Sunday, November 27, 2022

Oleander, Nerium oleander, Beautiful and Poisonous

Oleander, Nerium oleander (dogbane family, Apocynaceae) has for years been, for me, an example of how comfortably we live with poisonous plants. Oleander is very poisonous. Adults are hospitalized after eating several leaves, die from a serving of leaves. The plants contain a series of very toxic alkaloids, oleandrin, oleandrigenin, oleandroside, neroside, and more. All parts of the plant, including the flower petals, sap, honey, twigs, and roots, contain these alkaloids. They are not destroyed by drying or heat, and the smoke from an oleander fire can be dangerous. However, the story that a boy scout troop died of cooking hot dogs on oleander sticks is an urban legend (see Snopes). 

oleander, Nerium oleander
oleander, Nerium oleander

Sunday, November 20, 2022

The Solanaceae, Foods and Poisons

National Botanic Garden sign The National Botanic Garden in Washington, DC has the above sign. 

There are about 2,300 species in the nightshade family, Solanaceae, so I can hardly mention them all, but here's a tour of some of my favorites:

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Long Term Studies and Record Keeping

All experiments, observational or manipulative, need to be well-designed. But you also need to summarize and publish the results. If the study goes on very long--and I've been reflecting on lessons from a 42-year project on harvester ants--there are special issues in maintaining the records.


surveying harvester ant colonies
Study of harvest ant colony longevity;
a few days of observation every year for 42 years

Technology is bound to change. I saw the notes from a grassland study in Hays, Kansas that ran from 1942 to 1972 (data now at Colorado State University); in the middle of the study colored ballpoint pens came into existence and notes that had been in heavy black ink became color-coded. How cool! Who ever thinks about pen evolution? And yet, while xeroxing was only in black and white, the color coding was a problem for copying/backing up the data.

I have carried out several studies that ran more than a decade and worked with a couple others. Here are some of the things I learned--mostly by doing them badly. 

Sunday, November 6, 2022

Plant Story--The Gangly, Gorgeous Queen of the Night Epiphyllum oxypetalum

"Here, wouldn't you like this?" my friend said, "it has a nice flower," and handed me a potted plant.  It looked rather like a Christmas cactus, with no particular spines, but was much bigger than a Christmas cactus, with some of the parts long and narrow, others broad and flat.

Epiphyllum oxypetalum Queen of the Night
Epiphyllum oxypetalum

"Okay," I said, since I was always a sucker for a plant, especially one I knew nothing about. It came with its name on a handmade pot label, Epiphyllum oxypetalum. What a mouthful. I ignored the name.

Sunday, October 30, 2022

Thoughts on Long-Term Studies

I ran a study of the western harvester ant, Pogonomyrmex occidentalis, from 1977 to 2019, 42 years. Most scientific studies are done in two or three field seasons, which represents the time students have for a project and the need for professionals to show results. Some topics need longer and get it. Academic careers are about 40 years, so if started the year the scientist was beginning, 40 years is about the limit, unless a second person picks up the project. But people willing and able to do long-term studies are rare. In the case of the harvester ant study, retired well before I finished the harvester ant project.

western harvester ant colony
western harvester ant (Pogonomyrmex occidentalis) colony
They can live 40 years.

I completed the project, but I learned a series of things I didn't expect:

Sunday, October 23, 2022

Travel Story--National Bonsai and Penjing Museum

We love going to Washington, D.C. to see the museums. Having been there several times, my husband and I are now finding lesser-known museums. This trip, one was the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum. Who knew!

National Bonsai and Penjing Museum

Bonsai is the Japanese name for the art the Chinese call penjing (and vice versa). Both countries have a very long history of growing miniaturized plants. The museum had some awesome pieces--I'll call them bonsai because it is the more familiar name. Both awesome in age and beauty.

Sunday, October 16, 2022

Studying Western Harvester Ants, Pogonomyrmex occidentalis

I just published a research project I began in 1977. 

I had no idea what I was getting into. E. O. Wilson wrote in The Insect Societies (1971) that we only knew how long the colonies of four ant species lived. I looked at the conspicuous mounds of the western harvester ant, Pogonomyrmex occidentalis, in western Nebraska and thought  "I can find out how long those live, just follow them for some years." So I walked along the ridge above the University of Nebraska's Cedar Point Biological Station, Ogallala, Nebraska, and put down a number scraped into a square cut out of a steel pop can and held down by a nail in the center, by every harvester ant colony I saw. Then the next year, I came back to see how many of the colonies were still alive.

harvester ant nest
harvester ant nest in the shortgrass prairie
(the pile of pebbles)