An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Plants

Pitcher Plants Turning Red

10-29-13 pitcher plant2 158 Pitcher plant leaves are primarily green in the summer, tinged with red, but as summer turns into fall, many become deep red. Although this red color was thought to attract insects, it appears that this is not the case. The color change, according to research cited in the Journal of Ecology, is due to the level of phosphorus this carnivorous plant has received from its insect meals. There is a limited amount of phosphorus in a bog and plants living there acquire it in different ways. The pitcher plant acquires phosphorus from insects that it traps. It then utilizes the phosphorus to revitalize the (green) chlorophyll in its leaves for photosynthesis. The deep red color that the leaves turn in the fall indicates that the plant has not had a good meal in quite some time.

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Poison Ivy Thriving

10-24-13  poison ivy2  029Poison Ivy is in the Anacardiaceae family, which also includes cashews, mangos and sumacs. The sap of the stems, roots, fruit and leaves of many species in this family contains urushiol oil, which is what causes the allergic rash in 80% of humans that come in contact with these species. Poison Ivy is very sensitive to carbon dioxide, and even slightly elevated levels of CO2 have proven to increase its growth. In the past 50 or 60 years, during which time the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased by roughly 22%, Poison Ivy’s growth rate has doubled. The amount of urushiol oil has not only increased, but it is also more potent…leaves of three, let them be.

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Did you know…

9-20-13  milkweed-did you know2 022Only two percent of Common Milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, flowers develop into pods, and all the seeds in a pod come from a single flower.


American Elderberry & the Elderberry Borer

9-9-13 American elderberry 183Interestingly, while the ripe fruit of American Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) is used in the production of wine, pies and jelly, the leaves, stems, roots and unripe fruits of this plant are poisonous, due to the presence of calcium oxalate crystals. Elderberry Borers (Desmocerus palliates) seem immune to these crystals, however. They lay their eggs at the base of the plant, and the hatching larvae then burrow their way into the stems and eat tunnels into the roots of the plant. Adult beetles that emerge and are present through the summer are hard to miss, with their shimmering blue and yellow/orange outer wings, or elytra.

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


White Baneberry Fruits Mature

8-15-13 white baneberry fruit 056All parts of the White Baneberry plant (as well as Red Baneberry) are highly toxic. The fruit, called “doll’s eyes” for obvious reasons, is the most poisonous part, known to cause respiratory paralysis and cardiac arrest in humans. It does not have this effect on all mammals, however. White-tailed deer are known to browse on baneberry, and small rodents such as mice, squirrels and voles feed on the fruit. Geometrid moth larvae (“inchworms”) burrow into the fruits and their seeds while they (the fruits) are still green. A wide variety of birds, including American Robins and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, eat the fruit, helping disperse the plants when they excrete the brown, wedge-shaped seeds (insert). Ruffed Grouse also eat the fruits, but the seeds are destroyed in the digestive process. Oddly enough, Native Americans used the juice of Red Baneberry to gargle with as well as to poison their arrows.

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Partridgeberry Flowering

7-9-13 partridgeberrey flowers2 IMG_1018In many areas the forest floor is now carpeted with flowering Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens), the creeping, woody vine found in both deciduous and coniferous woods. The pairs of white flowers occur in two forms. In the first form (pictured) the pistil is short and the stamens are long; in the second form the pistil is long and the stamens are short. This structure prevents each flower from fertilizing itself. Both flowers must be pollinated to obtain a single scarlet berry. Each berry is the result of the fusion of each ovary of the pollinated pair of white flowers. As such, each berry has two bright red spots on its surface.


Jack-in-the-Pulpit Corm: A Black Bear Delicacy

5-23-13 jack-in-the-pulpit corm 069When 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 Stems

 

 

4-8-13 red-osier dogwood IMG_8874Red-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.


Coltsfoot Blooming

4-9-13 coltsfoot IMG_7600You’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 Flowering

4-2-13 silver maple IMG_8305Silver 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.


Pitcher Plants in Winter

3-19-13 pitcher plant in winter2 IMG_6845The 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.


A Great Christmas Present!

If you’re looking for a present for someone that will be used year round, year after year, Naturally Curious may just fit the bill.  A relative, a friend, your child’s school teacher – it’s the gift that keeps on giving to both young and old!

One reader wrote, “This is a unique book as far as I know. I have several naturalists’ books covering Vermont and the Northeast, and have seen nothing of this breadth, covered to this depth. So much interesting information about birds, amphibians, mammals, insects, plants. This would be useful to those in the mid-Atlantic, New York, and even wider geographic regions. The author gives a month-by-month look at what’s going on in the natural world, and so much of the information would simply be moved forward or back a month in other regions, but would still be relevant because of the wide overlap of species. Very readable. Couldn’t put it down. I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about the natural world, but there was much that was new to me in this book. I would have loved to have this to use as a text when I was teaching. Suitable for a wide range of ages.”

In a recent email to me a parent wrote, “Naturally Curious is our five year old’s unqualified f-a-v-o-r-I-t-e  book. He spends hours regularly returning to it to study it’s vivid pictures and have us read to him about all the different creatures. It is a ‘must have’ for any family with children living in New England…or for anyone that simply shares a love of the outdoors.”

I am a firm believer in fostering a love of nature in young children – the younger the better — but I admit that when I wrote Naturally Curious, I was writing it with adults in mind. It delights me no end to know that children don’t even need a grown-up middleman to enjoy it!


Thimbleweed

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.


Japanese Knotweed

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

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.


Downy Rattlesnake-Plantain

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

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.


Grape Ferns

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.


Bottle Gentian & Bumblebees

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 Flowering

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.


Skunk Cabbage Fruits

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!)


Leafcutter Bee Cell

Congratulations to those who recognized yesterday’s Mystery Photo!  The tiny green cells are made from the leaves of almost any deciduous trees, and are cut and folded by leafcutter bees (Megachile genus). These solitary bees are about the size of a honeybee, but are much darker, almost black. They construct cigar-like nests (often in soil, holes in wood made by other insects, or plant stems) that contain several cells. After gathering and storing a ball, or loaf, of pollen inside the cell, the bee lays an egg and seals the cell shut. When the egg hatches, the larval bee feeds on the pollen and eventually spins a cocoon and pupates within it. An adult bee emerges from the cocoon and usually overwinters inside the cell. In the spring the bee chews its way out of the cell. Leafcutter bees pollinate wildflowers, fruits and vegetables and are also used as pollinators by commercial growers of blueberries, onions, carrots and alfalfa. (Photo submitted by Jan Gendreau.)


Milkweed Visitors

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. ( http://basrelief.org/Pages/MV.html )


Liverworts

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.


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