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Archive for September, 2021

Sycamore Fruits Ripening

Sycamores (Platanus occidentalis), well-known for their patchwork bark, produce their fruit in balls suspended by long stems.  The individual seeds clustered into these balls have brown hair-like structures at their base which help disperse them, but dispersal occurs gradually and the fruit often persist through the winter.

Although usually fruiting is prolific every year, there aren’t the number of Sycamores one might imagine sprouting near an established tree.  This is in part due to the fact that Sycamore seeds don’t germinate unless they land on very moist soil with lots of sunlight and little competition from other plants.  Once established, a Sycamore tree reduces competition by having fruits (and leaves) that produce compounds that inhibit the growth of other plants.

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Cedar-Apple Rust

Congratulations to Roseanne Saalfield, the first of several readers who correctly identified the Mystery Photo as a stage in the life cycle of Cedar-Apple Rust (Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginianae Schwein). This rust is a member of the family Pucciniaceae, a group of fungi that contains many species that usually require plants from two different families (usually within a mile of each other) in order to complete their life cycle: one plant from the Cupressaceae family (eastern red cedar, juniper) and the other from the Rosaceae family (crabapple, apple, hawthorn, serviceberry).

The fungus assumes very different forms on each host. On rose family plants, the fungus can be present on the leaves (orange spots on the surface of the leaves and tiny projections beneath them) as well as the fruit. On cedars and junipers, brown spherical galls produce orange, fleshy projections.

For those readers who wish to know the fairly involved details of the life cycle of this fungus, read on: This rust produces four kinds of spores: basidiospores, teliospores, spermatia, and aeciospores. Teliospores are produced on orange, gelatinous telial horns (see bottom photo) which originate from hard, brown galls on red cedars or other junipers, usually in the spring when it’s been raining. Teliospores germinate to form basidia. Basidia produce basidiospores that are released into the air, blown two to three miles potentially to an apple or hawthorn leaf or fruit. They germinate and form a yellow or orange spot on the leaf or fruit (see photo). These spots produce spermogonia that in turn produce spermatia. The spermatia are released into a sticky liquid attractive to many insects. As insects carry spermatia from one spot to the next fertilization takes place. The fungus grows on the fruit or through the leaf and produce aecia on the underside of the leaf (see photo). The aecia produce aeciospores that are windblown back to the red cedars. They then germinate and start the formation of galls that in the following year will produce telial horns to start the process over again. (U.S. Forest Service)

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Mystery Photo

Do you recognize this phenomenon? Hint: it is a crab apple leaf. Submit your mystery solution under “Comments” on the Naturally Curious blog ( It will be solved on Friday’s post!

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Save Those Seedheads!

People have Echinacea (Coneflower) in their medicine cabinets for a number of reasons. One of the more prevalent ones is Echinacea’s purported ability to shorten the duration of the common cold and flu, as well as lessen the severity of symptoms.  It wouldn’t be surprising to learn that humans learned of the possible benefits of this plant by observing the presence of butterflies (fritillaries, monarchs, painted ladies and swallowtails) at its flowers and birds (American Goldfinch, Black-Capped Chickadee, Dark-Eyed Junco, Downy Woodpecker, Northern Cardinal, Pine Siskin) at its seedheads.

This is the time of year gardeners are starting to think about cutting back their dying perennials in an effort to have tidier gardens.  If you have Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) or one of the other species of Echinacea you know that they are no longer attracting the myriad butterflies that visit in the summer.  However, hold your clippers, for it’s highly likely that birds, especially American Goldfinches, will be feeding on your coneflower seeds in the near future. These seedheads are beneficial not only because they provide seeds, but because they reduce the birds’ reliance on feeders in the winter.  Finches are highly susceptible to Finch Eye Disease which spreads easily from infected birds to other finches when they all use the same feeder.

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Monarch Roosts

Monarch migration is in full swing.  Some of the migrating butterflies from the Northeast travel as far as 3,000 miles to reach their winter destination in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico.  In addition to finding sources of nectar along their migration pathways to build their fat reserves Monarchs must also seek shelter at night, roosting on land when it cools down and they can no longer fly. 

It appears that roosting is critical for migrating Monarch survival.  Just before dark these solitary diurnal migrants gather in clusters called roosts. A roost can consist of just a few butterflies up to thousands clinging to leaves and branches on a single tree. Cedar, fir, and pine are common species of trees used for roosts, but deciduous trees are also used.

Most roosting trees are along a principal flyway, located in a cool, moist area, provide shelter from the wind and are near a source of nectar. Often roosts last for only a night or two but can last a week or two. Monarchs can but do not necessarily use the same resting sites year after year. It’s generally accepted that these roosts are an anti-predation tactic, employing the strategy of safety in numbers.  To see a map of documented 2021 roosts, go to Journey North’s site:

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A Win-Win Situation

Bumble bees 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 bumble bees, attempt — much less accomplish.  The relationship of bumble bees and Bottle Gentian is an example of a mutualistic association — the bees benefit by having exclusive access to a bountiful and sugary nectar supply as well as pollen, and the plants benefit by attracting “loyal” pollinators that improve the chances for cross pollination.

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