Field of Science

Frosty, unpleasant end to 2017 - It's cold out there!

It's cold here in the upper Midwest.  Barely above zero degrees, which for civilized people translates into -17 C.  Tonight, New Year's eve the low will drop to -15F or -27 C.  This is nearly as cold as it ever gets in this part of the world.  This will be result in some sad gardening news come spring.  The 6-7 inches of snow on the ground is fortunate because it provides some insulation for low-growing plants.  TPP's magnolias and other exotics have all survived -17 C, but another 10 degrees colder is an unknown factor for many.  Our hope is that buds low on the plants survive and help the tree or shrub recover from die back.  This demonstrates very well how plants' distributions particularly cold-hardiness is based upon the extremes not the means.  Our means may be higher, but the extremes have not changed, they are just less frequent.  It's been at least 2 decades since we had temperatures this cold.  And plants are terrible at cold avoidance although some plants are freezing avoiders using something called deep super-cooling. They can only handle temps down to about -28 C, then the water freezes. It will be hard for TPP to look at the ice in his drink without thinking about ihs poor plants out there.  

Friday Fabulous Flower - Frost "flowers"

Isn't this pretty nifty?  Pretty apropos for our fridgid weather right now.  Although called a frost flower, it is neither frost nor flower.  This is a thin ribbon of ice extruded from the dead aerial stem of a wingstem.  TPP supposes that the living root system is still taking in water, and root pressure is pushing it upward in the xylem.  Above ground it freezes ruptures the stem and as more water is pushed upward, the ribbon continues to grow. Dr. Jim Carter at ISU has a lot of pictures of these on his web pages.  Unfortunately this is not one of TPP's images, it was just published on the front page of The Harbinger (Dec. 2017, 34(4)), the latest issue of the Illinois Native Plant Society's newsletter, and it remains behind (way behind) a membership firewall on their web page.  TPP has plenty of wingstem, but has never seen it do this.  And now it is too bloody cold.  

Snow & cold avoidance

Erie PA made news for the big snow storm ( 50+") they got for Christmas, but TPP is a native of the upstate NY snow belt and you simply would not believe what can happen.  A long time ago like when TPP was starting college at the SUNY college in Oswego NY, the city got a 104" snow fall in 48 hrs.  When you hear something like that is possible, you go out and buy a week's worth of supplies, and in those days that would have been beer, milk, bread, eggs, Ping-Pong balls, pinochle cards, and not necessarily in that order.  And you parked your car where it could be dug out and was safe from snow plows that don't stop for anything. 
You'd tie an old fishing rod with a flag at the top to the front bumper so people could see you at intersections.  So the news from Erie brought back some memories.  Wow, glad that was when TPP was young.
Right now here in the upper Midwest, a few inches of snow covers the ground, but the snow was followed by a high pressure front that brought along really cold temps. The night time lows are hitting a few degrees below zero, but remember on the goofy temperature scale here in the USA zero is well below freezing, out -4 F is equivalent to -20 C.  The only solution for this kind of weather is avoidance, to leave, and that's what the Phactors are doing.  (You didn't think we'd go to Florida did you?)  Just after Jan. 1st the Phactors are heading for the southern hemisphere, New Zealand to be exact.  And all the really cold weather should happen while we are inverted.  TPP wants to see some Nothofagus, the southern beech, no matter what the scientific name means, in the wild.  It's on his bucket list.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Mother of thousands

Popped in to the University glasshouse to see what was in flower, and this wonderful succulent was most accommodating.  In general TPP loves this plant because you can use it to illustrate so many things.  Like many members of the stonecrop family (Crassulaceae), this plant is primarily grown for its succulent ornamental leaves.  It's tough and deals with winter time household temps and humidity (and lack thereof) quite well.  However the flowers are quite nice and are good for illustrating flowers with parts in multiples of 4s, including 4 pistils.  And ever so delightfully it produces plantlets on its leaf margins that are easily removed and grown.  They also fall off and quickly populate an area, thus the mother of thousands common name, a great example of asexual reproduction.  The genus is Kalanchoe (kal-an-Koh-ee).

