Native Plants, Habitat Restoration, and Other Science Snippets from Athens, Georgia

Saturday: 22 January 2011

Pizza  -  @ 07:55:15
In December I had a little post about starting a sourdough culture for making bread and in particular, pizza. The latter is the topic here, since a couple of folks asked for it. As Glenn pointed out, he doesn't see a "recipe." Well, it's down there, indented in, and it's pretty basic. I've added a lot of annotations, because I've noticed a lot of things over the years that I've played around with this. But the main thing is that I've adapted the guidelines to a conventional set of tools that everyone has - mainly your hands, a bowl, refrigerator, a simple set of ingredients, and the lack of specialized oven. If you're not starting with sourdough starter for your yeast, I've indicated what to do if you're using activated yeast.

While the "recipe" and guidelines have coalesced from reading a lot from other pizza makers and from making dozens of them myself in the last ten or twenty years, a few little tricks come from several years of working as a cook in a restaurant in Tallahassee when I was an undergrad. The restaurant specialized in a really fine pizza, and the overnight rise, the precooking, and a few other things are what I take from that. I do not have the HOT 800 degF flat surface oven, so I have a few tricks to try to approximate that, below.

NOTE: For all this work I'm using bread flour, unbleached and unbromated. You can use all purpose flour, but you'll have to play around with the volumes and the consistency of the dough will be distinctly different. Bread flour has 4% protein, and all purpose white flour has 2%, and it's the protein crosslinking that establishes the difference in consistency and the amount of water needed to hydrate it. Bread made from bread flour is going to be a lot tougher, chewier, and stronger (important for pizza) than bread made from all purpose flour.

The Starter

A starter culture is used in the place of activated dry yeast, and usually you'll use 1/5 to 1/4 the volume of culture that your dough ends up being (roughly a quarter of the amount of flour you'll be adding). In the link above we talked about the wild yeasts and lactobacilli that are the main members of the established starter community. Because they're wild and not bred for culinary purposes, the yeasts don't grow as rapidly as activated baker's yeast does, so don't expect the super fast rising that you get with the latter. Be patient.

At left is the quart jar setup with the remaining starter after I removed a cup for the pizza project that we'll be getting into, since we'll end up with about 8 or 9 cups of dough. As always, I added back to the starter 4 tbsp flour and 2 tbsp water, stirred it in, changed the plastic wrap and spoon, and set it back next to the computer for warmth.

NOTE that your starter culture should be the consistency of cake batter - it should flow. NOT the consistency of bread dough. If it should seem to be thick and stiff, add a little more water than the usual 2 tbsp when feeding. This isn't rocket science, this is a set of guidelines and not a protocol, and you can do whatever you want.

So far I haven't refrigerated the starter at all - I've been using it regularly, four times now - it's been growing actively for a month now with the addition of 4 tbsp flour/2 tbsp water every day or two, stirred down once or twice a day. It's a good companion, chuckling away as I work at the computer.


So I took a cup of the actively growing culture out, and added a cup of bread flour and 1/2 cup water, stirred it up, covered it with plastic wrap, and left it in a warm oven overnight (warmed to around 80 degF by the oven light only). This is the "proofing" step - with my actively growing culture it probably isn't necessary but it certainly is if you start with a refrigerated culture which needs to be woken up. The 2 cups of proofing culture should have quite a few bubbles on the surface within a few hours of sitting in the warmth.

NOTE: If you use activated dry yeast instead of starter culture, you don't have to do this proofing step. You should add about 1-3/4 c flour and 3/4 c water to the amounts given for the recipe below to compensate. If you do a cold rise for at least a day, one packet of yeast is fine and you'll have better control of the rise. If you don't do a cold rise, probably use two packets dry yeast.

Now it's time to make the dough.

Next Day, the Dough

Our proofed culture is around 2 cups of stuff, consisting of 1-3/4 c flour and 3/4 c water. For 400 square inches of surface area pizza (two large rectangular cookie sheets or three 12-13" round pizzas), we'll add:
6 c flour

1.5 c water (hold back on the last 1/4 c water until you know you need it)

2.5 tbsp salt (or whatever - it does improve flavor of the bread. Haven't tried NoSalt (KCl) but it should work fine too. Or delete any salt, if you prefer - I don't think it has much bearing on the chemistry here.)

Mix, adding the 1/4 c water as needed to get all the flour subsumed into the dough ball. Now knead five minutes, and then let stand 30 minutes to autolyse. The dough should not be dry - a little wetter is better.

NOTE: This is the basic recipe. I've used beer instead of water, and I'll probably try mixing a few finely minced or pressed garlic cloves into the dough at some point. There's lots of things you can try.

Knead ten minutes more, then divide into two portions (for the pan sizes I use), and dump each portion into a very lightly oiled regular loaf pan. Cover with plastic wrap and put in fridge for at least a day, up to five days.

NOTE: If you use activated yeast, you'll have to punch the cold rising dough down every day or so. For this project, I never had to punch the dough down over the five days it sat in the fridge.

NOTE: I'm assuming everyone knows how to knead - if not, look it up. I will say that while I use a small amount of flour on the countertop to keep the dough from sticking to that, I find that just wetting my hands lightly rather than flouring them does a better job of preventing sticking.

