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Flowering Plants

Mycorrhizal Relationships

12-15-15 white pine 047The woods are filled with all kinds of plants – herbaceous and woody, flowering and non-flowering. Each plant appears to be independent of all others, but this is an illusion. In fact, most of the plants in a forest are physically connected to one another. How and why this is so is a little known fact.

Fungal threads called hyphae (the subterranean body of a fungus that we don’t usually see) run throughout the soil. Each one is ten times finer than a plant’s root hair. While some are digesting dead organic matter, others are forming a relationship with photosynthetic plants. This mutually beneficial relationship between fungi and plants is referred to as mycorrhizal.

The very fine fungal threads are capable of penetrating plant cells, allowing the fungus to receive sugars that the photosynthetic plant has manufactured. At the same time, the fungus provides the plant with minerals (especially phosphates) it has garnered from the soil. Nearly all plants have mycorrhizal fungi wrapped in or around their roots, and many of these plants cannot live without their fungal partners. The real work of a plant’s roots may well be to serve as the connector to this network of fungal hyphae that exists in the soil. (photo: Eastern White Pine,Pinus strobus)

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Paper Birch Catkins: Winged Nutlets & Bracts Dispersing

12-8-15 white birch female catkin 005Paper birch (Betula papyrifera) produces separate male and female flowers on the same tree, both in the form of catkins (cylindrical clusters of flowers). The catkins form in the fall and overwinter in a dormant state. In the spring they mature as the leaves develop, becoming pendulous. Male catkins are 2-4 inches long, whereas female catkins are usually 1 – 2 inches long. Both lack petals, enhancing wind pollination. After fertilization occurs, the male catkins wither away, while the female catkins droop downward and become cone-like.

The female catkins consist of tiny winged nutlets that are located behind three-lobed, hardened, modified leaves called bracts (yesterday’s blog post) and are usually dispersed by the wind during the fall and early winter. Birch bracts are species-specific — different species of birch have different-shaped bracts, allowing one to identify the species of birch that a bract comes from.

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Thimbleweed Seeds Dispersing

11-9-15 thimbleweed 087Often Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana) is overlooked when its white flowers are blooming during the summer, but its seed head is rarely missed in the fall. When flowering, stamens surround a green cone that elongates into a cylindrical fruit twice as long as it is wide, giving this member of the Buttercup family its name. The seeds mature in the fall, and the style, part of the female reproductive structure that remains attached to the developing seed, develops a woolly texture, turning the “thimble” into a ball of fluff. A close look reveals that this “cottonball” consists of many tiny dark seeds, each of which bears a cottony tuft to enhance its dispersal by the wind.

Thimbleweed produces chemicals which inhibit seed germination and seedling growth in many species of plants, so often the ground is relatively bare around this plant. Mammalian herbivores usually leave Thimbleweed alone because the foliage contains a blistering agent that can irritate the mouth parts and digestive tract.

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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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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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Buttonbush Seeds Maturing

9-17-15  buttonbush flowering IMG_2573During the summer, Buttonbush’s one-and-a-half-inch-diameter, white flower balls can be spotted along shorelines and in wetlands. The fragrance of this shrub’s flowers attracts many pollinators, especially bumblebees and butterflies (their tongues are long enough to reach the deep nectaries). After pollination, the 200-plus flowers on each head of this member of the Coffee family produce small nutlets that are dispersed by water and consumed by waterfowl (particularly surface-feeding dabbling ducks), American Bitterns, rails and Northern Bobwhites. (photo: buttonbush seed head)

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Snakeroot Flowering

9-17-15 snakeroot  261Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) is a perennial with clusters of tiny flower heads each containing multiple white flowers at the tip of its stem. Its roots were used to make a poultice to treat snakebites, hence, its common name. Large patches of Snakeroot can be found flowering in Northeast woods at this time of year. Eventually tiny black seeds with white, hairy wisps are dispersed by the wind.

Snakeroot contains a toxin called tremetol that is toxic. An animal may die from eating either a large amount of Snakeroot at one time or small amounts over a long period. When the plant is consumed by cattle, the meat and milk become contaminated with the toxin. If this contaminated meat or milk is consumed, the poison is passed on, and if enough is ingested, it can cause “milk sickness” in humans, a potentially lethal illness. Thousands of mid-West settlers in the early 1800’s died from this disease (possibly including Abraham Lincoln’s mother) as they were unfamiliar with the plant and its effect on their cattle. Snakeroot is also poisonous to horses, goats and sheep. Today small amounts are used by herbalists to treat a variety of ailments, from high blood pressure to insomnia. (Thanks to Jeannie Killam for photo op.)

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