Wednesday, September 21, 2016

"Lab Girl", A Memoir of a Female Scientist Forging Her Proper Life

Do you have behaviors that you wish you'd begun when you were younger?  I know I do.  One of my regrets is that I didn't read more biographies, memoirs, and autobiographies when I was in my teens, 20s, 30s, and even in my 40s.  I especially regret that I didn't read more about the life stories of women that I admired, so that I could get a wider understanding of what being a woman in our culture entailed, both positively and negatively.

Regrets aside, I've started reading more biographies and memoirs in recent years.  I love the perspective it gives me on possibilities, life choices, the cost of fame, the commonalities that we all experience, and a myriad of other issues, both philosophical and mundane.

I don't remember where I first heard about Lab Girl by Hope Jahren (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016) or what the reviewer said about this book, but I immediately knew I wanted to read it...and I am so glad that I did.

Hope Jahren was born in 1969, 13 years after I was born, into a family with a father who was a scientist and teacher, a highly intelligent mother who was a housewife, and 3 older brothers.  She learned to love science in her father's classroom laboratory and, building on the platform of a rather ordinary childhood, she has become an award winning geobiologist, recently based out of the University of Oslo.

It's rare to find a book, written by a scientist who based the thematic structure of the book on plants, described as "mesmerizing", having a "zing", or "electric".  These words have all been used to describe this book, and they are spot on.  Dr. Jahren intersperses vividly written and lyrical short chapters on plant biology with engrossing tales of the people and the events in her life that have helped shape her into who she is today.  Incidentally, in her childhood Dr. Jahren studied English literature with her mother, as her mother worked to earn the bachelor's degree that she'd been unable to obtain before marriage.  Dr. Jahren herself started college as a literature major before realizing that science was her true passion; her facility with words and metaphors and her compelling prose betray her ongoing love of language, despite her choice of science as her career path.

From this book, "Each beginning is the end of a waiting.  We are each given exactly one chance to be.  Each of us is both impossible and inevitable.  Every replete tree was first a seed that waited."

Lab Girl is a seed that has been cast out into the world to germinate.  Whether it develops into a towering oak or stays a struggling seedling depends in great part on how deep and rich the soil is upon which it lands, how many people read it and absorb the wisdom it has to offer, then pass that wisdom along.   Most of all, I can envision Lab Girl bearing valuable fruit such as young girls being able to see a path forward if they choose science as a viable life path and ordinary people learning to see plants as the living heroes of our planet that they truly are.

Read this book.  Judge it for yourself.  Then let me know what you think.  I'm betting you'll be encouraging others to read Lab Girl, too.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

A Trickle of Native Insects Begins to Appear....

FINALLY!  We've lived here for about 16 months now and at last I am beginning to see a greater variety of  insects attracted to and living in our yard.  It's so exciting to go outside and see native pollinators nectaring at the few little blooms we have scattered around, or predatory insects patrolling the foliage and flowers.  It sure goes to show that changes don't have to be big or dramatic to have an impact.  Every little bit counts.

So here are some of my recent finds....

Gulf fritillaries (Agraulis vanillae) are gorgeous butterflies, with silver patterns on the undersides of their wings and an almost fluorescent orange coloration on the top side.  The fresh individual in the top photo was nectaring at garden phlox (Phlox paniculata), while the tattered one in the lower photo is nectarying at Flyr's Nemesis (Brickellia cordifolia), a rare wildflower in Florida that has recently become available at some native plant nurseries, including 7 Pines Native Plant Nursery in DeFuniak Springs.

Out and about, I'm seeing more gulf fritillaries flying everywhere these days, presumably due to the time of year.  However, I'm starting to count on seeing them regularly in our yard since we finally have some caterpillars eating the maypop vines (Passiflora incarnata) that we planted on the lower terraces last spring.  Just as monarch caterpillars only eat milkweeds, plants in the genus Asclepias, so gulf fritillary caterpillars only eat maypops and passionflowers, plants in the genus Passiflora.

Predators are pretty rare in the yard still.  It took me around 5 years to start noticing them regularly in my Kansas gardens, so I'm trusting that they'll increase in number as I garden naturally here.

