a lot of instructions were needed.  Still they are pretty neat.  Enjoy. 

Weed of the Week - Growing low

Here's a weed of the week (WOTW) that ranges from utterly insignificant to just small.  It grows in a low, spreading mat, seldom more than a centimeter tall, and is sometimes called the sandmat or prostrate spurge. Officially it has the totally appropriate name Euphorbia prostrata. It can grow, quickly, from cracks or seams in sidewalks, and it is very prolific making lots of seeds so this naturalized annual is sure to reappear next year.  While it can be pulled (do take care, the milky sap can be irritating) an herbicide treatment is perhaps the only way to keep this weed under control.  However you can at least admire how efficiently it covers space, and of course, the remarkable beauty of its flowering and fruiting display.  There are a couple of similar species, E. maculata and E. serpens, but generally these species have smooth stems and leaves while E. prostrata is hairy. Ever wonder why botanists often have a hand lens, which is their version of bling?  It's to see if plants like this are hairy or not.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Aloe

The outdoor gardening season is just about done.  The monkshood or wolf bane is just coming into flower here in early October, right on schedule. Red October the lastest flowering hosta is just finishing up.  And TPP must turn his attention to the glasshouse to find flowers of interest.  One bed of succulents has a huge clone of a relatively common Aloe, and every decent sized stem was in flower.  There are over 500 species and lots of cultivars, and TPP has no idea what this one is.  Any suggestions?  Quite colorful in a salmon sort of way.  This inflorescence is a near perfect example of a raceme, a single central stem with an ascending helix of stalked flowers.  With so many flowers it takes quite a few days to flower from bottom to top.  Note how the flowers change position as they come into flower.  The lowest flowers are in a pollen accepting phase with the stigma protruding from the corolla.  No hummingbirds were around, but a little self-pollination will produce a few fruits.  The whole thing makes for quite a visual display.

Ergot & art

One of the things TPP misses the most about teaching is finding interesting connections between botany and other cultural things and lacking a class of interested (?) students to present them to.  Perhaps TPP is weird in this regard, but people who find "connections" interesting always seem to have the best scholarly attitudes or at least an intellectual curiosity. 
Ergot is a fungal parasite of cereal grains and when its spores contaminate flour and bread, it can produce dramatic side effects, various forms of ergotism, the stuff of the Salem witch trials, and effects that include hallucinations.  So this article investigates whether hallucinations ever influenced art especially a fellow like Hieronymus Bosch who really painted some strange images, strange enough that it is not difficult to imagine he was under some kind of hallucinogenic influence.  Image shows an ergot spore body replacing a cereal grain where it could contaminate flour ultimately leading to the idea that the whiter the flour the more pure it was (image from the Wikimedia Creative Commons complements of Accipiter). 

A very dry September

September is always one of our drier months, but locally our rainfall is less than half of the average amount.  The Phactors have done slightly better than the general area and our gardens are parched.  Very large, old trees are showing signs of stress.  Leaf fall is starting quite early and the lawn has a nice crunch when you walk across it.  Several poorly established shrubs, mostly sort of new, have already died. So far a lilac, and a male winter berry have gone belly up, several more look very sad.  A few things may survive and reappear come spring, but some will go missing.  And it isn't as though we have not been watering.  This is a drought.  We've had one 1.25 inch rainfall for the whole month.  Fall color is going to be a bust as leaves simply turn brown.  And do remember winter is mostly about dry conditions, so unless things turn around, we'll be watering some things in December. The cool August & early Sept. followed by hot weather, and lack of rain have some plants very confused.  A "Christmas" cactus is covered in buds, a non-hardy azalea that usually blooms in Jan.-Feb. has a couple of flowers open. 

Friday Fabulous Flower - A to Z

Last week's Friday Fabulous Flower was an Aster, so it only seems symmetrical to have a Zinnia for this week's FFF.  And they are both in the same family, the composites or Aster family.  This pot of Zinnia's caught our eye at the local garden shoppe, and is sitting on our patio table looking pretty and attracting butterflies  It has been watered when it shows signs of wilting.  What a great variety this; it just keeps flowering, and this pot is at least a month old now.  We haven't even picked off the oldest heads.  You cannot complain about such a pretty thing, and who knows what variety this is because there are so many. Actually TPP isn't sure it's even a Zinnia except the involucre bracts look like a zinnia's.

