Saturday, October 11, 2008

Pretty picture: Dendrobium 'Karen'

Though I have not yet succumbed to the lure of the orchids, I'm thinking it's really likely to happen eventually, because I've more or less settled on a genus to covet. Phalaenopsis are pretty, but I've become a little jaded about them; I see them all the time and it takes a pretty extreme specimen to turn my head now. And Beallara, Spathoglottis, Laeliocattleya, Bakerara, Zygoneria, Degarmoara or Paphiopedilum are all amazingly gorgeous, but I don't have a lot of confidence in my abilities to grow any of those. So I've been leaning toward the Dendrobiums, which are supposedly easy to grow but still more unusual than Phalaenopsis.

Dendrobium is super-especially appealing now, since they're all beginning to bloom. I sort of prefer 'Hollywood,' truth be told, but 'Karen' is currently the most spectacular one we've got:

I'd be willing to accept either.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Iowa City Graffiti (self-negation)

I'm pleased to see that they at least spelled it correctly.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Plant Dignity. "Dignity?" Dignity.

Along the same lines as my "On Sentimentality" post a few days ago, we have this news from Switzerland. Because I hate to have posts without pictures (yesterday's bothered me, but I'm not a good enough artist to draw imaginary plants, or most of the real plants either, for that matter, though I can handle kind of cartoonish Gasterias in a pinch), the pictures in the post aren't really related to anything. Though they are all bluish, because I can be at least that organized, I guess.


Late last April, the Ethics Committee of the Swiss government decided that not only must all scientific grant proposals include "a statement about the project’s impact on the dignity of the research subjects," a condition which had been going on for some time already, but that this condition would henceforth also apply to experimentation on plants as well as animals and humans. (Quote from here.)

Exacum affine, persian violet. We only recently figured out how to keep these alive in the greenhouse for more than a week at a time. (The answer: water. Frequently. Would that all the issues like this were so easy to fix.)

I found out about this through IO9's recent post on the 2008 Ig Nobel Prizes. The Swiss ethics group was awarded the Ig Nobel Peace Prize as a result of this change.

The trouble is that nobody can articulate quite what "plant dignity" would mean, practically speaking. A few brave souls have suggested that "plant dignity" might be mostly related to technologies that change the plant's relationship to the world in general, in a long-term kind of way, as for example by engineering a plant to be unable to set seed. Which sounds good for just as long as you can avoid thinking of seedless bananas and grapes, and then loses a lot of its appeal. When you eat a banana, do you really stop to think about whether you're respecting the banana, as you eat it? And even if you did think about the dignity of the banana, would it occur to you to consider seedlessness as being in any way relevant to the question?

Glechoma hederacea, ground ivy or creeping charlie. I personally love this plant, though I think I am the only person in Iowa who does.

The actual report released by the committee is not particularly helpful about what this means either. Vague, nice-sounding assertions were produced ("living organisms should be considered morally for their own sake because they are alive."), and the "inherent worth" of individual plants asserted. The panel opined that no one can claim "absolute ownership" over plants, either individually or collectively, and then concluded with a steaming pile of "we may not use them just as we please, even if the plant community is not in danger, or if our actions do not endanger the species, or if we are not acting arbitrarily." None of which is really all that useful on a practical level. Are they suggesting that the right of a corn plant (Zea mays, not Dracaena fragrans 'Massangeana') to live supercedes the right of a human being to eat the seeds? If yes, then they seem to be suggesting that all of humanity should either starve to death or learn to subsist on petroleum products.1 Moral or not, this is at the very minimum going to be an unpopular position. If no, then how is one to consider the corn "morally for its own sake?"

But so okay.

Now, I'm not opposed to considerations of dignity in and of themselves. Certainly it's worth taking a little time, when designing an experiment with human subjects, to make sure that they aren't going to be embarrassed, disrespected or demeaned by it. Animals may not get embarrassed or feel disrespected, but we have pretty good reasons to believe that they feel emotions like fear, and sensations like pain.2 And we know that these are sucky feelings, so it makes sense to try to minimize them, when possible, even in creatures which aren't going to be able to say thank-you or reciprocate. So I'm fine with that, too. But what negative emotions or sensations do plants feel, that we could minimize? How would you be able to tell?3

Myosotis palustris, forget-me-not. We essentially renamed ours "forget-me" this summer. They got a little dry and didn't come back particularly well.