With a lake right out the back door, however, we do have several dragonfly and damselfly species.  One of the species I've just started to see is the eastern amberwing (Perithemis tenera).  A male and a female have staked out the small patch of powderpuff (Mimosa strigillosa) in the front yard and I can count on finding them there essentially every day.

Although this species is quite small for a dragonfly, the male eastern amberwing, shown above, is easy to spot since he's dramatically colored, with shining amber-colored wings and a darker amber body.  Up close, the camera captures yellow markings on the thorax and abdomen that the eye generally misses.  The female, however, is much different....

...and much drabber.  Her darkly blotched wings and more sober colors don't attract the eye as her mate's colors do, but that's probably the point.  She, too, has yellow markings on her thorax and abdomen. 

These small dragonflies are said to eat "tiny, flying insects", which I interpret to mean mosquitoes.  Hopefully my male and female eastern amberwings will produce lots and lots of baby eastern amberwings to patrol my yard even more thoroughly!

Another colorful species that I've observed, photographed, and been able to identify is the metallic green bee, Agapostemon splendens.  I've always loved the metallic green bees, especially the ones that are entirely green, because of their vibrant coloring.

Shown above, the females of Agapostemon splendens are especially beautiful to my eye and earn their "splendid" moniker based on the beautiful shadings of blue and green on their abdomen.  Note:  I have no real idea why this species was labeled the splendid green metallic bee, but I think the abdomenal color IS splendid.

Here's another, closer look at that gorgeous color.  Look, too, at the pollen load that this little bee is carrying - the pollen from this species of flower is white, not yellow, and that's a LOT of pollen clustered on her hind legs!  She still has to finish her load and, most importantly, fly back to her nest with her carefully gathered provisions.  Like many other native bees, the Agapostemon bees nest in the ground, usually in a tunnel dug by the female.  After digging the tunnel, the female gathers together a ball of pollen and nectar, lays an egg on it, seals off the cell, and repeats the process several times.

Interestingly, like the eastern amberwing dragonfly above, Agapostemon splendens is another dimorphic insect species, with the male looking significantly different from the female.  The photo above is a male of the same species.  While the thorax is similar to the female's, the abdomen is completely different - males sporting a natty black and yellow stripe pattern that is vibrant, but not as pleasing to my eye.  This little guy was fun to watch.  He seemed to perform head stands as he fed, diving deeply into the flower to get his prize.

Unlike the colorful green metallic bees, the next bees I want to share with you are somber black with a few white markings.

Another native bee, this is a carpenter-mimic cuckoo-leaf-cutter (Coelioxys dolichos) - a name that seems more interesting than the bee looks, at least on first appraisal.  That's the bloom of a wild lettuce (Lactuca sp.) that she's feeding on.

What drew my attention to this bee was the pointed abdomen, which is very distinctive.  Cuckoo bees are parasites on other bees.  The females of this genus of cuckoo bee, Coelioxys, use that sharp abdomen to break into the nests of their host species and lay eggs on the pollen and nectar stored there for the host's eggs.  Because female cuckoo bees don't have to provision their own nests, they don't have pollen baskets and they aren't seen carrying pollen;  they do, however, still have to feed themselves.

This particular species, the carpenter-mimic cuckoo-leaf-cutter, is a parasite on a single bee species called the carpenter-mimic leaf-cutter bee (Megachile xylocopoides). Ironically, when I went to look up M. xylocopoides, I recognized the pictures as showing the same species as another, unidentified bee species in my recent photos!  I even took the photos of the two different species within a few feet of each other, just 1 day apart!

Here is the male carpenter-mimic leaf-cutter bee (Megachile xylocopoides), also feeding on wild lettuce blooms.  Did the two bees, the predator and the prey, hatch out of the same nest?  There's probably a good chance of it.  At the very least, it would appear that the nests were nearby.

There are many more sightings I'd love to share, but this post is long enough for now.  Hope you're seeing lots of interesting insects in your gardens, too!

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Hairy Elephant's Foot, a.k.a. Devil's Grandmother

Hairy Elephant's Foot.  Devil's Grandmother.  Two different common names for the same plant, Elephantopus tomentosus.  Talk about disparate mental pictures!  How did this plant get such widely varying common names?

