Pussytoes and Butterflies

Plantain-leaved Pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia)

Plantain-leaved Pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia) bloom in early spring, their flower shoots and leaves emerging from the soil as the temperatures warm and the days lengthen.  The common name ‘Pussytoes’ comes from the resemblance of the tight flower clusters to a cat’s paw, especially when the flowers are still in bud.  Both the common and scientific (plantaginifolia) names refer to the appearance of the mature leaves of this plant, which resemble those of the Plantains (Plantago species).  The leaves remain green throughout the winter.

Plantain-leaved Pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia) in bud

Plantain-leaved Pussytoes are Aster (Asteraceae) family members. Each toe-shaped inflorescence (flower cluster) consists of small tubular ‘disk’ flowers typical of this family.  Somewhat less common in an herbaceous plant (one that’s not woody) is the fact that Plantain-leaved Pussytoes have male and female flowers on separate plants.  As the flowers open, they reveal their sex.   In the male flowers, the stamens (the male reproductive parts) emerge above the tubular corolla, transforming the inflorescence’s appearance from pussytoe-like to more of the look of a white-iced cupcake covered with birthday candles.  In a close-up, a stamen also resembles a box of popcorn (at least to me), with the emerging pollen playing the role of the popcorn spilling out of the box.

Plantain-leaved Pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia) with male flowers beginning to open. Note the stamens emerging from the flowers.

The female flowers look like tiny pompoms, with white hair-like projections (pappus) jutting well past the tube of fused flower petals. After a flower is successfully germinated, the pappus will transform to a light, fluffy appendage attached to the ripe fruit, helping it to disperse with the wind. The genus ‘Antennaria’ refers to the antenna-like appearance of the pappus.

Plantain-leaved Pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia) with female flowers in bloom.

Like most plant species, Plantain-leaved Pussytoes would prefer to be cross-pollinated. This requires the assistance of insects who visit the flowers and transfer pollen on their bodies from male to female plants. But if flower visitors aren’t timely enough, Plantain-leaved Pussytoes can also self-fertilize to produce seed.  It may not be as strong a genetic result, but it’s better than failing to reproduce.

Plantain-leaved Pussytoes can also reproduce vegetatively through horizontal ground-level stems, called stolons. Through this method, Pussytoes can form a spreading colony of shoots, all sharing the same genetics, and all of the same sex.

A colony of Plantain-leaved Pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia) with male flowers.

On a warm spring afternoon, I watched while pollinators visited two separate but near-by colonies of Plantain-leaved Pussytoes, one male, the other female.

Flies were the predominant visitors to the female flowers, both flesh flies and Tachinid flies, although there was also an ant visiting for nectar.

A flesh fly (Sarcophaga species) foraging on Plantain-leaved Pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia) with female flowers

Adult flesh flies often drink nectar from flowers, but their offspring have different needs. The larvae of many species live in and eat carrion, an adaptation that gives this genus (Sarcophaga) its common name.  This important service helps to speed the decomposition of dead animals, and can be used in determining time of death in crime scene investigations.

A Tachinid Fly (Gonia species) feeding on Plantain-leaved Pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia) with female flowers

In addition to pollination, Tachinid flies also work a second job, helping to keep other insect populations in check. Their larvae develop within an insect host, eating it from the inside. They keep the host insect alive by eating its vital organs last, finishing just as the larva completes its own development.  This particular Tachinid Fly (Gonia species) specializes on owlet moth caterpillars.

Tachinid flies and Cuckoo Bees visited the male flowers while I watched.

A Tachinid Fly (Gonia species) feeding on Plantain-leaved Pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia) with male flowers

A Cuckoo Bee (Nomada species) feeding on Plantain-leaved Pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia) with male flowers

A Cuckoo Bee (Nomada species) feeding on Plantain-leaved Pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia) with male flowers. Do the flower clusters look like pussytoes or cupcakes with candles?

A Cuckoo Bee (Nomada species) feeding on Plantain-leaved Pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia) with male flowers. The red-striped stamens with yellow pollen at the top look a bit like a box of popcorn.

