Frank Landis' Blog

What genius looks like in a hummingbird
October 29, 2011, 7:03 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: ,

I’ve got a small hummingbird feeder on the back balcony, next to the room where I’ve turned into my office.

Young Anna’s hummingbirds (and the occasional adult) use it regularly, draining it every few days. There’s usually one that sits on the tomato trellis and guards it, but they trade the role around every few weeks.

When the feeder gets low and I have the door open, one hummingbird flies in about two meters, hovers loudly until it has my attention, then turns around and flies back out, ostentatiously dipping its beak once in the empty feeder before it leaves the area.

I know my cue: I clean the feeder, put more sugar water in, and put it back out, and a happy hummingbird comes by in a few minutes to suck down on the fresh sugar. I’ve done this five times now in the last few weeks.

Obviously, cats know how to point at things, but it’s interesting to see the same behavior in something whose body is smaller than the cat’s brain. It doesn’t take much of a brain to be smart, does it?

So far as I can tell, only one bird has figured out how to tell me to change the feeder. It will be fun to see if any of the others learn the trick.

Is this social genius, or problem-solving genius? Or both?

Compare this with the dumb hummingbird, who got trapped in the same room a couple of months ago. He flew in through the open door, and I found him sometime later buzzing around the white ceiling. Did he think it was the sky? He buzzed around, poor little beak touching the ceiling, unwilling to drop even a foot down and go out the door. I lured him out by raising the feeder up to where he could see it, near the wide open door. Once he started drinking from it, I slowly lowered through the door. Once he was outside, he immediately flew away. I don’t know why he didn’t fly back out the door, or why he saw a white ceiling as a blue sky, but he panicked and got stuck.

There you have it. There are smart hummingbirds, and there are dumb hummingbirds. Natural variation on the back balcony.

I’m not sure how to photograph the smart one doing his thing. That’s the next puzzle.


And now for something completely different…
October 6, 2011, 11:48 am
Filed under: California Native Plants, Science Fiction, writing | Tags: , ,

Oddly enough, I’ve been meaning to put this up for over a week. Originally, I was going to wait until I had the book ready for sale, but you know, reality has it’s own agenda. All of a sudden, a bunch of things suddenly erupted onto my schedule like post-rain mushrooms. Given that Smashwords takes a bit of time to publish things, I thought I’d put the teaser up now.

It’s my second book, and this one is in the spirit of Poul Anderson’s Time Patrol. The title is The Ghosts of Deep Time, and the book contains a novel and a short story.

From the back cover:

“A consultant finds a fossilized pack in the desert, then finds himself back in the Miocene with a criminal gang.

A game warden busts a group of trespassing druids in a wildlife sanctuary. They vanish in a green flash and he loses his job, only to be recruited for something much bigger.

This is the big secret: time travel is easy. There are over four billion years in Earth’s past. The deeper one goes in time, the more alien the Earth is. Still, people have settled most of Earth’s history. Of course they live without a trace, for that is the law of deep time. To do otherwise could create paradoxes, bifurcating histories, even time wars and mass extinctions.

Where there is law, there is also crime. When crimes span millions of years, law enforcement takes a special kind of officer. An ex-game warden can be the perfect recruit. At the right time.”

Here’s a sample. Enjoy! The Smashwords version will be available in a couple of weeks, and a paper version will be available through Lulu late next week. I’ll add links as things progress. A couple of you may have seen this already. If so, feel free to comment on it.

Rare Plants Surveys 2: State Parks and Batiquitos
October 6, 2011, 11:41 am
Filed under: California Native Plants | Tags: , ,

This spring, the CNPSSD rare plant survey committee surveyed dune plants on beaches up and down the coast. I’ve been putting our work together in reports that were sent to the agencies, and I’m posting them here as I finish them.

Here are the last two, from State Parks and Batiquitos Lagoon.

State Parks Rare Plant Survey Report


Batiquitos Rare Plant Survey

Rare Plant Survey Reports 1: Fiesta Island and Silver Strand Elementary
August 16, 2011, 6:49 pm
Filed under: California Native Plants, Real Science, Uncategorized | Tags: ,

This spring, the CNPSSD rare plant survey committee surveyed dune plants on beaches up and down the coast. I’ve been putting our work together in reports that were sent to the agencies, and I’m posting them here as I finish them.

