Sunday, April 27, 2008

New County Record

On numerous occasions, I have walked past a few diminutive specimens of this plant growing in the woods behind my house. Never seeing it in flower, I didn't take particular note, just assuming it was a stunted holly. Had I been paying closer attention, the compound leaves would have been a dead give away. However, in my defense, the plants in question are all very small, with just one leaf, and well off the trails I typically follow.

Today SodaBoy and I walked up to the quarry, and hiked the rim trail all the way around. We stopped for a break at the highest point of the cliffs on the northeast end. Growing not far off the trail, I saw these pretty little yellow flowers:

It turns out the plant is not a holly, but Mahonia aquifolium (also known as Berberis aquifolium). Native to the Pacific northwest, holly-leaved barberry is the state flower of Oregon, and is also known by the common name of Oregon-grape. The plant is collected from the wild for medicinal use, harvested to the point where there is some concern over the long-term viability of the species in its native range. It is also used in landscaping and is known to be adventive, especially in the east, where it is not native.

The species is not documented from my county, and in fact, is only known from one county in my state, quite a long distance from here. The population I saw today was small enough that were this a native plant, I absolutely would not collect a voucher specimen. The plants behind my house are hardly thriving either. I do not think this species is a big threat in my area at this time. But who knows what the future will bring? This could be important information.

Unfortunately, the quarry rim trail is not a hike that can be managed in the evening after work. Our spring has been late but hot, so accelerated that plants I saw just starting to flower last weekend are in fruit already. If this trend continues, I'll have to collect an Oregon-grape voucher specimen later in the season. At least then I will be able to see the "grapes" for myself.

Sources: PLANTS Database, NatureServe, Flora of North America.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Gas Station Cozy

I want to alert everyone to the International Fiber Collaborative, because it is just so freaking cool. Fine arts graduate student Jennifer Marsh conceived the idea to cover an abandoned gas station in fiber panels, to make a statement about our dependency on oil for energy. First she got permission from the property owner, and then got permits from the Town. People from all world contributed panels they crocheted, knitted, quilted, or otherwise created; Jennifer assembled them all into this truly glorious installation.

Head on over to the official site and check out the additional photos there, including shots of the installation process and close-up shots showing details on individual panels. Also, if you have an abandoned gas station in your area, take a photo and send it to Jennifer. She is always looking for other possible sites... maybe if you are lucky, the International Fiber Collaborative will come to your town.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Friday Flower Blogging

We are enjoying a stretch of amazingly beautiful weather here, and I've been kicking myself for not planning ahead better and requesting a day off this week. Inspired by rumors of bloodroot flowering locally, SodaBoy and I hit up a local state park after I got off work yesterday. The park is a geological and botanical wonder, one of the best spots in my immediate area to see spring wildflowers. The phenological rumors proved true. Witness:

wild ginger (Asarum canadense)

bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Judge and Jury

The kids these days... they are really smart. By kids I mean undergraduates, and by smart, I mean freaking geniuses. Today I served as a volunteer judge on a panel of fellow alumni at Small Green College. Our job was to review student research posters, and to select and rank the top three. When I signed up, I didn't know exactly what to expect, I just knew it sounded fun. It turned out to be very serious business indeed.

There were only four of us judges, and approximately 70 posters to be reviewed in under three hours. The event coordinator arranged it so each poster would be rated by two judges, assigning us each a unique list. Many students were present to discuss their research, but unfortunately, presentation was not part of the ranking criteria. This makes sense, because many students had class to attend, but it was hard to be impartial and not favor those students who were actually there. Especially in the disciplines outside my comfort zone, where an explanation could make a huge difference.

It was so hard! I only had about 5 minutes with each student poster, which isn't very long to talk to a student, read the poster text and figures, and complete an evaluation form. The posters were fantastic, for the most part, given that they were prepared by undergraduates. Sure, there were errors of inexperience: too much or too small text, too much jargon, unlabelled figures, undefined acronyms, spelling mistakes. But this was original research, and these kids were for real. They know their stuff.

