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False Solomon’s Seal Fruiting

10-9-15 false solomon's seal berries  079False Solomon’s Seal’s (Maianthemum racemosum) leaves are starting to lose their chlorophyll, bringing attention to its bright red fruit this time of year. This member of the Lily family’s flower arrangement differs from true Solomon’s Seal’s (Polygonatum biflorum) whose flowers dangle down below the leaves singly or in pairs. There are several theories as to the derivation of False Solomon’s Seal’s name, ranging from the appearance of its leaf scars (King Solomon supposedly was responsible for their markings which resemble a signet ring with Hebrew letters) to its six-pointed flowers that resemble the Star of David which was commonly called Solomon’s Seal.

False Solomon’s Seal often appears in clusters, as the stems are the annual growths off of a perennial rhizome (the subterranean stem of a plant). In the spring, each stem develops a terminal cluster of small, white, star-shaped flowers. Bees and beetles are the chief pollinators that enable the plant to produce green berries that turn red in the late summer and fall (soil pH affects the final coloration of the fruit formed). The roots of False Solomon’s Seal have been used medicinally in a number of ways, but one of the more unusual ways of utilizing this plant was that of a Native American tribe in California that used an effusion of crushed False Solomon’s Seal roots to stun fish and facilitate their harvest from streams.

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Sheet Web Weavers Still Active

10-9-15 sheet web IMG_5116Spider webs are constructed in a variety of shapes, for which many of them are named. Among others are orb webs, triangle webs, mesh webs and sheet webs. One of the most prevalent types of spider webs seen this late in the year is the sheet web, made by members of the Lynyphiidae family.

Several different web designs are found in this family including the bowl and doily, dome, and sheet. Tiny sheet web weavers spin small horizontal sheets of webbing and then hang upside-down underneath their web. Some species make two layers and hide between them for protection. When a small insect walks across the web, the spider bites through the silk, grabs its prey, pulls it through the web and eats (actually drinks) it.

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Bumblebees Foraging Fall Flowers

10-5-15 tri-colored bumblebee IMG_1479With frost just a whisper away, and in some areas not even that, there are still hardy plants, many in the Composite family (goldenrods, asters, thistles, Queen Anne’s Lace, Yarrow), which defy the odds and optimistically send forth blossoms on the off chance that there are still pollinators on the wing. Fortunately for them, bumblebees can and do fly at much cooler temperatures than honeybees and other pollinators. When food is plentiful and outside temperatures fall below 50°F., bumblebees generally stay inside their nest and live off their stores. At times when food is scarce or stores are low, they will forage when the outside temperature is as low as 43°F. (In severe conditions they have even been known to vary their flying height to and from the nest to take advantage of any temperature differences.) Locally, Tri-colored Bumblebees (Bombus ternarius) have a near monopoly on the last vestiges of nectar and pollen (see photo).

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Red-osier Dogwood

10-5-15 red-osier dogwood IMG_1904Finally, the right photograph with the right name! So sorry.

Red-osier Dogwood

10-5-15 red-osier dogwood IMG_6598Gray Dogwood (also known as Gray-stemmed Dogwood) and Red-osier Dogwood both have white berries, a white pith, and red peduncles, or fruit stems. However, the branches of Gray Dogwood are gray, and those of Red-osier Dogwood are red. Hence, I believe the shrub identified as Red-osier Dogwood in today’s post was actually Gray Dogwood. This correction is thanks to John Gregoire’s keen eyes.

Red-osier & Silky Dogwood Fruits Ripening

10-6-15 silky dogwood 291Some of the most prolific flowering shrubs in the Northeast are dogwoods. In the spring, their flowers attract attention and at this time of year their colorful fruit stands out. There are many species of dogwood, two of which are Red-osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea) and Silky Dogwood (Cornus amomum). These two shrubs can be hard to tell apart, as they both have white flowers, red stems and similar foliage. In the fall, however, the color of their fruit differs, as does their pith, or central stem tissue. The mature berries of Red-osier Dogwood are dull white and its pith is also white. Silky Dogwood’s blue berries have white blotches, and its stem and branches have a salmon-colored pith.

The fruit of these dogwoods and others is an extremely important source of food for many migrating songbirds, as well as resident birds. Wood ducks, Northern Cardinals, Eastern Bluebirds, Gray Catbirds, Purple Finches, Evening Grosbeaks, American Robins, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Wood and Hermit Thrushes, Red-eyed and Warbling Vireos, Cedar Waxwings and Downy Woodpeckers all consume dogwood berries.

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Blister Beetles’ Defense Mechanism

10-5 short-winged blister beetle 064Blister beetles are aptly named, for when they are disturbed they emit a yellow, oily, defensive secretion (cantharidin) from their joints which usually causes blisters when it comes in contact with skin. This toxin deters many potential predators and is especially effective against ants. According to naturalist/forester/writer Ginny Barlow, as little as 100 milligrams is reported to be fatal to humans if ingested, and this amount can be extracted from just a few beetles. Humans used to crush and dry blister beetles and use the resulting concoction for gout and arthritis. It was also used as a popular aphrodisiac known as Spanish fly. Because of its toxicity, it is no longer widely used in medicine.

Cantharidin is, however, indirectly used by tree-nesting nuthatches. With a limited number of tree cavities, there is competition among animals using them to raise their young, especially between squirrels and nuthatches. Nuthatches have been seen with Short-winged Blister Beetles (Meloe angusticollis, see photo) in their beaks, “sweeping” them on the bark around tree cavity entrances. The nuthatches don’t eat the beetles, they strictly use them as tools. It is assumed that the birds do this in order to repel squirrels with the cantharidin that is smeared on the tree. (Thanks to Ginny Barlow for photo opportunity.)

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