19 December 2005

The Taxonomy of Insanity

I am ashamed to announce that I still haven't finished the Quantity Theory of Insanity, because I keep reading other things in between. Last night I tried again, and came upon the following passage on page 130 in my Penguin edition:

"Sid was now living in a small commune in the Shetland Islands, where he and his fellow communards were dedicated to the growing of implausibly large hydroponic onions. The other members of the commune were eccentric but not quite as unhinged as Sid. They believed that their ability to grow the four-foot legumes was wholly predicated on the orbital cycle of Saturn's satellite, Ceres."

This bothers me immensely; onions are not legumes. Onions are monocots for a start (in the family Liliaceae or in their own family Alliaceae, depending on who you talk to). Legumes are things like beans, peas etc. in the family Fabaceae, along with acacias and the like, and are obviously dicots. This has now completely ruined the whole thing for me. Surely these two kinds of vegetables are the exact examples used to explain this difference in school? And all of this for want of a funky synonym for 'onion'...

12 December 2005

Planes, traffic and saving The Precious

This has been a marginally remarkable weekend. I spent almost all of Friday at the Exclusive Books in the duty-free mall at Johannesburg International Airport, helping out behind the counter while the regular staff have some version of a Christmas Party. Initially, I was quite concerned about the procedures, but got the hang of it in the end. It's quite something to touch a business class boarding pass for a Cathay Pacific flight to somewhere exotic. It's also quite something when a customer wants to buy a newspaper with a $100 bill and you have to give them change in Rands... Denise and I helped the head steward of Tanzania Air carry bags of magazines to his plane, which was interesting: we could look directly out from the ramp at the rainy runways and the shiny new Qantas 747-400. Denise is airplane-crazy and a great source of information at the airport. She's hinted several times that she'd love to work there. I'm not so sure that I enjoy the throngs of people bringing their diseases from all corners of the globe.

Afterwards, Wendy, Denise and I drove to Bryanston by mistake to drop by Rowan's new place for tortillas and Karen's famous chilli. I am not implying that Rowan and Karen aren't excellent hosts, but the fact is that it took us hours to get there from Kempton. I'll never understand traffic jams in the middle of the night without any visible accidents or roadworks. Surely all those people can't be going to Montecasino? If that's the case, gambling is much more prevalent than I suspected. (The chilli was delicious, by the way.)

Today I've been spending my hours sifting through the University library's collection of electronic journals, looking for new articles published on plant disease resistance and gene expression profiling. I've now given up on the idea of finishing any labwork by the end of this year (you need accurate pipettes for that) and decided to source some holiday reading. I was actually having a good time, my mind awash with signalling pathways, cysteine proteases, kinases and PR proteins. But as I was walking to the lab from the computer room in order to get more paper for the printer, I noticed that the -80°C freezer had gone up to -45°C. I was then informed that the freezer had been on the carbon dioxide back-up since early this morning and that we'd have to move all of the samples boxes to other freezers! My first (admittedly selfish) thought was of my precious RNA, which I immediately archived in an open spot in the -80°C freezer in Lab X (yes, that's really what it's called). We then spent about a century putting sample boxes in random spots in the freezers of other research groups; I don't think we will ever see those boxes again now that they're spread across the whole faculty. Should I care? The people those boxes belong to aren't even here this month and equipment always breaks down in December. I suppose that it's serendipity that I managed to salvage my Precious today, as I was not planning on coming in to the lab again this week. That box with 20 tubes of RNA is the first thing I'd save from the building in the event of disaster. Strange how discriminate your priorities become when you've spent so much time on little vials of biological material you can't even see.

1 December 2005

In The Greenhouse (05/12)

This November we have finally had some rain, which all the plants appreciate. Nothing is more pleasurable than the sight of green root tips exploring the growing medium around an orchid with swollen pseudobulbs. If I can just prevent the snails from snacking on these tropical delicacies, that would be even better...

Den. Aquatum Halawa. A delightful miniature hardcane Dendrobium with bigibbum- and antelope-type species in its ancestry.