Christmas time in the city, and around here that means Chi-town

Took a one day train trip with the family to visit Chi-town in all its holiday finery.  Sadly the weather was mild so everybody, and their cousins, uncles, and aunts were out for the day.  It was actually too crowded to really have fun especially at the Christmas Market, but we tried.  Near the Millennium Park skating rink stands the city's tree, a big Norway spruce with lots of lights.  And everybody was photographing everything and everybody, at a least one bride & groom, two Quinceañera parties (one pink and out in traffic (not smart), and one purple), ice skaters, families of all sorts, just a nice big mob.  It was truly a scene, and a very nice, well-behaved scene too.  How nice!  So here's a view of the big tree (right center) and the skyline as reflected in the "bean".  Happy Holidays, folks!

Friday Fabulous Flower - Queen's Tears

The Queen's tears (Billbergia nutans) is without question TPP's favorite winter flowering house plant.  It's been feature on FFF before, so it's just something to look forward to each year.  This year more than a dozen of the pink inflorescences emerged from within whorls of leaves, and tonight the Phactors are hosting and open house, so a few plant fanciers will get a treat.  The flowers are just so attractive with their blue eye-liner petals and pink sepals.  So hoping you enjoy this as much as TPP.

Ouch! Spiny Chayote

TPP always pokes through markets and produce sections just to see what there is to see, and you know you keep finding new things.  And indeed, this spiny chayote is something new.  Chayote is quite common in Central America and in North American markets it's fairly common.  But they've always had smooth skin.  But these were covered in rather stiff spines.  Otherwise they look quite the same.  Some poking around on the interweb confirms that these are spiny chayotes (Sechium edule) filling a bin in the produce section of the largest Latino grocery in our area.  Spines are not unusual on fruits of the Cucurbit family: cucumbers have spines that are easily rubbed off, and the kiwano is sort of all spines on the outside, but this was a real surprise.  Anyone else seeing these in their markets?  Do they have a different season from smooth chayote? 

Field guide for your fone

This is quite a good recommendation for the iNaturalist smart phone app, and it also earns the TPP seal of approval.  It does a great deal for you. TPP supervises a master naturalist project to document the flora of a conservation area.  Each observation is not only recorded digitally it is GPS located and pinned on a map.  Some things don't work as well as others in terms of suggested identifications, but it will put you in the ball park.  For example, SYCs, which stands for stinking yellow composites (sunflowers).  You need more than a picture of a flower/inflorescence to sort them out. The app also works well on animals too. And it's free.  If you like nature and like knowing the names of things (a human trait), then you must get iNaturalist.

Friday Fabulous Flower -Clivia

TPP finally settled on a new camera for his travels and field work.  His left shoulder is still sore, stiff, and a little lower for all those years that he carried a modest sized gadget bag around the world.  The laziness of age plus the improved technology allows cameras to be very modest in size, and still go from close focus for flowers and such to quite an impressive telephoto, and all in a quite smallish point and shoot size.  This camera still has a reasonable ability to be adjusted, certainly as much as a photographer with modest skills requires.  Sorry about no name, TPP doesn't get paid for endorsements and the blog remains totally free.  But if you are a longtime reader, and drop TPP and email, he might give you a make & model.
A couple of years ago a dear friend gifted TPP with a Clivia.  An easier and more handsome house plant does not exist.  It flowers now and again, so the camera gets some exercise.  The plants like to dry out and seem generally unfazed by the cooler, drier household climate of winter.  The foliage is quite handsome, dark green, almost cat proof.  Clivia  is a honorific, but without his plant name book, TPP has forgotten the person, but Wikipedia to the memory rescue: Charlotte Florentia Percy, Duchess of Northumberland (née Lady Charlotte Florentia Clive).

Blue, blue Christmas, Tain't natural

Elvis' blue Christmas is one of TPP's favorite songs this time of year.  But that's not what he thought of when he saw these terribly disfigured poinsettias at the store.  Only a Blue Meanie would like these poinsettias.  If TPP's aesthetic compass is way off, do say so.  They actually made the blue moth orchids look nice.

Kindness to squirrels and falling gourds

In an act of kindness, Mrs. Phactor was upcycling decorative gourds, but cracking them and then leaving them under the big sugar maple just beyond the patio, long a feeding station for local wild life.  Now you must watch out because every now and again a gourd drops down out of the sugar maple, generally, botanically, an unexpected event.  Spent a couple of hours yesterday relocating fencing to keep rabbits away from young trees and shrubs.  They get shifted to more tender shoots in the spring and summer.  Weather is predicted to turn drastically colder soon, so finishing up garden work was necessary. Everything is pretty well put to bed for the winter now.