Here are the first two, from Fiesta Island and from Silver Strand Elementary.

Silver Strand Elementary Rare Plant Survey Report

Fiesta Island Rare Plant Survey Report

Seed Ball, one year later
August 2, 2011, 12:56 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , ,

Fun in August!

Last August and September, the CNPSSD email list hosted a long discussion about seed “bombs,” or rather seed balls. At the September meeting, a man came forward to provide his seed balls free to CNPSSD as a demo. They reportedly contained the seeds of ten native plant species.

I have a dish on my patio where I grow native annuals, so I dropped the seed ball in that dish. My first experiences with it are chronicled in a previous blog entry. Now it’s eleven months later, and I decided to end the project.

As can be seen in the pictures below, there are two species now growing in that dish: some sort of italian ryegrass (Lolium multiflorum) and sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima). The ball also grew a California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) in the spring, and it flowered and died.

Seed ball finale. The left picture is the dish, the right picture shows the remnants of the seed ball with the plants growing out of it. Click on the pictures to enlarge them.

Today I took the pictures, ended the experiment by ripping out the weeds, roots and all (they’d rooted through the pot), and planted a Dudleya pulverulenta that needed a new location.

This experiment has a couple of important learning points: one is that seed source is critical. Even if the seed ball maker used what he thought were nothing but California native plants, the evidence unequivocally says there were weed seeds in that ball. The second is that only two plants will grow from a ball at a time (the poppy came up and died before the grass grew). If there were 100 seeds in that ball, then 97% failed.

For do-it-yourself seedball makers: Do realize that you can spread weeds with seed balls. If you insist on making seed balls for a project, ideally you should collect your own seed, assuming you can identify the plants correctly. A second choice is to buy pure seed from a reputable dealer. Good dealers will tell you how much weed seed is in their mix. That number is rarely zero, despite everyone’s best efforts.

If you buy a packet of “wildflower seed,” for your seed ball mix, you have to realize that “WILDFLOWER” is an industry term for a certain group of annual plants, some of which are weeds in California. You actually have to look at the species list to see what is in the packet, and to make sure they are all California natives. If reading such a list perturbs you, don’t use wildflower seed packets.

It is ALWAYS possible for weed seed to get mixed in, simply by accident. If you’re not planning on weeding a site after you seed ball it, my advice is not to throw seed balls. We have enough weeds in this county already, and we don’t need people spreading more.

Rare Dune Plant Briefing
March 8, 2011, 10:06 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Not my usual briefing, but I figure this is a way to send the document to people who want to use it.

Let me know if there are any issues with this pdf.

Rare Plant Briefing–Rough Draft

Native Plant Art Contest!
February 3, 2011, 3:45 pm
Filed under: California Native Plants, Uncategorized | Tags: ,

Native Plant Week is the April 17 to 23, and San Diego County has more native plants than any other county in the U.S. To celebrate native plants, CNPSSD is holding a Native Plant Art Contest. Attendees at the March 15th General Meeting will select the winning image, and the chapter will use the image on our website and in other formats during plant week, and we will distribute it to the media and other non-profits to promote and celebrate native plants.

Calling all artists! You can enter one or more times, and the winner will receive a prize: a one-year individual membership in CNPS or cash equivalent ($45). The contest is open to everyone.

Both photos and artwork are welcome, but the image must meet four criteria, under the judgment of the volunteers running the contest. The criteria are:

1. A California native plant that is native to San Diego or Imperial County must be the dominant feature in the image. Native means that it has grown wild in San Diego or Imperial County since 1491. Dominant feature means that the native plant is noticeably larger than any other feature of the image. Non-native plants are not acceptable. The San Diego Native Plant Atlas is a good reference (

2. The plant must be identified in the application, and it must be recognizable. An orange lollipop is not a California poppy.

3. The image must not contain the title of the piece, the artist’s name, a copyright or other watermark, or other problematic material.

4. The image must look good under multiple formats. The image will be used in a variety of media, and four versions of the image must be submitted to demonstrate its versatility.

Images must be submitted online to by February 26, 2011. The email application must include:

1. Applicant’s name, address, phone, and email address

2. The title of the piece, and the name (common and/or scientific) of the plant represented in the image.

3. Four versions of the image, either in jpg or pdf, attached to the email, the biggest no more than 3 megabytes in size: a) an 8.5” x 11” color image; b) an 8.5” x 11” grayscale copy of the image; c) a 1”wide color image, and d) a 1” wide grayscale image. If the image is naturally grayscale, only images b and d must be submitted. These must all be versions of the same image: simply resize the image and change color to grayscale to make the different versions. Do not crop or recolor the image.