Wall of squash

A lot of talk about walls in the USA these days, but there's no wall like this one.  This wall not only looks like it would be easy to penetrate, it actually looks as if it has a reasonable chance of simply falling down.  The simple fact is that there are a lot of squash and pumpkins on display here, a decent cross section of some of the 300 varieties under cultivation.  That's a lot of kinds of squash; sort of pretty isn't it?  You can buy seeds to most of them via the Homestead Seeds component of this family business located near Arthur, Illinois.  Oh, and they have the best pumpkin ice cream ever. Also bought some squash for seeds, and for pies, and for dinner (delicate), and for fall decoration, and for a wren house (bottle gourd actually).  

Friday Fabulous Flower - Pale blue Aster

Amid the many SYCs of fall, a few fall flowering plants of different color are a welcome relief.  Technically this aster flowers in late summer, the first two weeks of September over the past 5 years. 
The pale blue aster, Aster laevis, is a tall (4-5 foot) plant with lots of 1 inch diameter flowering heads.  The ray flowers are that type of blue that never seems right when photographed, and the disk flowers are yellow, which are still in bud on some of these heads and have flowered or are in flower on the others.  They don't look very big but butterflies seem to love this plant, which is sort of a bonus.  It does tend to reseed itself, so unwanted seedlings must be relocated or removed in the spring.  As a tall thin plant a bit of support is necessary if not surrounded by other tall vegetation.

Weed of the week - pokin' around

The late summer and fall is when people notice that a huge, attractive looking weed has invaded their yard/garden/alley.  You can hardly miss a plant with big green leaves that stands anywhere from 4 to 8 feet tall on a red stem that is 1-2 inches in diameter.  Also notable are quite handsome racemes of dark purple to black, glossy berries.  There are some ornamental varieties of some other species. This is Phytolacca americana, pokeweed or just poke.  Warning: ALL PARTS OF THIS PLANT ARE TOXIC - DO NOT CONSUME, and if you are a sensitive skin type person, avoid the sap.  This plant is a perennial so a mature plant is not killed by cutting off the stem; you must poison the big old white tap root. or dig it out. The young shoots have been gathered and boiled as greens made famous by the song "polk salad (sallet) Annie".  Changes of water are needed to detoxify the greens and its least toxic when young; it scares TPP too much to even try it, And what would be left anyways.  In this case the "salad" stands for sallet in the British/French (?) sense of cooked greens.  Birds and even some small mammals seem able to eat the fruits with no ill effects, so too many seedlings appear under our bald cypress, a favorite perching tree. Best to pull seedlings or chop them off before they get that tap root formed.  
 Here's a flowering inflorescence; the flowers are small with 5 sepals that are persistent.
 This is an older inflorescence showing a sequence of fruit development.  It happens pretty fast.
 This is a nearly mature infructescence showing the round, slightly flattened purple/black berries.  Kids could easily eat any berries this attractive.  Note that the sepals have turned bright pink; thus prolonging their attractiveness even after a berry is removed.
This shows the foliage, a rather simple leaf and the distinctive pink stems.  

Garden Bloggers Bloom Day

This is quite unheard of having a Garden Bloggers Bloom Day (Sept. 15) and not telling TPP?  How can this be?  It's not like this blog is hard to find, and it is known to feature blooms (every Friday, nearly).  Search on Friday Fabulous Flower to see if you missed any.  
In the good news department, the two woodchucks (Marmota monax) that had taken up residence in our gardens, one under the shed, one under the dining pavilion, took the bait so to speak, a piece of cantaloupe, pretty succulent when its been dry. Both were relocated to a wilder area some distance away.  Both were quite handsome, darker coated beasts, and one was exceptionally wary & TPP had tried several times to entice his entry into a trap, but to no avail.  Nice animals but they eat too much and dig, dig, dig, so bye-bye.  Almost as bad as tree rats.  
Finally it rained; about 1.3 inches in our gauge, and we could use more. After more than half a month without rain, things were mighty dry.  Stressed trees were dropping leaves.  Ferns just shriveled and died back. Watering could only help the newer items. 
Some very good friends brought TPP a bag of Northern Spy apples.  Wow!  They are so good!    
Identified some sunflowers for a Master Naturalist.  Their garden was being overrun by black-eyed susans, so TPP also loaned them the "Sod-buster 5000", a tool of his own making.  Nearly lost in the fall prairie vegetation was a Helianthus divaricatus, a woodland sunflower, appropriately in a shadier portion of the garden, and then some Helianthus tuberosus, sunchoke or Jerusalem artichoke.  Here's the former showing the big petalled ray flowers and the little disk flowers.  Hope that's bloomin' enough.  Note the leaf blade is decurrent down the petiole and is three veined at the base. 

