An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Flowering Plants

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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Dogbane Beetles Emerging & Mating

7-8-16  dogbane beetle 283After feeding on Dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum) roots and overwintering underground, larval Dogbane Beetles pupate and emerge in early summer, shortly after the Dogbane plant for which they were named begins to flower.  It’s hard to miss these iridescent beetles as they gather to feed on Dogbane leaves (which are poisonous to many creatures, including humans, and can cause cardiac arrest). Soon after the adult beetles emerge from the soil , they mate, usually about once a day, frequently early in the day.  Males search for and choose females to mate with.  Dogbane beetles often have more than one mate, so after breeding, males ride on the backs of the females to guard them from other suitors (see photo insert).

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Shinleaf Flowering

6-6-16  shinleaf 318The evergreen perennial Shinleaf (Pyrola elliptica) is often only noticed at this time of year, when it is flowering.  The flower is distinctive in that the prominent style of the female pistil is proportionally far longer than in most flowers, and extends beyond the waxy, white petals. The common name — Shinleaf — is a reference to the medicinal properties of the plant. It contains a drug closely related to aspirin; the leaves reportedly have analgesic properties and were used as a poultice on bruised shins and other sores and wounds.

There are several species of pyrolas and they vary in leaf shape and flower color/arrangement.  All of them belong to the family Ericaceae, which includes blueberries and cranberries.

Look for this four to twelve-inch plant in shady, damp woods and when you find one, peer up under the petals to see the orange-tipped male stamens.

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Pitcher Plants Flowering

6-17-16  pitcher plant flower parts labeled 298Pitcher plants are known for their unique, insect-trapping leaves, but their flowers are just as unusual.  Their petals are a deep burgundy color and attract pollinating flies by looking like raw meat. The sepals, usually green structures that protect the bud and then become inconspicuous when the flower opens, are leathery and remain long after the petals fall off, well into winter.  The pistil, or female part of the flower, has a typical ovary at its base, where seeds are formed, but the style (stalk-like in most flowers) expands into a large, star-shaped umbrella. This umbrella becomes the lowest part of the flower as it droops downward in its early open stages and collects pollen that falls off of the anthers surrounding the ovary. The stigmas, where pollen must land in order for pollination to take place, are located on the five points of the star-shaped style, where visiting insects land.  A pitcher plant is designed to be pollinated by pollen stuck to the body of the insect before the insect descends onto the lower platform section of the style, where it crawls around gathering nectar, and inadvertently, pollen. (Photo:  Northern, or Purple Pitcher Plant, Sarracenia purpurea.)

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Ram’s-head Lady’s Slippers Flowering

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Because of the small size of its flower, the brevity of its flowering period, and its rarity (ranked critically imperiled or imperiled throughout its range in New England), Ram’s-Head Lady’s Slipper is notoriously hard to find.  Its preferred habitat is moist, mossy bogs, but it can also be found in mixed woods and uplands.  If you’re fortunate enough to set eyes on one of these orchids, the diminutive size and conical-shape of its flower, compared to other Cypripedium species (Yellow, Pink and Showy Lady’s Slippers), will be strikingly apparent.

The flowers (which appear only if the plant is at least four inches high) mature in mid-May to early June, often developing very rapidly and typically lasting only a week or so. The sepals, lateral petals, and particularly the lower lip, or labellum (pouch made of fused petals), produce a sweet odor to attract potential pollinators, such as small bees.   Once the flower is fertilized, the upper sepal lowers over the opening of the pouch (see insert), excluding additional visitors. Although individual plants can produce copious numbers of minute seeds, reproduction appears to be largely asexual via offshoots of parent plants.

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Rose Twisted Stalk Flowering

rosybells 084From above, you might mistake Rose Twisted Stalk (Streptopus lanceolatus), or Rosybells, for Solomon’s Seal or False Solomon’s Seal, but the alternate leaves and the zigzag stem quickly reveal its true identity.  This native member of the lily family has delicate, bell-shaped, pink flowers dangling underneath its leaves – one solitary flower opposite each leaf.  The “twisted stalk” in its common name refers to the long flower stalks, each of which is twisted, or bent, in the middle.  By July or August, these flowers, if fertilized, will have developed into red berries. (Thanks to Virginia Barlow for photo op.)

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