Field of Science

Wot happened to May?

The calendar says February is the shortest month, but where did May go?  It's a terribly busy month for gardeners, transitioning from spring to summer, and some things are growing very well because of the cool, wet weather although a half inch of rain would be nice.  Mrs. Phactor is battling with this year's champion, chickweed.  It's everywhere are growing like, well, a weed!  A decent layer of mulch would help, but the gorillas that spread mulch for a living don't seem able to recognize even a tomato plant when they see one, or don't see one, as is more likely the case.  The kitchen garden is transitioning to summer so the lettuces are beginning to bolt, squashes and beans will get going, and maybe finally the snap peas will flower and fruit; you're running out of climbing support.  New strawberries were planted and recently the tree rats helped by unplanting some of them.  Raspberries, particularly our wild black ones, are well fruited. The red raspberry bed is still in recovery, and new black berries look happy and fuitful as well.  
No apples on 2 yr old trees, and only a handful of pears.  TPP is looking for a pollinator pear, and room to plant it. A former colleague used to graft pollinator branches to his fruit trees, but TPP has never had much luck with grafts.  And now it's June.  Some tree removals are pending, and necessary, but an expensive and disruptive process.  Tree guys are in demand, especially really good ones, and generally it means they are terrible in terms of customer communication.  My current good ole boy is better than many, if you can get his attention.  And it's already June.  A project is planned to push back entropy and re-engineer the house's front steps to make them safer and easier for old people to use.  The plan is to return them to a state closer to the originals based on a really old picture, and to add an antique-looking hand rail of new manufacture.  This will also be disruptive and expensive.  Glad the stock market is being kind.

Friday Fabulous Flower - new Magnolia

If the two previous posts were not teasers enough, having a new Magnolia flower is always a wonderful thing, especially when the magnolia in question was not expected to grow at all.  TPP's new Magnolia is the Ashe Magnolia, either Magnolia macrophylla subspecies (or variety) ashei, or Magnolia ashei, depending upon what proves to be correct.  It certainly is a big-leafed magnolia, even saplings have huge leaves up to 18" long.  And while it can get fairly large with time, it can also be an understory shrub, and part shade is OK.  While this particular species is endemic to the Florida panhandle, where TPP purchased the seedling for $10 (thanks to his sister taking him to a native plant nursery).  Everyone thinks a Florida endemic species growing in the upper Midwest is not a recipe for success, but apparently temperature is not the limiting factor.  Big-leafed Magnolias normal range extends to SE Ohio. And if we get a very cold winter, TPP's ashe magnolia might be in trouble, but it has survived winter lows of 0 F (32 degrees F below freezing for my civilized C readers) without any damage.  Some protection from wind is important; it's those big leaves.  So with some luck TPP will have this tree for years. 
At any rate this magnolia also flowers at a young age and size.  This is just the tree's 3d year, and it's only 4 feet tall.  Fully open this wonderful flower if the size of a dinner plate (12" in diameter), 6 white tepals with a blush of red at their base.  Actually the flower is open and in the female (pollen-accepting) stage when cylindrical.  If you look closely the anthers are shattering and falling into the bases of the tepals (male phase), rather like a southern magnolia, and soon they will be set upon by little beetles.  No question this is quite the flower, and on a 4 foot tall tree, it's downright fabulous. TPP celebrated with a mint julip. And that's it, one flower, this year.  The tree can be obtained from a number of nurseries by mail order should you be interested. 

Anxious anticipation - Thursday bud opening

Well this Friday Fabulous Flower is sure taking long enough, but that is just the way with nature. The big flower bud shown yesterday is opening, so TPP is quite anxious.  And a thunder storm deluge had better not ruin this for us no option gardeners; it's the only flower TPP is going to get, at least this year.  The perianth is forming an upright cylinder  about 8 inches tall, and the outer 3 perianth parts are folding down.  Clearly the flower will be white, and big!  The anticipation is killing the author, but today is Thursday, so tomorrow is the day.