Ah, September!

TPP likes this month.  The 2017 version is typically enough driving us crazy.  First, it was way too cool, although any time you don't need AC in the summer, we be happy.  Now, it is hot again, and combined with a typical enough drought, it is sort of an insult added to injury, here in late summer.  Listen, our new Pinus bungeana is calling for water.
Yes, we consider the first half of September to be late summer.  And as some of you know this means TPP has an anniversary celebration: fish soup, in lieu of a birthday, and this year it is sobering to note that this is the 35th fish soup.  So as usual TPP pays the air fare from Maine to the Midwest for some seafood.  This year the process was interrupted by a red tide recall on 10 pounds of mussels (dang dinoflagellates!) but the timely replacements were excellent, so were the clams, and a certain craving was satisfied for awhile at least.  That being said Mrs. Phactor's contributions, fresh Italian bread and apple pies were excellent as always.  No one goes home hungry.  Oh, TPP was home!
The gardens are bone, bone dry!  Trees are dropping leaves and ferns withering into drought induced dormancy, which is hopefully not permanent.  Newer plantings need attention. Trying to raise some late lettuce and bok choi, but keeping it watered is proving to be quite a chore.  Some bell weather plants have been watered 3 times since our last significant rain.  At  least the number of mosquitoes has declined to a tolerable level due to the dry.  Football has started and already Chi-town is playing for draft picks.  Baseball continues beyond all reason.  Play the world series already!  

Friday Fabulous Flower - Wax bells

Still bone dry here and now the heat has come back.  Plants left gasping for water.  While watering a couple of trees covering a shady corner, TPP came upon a patch of wax bells, Kirengeshoma palmata, a rather slow growing, shade tolerant perennial of Asian origin.  A reference says it's in the Hydrangea family, but nothing about it actually shouts hydrangea to TPP's eye.  The leaves sort of remind one of a sycamore, but less broad, perhaps the largish lobes and coarseness.  But if left alone they can form a nice clump, in this case paired with a beauty berry bushes (both needed watering), one deep azure blue, the other yellow.  The flowers are about an inch long and about that diameter but never opening widely.  The petals are quite fleshy.  And here it is in flower in late summer early fall.  What's not to like.  At 3-4' tall they do tend to be floppy and seem to require some support, of the grow-through nature.

SYCs have master naturalists yelling "uncle".

Birders have long been familiar with LBJs before and even after he became POTUS.  The botanical equivalent has always been SYCs, stinking yellow composites, yellow-flowered members of the Asteraceae, formerly the Compositae, daisies, sunflowers, asters, and so on, and on, and on.  It's a big family, one of the biggest.  And in grasslands, and even old fields, a heap-ton of these flower in the fall.  Everytime you turn around, there is another one.  Some TPP recognizes by sight, but very often it takes a bit of time in the herbarium and with available field guides to determine what plant it is.  TPP is sort of over-seeing a couple of master naturalist projects, and even very diligent and hard working amateurs such as these can often "give up" on STCs. Toughies such as these take lots of practice and experience. Something that doesn't come in a book or bottle.  In particular TPP found that just the sunflowers, genus Helianthus, could be a problem, so using a scanner, he constructed some cheat sheets for our local area using a combination of fairly easy to observe features to document each species.  But clearly more such sheets are needed, and next week he will be in the field to help out documenting the plant contents of some restored prairie patches.  Hopefully, no LBJ will be seen perched on an SYC, although if so, birders usually don't notice the latter.  Hang on troops, help is on the way!

