Field of Science

Friday fabulous flower - Harbinger of spring

The weather is not exactly warm, but all things being relative, it's a cool, sunny day.  Just the right sort of weather for early spring bulbs.  Little patches of spring flowering bulbs pop up all over our gardens in a very delightful way and most were sort of volunteers anyways in that we didn't plant them, but there they are.  Since our little patches are all asexually propagated from an original progenitor, they all have the same flower color within the patches.  These are very early Crocus, a name derived from and old middle eastern name for saffron which comes from the three branched orange stigma of a fall blooming crocus.  Such bright clusters of color are terribly cheerful as spring slowly arrives.

University admissions

Things have really changed. There was no stigma to attending a state college.  And certainly no one was in the business of bribing admissions people, although some wealthy legacies existed, but they were the exception not the rule, and mostly they went to a particular college it was because it was where a parent or older sibling attended.  It didn't seem likely that this connection was going to be influential later in life.  It does explain perhaps why some of the people you meet professionally who graduated from a prestige school don't seem all that exceptional. The people who do the admissions bribery are the type of people who are impressed by the perceived prestige of certain institutions.  Out here in the great Midwest, our huge state universities sort of blunt the prestige of smallish private school, so big damn deal.  TPP has a talented niece whose writing was impressive enough to get admission to Oxford, clearly meritorious.  TPP's undergraduate record was so unimpressive that a department chair actually began to question, what such a record told you about potential success in graduate school.  It only meant that TPP had changed, grew up, transitioned, whatever, to academic life.  Of course TPP was not in Business school, but in botany, and you only decide on something like botany because you love it.  Do MBAs love their subject, or is it just a ticket to make more money?  

Friday Fabulous Flowers - Snow drops

Here and there around our gardens are little clumps of early spring flowers, the ones that pop up and bloom anytime the temperature gets above freezing. The weather has be unsettled of late, rain and wind, so generally nasty.  How TPP managed to get a non-blurry image with the wind blowing except maybe taking the shot in between gusts.  So these little bulbs and flower stalks are only a few inches tall, but after a longish winter, they are very cheerful.  Freezing and even some late snow don't seem to bother them at all.

Monday morning musings

It's a pretty springy morning, but it doesn't leave TPP in a very upbeat mood.  An article in the Chicago Tribune was about the disappearance of check out lines, and their replacement with self-serve scanning lines.  The whole article made it sound inevitable, but the article never mentioned the loss of cashiers whose jobs are just disappearing. And so who does the scanning, well you do, working for free as a cashier.  People are apparently shopping online for their weekly groceries, and having them all ready for a drive by pick up, or even a delivery.  And the excuse is too busy, no time.
TPP is one of those people who never uses a drive-up lane or window.  Going into the store always seems to take less time.  Maybe if you have a backseat full of kids to herd around, this makes sense.  
And in the same vein. The Phactors live about 20 mins walk from a small urban center and a grocery store is a similar distance in the opposite direction.  A CVS or Walgreens is at either location.  No one ever thinks to walk to either one, although TPP does recognize the lugging a gallon of milk is a load, even with a good shopping bag.  Now that the weather is warmer, walking becomes once again a feasible, and enjoyable what with all the plants coming out of dormancy.  TPP knows that he sees way more things than most people in terms of trees and gardens.  
In fact TPP is going to relocate his kitchen garden to a lawn area that receives more sunlight.  So springy in this case is a reminder of the work that needs to be done part of our gardening exercise program.

Friday Fabulous Flower - 1st of spring (almost)

Officially our spring is late.  The earliest spring flowering events will be later than any of the last 9 years, and TPP knows this because he has the data.  The earliest flowering in our entire neighborhood is a very old patch of winter aconite, Eranthis hyemalis, in the buttercup family.  As this image shows the plants are ready, but the weather has just been too cold, which will change in just a few days according to our weather guessers. Plants like this actually with sprout and grow under snow as this little plant has done, and when it all melts, the buds turn upwards and open.  No leaves are in this image, a whorl of green bracts sits just under each flower.  Ours will flower a week or so later because they are in a shadier location.

