Field of Science

Pioneer plant or climax community

When thinking about plant succession from the colonization of new space to a dominant species in a climax community, the same plant is seldom found in both positions.  Last Friday's Fabulous Flower is one such plant; a pioneer species on lava fields and a tree that hangs around to be a dominant component of the climax forest community.  You learn something every day, and this lesson was via some very good National Park trail signage. 
So the picture last Friday was a pioneer plant on a lava field in Kilauea Iki crater, which was a giant bowl of molten lava 58 years ago, and now it is slowly being re-vegetated even though a lot of heat remains beneath as the lava slowly cools. Lots of plants including ferns get foot holds in cracks and rubble of the solidified lava surface. 

From a distance the crater floor looks pretty smooth and barren, but this is quite deceiving. As you walked the trail though the crater (center), you had to watch your step because of the rough and uneven surface. Even still TPP kept looking around to see what could be seen. This was one of the surprising plants TPP spotted grabbing a foothold in the crater. This one doesn't seem like a pioneer type plant either, but there it was, peeking through the rubble. This plant is a good disperser because it makes lots of spores, but then it lives below ground/subterranean as a haploid generation in association with fungi for years sometimes.  See if anyone recognizes this plant. Yes, it is indigenous to Hawaii.

Pele vs. Neptune

Here's something you just don't see everyday, an absolute gusher of lava, a flow from a lava tube into the ocean. But this wasn't just a dribble, this is about 2 cubic yards of lava a second. So that stream of lava is more than a meter in diameter (our position was about 0.5 km away), dropping some 30 feet into the ocean, and all of this is making some new Hawaii.  The entire surrounding area was wiped out by a big lava flow not very many years ago, and a few lonely surviving houses sit like totems in a shiny black sea.
Now just so you know that TPP only brings you quality material, this was not an easy place to get to. This location is about 4.5 miles beyond the end of the road (for cars).  So not being of sound mind the Phactors decided to ride in on a tandem bicycle, and indeed it was much faster than walking across a lava field that far, but the return trip while more downgrade than the trip out was into a strong 30 or so mph headwind. It was a real effort, a struggle in fact, and this isn't something we're going to be able to do after a few more birthdays.  At any rate the bar at the end of the road, another road, another end, is just that, an nearby establishment of down home sophistication (the bartender is a philosophy student) in the form of a cluster of little shops, eateries, around a bar and pavilion that Pele decided to spare leaving this little oasis unscathed. Such good cold beer! Well-earned and well-deserved.

Quick! Throw in the ring!

Why do you go to a volcano? To see lava of course. It's fascinating but you don't want to get too close for safety's sake (Watched the movie Volcano last week; not a good idea.). TPP's travel camera has better resolution and a better zoom than the iPhone, which is supposed to be a phone first and foremost, unless TPP really doesn't get it. Anything with more zoom would need a tripod to hold steady, and then the porters for the gear, and once you start down that slippery slope there's no coming back. Fortunately late yesterday afternoon, Kilauea was being a bit active. So here you go, lava. Because of this most of the rim road and trails into the caldera are closed.

Friday Fabulous Flower - ohi'a lehua

The Phactors are on vacation, and when you think about the upper Midwest in late January, it's something like, you don't even want to go there when the weather is good.  So off to the tropics, but with  rather limited time to plan, the destination came up domestic, the Big Island of Hawaii.
Getting from the upper Midwest to Hilo is a long ways, a long trip, but when you have ice and mechanical problems delay the start of your trip 3 hours, bad things happen to the rest of your itinerary. So after missing 2 flights, your original flight from Atlanta to Honolulu, and then the alternate flight you booked to LAX, the final flight to Hilo from LA was caught with maybe 2 minutes to spare. Of course in the process our luggage was taking a day longer to arrive.  A nearly 24 hr travel day with 16 hrs of airplane sitting sort of wears you out. 
After a day to recover the Phactors started at Volcano Nat'l Park by hiking into Kilauea Iki, about 4 miles, about half being rough rock, and climbing the equivalent of 52 flights of stairs (the fitbit only counts going up like going down takes no energy?)

