Flower demystification

As Paul suspected, this is a Phalaenoposis flower.  Here it is again, shown next to another flower on the same plant (but different stalk):


As to the second question – why does it look this way – there could be a number of reasons.  I’m leaning toward environmental.  This particular flower stalk is an old one – after it had bloomed initially (with normal flowers), we left it on after the flowers fell.  As often happens, new flower buds appeared, but all of them have been abnormal.  Some were completely fused and never opened.  This one is missing most of its petals.

Other reasons could include viral infection (as Sheila suggested) or somaclonal variation (common in tissue cultured plants, which is how many orchids are propagated).  But this flower stalk is perpetually colder than the rest of the plant as it’s closest to the window.  And since its first crop of flowers were normal, I think this variation is due to cold temperature interference during flower development.

If you have other ideas, be sure to post them!

Right and Left

Just got a picture of the cover of a new book I’ve got coming up soon.  It’s a collaborative project with an old friend of mine who is a political science professor at UNC Charlotte.  We look at a bunch of different environmental issues, different things that the government could do about these issues, and then we rate these options by how the well the right and left wingers would like them.  Sure to tick people off!  The book won’t be out till next January — It’s typically over a year between when something is first turned in and when it comes out — that’s just publishing.

Permaculture – my final thoughts

We’ve had some good, vigorous discussion about permaculture, specifically around the book Gaia’s Garden.  I’ve pointed out some problems with the author’s understanding of relevant plant and soil sciences and will wrap up this week with a look at the glossary and bibliography.


The glossary contains a number of scientific-sounding words and phrases with unscientific definitions; for example:

“Buffer plants: Plants placed between guilds or between allelopathic species. They should be compatible with the trees in each guild and should have a positive effect on one or both of the guilds to be linked.” (“Buffer plants” is a phrase legitimately used in ecological restoration where plantings separate wetlands or other natural areas from human activity.)

“Guild: A harmoniously interwoven group of plants and animals, often centered around one major species, that benefits humans while creating habitat.” (The term “guild” is ecological and refers to groups of species that exploit the same types of resources.  It has been hijacked and redefined for permaculture.)

“Narcissistic: Plants that thrive on the leaf litter of members of their own family, such as the Solanaceae, or nightshade family.” (In this case, this is an unscientific term given a scientific-sounding – but nonsensical – definition.)

“Polycultures: Dynamic, self-organizing plant communities composed of several to many species.” (Polyculture is an agricultural term referring to the planting of multiple crops. It’s a cultural strategy in Integrated Pest Management.)

“Sectors: Areas where outside energies such as wind, sun, fire and so forth enter a site. These energies can be mitigated, captured, or otherwise influenced by placement of elements in the design.”


There are only two books I would consider scientific; one soils textbook from 1996 and the other is Odum’s classic text Fundamentals of Ecology (1971). I’m disappointed in how scarce and dated these references are, given the wealth of more recent articles and books that are both relevant to urban gardens and scientifically sound.

The bibliography also includes many books on design and I’m not including them in this critique. Of those that remain, the bulk are nonscientific and in many cases pseudoscientific. Examples of the latter include The Albrecht Papers (Albrecht, 1996), Weeds and What They Tell (Pfeiffer, 1981).

And this last criticism embodies what permeates much of Gaia’s Garden: pseudoscience. In the glossary, we see scientific-sounding terms or definitions that are ultimately meaningless or incorrect. Furthermore, we see scientifically legitimate terms such as guild used incorrectly. Both of these practices are characteristics of a pseudoscience.

I think this is unfortunate. I’ve mentioned before that I agree with much of the philosophy behind permaculture. But dressing up this philosophy as science both misleads nonexperts and alienates scientists.

So here’s a challenge – why not write a new book on permaculture and collaborate with a scientist? (I know a few who are writers!)

Is Black The New Brown?

Mulch is always an interesting point of discussion as well as the topic of several past GP posts. But I honestly can’t recall if we’ve covered dyed mulch, and can’t search the site, so here goes.

I recently received a request for information from Debbie Dillon, a fine Urban Horticulturist with Virginia Cooperative Extension.  She noted the increased use of dyed mulch in the Northern Virginia area, and has been fielding questions from both landscape designers and homeowners regarding the safety of said mulch and the potential for harmful effects on plants. Black seems to be a fave color of late.