February tropical greens for winter blues

The wind is howling outside, making temperatures just below freezing seem very cold indeed.  And the temp is predicted to drop to 0 F tonight, which is cold.  So to help my readers (and TPP) keep sane during the February winter doldrums, here's a bit of tropical greenery and scenery, Pouhokamoa falls on Maui.  This is a pretty lush looking view, and if you look closely, there are several African tulip trees (orange flowers) in the image, sorry.  

Friday Fabulous Flower - Bracts II

Seems to be a theme among the  images TPP accumulated while in Hawaii, and with few exceptions, none of them are natives.  Lots of things got imported for the cut flower business, and this "flower" is no exception.  This is the genus Protea, but not sure about the species.  Wonderful symmetry exhibited by this big inflorescence where the outer parts are all punkish bracts just not quite as colorful as the ginger.  The much smaller individual flowers are just beginning to open starting at the top and continuing around the spiral in a clockwise direction.  This will continue until they are all open.  Again proteas are a great favorite of the cut flower business because they are fairly spectacular and last a long time once cut.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Bracts part I

Bracts are a type of modified leaf associated with a flower.  Some times bracts are responsible for both protecting and advertising flowers, and in such cases they are both colorful and long lasting.  No wonder some of these attractively bracted plants are big favorites of the cut flower business.  In tropical areas some of these plants are planted as ornamentals, mostly gingers, heliconias, and spiral gingers.  This is called a red wax ginger (probably Tapeinochitos ananasse).  A somewhat less conspicuous yellow flower is associated with each bract, but clearly the whole inflorescence functions in attraction of bird pollinators. The look waxy because of a heavy cuticle, which also means they last for a long time. So this is not a flower, but a whole cluster of flowers, and yes, this is one of the things that makes TPP's blog a great flower blog, so some dubious correspondent suggested, one which the ever suspicious blogger never responded to, but already people know the FFF (no matter what day it comes out) is a quality product given away free.  

Good timing is important

OK, the Phactors decide to escape as much winter as possible by going to Hawaii for 3 weeks (Maui and Kauai).  During that time we escape the polar vortex, although we fully expect to see the ravages of extreme cold when spring arrives.  Arrived back on Feb. 5th and 3 days later a freaky winter storm hits Hawaii, and Maui even gets snow!  Went up fairly high on the volcano to see some native vegetation and birds the subject off this blog just a few days ago.  And they got snowed on, and the Phactors missed it.  Usually our timing is not that good.  Much better to remember our lodgings on Kauai without any high winds or snow in the picture.  This was great.  

Bleak and cold

TPP is home after a bit more than 24 hrs of travel.  Hard to believe how bleak and cold the upper Midwest can be especially having left a fairly lush tropical place.  The air is so dry.  The kitty girls are certainly glad the Phactors are home; it will take them awhile to get less clingy.  Several little things need attention, that's entropy for you.  Fortunately the polar vortex came and went while we were enjoying much warmer weather in Maui and Kauai. Arriving home last evening the temperature was about 30F, but it was very damp, and being most inappropriately dressed it seemed much colder.  Snuggling cats were determined to keep us close and warm.  The ultimate price of the extreme cold weather will await an evaluation of the damage come spring.  TPP already has a long list of plants that might be rather susceptible to such cold and no one else is at fault for having planted some not quite cold hardy in zone 5 plants. It has been nearly 40 years since the area has experienced near, or beyond, rock bottom zone 5 temps (around -20 F).  This is an interesting temperature barrier for freeze avoiding plants. TPP has blogged about this several times.  

Fruit ID revealed

Well, nobody suggested nuthin'.  This doesn't surprise TPP because it was not easy to find online, but out of a long list of tropical fruits grown on Kauai, the first name that was unknown was googled and it turned out to be correct.  That would be the caimito or star apple, Chrysophyllum canito (Sapotaceae).  This means the caimito is related to the sapote and several other fruits in the same family, none of which are high on TPP's list of favorites.  But a new fruit is a new fruit, and it grows on a large handsome tree.  If you cut this fruit in half you can avoid the outer fruit wall and skin where most of the latex is located by spooning out the central pulp, which has a sweet, creamy taste.  This is a neotropical fruit that is grown in Florida, and probably Costa Rica, but had escaped TPP's attention.  

