A Lovely Native Chickweed

As I rounded a bend while walking a trail on a cool day earlier this spring, I spotted a colony of wildflowers blooming a few inches above ground level. 

A colony of spring wildflowers
A colony of mystery spring wildflowers

My first thought was that it must be Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica), whose blossoms were beginning to carpet the forest floor, but I quickly realized it must be something else. These flowers were a purer white, showing no hint of the pink nectar guides and anthers that add a bit of blush to Spring Beauty’s floral display. 

Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica). Note the pink stripes (nectar guides) on the petals, and the pink anthers.
Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica). Note the long, narrow leaves, the pink stripes (nectar guides) on the petals, and the pink anthers.

Clearly this was a different species. I needed to take a closer look.

Notice the upright stems with short opposite leaves, and more leaves at the base of the plant.
Notice the upright stems with short opposite leaves, and more leaves at the base of the plant.

While these plants were similar in height to Spring Beauty, they were more erect, less sprawling. Their leaves were short, opposite each other along the stem, with additional leaves at the base of the plant.

The flowers had five distinctly lobed petals, and instead of pink striping, these had soft gray nectar guides beckoning pollinators to visit.  

Notice the deeply notched white petals with soft gray striping.
Notice the deeply notched white petals with soft gray striping, characteristics of Field Chickweed (Cerastium arvense ssp. strictum).

A little investigation yielded the identification as Field Chickweed (Cerastium arvense ssp. strictum), a plant native throughout much of Canada and the United States (except Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, and Florida).  In spite of Field Chickweed’s wide range, this was my first encounter with it.  This perennial chickweed is often found on cliffs, rocky slopes, ridges, ledges or beaches.  Fittingly, I met this small beauty on a rocky western-facing slope near the Delaware River in the Sourland Mountains in New Jersey.

Field Chickweed (Cerastium arvense ssp. strictum) with flower visitor
Field Chickweed (Cerastium arvense ssp. strictum) with flower visitor

The primary pollinators documented for this species are a number of bees, including small carpenter bees, cuckoo bees, mason bees, sweat bees, and mining bees. Conveniently located nearby were nest entrances for some ground nesting bees who may have been frequent diners at the Field Chickweed flowers.

Entrance to ground-nesting bee nest in the path to the right of some Field Chickweed (Cerastium arvense ssp. strictum).
Entrance to ground-nesting bee nest in the path to the right of some Field Chickweed (Cerastium arvense ssp. strictum).

In contrast to the documentation I found for this plant, the pollinators I encountered were all flower flies (also known as hover flies or Syrphid flies).

Field Chickweed (Cerastium arvense ssp. strictum) with flower fly actively drinking nectar
Field Chickweed (Cerastium arvense ssp. strictum) with flower fly actively drinking nectar
Field Chickweed (Cerastium arvense ssp. strictum) with visiting flower fly
Field Chickweed (Cerastium arvense ssp. strictum) with visiting flower fly
Field Chickweed (Cerastium arvense ssp. strictum) with Eastern Calligrapher (Toxomerus geminatus)
Field Chickweed (Cerastium arvense ssp. strictum) with Eastern Calligrapher (Toxomerus geminatus), a species of flower fly

Flower flies are named for their frequent visits to flowers to drink nectar and eat pollen, and for their ability to hover in the air. Flies are important pollinators, especially in spring and fall when the weather is cool, because they are able to fly at lower temperatures than many bees.   

The seeds of this and other chickweeds are eaten by many birds and small mammals, including mice.

Deer Mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus). Mice will eat chickweed seeds.
Deer Mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus). Mice will eat chickweed seeds.

Those small mammals may become food for other animals, like this Red Fox.

Red Fox, "Yum! Mice are delicious!"
Red Fox, “Yum! Mice are delicious!”

Field Chickweed is a lovely little native plant quietly doing its job in the ecosystem. I’m happy to have made its acquaintance.

Field Chickweed (Cerastium arvense ssp. strictum)
Field Chickweed (Cerastium arvense ssp. strictum)

Related Posts:

A Tale of Two Spring Beauties

Resources

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

Skevington, Jeffrey H.; Locke, Michelle M.; Young, Andrew D.; Moran, Kevin; Crins, William J.; Marshall, Stephen A.  Field guide to the Flower Flies of Northeastern North America. 2019.

