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Seeds

Common Milkweed Seeds Packed in a Pod!

10-14-15 large milkweed bugs 095Congratulations to those of you who guessed correctly, and thank you to everyone who participated in this week’s Mystery Photo. I find patterns in nature both intriguing and beautiful — they will be the subject of more Mystery Photos! When photographing these Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) seeds, I discovered that there were other creatures attracted to them besides myself – hence, today’s blog post:

LARGE MILKWEED BUGS SIPHONING MILKWEED SEEDS
Only two to four percent of Common Milkweed flowers eventually produce mature pods. Each pod contains an average of 226 seeds (all from one flower). Resembling overlapping fish scales, the seeds are arranged in a way that allows the wind to successively, from the top to the bottom of the pod, catch their silk parachutes and disperse them.

Just as milkweed pods are opening and seeds are maturing, Large Milkweed Bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) in all stages of metamorphosis (there are five nymphal stages, or instars) congregate on milkweed pods to feed on the seeds. (Their eggs are laid on milkweed plants.) Like all true bugs, their mouthparts (rostrum) are not adapted for biting and chewing food, but are designed for piercing and sucking. The rostrum consists of two side-by-side tubes. The milkweed bugs use one tube to pump digestive enzymes into the tough milkweed seeds and the other to siphon up the softened plant material. Like other milkweed feeders, milkweed bugs obtain poisonous compounds from the milkweed plant that are used for defense, and their orange and black coloration warns predators of their toxicity.

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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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Mourning Dove Diet

1-28-15  mourning dove IMG_0746Seeds, including cultivated grains, grasses, weeds and berries, make up 99 percent of a Mourning Dove’s diet. Because they can find enough food to sustain themselves, Mourning Doves are permanent residents, remaining year round, even in northern New England.

These birds feed on the ground and in the open, consuming 12 to 20 percent of their body weight per day, or 71 calories on average. Mourning Doves swallow the seeds and store them in an enlargement of the esophagus called a crop. Once their crop is filled (the record is 17,200 bluegrass seeds in a single crop), they can then fly to a protected area where they can safely digest their food.

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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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Myrmecochory: Seed Dispersal by Ants

8-6-14  myrmecochory 014As a dispersal mechanism, some plants have fatty structures called elaiosomes attached to their seeds’ coats which are very appealing to ants. After collecting a seed and carrying it back to its underground nest, the ant eats the elaiosome (or feeds it to ant larvae) and discards the intact seed in an area where waste and dead ant bodies are stored. Germination is highly likely in such an ideal environment, making myrmecochory a win-win situation. Trillium, bloodroot and violets are some of the thousands of plants that have elaiosomes attached to their seeds.

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Miterwort Flowering

5-28-14 miterwort _0328Miterwort, also known as Bishop’s–cap, is named for the resemblance of its fruits to the hats (known as miters) worn by bishops of the Roman Catholic Church. If you examine a flower closely, you will see its delicate, 5-pointed, snowflake-like beauty. Each flower is in the shape of a tiny cup, with dissected petals arising from the rim of the cup, resembling fine lacework. There is a glandular ring of nectar-producing tissue inside the cup which attracts small bees, flies and ants. Once pollinated, the flowers produce open seed-containing capsules. Water, not animals, is the dispersal agent for Miterwort’s seeds. The capsules orient themselves so that their opening faces upward. When it rains, the falling rain drops splash the seeds out of the capsules, dispersing them up to three feet away from the parent plant. The distance traveled by the seeds is dependent upon both the size of the raindrop and the distance that it has fallen before landing in a capsule.

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Discerning Eastern Gray Squirrels

1-3-14 gray squirrel2 029In the fall, Eastern Gray Squirrels bury individual acorns from Red and White Oaks to sustain themselves through the winter. The acorns of Red Oaks have delayed germination – they can be stored up to six months before they start germinating. The acorns of White Oaks, however, have no such dormancy, and begin to germinate in the fall, soon after they fall from the tree. Once acorns sprout, they are less nutritious, as the seed tissue converts to the indigestible lignins that form the root. Gray Squirrels, as a means of “long-term cache management,” selectively remove the embryos from White Oak acorns (but not from Red Oak acorns) before burying them. Germination is prevented, and the storage viability of the White Oak acorns is extended by six months, equaling that of the Red Oak acorns.