One to Five Days Later, the pizza

Here's what the dough looked like after five days in the fridge. I had too much going on to deal with it before, and five days is probably getting close to the limit, but it was fine. It's now ready to make into pizza.

Each of those will be used to make a rectangular 17 x 11 inch pizza, about a total of 400 sq in of surface area (200 sq in each). If you prefer a 12-13 inch round pizza, the dough will make roughly three of these. If you want to make only one such pizza, you'll just have to dumb down the ingredients. When I do something like this I like to make a WHOLE LOT OF STUFF. It takes scarcely more time to make two or three times the amount for one meal.

NOTE: A word about the steps that follow. Traditionally pizzas should be round, and cooked quickly in a VERY hot oven on a stone. I don't have a 800 degF oven, and I don't have enough square inches of flat surface to accomodate the amount of pizza I'm making. I'm betting you don't either. That's why I'm using nonstick cookie sheets and I really don't care what the shape is. I'm doing this with essentially no specialized tools at all, which is where I predict most of us are.

The dough at this stage was moist and fairly rubbery - I used wettish hands to manipulate it and no additional flour at all. The rubberiness is the consequence of the use of bread flour at twice the protein content of all purpose flour, as well as the cold rise and cold temperature of the bread dough. Do not be alarmed - bread flour dough isn't going to feel at all like dough made from all purpose flour. It isn't going to taste like it either. I suspect most restaurant pizza is made from all purpose flour, so you might want to go back to that if you're trying to achieve some long forgotten memory of the perfect pizza. Bread flour is different.

I prefer not to do pressing or rolling, but in this case it was necessary to both stretch and eventually press the dough into shape. I did all this with cold dough - perhaps if I'd let the loaf pans warm up for a few hours before manipulating the dough I'd have had an easier time of it. I'll try that next time.

I coated the cookie sheets with corn meal (which I like on the bottom of my pizza - use flour if you prefer, or nothing if you want to trust to the nonstick cookie sheets). I had sort of stretched the dough out into a rough shape before dropping it onto a pan, and then I had to do the spreading that I preferred not to do. Try to get the dough even in thickness, and repair any thin areas. Draw the dough upward at all edges into a slightly thicker mound that will be the crust.

For better or worse, this is what the spread out dough looks like on my slightly-too-large-pans-for-my-oven. This time around I let the spread out dough incubate for an hour in the warmish oven before I proceeded, thinking that might make the crust a little thicker and less crackerlike. I think that contributed to more sticking to the pan after the precooking than I'd noted previously, so maybe I won't do a short prerise next time.


I like to do a 4 or 5 minute precook, no longer than that, at 500 degF before adding the condiments. I go ahead and spread the sauce and put cheese on top of that. The precook accomplishes two things - the dough is partially cooked and now hard enough to play around with outside of the cookie sheet, the cheese and sauce seal the surface and so extra pizzas can now be covered and refrigerated (or frozen) for future use.

After the precook, just long enough to harden the dough and melt the cheese. This one had a large bubble in the center, but it subsided quickly. At this point I remove the precooked pizza from the cookie sheet, and onto a board. We can then proceed to finishing the cooking, or cover the precooked pizza with plastic wrap and storing it in the fridge for up to a few days for another pizza later on. Or it might be frozen for longer storage - I haven't tried that, but see no reason why it can't be done.

There was a little struggle this time to break the attachment of the precooked pizza to the pan, but determined scraping with a good spatula held upside down eventually freed it.

Final Cooking

NOTE: I should say that I precook and final cook these pizzas one at a time.

Your freed pizza is now on a large board and since it's precooked it will slide around nicely. Add your condiments as you wish, and top them with more cheese if you want. I usually put drier precooked condiments on the bottom, then previously uncooked watery plant materials: mushrooms, peppers, and onions above those so they'll cook more quickly. If you've used bread flour, your bottom crust will be strong enough to support generous amounts. If you used all purpose flour, your bottom crust will be weaker - go easier on the condiments, especially the wet ones.

Slide your project directly onto the metal rack of the preheated 500 degF oven and cook until it's ready. This time it took less than ten minutes - if it starts out cold or frozen it will probably take longer, and maybe the temperature should be a little less. Can't advise you better at this stage. You're looking for the edge crust to be browned, and the cheese atop to be melted and slightly carbonized to a very light brown color here and there.

Slide the final product out onto your board and cut it up. My evaluation of this effort was that fresh out of the oven the crust was a little thinner than I'd like, and somewhat crackery. I've upped the ingredients by 20% in the recipe I gave above to be a little more generous in the surface area of dough so the bottom crust will be a little thicker. The important thing is that the substrate of the pizza was not floppy!

Final Note on Fermentation vs Cellular Respiration

Some folks refer to the cold rise as a "cold ferment," and there's temptation to think of the sourdough starter as "fermentation." In fact, you are stirring your starter a few times a day, and so you're getting oxygen into it, and that's necessary for rapid reproduction of yeast. Fermentation only happens with yeast when there is no oxygen around, which is why you seal up incubating wine or beer, so that it will produce alcohol and carbon dioxide, instead of just the latter.

