How to Clear Your Yard of Rock

According to the BBC, grow cactus!

Few plants can grow without soil and even fewer are capable of growing on nothing but bare rock….


The plants have evolved a symbiotic relationship with rock-dissolving bacteria…

The cacti even incorporate these rock-busting bugs into their seeds…

“When a seed falls in bats and bird droppings onto barren rock, it contains all the bacteria it needs to pioneer colonisation of that rock,” says Dr Bashan.



A newly discovered giant pitcher plant in the Philippines has given the BBC the vapours. Discovered on Mt. Victoria, it’s big enough to eat rats.


For some reason they’ve also included this photo of unidentified blue fungus. Science!


Cactus in Uganda

They’ve found that cactus help keep ticks away from livestock. I’m not really sure how this works, but here’s the evidence.

Researchers at the National Agriculture Research Institute (Naro), who have been undertaking a study on effective control of ticks using botanical solutions, said the cactus shrub has spikes which put off ticks from climbing farm fences to bite animals.

No species name. It’s not even clear to me if they mean an actual cactus, or a spiny shrub that they call the cactus shrub.

Scientists found that ticks do not like the cactus because animals naturally do not go near the plants, but also due to their spikes that make their environment uncomfortable.

But the veterinarians have found that when crushed and mixed in water, spraying it on animals kills all the ticks just like conventional acaricides.

Now that is really interesting. If only it would work on aphids, too.



Calibanus hookeri, a caudiciform member of the Agave family (Agavaceae) which we already said was maybe actually in the Lily family, but let’s not get that started all over again.

Here are the blooms. This is a male plant, as we can tell by the blooms. For some reason all our plants that we see bloom are male, and so that explains why we do not get seed.

As you can clearly see with this super slo-mo closeup, there are stamens there, composed of the little pollen-covered anthers on top of the slender filaments, but no pistils, i.e. the often quite graphic stigma in the center on top of the ovules.


Mexican Cactus?

A cactus-based sugary syrup has become the latest darling of the alternative-sweetener world.

Once mostly unheard of outside natural food stores, agave syrup — made from the same Mexican cactus that yields tequila — suddenly is getting celebrity endorsements, competing for shelf space at mainstream grocers and is a must-have cocktail ingredient.

“If I’m going to be making a premium margarita, agave nectar’s got to be riding shotgun,” says Food Network star Guy Fieri, better known for his greasy spoon affection than his natural foods know-how.

Now I’m a big fan of agave syrup, using it for cocktails as well as for cooking, but having been in the cactus business now for a while I feel the cactus pedant coming out. Look out.

Agave is not a cactus. It is a succulent in the lily family (liliaceae) or at least the agave family (agavaceae) depending on who you ask.

Agave is a genus within the family Agavaceae, which is currently placed within the order Asparagales. Agaves were once classified in Liliaceae, but most references now include them in their own family, Agavaceae.

But definitely not a cactus, for it has no areoles.



English Science

Scientists from the University of Sheffield are leading a project to determine the conservation status of the world’s cactus species.

Cacti have long been thought to be one of the groups of species that has in recent times suffered most from human activities, including over-harvesting and habitat change. However, the evidence to date has been rather limited.

Actually, I think there has been a lot of evidence to date. I’ve posted various studies over the years about individual species. Of course, that doesn’t include the cactus family as a whole. Many cactus to begin have very small populations, very narrow botanical niches. They survive in some very harsh conditions, and as you travel a little distance where the conditions become slightly less harsh, then often other plants easily take over.

As part of the Global Cactus Assessment, researchers at the University of Sheffield have so far worked alongside experts from Costa Rica, Mexico and the USA, to review the Meso-American region in order to identify the distribution, threats and status of each of the species that occur there.

That’s a lot of species to identify and review. Good luck with that. Just wait til they get to Bolivia.

"Little Plum"


Lewisia longipetala is a native.

I wonder what Cal Flora says about it?

Communities: Subalpine Forest, Alpine Fell-fields

Lewisia longipetala, a dicot, is a perennial herb that is native to California and is endemic (limited) to California alone.

Observations by County: Click county name to view observations. [Number of observations in brackets].
El Dorado [7], Nevada [6], Placer [2].

OK, so then what does the USDA say?

