Pink Lady’s Slippers (Cypripedium acaule), also known as Moccasin Flowers, differ from Yellow and Showy Lady’s Slippers in two fairly obvious ways. One is that the stalk the single flower is borne on bears no leaves. In addition, the pouch, or labellum, has a vertical slit running the length of it, rather than an oval opening on the top. Bumblebees are the only insect strong enough to push their way through this slit and are their main pollinators. In New England, almost 25% of the Pink Lady’s Slipper population have white flowers (see insert).
There are only about three short weeks in the late spring when the blossoms of Yellow Lady’s Slippers grace our woodlands and wetlands. The production of an orchid is a complicated process. If pollination and fertilization are successful, hundreds of thousands of some of the smallest seeds of any flowers are scattered by the wind. The seeds of Yellow Lady’s Slippers (and other orchids), unlike those of most flowering plants, contain no food for the seedling plant. In addition, the coating surrounding the seed is extremely tough, so much so that the seed can’t germinate until Rhizoctonia fungi digest the outer coating, which allows the inner seed to access soil nutrients. This can take two years or more and then it may take another few years for the plant to produce a flower.
When black bears first emerge from hibernation, they survive mainly on emerging green vegetation in wetlands. As the season progresses, there are more and more food options to choose from, including a favorite – the corm, or underground bulb-like storage structure, of Jack-in-the-Pulpit. Even though they are large, somewhat lumbering creatures, black bears dig up and remove these corms as if they had a tiny tool designed just for this purpose. They barely disturb the earth, leaving only very small holes as evidence of their presence. A friend of mine witnessed this just outside his window one spring day, and could not believe the delicacy with which the bear extracted these morsels of food from the ground. Apparently the calcium oxalate crystals in Jack-in-the-Pulpit that cause the burning sensation in human mouths doesn’t affect bears, at least not enough to protect the plant.
Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is in full flower, and its design and color beckon to a recently-returned migrant that is attracted to red as well as tubular flowers – the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Not only does the flowering of Wild Columbine coincide with the arrival of hummingbirds in May, but the ranges of these two species are much the same. Wild Columbine’s five petals are in the shape of spurs, the tips of which contain nectar. Only hummingbirds and long-tongued bees can reach the nectar, and thus are its primary pollinators (there is a short-tongued bumblebee that tears open the tip of the spur in order to reach the nectar). While the hummingbird hovers beneath the flower and drinks nectar, its head rubs against Columbine’s long anthers, and the resulting pollen on the hummingbird’s head is brushed off onto the long styles of the next (Columbine) flower it visits, thereby pollinating it.
Early saxifrage (Micranthes virginiensis) is well named – it flowers early in the spring, and is often found growing in or on rocks. (The name saxifrage derives from the Latin words “saxum” meaning rock and “frangere,” to break. When the small seeds of saxifrage lodge in rock crevices and germinate, the plant looks as though it split the rock.) If you look closely you’ll see that early saxifrage’s flower stalk has many hairs – they are glandular and their stickiness is thought to deter ants from taking nectar from the flowers, so that it can attract more efficient pollinators.
Hepatica has finally opened its hairy buds and greeted the world with its beautiful white, pink, blue and lavender blossoms. Typically the only wildflowers to appear earlier than this member of the Buttercup family are skunk cabbage and coltsfoot. Like many flowers, hepatica blossoms open on sunny days, and close at night and on cloudy days. This prevents rain from washing out the pollen and nectar which help attract pollinating insects, including early-flying bees and flies.
You’ll find this early bloomer, Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara), growing in some of the most barren spots on earth – roadsides that are awash with salt from the winter and that are nutrient poor, to say the least, but if sun and moisture are available, these dandelion look-alikes often thrive. Emerging this early in the spring, when temperatures can still dip down below freezing, has its challenges. Hairy scales on the flower’s stem help keep the plant relatively warm. Although the flower head is initially angled downward, when it blooms it straightens out and greets the sun. During the night, and on cloudy or cold days, the flower closes, conserving heat.