Moving to a suburban lot that's been "civilized" for over 50 years, I wasn't really expecting any native wildflowers except those, like violets, that can often be considered "weeds".  I've had 2 pleasant surprises, one of which is Elephantopus tomentosus.  (Note:  I hate both common names, so I think I'll just stick with the Latin.)  The other surprise was a goldenaster, but I'll write about that plant later this fall, when it blooms.

Shortly after we moved in last summer, I actually noticed a couple of these unassuming little wildflowers growing at the edge of a city easement along one side of the back yard.  Their dark green, flat, almost velveteen-looking basal leaves were interesting, but the wispy little flowers that seemed to fade before I made it out of bed in the morning were disappointing.  I identified the plant and then basically ignored it.

Over the course of the year, the population has grown from 2 or 3 individuals to about a dozen.  Most are in the same area where I noticed the original ones, which is still an overgrown and abandoned strip of land above a storm drain pipe.  A couple individual plants have popped up in the lawn, now.  Their flower stalks get mowed off weekly, but the basal rosettes are still dark green and attractive.

Then I started feeding our cats first thing every morning.  The cat food is right beside the Elephantopus corner and I started noticing that their light purple, aster-like blossoms were actually quite attractive, held so staunchly a foot above the ground and carefully framed by three miniature versions of the basal leaves.  On a couple days, I went out several hours later to photograph them, only to find that the blooms had already closed.

Finally, stumbling out in my pajamas, with camera in hand, I managed to capture a few in full, morning bloom.  They look like miniature boutonnieres, all ready to be harvested and pinned on some fairy gentleman's coat lapel.  Still not spectacular flowers, but quaint and dainty and very appealing, in a quiet sort of way. 

Appealing, unlike this plant's common names, which returns us to one of my chief frustrations about this plant.  The name "Hairy Elephant's Foot" is supposedly given due to the large, flat, basal leaves which apparently resemble elephants' feet to some folks.  (Their footprints, maybe?)  Hairy, because the stems and leaves are fuzzy.

This plant's official common name, however, is Devil's Grandmother, according to the USDA Plants Database, and I can't for the life of me figure out why.  To my knowledge, this plant has no spines or horrible odors or other devilish qualities to it.  Some sources suggest that it is toxic;  others say that it can be used as an analgesic and anti-inflammatory.  Nothing too unusual there.  For Pete's sake, azaleas are toxic, among many, many other plants, and willows are the original source of aspirin.  So why Devil's Grandmother?  If anyone knows, I'd love to find out the story here.

Meanwhile, I'm just going to get quiet pleasure each morning as I feed the cats and look at the dainty little fairy boutonnieres, held high for my viewing pleasure.  Several sources mentioned that insects love these little blooms, too.  The fly in the photo above certainly seemed to be content.  I'll be watching to see what other insects might come calling as well.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Spirit of the Garden

When I got back from my adventure with our son Sean in Boston, Greg had a surprise for me.  He had installed my garden sprite while I was gone.

My sprite has graced 3 gardens now:  first in Mobile, Alabama, where we purchased her;  then in Clearwater, Kansas; and now in Ft. Walton Beach, Florida.

By the time we brought her home in Mobile, I had been gardening there for several years and I knew exactly where I wanted to place her.  However, in my subsequent two gardens, it has taken me a while to figure out where she should stand.  Greg and I had talked about where she should be in this yard, but I never dreamed he'd be able to set her up by himself!

Each time she gets placed, the garden suddenly feels graced by her presence.

Given the name of this blog, I've come to think of this statue as representing Gaia, the spirit of Earth.  She becomes my touchstone as I make decisions about caring for the land over which she stands guard.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Pollinators and Other Creatures in the Garden

For the first time in quite a while, I was able to slip outside and take a few photos in the yard and gardens yesterday.  I didn't get great shots and I haven't had time to identify the animals, mainly insects, that I found, but I thought you might enjoy seeing them anyway.

I thought I was off to a great start when I found this black-winged damselfly as soon as I stepped off the back patio.  He was resting on a leaf of blue-eyed grass.

While I was taking the damselfly's photo, I noticed movement on the ground, in the verbena, about 2' away.  Doing some minor poking around, I was able to get a quick shot of this good-sized wolf spider lurking in the vegetation.