Lewisia longipetala (Piper) S. Clay – Truckee lewisia

Symbol: LELO2
Group: Dicot
Family: Portulacaceae
Duration: Perennial
Growth Habit: Forb/herb
Native Status: L48 N

Very interesting…

Of course, “Little Plum” is a hybrid, so who knows.

These blog posts where I farm out the tough work is pretty easy on me. I wonder what any of that info above really means. Well, let’s start with the word “Dicot.”

Dicot: Simply put, the first leaves of a flowering plant that come out of a seed are called cotyledons, and if there are 2 leaves the plant is called a dicot and if there is only one then it is a monocot.


Botanical Illustrations


From the Smithsonian Collection of Flora of Puerto Rico.

Jatropha curcas L. det. by P. Acevedo-Rdgz.

Those large seed pods of the J. curcas are the future of bio-fuels.

The Jatropha is in the Euphorbia family, has succulent stems, and gets nicely shrubby with beautiful leaves. Most Jatrophas are known for their leaves, some for their caudexes. And all are, as members of Euphorbiaceae, poisonous.

Hard Science

Sometimes we have a bit of science on this blog, sometimes even some Science! but today we have the physics of cactus, from Physics Today or some such journal.


(Left) Mammillaria elongata, or golden star cactus, displays a helical morphology. (Right) A magnetic cactus of dipole magnets on stacked bearings assumes phyllotactic spirals, similar to the biological cactus. With the magnetic cactus, physicists have investigated the dynamics of phyllotaxis. Image credit: Cristiano Nisoli, Nathaniel M. Gabor, Paul E. Lammert, J.D. Maynard, and Vincent H. Crespi. ©2009 APS.

And here’s the science bit:

In a recent study, researchers have experimentally demonstrated for the first time a celebrated model of “phyllotaxis,” the study of mathematical regularities in plants. In 1991, S.L. Levitov proposed a model of phyllotaxis suggesting that the appearance of the Fibonacci sequence and golden mean in the pattern of spines on a cactus can be replicated for cylindrically constrained, repulsive objects. Now, researchers have constructed a “magnetic cactus” with 50 outward-pointing magnets acting as spines, which are mounted on bearings and free to rotate on a vertical axis acting as the plant stem. With this setup, the researchers, from Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico; Cornell University in Ithaca, New York; and The Pennsylvania State University (PSU), have verified Levitov’s model, and their study has been published in a recent issue of Physical Review Letters.

There’s more too, if you click through. Maybe I should have borrowed a smaller quote, but it’s early and I feel like giong to get another cup of coffee instead of excerpting all morning long. Interesting concept, though.

Michigan Middle School Student Quote-of-the-Day

First the setup:

About 90 Krueger Middle School students got an early jump on the activities at this week’s BioBlitz at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

The event, sponsored by National Geographic, is bringing in thousands of scientists and other volunteers to catalog as many plants and animals as possible….

Now the quote of the day:

“We even have cactus in the dunes,” Jaden Lance noted.

I like that. “We even have cactus in the dunes” would be a good title for my next book. (OK, my first book, but you get the idea.) Now how about a coda:

A seventh grader found a ladybug crawling along a blade of grass and showed it to a few classmates.


Bees and Chemicals

A possible cause of Colony Collapse Disorder has been identified, and it’s Bayer.

From Salon, I’ve quoted the damning parts, but there is more than just this, so read the whole thing.

Beekeepers have singled out imidacloprid and its chemical cousin clothianidin, also produced by Bayer CropScience, as a cause of bee die-offs around the world for over a decade…. due to a disclosure in December 2007 by Bayer CropScience itself. Bayer scientists found imidacloprid in the nectar and pollen of flowering trees and shrubs at concentrations high enough to kill a honeybee in minutes….

Imidacloprid and clothianidin are chloronicotinoids, a synthetic compound that combines nicotine, a powerful toxin, with chlorine to attack an insect’s nervous system. The chemical is applied to the seed of a plant, added to soil, or sprayed on a crop and spreads to every corner of the plant’s tissue, killing the pests that feed on it….

Today the EPA’s own literature calls it “very highly toxic” to honeybees and other beneficial insects….

So is this what you’ve been using? It’s in Bayer Tree and Shrub products. Interestingly, they have a major research facility here in Berkeley just a few blocks from our home. What giant chemical company implicated in the die-off of bees do you have near your home?

So Red it Hurts

From the Smithsonian Institute National Museum of natural History, Department of Botany, Flora of West Indies feature presentation, comes this stunning red bromeliad.


