Field of Science

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!