Blc. Rustic Spots. A very interesting Brassolaeliocattleya, because the flowers change colour as they mature. The photograph on the left was taken the day the flower opened, a rich, dark brown colour. The photograph on the right is of the same flower, taken a week later, the flower being a copper colour with more prominent spotting. I love the spots on the labellum, which resemble bits of embedded metal.

Den. Burana Charming. A hardcane I adopted from a friend. Seems that white flowers with purple lips are much the thing for November.

Epc. El Hatillo. A yummy hybrid with Encyclia tampensis in its parentage. This is the most prolific flowering I've had since I purchased it about three years ago - bright light is the key. According to its label it is actually a back-cross with an alba variety of Enc. tampensis (without the purple labellum), but it looks pretty much like a normal El Hatillo to me.

Phal. (Jane Doe). This tagless Phalaenopsis hybrid has interesting colour combinations.

Epi. Orange Glow. The largest reedstem Epidendrum in my collection. The flowers are enormous (for an epi!) and have a wonderful iridescence.

Phrag. Sedenii. Yes, it has finally flowered! Lots of new buds are on their way, as well as another flower spike. This is a very beautiful and exciting plant: it just makes me want to collect some more Phragmipediums. Take a look at Phrag. Flash Gordan and Phrag. Jimi Hendrix at! As Jenny Holzer said: "Protect me from what I want", because if this doesn't cause orchid fever, nothing will!

Den. hercoglossum. The teeny-tiny flowers have dark anther caps. It grows under shade net in a hanging basket suspended beneath the staging next to the house (could I be any more specific?).

Vasco. (Ascda. Tubtim Velvet 4N x Vasco. Five Friendship). A new acquisition. This Vascostylis is compact (necessary if you consider the size of my greenhouse), yet retains the impact (could be the polyploidy in its lineage). Full shape.

Laelia purpurata (Treasure of Carpinterio AM/AOS x Pink Dawn HCC/AOS). A cross between two awarded var. schusteriana selections. Yummy! This monster produced 15 flowers on four spikes and is the single most auspicious flowering event since I accidentally read The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean in 2001 and started on this insane journey! The flowers were between 15cm and 20cm in diameter and emitted a delightfully sophisticated fragrance. Yummy, I say!

25 November 2005

Remember "The Undersea World of Fifi LaFume"?

So this has been a rather uneventful week for me. My days were spent ordering stuff for the lab (I've managed to isolate beautiful RNA, by the way) so that I can do the qPCR. I just hope I get to do this before 2006, as I'm told that my RT-PCR reagents are only going to arrive in three weeks! Otherwise, time was spent reading The Quantity Theory of Insanity by Will Self, going for sushi at Kung Fu Kitchen and setting up a colony of sea monkeys. We decided that we need some low maintenance pets for the lab, and Artemia was the obvious choice. I remember being about eight and marveling at those ads on the back of forgotten comic books from the 70s I found in my grandfather's house in Malvern. Since the reality is now swimming on my desk, I can assure you that you cannot teach these shapeless crustaceans any tricks. However, they are quite adept at dying. They dissapear miraculously each time the air conditioner goes on the blink, rather like their lab mates the Russian wheat aphids. We've had to re-seed the colony twice already. Perhaps they're not so low maintenance, after all...

The festive season is looming, with its never-ending list of stiff social dates to commit to, its frenetic over-spending, its over-eating (oh! the guilt!), its children having grand mal in the malls, its increases in accidents on the highways, its people asking you about your New Year's plans when you haven't even had time to think about Christmas yet. I think I might just keep working and not take time off. You know, just for a change of pace.

1 November 2005

In The Greenhouse (05/11)

I am happy to report that Phalaenopsis has been my salvation this month - without them there isn't much else flowering at the moment. I'm rather looking forward to the summer blooming season: the Laelia purpurata has three sheaths of developing buds and the Laelia tenebrosa is also looking rather pregnant. Both these plants are grown under shade net next to the house. The Phragmipedium Sedenii in the greenhouse is also doing well and its two buds should open quite soon.