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Thimbleweed Seeds Dispersing

11-29-13 thimbleweed 033Although it has a beautiful white flower, Thimbleweed, Anemone virginiana, is not as noticeable in the summer as it is when its seeds mature in the fall. Looking like a small ball of cotton, its thimble-shaped seedhead consists of a cone covered with tiny dark hooks that white, fluffy seeds cling to and cover until the wind carries them away from the parent plant. The seedhead of this member of the Buttercup family looks very much like that of its close relative, Long-head Thimbleweed, Anemone cylindrica, except A. cylindrica’s seedhead is slightly longer. As impressive as these eastern species are, there’s a species of Thimbleweed out West whose seedhead is so big the plant is referred to as “Mouse on a Stick.” In the summer, plant-eating animals usually leave Thimbleweed alone because the foliage contains a blistering agent that can irritate the mouth parts and digestive tract.

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White Pine Cone Growth

11-25-13 white poine final seed cones 007The female, or seed, cones of most pines take two seasons to mature, and the cones of White Pines are no exception. While their tiny male cones live only a few months in the spring, until their pollen has been dispersed and they drop to the ground, White Pine seed cones develop over two summers. This means that both last year’s cones as well as this year’s can be seen on a White Pine right now. After the seeds in last year’s cones have been dispersed (some time this fall or winter), the cones fall off the tree. In late winter, you will find mostly year-old cones on White Pines; new cones will develop next summer to replace the cones that fall off the tree this winter.

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Mice Preparing for Winter

10-25-13 mouse larder 012Animals that remain active in New England throughout the year often make preparations for the colder months, when food is much scarcer. Eastern Chipmunks store up to half a bushel of nuts and seeds in their underground tunnels, Red Squirrels hang mushrooms and apples out to dry and White-footed and Deer Mice create larders, often out of abandoned bird nests. Once their young have fledged, most songbirds never re-use their nest. Mice find these empty cup-shaped containers perfect for storing seeds that they collect in the fall. The mouse that took over this Northern Cardinal nest (located in a rose bush) didn’t have to go far to collect a sizeable number of rose hips. One hopes that this isn’t this particular mouse’s only cached food, as most of the seeds (within the fleshy red covering) have been devoured. (Thanks to Marian Marrin for photo op.)

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Witch Hazel Flowering and Dispersing Last Year’s Seeds

10-11-13  witch hazel flower and fruits 055Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is nature’s final fanfare of the fall. As colorful fall foliage disappears, the yellow strap-like petals of Witch Hazel’s fragrant flowers brighten denuded woods. These 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. (In photo, the yellowish-tan capsules were formed this summer, and the one brown, year-old capsule has opened and dispersed its seeds.)

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Did you know…

9-20-13  milkweed-did you know2 022Only two percent of Common Milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, flowers develop into pods, and all the seeds in a pod come from a single flower.


Chicory Pollinators

7-19-13 chicory pollenTwenty minutes of observing air-borne visitors to a patch of roadside Chicory revealed nine different species of pollinators, including bees, flies and beetles. Most of the insects were bees, which makes sense, as honeybees, leafcutting bees and ground-nesting bees are the primary pollinators of this flower. Without exception, all of the pollinating insects were covered from head to toe with Chicory’s white pollen grains. As they circled the flowers’ stamens collecting pollen, the insects’ bodies were inadvertently dusted with some of it. Thanks to these diligent pollen-collectors and transporters, American Goldfinches and other seed-eating birds will be feeding on Chicory seeds come winter. (Electron microscopy by Igor Siwanowic and Scienceworks.)