On average, USA doing OK

Florida nearly got washed away, as did Houston; the west is burning; and what passes for TPP's lawn is crunchy and dry.  So, on average we doing OK.  And of course your choice when  dealing with new plants is simple, water it or let it die.  Both cost you money.  The other problem is that just dragging the hoses around is quite a bit of work, sorry, exercise.  Lots of leaves dropping even from well established old trees, so mowing generated so much dust, TPP thought he was going to stop breathing, oh, actually he sort of did because lawn dust is one of the things he's sensitive to. It's snot like he had a choice.  Maybe the tail end of Irma will wander far enough north to bring us a drop or two of rain.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Bush Clematis

Since TPP sort of dumped on a Clematis as a potential weed, it is only fair to highlight a pretty nicely behaved Clematis, a bush Clematis.  Yes, it's not a vine, and a quite handsome addition to almost any garden providing some late summer flowering.  First time TPP saw this plant it took awhile to figure out what it was although all the right things were there.  TPP has two such species of Clematis, but this bush Clematis, Clematis heracleifolia.  Shrub or bush, this species does have short sort of woody stems that get clipped back to the ground or nearly so each spring (look for the buds) and grows into a mound of leafy foliage. Seems quite hardy here in zone 5, but maybe not in zone 4. It can expand a bit with time as new shoots appear around the periphery,  our largest cllump was probably 4 feet by 4 feet before Mrs. Phactor got mad at it for being a bit aggressive with neighboring plants.  The foliage is a bit coarse, but it flowers nicely over a period of a few weeks. It handles some shade with no problems and some shade helps because it doesn't like drying out.  Ours has dark blue to purple tubular flowers that get to maybe an inch across, not large but in terminal clusters.  Dead-heading is a good idea to prevent seedlings.  While not popular, and sometimes hard to find in nurseries, it's a nice addition to biggish perennial gardens and border beds. 

Weather prognostication - cold winter ahead

Some people put their trust in the Farmer's almanac, others look at woolly worms' wool, but the domestic cat may also have powers of weather prognostication.  After all here it is a rather cool Sept. 7th., and the kitty girls have decided that they need a blanket to nap on, so they found one.  Also notice how well their camouflaged coats work when they are in their natural environment.  They act like they know that cold weather if ahead. The Weather channel can't do any better.

Democracy and science - hand in hand

Here's a link to a very interesting article; TPP has been thinking along similar lines for some time, but this article is pretty well written and makes many of the points TPP would cover.  With the GnOPe in charge there is a strong anti-science and anti-democratic flavor to many of the issues and positions they take.  Clearly public higher education is not so valued because thinking tends to mess with many conservative positions.  The snuggier government is with fundamentalist religion, the worse things are for science, and for public education.  Read it and see what you think. 
TPP's blue collar, rural family back ground saw public higher education as a means of changing your relative position in society; and some of the manufacturing jobs (GM, Kodak) that were in the offing, while looking pretty good from the perspective of 1970, have not even lasted for one academic career's amount of time.  Presently "choice" really means damaging public education to favor people who can already afford private education; for TPP public schools were a real choice and a path to a very different type of career. The funding of higher education says it all; politicians do not support that which they do not value, and state support has been declining for TPP's whole career.  And now many politicians argue against the value of higher education because they can point to one or two success stories who were entrepreneurial, ignoring all the rest.  

Weed? of the week - Bald cypress in flower?

Some plants are weeds, some plants are just weedy or invasive.  That's the case with this week's weed, while not a weed per se its definitely weedy and invasive.  On one previous occasion TPP was called to identify a strange flowering tree, one that towered above the street with a profusion of orange flowers.  It was a bald cypress that had been climbed by a trumpet creeper, Campsis radicans, a bignon vine. The combination fooled a lot of people, but bald cypress trees flower so seldom TPP wasn't fooled.  Day before yesterday a similar combination was noticed on the Phactors' morning errand/coffee walk, a youngish bald cypress whose crown was nearly filled with  one or more sweet fall clematis vines (Clematis terniflora).  This is a perennial, most weeds are annuals. But it is quite prolific and you find the seedlings popping up every where, particularly in messy waste areas.  By fall the vines will cover trellaces, fences, trees, shrubs, and anything else it can climb, up to 20-25 feet.  When growing on crappy old fences or crappy old shrubs, it's fine, and in flower the autumn clematis is quite a treat. Quite handsome and rather fragrant (sweet) to boot.  Even in the spring the perennial base is difficult to get rid of.  Digging, chopping, spraying, they all work to some degree, none are best or perfect.  TPP cuts them off at ground level and treats the cut surface like a tree stump  with an herbicide.  If you like what the sweet fall/autumn clematis does for your garden, take a hedge pruner to the vine after flowering and before fruit/seed dispersal; this is called dead-heading.  It works well for this vine.  And the seedlings are fairly easy to spot and kill if they are growing where you do not want the plant (TPP's definition of a weed.)  So be very careful about planting this species.  You've been warned.

