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Flowering Plants

New England Aster Providing Bees with Late Season Nectar & Pollen

10-13-14 new england aster & bumblebee 356At a time of year when nectar and pollen sources are few and far between, New England Aster provides many species of bees with food. This composite seems designed specifically for easy pollination. Its open, wide flower shape provides a flat surface for insects to land on, and because the nectar and pollen are not hidden deep inside the flowers, both long- and short-tongue bee species can easily access them. Unlike honeybees, bumblebees do not have a large store of honey in their nests, so they need pollen and nectar throughout the season. Thus, the few flowers such as New England Aster that blossom as late as October are visited frequently and in large numbers. (Only the queen bumblebee overwinters, but the workers continue collecting nectar and pollen up until they die in late fall.)

New England Aster flowers close at night, when there are fewer pollinating insects flying. If an unusually cool period arrives during the time when New England Aster is blooming, the blossoms also close. Although it may seem that the aster is losing pollination opportunities during a cold day, bees are not very active in cool weather.

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Indian Cucumber Root Fruit Ripening

9-25-14 indian cucumber root IMG_3876Indian cucumber root (Medeola virginiana) is a member of the Lily family that grows to be one to two feet tall and has one or more whorls (several leaves coming off stem at same point) of leaves. Plants that are going to flower usually put out two tiers of leaves, with their distinctive flowers arising from the second tier. The flowers nod down below the leaves, while the fruit that forms and ripens in September rises above them.

At the same time that Indian cucumber root berries turn bluish-purple, the cluster of leaves below them turns partially red. Each berry contains several seeds which birds and small rodents are attracted to. Although the Iroquois reportedly used an infusion of the crushed dried berries and leaves to treat convulsions in infants, human consumption of anything but Indian cucumber root’s tuber is not recommended (and the tubers should be harvested sparingly).

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Jack-in-the-Pulpit Fruits Maturing

jack in pulpit fruit 022After the spathe (hood) dies back, Jack-in-the-pulpit fruit is more obvious, especially as the green berries turn brilliant reddish-orange at this time of year. Eventually the stem withers and the seed head falls to the ground. The tissues of Jack-in-the-pulpit, particularly the roots, contain high toxic levels of oxalic acid. The berries, if eaten, cause a burning sensation in the mouth and throat due to physical cuts caused by the crystals of calcium oxalate. Although cattle, goats, pigs and sheep are susceptible to the toxin, white-tailed deer, wild turkeys and wood thrushes appear to consume them without distress. As is obvious from this photograph, though, the berries are not in high demand.

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Bottle Gentian’s Pollinators

9-17-14  bottle gentian 259The combination of Bottle Gentian’s (Gentiana clausa) blossoms’ brilliant purple/blue color, their shape, and the difficulty insects have in prying open the bottle neck their petals form, make them a highlight of every September. Getting inside their flowers is a monumental task, and one that few insects, other than fairly large species of bumblebees, attempt — much less accomplish. It takes several seconds of pushing, shoving and cramming to get their head through the miniscule opening at the top of the blossom. Eventually their body follows, sliding down into the flower. While the whole bee sometimes disappears, it’s more usual to see their hind legs poking out of the flower while they lap up nectar. Not only are bumblebees strong, but their tongues (see insert) are long enough to reach the copious amount of sugar-laden nectar that awaits them inside the flower.


Beechdrops Flowering

9-4-14  beechdrops 249Beechdrops (Epifagus virginiana) are parasitic plants which obtain nutrients from the American Beech tree. They insert a root-like structure called a haustorium into a beech root and absorb enough nutrition to sustain themselves and produce flowers between August and October. Beechdrops belong to a family of plants (Broomrape) whose members live as root parasites. Being annuals, Beechdrops don’t live long enough to damage their host trees. Because they lack chlorophyll and obvious leaves (their leaves are scale-like and pressed flat against their stem), Beechdrops are easily overlooked. Keep an eye on the forest floor near American beech trees for these 5 – 18-inch plants which are flowering right now.

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Myrmecochory: Seed Dispersal by Ants

8-6-14  myrmecochory 014As a dispersal mechanism, some plants have fatty structures called elaiosomes attached to their seeds’ coats which are very appealing to ants. After collecting a seed and carrying it back to its underground nest, the ant eats the elaiosome (or feeds it to ant larvae) and discards the intact seed in an area where waste and dead ant bodies are stored. Germination is highly likely in such an ideal environment, making myrmecochory a win-win situation. Trillium, bloodroot and violets are some of the thousands of plants that have elaiosomes attached to their seeds.

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Blue Vervain Flowering

7-29-14  blue vervain IMG_5431Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) is a fairly tall (2 – 5 feet) flowering plant found in wet meadows. Its flower spikes branch upwards like the arms of a candelabra, and each has a ring of blue-purple flowers. The flowers at the bottom of the spike bloom first, and the ring of flowers advances upwards to the tips of the spike. Although Blue Vervain flowers have no scent, both long- and short-tongued bees are attracted to it primarily for its nectar, but also for its pollen. While Verbena Moth caterpillars feed on the foliage, most mammalian herbivores avoid eating this plant because of the bitter leaves. Various songbirds occasionally eat the seeds, including Cardinals, Swamp Sparrows, Field Sparrows, Song Sparrows, and Dark-eyed Juncos.

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