All I could offer her at the time was “Bleccch, I really don’t care for it” and a promise to investigate further. Armed with a bit of spare time and Google – here’s what [little] I’ve found out.

There are several products out there, such as Solarfast MCH and Mulch Magic. They’re used commercially on bulk mulch and are also available to the homeowner without restriction. From the Solarfast website – “Solarfast MCH is a colorant used to restore faded mulch back to its original color. It is environmentally friendly and does not contain hazardous chemicals, heavy metals or other ingredients that are known to be harmful to the environment.”

Is it safe?

The MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) for Solarfast was incomplete – it did not list components. The MSDS for Mulch Magic indicates the black contains carbon black, red contains iron oxide, and brown contains diethylene glycol monobutyl ether (as well as carbon black and iron oxide). The composition beyond that (carriers, surfactants, etc.), was not noted.  Diethylene glycol monobutyl ether is a fairly common solvent for paints and inks with purportedly low environmental toxicity, but can irritate skin and eyes. Carbon black can be made from various sources but is basically a petroleum product, used in laser printer and photocopier toner as well as the manufacture of reinforced rubber (i.e. tires).  Most concerns are related to worker inhalation at the point of manufacture. Iron oxide is, well, oxidized iron, and has been used as a pigment for quite a while (i.e. cave paintings at Lascaux, Bob Ross, etc.).

What about the plants?

There are many, many studies on pigmented film mulches (usually polyethylene) in fruit and vegetable production.  Certain colors can alter plant growth and processes, such as flowering and fruiting, stem length, etc., but I couldn’t find a thing regarding dyed, wood-product mulch. Issues of concern might be that the dye is disguising the composition of the mulch. Apparently dyes are frequently used on “pallet mulch” – shredded pallets, usually made from softwood. Another concern might be the increase in root-zone temperature, especially from the use of heat-absorbing black pigments. Could soil temperatures warm to the point of causing a too-early bud break?

Is it aesthetically pleasing?

Apparently “yes”, to some, because there’s a market for it. What do you think?

This photo was taken in April at a local medical center (it was a rainy morning, pardon the low light). The fairly typical commercial landscape surrounding the building is dotted with beds and trees freshly mulched in black. Note the classic mulch “volcano” in the background. No sir, I don’t like it. But that’s just me.

Toxicity information on compounds noted available at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) – Summaries &  Evaluations,  http://www.inchem.org/

Is Fall Really a Great Time to Plant Trees?

One of the joys of working on a university campus is that construction never seems to end.  As near as I can tell there are about 3,000 orange construction barrels that permanently reside on the MSU campus that simply get shuffled from one end of campus to the other every few months.  Along with all the construction comes a never ending series of new landscape projects.  Driving by one of the most recent projects the other day got me to thinking about the myth of Fall planting.  In numerous extension bulletins and certainly in nursery sales advertising we hear that “fall is the perfect time to plant trees”.

Photo: Dana Ellison

The recent fall planting job on our campus gave me pause to think about this.  I haven’t had a chance to completely survey the carnage but I suspect about a third of the trees will need to be replaced.  Obviously there are lots of things that may have gone wrong here, irrespective of when the trees were planted and one exception doesn’t prove the rule.  Nevertheless when I look back on the planting disasters I’ve been called in to inspect over the years a disproportional share (I’d say by a factor of two or three to one) are fall planting jobs.


What gives?  Well, the notion that fall is a great time for planting is built in a faulty premise, at least for this part of the country.  Probably the most commonly cited reason for fall planting is that trees grow a lot of roots in the fall.  This assumes that since there’s no shoot growth occurring, trees automatically shift reserves below-ground.   There is certainly a ‘pecking order’ of carbohydrate distribution within a tree based on relatively strengths of sources and sinks.  But there’s one factor that trumps all others: temperature.  Soil temperature is the biggest driver of root growth.  Measurements of new root growth in a cottonwood plantation in Wisconsin provide a classic example.  As temperatures decline in the fall, new root growth essentially ceases.  For trees that are well established, this is no problem.  For trees that have just been transplanted and need to re-establish root-soil contact this is a tough row to hoe.  Throw in a tough Michigan or Wisconsin winter and the tree’s facing an uphill climb.