Since the Tachinid Flies were the only species I saw foraging on both male and female flowers, they are the most likely to have helped this particular colony of Plantain-leaved Pussytoes with pollination.

American Lady butterflies specialize on some Aster family members as food for their caterpillars, including Plantain-leaved Pussytoes, other Antennaria species, Pearly Everlastings (Anaphalis margaritacea), and a few others.

American Lady butterfly

Plantain-leaved Pussytoes with male flowers can grow to a height of about 8 inches (20 cm). The flower stalks of plants with female flowers are taller, with a maximum height of about a foot (30 cm).

A colony of Plantain-leaved Pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia) with female flowers.

Plantain-leaved Pussytoes can be found in open woods, fields and rocky banks from Maine to Minnesota (except Michigan), south as far as Louisiana and the Florida panhandle. One source, the Flora of North America, says it can be found in Manitoba, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Quebec provinces in Canada.

Plantain-leaved Pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia) with A Tachinid Fly (Gonia species)

Related Posts

Asters Yield a Treasure Trove

New England Asters – A Hotbed of Activity!

Feasting on Green-headed Conefower

Resources

Cech, Rick; Tudor, Guy. Butterflies of the East Coast.  2005.

Eaton, Eric R.; Kauffman, Ken. Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America.  2007.

Eastman, John. The Book of Field and Roadside.  2003.

Marshall, Stephen A. Insects Their Natural History and Diversity. 2006.

Rhoads, Ann Fowler; Block, Timothy A. The Plants of Pennsylvania.  2007

Stearn, William T. Stearn’s Dictionary of Plant Names.  1996

Bugguide.net

Flora of North America

Illinois Wildflowers

NC State Extension

USDA NRCS Plant Database

 

 

Hepatica’s Survival Strategy

Early spring blooming wildflowers are typically small, lovely, and very delicate looking.  But looks can be deceiving.  Most are actually very tenacious, often with multiple strategies geared to enable them to survive and reproduce.  Take the Hepaticas (Anemone americana, A. acutiloba) for example.

They are among the earliest blooming spring wildflowers, starting as early as mid-March in the southern part of their range to as late as May in the northernmost areas. The flower stalks emerge from their blanket of fallen leaves and bloom well before the new season’s leaves unfurl on the trees above them.

Round-lobed Hepatica (Anemone americana, synonym Hepatica nobilis var. obtusa) emerging from its blanket of leaves

Hepatica is able to get a head start on the blooming season because its leaves remain viable throughout the winter, gathering energy and photosynthesizing when the conditions permit. When the warmer spring days arrive, Hepatica is ready to go full steam ahead with photosynthesis. The overwintering leaves may be green, or mottled with maroon.

Round-lobed Hepatica (Anemone americana, synonym Hepatica nobilis var. obtusa); note its evergreen leaves

Hepatica produces bright flowers in shades from white to deep blue-violet, perfect for enticing pollinators to assist with cross-pollination. The flowers contrast well with the browns and tans of the decomposing leaf mulch surrounding them, beckoning to early flying solitary bees and flies.

Round-lobed Hepatica (Anemone americana, synonym Hepatica nobilis var. obtusa); with whitish flowers and mottled leaves

Round-lobed Hepatica (Anemone americana, synonym Hepatica nobilis var. obtusa); with deep violet flowers

Hepaticas have a short blooming season, at a time of year when weather can be unpredictable. It’s more difficult to photosynthesize in cool temperatures, so plants have to be very efficient about how they allocate their energy.  The early flying solitary bees and flies that are their likely pollination partners are interested in nectar, but they need pollen even more.   Many bees and flies consume pollen for the nutrients it provides, and female bees also harvest pollen to feed their larva.  Pollen is a very effective reward to attract these visitors, so effective that Hepaticas have evolved not to put any energy into producing nectar.