With bread, all you really want is the carbon dioxide, for the leavening aspect. With oxygen levels reasonably high, you get three times the amount produced that you would get with fermentation - never mind why, if you don't remember your Krebs Cycle, it's just the case. All of our kneading, incubating exposed in the air whether in the warm or in the cold, aerates the dough and prevents fermentation from kicking in. The yeasts are actively doing efficient cellular respiration, and producing three times the amount of carbon dioxide, which is where we want them to be for bread.

So "ferment" is probably not the right term. We're not really excluding oxygen, and the lactobacilli that are a part of the culture will produce the lactic acid that's the sour in sourdough regardless of whether there's oxygen or not around.

Monday: 17 January 2011

Stretching Our....Legs?  -  @ 04:52:42
We're at under 50% snow coverage now, at the beginning of Day 8 after the snow. Temperatures peaked yesterday at 53 degF, and it's been sunny since last Wednesday (except at night). So areas sloped to the south even by a little bit are free of snow, but flat areas under all but evergreen trees still have an inch or so left. Evergreen trees prevented a full snow depth and so under them the snow has melted regardless. Yesterday was a day of major exponential melting, and presumably the snow will all be washed away by the cold rain we'll get today and tomorrow. The last week has been an unusual winter excursion for us.

So it was a little surprising to find this fellow. Glenn spotted Urchin worshipping him and I walked up to rescue him. The patterning and color put me in mind of a copperhead at first, and that is apparently a common misidentification. The round eyes and head shape argued otherwise, and in fact the patterning and lack of a fluorescent yellow or green tail argues against a juvenile copperhead.

(I don't have anything against copperheads, particularly, which are by all accounts mild-mannered snakes, unlike their cottonmouth cousins. But I do take care with blotched snakes with brown coloration, and juveniles can be difficult to identify.)

It does appear to be a young black rat snake, Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta, or Pantherophis obsoletus, to be more correct and less traditional at present. It's around 12 inches long, and my Audubon says that hatchlings are 11-16" in length, hatching August to October. I'd guess then that this fellow hatched early last autumn.

Although I've run across many adult black rat snakes (and ours are truly of the black phenotype), this is my first juvenile.

I ran across several websites that help to confirm the patterning of the juveniles, which differ considerably from the adults we have around here. Rat snakes are highly variable, even as adults, but here is a photograph of a young juvenile that is a good match. Even with our largely black black rat snakes here in the Piedmont, I ran across one medium size, presumably adult specimen April 11 2008, that had retained the juvenile markings.

A few thumbnails that will click into a new page: At left, the top of the head and first few inches of the distinctly patterned body. Center, most of the body, and at right, the patterned belly. The belly and chin will become white in the adult, and that's another identifying characteristic that distinguishes a black rat snake from, say, a black racer.

So what was this guy doing out and about in January? Apparently he (or she) had warmed up enough to escape from brumation, which is a new word to me. Brumation is a somewhat lesser form of dormancy that a lot of reptiles in wintry climates undergo. Hibernation is something some mammals undergo, and in hibernation the animal actually goes to sleep and neither eats nor drinks. An animal in brumation (usually reptiles) more easily rouses during warm periods and may emerge to seek water.

Breaking brumation and emerging was probably a bad idea here - the snake was quite sluggish. I found an area away from the house and littered with rotting logs and deep litter to let it go in.

Saturday: 15 January 2011

Day Six  -  @ 09:23:42
Folks around here are already remarking, on Day 6 after the snow, that it's very unusual for us to still have a couple inches of stuff covering most of the ground. I'm encouraged, as I always am with comparative analysis. Our temperatures have scarcely gone over freezing in the last few days - yesterday the high was 42.2 here, but only 21 degF this morning.

But memory fails - not even the big boys are recalling last winter, when we had unusually cold temperatures during the last of December 2009 and the first half of January, 2010. Cold temperatures came back in February last year, and upped the probability of encountering moist air blowing up from the Gulf of Mexico to the extent that we had 3 inches of snow at the end of that month. For some reason, getting a lot of snow makes people feel colder than they'd be otherwise. The reality though is that the cold they'd be feeling anyway is simply there a bit more frequently, frequently enough to coincide with the usual moist front zooming up from the Gulf. The resulting snow is like a foot of icing on an otherwise mediocre cake.

In the last year or two I've been quite impressed, taking a look every few days at the climate model results, to see these massive "arctic blasts" penetrating so deeply into our area. The predictions have been remarkably on target, even a week in advance. It seems to be due to the Arctic Oscillation going negative in a way that it hasn't really done in the previous decade or two.

It might seem paradoxical that we here in the South should have cold weather during winter in an era of global warming, and you can be sure that there is much hay being made over this. But it is, after all, *winter*, and that takes care of a good bit of the silly stuff - we're quite familiar with temperatures in the twenties, and even the teens, here. Happens a lot in the winter, even in northeast Georgia.

It's the frequency of such events that's so interesting, and that's what it seems you get, when Arctic sea ice is disappearing at phenomenal rates during the summers of the last few years. Kit Stolz, at A Change in the Wind, had a nice short piece on the phenomenon a few days ago. Paradox upon paradox, cold as it is here, the Arctic and high latitudes continue to show winter temperature anomalies in the red, as polar ocean laid bare absorbs more heat, and the dam breaks down, releasing blasts of cold to make their way southward.

