Field of Science

Student protests - You go guys!

TPP is actually rather impressed by these Millenial high school students protesting gun violence in schools.  This is the best student protest effort since the Kent State killings by National Guardsmen (armed but not protectors) resulted in anti-war protests that closed down most of the nation's colleges and universities (TPP's senior year).  At that time students got called a lot of nasty names (dirty hippy was the funniest) for protesting the Vietnam War, and TPP remembers getting tear gased, and crossing picket lines to finish some needed classes to graduate.  So none of the negative reactions to today's students surprises TPP.  Pundits who don't think students who were shot at should have an opinion about guns, or are even citizens (the moronic Tucker Carlson); or people who think they need semi-automatic weapons to protect themselves.  Really?  Some student protestors will be subjected to punishment including in one remarkably primitive area corporal punishment (seriously getting paddled for protesting killings?).  Protest anyways and take their punishments knowing how wrong they are. History will be on your side. And you will have learned how not to act.  

Friday Fabulous Flower

It was a bit warmer yesterday, back to brisk today, but enough to give a few more of these terribly cute Iris (I. reticulata) a chance to flower.  Their flower is pretty large in comparison to the size of the plants, although the leaves will get longer and taller.  This is a species that would like being in a sunny rock garden, which TPP does not have, but in one bed this bulb-forming Iris has been happy. This is a very cheerful spring flower if you can make it happy.  In 3 or 4 other places in our gardens it has just faded away.  This species has been a FFF before, but not too many other choices right now, and if enjoyable each spring, then no problem featuring it again.

Depressing in general

The general color outside remains brown.  After a Feb. thaw, early March has been cool so everything is just stalled.  Hellebores look the same as they did 2 weeks ago.  Bulbs are also on hold, and it's probably a good thing to keep flowering shrubs on hold for awhile, but in general it's sort of depressing.  And the campus and campus town are nearly deserted because of spring break, and that is sort of depressing as well.  And everything about how the country and our state is being run is sort of depressing too. The death of Steven Hawking is also depressing, not that his work could be understood by botanists, but he was such an exceptional person, such an exceptional intellect.  So TPP thinks reading a gardening column might be cheery, and among their advice for making gardening easier is to install Astroturf!  In what way is Astroturf gardening?  Way too depressing of an idea.  Neighbor who took out all of the shrubbery in their yard and planted grass has moved on, and that is sort of cheery news; new neighbors might be better.  So if you decide to comment on this, do be upbeat.  And forgot Pi Day, which is more sad than depressing.  But NCAA basketball playoffs have begun, and that is so depressing.  What is it people like about that game?  

Friday Fabulous Flower - Crocus

Crocus just sort of appear in our gardens.  Two types, the very early little snow crocus, and it has invaded our lawns and garden beds in many locations.  Cute.  A larger variety of crocus lives in a couple of different garden beds and flowers a bit later.  No idea how they get around. But they are very cheerful.  Here you can see the three anthers spaced around the three-lobed stigma (a bit oranger), and the two whorls of perianth.  By the time the lawn needs cutting, they will have died back for the year, so they can easily naturalize should you desire it.  

Sudden spike in blog traffic

Every so often TPP notices a sudden spike in blog activity, usually several hours when the tracking software records a week's worth of traffic, yet no particular blogs are showing unusually elevated traffic.  What's going on?  Does anyone understand this?  Can anyone explain?  TPP is basically a dummy about such things, so do clue him in.

Friday Fabulous Flower - snow drops

And second place goes to snow drops (Galanthus nivalis) just two days later than the witch hazels.  The fairly long snow cover of this winter always gets snow drops off to a fairly early start.  These little bulbs are not very flashy, but they sure are cheerful after a long winter.  If you have a garden you should stick in clumps of these bulbs just every where.  Clumps sometimes surprise us arising in places where they planted themselves.  This clump only started as one or two stalks, and now it consists of a couple of dozen bulbs.  