Flora of North America

Go Botany

Illinois Wildflowers

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center Plant Database

USDA NRCS Plant Database

USDA U.S. Forest Service Plant of the Week

Invasion of the Cedar Waxwings!

Swift movement outside the window caught my eye, as a bird landed in a nearby tree branch. Was that a Cedar Waxwing?

Cedar Waxwing
Cedar Waxwing

Another bird came in for a landing.

Two Cedar Waxwings
Two Cedar Waxwings

Then another.

Three Cedar Waxwings!
Three Cedar Waxwings!

They kept coming, until there was a flock of Cedar Waxwings perched in and around our Winterberry Hollies (Ilex verticillata).

A flock of Cedar Waxwings arrives!
A flock of Cedar Waxwings arrives!

They were here, of course, for the fruit. Cedar Waxwings are especially dependent on fruit in their diet, so much so that ‘Cedar’ in their common name is a nod to Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana), whose fruit-like cones are an important source of winter food for this bird. The other part of their common name, ‘Waxwing’, refers to the waxy looking red tips on their secondary wing feathers.

Cedar Waxwing. Notice the red, waxy-looking tips of the secondary wing feathers.
Cedar Waxwing. Notice the red, waxy-looking tips of the secondary wing feathers.

Like most other birds, Cedar Waxwings also eat insects, especially when they are breeding and raising young. I did see one bird take a break from the Winterberry fruit to browse the branches of a nearby Witch-hazel (Hammamelis virginiana) for some insect protein. But fruit was the main attraction for this flock.

Cedar Waxwing reaching for Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata fruit
Cedar Waxwing reaching for Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) fruit

While I watched, the birds put on an impressive acrobatic display in pursuit of the delectable fruit.

Cedar Waxwing reaching for Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata fruit
Cedar Waxwing reaching for Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) fruit
Cedar Waxwing showing acrobatic talent while reaching for Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata fruit
Cedar Waxwing showing flexibility while reaching for Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) fruit

It’s not by accident that such an abundance of fruit is available for these and other birds. The groundwork is laid in late spring, typically June where I am in central New Jersey, when these shrubs produce a wealth of small flowers that are a major attraction for pollinators, including many different species of bees, wasps and flies.     

Perplexing Bumble Bee (Bombus perplexis), visiting a female Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) flower. Her pollination efforts make the fruit that results from this visit possible.
Perplexing Bumble Bee (Bombus perplexis), visiting a female Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) flower. These pollination efforts make the fruit that results from this visit possible.

While they stayed with us, the Cedar Waxwings also ate the remaining Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) drupes, as well as some crab apples. The birds moved on after three days, when the trees and shrubs were stripped of their bounty. It was a mesmerizing spectacle while it lasted.  

Cedar Waxwings are typically found in woodland habitats, near water or woods edges, but they are sometimes found in open fields, too. It all depends on food availability. They are sociable birds, and often nest in proximity to other members of their species, with several nests possible in a single ‘neighborhood’.  When they aren’t breeding, they travel in flocks, moving from place to place to find the fruit they need. A few days before the invasion of this flock, I saw one or two Cedar Waxwings in the trees outside.  Because of their gregarious nature, it’s unusual to see a lone bird of this species. Now I can’t help wondering if these early birds were scouts, looking for the next food stop for the group.

To attract Cedar Waxwings to your own yard, be sure to provide the fruit they love.  In addition to Winterberry Holly and Eastern Red Cedar, American Holly (Ilex opaca), Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida), native viburnums such as Blackhaw (Viburnum prunifolium), Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), Mountain Ash (Sorbus americana), hawthorns, apples and grapes are all very appealing to this sleek and lovely bird. To see them in summer, offer them blueberries, serviceberries, cherries and blackberries, among other fruit.

Cedar Waxwing eating Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) fruit
Cedar Waxwing eating Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) fruit

Related Posts

Fall Feeding Frenzy

Where Do Winterberries Come From?

Blackhaw Viburnum – A Subtle Beauty

What Do Juniper Hairstreaks and Cedar Waxwings Have in Common?