I was really going to put the brakes on wintry photographs, and stereo images of those, but yesterday's walk (Day 5, for goodness sake) yielded a fine set so for one of these I've constructed the stereogram and linked to a new page as usual. It's a fine 3D image, which is what I seek when begging your indulgence.

This is the roadcut that begins just southwest of the house (which you cannot see in the distance) and proceeds down in the direction of your humble photographer to Goulding Creek. On the right it drops down, unseen, steeply to SBS Creek. Even if you can't manage the stereogram, the shadows help. The ruts of the roadcut began the erosion that has deepened over some unknown number of many years, probably more than half a century. Growth of trees within the road, and aside it, are warring with the elements that are trying to produce a gully. Maybe in another few decades someone will make a comparison to see how things are turning out.

(Click photo for crosseyed stereo images (opens in new page). (Instructions for Viewing))

Friday: 14 January 2011

Fifty Year Aftermath, Day 5  -  @ 05:46:01
Well, this has been fun and instructive, but then we were fairly well prepared, had no power outages, and the University closed appropriately (it opened yesterday at 11am, today at 10am, three or four days late). There is still 4-plus inches of snow and ice on the ground, at the beginning of Day 5.

I took a screen shot of Monday's CoCoRaHS snow reports for much of the southeast. This should be self-explanatory. The storm moved northward so North Carolina will have had much higher snowfalls the next day than are indicated here.

I've had the opportunity to hone my snow measuring skills. I'll just include yesterday morning's comment to my daily entry there:
1/13, Day 4 begins: Measurements of old snow are getting tricky. I'm using a semi-exposed long bench, which I estimate gets about 50% sun during the day. There is now a 0.5" ice cap on top of the snow, and little obvious air space between it and the snow underneath. The depth to the top of the ice cap was 4.9" this morning. The water content of outer cylinder core is 0.84", not appreciably different from the last few measurements. This is also less accurate since it's very hard to get a representative sample with 0.5" ice cap, but I gently hammered the surface to produce cracks before sampling. No precipitation in the last 24 hours. Full sun yesterday. At 5pm 1/12, Wolfskin Road north of our access road, and a mile stretch of US 78 west of that was mostly clear, but frequent puddling and wet spots will be slick invisible ice this morning on Wolfskin. Outside of that we still had 100% coverage of snow and ice. Our access road was 90% covered in snow and ice yesterday over its 0.8 mile length at 4pm. Temperature at 6am, 18.9 degF. Max temp yesterday was 34.5 degF at 2:45pm. Above freezing only noon to 4pm.

What has been unusual about this, besides the large (for us) snowfall that started it all off, is that it hasn't gotten warm enough immediately after. Normally we'll have 50 deg temps within a day or so, but for the last four days it's been just warm enough to leave a slick of liquid atop the snow, which puddles and freezes overnight in the low twenties and high teens. Yesterday's temperatures peaked at 39 degF, but were only above freezing for six hours or so.

Wednesday afternoon, the top of our drive looked like this. That's five inches of snow plus the ice on top. I imagine the entire Wolfskin community could hear me as I was trudging up the drive, breaking through the half inch crust of ice:

On Wednesday, Glenn and I decided to get out and take a drive - I drove. I've never driven in snow, but the Honda CRV functioned perfectly with its kickass real time 4 wheel drive. (Mark mentioned this too, in comments to the last post.) We even got down the dip and back up the steep hill on our access road with no problems. Here you see the road just before that dip in the distance - even on Day 3 only three or four cars had ventured back this far to the end of the road.

Sure, why not another stereo photo? You can see what a good job the power company does in keeping the power line corrider free of falling branches. (Click photo for crosseyed stereo images (opens in new page). (Instructions for Viewing))

Tuesday: 11 January 2011

Fifty Year Winter  -  @ 08:05:29
At least.

The University closed on Monday and then again today, Tuesday, and this was a wise decision. Normally they only let you know around 6:30am, but for these events they gave up way in advance, announcing the two closures the previous evening and afternoon, respectively. That's just about unprecedented in my 35 years here.

As I said last Feb 14, this is my once a year indulgence. Except that it hasn't really been once a year, except for the last two. Let us pepper it with the spice of a few numbers.

My own measurements for Wolfskin snowfall are for 5.4" snowfall by 7am yesterday, when the snow really ended, and then a total of old plus new this morning at 5.6". Somewhere around 3/4" of that is now a capping of ice, delivered since 7am yesterday as ice pellets and then a freezing mist later in the day. Temperatures maxed out at 30.6 degF, so nothing melted. When all was melted, we had a total of 1.10" liquid precipitation, delivered as snow or ice.

Oglethorpe County average snowfall yesterday from the CoCoRaHS observers is 6.4", and there were three reports of 8.0".

How does this fit in with historical events pegged to Athens official data? The last time we had more than 6.4" snow reported was Jan 1987, with 7.1". Since 1920 there have been five such snowfalls, with the maximum at 9.8" in Jan 1940.

But remember that we had that December 26 snowfall a couple weeks ago. Our total average with these two events was 9.5". Only the Jan 1940 total exceeds that, since 1920, at 9.8".

Now for some photos. Here's the Rana pond just south of the house. Several times in December the cats had been skating around on these ponds, but that would be problematic today - they're not quite frozen. It's really not that cold, it's just cold enough.