I mean, dignity was already a problematic concept as applied to humans. The dictionary definitions I've run across, though kinda vague, seem to revolve a general concept of respect; one is dignified when one holds oneself in a way indicating self-respect, self-control. To be undignified is to be, mostly, powerless: one has to beg the more powerful for basic necessities or to escape punishment; one is embarrassed, one is humiliated, one is degraded. Dignity is when one refuses to beg, refuses to be embarrassed, refuses to be degraded. Which of these are options for plants? If you wanted to, how would you go about humiliating a Philodendron? What embarrasses a Hoya? How do you make a Nematanthus beg? How do you know?

So the Swiss are not helping.

Some of your more knee-jerk . . . er, jerks are decrying this as yet another example of woolly-headed liberal thinking run amok. And, you know, I'm a woolly-headed liberal from way back, and involuntarily feel bad for pretty much anybody from one-legged war orphans to wealthy closeted homosexual Republicans. And I admit there's an element of that that looks like Liberalism Unchained. But I don't think that's what the actual issue here is.

Sold as Plumbago NOID, but possibly actually Ceratostigma plumbaginoides?

This all reads to me more like a power play by a really bored bureaucracy, to me. As best as I can tell, the only effect of this ruling is going to be to force researchers who never had to worry about such things before to make up shit they don't mean about how much they respect plants. Since this is more or less a meaningless thing to say, it amounts to little more than an unnecessary hoop in an already overly complex funding bureaucracy, and gives the bureaucrats maybe another excuse to decline to fund projects they don't like but can't come up with good reasons to reject. It won't lead to greater respect for plants, or greater dignity accorded to plants, until society reaches some kind of agreement about what this means on a physical, observable level.

Unless readers would like to suggest some criteria? Please. Tell me how to [dis-]respect plants in a way that would be provable to grant committees.


Photo credits: My own.

1 Some people, of course, have something of a head start on the subsistence-from-petroleum business. You know somebody is eating all those gummi bears and Twinkies.
2 The main reason to believe this is because we know that we do, and animals act the same way we act when hurt or frightened -- they make noise (often), try to get away from whatever causes the pain, avoid it thereafter, etc. Our closest relatives may well feel some of the more complex, social emotions we feel, too: shame, schadenfreude, suspicion, whatever.
3 (A good place to check might be As best as I can tell, it is the blog of a houseplant, though the plant in question is never identified. Judging by the attitude, I think there's a good chance the plant is/was an Agave. Sadly, it hasn't been updated since June 8, 2008, so it may be that all we get are five short posts. Which would be, pardon my language, fucking tragic. It's not dead -- a new post went up last Sunday. It's very possibly the best thing I've seen on the internet in months, brief though it is. I want more.)

BONUS ORPHANED FOOTNOTE from an earlier draft that I thought was too cool to delete but too tangential to be able to work into the main text:

4 Interesting but true: some of our machinery strikes us as easier to empathize with than plants and animals are. Sherry Turkle reports that she finds, in her research, that children who are thoroughly versed in the difference between things which are alive and things which are not, are reluctant to classify toys like the Furby or Tickle Me Elmo as being firmly in either category. They instead spontaneously create a new category, "kinda-alive," for life-like inanimate objects. Which actually strikes me as being perfectly sensible. It's not just kids: adults also do this when confronted with objects that are programmed to imitate living organisms; see this post at Boing Boing, or the comments thread at this Metafilter post about a video someone took of setting a Tickle Me Elmo on fire. The commenters call it "disturbing" and "really sad," and one of the early commenters says s/he feels "there should be a law against this, but I'm not sure why." Which would seem to indicate some latent feelings about robot dignity, which to me still makes more sense than plant dignity. Discuss among yourselves.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Fictional botany: Diabarbus polytrichius

Sheepwhistle (Diabarbus polytrichius) is a small (to 6 in / 15 cm) herbaceous plant native to damp inland areas of northern and eastern portions of Europe. It has cordate green leaves with a prominent white midvein, and produces panicles of small, pink, star-shaped flowers with a lily-of-the-valley-like fragrance in April and May.

The common name derives from its seeds, which are studded with long, stiff hairs: animals eating the plant find the seeds sticking in their throats, causing a buzzing or whistling noise when they breathe. The seeds remain until the bristles and seed case have absorbed enough moisture to germinate, at which point the bristles soften and seeds are coughed up by the animal, then germinate almost immediately where they land.