At any rate the dominate tree in the wet forests in this part of the island is the ohi'a lehua (Metrosideros polymorpha) in the myrtle family. It has clusters of scarlet flowers at the ends of branches.  The red stamen filaments extend out of the flowers forming altogether a pom-pom looking rather a bit like some mimosoid legumes. This put the flowers mostly way up out of reach unless they were on a little seedling hanging on to life in a lava crack at the bottom of the crater. And isn't it annoying how you try to baby some plants to get them to grow, and then this seed lands on a 60 yr old lava field and grows.  Soil augmentation?  What soil?
As you can guess from the flower, this is pollinated by an endemic Hawaiian bird, the equally red, equally attractive, apapane.
So, sorry to miss Friday, but we were just exhausted, and this was a FFF worth the trip. It wasn't the neatest plant TPP found subsisting in the crater's lava field that last erupted in 1959 spewing forth all that lava.  But more on that later.

Bedazzled by alternate truth

TPP once bet a colleague that no one dumber than Ronald Reagan could ever be elected president, a bet he's lost now at least twice. Living in an intellectual bubble, which is rather hard to avoid when living in a smallish city having a university, it seemed quite impossible that such pathetic rhetoric could sway enough people to win an election. Well, so much for this pundit's ability to assess the general public. My afore mentioned colleague brought this home, "We are part of the 1% my friend, not in terms of money, but in terms of thinking." "So they'll be coming for us sooner or later."
The T-rumpkin administration, including the cabinet (in making) with the highest IQ (= net worth?) ever, is off to a sad start by using alternative facts to counter an easily verifiable claim of the largest crowd ever. Such speech displays a bedazzling audacity TPP did not think possible. No more betting on what couldn't possibly be worse. Clearly TPP is not equipped to deal with an alternate reality. Are we soon going to get a Ministry of Truth? This shows someone needs a vacation to get his head back on straight, and that's the truth. Coming soon, vaca blogging!  

Saffron - pricey condiment

While Mrs. Phactor and F1 are 2 of the estimated 250,000 women marchers in downtown Chicago. Clearly many of us feel the need to vent and everyone does it differently. TPP is cooking paella for our longtime dinner club tonight. It is a vegetarian paella, and TPP remains uncertain why someone thought this was a good idea, but hey.
At any rate, the recipe calls for 1 tsp of saffron.  Not sure if its presence will be detected among all the roasted vegetable flavors. The way this works is that everyone brings part of the menus put together by the hosts and co-hosts.  TPP knew he would be making the paella because it was obviously the most involved recipe, and if any one thing characterizes our dinner group, it's the avoidance of the perceived most difficult recipe. Everyone likes eating; cooking not so much.  You keep track of your costs, then they are added up divided by the number attending, and you pay the average, some paying, some getting money back. 
0.007 oz. of saffron cost $3.  A small amount of math will tell you that the saffron costs $6857 per pound.  Wonder why that price wasn't displayed. Saffron is the orange-red stigma of a particular crocus, and you only get one 3-parted stigma per flower, and if memory serves it takes 220,000 stigmas to make a pound of saffron. That's a lot of crocus friends. And a lot of hand labor to pick them.  No wonder this is the most expensive of spices.  Cheap crap saffron may also include the three yellow stamens, so look carefully. 
Hope there isn't too much complaining about the price of this paella! The recipe only called for half a pound.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Palm flowers

It's a gray day in late January, and for other reasons TPP is feeling a bit depressed. However, nothing cheers us up as much as flowers and it is a Friday.  Time for some tropical attitude adjustment!
When walking the forest trails in Costa Rica, every now and again you come across a snowfall, a white, snow covering you path. A palm flowered above you day/night before.  Palm flowers are small and numerous in general, in many palms a large inflorescence of many (hundreds) of flowers comes wrapped in bract. Although technically, subtending the inflorescence, in many palms the bract forms a canopy presumably shielding the flowers from the frequent rains. Palm flowers tend to be white or cream colored and they are usually fragrant with the odor often having musky overtones.  This particular palm, and without his trusty field notebook handy TPP fails to remember exactly which palm this is, fits most of the general palm flower characteristics.  Anyone recognize this palm?
Features of note: While the inside (upper surface) of the bract is smooth, the outside (under surface, up in this view) is extremely spiny and the spines are so sharp the weight of the bract is enough to inflict damage (handle with extreme care).
The primary floral visitors and presumed pollinators are stingless bees (wings folded over their backs); a few flies are also present. Usually after just a day, or a night the, perianths fall to make for the snowfall.
And don't you like the general tropical feel?  The green, the humidity, the foreign country?  Oops, bad thinking crept in a bit there at the end. 
Sorry, citizens of Earth who do not live in the USA. Today our country begins to inflict on everyone else The Donald, our would be dictator.  As for my fellow citizens we have no one to blame but ourselves. 
Now to upload an image and feel better.