Friday Fabulous fruit

 OK it hasn't happened in a long time, but TPP encountered a new and unfamiliar tropical fruit.  As you might image TPP's list of tropical fruits that he has tried is quite extensive.  So here TPP is, on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, at an extremely nice rental (Fern Grotto Inn) -  note TPP seldom gives endorsements, so you might consider how good this place is to deserve a tip of the hat.  At any while the beer in the fridge and the macadamia chocolates and the flowers every where might be enough for most people, there was also a fruit bowl that had this interesting item in it.  It was about 3" in diameter, green with a purple blush, soft in a ripe fruit sort of way, and it had a pinkish flesh with 10 of so slots for flat seeds covered with a translucent aril or fleshy seed coat.  It was quite sweet.  So what does the TPP reader brain trust think?  TPP will post the answer in a day or two.  Last time this happened TPP was dissecting mangosteens in hotel lobby in Thailand.  

Beautiful but invasive pest - African Tulip Tree

 If any of you are foolish enough to think that TPP is leaving the tropics and returning to the polar vortex now visiting the upper Midwest with truly arctic temperatures then you're crazy.  TPP is certain that temperatures like that will freeze some of his plant collection.  But more on this later this spring. Here in Maui, it is "spring" of a sorts and one of the ornamental trees that is in flower is the African Tulip Tree (Spathodea campanulata) a member of the Bignon family.  It has a big flowers that are bright orange.  It is a totally gaudy tree.  Supposedly perching birds visit these flower to get an interesting reward, a drink of water.  The flower buds are filled with water, and it you nip off the end of the calyx of an intact bud, and squeeze the base it will squirt out a stream.  Kids always know this trick.  The image shows that the flower is basically a cup.  A tree in flower has lots of flowers and flowers over a longish time.  Unfortunately in wetter areas, this tree is invasive along streams. And it has become a member of what TPP calls UTF (ubiquitous tropical flora).  It's certainly pretty, but what a pain.   

Friday Fabulous Flower - Maui edition

The upper Midwest is dreadfully cold right now and the virtually perfect weather here on Maui right now is almost making TPP feel guilty for being away.  Since the previous blog dealt with natives, this one will deal with UTF (ubiquitous tropical flora) which is mostly what you see in and around people places on the Hawaiian islands (and even beyond).  Today's fabulous flower is actually a new UTF for TPP, so thought you might enjoy it as well.  If you know your flowers at all you will recognize this flower as a milkweed, and indeed it was originally placed in the genus Ascelpias, but now it is in a different genus Calotropis gigantea.  In the tropics this shrub is often planted for butterfly gardens. Both the buds and flowers have a lovely lavender color, but it can be rather variable from nearly white to a much darker purple.  The shrub was a good 7' tall with large milk weedy leaves.

Bird-Flower pairing on Maui

TPP is taking a timeout from the January weather of the upper Midwest (generally bad) by spending a couple of weeks in Maui where the weather is usually good.  It certainly is lovely right now.  Now many readers will know that it is hard sometimes to find native plants and animals because non-natives plants and animals abound.  But by driving up the side of a volcano you can get to alpine plants and animals, and that's what we did.  A lovely leguminous shrub was flowering, providing some nectar for the native honeyeaters, and indeed, they were observed as well.  So this was a great pairing; a flower shaped by and for the bill of a honeyeater and the bird itself, which was quite spectacular.  TPP has an image of the flowers, a typical bean flower, but more bent to match the bill of this honeyeater, the i'iwi.  The bird image was obtained from the wiki creative commons and is the work of Alan Schmierer, so thanks Alan.  The shrub was a typical enough  Sophora (S. chysophylla)

Friday Fabulous Flower - Queen's tears once again

Sorry about the repeat of this FFF, but this is one of TPP's favorite house plants and it flowers when this blogger is hard up for material.  The Queen's tears is the common name of Billbergia nutans, a member of the pineapple/bromeliad family.  And the flowers are just so darned lovely. You just have to love the blue eye liner margins of the green petals emerging from pink sepals and bracts.  Even the yellow exerted anthers show up so nicely. It gives us something to look forward to in the winter.  

