Field of Science

Friday Fabulous Flower - Crested Iris

One of the ways to get lots of plants in your yard is to find little places to stick in little plants.  This particular one has been difficult because it is so small, and the thin, wiry rhizomes are so shallow growing that the tree rats keep digging it up, except when growing in a rock garden situation.  This is Iris cristata, the crested iris, because it has crests on the outer tepals.  It's usually has a blue perianth; this is a white variant. Our wild-type blue one keeps getting dug by the above mentioned rats, and it has more striking markings and generally is prettier.  This plant stands about 3-4 inches tall at this stage, and it won't get markedly larger.  It's really a cute little thing, and if undisturbed it can spread into a decent sized mat.  It is easily overrun by weeds, and easily over buried with leaves, and easily over looked.  So it needs your help. This is a native of Eastern North America in somewhat open woodlands. 

Technically how expert is that? Bread mold edition

A recent news article caught TPP's eye because it showed moldy (mouldy for some of you) bread. Then an expert, a senior technical information specialist for the United States Department of Agriculture, proceeded to give you advice about cutting mold off your bread or any other soft food. First of all the mold is obviously Penicillium, and it is not particularly harmful especially in such small amounts.  When you are eating blue cheeses you are eating species of Penicillium that were grown on bread before inoculating the milk curds with moldy bread crumbs.  A senior technical information specialist should know this, don't you think?  They go on about the problem with soft foods. 
"With soft food, it's very easy for the roots [of the mold], or the tentacles, or whatever creepy word you want to use....Basically, the mold spore's roots go much farther into bread than our eyes can see."  The roots, tentacles, or whatever creepy word you want to use?  How about filament or mycelium, one of the right words for the body of a fungus?Guess the USDA's senior technical information specialist did not read up on fungus before dishing out the advice.  And then a phrase like "mold spores's roots"?  What?  Spores germinate and produce filaments that grow into the organism's body, a mycelium. Do you find this language particularly creepy? A junior information specialist would have used the word "icky" instead. 
What they were trying to explain here is that the mold extends far beyond the portion that you can generally see.  But the tone of the warning is needlessly alarming. TPP's rule is simpler, if you can easily remove the visible mold by trimming it away, like the bit on the edge of the slice of bread above, then the bread is not sufficiently moldy to avoid eating it, especially after you've toasted it and spread it with peanut butter, jelly, or Vegemite, which is made from fungus (yeast) itself.  Some molds like Penicillum are used deliberately to infect certain foods to prevent other molds and bacteria from growing because these molds are famous for producing antibiotics like the well-known penicillin. And better the mold you know than some other spoilage organism.
So how much can you trust the advice from someone who doesn't get even the basic technical facts correct, and uses alarmist language?  Too many communication courses, not enough science on Marianne's CV is TPP's guess.

Tricksy solicitation callers

In general TPP hates phones.  Maybe dislike is a better description.  Here's the problem, our household has had the same phone number for almost 40 years, so everyone knows it, everyone, and most importantly friends and family at a distance.  Now along comes smart phones and TPP was thrust into the modern era.  Seldom is the phone used for calling anyone, but the apps are great as is the access to email although no way more than one or two words get typed by thumbs. 
Unfortunately however the robo calls work, at around 10 am, the phone rings and the call will be soliciting donations for their oh so worthy cause.  Today's was interactive and almost tricked TPP.  This kind of robo call uses a series of pre-recorded statements and responses, and they were chosen probably based on some key word, the give away was the pause, the brief delay, like the other person was calling from Queensland back in the old days. Then some of the chosen responses didn't fit quite right, throw away responses because the program couldn't figure out your response. It took a couple of back & forths before TPP caught on to what was going on.  Basically it flunked the Turing Test.  Curiously it had a response when it was asked if it was a recording.  Somehow it was supposed to be reassuring that a real person recorded the snippets of dialogue.  "Well, what's the right response for this?"  And you hang up the hand set.  Annoying as lawn weeds. Does anyone know any annoying tricks to play on such programs?  Inquiring minds want to know.

Tree Peonies in flower

Tree peonies?  Most people are confused, but indeed, one species Peonia suffruticosa.  TPP discovered their existence by accident when a graduate student after he rejuvenated an old shrub growing along side the Phactor's apartment, and it burst forth the next spring with these huge, pink tissue-paper peony flowers as big as your head.  It was love at first sight. This species doesn't grow up north where the Phactors came from, so this was a whole new thing. These shrubs are only sort of woody, and not a tree at all, but they produce huge flowers and they can be yellow (!), which without hybridization you don't find in herbaceous peonies.  This particular image show three of TPP's 9 tree peonies at their flowering peak, and with rain predicted, they won't look this good again.  You can imagine what rain does to such large, double flowers. The tallest of these is about 4 feet.  