Friday fabulous Flowers: at the stage of seed dispersal

Our Magnolia virginiana, sweet bay, flowered well for pollen dispersal, now the flowers are at the stage of seed dispersal, a gentle reminder of what a fruit really is.  The fruits are an aggregate cone-like fruit that is basically green and protective, so not very attractive, but then the individual fruitlets dehisce rather like little milkweed pods exposing bright red-orange seeds that sometimes dangle on a thread. The actual fruit continues to dry out and turn brown. The seed coats are actually dark brown but covered by a fleshy red-orange aril that contains quite a bit of lipid, just what birds need as they get ready for a southerly migration, which is exactly what these seeds are advertising. 
From our kitchen table it was obvious a flock of birds was after this food source, and it took awhile for us to figure out who was there.  Turned out to be a mixed flock of Swainson's thrushes and red-eyed vireos.  This morning all the seeds exposed were gone; there will be more.  Successful dispersal was achieved!

How to win war on drugs

Joshua (a computer): "A strange game. The only winning move is not to play. How about a nice game of chess?" (Wargames 1983).

The war on drugs has gone on longer than Afghanistan, and its not been much of a success either, and our DOJ wants to restart the war in earnest.  Here's the most obvious outcome of the war on drugs, incarceration rate in the USA has put us in 1st or 2nd place world wide.  Sorry this is 10 years out or date, USA now has an incarceration rate of nearly 700/100,000 people, good for 2nd place world wide.  An arrow marks the beginning of the war on drugs. 

As it turns out like with alcohol, prohibition just doesn't work, and for very good economic reasons.  See here for an explanation.  So why do we play this game?  S  

Iceland gets it; takes action.

Like most of the world, Iceland is watching the United States of America with growing concern. President Trump won the election in part by blowing demagogic dog whistles so loud even racist German Shepherds across the Atlantic could hear. Many in Iceland wondered if he could’ve won without the support of conservative churches and their faith-based flocks hoping for the biblical apocalypse?
The answer is obvious.
Prime Minister Andrew Kanard touted the IPDA while soaking in one of the many hot springs the country enjoys:
We in Iceland value our relationship with the United States of America. It is a great nation with a history they should be proud of. Currently, however, they seem to off whatever medication their doctor prescribed for them. Iceland wishes to support our friend in need. In that spirit, we are sending teachers over there to educate and assist rural communities infected with ignorance and superstition. What we will not do is allow ourselves to be invaded by that ignorance and superstition which is propagated by televangelists.

Read more here.  Too bad Iceland only has 300,000 people; they'll never get enough educational missionaries to make a difference.
As a measure of how bad things are, TPP didn't grok that this was satire until the missionary thing.   

A new ginkgophyte!

Wow, a new ginkgophyte.  Of course most plant lovers know the Ginkgo, Ginkgo biloba, the only living species of gickgophyte.  For those of you who still don't know your plant fossils all that well, gymnosperms were much more diverse in days past, which makes the job of finding flowering plant ancestors all the more difficult.  But the Ginkgophytes were certainly more diverse and this fossil makes them even more diverse than before, not because it's brand new, but because the preservation is so good you get a much better sense of the plant itself.  Zip over to the In Defense of Plants blog for a look-see and say hi to Umaltolepis.

Friday Fabulous Flower - It's red, really red.

This is usually not the type of plant TPP grows, mostly.  It's common in more tropical climes, it's an annual, but seeds itself in fairly easily.  But it attracts hummingbirds!  OK even a rocket scientist could probably tell a botanist that this is a morning glory.  Trumpet shaped flower on a twining vine.  It has a number of common names, but TPP has heard it called cypress vine, cardinal flower, and cardinal creeper mostly.  Cardinal flower is out because red lobelia is called that.  Cypress?  Don't see the connection, but there you go.  This is Ipomea quamoclit, the same genus as sweet protato, which you may not have known was a morning glory.  This vine doesn't have huge flowers, about an inch across, but they definitely are red, and who doesn't want more hummingbirds.  Our friends in OK gave up on feeders and grow this vine instead. The highly dissected leaves have always seemed rather interesting too. So fix up something 6-8 feet tall for it to climb on and grow this little vine. It's for the birds, hmm.