Round-lobed Hepatica (Anemone americana, synonym Hepatica nobilis var. obtusa); with bee harvesting pollen

Round-lobed Hepatica (Anemone americana, synonym Hepatica nobilis var. obtusa); with bee harvesting pollen

The bee moves on to another flower. Round-lobed Hepatica (Anemone americana, synonym Hepatica nobilis var. obtusa); with bee harvesting pollen

Round-lobed Hepatica (Anemone americana, synonym Hepatica nobilis var. obtusa); with bee harvesting pollen

Hepatica does hedge its bets a little. It protects its pollen by closing its flowers at night, and on rainy days.  Cross-pollination with the assistance of an insect is preferred, since a stronger genetic result is more likely.  But if that doesn’t happen, Hepaticas are able to self-pollinate.  It’s better than not reproducing at all.

Regardless of how pollination is achieved, ants disperse Hepatica seeds, as they do for about 30% of spring blooming plants in the forests of the northeast. They are enticed to do this by the nutritious food packets, called eliasomes, that are attached to the seeds.  Ants take the seeds back to their nests, eat the eliasome, and discard the seed, usually in a location that is rich in soil nutrients and safe from seed-eating birds.

Hepaticas employ two strategies to protect themselves from being eaten by browsing insects or larger animals. Like many members of the Buttercup (Ranunculaceae) family, their leaves are toxic.  The newly emerging flower stems, bracts and leaves, as well as the fruits (achenes) that develop later, are all hairy, a characteristic that discourages herbivores, and may also help to keep the plant’s tissues warm during cool spring days and nights.

Hairy fruit capsules and bracts of Round-lobed Hepatica (Anemone americana, synonym Hepatica nobilis var. obtuse)

Hepatica gets its name from its resemblance to a human liver, both in shape and in the maroon color often seen in its leaves. ‘Hepatica’ is derived from a Greek word that means ‘the liver’.  Other common names for Hepatica are Liverleaf and Liverwort.

There was a period during which it was thought that if a plant resembled a body part, it would be effective in treating diseases of that body part (the ‘Doctrine of Signatures’). As a result, the Hepatica (Hepatica nobilis) native to Europe was used in preparations for treating liver ailments for many years, but more recent scientific testing of Hepatica has refuted its efficacy.

There are two Hepaticas in North America, Round-lobed Hepatica (Anemone Americana, synonym Hepatica nobilis var. obtusa) and Sharp-lobed Hepatica (Anemone acutiloba, synonym Hepatica nobilis var. acuta).  They are named for the shape of the lobes of their leaves.  Aside from that, they look the same.  They are so similar to each other and to the European Hepatica (Hepatica nobilis), that some experts consider the North American species are sub-species of Hepatica nobilis.

Sharp-lobed Hepatica (Anemone acutiloba, synonym Hepatica nobilis var. acuta); Notice the maroon leaves from the previous season; the pointed lobes distinguish this species from Round-lobed Hepatica. The new leaves, flower stems, bracts, and even the flowers are hairy.

Hairy fruit capsules and pointed bracts of Sharp-lobed Hepatica (Anemone acutiloba, synonym Hepatica nobilis var. acuta)

Both the North American Hepaticas can be found in rich woodlands, often on dry upland slopes. Sharp-lobed Hepatica has a preference for rocky soils that have a higher calcium content.  Both can be found in Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec provinces in Canada.  In the United States, Round-lobed Hepatica may be found from Minnesota to Maine, south to Arkansas and the Florida panhandle, but it is more common in the northern and eastern part of its range.  Sharp-lobed hepatica has a similar U.S. range, it is more common in the northern and central parts of its range.  It has not been reported in New Jersey or Florida.

So Hepatica’s survival strategy includes winter-hardy leaves to enable winter and early spring photosynthesis, hairy, toxic foliage to deter herbivores, produce flowers that entice pollinators, but self-pollinate if necessary, and partner with ants for seed dispersal. Seems pretty comprehensive!

Round-lobed Hepatica (Anemone americana, synonym Hepatica nobilis var. obtuse)

Related Posts

A Carpet of Spring Beauty, Woven by Ants

Resources

Eaton, Eric R.; Kauffman, Ken. Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America.  2007.

Eastman, John. The Book of Forest and Thicket.  1992.

Foster, Steven; Duke, James A. A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America.  2000.