Red Squirrel Gardens in the Woods

6-4-13 sugar maple seedlingsi 036Red and Gray Squirrels remain active year round, and thus, need to have access to food throughout the year. In order for this to happen, seeds and nuts must be stored in the warmer months for consumption during the winter and early spring, when food is much harder to find. While Gray Squirrels tend to bury nuts and seeds individually for this purpose, Red Squirrels often cache numerous seeds (mostly conifers and maples) in one spot, dispersing these caches throughout the woods. During the winter Red Squirrels use their memory (and sometimes their sense of smell) to locate these buried treasures. Inevitably some are overlooked and in many of these cases, the seeds germinate. Finding little patches of multiple seedlings, such as this miniature stand of young Sugar Maples, is a good indication that at least one Red Squirrel overwintered in the vicinity.


Aspen “Snow”

5-27-13 poplar fruit 004Even though it snowed in Vermont this weekend, there is something else white and fluffy that is also being blown about, and it doesn’t melt when it hits the ground. The tiny white bits of fluff that are floating in the air are the seeds of aspens (also referred to as poplars), primarily Bigtooth Aspen (Populus grandidentata), that are borne in capsules that develop along a 3 to 6-inch dangling stem. These former flower clusters, and the capsules and seeds they developed into, are referred to as catkins. The capsules split apart when the seeds are mature, releasing the cottony-tufted seeds that are well-designed for dispersal by the wind. Looking into the fluff-filled sky, it’s not hard to believe that a single Bigtooth Aspen tree can produce over a million seeds.


Pitcher Plants in Winter

3-19-13 pitcher plant in winter2 IMG_6845The pitcher plant flowers that bloomed in bogs last June persist through the winter. Their maroon petals are gone, as is their scent, and they are withered and somewhat drab-colored, but the upside down flowers are still on display, supported by long, graceful stems protruding above the surface of the snow. Pitcher plants flower for about two weeks at the beginning of summer, during which time their pollen is distributed (primarily by bees). After fertilization, 300 – 600 seeds form within each ovary. This is when the carnivorous pitcher leaves develop. In late fall, the “pitchers” begin to wither and the seed pods turn brown and split open, scattering seeds. In three to five years, the plants which these seeds grew into will begin flowering.


Turtlehead Seed Head

1-18-13 turtlehead seedhead IMG_0917Turtlehead, Chelone glabra, is named for the flower’s resemblance to the head of a turtle. These flowers are pollinated by bumblebees, which crawl in between vertically-paired petals causing them to open, much like a turtle’s jaws. Ruby-throated hummingbirds are also attracted to this flower. After pollination has taken place, the ovary swells and forms capsules which open to release flat, brown seeds. To my eye, the seed capsules that persist through the winter bear even more similarity to this plant’s namesake than the flowers. Look for these seedheads near wetlands, floodplains, marshes and springs.


A Great Christmas Present!

If you’re looking for a present for someone that will be used year round, year after year, Naturally Curious may just fit the bill.  A relative, a friend, your child’s school teacher – it’s the gift that keeps on giving to both young and old!

One reader wrote, “This is a unique book as far as I know. I have several naturalists’ books covering Vermont and the Northeast, and have seen nothing of this breadth, covered to this depth. So much interesting information about birds, amphibians, mammals, insects, plants. This would be useful to those in the mid-Atlantic, New York, and even wider geographic regions. The author gives a month-by-month look at what’s going on in the natural world, and so much of the information would simply be moved forward or back a month in other regions, but would still be relevant because of the wide overlap of species. Very readable. Couldn’t put it down. I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about the natural world, but there was much that was new to me in this book. I would have loved to have this to use as a text when I was teaching. Suitable for a wide range of ages.”

In a recent email to me a parent wrote, “Naturally Curious is our five year old’s unqualified f-a-v-o-r-I-t-e  book. He spends hours regularly returning to it to study it’s vivid pictures and have us read to him about all the different creatures. It is a ‘must have’ for any family with children living in New England…or for anyone that simply shares a love of the outdoors.”

