Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Spring Equinox

The old saying in like a lion out like a lamb doesn't seem to apply to March this year. At least not in Nova Scotia! Today is the Spring Equinox and we just got 10 cm of heavy wet white stuff mixed with ice pellets and lots of wind. Sounds more like out like a lion to me...
We even got a 1/2 snow day! It is very rare for the University to close, so when it does you know it is bad...

I remember snow days as a kid in Ontario. Unlike here in Nova Scotia where they cancel school at the thought of snow, the only thing cancelled at my school were the buses. This meant that the teachers who could come in would and were paid to essentially babysit the kids that could make it to school. This meant that parents could drop their kids off if they chose but also all the kids that could walk, did. I cannot imagine all of the days off parents have to take in NS just because of school cancellations. Anyhow, snow days consisted of playing outside, board games, card games, music, fun science experiments, indoor gym, reading in the library and even music. Not all the teachers had to be there. Grade levels were combined and activities organized for everyone to have fun. They were the best days because they consisted of having fun with your friends at school ALL DAY and not just at recess. My snow day today consisted of shoveling snow and now posting here! Fun but perhaps not as exciting as building a snow fort and having a snowball fight with the English school across the ditch.

Despite the ugliness outside, there is some true beauty happening inside our house. I bought this orchid the other day because of its stunning colour! Sadly, it is not natural BUT it will have nice white flowers next time it blooms.
 In the mean time I will enjoy their turquoise and dark blue hues. Another of my orchids is putting out flower stalks for the third time in 12 months! I am looking forward to the 20+ blooms it will produce in the next couple of weeks. I also discovered another nice surprise the other day...
One of my cacti was budding! This beautiful orange flower opened yesterday and there is at least one more on the way!
I noticed that the heather on campus is blooming as were the crocuses. I am dreaming of gardening season!
In the mean time, I hope you are all warm and safe and enjoying the spring equinox, inside or outside!

Saturday, March 9, 2013

What smells like a hyacinth but isn't?

 Obviously, Dracaena fragrans, or commonly known as the corn stalk plant. Actually, it isn't that obvious since I had no idea until last year when my plant flowered and was hit with this amazing scent that is reminiscent of hyacinth and stargazer lily.

It produces on long stalk of whitish flowers with many clusters in early February. The flowers are closed during the day and release no scent whatsoever. However, once the sun starts to sink on the horizon the flowers open up and release their strong scent that fills our whole apartment!
 The flowers take about a week to open up and each flower only lasts a couple of days. Since it opens up and releases its scent at night and it native to Africa, it makes me wonder what pollinator it is trying to attract... bats, moths, beetles, some small mammal? Whatever the pollinator is, this plant adds a wonderful atmosphere that evokes images of being in the mountain forests of Africa which in the middle of winter when it looks like this outside is always welcome.
The corn stalk plant is VERY easy to care for. I had the plant for about 2 years before it started to bloom and so far it has bloomed 2 years in a row. It needs moderate to bright but indirect light and moist soil. I had it for the longest time in an East facing window that only gets bright light in the winter because of the giant Norway Maple in our front yard that blocks almost all the light through the summer. It was obviously getting enough light since it was growing and flowering. I just moved it closer to a south facing window because of some furniture re-arranging so we will see how it does there. It can grow up to 6 ft tall and can live up to 10 years or more! It can also be propagated from stem cuttings, so once it reaches the desired height you can cut the top of the cane and root it like a stem cutting! I will soon be cutting mine and potting it with its parent since you can grow 2-3 per pot and cut them at different heights to get a layered effect.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Hiatus OVER!

Obviously, things have been crazy busy for me to ignore you all since September and I have so much to tell you. The most important piece of news is that I AM DONE MY PhD!!

I successfully defended my thesis on Dec 7 at 10 am. The defense is an oral exam where you present your thesis to your committee, supervisor, an external examiner and because it is open to the audience. My presentation lasted 20 minutes and the question period was only an hour!! I have been to defenses where it has lasted 2-3 hours! I was lucky, I had a great committee with interesting and thought provoking questions... it was actually FUN! Not too many people can say that about an oral exam! I also had great support from friends, colleagues and family. There were about 25 people in the audience and even my parents came for the defense and the celebration afterwards! Now we can look forward to even more fun at my convocation in the spring!