Rhoads, Ann Fowler; Block, Timothy A. The Plants of Pennsylvania.  2007

Spira, Timothy A. Wildflowers & Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachian Mountains & Piedmont.  2011.

Illinois Wildflowers

USDA NRCS Plant Database

https://www.plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=HENOO

https://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=HENOA

 

A Tantalizing Promise – Cranefly Orchid

On a recent walk in the woods, I spotted the leaf of a Cranefly Orchid (Tipularia discolor) peeking out from beneath a covering of fallen leaves, an oak leaf its top blanket.

Cranefly Orchid (Tipularia discolor) leaf

Cranefly Orchids can be found in deciduous woodlands, primarily from New Jersey and southeastern Pennsylvania west to southern Illinois, south to southeastern Texas and northern Florida. It can even be found in pockets as far north as New York and southern Michigan. Cranefly Orchid becomes less common in the northern- and southern-most parts of its range.

They have an unusual lifestyle, similar to that of another orchid, Puttyroot (Aplectrum hyemale).  Like Puttyroot, a Cranefly Orchid typically produces only one oval-shaped leaf, deep green on the top with a purple underside.  The leaf emerges in fall, and withers before the flower cluster appears in mid to late summer.  Without competition for sunlight from the canopy of leaves that shades it during the growing season, Cranefly Orchid is able to photosynthesize during the winter, gathering the energy it needs for its summer bloom, usually in July or August.

Cranefly Orchid (Tipularia discolor) leaf

Underside of Cranefly Orchid (Tipularia discolor) leaf

Cranefly Orchids benefit from the covering of leaf mulch produced by the deciduous trees and shrubs with which it lives in the forest. This blanket of leaves protects and nourishes the Cranefly Orchid and other surrounding plants, including those from which the leaves fell.  The leaves hold moisture from winter rain or snow, slowly releasing it into the soil.  With the assistance of beneficial fungi and bacteria, the leaves decompose, replenishing the nutrients in the soil.  Cranefly Orchids also depend on the presence of special fungi in the soil for germination and to obtain essential nutrients for growth and survival.  Plants provide food in the form of carbohydrates to the fungi, and in return, the fungi work with other soil microbes to provide nutrients and water from the soil to the plants.

The white cottony strands are fungal mycelium, working to decompose the fallen leaves

Cranefly Orchid’s stemmed flowers bloom along an unbranched stalk. The flowers don’t all bloom at once; they start blooming from the bottom of the stalk, working up to the top.  This gradual blossoming extends their chances for pollination over a longer period, usually about three weeks.  In bloom, Cranefly Orchid grows to a height of about 15-20 inches (38-50 cm).

Cranefly Orchid (Tipularia discolor) inflorescence (flower cluster)

Cranefly Orchid (Tipularia discolor) inflorescence (flower cluster)

Both the common name for this plant, Cranefly Orchid, and the genus, ‘Tipularia’ (which translates to daddy long-legs), refer to the shape of the individual flowers.  If you use your imagination, they resemble a long-legged insect.

A Crane fly (Platytipula sp.), inspiration for Cranefly Orchid's name.

A Crane fly (Platytipula sp.), inspiration for Cranefly Orchid’s name.

Rather than dispensing its pollen as individual grains that may adhere to the body of the insects that visit its flowers, the pollen of Cranefly Orchids is packaged in a sac-like structure called a pollinium. This makes for an all or nothing method of pollen dispersal. Pollination of Cranefly Orchid flowers is accomplished primarily with the help of night-flying moths from the Noctuidae family. As the moth reaches with its tongue down to the tip of the long spur for nectar, the asymmetrical structure of the flower is such that one of the moth’s eyes may come in contact with and pick up the pollinium. The pollinium adheres to the moth’s eye until it is deposited on another flower, preferably with receptive female parts, or until it is brushed off.

Cranefly Orchid (Tipularia discolor) flowers; Note the long spurs from which nectar is accessed by potential pollinators.

Cranefly Orchid (Tipularia discolor) flowers; Note the long spurs from which nectar is accessed by potential pollinators.