The following photos have stereo images associated with them, because I love stereo images. I chose these for the three dimensional character of the subjects. Click photo for crosseyed stereo images (opens in new page). (Instructions for Viewing)

The snow was pretty hard to walk around in, yesterday, with what was then a quarter inch of ice on top. But I always like to get another good look at Troll Rock on SBS Creek, which blocks the creek enough to create three permanent deep pools and a boggy area.

Farther down SBS Creek, the land rises steeply on the left. We're actually in the floodplain here.

And finally, the old logging roadcut that in former days forded Goulding Creek to make its way across and up the hill in the distance. This has been the subject of earlier posts, in warmer days, with dense vegation of crownbeard on the right and bear's claw on the left. Not today, though!

Sunday: 9 January 2011

Winter Storm Warning  -  @ 05:43:42
It's probably worth pointing out that our area of central to north Georgia is now under a winter storm warning for 7pm Sunday to 7pm Monday.

It sounds like the trend is for more ice and less snow, except for the north Georgia mountains. Beginning with snow through Sunday night then switching to freezing rain and sleet through Monday. Temperatures stay below freezing after Sunday afternoon through Tuesday morning. Ice is going to produce quite a mess!

The explanation is this: I had noticed from the model output graphics that the 850 mbar temperatures were not particularly colder, if that, than the surface temperatures. I was surprised, usually the 850 temps are considerably cooler than surface temps.

Anyway, it seems that while we have the cold to freeze water, we aren't expected to have the depth of cold to freeze that water as snow. It will fall as ice pellets or will freeze as it gets to the ground.

Fortunately for us here in Oglethorpe County, although it doesn't ever seem like it when it happens, our electric company maintains a schedule for cutting back overhanging vegetation on their power line rights of way. That's saved us from power outages before, and it's going to minimize the likelihood this time around too.

Winter Green in the Air  -  @ 04:37:18
It's fairly remarkable that there are vines or vine-like plants that retain their leaves in the winter. If it's cold on the ground, then it's that much more extreme twenty or a hundred feet in the air, where there's no benefit from ground warmth and protection from wind.

As was the case for the winter active graminoids (grasses, sedges, rushes) a couple of days ago, some look great and others look like they're just marking time until it warms up.

Many vine types do lose their leaves, of course. We won't see virginia creeper, poison ivy, muscadine, or (marginally) woodvamp today. But winter, when the leaves are off most trees, is a great time for looking up. For photography, blue skies are a must, else we must do odd things with the exposure that produce odd effects.

Here, for instance, is Gelsemium sempervirens, Carolina Jessamine aka evening trumpets. Not only is it actively green, it's going to flower in the next month or so.

USDA Plants has a particular way of describing the appearance of plants, detailed here. It's hard to know how precisely they're using these terms, but they describe the growth AND the habit (g/h). The growth is how the plant grows: as a vine, for instance. A vine is fairly specific - it presumably must root in the ground, and consists mostly of long stem that are not used particularly for support. If a plant dies back to the ground during the winter and has no woody tissue, it's a forb or herb. A shrub is a perennial that does not die back to the ground and has woody tissue. A subshrub is a little shrub, less than a foot or so tall. The habit, when applied to plants, is what the plant looks like.

So jessamine is described as g/h=vine/shrub, by which it means that it grows as a vine, but with its woody nature and fairly tall mounded growth it looks like a shrub. If you've seen one draped decoratively over a fence, you know its stems can't support it without that fence - it's a vine. But when you look at it as a whole, it's more like a shrub, with its woody perennial nature. That's the best I can do!

Here are two greenbriers, or smilax. We've actually done vines before in another context almost exactly three years ago.

Here is saw greenbrier, Smilax bona-nox. Our growth/habit definition is just the opposite of jessamine: g/h=shrub/vine. Its growth is as a shrub, a woody perennial, but it looks like a vine. That's what USDA plants says, and I don't know if they're making a very specific point, or if they're being loose with the terms.

Saw greenbrier, above, looks pretty frazzled this time of year. The leaves are green, but they look drab and lackluster.

Not lanceleaf greenbrier, Smilax smallii, below. Its leaves are bright green and without blemish. It's actually growing and maturing fruits here.

Like saw greenbrier, its g/h is shrub/vine - grows like a shrub but looks like a vine. There must be some definition of vine I'm missing here. A long stem of smilax certainly can't support itself, and it definitely uses trees as support. By any reasonable criterion it grows as a vine just as much as carolina jessamine does.

We've seen this fine plant before: crossvine, Bignonia capreolata. The leaves here do something interesting in the winter - if it gets very cold, they appear rather desiccated and turn a very dark green. They seem to be protecting themselves in some way, but they're still present and apparently functioning to some extent.

Crossvine is described as g/h=vine/~. I take that it grows like a vine and it is a vine. Crossvine does what the previous three do, plus something more: it has tendrils or twining modifications, presumably of stipules. There is no mounding character for crossvine, like there is for jessamine or smilax, and so presumably that's why we don't attach the word shrub to its description.

Crossvine will produce those nice yellow and orange trumpets in the early to mid spring, just in time for the hummingbirds to return.

Finally, this plant was photographed from way below. It's mistletoe, of course, and the only species we have is Phoradendron leucarpum, oak mistletoe. As is appropriate, these specimens are growing on an oak.