4. A statement saying: A) that the artist(s) owns copyright to the image, B) that they are the creator of the image, and if the work is derived from another copyrighted artwork, they either own the original artwork or had permission to create the image submitted. C) That they will allow CNPSSD to use the image without cost or issue until January 1, 2012, and D) that they take responsibility for any issues of ownership, and they release CNPS and CNPSSD from all legal responsibility in regard to issues arising over questions of ownership of the images submitted.

CNPSSD will screen all submissions to determine whether they are complete and meet our criteria. If the submission passes, we will contact the artist and ask them to submit a physical copy for the March 15th contest. We will ask the contest winner to grant CNPSSD sole use of the image until January 1, 2012 without charge, and free use of the image thereafter.

Astrological Experimentation
January 30, 2011, 12:45 pm
Filed under: Astrology, Experiments, Real Science | Tags: , ,

I posted a response to a Discover online article about how astrology is like racism. Then I realized that I could post it here too.

Years ago, I came up with a way to objectively test astrology and personal horoscopes. It’s simple, and any experimenter can do it if he or she can find a bunch of willing participants and convince them to spend a few hours rating a bunch of horoscopes. I’ve described my results below, and I encourage other people to try it, as a psych experiment or just for fun.

Experimental Design:

Hypothesis: If astrology is useful, then a person’s horoscope should apply to them more than someone else’s horoscope does.
Null hypothesis: subjects will either rate all horoscopes approximately the same, and/or most subjects will find other people’s horoscopes more relevant to their lives than they do their own.

1. Find a website that gives out free, nine planet, twelve house horoscopes.
2. Recruit a bunch of experimental subjects. I’d suggest 10, and fewer than five is problematic. Get their birthplace, birth date and birth time information.
3. Compile everyone’s horoscope from the same website. The experimenter should strip out any identifying information (for example, anything that says Libra, Virgo, etc), and the subjects should not see their horoscopes prior to the experiment. Typically horoscopes are printed as a list of paragraph statements, one for each planet and house.
4. If you want, you can even add in randomly generated horoscopes.
5. If you want to make it simpler, you can do one more step. People who were born in the same year tend to have some of the same planets and houses (particularly for the outer planets, which move very slowly). To make it easier for the subjects, you can compile all the paragraphs into one long paper, and have everyone rate every paragraph once. You will have to create a key for which paragraph goes with which horoscope to compile the stats, but this saves on work for the subjects.
6. Have everyone rate EVERY horoscope, every paragraph, on whether that paragraph applies to them or not (I suggest: 1 pt if the paragraph is relevant to the subject’s life, 0 if it’s neutral, -1 if the paragraph does not apply to the subject’s life).

7. Compile every person’s scoring of all horoscope paragraphs. Add up the scores per horoscope.
8. If astrology is true, the prediction is that each person should have scored their own horoscope higher than they scored those of the other participants. The stats for this are a bit more complicated than ranking individual scores, because just by chance, you would expect some people to pick their own horoscopes as the most applicable. Still, it’s not hard, and if the stats look too ugly, simply post how people rated their own and other horoscopes.
9. Collect post-test impressions from the subjects, distribute the results, and have fun talking about it.

When I ran this with 6 subjects with four additional random horoscopes, I got equivocal results (1 person picked their own horoscope, 5 people chose other people’s horoscopes, but with the small sample size, I couldn’t test the hypothesis). I’d love to see other people replicate the test and post their results.

The nice part about this is that it gets around all the tired ideological debates (“it’s not science” vs. “keep an open mind”) and looks at whether printed horoscopes have any perceived relevance to the people who requested them.

What I learned about horoscopes is that, when you read your own horoscope, you tend to focus on the bits that are relevant and ignore the rest. Horoscopes are written to favor this habit: they have a bunch of generally applicable advice mixed very nicely together, much like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. However, when you read other people’s horoscopes, what you find is that their horoscopes are also applicable to you. In fact, you may well like someone else’s horoscope better than you like your own. Five of the six people above found that, and one person even preferred a randomly generated horoscope over his own.