February Gardening - limbs and leaves

While our ongoing late winter thaw is allowing the Phactors to do a bit a gardening, it may push some stoopid plants to break dormancy too early.  This is always a worry in this part of the world.
Some of the very earliest plants are flowering, but this is not unusual for them. The weather leading up to this thaw has been windy, so it took a good hour of bending over to pick up all the downed limbs; nearly 3 wheelbarrow loads of limbs and twigs were transported to the front curb for pickup later in the week.  A fence along the lily pond had accumulated quite a load of leaves and kept them out of the pond.  Mrs. Phactor raked them up and transported them to a woodland area where they can decompose in peace.  Put a fence around a bed filled with species tulips hopefully depriving the bun-buns of an exotic meal. Usually they get missed until nibbled down.  Made note of the shrubs that have been bun-bun nibbled over the winter.  Basically anything not caged.  This was our day's exercise.  Gardening as exercise is not  such a crazy idea, but in  general the exercise nuts are not the type who garden, wonder why not?  Not enough of an an adrenaline rush watching grass grow?  Good to note that the blue lawn is sprouting under foot everywhere.  Stay posted.

Friday Fabulous Flower - And the winner is - witch hazel!

It's the 23d of February; technically still the dead of winter.  But we've had good snow cover so bulbs do well beneath the snow cover, and now it's in a bit of a winter thaw and the tips of leaves are showing all over the place.  The real contenders were snowdrops (a close 2nd), winter aconite, and witch hazel.  This particular flower is from Hamamelis x. intermedia 'Diane".  She differs from 'Arnold's Promise' in having reddish-orange flowers in the spring; if she flowers in the fall they are yellow like Arnold is in the spring.  This is by no means a record, 'Diane' has flowered as early as the 12th of February (last year).  

'tis the season for corned beef

Not only is TPP looking for signs of spring like the snowdrops poking up in places, but an annual rite revolves around making corned beef for St. Patrick's Day. So this Saturday past the pickling brine was made and 10 lbs of beef brisket began its journey.  Fortunately TPP had enough saltpeter for the recipe, but the supply is low so more will have to be ordered to have on hand for the next year's batch.  The recipe has been posted before, here, should you care to try it.  Getting saltpeter used to be as easy as walking into a pharmacy, but now it has to be ordered just in case someone uses corned beef as a cover for building a bomb.  

Friday Fabulous Flower - Cheery, springy flowers

Sorry for being a day late with a FFF, but yesterday was largely lost to a medical procedure, which turned out well (no problems -yea!), but is quite wretchedly awful to prepare for.  So largely lost the day.  And what with the national news being so depressing, and our so-called leaders being so terribly depressing (please do not get TPP going), the primary thought was to find something cheerful.
As the area is in a semi-thaw, although snowing quite nicely just now, did a walk around the mid-winter gardens.  Cheerful observations: lots of bulbs poking up and things like snowdrops could flower any time; early shrubs have swollen buds (Cornus mas, witch hazel showing some red petals), a whitish flowered Hellebore (H. x ballardiae 'cinnamon snow'), a so-called Lenten rose, has buds showing among last year's leaves.   As those things were cheerful TPP decided a pot of forced daffodils, a smaller-flowered variety, purchased for Mrs. Phactor would be featured.  Hope they cheer you up too, if not, get off to the nearest flower shop and buy yourself some cheer.  It'll be worth it!  

Jucy Lucy

One of the best things about traveling is seeing new things.  Rather garish bright green and purple vehicles were seen here and there around New Zealand bearing the appellation "Jucy Lucy", often with some semi-rude comment and a suggestive picture or two of a modest enough pinup variety.  No idea what they were all about.  Now if you go into a bar and grill especially in Minnesota and order a juicy lucy, you will get a rather fat hamburger with a melted cheese filling oozing out of the middle.  It will indeed be juicy.  All logic and reason told TPP this was not what the green vehicles were all about. Turns out they are a camper style rental vehicle that loudly advertises their presence.  You have to sort of like their attitude.  Quite certain that even if they experience a bump in business TPP will get nothing out of it, but the amusement factor was enough.