The growth/habit of mistletoe is given as g/h=subshrub/shrub. No vine quality is mentioned at all, and we can see why. The entire plant is in the air - there is no long stem or connection to the ground.

Mistletoes are parasitic - hemiparasitic - since they do photosynthesis and only suck up water and mineral nutrients from the xylem of a host plant.

There are two genera in the United States. Arceuthobium, dwarf mistletoe, has at least 19 species. They're mostly western and northern species, and we have none here in the southeast that I'm aware of. Their leaves are much tinier, and they spread their sticky seeds explosively.

Our mistletoe is in the genus Phoradendron, which includes 24 species scattered about the US. Unlike Arceuthobium, Phoradendron species rely on birds to eat the fruits and poop the seeds out on some tree branch. P. leucarpum is the only species we see here. If you live in the west, you've got a great variety of species of mistletoe to choose from, from two genera! Often you can tell what it is by the host plant it's growing on.

And by the way, in case you were wondering how USDA Plants defines the growth/habit of the deciduous "vines," here you go:

All the following are, like crossvine above, g/h=vine/~. Plants that grow like vines and look like vines: Virginia Creeper, Woodvamp, and Muscadine. I believe they all produce tendrils and in at least two cases clinging structures. Nothing about shrubs or subshrubs there.

Poison ivy has an interesting, complicated definition: g/h=shrub/forb or herb, subshrub, vine. I take it this means that it grows as a shrub, but that it can take on the appearance of a forb or herb (a young, nonwoody plant that grows on the forest floor with nowhere to climb), a subshrub (older woody plants that aren't climbing anywhere), or vines (lucky plants that found a tree). Now that seems to be consistent.

Saturday: 8 January 2011

Weather Event  -  @ 06:45:39
Another winter event seems to be in the works for us: we're under a winter storm watch now.

Yesterday we had an interesting event: the barometric pressure dropped down to 995 mbar (below 29.3 inches Hg) about 3pm. That's extremely low for us - I couldn't find any local occasions that beat that figure over the last three years. The result was a lot of wind in the afternoon, and more today.

Just coincident with that, probably, is that snow and freezing rain are supposed to start Sunday afternoon or evening, and continue as snow or ice all day Monday. Temperatures will be dropping Sunday into the upper 20s and not climbing above freezing until Tuesday. Now all that is up to 36 hours before things get started, so much could happen to weaken (or intensify) those predictions.

In the late 70s and 80s, we had several spectacular ice storms, events that used to be a lot more common in this part of the region. Since then we've had a few good snows (even better than the one last month), but no real ice storms. That there is some kind of institutional memory of these is clear from the power company's habit every other year of cutting back trees and branch growth from their power line rights of way.

The manner of how this storm develops, if it does, will determine whether we have a bona fide ice storm, but if so it will be the first in quite a few years.

And just by coincidence, Monday is the first day of classes for the university's spring semester. It probably won't be clear until the last moment, somewhere around 6:30am on Monday, whether the university will close.

Thursday: 6 January 2011

Some Like It Cold  -  @ 08:19:31
Even without considering the usual gymnosperms, abundant mosses, and planted grasses or winter horticulturals, there's quite a bit of greenery out. If you're in Florida or another largely winterless location, this might be a no brainer. If you're farther north where snows stay on the ground for weeks or more, you might have greenery without even knowing it. Your ground temperatures, insulated by the snow, may be warmer than ours exposed constantly to the air.

Today we'll do some are some ground plants that are mostly monocots or ferns. They at least persist and presumably do some photosynthesis. Some actually seem to thrive in the winter, putting out new growth, but most of these seem to be treading water waiting for warmer times.

First up, the remains of Elymus virginicus, or wild rye. This grass is common in places around here, and has been mentioned before, June 6 2005, when it's happier and more robust.

We've lost the defining rye-like head from last summer, but there's still some green grassy remains. They're probably not doing much, and there isn't any new growth that I can tell. Just hanging on for now.

There are numerous species of grasses, sedges, and rushes around that are simply coping. I'm mostly incompetent to identify them without flowers or fruiting structures, unless I've noted them on location before and know them to be there.

This plant is not simply coping; it likes it here and now. I mentioned these two years ago in January 2009: wild garlic, Allium veneale. They aren't native, but they're not bad citizens either. They pepper the floodplain. I seem to recall that swamp rabbits like them, but haven't seen much nibbling damage on them.

Another cold weather monocot, and I presume it's a broad bladed grass but it could easily be something else. It's growing right on the edge of Goulding Creek, actively putting out fresh new growth. At first I thought it might be one of our two Chasmanthium species, but I'm not so sure of that.

Another in the reluctant but persistent category, canebrake,, Arundinaria gigantea, mentioned last year about this time. There are stands of this along a section of Goulding Creek. The leaves look pretty ratty, but even during warmer times they look pretty ratty.

Finally, one of our most common large ferns, Christmas fern, Polystichum acrostichoides. It's persisting, but new fiddleheads will not emerge until April or so, as I noted just about five years ago.

These ferns are noteworthy because they grow well on steep slopes, and often as here densely enough to have a mitigating effect on erosion. This, by the way, is a *very* steep slope, leading up from the little dry creek to the second deck.

There are several other groups of green plants this time of year, and we'll look at those later.