Resources

All About Birds, the Cornell Lab

Sibley, David Allen. The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior. 2001.

Fall Feeding Frenzy!

I have my desk facing the windows of our home office so that I can be easily distracted, and sometimes this strategy really pays off. For the last several days, I’ve had a hard time tearing myself away from my windows because of the steady stream of birds that are visiting to eat the ripe Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) and Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) fruit from the trees outside.

Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) in fruit
Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) in fruit

Both Flowering Dogwood and Blackhaw Viburnum have fruit that looks like a berry but is actually a drupe, a type of fruit that has a fleshy outside, and a single seed inside encased in a stony covering. A peach is an example of a drupe. The fleshy outside is perfect for tempting a bird or small mammal to eat it. The seed goes through the animal’s digestive tract and is later ‘dispersed’ complete with fertilizer to help give a new plant a good start. 

The birds went for the Dogwood fruit first. This seems appropriate, since Flowering Dogwood blooms a few days earlier than Blackhaw Viburnum. A flock of American Robins swooped in to eat, with each Dogwood hosting three, four, five, or more birds at once, bobbing in and out of sight as the branches swayed up and down from the activity. 

American Robin with Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) fruit
American Robin with Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) fruit
American Robin in Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)
American Robin in Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)
American Robin in Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)
American Robin in Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)

Several Northern Flickers alighted in the trees, staying a while to join in the feast. 

Northern Flicker in Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)
Northern Flicker in Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)
Northern Flicker gobbling Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) fruit
Northern Flicker gobbling Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) fruit

Other more cautious birds made a swift pass to grab a bite, then flew on to enjoy it in a less congested location. At least three Hermit Thrush stopped by,

Hermit Thrush
Hermit Thrush

a few Red-bellied Woodpeckers,

Red-bellied Woodpecker in Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)
Red-bellied Woodpecker in Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)

and even Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers supplemented their diet with fruit in between their usually forays drilling holes in tree bark for the sap that will ooze out, and for the insects that are attracted to the sap.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)

Outside, I hear other birds and see them ignoring this bounty of fruit, relying on different food sources.  Brown Creepers and White-breast Nuthatches are active in trees nearby, probing the trunks for insects sheltering in the bark grooves. Brown Creepers start from the bottom of a tree trunk and work their way to the top,

Brown Creeper
Brown Creeper

while the Nuthatches move in the opposite direction. 

White-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch

Dark-eyed Juncos and White-throated Sparrows recently returned for the winter. They’re busy probing the bushes and fallen leaves for insects, seeds and fruit. 

While I watched, a Red-tailed Hawk swooped in, scattering the smaller birds, but only briefly deterring them from their foraging. The Red-tail perched nearby for a few minutes, silhouetted against the sky, then left with empty claws.

Red-tailed Hawk, pausing before flying off with empty claws. They are more likely to eat small mammals than birds.
Red-tailed Hawk, pausing before flying off with empty claws. They are more likely to eat small mammals than birds.

The Dogwood fruit is just about all eaten now, but the birds are still working on the Blackhaw Viburnum.

Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) fruit
Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) fruit

Robins are consuming most of the Blackhaw fruit, but the Sapsuckers fly in to supplement their diet, too.  Squirrels are also taking advantage of this feast.

American Robin in Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium)
American Robin in Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium)
American Robin investigating Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) fruit
American Robin investigating Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) fruit

The flower buds that are visible at the same time these plants are offering their ripe fruit promise that the show will continue next year. I just hope that when these plants bloom next spring the bees, flies, butterflies and other flower visitors are as successful as they were this year in pollinating the flowers.  

Flower Dogwood (Cornus florida). The bright red fruit is accompanied by the off-white flower buds, promising that the whole cycle of flowers, pollinators, fruit, birds and other animals will happen again next year.
Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida). The bright red fruit is accompanied by taupe-colored flower buds, promising that the whole cycle of flowers, pollinators, fruit, birds and other animals will happen again next year.

So much action, and I live in a townhouse development in central New Jersey!  Who needs to travel hundreds of miles to see the wonders of nature, when they can be present in your own backyard? Just provide the native plants that the animals we live with depend on. We humans depend on these plants and animals, too. 