Bromelia pinguin
Location: U.S. Virgin Islands, St. John
Photographer: P. Acevedo

Apparently it has a lot of common names.

Common Names: Ananas marrón (Dominican Republic), Bayonette (Haiti), Bayonette (L. Antilles), Bayonette pingouin (Haiti), Fleur de Jerichó (Haiti), Karatas (Dominican Republic), Karatas (L. Antilles), Maya (Cuba), Maya (Dominican Republic), Maya (Puerto Rico), Piña cimarrona (Cuba), Piña de cerca (Cuba), Piña de ratón (Cuba), Piña ratón (Cuba), Ping wing (Jamaica), Pingouin (Haiti), Pingouin (L. Antilles), Pinguin (Jamaica), Pinguin (L. Antilles), Pinguin (Puerto Rico), Rubibarbo de la tierra (Cuba),

Oy, what a lot of common names. I like “Piña ratón” myself.

Costa Rica Manzanita

Yes, it’s a bearberry from the volcanic midsection of Costa Rica.


Arctostaphylos arbutoides ssp. costaricensis

Also known as Comarostaphylis arbutoides ssp. costaricensis

You can pick either name you prefer, but I certainly recognize those small dark green leaves, the ripe round delicious looking berries, and the unmistakable bell shaped flowers.

The journal Brittonia has this to say about it:

Endemic to the Cordillera Central of Costa Rica… at ca. 2500-3430 m. It is an important component of the ericaceous scrub on the crater rim of Volcán Irazú and is abundant in the otherwise nearly barren areas of volcanic ash. Flowering and fruiting throughout the year.

They  distinguish the Comarostaphylis from the Arctostaphylos by the

The papillate fruit surface of  Comarostaphylis unambiguously distinguishes it from the smooth-fruited Arctostaphylos.

Now we know the difference, and we can all go out and distinguish them ourselves.

Cactus Science in the News

It turns out there’s more than one use for cactus.

The cactus is one of the edible vegetables in Mexico and is very nutritious,” (Dr. Norma) Alcantar says. She recalls her grandmother saying how the water was used to cook the cactus was then used to clean sediment from drinking water.

At USF, Alcantar began testing the filtration properties of the gooey substance inside the cactus called mucilage. Her research found the mucilage not only filters out sediments, it removes arsenic from the water. 

The cactus mucilage is ideal because it’s natural, biodegradable, abundant and sustainable.

I never knew that. Now I do, and so do you.

Chico, Baby!

“The majority of plant specimens at the Chico State Herbarium are flowering plants, conifers, and ferns, but bryophytes, lichens, and especially slime molds, are also well represented.” Now – and I am not being sarcastic – if you have a general interest in plants, wouldn’t you like to just take a quick look at a slime mold? I would.


How to preserve a cactus? “It takes quite a lot of dehydration before we can mount cacti or other succulents,” admits Lawrence.

Parasitic Wasps

The BBC has outdone themselves with this photo.


Parasitic wasps lay eggs in caterpillars using toxins to paralyze their hosts. The wasp young then eat their way out. A study in Science magazine confirms the genetics of wasp toxins rely heavily of the DNA of viruses that infected the insects millions of years ago.

Bravo, BBC.

New Cactus Species Discovered in Indonesia

Hah! I was just kidding. Actually, it’s a new National Geographic photo of a long lost mini primate.


It may look like a gremlin, but this tiny animal is actually a pygmy tarsier, recently rediscovered in the forests of Indonesia.

The 2-ounce (57-gram) carnivorous primate had not been seen alive since the 1920s….

“There have been dozens of expeditions looking for them—all unsuccessful. I needed to go and try to see for myself if they were really there or if they were really extinct,” added Gursky-Doyen, whose research was funded in part by the National Geographic Society’s Conservation Trust.

I like pygmy tarsiers. I think we could raise them at the nursery, in our new Indonesia section. What? We don’t have an Indonesia section? Well, we’ll just have to get one for the pygmy tarsiers.

Agave Production Leads to Social Unrest

From Science Daily, we find out that your alcohol consumption has contributed to the loss of traditional living in Mexico. How do you feel about that?