Anticipation of Flowering

TPP is going to have a wowser Friday Fabulous Flower, and never before has this generated more anticipation for this author, do here's what the flower bud looks like just a few days ago. The flower bud is 7" tall and almost 2" in diameter at the fattest point.  The whole plant is just a 3 yr old tree sapling, so for it to flower at all was a bit of a surprise.  But it gets even better, so tune in tomorrow for another installation.

How can you trust non-gardeners?

Can you trust someone who has never gardened or even grown a plant?  It takes a certain amount of mental and emotional maturity to appreciate something as subtle as a plant (which one colleague suggests explains some zoologists), and it takes a good deal of patience and care to nurture a seed into a plant that flowers and eventually produces fruit.  It is no surprise to many of us that there is nothing quite like a garden-ripened, sun-warmed, fresh-picked tomato.  Tomatoes from most groceries, and those served in your average restaurant, are merely similar in color and shape.  How many of our politicians, largely rich, urban folk, would know a good tomato if they ate one?  In addition, some of them, being mostly lawyerly, might even argue that good in this context doesn’t matter.  But it does because it says a great deal about their values and discernment of subtleties!  A really good tomato is something the little person can have, can grow, for themselves, something better than the 1% have, something the 1% don't even know about.  So why trust someone who can’t accept even such a simple truth as a ripe tomato?  Could our current president even recognize a tomato plant?  Does he even eat tomatoes that have not been turned into ketchup?  So why trust this guy with any of the many more important decisions that need to be made?  TPP hazards to say that gardeners are a largely ignored demographic, and gardeners should rise up and oppose putting such ignorant people into office.  Perhaps a gardening quiz can be administered to test for fitness to hold office and make wise decisions about things that really matter, like when things need pruning (sorry Chauncey, Being There). What’s the best tomato you’ve ever eaten?  How do you grow nice lettuce? It matters; now answer the question!

Friday Fabulous Flower - Peony Peony

A front rolled in this AM early announced by thunderstorms and an alarmed cat alarm (scared of thunder). So after nearly a week of quite warm weather, it seems quite cold outside (50-ish), but we got an inch of much needed rain.
So very good thing TPP took this picture of a new peony taken in trade for something else.  It took the division a couple of years to get going, and then adjust to a new location that made it very happy. Voila!  The plant is fairly tall and stands up straight, a bit unusual for herbaceous peonies, although this one is assisted by a wire cage.
Not sure what variety of peony this is; the flowers are the anemone-type of double where stamens are transformed into staminodes that have petalloid colors. Not at all natural but quite attractive.  It's only about 4 feet from the Aachen Elf iris from yesterday. 

Elfine Iris

Mrs. Phactor likes Iris, and while she exercises considerable patience in their cuture, she appreciates a good Iris as much as the next person. In this instance "good" means easy to grow, reasonably trouble free, floriferous, and attractive.  This is a dwarfish variety that fills the bill and it's variety is named Achen elf.  No idea what it means, but it has a home, several actually, in our gardens. This is a clump growing along the sidewalk of our front gardens, a semi-tough place to grow, and it looks very good this spring.  It has a bit of an old timey quality to the color combination.