The botanical world just got a bit less colorful - Hugh Iltis RIP

Hugh Iltis was one of our most colorful botanical colleagues. He was a professor at the U. Wisconsin; died about a month ago, but TPP just learned of it.  Here's the obit and some pictures; he was 91.  There are more stories about Hugh Iltis circulating in the field of botany than just about any other single person. TPP watched him challenge a colleague about one of his favorite topics, the origin of maize, by throwing an ear of field corn at him from across an auditorium and having the kernels shatter from the impact on with the wall behind.  Indeed, there was very little that interested Hugh that he was not passionate about especially the relationship between people and plants, and their conservation.  
His 1976 New Year's card is an drawing of the flowering head of perennial teosinte, a wild grass from southern Mexico that Hugh discovered. This shows five female flowers, in two rows, and the long fuzzy stigmas of the 3 flowers in one row form the looping design.  
Yes, perennial maize, and it will cross with cultivated maize, a genetic treasure trove for breeders.  For a long time botanists were puzzled about how this kind of structure flowering head, could give rise to the huge, multi-rowed "ear" of modern maize (corn here in the USA). Hugh's major contribution to this  story was to realize that the "ear" of modern maize had the structure, the organization, of the tassel of teosinte, and was a feminized inflorescence; a whole lecture could follow.  
Hugh on a rampage was a force of nature. At a big public lecture at our university, Hugh went on a 30 min verbal rampage about the evil corporations, primarily EXXON, lacking any ecological ethics, and then got back on track, lecturing for another 50 mins, and young women in the row in front of us, assigned to attend and who had no interest in botany, corn, or conservation, had tears running down their cheeks by the end.  Indeed that was Hugh. Love him or hate him, he was amazing and will be missed.  

Real tough guys - lichens

Having dodged the worst parts of an ice storm, a few days of warmer weather are predicted where the daytime temps will be above freezing. Along with this comes rain, but with the ground still frozen, a lot of runoff is expected.  Here and there a few sprouts of early bulbs are peeking out.  However if you want to see some happily green organisms, start looking at tree bark and branches.  Without the crown of leaves, more sunlight will fall on tree trunks than you might expect, and lichens take advantage of this. These are really tough organisms. Tree bark, stones, cement, these are really hard substrates; organisms growing there are highly exposed, subject to desiccation and temperature extremes, and yet in places the lichens are almost luxuriant.  Locally common lichens grow as a crust and so don't look as lush as the larger, more branched or leafier types (fruticose or foliose).  Although TPP is not adept at identifying lichens, he loves the Lichens of North America; a wonderfully illustrated atlas of lichens (just the ID keys and other field guides are also available).  Should you decide to give it a go, you'll run into a bit of a terminological learning curve and the need of come magnification.  Maybe a kind reader will offer some suggestions about the lichens shown here.
If you don't already know this, lichens are symbiotic organisms, basically a fungal body housing symbiotic algae. The algae can still be free-living, and so to the fungus, but neither one alone looks like the lichen.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Tropical fruit version

Spent an hour this morning cleaning off a large book shelf, a well built book shelf, ca. 1976.  Deciding what to discard, keep, and give away was a challenge such that the thought of drastically downsizing into a retirement flat is a horror nearly beyond comprehension. But you do find good things too, like pictures from long ago.  Here's a nice basket of tropical fruit, a gift on a trip to Thailand some 30 years ago and we still have the basket.  See if you can identify all five of the fruit.  And tell us how many you've actually eaten. Note in one case the seeds are eaten and the fruit discarded.

Pseudoscience invades the pet store

This is probably old news, but new for TPP. Had to restock the pantry for the kitty-girls, and while in the cat section of the local pet store, TPP chanced to look at the physical care section to see if there was a topical remedy for dry skin, a common complaint for cats that sit on heat vents. Much to TPP's surprise almost every category of remedy had a prominent display of one or more homeopathic remedies. Helpful clerk appears, and asks if there is anything in particular you need? These are homeophathic, TPP comments. Yes, says helpful clerk, they are all natural. Very true, says TPP, water is very natural. They don't work except for the placebo effect, and not sure that will work given cat psychology. What?, says helpful clerk.  Look up homeopathy, it's pseudoscience; these are quack remedies, based on extreme dilutions and the "memory" of water. Helpful clerk says, people like them because they are pretty economical. True again, water doesn't cost much, so the profit margin is still pretty good. Do you think an ethical pet store should sell remedies that don't work except in the imagination of pet owners?  Sorry I couldn't help you, says helpful clerk. 
You plant a seed, maybe it germinates.