Big time flower production

Have you noticed the floral sections located usually near the entrance of grocery stores?  Lots of flowers and rather reasonable in price too.  This was more common in Europe, but now has become commonplace here in the states.  If Kroger is doing it, that's a clue.  At any rate such large scale operations are quite mind-boggling, and this video is worth watching no matter what you think of such practices.  And of course posted just in time for Valentine's Day.  TPP is not a huge fan, but finds the operation quite interesting and they are so well automated, so huge!  Hate to think about the pesticides & fungicides being sprayed around.  

Dealing with poachers

This news article caught TPP's eye.  A suspected poacher was mauled and almost completely eaten by a pack (pride?) of lions in South Africa.  Sounds like just desserts.  As for such poachers, invite them in, tie a steak around their neck and turn them lose.  Lions need some fun too.  Kruger National Park is sort of neat because you can only be out and walking around while you are inside fenced compounds, where you are the monkey in the cage. This really did crimp TPP's botanical style, but the reason was compelling.  

Happy Blogoversary!

February 12th, 2008.  The Phytophactor Blog was born 10 years ago and now some 2900+ blog posts later The Phytophactor still labors on. This is actually pretty hard to believe. The blog started off rather slowly, and early on, for the first couple of years, the Blog didn’t manage to keep any stats, so who knows how many people came and went in those days, it was not a large number.  The visibility and readership volume improved greatly after joining the Field of Science collective.  The number of page reads is well over 1.5 million, and the blog gets some 500 to 700 visits a day. The all-time most popular blog post is whether the artichoke is a fruit or a vegetable, published in the 1st month of the blog's existence.  So it is also old, and in the old, harder to read, small font.  Altogether that short little blog accounts for just over 10% of this blog’s total traffic.  People also care about whether flowering kale can be eaten (yes) and if pollen is equivalent to sperm (no).  Who knew those were such  pressing questions?  The Friday Fabulous Flower is the most popular and basically only regular feature.  This blog doesn’t stimulate much in the way of comments, so it is hard to tell  what people like, or don’t like.  As the national news has gotten so depressing TPP has blogged about it less, and similarly, when your academic counter part retires, you find you don’t follow the academic life so much.  So those areas get less coverage than they once did or the get covered less frequently than before.  But the botany and the gardening carry on.  Careful readers probably can list TPP's favorite house and garden plants because of the number of times they have been featured, and gardening pet peeves (poodle pruning of shrubs). 
Today is also Charles Darwin's and Abraham Lincoln's Birthday (in the same year), and much more recently TPP's kid sister's birthday.  Congratulations to all.  

Friday Fabulous Flower - Red gum tree

This red-flowered gum tree is a widely spread ornamental species, probably Corymbia ficifolia.  At some former time it was a Eucalyptus, and TPP has no idea what the distinction is that led to this reassignment.  As soon as you see one of these trees, and they can grow quite large, you know you're not in Kansas any more.  It was fairly common urban tree in New Zealand although the southern Magnolia was probably more common. Lots of birds and lots of insects visiting made this a busy tree. And as the image above shows, the androecial whorl are the visually attractive portion of the flower.

Like this person I does

TPP has been at a loss to blog about the current POTUS, so when someone else does such a good job, they must be acknowledged.
"I did not choose Donald Trump. I did not choose his “Shithole version of America.” I did not choose his overt racism and bigotry. I did not choose his favorable attitude to white supremacists. I did not choose his incessant and often ridiculous lies. I did not choose his narcissistic ways and complete lack of empathy for anyone other than himself. I did not choose his cruelty. I did not choose his personal attacks on individuals from the office of the president. I did not choose his inherent bullying nature. I did not choose his crudeness or vulgarity, and his attacks on women and their appearance. I did not choose his attacks on Mexicans or Haitians, and I did not choose his contempt for African American sports stars. I did not choose his failure to understand the constitution. I did not choose his failure to comprehend the meaning of free speech. I did not choose his attacks on the press. I did not choose his ignorance, his lack of morality, his complete inability to grasp complex concepts, and his non-existent attention span. I did not choose his bragging. I did not choose his cronyism. I did not choose his corruptness. I did not choose his nepotism. I did not choose his tendency to make every issue, first and foremost about himself. I did not choose the way he brings out the very worst in the people of this country. And most importantly, the majority of American voters did not choose Donald Trump."  More here.  How can one guy do so much that's bad in such a short period of time? 
Got to like this guy.  