On the primacy of doubt in an age of illusory certainty

While reading the news, TPP noted that it is rumored that the President will appoint a non-scientist, someone wholly without scientific credentials to be under secretary of the dept. of agriculture and in charge of a great deal of research.  Nothing good ever comes of such appointments.  The title above comes from a blog recently posted by a fellow Field of Science Blogger at the Curious Wavefunction and for a short time it probably appears at the top of this page.
Many people fail to understand science: some thinking  it's just a body of knowledge with no notion that science is really a way of knowing where being skeptical is a useful and necessary attitude.  TPP studies, when time and money allow, rainforest trees, and he well remembers a Lincolnland legislator wonder aloud what good that did the other citizens of our state. Of course, there's the interconnectedness of nature, which tends to pay very little attention to our semi-arbitrary political boundaries. Basically this was interesting research, poking into the unknown, satisfying a primal urge to explore and exercise a curiosity, and that kept you going, kept you at a difficult pursuit, and it grabbed the attention and stimulated a certain number of students to learn science the only way it can be taught, by doing science, and that is what TPP was hired to do. Not "train students for the workforce of Lincolnland", a dreary prospect of a goal for a university.  Not educate, but train. Sit. Speak. Roll over.  So pop over and give Ash's blog a read. 

Avoiding the unpleasant

It's human nature, so we all do it.  And a steady diet of unpleasantness begins to depress TPP.  In terms of nature, 2017 has been great, a good spring. But the news, mostly from Washington DC has been most depressing. How does somebody so remarkably unqualified in so many ways become president? The answer itself is also depressing; it means qualifications don't mean a damn, and the 'Mercan public is poorly prepared to evaluate candidates using the various forums provided.  Presently our duly elected President is doing his best to demonstrate how poorly qualified he is and in so many ways to occupy a position of power and responsibility.  All these demonstrations connect back to his peculiar narcissistic personality, his lazy, untrained intellect, and his history as a privileged rich person.  And even more depressing, his term has another 3.5 years to go! TPP takes small pleasure in the most obvious fact, which is having the office which he coveted does not seem to giving our President great satisfaction because the job is much harder, much different, than he thought, and his gaffes provide everyone with opportunities to criticize his performance, something someone so thin-skinned doesn't like. Our President actually generally predicted that many such errors would take place, but not by himself, but by his opponents.  To bad he is incapable of learning from his own criticisms.  So sorry world, we knew his budget stuff would be bad, we knew his healthcare stuff would be bad, we knew his administrative style would be bad, but that was before his foreign policy and diplomacy kicked into gear. So many potential disasters and all in a little more than 100 days!  And sane people keep asking, how bad could it get? 

Friday Fabulous Flower - Oyama magnolia

Is there anything better than having a cool magnolia flower in your garden?  Magnolia sieboldii, Oyama magnolia, is pretty near its cold hardiness limit here in the upper Midwest, and worse, it doesn't handle late frosts or freezes very well, so this year TPP was expecting the worst from a not so late freeze, but earlier warm weather had pushed bud development along.  Still things turned out well. This year its flower buds survived unharmed and the result is quite nice, especially as it flowers later than most of the magnolias. Our plant is fairly young, planted in 2013, and it's basically a shrub having been frozen back a couple of times. The flower buds end up looking almost like  hard-boiled, shelled eggs hanging from the end of a branch or twig. The tepals are quite white, and the pendant flower has a cup-like shape, so look up.  Inside the flower sports a helix of red anthers.  Appropriately ours is located in a Japanese garden bed with lots of other Asian species.  Dr. Chips has a nice one in his yard if you happen by his place, and there is a nice specimen at the Morris Arboretum that usually flowers for Mother's Day.

Pretty prairie perks

Conducting prairie research does have a few perks.  It's still pretty early out on the prairie, and not too much is going on in terms of flowering, but the prairie does have a few spring ephemerals, plants that sprout early and flower before the canopy closes over them. In this case the canopy is only about 2 meters, but if you only have a rosette of leaves, that's plenty tall. These shooting stars, Dodecatheon meadia (Primrose family), are among everyone's favorite plants because of their nifty looking flowers that can range across quite an range of colors from almost white to quite fuchsia. This is one of the densest patches TPP knows. 

Another plant that favors patches is the wild hyacinth, Camassia scilloides (lily family).  Many people never see these because they don't venture out into the prairie until much later in the year. If TPP doesn't get out there just after it has been burned, the permanent plots would never be found (and if truth be told, a few are still missing and that effort is waiting until the semester ends). 