I am a firm believer in fostering a love of nature in young children – the younger the better — but I admit that when I wrote Naturally Curious, I was writing it with adults in mind. It delights me no end to know that children don’t even need a grown-up middleman to enjoy it!


Thimbleweed

Thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica) shares a trait with moths and butterflies — the stages it goes through are so different that you wouldn’t even know they were related, much less the same plant.  Summer flowers are white and the late summer seed heads are green and thimble-shaped (hence, its name) and up to 1 ½” long. By fall the seed heads have transformed into cottony tufts containing tiny, scattered dark seeds which persist through the winter and are eventually dispersed by the wind.


Japanese Knotweed

Most of those who guessed, guessed correctly – yesterday’s Mystery Photo was of the fruits of Japanese Knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum), which reproduces both by spreading rhizomes (underground stems) as well as by seeds. Seed production, however, is not common, as the plants are unisexual, with male and female flowers on separate plants, and both are rarely found in the same colony.  The rhizomes don’t need much help, though, as they can survive temperatures of -31 degrees F. and can extend 23 feet horizontally and up to 10 feet deep. Small wonder that Japanese Knotweed, introduced as an ornamental, has thrived and out-competed native plants. Its delicate 3-winged, brown fruits belie the hardiness of this practically indestructible and invasive plant.


Bloodroot Seeds and Myrmecochory

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Bloodroot seeds, as well as the seeds of as many as 5% of flowering plants, have a fatty white appendage called an elaiosome attached to them which ants are very fond of.  This adaptation benefits both the ants as well as the plant.  The ants collect the seeds and take them down into their tunnels where they feed the elaiosomes to their larvae. The actual seeds are discarded underground, often in with ant compost, where their chances of germinating are enhanced. The dispersal of seeds by ants is referred to as myrmecochory. As the photographs indicate, ants don’t always wait until the seeds have dropped out of the seed pod to collect them.


Snowy Owl Irruption

Your chances of seeing a snowy owl are better this winter than they’ve perhaps ever been.  We are in the middle of an irruption (the migration of large numbers of birds to areas where they aren’t typically found) of snowy owls.  There are several reasons for irruptions, the most common being a lack of food in the birds’ normal wintering grounds.  When there is a seed crop failure (birch, maple, pine, spruce and hemlock) further north, we often are inundated in the winter with seed-eating songbirds that typically overwinter in Canada, including waxwings, redpolls and grosbeaks, among others.  Birds of prey typically irrupt at this time as well, for when the seed crop fails, the (seed-eating) population of rodents also crashes, driving rodent-eating raptors further south to find food.  Snowy owls dine primarily on small rodents called lemmings, so one would expect from the current irruption that the Canadian lemming population must have crashed.  However, the opposite appears to be true this winter.  Arctic researchers report that this year lemmings were at historical population highs allowing for a very successful breeding season for Arctic raptors, including snowy owls. The resulting population boom caused overcrowding and competition at typical wintering grounds, resulting in our current banner snowy owl winter.


Staghorn Sumac Seed Heads and Their Inhabitants

If you pull apart a red, fuzzy seed head of Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) this time of year, you will find, in addition  to a multitude of seeds, a profusion of scat in the shape of miniscule round, grey balls.  If you’re lucky, you’ll find the larval insect that produced this scat.  Chances are, according to Charley Eisman, author of Tracks and Sign of Insects, that many of the resident insects are in the Gelechioidea family of moths.  The larvae of these moths are consumers of Staghorn Sumac seeds, and judging from the amount of scat usually present, they spend a considerable amount of time inhabiting the seed heads.  It’s likely that Black-capped Chickadees and other birds you see gleaning sumac fruit are actually there  for the larvae as much as the seeds.

 

 


Naturally Curious wins National Outdoor Book Award

I am delighted to be able to tell you that this morning I learned that NATURALLY CURIOUS won the Nature Guidebook category of the 2011 National Outdoor Book Awards.  I’m honored and humbled by this recognition.   http://www.noba-web.org/books11.htm