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.
Red-osier dogwood (Cornus sericea), as its name implies, lends color to wetlands year-round, but it really comes into its own at this time of year. In early spring this shrub is especially noticeable, as its red bark becomes much more vivid due to anthocyanin pigments which are affected by light intensity. Although it can tolerate light shading, the stems and branches in shaded sites tend to be greener. Native Americans utilized every part of this shrub,especially the stems and shoots. Inner bark was used in tobacco mixtures during the sacred pipe ceremony, branches and shoots were made into baskets, dreamcatchers, bows and arrows, and peeled twigs were used as toothbrushes for their whitening effect on teeth.
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.
Silver maple (Acer saccharinum) is second only to skunk cabbage when it comes to early spring flowering. Even with our nights still well below freezing, silver maple trees are bursting with blossoms. This close relative of red maple bears its male (pictured) and female flowers separately, sometimes on the same tree and sometimes not. Silver maple’s sap can be tapped and boiled into syrup, but the yield is much less, and it’s only about half as sweet as that of sugar maple.
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.
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.
American Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana) goes by many names, including Musclewood, Bluebeech and Ironwood. Its smooth, gray bark that appears twisted and somewhat muscular is very distinctive. This member of the Birch family usually has several trunks, and is usually less than 30 feet tall. Its fruit is in the form of clusters of small nutlets, each attached to a papery bract. A good seed crop is produced every three to five years, at which time it benefits ruffed grouse, cardinals, evening grosbeaks and American goldfinches, all of whom prefer it over many other seeds.
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.
Common Juniper (Juniperus communis) is one of the few evergreen shrubs in New England and has one of the largest ranges of any woody plant. You often find it in old pastures and meadows, where its sharp needles protect it from most herbivores. It is a member of the Pine family, and even though its fruits look like berries, structurally they are cones (with fleshy scales). Whereas most of the cone-bearing members of the Pine family disperse their seeds in the wind, Common Juniper uses birds and mammals to do this deed. Cedar waxwings, evening grosbeaks and purple finches consume quantities of juniper fruit, and many other songbirds are frequent visitors. White-footed mice and white-tailed deer occasionally eat the fruit as well. While not aiding the dispersal of seeds, humans do use the fruit to flavor gin.
There are several species of Grape Ferns in the Northeast, all of which are true ferns, but they are not closely related to the plants we generally think of as ferns. Like other ferns, Grape Ferns do not have flowers; they reproduce with spores, not seeds. A single shoot divides into two blades – one of which is sterile and does the photosynthesizing, and one of which is fertile and bears spores. It is the resemblance of this plant’s clusters of spore cases to miniature clusters of grapes that gives this group of ferns its name. Cut-leaved Grape Fern, Botrychium dissectum, (in photograph) is one of the most common species of Grape Ferns in the Northeast. It’s roughly 6” to 8” tall, evergreen and has yellow spore cases and spores which are mature at this time of year.
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.
Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is in flower, one to two weeks early this year, just as last year’s fruit is mature and ready to explode, sending seeds flying. This shrub may have gotten its name from its association with dowsing, which was once thought to be a form of witchcraft. (Witch hazel’s branches were once the wood of choice for dowsing rods, whose purpose is to locate water, or “witch” a well.) The bark, leaves, and twigs of witch hazel are all high in tannins, giving this plant astringent properties. It has also been used for any number of medicinal purposes, from treating hemorrhoids to laryngitis.
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. (
Liverworts, along with mosses and hornworts, are classified by botanists as bryophytes – non-flowering plants that lack vascular (conductive) tissue. It is possible, even likely, that liverworts were among the first plants to make the transition to life on land. Their appearance varies according to the stage in which you see them, but the plants we think of when we think of liverworts are very small (less than an inch in diameter and about 4 inches in length) and can be relatively flat, growing very close to the ground. Liverworts have two basic stages, the dominant one being the flattish, leaf-like gametophyte. It produces male sex organs (antheridia) which produce sperm and female organs (archegonia) which produce eggs. The stalked, fringed, palm tree-like structures in the photograph are egg-producing archegonia, and the stalked, lobed structures are antheridia. Both are less than an inch tall and are produced on the same plant (unlike 80% of liverwort species that produce their sex organs on separate plants). The sperm must reach an egg in order for fertilization to take place, and it usually does this by swimming through rain water or dew. Once fertilization occurs, the second stage of the plant, or sporophyte, develops. The sporophyte produces spores, some of which will grow into gametophytes and the cycle (called alternation of generations) will repeat itself.
It’s easy to miss Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium), as its flower is only about ½” in diameter and the plant only reaches a height of six to twelve inches. Blue-eyed Grass is a member of the Iris family, not, as its name implies, a member of the Grass family, although it does have stiff, grass-like leaves. Dark lines on its petals and sepals may well serve as nectar guides, leading pollinators to the yellow center. Each blossom is open for only a day at most. Typically you find Blue-eyed grass growing in sunny, wet fields, often on elevated soil — Thoreau noted that if you followed Blue-eyed Grass through a wet meadow,
you could keep your feet dry.
Yellow lady’s slipper, Cypripedium pubescens, is in flower in central Vermont/New Hampshire, gracing woodlands and bogs with its beauty. This plant has what is called a mycorrhizal association, a relationship with a fungus that colonizes its roots. This mutually beneficial association provides the fungus with carbohydrates from its host plant, the yellow lady’s slipper, and enables the yellow lady’s slipper to have increased mineral absorption due to the fungus’s large surface area. More than 90 percent of plant species are believed to form a symbiotic arrangement with beneficial soil fungi.
Wild Strawberry, Fragaria virginiana, a member of the Rose family, grows throughout New England and is one of the parent plants for the cultivated hybrid strawberry (the other plant being native to Chile). Its fruits are a staple food for many animals but the leaves and flowers of this plant are also an important source of sustenance for a wide variety of creatures. Cottontail rabbits, snowshoe hares, eastern chipmunks, white-footed mice, white-tailed deer, ruffed grouse, slugs and a variety of invertebrates including aphids, weevils and mites feed on the leaves of wild strawberry. The flowers attract honeybees, bumblebees, butterflies and other insects that collect its pollen and nectar. Caterpillars of several species of moths feed on the foliage and flowers of Wild Strawberry.
Even in the rain, Painted Trillium (Trillium undulatum) can brighten one’s day. Its species name, “undulatum” aptly describes its wavy-margined petals and its common name reflects the splash of pink in the center of the white flower. This member of the Lily family likes acid woods and bogs. Look for it in mature, second-growth forests of Red Maple, Paper Birch, Eastern Hemlock and Eastern White Pine. Wildflowers likely to be found where Painted Trillium grows include Starflower, Sarsaparilla, Canada Mayflower, Indian Cucumber-root, Partridgeberry and Goldthread.