An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Flowering Plants

The Persistent Capsules of Lady’s Slippers

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While the pink, yellow and white pouches of lady’s slippers no longer grace the landscape, the results of their pollination do. Capsules rising above the surrounding ground on single stalks can be seen where lady’s slippers used to reside. These fruits will persist through the winter and even into the next flowering season.

A close look reveals slits along the length of the capsule. Wind, rain or wildlife passing by will shake the capsule, causing thousands of dust-like seeds to be dispersed. Because they carry no food reserves, these seeds must establish a relationship with a mycorrhizal fungus in order to germinate. (photo: Showy Lady’s Slipper flower and fruit)

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Partridgeberry Fruit

partridgeberry-049a1637Partridgeberry (the fruit is eaten by partridges, or ruffed grouse, as well as wild turkey, mice, foxes, skunks and deer) is a woody vine found creeping along the forest floor, often in large colonies. At this time of year there are bright red berries interspersed among the paired evergreen leaves. If you look closely at a berry, you will see two indentations at its tip. These are the result of the flowers’ unusual structure and the fruit’s development.

In late spring a pair of white flowers appears which share a set of sepals. Each small, fragrant flower has four white hairy petals that join to form a tube. The unusual aspect of these flowers is that they both must be pollinated to obtain a single berry. Each berry is the result of the fusion of the ovaries of the pollinated pair of white flowers. This fusion is what accounts for the two indentations on the surface of each fruit.

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Sweetfern’s Buds Set

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Although its name implies otherwise, Sweetfern (Comptonia peregrina) is not a fern. Rather, it is a flowering shrub in the Bayberry family, Myricaceae, whose leaves bear some resemblance to fern fronds. It does deserve the other half of its common name, however. When Sweetfern’s aromatic leaves are crushed (or just brushed against) a sweet, spicy fragrance can easily be detected.

Male and female Sweetfern flowers are formed separately. At this time of year, the male flower buds, or catkins, running along the stems are very evident, although they become more so in the spring when they expand and dangle in the breeze, distributing pollen (see insert).

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Witch-hazel Cone Gall Aphids Laying Eggs

10-26-16-witch-hazel-gall-s20161017_5388At this time of year there is a species of aphid, Hormaphis hamamelidis, that is laying eggs on Witch-hazel branches. Next spring female aphids will hatch out of these eggs and begin feeding on newly-emerged Witch-hazel leaves. The aphids inject the leaf with a substance that causes the leaf to form a cone-shaped growth, or gall, around the insect, providing it with both food and shelter. The galls are hollow, and have openings extending out through the leaves’ lower surfaces. Within the galls the unmated female aphids produce 50 – 70 young. Eventually the galls fill with winged female aphids which emerge through the cone openings, disperse, and repeat the process. The third generation of aphids consists of both males and females which mate and lay their eggs on Witch-hazel. The aphids that hatch from these eggs create the conical galls found on Witch-hazel leaves.

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Witch Hazel Flowering

witch-hazel-20160917_0860Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is nature’s final fanfare of the fall. As colorful fall foliage begins to disappear, the yellow strap-like petals of Witch Hazel’s fragrant flowers brighten denuded woods. This year, with a somewhat late peak foliage, they are both providing brilliant colors to the landscape at the same time.

Witch Hazel flowers are pollinated by moths that are still active this late in the season, and develop into small, hard capsules that remain dormant throughout the winter. During the following summer, these capsules develop to the point where they expel two shiny black seeds 10 to 20 feet away from the tree. The seeds take another year to germinate, making the length of time from flowering to germination approximately two years.

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Snapping Turtles & Duckweed

9-14-16-snapping-turtle-20160912_8749Duckweed (Wolfia sp.), a free-floating aquatic plant  that possesses flowers which are said to be the smallest flowers in the world, is coating our mystery creature. The presence of this plant can indicate that there are too many nutrients in the water, especially nitrate and phosphate.  On the plus side, Duckweed provides waterfowl, juvenile fish and other wildlife (including humans in Southeast Asia) with a protein-rich (40%) food.

Under this green coating is a Snapping Turtle, one of the largest freshwater turtles in North America. Most often encountered in June, when females leave their ponds to lay eggs, Snapping Turtles are infrequently observed at other times of the year. This is primarily due to their crepuscular and nocturnal habits as well as their tendency to spend a lot of time under water feeding on plants, insects, fish, frogs, small turtles, young waterfowl, and crayfish.

Found in most ponds, marshes, streams and rivers, Snapping Turtles are not aggressive towards humans. Their size is impressive (a full-grown Snapping Turtle’s top shell, or carapace, can measure up to 20 inches in length) but they shy away from human disturbance. Miniature versions with one-inch long carapaces can be seen this month as the young Snappers crawl up out of their subterranean nests after hatching from eggs laid in June and head for the nearest water.

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Lesser Purple Fringed Orchis Flowering

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Approximately sixty orchids can be found in the Northeast, more than half of which are found growing in bogs and fens.  (Bogs are filled with atmospheric moisture and have very low levels of nutrients; fens receive their water from streams or springs, and have slightly more nutrients than bogs.)  In July and August in the Northeast,  the Lesser Purple Fringed Orchis (Platanthera psycodes) sends up a  1 – 3’ spike filled with fragrant, tiny (3/4” long) flowers, each of which possesses a three-lobed, fringed lower lip and a long nectar spur .  Found in cooler habitats, its range is being pushed northwards as global temperatures warm — a  specimen was found at an altitude of 1,500 feet in Vermont.   This orchid is on several states’ endangered or threatened lists outside of New England, and a species of special concern in Rhode Island. (Thanks to Shiela and Steven Swett for photo op.)

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