Ansellia africana. The two flowering size plants in my collection are both unnamed varieties, I'd say of the nilotica-group, as they have few brown markings and are rather small. The one with heavier spotting is a propagation from one of the three individuals in the courtyard of the Maths Building, University of Pretoria. The other one is a much more intense yellow and is a division given to me by an aunt.

Blc Greenwich. One of my favourite cattleyas. It blooms at least once every 9 months or so and the 15cm flowers emit a strong scent like rose geranium aromatherapy oil, or that's what I'm told. Personally, I think it smells like Turkish delight.

Coelogyne lawrenceana. My newest acquisition was bought in bud for R70 from MC Orchids. Subtle colours, strong scent and huge flowers for the size of the plant make it well worth it.

Dendrobium Black Dragon. This thing is almost impossible to photograph well. There are actually 14 flowers on the spike, all looking exactly like tiny dragons.

Epidendrum Plastic Doll. I got this one from Van Rooyen Orchids several years ago. It's a reliable bloomer, just a pity that it only produces one new cane a year!

Laelia sincorana x Laelia lobata. This primary hybrid produces the flower stem on the still-immature leading growth, which I think is rather interesting and unusual.

Phalaenopsis Flare Spots. My baby. My favourite by virtue of it being the first orchid I ever purchased (soon after reading The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean in 2001). It gets larger, more splendid and more rewarding every year. It's planted in a (hideously overpriced) ceramic crackle glaze container filled with large chunks of pine bark. I dread the day when I will have to repot it...

Phalaenopsis Golden Taipei. Huge artificial-looking flowers on a rather small plant. This year it has decided to produce one mutant bloom, with the one underdeveloped petal fused to the column. I don't care what you think, I'm going to blame the hot dry weather.

Phalaenopsis Tiffany Coll. A seedling I bought in Pietermaritzburg at the 2003 National Orchid Show. This is its first flowering: five nicely symmetric flowers presented evenly on the spike. I like the concentric circles on the creamy yellow background. Yummy.

Phalaenopsis (er, uhm...). A nameless candystripe hybrid I bought at Woolworths for R13,85. The shop attendants were packing fresh potplants on a stand when the whole thing collapsed - I offered to take this phal (now sans massive flower spike) off their hands at a discount. They gave it to me for less 85%!

Polystachya ottoniana. The soft new growth of this indigenous species produces teeny-tiny white flowers resembling those of a non-resupinate Den. kingianum. It gives off a powerful cinnamon scent in sunlight.

17 October 2005

Control Freaks and Lists

Waiting. I'm forever waiting in this lab. Waiting for primers to be synthesized for qPCR work, waiting for imported chemicals to clear customs, waiting for wheat to grow. Currently, I'm waiting so that I can infest my wheat plants with aphids at 18:00. Joy. If only all lab work was this stimulating. In the meantime, I'm keeping myself occupied by reading Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis. I read The Rules of Attraction a couple of years ago and didn't think much of it, initially. Now I consider it to be one of the better books I've read. Maybe Top 50 or so. Is this continuous making of lists a male attribute as Nick Hornby suggests, or simply my scientific (but hopefully not unimaginative) mind trying to create order of some kind? I like making lists, hierarchical phylogenies, the taxonomy of our culture. I feel more in control when things, objects, ideas are neatly compartmentalized. Variations on a theme. Butterflies pinned to a board.

I wish I could employ somebody to infest my plants for me. Then again, I know I won't trust anybody else to do a proper job. I'm a prisoner in my own obsessive perfectionism. The curious thing is that I prefer it this way, masochist that I am. Tomorrow will be more of the same: picking up aphids with a paintbrush, letting them crawl onto the apical leaves of the wheat, allowing them to feed and initiate resistance responses in the wheat, collecting wheat leaves into liquid nitrogen for RNA extraction later this week. Hopefully this experiment will yield good results soon. The only thing to do now is wait and see.