Studies have shown Armyworm Moth (Mythimna unipuncta) as the flower visitor that is most likely to be a successful pollination partner for Cranefly Orchid. At least one reference mentions other specific members of the Noctuidae moth family as potential pollinators, including the Common Looper Moth (Autographa precationis).

Common Looper Moth (Autographa precationis), a potential pollinator. Imagine a moth carrying a pollinium (pollen sac) on its eye.

Common Looper Moth (Autographa precationis), a potential pollinator. Imagine a moth carrying a pollinium (pollen sac) on its eye.

Producing flowers and fruit have a big cost in energy for Cranefly Orchids. As a result, they don’t bloom every year.  Even the size of the leaf produced in winter may vary, depending on how much energy the plant has available.

Cranefly Orchid (Tipularia discolor) leaf

I became acquainted with this particular orchid in August about 10 years ago, when I first saw the plant in bloom. While I have been able to spot a leaf most winters, I haven’t seen it bloom since.  Will this be the year it has enough energy to invest in reproduction?

Cranefly Orchid (Tipularia discolor) in bloom

Related Posts

An Orchid in Winter

Resources

Beadle, David; Leckie, Seabrooke. Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America. 2012.

Rhoads, Ann Fowler; Block, Timothy A. The Plants of Pennsylvania.  2007

Spira, Timothy A. Wildflowers & Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachian Mountains & Piedmont.  2011.

Stearn, William T. Stearn’s Dictionary of Plant Names for Gardeners.  1996.

USDA Forest Service Plant of the Week

USDA NRCS Plant Database

Go Orchids – North American Orchard Conservation Center

Studies on the Pollination Ecology of Tipularia discolor (Orchidaceae), By Dennis F. Whigham and Margaret McWethy, American Journal of Botany Vol. 67, No. 4 (Apr., 1980), pp. 550-555

Costs of Flower and Fruit Production in Tipularia Discolor (Orchidaceae), by Allison A. Snow, Dennis F. Whigham

In Defense of Plants

Butterflies and Moths of North America
http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/species/Mythimna-unipuncta
http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/species/Autographa-precationis

 

 

 

Northern Prickly-ash

I saw my first Northern Prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) on a walk through the woods in winter. The plentiful prickles along the branches and trunk

Northern Prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) branch with prickles

Northern Prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) branch with prickles

and the unusual fruit caught my eye.

Northern Prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) with ripe fruit

Northern Prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) with ripe fruit

Northern Prickly-ash is certainly prickly, but it isn’t an Ash at all. It does have compound leaves that resemble those of the Ashes (Fraxinus species), but that’s just a superficial resemblance.  Based on the structure of its flowers, Northern Prickly-ash has been classified as a member of the Rue (Rutaceae) family of plants, which is also called the Citrus family.

Like other members of the Rue family, Northern Prickly-ash’s foliage is covered with glands that are fragrant when crushed, emitting a somewhat lemon-like scent. Northern Prickly-ash blooms in spring before its leaves emerge, with male and female flowers usually on separate plants. The flowers are tiny, but they are fragrant, and attract a variety of bees and flies to visit.

By June, if the flowers were successfully pollinated by their visitors, a Northern Prickly-ash with female flowers will have fruit. Bobwhites, Red-eyed Vireos and Chipmunks are among the animals that eat the fruit.

Eastern Chipmunks may eat Northern Prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) fruit

Eastern Chipmunks may eat Northern Prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) fruit

While the fruit looks like a berry, but it is actually a follicle, a dry (not fleshy) fruit that splits open along a single seam. The fruit is green in early summer.

Northern Prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) with unripe fruit

Northern Prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) with unripe fruit

On its way to fully ripening it turns red.

Northern Prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) with fruit in autumn

Northern Prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) with fruit in autumn

By late fall or winter, the follicle ripens, turning brown, then splits open to reveal the seeds, usually one seed, or at most two per follicle.

