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.
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.
Your chances of seeing a snowy owl are better this winter than they’ve perhaps ever been. We are in the middle of an irruption (the migration of large numbers of birds to areas where they aren’t typically found) of snowy owls. There are several reasons for irruptions, the most common being a lack of food in the birds’ normal wintering grounds. When there is a seed crop failure (birch, maple, pine, spruce and hemlock) further north, we often are inundated in the winter with seed-eating songbirds that typically overwinter in Canada, including waxwings, redpolls and grosbeaks, among others. Birds of prey typically irrupt at this time as well, for when the seed crop fails, the (seed-eating) population of rodents also crashes, driving rodent-eating raptors further south to find food. Snowy owls dine primarily on small rodents called lemmings, so one would expect from the current irruption that the Canadian lemming population must have crashed. However, the opposite appears to be true this winter. Arctic researchers report that this year lemmings were at historical population highs allowing for a very successful breeding season for Arctic raptors, including snowy owls. The resulting population boom caused overcrowding and competition at typical wintering grounds, resulting in our current banner snowy owl winter.
If you pull apart a red, fuzzy seed head of Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) this time of year, you will find, in addition to a multitude of seeds, a profusion of scat in the shape of miniscule round, grey balls. If you’re lucky, you’ll find the larval insect that produced this scat. Chances are, according to Charley Eisman, author of Tracks and Sign of Insects, that many of the resident insects are in the Gelechioidea family of moths. The larvae of these moths are consumers of Staghorn Sumac seeds, and judging from the amount of scat usually present, they spend a considerable amount of time inhabiting the seed heads. It’s likely that Black-capped Chickadees and other birds you see gleaning sumac fruit are actually there for the larvae as much as the seeds.
One nice thing about having the ground covered with snow in October and November is that there is an additional tool available for tree identification. Like all flowering plants, trees have fruits which contain seeds. The fruits of many trees fall to the ground this time of year. They are very helpful identification tools, especially when they are so obvious against the white snow. In the photograph, there are fruits from five different trees: starting at the top and going clockwise is the fruit of the sugar maple (Acer saccharum), referred to as paired samaras by botanists. Each of the two seeds contains a papery wing that aids in dispersal. Next is the fruit of the white ash (Fraxinus americana), which has winged seeds borne in clusters. Eastern hophornbeam’s (Ostrya virginiana) fruit is a cluster of papery bladders, which usually separate upon dispersal. Each bladder contains a seed. Along the bottom is the fruit of American basswood or linden (Tilia americana) ; several round seeds are borne on a stalk which is attached to a single modified leaf. The last two clusters are the fruit of yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis). They consist of structures that look like little bird feet (of which there are several in the photograph) that contain individual, tiny winged seeds (scattered throughout the photograph).