Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 22  |  Friday, September 17, 1999  |  Number 18
In This Issue  |  FermiNews Main Page

Plant of the Week

It's yellow season on the Fermilab prairie. Three or four kinds of goldenrod, coreopsis, species of prairie sunflower and compass plant seem to distill the September sunshine and reflect it back to the late summer sky. The purples and blues of June and July are scarce now among the gold.

Pollination prompts the prairie's color palate, says Fermilab ecologist Rod Walton. Flower colors cluster by season because the insects that are active at the time of bloom tend to stick with the tried and true. The bees that are currently working the prairie have good luck with yellow; and, conservative creatures that they are, opt to stay with a good thing. Thus, a plant that wants to attract the bees' attention for purposes of reproduction in September would do well to go with the flow and burst out in golden flowers.

The Obedient plant, Physostegia virginia.This week's plant of the week, the obedient plant, Physostegia virginia, on view in the Office of Public Affairs, bucks the trend. It's purple. Purple flowers, Walton says, are usually pollinated by different insects (flies, for example) and often have a more complicated structure than the daisy-like yellow composites. Indeed, the obedient plant's spikes of rose-violet blossoms look like the heads of a flock of tiny purple dragons, which no doubt accounts for their other common name, false dragonhead. The obedience in the plant's name comes from the flower's tendency to stay putˇsort of ˇwhen nudged by a finger to one side or the other.

Obedient plant is the second entry in the Plant of the Week project, a collaboration of the Office of Public Affairs and the prairie experts in the Laboratory's Roads and Grounds Department, to give a higher profile to botanical residents of the Fermilab site. Last week the spotlight fell on six-foot stalks of big bluestem and Indian grass, now waving over hundreds of acres of the Fermilab prairie. Similarly, obedient plant, once virtually extinct at Fermilab, has now established itself in great purple patches among the grasses. Which must mean that wearing purple in a yellow season can't be all bad.

by Judy Jackson

Power Pole Ecology

The pi-shaped wooden power poles supporting the lines that bring thousands of megawatts of electric power from Commonwealth Edison to the Laboratory's energy-hungry accelerators are a Fermilab landmark. Robert Wilson, Fermilab's first director, designed them and convinced a reluctant Com Ed to allow their use on the Laboratory site.

If Com Ed didn't care for Wilson's power poles, another local group is crazy about them. The woodpeckers known as northern flickers, Colaptes auratus, find them irresistible. The pine poles make the condominium of choice for the flickers, who hollow out nest-sized holes, all precisely aligned along the vertical pole faces, as the perfect spot to raise families of baby woodpeckers.

"Northern flickers are the white-tailed deer of birds," says physicist Peter Kasper, aka the Birdman of Fermilab, in a reference to the species' ubiquity in Northern Illinois suburbs. When the house-hunting flickers peck on the power poles, the ring of the 30-year-old timber, seasoned in many an Illinois summer and winter, sounds like real estate to them, and they bore right in.

It sounds like trouble to David Nevin, of Fermilab's Facilities Engineering Services Section, who is responsible for keeping the power poles on the job for as long as possible. The woodpecker's nest holes weaken the wooden poles, but replacing them with peck-proof metal would not be cheap. So Nevin is looking for ways to convince the birds to move to another neighborhood. Kasper, an experimental physicist, suggests investigating ways to make the poles sound wrong to nest-minded flickers. Perhaps Nevin could try playing the BeeGees at high volume at 2 a.m. during nesting season. It couldn't hurt, could it?

by Judy Jackson

last modified 9/17/1999   email Fermilab