Grub grub

The F1 explained what the GrubHub was, but this is Eat Grub, and they aren't talking about "grub" as slang for food.  They're talking about grubs as food.  This is actually not news, especially to a biologist.  A colleague used to put crickets in cookies and then put them out for people.  And Fluker Farms had a recipe for Crusty Cajun crickets that weren't a bad snack.  Or you could get a copy of Man Eating Bugs, a fun and well illustrated book with recipes.  TPP made fun of GrubHub for the alternative meaning of Grub, but it might be closer to happening than you might think.  

Friday Fabulous Flower - Alpine edition

Before leaving the subalpine zone of New Zealand let's have one more nice flower.  January is the early summer here, and like all such high altitude summer plants.  They have a pretty impressive floral display for their brief season.  This particular flower is highly symmetrical and quite attractive in clumps.  Seen here growing in a gravely soil with a number of other plants ranging from some 600-1800 m, Gentianella bellidifolia. The flowers are about 1 cm in diameter when open.

So many whiskys, so little time -

"See what the boys in the backroom will have
And tell them I'm having the same
Go see what the boys in the backroom will have
And give them the poison they name
So many whiskys, so little time.  It's a problem we're just going to have to deal with a little at a time.  When it comes to whisky you pay for age, you pay for strength (higher proof), and you pay for rarity.
Aging is a funny thing.  You see the problem is ethanol is basically a colorless, tasteless liquid, and that's what distillation makes.  Some of the other stuff may be heat volatile, and get transferred to the distilled side of things, but TPP's one experience with "white lightening" had the total sensation of "swallowing a kerosene lantern, lit" (according to one author).  But put the neutral grain spirits into a charred white oak barrel for 8, 10, or 12 years and now you've got something with color and flavor, and fewer nasty chemicals too, but you have less of it, and it took a lot of time that you have to pay for, so aging and rarity are related.  Hard to believe that anybody actually likes moonshine, but not so hard to believe that some people are just too impatient to wait that long for a whisky, so long have people sought to speed up, or alter, the process. While other woods don't make good barrels, other woods will impart different flavors to the whisky, so in this highly competitive business, people are trying all sorts of different things, like putting charred wood in a steel barrel of whisky, clearly a blasphemy in some places.  Here's an interesting article on some of the different ideas people in the business are trying.  And you're going to see more of this as the craft distilling business continues to grow. 

Bucket list trees - Nothofagus

Although TPP cannot remember when the list was made, a bucket list of trees was constructed, it did include a baobab (seen in South Africa) and the southern Beech.  TPP does not know this genus well, and while he's seen it a few times, you cannot say you've seen a lion if only in a zoo.  This is a high latitude southern hemisphere tree, and not sure why the southern Beech is named Nothofagus (N. solandri shown here probably).  The forest (just below the subalpine zone) is almost a monoculture and pretty low diversity until you get to the fern/moss floor of the forest.  It has the look of Middle Earth about it, and the trees have quite a covering of mosses and lichens on their trunks. The genus has quite an old looking distribution the type we now associate with Gondwana an ancient super continent. But sadly no Glossopteris. No one said this was an easy bucket list. 

The leaves are about a cm or so long.

More alpine.subalpine

Well, you're gonna get more NZ because it's the best stuff TPP has for posting. In general TPP found NZ a bit off-putting.  In many places it has been deforested to within an inch of its life; all those hills upon which sheep now graze were forested. And there are virtually no land mammals, and not even much insect life, so very unlike the tropical forests TPP loves so much.  However now and again they have a winner.  And so it is with the Kea, a largish, alpine/subalpine parrot and much like the Gray Jay in the USA's Rocky mtns, this bird is not even slightly shy.  They have a certain beguiling quality about them, maybe its the way they try to take the rearview mirrors off your car, or how they chortle to themselves in a language seemingly akin to minions.  So it was great to see a few of these birds, close up, and at home so to speak at the top of Arthur's pass parading around like they own the place, and they do.  After the hike down, it was time to have lunch and a drink at the Wobbly Kea Bar & Café.