Happy Earth Day!

Yesterday was Earth Day and for the most part that message was overshadowed but not inconsistent with the Marches for Science.  Our local, not well organized, last minute effort resulted in a couple of hundred people showing up and making a scene about 100 feet from our GnOPe reps office, but he's been staying away from anyone not deemed extremely sympathetic, but he's turned into a T-rump bobble head especially on health care and the environment.  So scientists and people who actually think science knows something are not going to be best of friends.  Unfortunately the Earth Day message got a bit lost or at least distorted by the denialism of denialism message.  The best part were all the signs, some of which were very clever. 
Somehow T-rump thinks he can ignore what we know and still claim to say science is important, just do it without any money, and don't provide us with any inconvenient facts.  Now those must be countered by alternative facts, or the world the way our ideology would like it to be. Why is it that our conservatives think that the only way to make money is to despoil the environment?  This is the most discouraging Earth Day that TPP has had in a long time except for all the Marchers.  It's important for our "leaders" to know how many people out there know just how wrong they are and are willing, perhaps at last, to invest enough time in letting them know.  It was interesting to see that a couple of  the march's ring leaders and most out spoken people are both immigrants who hate to see what's going on in the USA. 

Friday Fabulous Flowers - spring color and texture

Gardens change. Basal pruning (removal) of a row of old scraggly spruce trees covering a large, old hosta bed (of very low diversity) produced a huge opportunity for change, like 75 feet of garden along our front sidewalk.  So a lot of old hostas (maybe half of the several hundred) got moved and given away, and an array of flowering shrubs and ornamental trees took their places. It's made for quite a sward of colors and textures in the spring. 
So here's a 60 or-so-foot view looking over several Fothergillas, a deeply-lilac lilac, a quite orange azalea (Spicy Lights) not quite in full bloom, and a purple-leafed Japanese maple in the distance anchoring the far end. A nearly finished flowering June berry and a not in flower yet double-file viburnum barely show over the azalea. Other shrubs and flowers are too short.   

Tree rats ask for trouble

Over the weekend TPP planted quite a few new woodland perennials, and naturally a day later a very nice young plant was dug from the ground, had the major roots gnawed off, and discarded. And this was protected by a little fence too.  "Oh, here's a nice soft place, maybe I buried a nut here last fall." "This doesn't smell or taste like food, but let's dig it up and chomp it to pieces just to make sure." And it's not like we don't feed the buggers anyhow.  This can be very frustrating especially when the plant is somewhat uncommon and a bit difficult to come by.

Asparagus season & seasoning

This is asparagus (Asparagus) season in the upper Midwest, so best take advantage of it.  Find a local source and get it very fresh. When it's growing quite fast, the amount of the stem that's edible is optimal. Fibers mature from the base upward, and fast growing stems leave the maturation zone behind.  Then don't over cook it; the Phactors recommend steaming because it's fast and easy to control. Lastly, and this is a very serious suggestion, smother it with avocado butter (recipe here).  Easy to make & delicious!
It was part of our Eostre dinner that was most appreciated after raking countless buckets of leaves out of our perennial gardens. This is earlier than the Phactors usually are so hopefully the plants appreciated it.  When you get all the old stuff out of the way you can more easily see what the baby bunnies are eating (Actually it was dandelions, so yea!). But just in case a lot of bunny exclusion cages were moved from shrubbery to emerging perennials (tastiest stage!). Or just grow wolfbane/monkshood (Aconitum); it's one of the first plants to emerge in the spring (and last perennial in our gardens to flower, sometime in October), and nothing, nothing eats it!  It's toxicity is famous.  Wait, this blog started out about good stuff and then turned to bunny fodder and poisonous plants.  Sorry!

Gathering our garden 'shrooms

Our shady gardens have no shortage of leaves, and mostly with the help of the leaf shredding elves (for hire), they get mulched.  After all how else do you keep woodland plants happy?  So while our examining our gardens for flowering events, TPP's keen eye spots a mushroom in the leafy mulch. Mushroom hunting in forested areas is quite the big deal here in the Midwest, and on a few lucky occasions TPP has done OK in the mushroom gathering department. In this case the mushroom was a morel.  And it wasn't alone!  No one stops there; of course you're going to wander around and examine the rest of the estate. And somewhat to our surprise another species of morel was discovered. 