Too busy May and a Cinco de Mayo remembrance

It's Cinco de Mayo, and already the month is shot, and for a retired botanist, TPP is too busy.  The kitchen garden is coming along and lettuce is ready to eat.  Field work is a shambles of weather related disasters.  The rest of our gardens are in pretty good shape, mostly because Mrs. P has a bit more time to work around the estate. As TPP writes this she's digging out one of several large bush clematis, C. heracleifolia.  Who wants a hunk?  A yellow landscape rose waits to take its place. An overly aggressive, under performing fragrant sumac got the ax, so to speak, just a few days ago, and TPP survived a late pruning job on the knock-out roses. Late April and early May have been coldish and very wet, so your actions are limited.  Quite a few people have been by to wander our gardens, when weather permitted. Two late Magnolias remain to flower, the rarest one, an Ashe magnolia, will have just one flower, and it's only a meter tall in it's 2nd season. Hopefully it will appear in this spot soon (a coming attraction). 
Missed May the forth be with you completely. Couldn't get the Kentucky Colonel mint for tomorrow's mint julips and had to settle for mojito mint; counter girl could not under stand the context and importance. And so, behind in everything including blogging.
Here's a brief remembrance: Lastly, but not leastly, May 5th is etched in TPP's memory as the day in-armed anti-war protesters were fired upon by the National Guard at Kent State killing 4 students and wounding several others. So will T-rump tweet about that?  It happened 50 years ago, and that seems impossible, until TPP checks the birthdays.  Students across the nation went out on strike to protest the killings ending the semester and academic year early, and you could not help but be involved.  Our campus still had weeks until the end of the semester, and with graduation and graduate school in the offing, TPP has  to cross picket lines to attend a couple of classes run by holdout professors, it was a tense, difficult time and culminated with an evolution exam that took nine hours to write, a real learning experience when almost no one else had exams at all.  

Friday Fabulous Flower - made in the shade, Neillia

The Phactors' gardens are sun challenged because of all the big trees, so shade gardens it is.  Shade loving ephemerals, don't actually love shade, they deal with it by growing in the brief window of spring sun time before the leafy canopy above closes. Then most of them die down, their season being over.  So then what?  In the search for shade-loving and shade-tolerating shrubs, TPP discovered Neillia sinensis, Chinese neillia, (KNEEL-lee-ah cy-NEN-sis) at the Missouri Botanical Garden. It was growing at the back of a garden and no one could find the label. However, the flowers had a large tubular hypanthium, and with the double saw-toothed leaves, it was clearly a member of the Rose family. Then it was a not too difficult task to figure out what it was.  Ours loves its shady post, although it takes some space; the shrub is just over 6 feet tall with elegantly arching stems, and it does tend to spread so you either give it a lot of space or continue to spade out the new shoots.  However at the beginning of May these lovely drooping racemes of pink flowers appear that really make this shrub worth having.

May oneth - just a day

Today is May oneth, and truly TPP cannot get worked up about the various causes associated with that date. The weather has been quite awful and both gardening and field work has suffered from the windy, coldish, very rainy weather, yet we got off on the light side, no tornadoes or severe winds, inches of rain, but mostly handled by nature (and it helps living on a rise), and no frosts, freezes, or snow.  But grass and lawn weeds have been growing way too well, war will be waged on certain fronts, when the rains stop.  Reading somewhere that today is Loyalty Day in the US, but when our current president says it, it doesn't mean what he wants it to say.  Of some note, over 150 different plants have flowered in our gardens already.  In particular the flowering dogwoods and azaleas have been great. The yellow tree peonies has just started and so missed getting pounded by heavy rains, and that always makes TPP happy.  So TPP remains loyal to plants, to our best freedoms (sorry, but gun freedoms always seem in infringe upon others), and to clean air and water, real basic freedoms, folks. But the absolute, and totally best thing about today was having fresh rhubarb pie for breakfast.