(T)equila’s surge in popularity over the past 15 years has been a boon for industry, but is triggering a significant hangover of social and environmental problems in the region of Mexico where the once-notorious liquor (distilled from the blue agave plant) is produced….

more after the break…. Read More…


When we were clomping through some Costa Rican jungles, we saw lots of epiphytic peperomias up high in the branches. Here’s one just starting the climb on a fallen branch with tillandsias.


Peperomia rotundifolia

That is one nifty peperomia they have there in the jungle.

Did I mention that the name peperomia is in fact from the same name as peppers (they sound alike, they are alike!), since they’re both in the same botanic family, Piperaceae, which is in fact called “the pepper family”? No? Well, let me tell you… It’s the genus Piper that yields the famous black peppercorns that created the spice wars and the piracy and the tales of buried treasures told through the ages, by elderly grandfathers trying to scare the little ones.


Black Pepper (Piper nigrum) corns, from left to right: Green (pickled ripe fruits), White (dried ripe seeds), Black (dried unripe fruits)

However, just to be clear, this so-called “Pepper family” that includes black peppercorns and succulent peperomias does not include bell peppers (Capsicum annuum), for those would be in the Solanum family (Solanaceae) that includes the nightshades and the tomatoes and potatoes and our favorite, the purple-leafed naranjillo (Solanum quitoense) from Colombia.

Interesting where these blog entries can get to once you start deviating from plant that started it. I like it!

Evolution in Action

We cactus peoples like us some reptiles too. Cactus gardens and tortoises just feel right together. But don’t forget the lizards (Who could forget the lizards.) Anyway, this is all an introduction to some lizard evolution caught in action, although from the SE US, not from the desert, but like I said we cactus peoples like us some reptiles too.

Native U.S. Lizards Are Adapting To Escape Attacks By Fire Ants


ScienceDaily (Jan. 24, 2009) — Penn State Assistant Professor of Biology Tracy Langkilde has shown that native fence lizards in the southeastern United States are adapting to potentially fatal invasive fire-ant attacks by developing behaviors that enable them to escape from the ants, as well as by developing longer hind legs, which can increase the effectiveness of this behavior.

Now that’s some change we can believe in.

Fibonacci in Plants

From V, we find this link to an article about math and plants. I don’t understand this article at all. But it has these lovely pictures of Sempervivums,  and this to say about them.

hleek1 hleek2

You can find the Fibonacci numbers by counting the helical arrangement of leaves on plants.

Yeah sure whatever. I’m counting, but I’m not getting any patterns. Maybe if I dissected one?

Space Cactus

Here we see a fine image of a moon of Saturn taken by the Cassini spacecraft, and if you look closely, alongside those interesting geological features, you’ll see that there are no cactus in space.

Numerous stars provide a serene background in this view of Enceladus captured by the Cassini spacecraft while the moon was in eclipse, within Saturn’s shadow

Impressive Use of the Word "Cactus"

It’s a telescope, an impressive looking structure indeed. Or more specifically, a CACTUS telescope. And it’s right around the corner in Davis. I may have to go visit this, when the weather is nicer of course.

The observational program of CACTUS included Pulsars/Supernova Remnants (Crab, Geminga), Active Galactic Nuclei (Mk421, Mk501) and the Dwarf Spheroidal Galaxy (Draco).

Why doesn’t anyone ever think to give me one of these cactus telescopes for christmas? I would be ever so appreciative. I might even name a newly discovered crab supernova after you in return!

It's a Mystery

I don’t know what this is. We have a whole bunch of them growing. They’re only 4 years old, but I don’t even know if they’re a small barrel, getting close to full size, or if they’re a giant barrel just starting off. I’m guessing it’s an Echinocactus, but I just don’t know. I’ve identified about a dozen genuses it could be.

Andean Rituals

FIRST they make you drink the juice of the San Pedro cactus. Then they lead you towards the darkness.

This is the beginning of an article in New Scientist Magazine. It’s not online. But they want you to know that the Inka kings got you high.

I think we’ll categorize this blog post under “Science.”

Moss Growing on Big Stones

If you look very closely at this National Geographic Photo of the Day you will see a very fine dusting of moss growing on these rather unusual natural stone formations.

(Photograph by Jodi Cobb, for National Geographic magazine)

See to the left there, there’s some Sphagnopsida and just below that is a fine example of a Andreaeobryopsida.

What’s most remarkable is that there are no cacti growing along the sides of this particular stone outcropping. Normally, one would find a healthy growth of cactus alongside moss growing on stone formations.
Read More…


August 2020

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