The first one was what is called the black morel, Morchella angusticeps (used to be M. conica), and while this species hasn't been a problem to my knowledge, this mushroom always comes with warnings about toxicity. Supposedly morels are foolproof in terms of ID (at least to genus), but TPP has had to warn people about eating the "giant morels", so big they made the local news, that were clearly Gyromitra, although you would never mistake them for black morels, however Verpa bohemica, is another matter and a mistaken identity and upset GI tract would not be a surprise.  The  other species was a very easy ID, a gray or white morel, Morchella deliciosa, which may also just be an earlier appearing variety of M. esculenta.  Both specific epithets say if all.  Suffice it to say, they were all good. 

Friday Fabulous Flower - Quince

In spite of the nasty freeze in mid-March, this has been a slightly early spring, not significantly earlier than several recent springs, and our gardens have done very well.  All the Magnolias have looked just great and that's way better than general around here.  Just checking the gardening first flowering date log and 79 plants have flowered so far this spring, and we're only half way though April. 
Today's FFF is actually pretty common probably because flowering quinces (Chaenomeles speciosa - key-NOM-eh-leez) are easy care and pretty reliable early flowering shrubs.  The unique orange-ish flower color makes them stand out.  In 2015 TPP put in a new variety called 'Scarlet Storm' that has double (more than 5 petals) and a 'tomato-red' color. It seems to handle mid-day shade quite well.  It's slightly later than the standard flowering quinces, but it might be its location on the north side of our house.  At 1.5" diam, aren't those grand?  Enjoy. Actually the shrub is sort of ungainly and leggy, but after flowering the pruning sheers will begin the process of solving that problem. 

Buttercup confusion

It was a simple chance encounter. TPP was walking along a county park trail, and suddenly this cute little buttercup florally beckons, as it was intended.  A nearly 1" diam, bright yellow flower does get noticed when on a smallish plant, and while certainly a member of the buttercup genus, Ranunculus, what species was it?  This identification turns out to not be an easy task because a number of technical characters are involved to sort out the considerable number of both native and introduced species.  Fortunately, having an herbarium is a great asset and once things get narrowed down to a couple of species, you simply compare your plant to ones previously collected. In this case a couple of misIDed specimens were found too, showing that the confusion is nothing new.  To add to the problem the image is a bit over exposed so the pistils are hard to see.  Fortunately a hard-working master naturalist retrieved a specimen, and it was considerably easier, not easy, but easier, to ID when in hand (this early there were no mature fruitlets to examine (achenelets)).  So this appears to be R. fascicularis, which turns out to be similar to R. hispidus, which has a couple of varieties. 

Reversion - varigation gone

Look at this weirdo shrub.  This happens sometimes.  A perfectly nice green columnar top shooting up from a yellow, spreading, variegated base.  Strange stuff like variegations and weeping forms are found from time to time growing on regular plants and these 'sports', mutant shoots, are kept by grafting them to regular root bases.  But every now and then portions of these 'sports' revert to the more normal type.  TPP has a variegated agave, and after it flowered, the main shoot began to die and in the process it produced side shoots that continue the growth of the plant.  But in this case half the side shoots were totally green probably because the population of cells in a particular meristem did not have chlorophyll free cells that make the variegation.  If they contain cells of both normal and cholorphyll free types, the shoots are called chimeras, part one thing, part another (see link below).  If TPP has left them alone, his agave would have been a regular green plant for the future.  Here, the reversion produced a green shoot without the yellowish pigmentation, or rather with it, but the yellow being masked by regular chloroplasts.  A quick nip with the clippers would have left this a spreading yellowish evergreen (yellow?) shrub.  But no one noticed, or they did but didn't clip the green shoot, now the more vigorous green shoot with the regular columnar growth pattern has taken over.  Sometimes people inadvertently prune away variegated portions of their ornamental plants, and they wonder what happened.  If the shoot becomes completely white, devoid of pigmentation, it will grow only as a "parasite" on the rest of the plant. These are best known for redwoods.

Friday Fabulous Flower -Rue those anemones

Today's FFF is a great little plant (and here too), but really wish the taxonomists would leave the names alone, of course TPP can never remember if this was the rue anemone or the false rue anemone.  Sounds like which ever came first claimed dibs.  This particular variety 'Shoaf's double pink' hardly counts as a native, but it's terribly cute. In this case it means developmentally stamen primordia have switched to producing petal-like flower parts, so the flower has that "rose" look to it, rather than having a single perianth surrounding multiple stamens and pistils. And then both the foliage and perianth have a nice pink tint to add to the cuteness. 
When first teaching about spring flowers way back in the early 70s, this plant was Anemonella thalictroides, but this species has now been submerged into the genus Thalictrum, so it becomes Thalictrum thalictroides.  Thalictrum was the genus of meadow rues, and it would help if someone knew what rues were.  These are members of the buttercup family, not the Rutaceae, the rue family. So no help. Although now TPP bitterly regrets bringing this up. Soon you will get to see another rue anemone whose name has been changed too.