It is occasionally grown as an ornamental, and has escaped cultivation and become naturalized in much of North America. "'Ere the Sheep Whistle" was a minor folk song in England during the 1700s, about a soldier promising to return home to his love before the summer. Shakespeare also mentions "the flocks a-bed, to whistle through the eve / wee nightingales whose beaks are cloth'd in wool" in King Lear.

-from A Field Guide to Imaginary Plants (Mr. Subjunctive, ed.)


This sort of thing is actually a good bit more difficult than it looks, and I don't know that fictional botany is going to be a regular feature of the blog (especially since I can't include pictures with the posts), but there may be some imaginary plants popping up from time to time, if I can come up with field-guide-type descriptions. Especially if I get to write fake Shakespeare every time. (Iambic pentameter RULEZ!)

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Best Lawn Ornament Ever

I mentioned this one in a previous post, but we actually made a point of going back to Tipton last Thursday so I could get a picture of this. Prepare to be awestruck.

Yeah, that's right. It's a pastel pink and white pony. With wings. On a pastel blue something or another. The colors are slightly more vivid in person. Like with the giant spider at the link above, you know there's an interesting story behind this. And I did kind of want to find out what that story was, but . . . how to even ask the question, you know? It's obviously awesome, but I'm not sure I'm appreciating it in quite the same way as the owner(s). Could be awkward.

The husband and I racked our brains on the way home trying to think of ways to make a lawn ornament that was even more over the top; words like "with lipstick" and "airbrushed" and "rainbow colors" figured prominently in the discussion. Also we're pretty sure that it'd have to be a unicorn instead of a pony. Rhinoceros at the outside. And if there were some way to work in some glow-in-the-dark paint somewhere, that'd be good too.

The rest of the lawn, incidentally, was disappointingly normal-looking. Some people spread a thin layer of whimsy on everything, and others concentrate their whimsy down into a thick, sludgy paste and cake it on one very specific item with a trowel. These people are in the latter category.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Work-related: When Life Gives You Bromels

In either March or June, I forget which, we got in some ornamental pineapples (Ananas comosus 'Mongo') that had just begun to fruit, and they were pretty adorable.

So of course none of the customers would touch them. (Stupid customers.) So as time went on, the pineapples got larger, and developed more and more crowns, and then eventually they all just flopped over on their stems and started crashing into other plants and sending up offsets from the soil all over and then the customers really didn't want them.

Well. When life gives you bromels, make bromelade.1 So we wound up dividing off the offsets, of which there were a couple per plant, and then we planted up some of the superfluous crowns from the top of the fruit, and that was pretty much that. Because when you have a plant that the customers don't want to buy, the thing to do is make more of them.2

Except: there wasn't a lot of room available for rooting stuff, so the superfluous crowns got put under a table to root.

So one day I'm looking under the table in question for some reason, and I notice that about half of them are laying around on the floor, chewed-up to varying degrees. The flat of Ananas had been next to a couple flats of other cuttings of things, and the plants next to the other flats were fine; the unblocked ones had been pulled out, which is obviously very suspicious. And then, as I'm picking them up and putting them back in their pots, I notice a certain chewedness:

Bunnies! Bunnies! It must be bunnies!

Relatively soon, the door at that end of the greenhouse will be closed and covered with plastic, at which point the bunnies will have a tougher time getting in, and things like this won't happen for a while. But until then, I'll have to figure out how to protect certain of the cuttings, it looks like. Bunnies could be lurking anywhere.


1 One of the people in the flower shop pronounces "bromeliad" as though it were "bromelade." Apparently no amount of teasing has been able to break her of the habit. I thought this was just a quirk specific to her at first, but I've had a number of customers say it that way too. One wonders how they pronounce "myriad," or refer to Homer's Iliad. And when life gives these people lemons, do they make luh-MOAN-ee-ads?
2 Not the actual thought process. WCW and I just kind of reflexively try to salvage things, partly because it's our nature to, and partly because the boss, when asked, will usually tell us to try to salvage anyway.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Pretty picture: Trollius chinensis 'Golden Queen'

I'd never heard of this before a couple weeks ago, though we'd had it since spring. I just never noticed. says that it blooms a couple times, in early summer and late summer, but I never noticed it doing anything in early summer, and surely I would have paid attention to something like this, right? I mean, it's very yellow.

I'm also amused that it's named "Trollius." If I ever have to put comment moderation back up due to trolling (I did a couple weeks ago, briefly, because an unstable Christian troll from Australia wanted to spam the comments, but he appears to have been distracted by something already.), I'll have to signal the change by posting this picture again. Like when they fly the black and red Hurricane Warning flags.