Next I walked around to the mailbox area, with its gay skirt of blooming gaillardia and butterfly milkweed.  Over the last month, I've seen more pollinators in this little 6 square foot area than in the rest of the yard combined, I think.  This little bee was busily gathering pollen from the gaillardia.

After the bee flew off, at first I didn't see any other action, then I noticed a colorful wasp hanging around.  This photo is rather blurry, but I wanted to show the overall markings of this gal...

...before I shared my favorite shot, which shows how her big, compound eye curves around the base of the antenna on her face.

Isn't that an amazing detail?!

Last of all, I found several insects on the aquatic milkweed (Asclepias perennis), despite its diminutive size and somewhat anemic appearance so far in my garden.  Truthfully, I only really noticed ONE insect at first - this small, dark bee....

...but note the ants that were also on the flowers.  I didn't see them until I downloaded the photo and magnified it. There was also a tiny fly hanging around, but I didn't get a clear enough photo of that one to share.

So that, fellow gardeners, completes the portfolio of "Pollinators & Others" that I found during my 25 minute walkabout yesterday afternoon.  I was a little disappointed not to find more insect life, but it's early days/months/years in my gardens here, so I guess it's not too surprising that the diversity is minimal.  I'm hearing, too, that insect life is on a major decline throughout the country, so maybe my quiet yard is just indicative of a larger problem.

Time will tell.  Meanwhile, I'm doing what I can, where I can - and enjoying the rewards that I am given.  I'll just hope to see more on another day.

Update on the Florida Scrub Skullcap

I should have waited a couple weeks before highlighting the Florida scrub skullcap (Scutellaria arenicola) in a post.  When I got back from my trip to Boston, where I helped to create a pollinator garden for Sean, the skullcaps were in full bloom.  How full of blossoms the plants are and what a beautiful blue those blooms are!

You can see from the number of flowers dropped on the ground that they've been blooming for a while and were probably even a bit showier than they are in this photo.

Just for kicks and giggles, here are a couple closeups.  The first is of the blooms...

...and the second is of a bloom spike about to break into full bloom.

This is their first year!  I am so glad that I picked these up from Dara and I hope they continue to do well and even increase in future years.

Monday, July 11, 2016

A Satellite Garden for Boston

Several years ago our son purchased a condo in Somerville, Massachusetts.  As is typical in a large metropolitan area, there isn't much land around the building, but Sean's been talking with me about creating a pollinator garden on the small plot that he has.  Over the 4th of July weekend, we were finally able to make that happen.

Here is the space that we started with.....

Of course, since we're talking an area that has been built on for over a century, there was plant material already in place.  Most of it was exotic, if not exotic AND invasive:  black swallow-wort (a vine related to milkweed), Vinca minor, white sweet clover, crabgrass, fescue, and a cranesbill of some sort.  We removed all of these except the cranesbill, which didn't seem to be invasive and which was creating a nice small carpet with a few purple flowers.

Then there were the native plants:  an oak seedling, 2 maple seedlings, lots of hay fern, and and a couple violets.  Pretty as the hay fern was, it was obviously too aggressive for this small an area, so we reluctantly removed it.  There was still plenty of it on the north side of the house. Of course, the tree seedlings had to go, too.  This is definitely not a big enough space for an oak or maple tree.  We did try to keep the violets...although they got pretty mangled during the whole process.

The large shrub at the north end of the garden space is an old privet which technically belongs to the next door neighbor, so we didn't try to do anything with it.  There is black swallow-wort and Boston ivy growing up in it, as well as a maple seedling or two, so Sean will have to keep a close eye on it to keep those plants from infringing on his new pollinator garden.

My biggest concern for this project was finding appropriate, non-pesticide treated, native plants to form the biological base of the new garden.  Searching online, I located Garden in the Woods, a nature area run by the New England Wildflower Society.  It's in Framingham, which isn't too far out of the city, and they sell native plants.  We fired up the cell phone navigation system and made our way out there on Saturday morning.  Woohoo!  Paydirt!  Even in early July, long after sensible people have put in their new gardens or renovated their old ones, Garden in the Woods still had a nice selection of Massachusetts' native plants.  My only regret in going there was that we didn't have time to hike their trails.

On the way back, with Sean's car mostly full of native perennials, we stopped at Russell's Garden Center and bought a few tools, compost and mulch (plus a small butterfly milkweed).  Now the car was really loaded down.