New root growth of eastern cottonwood (top) and soil temperature (bottom). Source: Kern et al. 2004. Tree Phys. 24:651-660.

Again, most planting failures have multiple causal factors.  Even if the trees on this site had been planted in the spring, they may have still experienced problems.  My point is that a more accurate statement is “Fall is an OK time to plant trees”; not the ‘best’ time or even a ‘great’ time.  I think these statements are often driven by the fact the fall is a slow time for nurseries and landscapers.  When homeowners or landscapers ask me about fall planting the first thing I ask is if there is any reason why they can’t wait until spring, the real ‘best’ time for planting.

Friday puzzler unearthed!

Lots of good guesses this week! As many of you realized, this is a huge tree root making the best of a small tree pit.  But it’s not a Norway maple (sorry John) or a mulberry (sorry Robert), but a sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) (congratulations Brian!).  (You can see the little mace-like seed pods on the ground.)  The root does resemble a bicep (“Treebeard’s elbow”) flexing to crack the concrete (aka Robert’s  Concretious blandmulsia):

Though sweetgum can be nice urban trees, their roots are quite vigorous and can lift sidewalks several inches above grade as they increase in diameter:


Thanks for all the entries – our readers are smart and funny!

Do Organophosphates cause ADHD?

Ever since Monday’s post I’ve been preoccupied thinking about that article which was mentioned in the comments section by Daniel http://www.cnn.com/2010/HEALTH/05/17/pesticides.adhd/index.html?iref=allsearch . This article basically summarized a study that seemed to show that ADHD in children was related to exposure to organophosphate insecticides.

Articles like this appear all of the time in mainstream media and they scare the bejezus out of us because, after reading them, we end up thinking “Holy crap! We’re killing ourselves and ruining our society with these insane chemicals!” Most of the time, however, this just isn’t the case.  Look, if everything that the papers reported about the negative effects of pesticides and other chemicals was true we’d all have cancer, mental illness, or we’d just be dead.

After the above you’re probably telling yourself that I’m some kind of maniacal chemical apologist.  Maybe I am, but I don’t think so.  I’ve spent a lot of time reading the actual articles from which these media pieces are written and I like to think I have a relatively balanced view of these chemicals – maybe I’m deluding myself though – I’ve been known to do that on occasion.  In any regard, what I’m going to do with this blog post is to take a look at the media article and let you know some of the questions that I want answered before I get very concerned about the research, and by answered I mean answered by the scientific article from which the media piece was derived.  Now, to be fair, I have not read the actual scientific article from which this media piece was derived.  It isn’t online as I’m writing this (at least nowhere that I can find it), though I have no doubt that it will be soon.  I suppose that I could have waited to write this until it came out, in fact I considered that idea carefully, but instead I thought that I would tell you about the things that I’m wondering about the article; In other words, the things that I’ll be looking for when I finally get to read it.  Media people want POW!  Scientists want to know what’s actually going on.

Before we begin I should tell you that I’m no fan of organophosphates.  They include a wide range of chemicals (though they are, obviously, all related in that they’re organic chemicals with phosphorus), some worse than others – from the relatively tame orthene and malathion to the scary-as-hell disulfoton (aka disyston).  Right now, as an extension specialist who works with growers, I can tell you that organophosphate chemicals are, in general, not a preferred choice for most growers simply because there are so many safer and more effective choices out there.  My feelings about organophosphates can best be summed up by what I wrote in my book The Truth About Organic Gardening “[Organophosphates] are an old class of insecticides that has served its purpose and for the most part should probably go the way of the dodo, with the possible exception of orthene and one or two others.”

So here we go, the things that I will be looking for when I read the actual scientific article:

1.  What’s the confidence interval?  In the media article it was stated that children with higher levels of organophosphates were about two times more likely to have ADHD, but no confidence interval was given.  In epidemiological studies such as this the likelihood of a given outcome is usually expressed as an odds ratio.  In this case the odds ratio that a child would develop ADHD given a high level of organophosphate exposure would be about 2 (because it would be 2 times as likely that a child would develop ADHD as it would be if the child weren’t exposed to the organophosphates).  But in a scientific article the odds ratio will always be coupled with a confidence interval.  A confidence interval tells you how confident you are in your odds ratio.  If you’re very confident then you’ll have a narrow confidence interval – maybe 1.8-2.2 — which means that it is 95% certain that the odds ratio is between 1.8 and 2.2 (the 2.0 odds ratio is basically just the most likely point on the confidence interval for the odds ratio to sit.  It’s kind of like, but not exactly the same as, an average).  For an epidemiological study that’s darn good.  If that’s the confidence interval present in the article then I’ll be impressed.  What we might find though is a confidence interval of something like 0.2 to 22.  That stinks and you’re deluding yourself if you think that a confidence interval like this “proves” anything – unfortunately I have seen plenty of media articles use research with confidence intervals such as this because of the POW! factor.  They ignore the confidence interval and just look at the odds ratio.  My guess is that this article has something in between the two confidence intervals which I listed above – we’ll see.

2.  I want to know how often urine was sampled.
Organophosphates move through the body very quickly.  In fact, I was recently reading a paper which showed that you can’t predict from one test time to the next what organophosphate readings will be because there’s so little consistency.  If you’re exposed to an organophosphate one day you may test high that day, but two days later you’ll be testing low again, so, I want to know if a single sample was done – which I would consider to be almost useless in terms of telling us actual organophosphate exposure – or if multiple samples were taken over time which I would consider to be much more useful.

3.  Did the organophosphate really come from food?  The implication that these organophosphates which, in theory, contributed to the onset of ADHD came from food bugs me.  I want to see if the author actually draws this conclusion in the paper or if it was made up by the media.  There are lots of places that organophosphates are and have been used, the singling out of fruits, vegetables, or any food seems ridiculous to me.  The author of the media article points out that organophosphates are not used around homes much – but that really isn’t the case and it certainly wasn’t the case just a few short years ago. There are still plenty of organophosphates being used quite regularly around homes.  I just did a search for orthene and malathion and found that I could buy them quite easily online.  Diazinon and chlorpyrifos are two others that shouldn’t be used by homeowners but which I know of people using – sometimes in heavily trafficked areas.

4.  I’d like to know about how the other potential contributors to ADHD were controlled.  There are other things that have been correlated with ADHD, how were these controlled so we know they weren’t the cause of the ADHD measured in this experiment?  For example, abused or neglected children seem to have a higher rate of ADHD, how was this taken into account in the study?  Was it taken into account?  A theory would be (and I’m totally making this up) what if abused children are fed more food with higher rates of organophosphates while non-abused children are fed more organic food.  Then the results would show that the neglected kids had higher ADHD and higher organophosphates – but was it the poor parenting or the organophosphates which caused the ADHD?

So, those are the four questions that I’ll be asking right off – and there are more that I’ll think of once I actually read the article.  All of these questions don’t mean that I think the article is bad though – regardless of what their answers are.  This research was probably well conducted and will enlighten scientists and lead to new avenues of research.  But, I’m willing to bet that the POW! from the media article (ADHD is caused by eating organophosphates on food) isn’t quite as powerful when the whole article is read with a more critical eye.

Yet another fine product

As a member of the GWA (Garden Writers Association), I routinely get emails about new garden products. Here’s one I received this week:

“I thought your readers or listeners might be interested in learning of a new way to protect their plants without using pesticides.  Moisturin, which contains no toxic ingredients, is sprayed on plants to form a clear flexible barrier strong enough to lock out both insects and airborne plant disease.  Moisturin is inexpensive, easy to use and extremely effective.  I would like to send you some at no charge for your own trial.  If your satisfied with it performance I hope you will pass it s benefits onto the people who trust your opinion.”

It turns out that Moisturin is simply a repackaged antitranspirant. Briefly, these spray-on barriers prevent water loss physically (by covering stomata) or physiologically (by closing stomata).  Interfering with stomatal function both reduces carbon dioxide uptake and water movement within the plant. You can read more about antitranspirants here.

But do antitranspirants have an effect on diseases or insects? Research indicates that while antitranspirants may reduce insect attack, their efficacy against diseases is less clear. They also show a clear negative impact on the plants they supposedly protect, to the extent they’ve even been tested as a form of weed control.

The best way to reduce pest and disease problems in garden and landscape plants is to keep them healthy. Reducing their ability to function normally by clogging their stomata will do exactly the opposite.