Big Oaks

The latest newsletter from the Illinois Native Plant Society (The Harbinger) just came and the front page featured the national champion Shumard Oak (Q. shumardii), that is the biggest tree of that species in the country located outside of Anna IL.   The trunk has a circumference of 27.7 feet, a height of 96 feet, and a spread of equal distance, giving it a total score of 452 (there is a formula for scoring big trees.).  And if you like big trees, here's one from the Plant Postings blog the Angel Oak (Q. virginiana) in South Carolina; it's one of the biggest, oldest living things in North America.   

More resolutions for a better life.

A reader has pointed out that just garden resolutions in the preceding  blog did not do much to improve TPP's life and wondered if other things had been talked about.  Yes!
1. TPP is done with plastic bags.  The biggest problem seems to be the delivery person of our newspapers, who puts the paper in a plastic bag so the paper can just be flung over the top of their car and onto our front steps with little regard for the weather.  TPP may have to put a newspaper tube or box out by the driveway to eliminate the need for a plastic bag.  Food/leftover storage is another issue, but slowly new silicone and multiple reusables are taking the place of bags.  The F1 is keen on this too.
2. Boycott of Walmart, and look alikes, and malls.  TPP did all of his holiday shopping without violating this resolution at all.  For reasons TPP has actually forgotten, he must declare his personal boycott of HoJos restaurants and motels a success.
3. Drive up service.  TPP refuses to do this.  First he has bad line karma anyways, and sitting in line in a car is nearly as bad.  So won't do it.  Although years ago he used to like root beer and/or Sonic drive-ins but mostly because of the girls on roller skates.
4. Non-green carry out containers.  TPP is trying to eat less, and hates food waste but Styrofoam containers are a real no-no.  Bringing you own substitute is rather awkward, but do able.  Biggest offender right now is a favorite Quick-Wok. A couple of favorite restaurants have switched to waxed cardboard which seems better, but still recycling seems iffy.
5. Over packaged goods.  To many items still come in layers and layers of packaging.  Even then the gorillas some places hire to deliver things seem to take some perverse pleasure in stomping on packages to "test" their strength and TPP's patience.  
6. Prepared foods with too much sugar.  The lack of sunshine means that the Phactors' garden doesn't produce enough tomatoes means that red pasta sauce is a regular purchase.  A few brands do not add sugar to their tomato sauce (check the ingredients), and they taste all the better for it. Same with fruit juices, and Hawaiian cocktails.  Mrs. Phactor asked a bartender to help sort out their specialty drinks to find one that isn't too sweet, he responded, "Hell lady this is Hawaii, all the drinks are sweet."  She got a dry white wine instead.
There are more, but not right now.

Gardening resolutions for 2019

Oh, what the heck!  Why not make resolutions for the new year, which while arbitrary does come in the middle of a non-gardening season.  
1. Make no effort to get grass to grow where it doesn't want to.  This means that our decision to turn a deeply shady portion of our yard into a garden is a done deal.
2. Use more native species.  Mostly TPP is practical and a southern Magnolia will fit into the gardens somewhere especially if the Ashe Magnolia doesn't over winter  well  (This Florida panhandle endemic struggled this last year, but why?).
3. Get rid of ugly.  Some things just don't work, and one of TPP's gardening faults is not giving up on plants that aren't working soon enough.  Mrs. Phactor has already nominated a couple of shrubs for basal pruning.
4. Go with the sun.  The bright side of having a large pin oak (dying) removed is that the old (back in the 20s) tennis court now gets a lot more sun.  So parts of our kitchen garden are going to be moved to the back court.  
5. Keep better track of varieties and cultivars.  Our effort to use more permanent labelling has already shown some weaknesses. 
6. Plant more ferns.  TPP likes ferns; an ebony spleenwort and a maidenhair fern and a couple of cinnamon ferns were added this last year.  
7. Be less grouchy about old favorites that got new names.  OK, this is really a no go, and TPP thinks this was just added to the list to allow a favorite rant.  Here he was just happily redoing a few specimens, when the authoritative Flora of North America informs us that Hepatica has been reassigned to the genus Anemone.  TPP loved this plant  because it was a great doctrine of signatures plant (last year's 3-lobed leaves persist and turn dark purple thus illustrating that Hepatica if a great name for "liver-leaf".).  So 40 some odd years of name recall are just shot to heck, and it's annoying. That's enough for now; TPP doesn't want to disturb his wa or tempt some unwelcome karma to be visited upon the herbarium in 2019.