I should have taken a photo of the car, but I didn't think about it. I was too psyched about getting busy, digging in the dirt.

Luckily for me, I got to be the "consultant".  Sean did the vast majority of the actual physical labor, but I got to get my hands dirty enough to feel like an integral part of the project.  The steps were pretty basic: we pulled out and discarded all the plants that we didn't want, making sure that we got as many of their roots as possible, then we spread a layer of compost over the open soil to be worked in as we planted the new perennials.  Fortuitously, the soil turned out to be better than I expected.  Next we placed the plants and Sean dug the holes - same depth as the pot, but twice as wide - before he planted each new garden member carefully, being careful to loosen the root balls as appropriate and to water each one in thoroughly.  The final step was to mulch.

By Sunday afternoon, here is what Sean's new pollinator garden looked like....

The plant list includes red moss phlox (Phlox subulata 'Scarlet Flame'), red bearberry (Arctostaphylas uva-ursi), cranesbill (Geranium sp.), violets (Viola sp.), lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium), wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana), foxglove penstemon (Penstemon digitalis), Nicky summer phlox (Phlox paniculata 'Nicky'), showy coneflower (Rudbeckia fulgida), spike blazing star (Liatris spicata), Magnus eastern purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea 'Magnus'), wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), poke milkweed (Asclepias exaltata), common milkweed (Asclepias syriacus), and New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae).

The poke and common milkweed will move around;  Sean will just pull out any that come up in a place that he finds displeasing.  Hopefully the monarchs will eventually come to visit - and maybe even to lay eggs.

The garden is planted fairly densely;  the look will hopefully be "cottage garden" in style.   I'm really excited to see how it grows and matures over the next few years.  Most of all, I'm looking forward to seeing the pollinators that it will be supporting.  Every little bit helps!

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Watching the Gardens Evolve: Florida Scrub Skullcap

Sometimes I really irritate myself.  When I went to look for a picture of how an area of the garden looked when we first planted it earlier this spring, I realized that I had taken exactly zero closeup photos.  I remember thinking that the garden looked much too bare to be worth photographing.  Good grief - SURELY by now I would know how much fun it is to watch the evolution of growing things throughout the seasons!

Anyway, here is the best I can do:  a greatly enlarged (and therefore fuzzy) "closeup" of one corner of my newly planted front flower beds, taken on April 17th of this spring....

I want you to notice the 3 plants that are right at the corner, in the center of the photo.  The tall, rather leggy plant is Ohio spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis).   The 2 shorties in front of it are Florida scrub skullcaps (Scutellaria arenicola) that I purchased, on a whim, from Dara at 7 Pines Native Plant Nursery.

I love skullcaps, but I knew nothing about this particular species except what Dara told me.  Since I really didn't know what I was getting, my hopes were high, but my expectations were pretty low.  Frankly, I'd be happy if these 2 plants liked where I planted them enough to survive without looking too bedraggled.

Here's what those 3 plants look like right now.  I've been enjoying the Ohio spiderwort, which has been blooming every day for weeks and weeks.  That shade of blue just lifts my spirits.  I had literally forgotten about the scrub skullcap, so I was shocked to realize, yesterday morning, that some of the blue in that corner of the garden was actually coming from a bloom spike on the Florida scrub skullcaps.  How exciting!

Looking at this closer photo, the skullcap bloom spike is going diagonally from the lower right hand corner to about 2/3 of the way to the upper left hand corner.  The blue in the background at the top comes from the spiderwort blossoms.

I do need to get a closer photo of the blossoms for you..... 

Comparing my plants to those I see in pictures online, I think these 2 individuals may be getting a little too much water.  The plants seem taller than expected and rather floppy, which I didn't anticipate, and the bloom spike a little too elongated.  Greg's wanting to get our grass up to a reasonable standard, since we're living in a neighborhood, so we're using the sprinkler system that was here when we purchased our home.  I don't think these plants need or particularly want the extra water, but hopefully it won't hurt them too much either.  Certainly you don't get much better drainage than our highly sandy soil.

I'll be watching these guys a lot more carefully in the upcoming days.  What a great surprise on a hot and humid mid-June morning!