Field of Science

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!