Tuesday: 4 January 2011

More Stately Mansions  -  @ 08:37:45
Short shameful confession - not only did I get a Samsung Fascinate, but Glenn did too. We have gone over totally to the dark side now. Here is how it came about.

But first, you're probably going to be amused at my naivety and description of smart phone features that may be all too familiar to you. Only those over the age of, say, 40 or 45 have functionally bridged the entire span of dial phones to touch tones to cell phones, from LPs to CDs and beyond, and from nothing to terabyte and gigahertz personal computers. Whatever I may think of the insidious nature of these devices, they're marvels, and I don't take them for granted.

Three years ago, I got my first cell phone, which was at the time a medium-level flip phone. It wasn't really as small as the one pictured in the inset above, it just feels like it now.

It was a purchase born of practicality - potential emergency problems in hiking through the woods around here, relatively long drives between work and home, and that was about it. The usual sorts of rationalizations. I had a simple mimimal use plan and I never did any texting with it, which means I didn't reply to texting. The phone really was used minimally, too. I was eligible for a new phone a year ago, but saw little reason for it since mine still functioned perfectly, in its limited way.

For the last couple of years it's become increasingly evident that students check and use email less and less, and with less and less literacy and ability to read for content too. They use their cell phones for everything now, and the ratio of never: o ccasional:frequent email users is now around 1:8:1, I'd estimate. It was lose-lose - pissing in the wind to try to get my students to check their email for schedule changes, and losing flexibility because they just weren't going to do it.

(Oddly, this is how it started out, too. I was doing email regularly around 1990, way ahead of the game - it took the students five years to begin to use it regularly enough to become a benefit. There was a period of only a few years when we were in synch.)

And so the new practicality. Texting is a necessity, and even the ability to pull some information off the internet at will is more of a requirement than it is a luxury in my profession. I've now done two long hikes where I can call up USDA Plants or anything else, just to check things out in situ, rather than waiting until I get home and discovering that I should have looked at some feature I'd neglected.

I had never really bothered to look at any of my students' smartphones, or tried them out, so I was a little shocked at the high resolution. This particular line of Samsung phones uses AMOLED display, which are acivated matrix organic LEDs. The black is incredibly deep black, and when you've gotten to the reading glasses stage of life, high contrast is pretty important.

Look look, no physical keys! Well, there are two, one on each side to turn the thing on and off and control volume. Everything is touchscreen, and it's insidiously seductive.

There is a keyboard, but again, it's all touchscreen. And yes, that is an advertisement. This phone friendly shortcut to Wikipedia was bundled with the included apps, and you'll get the occasionally ad inserted in. You can go with the usual URL that you'd use with a lap or desktop, but most websites will be so configured that a page won't fit well on a phone, or the print is way too small if it does.

It isn't as pronounced as it appears in the above and below photos - that's mainly a problem with the settings I used for the camera - but there *is* a slight bluish cast to the white screen backgrounds, where they're white. Apparently this is an aspect of the AMOLED, and some consider it to be annoying.

Entering text has become interesting. You can hit the keys as you usually do on a physical keyboard, but touchscreen introduces new possibilities. A much faster way of entering text, once you've practiced a little, is swyping. You just run your finger along the screen from key to key, pausing only a tiny time at each letter, and not lifting your finger until you've reached the end of the word. There's a syncopation involved that's the trick to doing this effectively. And you don't have to be perfectly accurate - the phone gives you a list of possibilities for each word if you misskeyed a letter or two. Or you can enter text vocally, which can lead to some amusing results.

There is a GPS function too, with choice of several mapping and navigating programs. It's not really GPS, but rather positioning by distance from the nearest cell towers, and so its accuracy is only as good as your proximity.

Glenn's down to Jekyll Island for the next few days, so we decided to test out the "latitude" option on google maps. We gave each other permission to see the other's position on a google map. I was able to see that he was at the north end of the island yesterday afternoon, and then probably had dinner at the Sanbar and Grill between 5pm and 7pm last night (he did, just confirmed). It's possible that he saw that I was over to Black Snake Road between 3pm and 5pm yesterday, where we'd responded to a structure fire call (he didn't, but this doesn't surprise me). It's an interesting loss of privacy!

(Sister Susan, who too graduated from a similarly clunky phone to this very model last summer, remarked that the latitude function might be more commonly used for parental monitoring now. This may or may not be true, but it wouldn't surprise me.)

Before I chose this particular phone, I'd done a lot of reading of android and droid X and fascinate forums for comments and tricks. I'm aware of what others see as problems with this particular phone: it doesn't light up when a message comes in to notify you (well, there's an app for that!), the white background is a little bluish (I hadn't noticed until it was mentioned), and this, that, and the other thing. So far these objections strike me as more along the lines of a car not having enough cup holders, but others are more sophistocated in their use and expectations, so there's that.

There were a couple of alternatives - we'd looked at the Droid X seriously, but I figured if you were going to do touchscreen, go all the way and eliminate the physical keyboard. The touchscreen is amazing and easy to use, even with moderately large fingers, once you get used to it. Typing is never going to be as fast as a computer keyboard, but it's not as slow as I'd expected, and practice does help.

