An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Flowering Plants

Pussy Willows Emerging

2-12-15 026Even with sub-zero temperatures and feet of snow on the ground it is possible to find signs, such as pussy willows, that spring really is around the corner. What we call pussy willows are, in fact, the soft, silvery hairs that insulate the emerging spike of flowers, or catkin, within a willow flower bud. A willow catkin consists of all male or all female flowers. The first catkins to emerge in the spring are usually males. The hairs, or “pussies,” that emerge when willow buds first open trap the heat from the sun and help warm the center of the catkins, where the flowers’ reproductive parts are located. This trapped heat promotes the development of the pollen (or in female flowers, the ovules) of the flowers deep within the hairs. Eventually the reproductive parts of the willow flowers – the stamens and pistils – emerge, but until they do, we get to enjoy their silvery fur coats.

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Speckled Alder in Winter

2-3-15 speckled alder 166Speckled Alder is a shrub in the Birch family that is found growing in wetlands. It is named after the “speckles” on its bark — horizontal lines or lenticels (spongy openings for the transfer of gases). In winter, Speckled Alder branches are distinctive because they carry two kinds of buds as well as last year’s fruit. The male flower buds are in the form of inch-long catkins which appear reddish in winter. They begin to turn yellow in March just before they extend into long, yellow pollen-bearing flowers. The female flower buds are small and drooping just ahead of the catkins on the branch. They look like miniature unopened versions of the seed-bearing fruit they’ll become. Last year’s woody fruit, or “cones” are also present, having opened and had their seeds, or winged nutlets, dispersed by the wind last fall.

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Sedge Seeds

1-6-15  sedge fruit in winter 057Over 500 species of sedges in the genus Carex are found in the U.S. – over half of the world’s total. The great majority of these perennial, grass-like plants grow in the moist soil of meadows, marshes and bogs, as well as in high altitudes. Sedges are often distinguished from grasses by their stem, which is typically triangular in cross-section (“sedges have edges”). The flowers of sedges, each surrounded by a bottle-shaped bract, or modified leaf called a perigynium, are clustered on spikelets. The tips of these bracts persist after the seeds have formed, giving the spikelets a prickly appearance.

Because of their wide availability, the seeds are eaten by many kinds of wildlife, especially birds. Wild Turkeys, American Woodcock, Northern Cardinals, Horned Larks, Snow Buntings, Lapland Longspurs, ducks, rails, sparrows, redpolls and finches relish them. In the Northeast, Carex seeds, along with insects, are the most regular items in the diet of Ruffed Grouse chicks. Moose also occasionally feed on sedge seeds. (Photo: Longhair or Bottlebrush Sedge, Carex comosa)

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Teasel

teasel 066Teasel is an introduced biennial, considered an invasive plant in the U. S. due to its ability to crowd out native species. Nonetheless, the seed head that remains after the three- to eight-foot plant has flowered is strikingly beautiful. It consists of a cone of spine-tipped, hard bracts, or modified leaves. Since the Middle Ages, Europeans have used dried seed heads of the teasel plant to raise the nap on woolen cloth. Teasing wool creates a soft, almost furry texture on one side of the cloth. (Baize, the cloth traditionally used to cover pool and card tables, is a classic example of wool that has been teased.)

Because of the demand for these seed heads, farmers in 19th century New England grew fields of teasel, with each acre yielding up to 150,000 heads. In the autumn, they would be harvested and dried. Teasel heads wore out quite quickly with use, so wool manufacturers needed a constant supply of them. Eventually a machine, the “teasel gig,” replaced the seed heads. Today fine combs with steel wires raise the fibers on teased fabrics, although the consensus is that there is still no substitute for teasel heads in producing the finest cloth.

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Winterberry Fruit Brightening the Landscape

11-17-14 winterberry IMG_5797Winterberry (Ilex verticilatta) fruits mature in late summer and early fall, but they are much more evident now that most of the leaves have fallen off this deciduous member of the Holly family. Because these shrubs are dioecious (male and female flowers appear on separate plants), only the female shrubs bear fruit. The bright red berries often persist through the winter and provide cedar waxwings, bluebirds and robins with food long after most fruit has disappeared.

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Mossy Rose Gall Wasp Larvae Cease Feeding

10-31-14 mossy rose gall IMG_0404In the spring, the 4mm-long cynipid gall wasp, Diplolepis rosae, lays up to 60 eggs (through parthenogenesis) inside the leaf bud of a rose bush. A week later, the eggs hatch and the larvae begin feeding on the leaf bud. This stimulates the abnormal growth of plant tissue, and a Mossy Rose Gall, covered with a dense mass of sticky branched filaments, is formed. The gall provides the larvae with food and shelter through the summer. In late October, when the Mossy Rose Gall is at its most colorful, the larvae stop eating and pass into the prepupal stage, in which they overwinter inside the gall. In February or March, the prepupae undergo a final molt and become pupae. If the pupae aren’t extracted and eaten by a bird during the winter or parasitized by another insect, adult wasps exit the gall in the spring and begin the cycle all over again.

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New England Aster Providing Bees with Late Season Nectar & Pollen

10-13-14 new england aster & bumblebee 356At a time of year when nectar and pollen sources are few and far between, New England Aster provides many species of bees with food. This composite seems designed specifically for easy pollination. Its open, wide flower shape provides a flat surface for insects to land on, and because the nectar and pollen are not hidden deep inside the flowers, both long- and short-tongue bee species can easily access them. Unlike honeybees, bumblebees do not have a large store of honey in their nests, so they need pollen and nectar throughout the season. Thus, the few flowers such as New England Aster that blossom as late as October are visited frequently and in large numbers. (Only the queen bumblebee overwinters, but the workers continue collecting nectar and pollen up until they die in late fall.)

New England Aster flowers close at night, when there are fewer pollinating insects flying. If an unusually cool period arrives during the time when New England Aster is blooming, the blossoms also close. Although it may seem that the aster is losing pollination opportunities during a cold day, bees are not very active in cool weather.

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