Nice ornamental conifer but rare

Isn't that a really nice conifer?  Many of you have probably never seen one of these growing; it's likely that none of you have ever seen one in its native habitat because it only grows in a pretty remote area in the Blue Mountains and only a hundred or so trees grow there.  Cultivation is making it relatively more common in many botanical and personal gardens in appropriate climates and habitats (it's really a tropical tree).  Do you recognize it?  Wollemia nobilis, the Wollemi pine, is not a real pine but a relative of Araucaria. TPP is quite jealous of people who have one growing in their garden, and then you've got a friend rubbing it in, and toasting the occasion to boot.  This species is a real living fossil known from its fossil record going back to the early Cretaceous before anyone knew it was still alive albeit barely so. TPP does have one growing in the university's glasshouse, but it's not the same as having one outside in the garden.  Oh yes, the garden shown is in Australia.  You can purchase seeds.

Making America Great Again - ACA version

For the past 8 years, the GnOPe has had no coherent goals beyond oppose Obama, and figuring they would be opposing Clinton, didn't work at formulating any platform other than those that have failed so miserably at the state level (Thanks Kansas for being a fiscal crash test dummy.).  So no surprise that other than creating a horrible mess of things (check the analysis at that link), they got no plans. You know in many other countries, if you get sick, you can just go to a clinic and get treated so bad their socialized medicine is. Getting rid of ACA, itself based on a GnOPe governor's plan, will waste millions of dollars and leave millions of people without health insurance.  Great isn't it? Sad.  
Advice - start yelling at your representatives.  

Jackfruit - the inside story

Strange fruit just demands that you cut one up to find out what's inside, except sometimes you can be asked to leave when you decide to investigate new things in the lobby of a hotel (and no it was not a durian or here!).  So how fortunate for us that the local grocery had cut one of the jackfruit in half, perhaps because someone only wanted half or to see how ripe it was.  It actually looked pretty much as TPP would have expected in SE Asia. 
Jackfruit is a multiple fruit, many flowers whose fruits fuse during development into one fruit (usual example is the pineapple).  Here are two units of the mature fruit. the central core is at the bottom.  Two seeds each surrounded by their yellowish aril, a fleshy layer that is sweet and the part consumed.  The sort of fibrous bits to the right in this image are undeveloped floral parts, the knobby rind is across the top. 
Sorry about the reflections off the plastic wrap. 

Friday Fabulous Flowers - Tropical Fruit - Jackfruit

Fruit are flowers at the stage of seed dispersal, so FFF is going to get stretched a bit. At no previous time have you had access to more produce more of the time than now. Just a few decades ago many fruits and vegetables were seasonal. Strawberries were available in June. The only lettuce available during the winter was iceberg head lettuce. Now people take year around strawberries for granted, and some of them, improved varieties, actually taste pretty good.
Now even some very exotic tropical fruits are showing up in our markets.  TPP has a long list of exotic fruits he's sampled over the years, but many of those do not travel well and are of dubious quality. Not too long back some lychee showed up that were actually edible; previously they were too old with dried brown skins, and rambutans have made it to markets too.  But what do most people know? 
The smaller yellow papaya that show up in our markets are generally under ripe and terrible; but the larger orange fleshed papayas (below center) are not too bad in some cases and actually taste OK.  Mrs. Phactor likes her passion fruits and mostly they are OK but 10 to 20 times more expensive than in the tropics, or when you have them growing on your back fence. Even when the skins are wrinkly, they may taste just fine.

Pomelos arrived 3-4 years ago. They look exactly like giant grapefruit, and this species, Citrus maxima, is one of the two parents of the hybrid that is grape fruit. The taste is like mild grapefruit, not quite so juicy, but not bitter at all. The fruit wall will peel away with some effort; it's rather thicker than grapefruit. The sections can be separated and peeled relatively easily (a long thin-bladed knife helps), and in SE Asia where it's native the peeled sections are eaten as a refreshing snack. Just last week pomelos were sitting next to grapefruits and had one nice little woman quite confused about which were the "large" grapefruit.
The two latest fruits to show up are pepinos and jack fruit.  Pepinos are a nightshade (Solanum muricatum) looking a little bit like a slightly larger pale, cream-colored plum (but pointy at one end) with purple streaks. The flesh is firm, somewhat melony, but with maybe eggplant highlights. The skin may be a bit bitter.  They have a small seedy core.  They taste OK, but are not one of TPP's favorites. 
The other newbie is Jackfruit (above right). They are a great big old fruit with a green-brown knobby skin, basically a giant tropical mulberry, a close relative of the historically more famous breadfruit (mutiny on the HMS Bounty).  The edible parts are a fleshy layer (aril?) around the rather large seeds, which also are used for some dishes in SE Asia, but TPP has never had the seeds.  No idea how good these jackfruit are having travelled from Central America or Mexico where they are grown now, but at a dollar a pound, it'd cost $20-25 to sample one and what a waste if you don't like them. Again not a TPP favorite, but some have been OK. Apparently they sell 2-3 a week at this market, probably to SE Asians delighted to see something familiar. If every one stops buying them, then they are truly no good, but TPP doesn't know anybody to ask. Any readers care to share their experiences?
Questions about exotic fruits can be sent along to TPP. 