So I expect that this is going to be a good move, with some unpredicted benefits, and not excluding that it's just plain fun to use and figure out, as I've done for the last few days. It'll have to wait until spring semester classes start next week, to determine whether that primary motivation is proved out, but even if it's not I'm not going back. Next step, in a few years, implants!

Monday: 3 January 2011

The Month of December  -  @ 06:02:02
A Happy New Year to everyone! Why do we get to decide on our own New Year's resolutions? Wouldn't they be more pointed and productive if others decided them for us?

It's The Month of December, Number 59 in a series. For us, December was cold - the second coldest since 1920. And we had a significant snowfall of 3.6", of which 2.5" stuck, Dec 25 and 26. That was our first significant December snowfall since 1993, and before that, 1963 with a comparable 2".

Here are the usual temperature anomalies products, at the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center.

This time around the western US experienced warmer than average mean temperatures, a near reversal from November. Much of the west was 7-8 degF higher. The eastern US experienced its own reversal, from warmer than normal temperatures in most eastern states to much colder than usual temperatures in the Atlantic states from Pennsylvania south. This figure shows us at 8 or more degF below normal for December.

We find the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center's precipitation plots here these days.

There is something quite wrong with this product, for December. It shows most of Georgia as having had an excess of rain, and in fact we were just about 50% below normal. It wasn't a local thing, either. I think we can, with an element of wonder, dispense with the figure.

At left is the same product extract by NOAA's weekly ENSO update, and it makes a lot more sense. Much of the warmer west received a lot of rain, with brown dry weather extending up the middle of the US and extending spottily toward the eastern coast. The eastern US was at best normal or slightly above, with many spots receiving less than normal rainfall.

The 90 day anomaly in the bottom panel shows that this precipitation pattern has been largely ongoing since the end of September, at least.

For Athens:

For Athens, our eight months in a row with warmer than usual average temperatures came to an end. Our high temperatures averaged 7-8 degF lower than normal reflected in both daytime highs and nighttime lows. We two low temperature records: Dec 8 2006 and Dec 14 1942.

Here is my plot of high temperatures for the month of December in Athens. As usual, the black dots are for the years 1990-2008 (black dots), 2010 (green line), and 2009 (red line).

We only had only one day in December that was more than one standard deviation above the mean high (5.7 days is normal). We had 13 nights in December that were more than 1 SD below the mean low (4.3 nights normal), a reflection of the persistance of the abnormal cold.

The figure below shows the Athens rainfall data which are official for our area. As usual the green line shows our actual rainfall, the red shows the average accumulation expected. The black dots are rainfall over the last 20 years, the vast river of peach shows the standard deviation.

In December, Athens received lower than normal rainfall, as did we in Wolfskin. We finished out the month just below the minus one standard deviation mark.

This is the second month of our water recharge season, when deciduous trees are not photosynthesizing and pulling water out of the ground, and evaporation rates are fairly low. Here is where we are as we try to repair the damage from the 2007-2009 drought:

After three years of drought, we had six months of considerable excess rainfall in 2009, and since the beginning of 2010 have been largely holding steady without appreciable gains. We're still at about 10 inches below what would have been the normal accumulation since Jan 2007, had we had normal rainfall.

I'll have an additional review of the year later, but we here in Wolfskin finished out the year with 43.29" of rainfall. Athens officially ended the year with 47.73". Normal annual rainfall since 1920 runs around 48", so we had about 90% of our normal precipitation.

Checking back at this neat prognosticator I see there has been a slight shift in prediction to normal to only slightly warmer temperatures over the next three months, with normal to slightly drier conditions.

These would be more typical La Niña influence in the southeast. December, with its much colder than normal temperatures, was an abberation, and there is a reason for that.

ENSO stuff:

La Niña holds steady with large negative anomalies since June: NOAA's weekly ENSO update tells us that we're continuing to experience La Niña conditions, and we're expected to continue these into Spring 2011. December is the fifth three-month "season" with an ENSO index average below -0.5, and so soon NOAA will announce that we are officially in a La Niña, although we've been experiencing it since mid-summer.

Now what was up with December, which over the continent was decidely non-La Niña in its temperatures, if not precipitation? As was true last winter, especially in January and February, we were under the influence of a deeply negative Arctic Oscillation. This pattern of sea pressure, as well as its close relative the North Atlantic Oscillation, is like a dam between the arctic and lower latitudes. At high positive values of the index, the dam is strong, preventing the incursion of cold air. At negative values, the dam breaks, cold air flows southward, the eastern US and Europe typically get much colder than usual temperatures, and the arctic loses much of its cocoon of cold.

Interestingly, the AO operated similarly last winter (I mentioned this March 1) when we were under the influence of El Niño, and again in December when we are under the influence of La Niña. It seems that in the winter, the AO trumps the influence of the ENSO, regardless of which phase it's in.

Unlike the ENSO, whose phases persist over many months, sometimes more than a year, the AO and NAO fluctuate over periods of days and weeks. The AO is difficult to predict, but tentatively it's expected that the negative index will not hold for the rest of the winter. If it becomes positive then we'd expect a more normal, warmer winter influenced more by La Niña.

NOAA's Monthly State of the Climate product for November is now up - December should be appearing soon. Detailed explanations for weather events occurring during November(or whatever month is current) can be found for the several sections of the US under the National Overview. There are many interesting weather- and climate-related items to be found here.

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