Northern Prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) fruit in late winter

Northern Prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) fruit in late winter

Not many insects eat the foliage of Northern Prickly-ash. The leaves contain toxic chemicals (furanocoumarins) that are a deterrent to herbivores. But the caterpillars of Giant Swallowtail butterflies specialize on the leaves of the Rue family members.  They have evolved to be able to ingest the toxins and sequester them in their bodies without experiencing any harmful effects.  Throughout the Giant Swallowtail’s life, from caterpillar to pupa to butterfly, these toxins protect them from being eaten by predators.  This is the same type of relationship that Monarch butterflies have with Milkweeds (Asclepias species).  Monarchs have evolved to specialize on Milkweeds as the only food their caterpillars can eat in exchange for the protection the plants’ toxins give them.

Plants and people have more in common than you might think. Both have mutually beneficial relationships with some fungi and bacteria (think of the good bacteria in your digestive system, and edible and medicinal mushrooms), and adversarial relationships with others that may cause disease.  Many plants have evolved to produce chemical compounds to defend against the predatory fungi, bacteria or microbes that might invade their tissues.  Sometimes those chemicals can also be beneficial to humans in treating diseases with similar causes.

Studies show that Northern Prickly-ash contains compounds with anti-fungal properties, and compounds that have cancer-fighting potential. Native North American medical traditions have long recognized the potential of Northern Prickly-ash for treating disease, using it for many purposes, including as an antirheumatic and pain reliever, for treating coughs, colds and pulmonary problems, heart problems, kidney problems, and Tuberculosis.  One of the most well-known medical applications for Northern Prickly-ash is the use of the inner bark as a toothache remedy, giving this tree another common name, Toothache-tree.

Northern Prickly-ash is native as far north as Quebec and Ontario, and south as far as Oklahoma, Louisiana and Florida, although it is rarer in the southeastern United States. It prefers moist well-drained soils, and can tolerate full sun to part shade.  Northern Prickly-ash can be found on stream banks and in wet woods, sometimes creating a thicket by reproducing through underground runners.

Mature Northern Prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) trunk and branches, with prickles

Mature Northern Prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) trunk and branches, with prickles

Winter is a good time to look for Northern Prickly-ash.  Take a walk and see if you can find its distinctive prickles and fruit.

Related Posts

Milkweed – It’s Not Just for Monarchs

What Winter Reveals: Hoptrees

Black Cherry – For Wildlife, and People, too!

Slippery Elm in Bloom

Resources

Cech, Rick; Tudor, Guy. Butterflies of the East Coast.  2005.

Foster, Steven; Duke, James A. A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America.  2000.

Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Ethnobotany.  1998.

Nelson, Gil; Earle, Christopher J.; Spellenberg, Richard. Trees of Eastern North America.  2014.

Rhoads, Ann Fowler; Block, Timothy A. The Plants of Pennsylvania.  2007

Missouri Botanical Garden

USDA Plant Database

Illinois Wildflowers

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15957372

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11507740

 

 

To Love Winter: Striped Wintergreen

It may be winter in the northern hemisphere (at least some days), but there is still plenty to see if you go for a walk in the woods. Some plants may be easier to spot in winter than they are during the growing season, because they have less competition for light, and for your attention.  Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) is one of those plants.  Striped Wintergreen can be seen in woodlands, skimming just above the fallen leaves.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) in fruit

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) in fruit

A clue that winter is the perfect time to look for this plant is found in the translation of its genus, ‘Chimaphila’, whose origins are the Greek words ‘cheima’, which means ‘winter’ and ‘phileo’, which translates as ‘to love’.   Plants of this genus are named for their love of winter.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata)

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata)

Why do they love winter? Striped Wintergreen is an evergreen perennial of the forest understory, growing to a height of about 4 – 12 inches (10 – 30 cm).  Somewhat woody at the base of the stem, botanists classify this species as a shrub or subshrub.  Its green and white striped leaves make it easy to spot in the winter months when leaves have fallen from the deciduous trees and shrubs that tower over this diminutive plant.  During the growing season, its taller neighbors often obscure Striped Wintergreen from view, as well as from the sun’s rays.  But throughout winter, Striped Wintergreen’s evergreen leaves have unfettered access to the sun’s energy.  They can photosynthesize, store the energy, and make it available to support Striped Wintergreen’s summertime reproductive efforts.