It is a self-selected group; the research and the posters were voluntary, and not a class requirement. I certainly never presented research at a poster session as an undergraduate. Now I wish I had. I walked away from the event very impressed. They just need to have a few more judges next year.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Ben & Jerry's: Cinnamon Buns

This post could be subtitled, "the best ice cream in the world." Because it is just that good. Seriously. Unless you are vegan, are allergic to dairy or other ingredients, or are trying to eat healthily, I simply insist you run straight out and pick up a pint. And hurry!

First a disclaimer or two: I have no involvement with B&J. I don't eat eat that much ice cream, and furthermore, I don't care for many of B&J's varieties, mostly because I don't care for the texture of the "extras" when frozen. For example, I love the pistachio ice cream base of their Pistachio Pistachio flavor, but can't stand the icky frozen nuts (even though I like pistachios). One exception that I do enjoy in pint form is Coffee Heath Bar Crunch, and in the scoop shops, I like the Mint Chocolate Chunk. So that should give you an idea of my tastes... pretty simple really.

Label Information
Ingredients: cream, skim milk, water, liquid sugar, sugar, wheat flour, corn syrup, egg yolks, soybean oil, brown sugar, butter, palm oil, molasses, cinnamon, guar gum, salt, baking soda, soya lecithin, carrageenan, natural flavors, inert sugar, vanilla extract.

Ben & Jerry's Homemade, Inc.
30 Community Drive
So. Burlington, VT 05403-6828

We can't remember who said what when about cinnamon buns, but that's all it took for us to roll out the cinnamon dough, swirl in the streusel, and make this flavor happen. Our cool salute to cinnamon buns is sensationally cinnamon-sugary, irresistibly streuseled, and so deliriously dough-loaded, there's no telling where the cinnamon buns end or the ice cream begins. That's because it's one fun flavor all the way through. Enjoy!

We oppose Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone. The family farmers who supply our milk and cream pledge not to treat their cows with rBGH.

Ice Cream Review
OK, so I've already revealed my hand here: I love this ice cream. I really, really like it. In fact, I think it raises the bar for ice cream; there is nothing out there even remotely comparable. Unfortunately for B&J, I love it so much that I've stopped buying it. I had to, though--I was starting to develop a problem. It got so I was eating an entire pint in two sittings. I was emailing home from work on days I knew SodaBoy was going grocery shopping, demanding an update. Did you get Cinnamon Buns? I knew it was time to step off. I've seen for myself how these things can work out when not nipped in the bud.

See, when I was in college, my friend J. had an evening ritual involving B&J. Every night he would ride his bike a few blocks to the local bodega, and return with a pint. He would then proceed to eat the entire thing in one sitting. There was even a special oven mitt he used to keep his hand warm while he clutched the ice cream. After he graduated, he moved to the west coast, and a few years later SodaBoy and I flew out to visit. J. looked amazing. We asked him what was up, if the climate agreed with him, if he was working out. The answer: he'd given up the daily Ben & Jerry's ritual.

Even though I'm scared straight, I am glad that B&J's Cinnamon Buns ice cream exists. As Tennyson said, 'tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

See My Stamens

Every day this week, I have eagerly examined the red maple tree that grows in the yard next door. The weather has been mild and sunny, quintessential spring, and each evening I've been certain that it would finally be the day: the maple would flower. Tuesday I had a long field day, arriving home from a day trip to another state at 9:30 pm. Murphy's Law would suggest that would be the day the tree would flower, but a Wednesday morning inspection revealed otherwise. I started to get impatient: the crocuses are blooming, as are the Siberian squill. What the hell?

Finally! Today was the day... I got to report my first observation. First flower is defined on the phenopause page as the date the first flowers are completely open. "You must be able to see the stamens among the unfolded petals." Full flower is a separate event to report, which is probably good in this case. I didn't traipse too far into my neighbors' yard, but I only saw two flowers that were completely open. No matter--I see stamens. What is flowering in your yard?