Subalpine context

The fabulous pincushion plant posted a day ago lacked a subsalpine context, so here it is.  The community is sort of a waist high shrub land of grassy tussocks and low growing shrubs.  The area is quite wet especially in places and very low-growing mats of mossy and mossy-like plants growing in between taller plants and rocky outcrops, and in rocky places with very shallow soil.  Grassy and mossy looking plants for the most part are neither grass nor moss. The plant diversity here is actually pretty high.  It's really quite a lovely place, garden-like in a way, although those people intent on hiking distances or altitudes, or hiking with speed (joggers) fail to see anything while communing with nature in their own self-absorbed way. Us naturalists are looked upon as "in the way", just one more obstacle to be avoided. The pincushion plant posted on Friday was growing almost at TPP's feet as he viewed this scene from a boardwalk path.  

Fence gardening

Is it too early to start posting about garden ideas?  No, never too early.  The F1 has a stockade fence around her not-very-big garden/patio/yard.  It used to keep her Maine coon cat mostly confined.  Fences like this can look rather plain & ugly, and a lot of surface area seems to be wasted.  That's why the idea of using regular guttering, cheap and easy to install as linear fence garden beds seems like such a good idea, especially for smallish, faster growing plants, i.e., lettuces, baby bok choi, spinach, green onions & the like.  The picture says it all and TPP knows a good idea when he sees it again.  Water at the top and it flows down.  The system might even be hydroponic, but it need not be that complicated. Just some potting soil in some coconut fiber liner could do the job nicely.  It could also be a riot of color if you planted petunias or something like that.

Friday Fabulous Flower - pincushion plant

TPP has been on the road (left side) visiting New Zealand, doing some southern hemisphere avoidance of January weather in North America.  For that part of it the trip was highly successful.  Given that NZ plants are highly endemic, something like 80% of woody plants grow no where else, except of course for those brought to NZ by people who wanted to see a sycamore for some damned reason.  TPP shall expand a bit more on this topic and his plant bucket list as he catches you up.  In addition to being on go, a lot, dealing with iffy wifi was a nearly constant issue, and when you advertise "free wifi" you should actually make it easy to access, not nearly impossible.  
OK, well, we needs a NZ flower.  And what with all the non-natives, southern Magnolia was in bloom nearly everywhere, finding a nice native plant is not as easy as it sounds.  However TPP's travels included a trip on the tranzalpine RR over the southern alps with an overnight in Arthur's Pass.  Our B&B hostess decided that an old botanist would do better starting at the top, not the mountain top, but the top of Arthur's pass, and walking down to the so-called village, spending the rest of the time observing the biology.  TPP does not do mountain (tree, ladder, social) climbing, but the pass is subalpine and above the tree line.  Lots of nice alpine plants grow in the area, and all incorporated into a National Park.
If you have ever visited an alpine/subalpine zone, you have observed many so-called "moss" or "pincushion" plants.  These are all low-growing, small-leaved plants forming a dense mat.  As a result they all look rather similar vegetatively, but if in flower, they often give away the identity.  This is an very dense, quite firm pincushion plant with a few remaining flowers pushing to the surface.  Isn't that grand?  Fortunately the couple of remaining flowers helped with the ID, Donatia novae-zealandiae, in the Donatiaceae, its own family!  It is quite close to Sylidiaceae, another family you are probably unfamiliar with. In some places a species of sundew poked its leaves up through the crown of this very short shrub.  