Striped Wintergreen is known by many other aliases (common names), including Spotted Wintergreen, Pipsissewa, and Rheumatism Root. Some of these names refer to the medicinal uses of this plant. Striped Wintergreen contains chemical compounds with antiseptic, antibacterial, and astringent properties, among others.  One of the compounds, ursolic acid, is effective in treating arthritis and other causes of pain and inflammation.  Striped Wintergreen and a close relative that is also called Pipsissewa (Chimaphila umbellata) have been used to treat urinary tract infections and kidney stones.  The name Pipsissewa is derived from a Creek Native American word that means ‘to break into small pieces’, referring to stones in the urinary tract.

Is it just lucky happenstance that Striped Wintergreen contains compounds that have beneficial medicinal effects for humans? Not completely.  Striped Wintergreen faces some of the same pressures that humans do from bacteria, fungi and microbes, all of which are present in the thousands in the fallen leaves with which Striped Wintergreen lives, and that are working to break down the leaves until they become the next layer of nutrient-filled soil.  Striped Wintergreen has evolved to produce chemical compounds to protect itself from this efficient recycling team surrounding it.  What is lucky for us is that these chemical constituents also have a positive effect in human bodies.

Striped Wintergreen blooms in summer, usually sometime from June through August.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) in bloom. Fruit capsule from previous season is visible on the left.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) in bloom. Fruit capsule from previous season is visible on the left.

When fully open, the flowers with their recurved petals resemble crowns, a possible explanation for another common name for this plant, Striped Prince’s Pine.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) flower. Notice its resemblance to a tiny crown.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) flower. Notice its resemblance to a tiny crown.

Striped Wintergreen’s primary pollinators are Bumble Bees (Bombus species), but Honey Bees (Apis mellifera) may also be enticed by nectar to visit the flowers.  If the bees help Striped Wintergreen successfully achieve pollination, the resulting fruit is visible throughout the winter.  These dry fruit capsules look like tiny turbans, or miniature winter squash split open at the seams to release the seeds inside.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) fruit capsules.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) fruit capsules.

The chemical compounds present in Striped Wintergreen, along with leathery, waxy-coated leaves, are generally effective in deterring herbivores. Deer don’t typically browse this plant, even though it’s one of only a few that are green in the winter.  But the photo below shows that someone, probably a Leaf-cutter Bee (Megachile species), has figured out a way to use parts of the leaves.  Leaf-cutter bees harvest regularly-shaped oval, circular or semi-circular pieces of leaves to construct cells in their nests.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) with semi-circles removed from the leaf edges, probably by a Leaf-cutter Bee.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) with semi-circles removed from the leaf edges, probably by a Leaf-cutter Bee.

Striped Wintergreen’s native range is the eastern third of the United States, north to a few locations in southern Ontario and Quebec provinces in Canada. It’s rare at the edges of its range, and is listed as endangered in Illinois, Maine, Ontario and Quebec, and exploitably vulnerable in New York state.

Experience some ‘Winter Love’ (another common name for Chimaphila maculata).  Look for Striped Wintergreen in winter, and you’ll know where to find it during the summer months when it’s in bloom.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) in bloom.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) in bloom.

More Reasons to Love Winter

Reasons to Love Winter

An Orchid in Winter

Coralberry – A Winter Standout

What Winter Reveals:  Hoptrees

Late Winter Bird Food

A Winter Garden Can Be a Wildlife Habitat

Resources

Buhner, Stephen Harrod. Pipsissewa.  From Planting the Future, Saving Our Medicinal Herbs, edited by Gladstar, Rosemary and Hirsch, Pamela.  2000.

Eaton, Eric R.; Kauffman, Ken. Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America.  2007.

Eiseman, Charley; Charney, Noah. Tracks & Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates. 2010.

Foster, Steven; Duke, James A. A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America.  2000.

Martin, Laura C. Wildflower Folklore.  1984.

Rhoads, Ann Fowler; Block, Timothy A. The Plants of Pennsylvania.  2007

Evergreen Native Plant Database

Illinois Wildflowers

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Native American Ethnobotany Database

USDA NRCS Plants Database