The pitcher plant flowers that bloomed in bogs last June persist through the winter. Their maroon petals are gone, as is their scent, and they are withered and somewhat drab-colored, but the upside down flowers are still on display, supported by long, graceful stems protruding above the surface of the snow. Pitcher plants flower for about two weeks at the beginning of summer, during which time their pollen is distributed (primarily by bees). After fertilization, 300 – 600 seeds form within each ovary. This is when the carnivorous pitcher leaves develop. In late fall, the “pitchers” begin to wither and the seed pods turn brown and split open, scattering seeds. In three to five years, the plants which these seeds grew into will begin flowering.
Turtlehead, Chelone glabra, is named for the flower’s resemblance to the head of a turtle. These flowers are pollinated by bumblebees, which crawl in between vertically-paired petals causing them to open, much like a turtle’s jaws. Ruby-throated hummingbirds are also attracted to this flower. After pollination has taken place, the ovary swells and forms capsules which open to release flat, brown seeds. To my eye, the seed capsules that persist through the winter bear even more similarity to this plant’s namesake than the flowers. Look for these seedheads near wetlands, floodplains, marshes and springs.
My apologies. I inadvertently mis-identified today’s flowering plant, Virgin’s Bower (Clematis virginiana). There are several members of the Buttercup family, Ranunculaceae, that are very similar, however, Clematis virginiana is pictured! It is a native perennial vine that is also known as Devil’s Darning Needle, Love Vine and Woodbine, among other common names. The styles, or female structures of its small, greenish-white flowers, develop into long feathery appendages on each of its seeds. Together the clusters of white “hairy” fruits give this plant its common name. The delicate beauty of its seed heads cannot be denied.
Thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica) shares a trait with moths and butterflies — the stages it goes through are so different that you wouldn’t even know they were related, much less the same plant. Summer flowers are white and the late summer seed heads are green and thimble-shaped (hence, its name) and up to 1 ½” long. By fall the seed heads have transformed into cottony tufts containing tiny, scattered dark seeds which persist through the winter and are eventually dispersed by the wind.
Most of those who guessed, guessed correctly – yesterday’s Mystery Photo was of the fruits of Japanese Knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum), which reproduces both by spreading rhizomes (underground stems) as well as by seeds. Seed production, however, is not common, as the plants are unisexual, with male and female flowers on separate plants, and both are rarely found in the same colony. The rhizomes don’t need much help, though, as they can survive temperatures of -31 degrees F. and can extend 23 feet horizontally and up to 10 feet deep. Small wonder that Japanese Knotweed, introduced as an ornamental, has thrived and out-competed native plants. Its delicate 3-winged, brown fruits belie the hardiness of this practically indestructible and invasive plant.
If you look at the forest floor in coniferous woods you may well discover Downy Rattlesnake-Plantain (Goodyera pubescens ). This evergreen rosette of broad, rounded leaves gets its name from the similarity of the shape of its leaves to those of plantain, a common lawn weed. In fact, it is an orchid, not a plantain, and is the most common species of plantain in New England. It is distinguished from other species of rattlesnake-plantains by the bright silver markings on the leaves and the broad stripe down the center of the leaves. Each leaf lasts for approximately four years.
As you might assume from its appearance, Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) is in the Grape family. This climbing woody vine clings to the surfaces over which it climbs with adhesive disk-tipped tendrils, which are actually modified flower stalks. The disks form only after the tendril has made contact with a tree or other surface, at which point the disk secretes a cement-like substance, keeping the vine attached to the substrate long after it has died. Although it superficially resembles poison ivy, Virginia Creeper has five leaflets (“quinquefolia”), as opposed to poison ivy’s three. Virginia Creeper’s brilliant red fall foliage is thought to attract birds, which consume the blue-black berries and disperse the seeds.
Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) has been used by many people for many things over the years. Native Americans used it to treat cancer, rheumatism, itching, and syphilis. They also ate young pokeweed shoots, which contain very low levels of toxins compared to the rest of the plant (and they boiled them several times). At one time, juice from the berries was once used to make ink and dye. Even today it is still used — by the food industry to make red food coloring and by farmers to reduce the swelling of cows’ udders. Research has shown that pokeweed contains a compound that appears to enhance the immune system. It has had some anti-cancer and antivirus effects in animals. Herbalists use Pokeweed for all kinds of ailments, from hemorrhoids to bad breath. Note: all parts of Pokeweed are poisonous, particularly the roots.
Bumblebees are nothing if not perseverant. Prying Bottle Gentian’s (Gentiana andrewsii) petals open is a monumental task, and one that few insects, other than large species of bumblebees, attempt — much less accomplish. The relationship of bumblebees and Bottle Gentian is an example of a mutualistic association — the bees benefit by having exclusive access to a bountiful and sugary nectar supply, and the plants benefit by attracting “loyal” pollinators that improve the chances for cross pollination.
Galls are abnormal plant growths that can be caused by insects, fungi, bacteria, nematode worms and mites. Insects cause the greatest number of galls and induce the greatest variety of structures. Galls provide both food and shelter for the organisms living within them. Galls develop during the growing season, often in buds and on leaves. Pine Cone Willow Galls, named for their resemblance to small pine cones, are found on willows, typically in terminal buds. A gall midge (Rhabdophaga strobiloides) is responsible for the willow bud going haywire and developing abnormally. (No-one has determined exactly how insects cause galls, whether it’s the act of laying eggs in or on the plant, or if it’s somehow connected to the chewing of the larvae into the plant.) Each gall-making insect has a specific host plant, or small group of related plant. The galls that each insect species induces and lives in while developing into an adult has a recognizable shape and size. When you think you’re seeing pines cones on willow trees, you’re not hallucinating, you’ve just discovered the temporary home and food supply of a tiny fly, known as a midge.
Grass of Parnassus, also known as Bog-star, is a favorite flowering plant of mine for two reasons. One is because I enjoy saying its name — try it, it sounds quite regal. Secondly, the green lines, or bee guides, on the petals are a striking color which you don’t see all that often in flowers. Grass of Parnassus is in the Saxifrage family – not in the Grass family, as its name would imply. It typically grows in wet meadows. Apparently the name comes from ancient Greece; the cattle on Mount Parnassus ate this plant with relish, and thus it was deemed an “honorary grass.” (An Ambush Bug is perched on a petal, waiting and watching for prey.)
After the flowers of Skunk Cabbage, located on the knob (spadix) sitting inside a modified leaf (spathe), have been pollinated and fertilized, the fruits begin to mature. The spathe withers and dies, and the stalk that carries the fruit head elongates, growing along the surface of the ground. Initially the fruit head is green and dark purple, measures 2-3” in diameter, and has a convoluted exterior resembling that of a brain. Inside this compound fruit a circle of 10 to 14 seeds lines the periphery. By August the fruit heads will have fallen apart, and the seeds will lay on the ground where they will likely germinate or be eaten by squirrels, ruffed grouse or wood ducks. (Congratulations Liz, Josh and Deb on correctly identifying yesterday’s Mystery Photo!)
Milkweed is in full bloom right now, presenting the perfect opportunity for young and old alike to discover the multitude of butterflies, beetles, bees and other insects that are attracted to these magnificent flowers. If you visit a milkweed patch, don’t leave before getting a good whiff of the flowers’ scent – one of the sweetest on earth. How many of the insects you find are carrying milkweed’s yellow pollen “saddlebags” on their feet? You might want to check out my children’s book, MILKWEED VISITORS, which I wrote after spending the better part of one summer photographing the various insects I found visiting a milkweed patch. (