Readers on a cursive label ID roll - last one (for awhile)

This is the last perplexing specimen in this particular set of old specimens.  Again another member of Apiaceae.  And again the species name remains unclear, and therefore, the specimen unfiled.  My student intern at the time just said, "Did they get a doctor to write this like a prescription?" 

Lower case Ns and Us are mighty confusing.  Looking forward to you guesses.

A New Year and not much to say

TPP isn't big on predictions or resolutions, so not sure what to blog about when many people are doing these subjects.  Several projects are on the to do list.  A new garden path across the front to help the mail get through.  A concerted effort to clear out crappy saplings, establish a path, and initial plantings for our woodland garden.  Writing some essays for a new botany book. Doing some antique stucco house repair and fix the front step/stoop problem using the $$$ approach and adjusting the adjacent landscaping that had out grown its place anyways.  All these things will come to pass.  Oh, that job list sort of sounds like predictions.  It actually sounds like Mrs. Phactor will be on the job and keeping things moving along. 
Our calendar is such an arbitrary thing that placing any particular significance upon a day or date just seems quite silly. It mostly serves to let us keep track of how old we are relative to other people and things.  Our "young" cat is now a quite mature 6 yrs old, although she still acts silly and kittenish at times to our delight.
OK, here is a blogging resolution.  TPP will try to do better and present or explain more recent botanical research.  A effort to communicate science to more people.
TPP is looking to purchase a plum yew, the sprawling, spreading form.  Anyone seen a good nursery source that does online sales?  Also looking for a decent sized 4'-6' winter hardy variety of southern magnolia. Town planted one on a neighboring street just to tease TPP, and its doing quite well considering, so must have one for the collection.  

Another cryptic label

Here's another one that TPP hasn't figured out.  So see if you can help out with this one as well.  Another member of Apiaceae.  As you can see, another 150 yr old specimen and still in pretty good shape.  

Plant ID challenge

Here's a different sort of plant ID challenge for you. It's one that TPP has to deal with every now and then.  Some specimens re-surfaced that needed to be remounted on acid free paper (typical archival herbarium materials).  Now the specimens in question actually have been identified and TPP is fairly confident that all of these specimens are in the carrot/parsley family (old Umbelliferae, modern Apiaceae).  The trick here is to just figure out what species you have and to help you all out, the species name has been written down.  You only have to read it! The name may no longer be a valid species name because a lot of taxonomic water has gone under the bridge since this specimen was collected back in 1853.  Are you beginning to catch on. The names aren't so easy to read. And today's students can't even read or write cursive handwriting at all, so I'm counting on someone out there lending a hand because TPP hasn't gotten it yet.  There are only a couple three of these, so TPP will begin with one and see how it goes.  

 Yes, this specimen is something montanum L.  But what's the genus?  Any Parisiennes out there who know their botany?   

Friday Fabulous Flowers - Reliables

OK it's a bright shiny new year 2017, so TPP wants to start out on the right note with a FFF posting that is only 2 days late.  For long time readers, sorry, we're revisiting some old favorites.  At any rate several of our long time tropical plants, ones that summer outside, tend to flower right around New Years, perhaps in response to the long nights.  They tend to be very cheerful and welcome additions to our holidays and some of these plants have been flowering for us every year for a couple of decades, or even more. 
The absolute best one is a bromeliad commonly called the Queen's tears. It's just so exotic.  It's been a FFF more than once, here and here. It displays such a unique combination of colors and in particular the green petals with a blue edge. They don't last long so you just have to enjoy them when they are present.
Another very cheerful winter flowering plant is an epiphytic tropical cactus.  And it's been a FFF before too.  The plant is quite large now and several hundred of these 1 cm long gold-yellow flowers is quite a display. This poor plant got savaged by some of our tree rats 2 years ago, but has quite recovered now. This is such an easy plant to grow, but while in a hanging pot, it's too heavy now for a ceiling hook, even a well secured one.