The best part of finishing up was my reward. We went to Mexico for 3 weeks over the holidays! We spent most of our time eating and snorkeling in a marine reserve in Puerto Morelos, a small town of only 3 streets parallel to the beach and separated from the main highway by a huge protected mangrove. As Frank Sinatra said it...This is my kind of Town... Every day that we were there we indulged in delicious food, happy hour, family and of course LOTS of snorkeling!
 Who can resist this assortment of sweets brought to your table by vendors that just walk up and down the beach selling their wares from a tray that they carry on their head!

 We had Arracherra, or skirt steak at least 5 times while we were there...if you like beef, this is to DIE FOR!
 We went to a restaurant that served authentic cuisine from the Yucatan region and had panuchos (the first of the 3 photos) which are fried tortillas with beans, some type of meat, pickled red onions, avocado and of course salsa. The second photo is of papadzules which are corn tortillas dipped in a pumpkin seed sauce then filled with hardboiled eggs, topped with more pumpkin seed sauce and a bit of tomato based sauce. Lastly, the soup is called sopa de lima. Lima is a type of citrus that is the size of a lemon but greenish and sweeter than either lemon or lime, it is sometimes called sweet lime. The soup has chicken and pieces of fried corn tortillas and is delicious!

We also ate at a lot of street vendors that were recommended by locals...Tacos, chile relleno (stuffed chillies), tamales and all kinds of other amazing street food! If in doubt, ask a taxi driver where he/she eats and you are guaranteed to get something good. When we showed up at one cart in Cancun we were surprised that there was actually two different did we know which one to eat at? When a truck load of police showed up to eat at the one cart, we knew that was the right one! It was delicious!!
The AMAZING thing about a marine reserve is that they actually work to protect large predatory fishes and other sensitive species. There was not a day that we did not see at least 10 or more barracudas that were as large or larger than me!!!! The above photo is of a school of 30!! The smallest one in the school was at least the length of my arm (or about 60 cm long!).

 This is a school of snappers (predatory fishes that are very tasty so on unprotected reefs you almost never see even one and here they were schooling by the hundreds!!!
 We also had the pleasure of seeing at least 2-3 turtles everyday with the largest one being about the size of a smart car!
 Sting rays (top photo) and spotted eagle rays (bottom photo) were VERY common, almost a daily occurrence and on some days more than one at a time!
 We saw a number of lobsters hanging out under coral heads which are very rare outside of marine reserves.
 We saw a lot of coral and the health of the reefs themselves was patchy. Some areas were in great shape while others were covered in algae (bottom photo). The reefs in the Caribbean have taken a beating with hurricanes, eutrophication (high nutrient levels in the water from run off and sewage) due to coastal development and climate change. The high nutrients stimulates algae growth that then either smothers the corals or prevents them from recolonizing and phytoplankton in the water shades the corals and can cause bleaching and loss due to lack of light.
The seagrass pictured here can help to act as a filter by taking up a lot of nutrients but we are putting more than it can handle so there is obviously enough for the algae too. The seagrass beds were extensive and healthy so the eutrophication has not yet started to affect them but more nutrients and the seagrass beds could disappear too since they are also sensitive to light reduction and overgrowth by algae.
 Another very common sigh was this beautiful lionfish. On one day we counted seeing 12. You might think wow, what a great fish to see but in fact, it is not native to the Caribbean. It is from the south Pacific and was likely introduced by people with marine aquariums that no longer wanted them so they released the fish into the ocean. This fish is a voracious predator and is affecting local fish populations because nothing eats them and they eat everything! There is an active bounty on these fish in the Playa del Carmen region of Mexico but sadly it is not enough of an incentive to fish them and since they are underwater, they are out of sight and out of mind. You can read about lionfish control and management measures in the US here. Hopefully this will be a coordinated effort among all Caribbean countries.

Of course we spent a lot of time with family over the tree weeks we were there. We did all of the typical Christmas and New Years traditions with all 30 family members that were visiting this year!! So that is it in a nutshell.

I am looking forward to catching up with all of you!