Most divination methods work this way: it’s not what is displayed by the cards, planets, coins, whatever, it’s what the person reads into them. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I think it is better to understand how such a method works, rather than uncritically accept it.

Try it out, and tell me what you think.

Wet and Wild 1: Willows and Seep Willows

Wow, 3.5 inches of rain in the last two days! Yes, yes, I know anyone outside southern California wouldn’t even bother with an umbrella for that little, but around here, the news media are howling about THE FLOOD. Worse, according to at least one outlet, we environmentalists have caused the flooding (!), because “we” stopped San Diego from pulling on its 1950 tin hardhat and running bulldozers through all the creeks and storm drains so that they’ll drain straight to the ocean. Of course, “THE FLOOD” has occurred where water backed up into the flood plains of the San Diego and Tijuana Rivers, areas that flood during every major wet event, but that doesn’t get much attention. Worse, if all the crap in the storm channels went into the Pacific Ocean, it would trash San Diego’s famous beaches and drive off the tourist. This is the real reason why the city is having trouble implementing this plan, as it runs contrary to the Clean Water Act. But that doesn’t really bubble up to the media surface either. Flooded roads! Drama! Media exposure!

Where was I? Oh yes, there are in fact plants growing inside the flood channels despite the glowers of the SD Storm Water Department, and they are the topic for this entry. The plants? Willows and seep willows, two plants that grow great together. Both of them like water, whether it’s in seasonally flooded arroyos or on the shores of rivers and lakes. Or in the city’s undeveloped canyon bottoms.

To start with, “seep willow” is an alternate name for mulefat, and it isn’t a willow. Instead, Baccharis salicifolia is one of the biggest Asteraceae in California. It’s often mistaken for a true willow (genus Salix), but the white Baccharis composite flowers usually give it away. Mulefat blooms in fall, but the dead flowers and buds are around most of the year. The smell is distinctive too, resinous and easier to remember than describe.

As for telling the true willows apart, that’s a bit harder. My favorite system for southern California is still the one Tom Chester published a few years ago. Go to that site to learn the five willows that are common in San Diego. Actually, there’s only three that are common (four in the desert), so they are not hard to learn.

Why do willows and mulefat look so much alike? The reason is convergent evolution, which is a technical way of saying that living anywhere that can flood is a bit dangerous, and very different species have figured out the same formula for surviving a flash flood. If you’re a plant, you don’t get to run away from danger, and where it floods, you’ve got to deal with surges of water, along with the gravel, rocks, and other debris that come with the water. Both willows and mulefat have worked out a strategy that includes being able to resprout from a stump or branch (useful if a branch gets broken off and carried downstream), having very flexible branches, and long, streamlined leaves. It’s fun to play with the branches of willows and mulefat. They flex all over the place, and both are useful for basketry (think wicker) because of this. These are plants that bend before the water rather than breaking, and if they do break, they can resprout if the flood leaves them in suitable soil. This last property is beloved by restorationists, who propagate these plants from cuttings, because they will grow rapidly and keep banks from eroding.

Sexually, willows and mulefat are also similar. Mulefat blooms in the late fall, willow blooms in winter, and both species have fuzzy seeds that float on the breeze. This is probably convergence again: releasing seeds during flood season is a way to colonize sandbars and other areas scoured bare by floods. I still can’t explain why both mulefat and willows have separate male and female plants, but they do. The easy way to spot the females is to look for unreleased seeds and the resulting fuzz, and it’s easier with mulefat than with willows. The fact that each plant is a single sex can be a problem for restorationists, as they need to plant both male and female plants to insure that they will have breeding partners. It’s a minor but important detail.

Finally, if you look around, you will find mulefat away from the seasonally flooded arroyos it prefers. Often it has been planted, but still, it is common to find mulefat in areas that seldom, if ever, flood. What is it doing there? The simple answer is it’s growing. Happily. The thing to remember is that the mulefat is adapted to surviving floods, but it doesn’t particularly need floods to survive. If there’s a bit of water in the soil, mulefat can happily grow with other dryland Baccharis species (such as coyotebrush or broom baccharis). However, if the site floods, I’d bet that mulefat would be the only survivor. Everyday living isn’t an emergency, despite what the Storm Water Department might want us to believe.