Take your favorite bar along

Isn't this the cutest thing?  A mini-bar that you can rent for private functions, although it would be cool as a road-side stand too.  Probably break every liquor law around, so keeping it private makes sense.  This is actually the Hello Penny Bar and it operates in the San Diego area.  
TPP likes the idea of wheeling this into his garden and setting it up for business the next time 100 or so of our close intimate friends get invited over for a function, like Mrs. Phactor's retirement party.  A friend has a wood-fired pizza oven on a trailer that he rents for parties.  This could be his next venture, and he wouldn't have to stoke the fire several hours ahead of time to have it ready to go. Sorry forgot the image at first.

Who hung compact disks in my hedge?

It was a humid morning.  The sun was finally up high enough to begin shining through the tree canopy and into the hedge, and looky, looky!  A couple of dozen silvery compact disks seemingly hung randomly around.  A bit of closer inspection and they turned out to be highly regular orb spider webs, wet with dew, and reflecting the sunlight.  Ordinarily webs are pretty hard to see and in the tropics TPP has been clothes-lined by spider webs many times.  This may take some explanation.  Back in the old days of less energy consumption, "the wash", i.e., washed clothes were hung outside on clothes lines to dry.  And the lines were not very high, and so maybe you forgot as you ran through your yard, or the neighbors yard, never mind why you were running there at night, there was a good reason, and then one of these clothes lines would catch you right across the neck, and you would be on your back looking up at the sky, thus the expression. It was worse if you were riding a bicycle.  And later you find out the line was deliberating strung across a yard to take care of those "derned kids", any kids other than your own angels, who rode across their yards at night.

It takes a lot of energy to build such a nice insect trap as a web, so from the spiders point of view, you don't want some bird to come ripping through the hedge and  destroy your web.  This also may explain why so many webs were sort of clustered together, so they are more conspicuous. In the tropics the big orb building spiders were called bird-eating spiders because feathers would be found in webs where some small bird having flown into a substantial web would lose a feather although probably not their life (they were big spiders, at least the females, but not that big.).  There actually is a bird-eating spider, but of the tarantula type and not an orb-weaver.  Appropriately enough when cooked they are said to "taste like chicken".  
Our local orb webs all seemed pretty intact and highly regular indicating little if any prey of other damage so far.  At any rate these predators were left undisturbed to do their jobs.

Lawns are a soul-crushing timesuck and most of us would be better off without them

How did TPP miss this article as it so clearly reflects his lawn philosophy in so few words "a soul-crushing timesuck".  You have to like a phrase that succinct.  Here's the article.  Something like 1,9% of the USA's land surface is planted to turf grass.  Or as my lawn currently demonstrates, crab grass can take over from turf grasses.  It's actually awful because of all the seeds. So ha, ha, our lawn is mostly not turf grass, but other species.  

Little minds focus on smallest details

A small article caught TPP's attention. The WH via the Dept of the Interior has rescinded an Obama era ban on plastic water bottle in National Parks.  The Phactors were looking to buy a bottle of water for a hike, an over sight for certain, but none were for sale, although very nice souvenir aluminium bottles were available as was a filling station, so we were good, and mildly impressed that our National Parks were so forward thinking.  And not a single discarded water bottle was seen on any of the many trails we walked.  But now that rule has been rescinded.  It takes really small minds to focus on the smallest details.  How petty can you get?  Any bottled water CEOs involved?  No question this will help make our country great again.  Thanks, to the WaPo and Treehugger. Sounds like time to write the Secretary of the Interior.  

Weed of the week - ragweed

Your eyes may have just started to water just looking at these images of giant ragweed. The plants can reach 7-8 feet tall easy and a local walking/bicycling trail goes through a virtual gully of them just now coming into bloom. There are so many flowers they'll leave a yellow dusting of haploid males (pollen) on the ground.  Woe be to any allergic people who hazard this gauntlet.  Both the common and giant ragweeds are easy enough to recognize, but they are usually ignored in the spring when they are more easily controlled by mowing them down or whacking them out, or by herbicide application in the spring or early summer.  Too late now.  The smaller common ragweed showed up in an older blog and you will notice the highly lobed leaves that Linnaeus thought resembled wormwood, thus Ambrosia artemisiifolia.  Notice that the giant ragweed has three lobed leaves Ambrosia trifida (shown above) and the flowers are not showy at all because it's wind pollinated, so the co-flowering goldenrod gets the blame for hayfever. The flowers shown are just prior to flowering.  How long can you hold your breath?