Friday fabulous fern - for real

A small track off the highway is all there is at the Kaimai Summit track.  This little loop to the summit on the North Island is one of the ferniest places TPP has ever been.  Filmy ferns are everywhere, and over all TPP saw nearly 3 dozen species of ferns, although he could not identify more than a handful.  Here's a nice whorl of new fronds, and this if probably a Blechnum discolor, but that may take some confirmation.  Generally this fern is called a dwarf tree fern although it really doesn't get very tall.
The forest floor was spongy with litter and it was quite damp as might be expected where filmy ferns abound.  

Botanical Fashion?

This pantsuit outfit was seen yesterday inside a fairly fancy
shop in downtown Wellington, NZ.  TPP knows that this is about half way around the world from the big city of Chi-town, which sort of rules our small part of the fashion world.  So the question is simply, Where would you wear your pineapple decorated pant suit?  Is this the kind of fashion you spring on people all at once or do you dole it out?  Seriously, is TPP out of line?  Or is this as hideous as he thinks?  Maybe if you were giving a tropical fruit lecture, it would be OK, just at TPP matches some of his Hawaiian shirts to the lecture topic.  

Friday Fabulous Fern - Sort of

TPP missed another Friday, sorry, sports fans, a lodging that advertised free WiFi made it as difficult as possible to connect and the lap top did not want to cooperate, so without a real keyboard, no blogging.  A popular area near Rotorua NZ is just called "redwoods", and darned if it isn't a planted grove of California redwoods!  The oldest trees were planted in 1901, so they are now well over 100 and decently big trees.  There may be Ewoks here as walkways and platforms are everywhere, hundreds of meters of them.  Like a real redwood grove, there is not much of an understory, mostly ferns, mostly tree ferns, and quiet.  Hundreds of people walk, run, bike, and generally recreate in this area daily, but you know what none of them ever see?  Well, you need to travel with TPP if you want to see neato things that escape everyone else's attention.
Every 3d or so tree fern had a ferny epiphyte growing upon and within its trunk, and although TPP has seen this plant before, never was it so common.  The ferny plant is Tmesipteris (mez-ip-terr-is), a whisk fern. It's only close relative is Psilotum (seye-low-tum), which is considerably better known.  TPP is not happy calling this plant a fern, although it has common ancestry with ferns somewhere.

Lost a Friday here somewhere - but Friday Fabulous Fern anyways

Somewhere out there in the middle of the Pacific TPP lost a Friday, and a decent night's sleep too.  A day or two later it's Monday here in Aukland New Zealand.  Lots of unfamiliar plants around here, but thought a post on an old favorite might be in order.  Here's a nice view looking down on the crown, the whorl of leaves, the fronds that constitute the crown of the fern, Cyathea dealbata.  They can grow several meters tall, this one was about 3 but TPP was on a walkway above it.  The fronds are generally a meter and a half to two meters long.

"Raw" water, not a craze, just crazy

Sometimes, maybe not enough times, the lack of a scientific perspective can be dangerous to your health or that of others (anti-vacc people).  The promoters of raw water want you to have all the minerals, and Pro-biotics, in untreated water.  Now in the view of a biologist having ready access to safe, hygienic water is one of the best examples of how science and technology have improved the public's well-being.  And remember this: "In wine there is wisdom, in beer there is strength, in water there is bacteria." (David Auerbach, 2002).  TPP, as a frequent traveler in the tropics, even appreciates the marketing insight of soda makers who realized that by the time you had the water filtered and treated to make it safe for soda, you had a marketable commodity before you even added in the sugar, or its substitute, and the flavorings and colorings and carbonation, and charge nearly as much for no more ingredients.  So you can find nice, safe bottled water all across India, and the rest of SE Asia.  And you can stop wondering if the water treatment tabs you brought from home will kill elephant liver flukes as well as they kill moose liver flukes.  So the raw water people are just being stoopid and ignorant, as stoopid and ignorant as their gullible prey, presumably the same people who buy things because they are labeled "non-GMO" or "no gluten" especially items that could not possibly have a cereal grain protein.  Or could we market a homeopathic water purifier?  Would it magically remove things from water as well as it puts them in?  Or are we going to have another PT Barnum moment of never under estimating people's ability to fool themselves, but can they fool their intestines too?