Kissing under the Mistletoe

Why do we kiss under the mistletoe anyway? Following the normal procedure (Googling) I read a bit and found a reference to it being a symbol of peace in Scandinavia, linking it to the legend of Baldur’s death. And then there’s the obligatory reference to druid’s cutting down mistletoe from a mistle-oak on the SUMMER solstice with a golden sickle, and…

Right. Actually, all you have to do is actually look at a fruiting mistletoe to realize the answer is a lot more graphic. But I’ll get to that in a bit. Since mistletoes were one of my late grandmother’s favorite plants and it is the season for harvesting the darlings, I thought I’d add a bit to the mistletoe lore.

To us botanists, mistletoes are a group of hemi-parasitic plants in the order Santalales. Yes, Santa has something to do with mistletoe…not really. To unpack that statement: a parasite is something that gains nutrients from a host, to the host’s detriment. Parasites come in two flavors: holo-parasites that get everything from its host, and hemi-parasites that get some of its nutrients from outside their hosts. Parasites don’t generally read, so reality is a lot more messy than that, as anyone who hosts a financial holoparasite knows. But I digress. The order Santalales has nothing to do with Santa either, sadly. It is named after the sandalwood genus Santalum. American mistletoes used to be in their own family, Viscaceae, but if you follow the current APG system, they are also grouped in the Santalaceae. So if you can think of Santa smelling like sandalwood and holding a mistletoe, then you’ve got something to remember this whole group by.

According to the San Diego Plant Atlas, San Diego County hosts two genera and nine species of mistletoes, none of which are the European mistletoe (Viscum album) of legend, lore, and Victorian-era coverups. The two genera are Arceuthobium and Phoradendron. Despite what I just said, Arceuthobiums, commonly known as dwarf mistletoes, are holoparasites. How do you tell? They’re not green. Hemiparasitic mistletoes are green and photosynthesize. Dwarf mistletoes attack conifers, and you can identify them based on the identity of the host tree. Phoradendron mistletoes are green, and of the seven species, the ones you tend to see in the city’s canyons are P. macrophyllum on sycamores among other non-oak trees, and P. villosum primarily on oaks. Winter is a great time to look for mistletoes, especially in the sycamores, because there aren’t any leaves to block your view of the mistletoes in the crowns.

So let’s get folkloric. You can read all about the druids and the Norse elsewhere (see link above). All of these people seem to repeat the same stuff from the old stories, so I’ll add a couple more tidbits. For instance, the symbolism of cutting mistletoe from an oak with a golden sickle at mid-summer. As explained by a modern druid, the sickle is a moon symbol, gold is for the sun, the mistletoe is a weird plant that grows in the air (spirit) not the ground (reality), the summer solstice is the time of maximum daylight, after which the daylight decreases, and English mistletoe rarely grows on oaks, so finding one on an oak is a rare event. All nice and symbolic, except that the druids probably used a falx, which is more like a bill-hook. Another modern druid actually made a couple of golden sickles out of 9 carat gold and found that yes, you can cut mistletoe with it. You get about two sprigs before the golden blade breaks. Feel free to replicate the experiment. I can tell you from experience that local mistletoe wood is quite brittle.

But kissing under the mistletoe… Yes, yes. It’s a pretty poisonous plant, but we’ll ignore that. That’s not why you stick it up. Look instead at mistletoe biology. Mistletoe berries are spread by birds that eat the berries. To help the seeds get crapped out on branches rather than the ground, mistletoe berries are very sticky. Birds wipe their butts on branches to get them out, and voila! the seed has a new host to grow into. So we’re talking about a seed that’s off-white, like a little pearl of something sticky, and it rather resembles some other droplet that’s off-white and rather sticky. You can start thinking about sexual symbolism here. In the old days, boys used to pull a berry off the mistletoe each time they kissed a girl under it, too. They may have been counting uses, or they may have been hoping for something else after the kiss. Hard to tell.

And if you look at the fruiting branch of a mistletoe, you’ll see that it’s a rather stiff, upright little branch that’s quite thick in proportion to its height. The berries are paired on either side of it, and typically, the last two berries are the one at the base of the nice straight bare stem. Yes, it’s about the most blatantly phallic symbol you can find in the local flora, and we’re really talking about a little fertility ritual here. So ignore the hemi-parasitism, ignore the Santa order stuff, and ignore the whole story of Baldur. Just have fun smooching under the mistletoe!