American Robin eating Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) fruit
American Robin eating Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) fruit

Related Posts

Blackhaw Viburnum – A Subtle Beauty

Why Leave the Leaves?  Ask a Red-banded Hairstreak!

Thinking about doing a fall clean-up in your garden?  Maybe you are planning to remove the layer of naturally fallen leaves that are beginning to blanket your planting beds?

I hope my encounter with a Red-banded Hairstreak will prompt you to change your plans.

On a recent walk on a woodland trail near my home in central New Jersey, I had just turned around to head back to my car when I noticed a flutter of brownish wings at ground level at the edge of the trail. My first thought was that it was probably a moth, but when I saw the insect in profile, I could tell it was a butterfly. As I looked more closely, I saw the tell-tale markings of a Red-banded Hairstreak.  I decided to watch for a while.

A Red-banded Hairstreak walking on the forest floor
A Red-banded Hairstreak walking on the forest floor

She stayed on the ground, walking over obstacles that seemed like they would be a challenge for someone her size, especially when she could choose to fly. While I observed her, she climbed over leaves, rocks, leaf stems and small branches, never once taking to the air.  Several times she paused in place for a few seconds.  Was she just resting, or maybe getting her bearings? No! She had a purpose in mind.

The Red-banded Hairstreak pauses.  Wait! Is she laying an egg?
The Red-banded Hairstreak pauses. Wait! Is she laying an egg?
No question this time! This Red-banded Hairstreak is laying an egg. Her curved abdomen is the tell-tale sign.
No question this time! This Red-banded Hairstreak is ovipositing (laying an egg). Her curved abdomen is the tell-tale sign.

Red-banded Hairstreak caterpillars eat fallen leaves and other decaying plant matter.  This little female was laying eggs on or near the kinds of material that her caterpillars would need to eat when they hatched. She alternated walking for a bit with brief pauses to lay an egg.

She walks on, over leaves and twigs.
She continues walking, over leaves and twigs.
Our Red-banded Hairstreak pauses at another promising spot to lay an egg.
Our Red-banded Hairstreak pauses at another promising spot to lay an egg.
She walks on over rocks . . .
She walks on over rocks . . .
She walks over twigs until she pauses one more time to lay an egg on detritus
She walks over twigs until she pauses one more time to lay an egg on detritus

After nearly five minutes, she flew off, presumably scouting for another promising location to lay more eggs.

The caterpillars that hatched from her eggs will spend the winter snug in the fallen leaves, waiting for warm spring days to arrive before completing their metamorphosis to become the next generation of Red-banded Hairstreaks.

Since my encounter with the Red-banded Hairstreak in the woods, I’ve seen other individuals in my own shade garden several times.  Fortunately for them and for me, I leave the fallen leaves undisturbed in the garden. I recommend you do the same!

Red-banded Hairstreak on White Wood Aster (Eurybia divaricata) in our shade garden
Red-banded Hairstreak on White Wood Aster (Eurybia divaricata) in our shade garden

Enchanter’s Nightshade

Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea canadensis), also called Broadleaf Enchanter’s Nightshade, is a small but eye-catching perennial that blooms in early to mid-summer along forest trails. Where I live and play in central New Jersey and Pennsylvania, that means late June through mid-July.

Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea canadensis)

This diminutive resident of the forest floor has several pairs of leaves opposite each other along the stem, with a cluster of tiny flowers rising above them. It often grows to about a foot (.4 m), but can reach as much as two feet (.7 m) in height, including the flower cluster (infloresence). The tiny white flowers are only about an eighth of an inch (4 mm) in diameter, and yet in the dim light of summer in the woods they are attention-grabbing, for both humans and pollinators.

Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea canadensis)

Each flower has two deeply lobed white petals that look a little like mouse ears, backed by two green, wing-shaped sepals that protected the flower before it opened. Two stamens, the male reproductive parts, reach out like arms from each side at the center of the flower, the anthers at their tips resembling mittened hands. The long narrow structure projecting from the very center of the flower is the pistil, the female reproductive part.  The circular washer-shaped tissue at the base of the pistil is the source of the flower’s nectar, which is offered to entice pollinators to visit.

Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea canadensis) flower, with 2 deeply-lobed white petals, 2 stamens reaching out like arms, and one pistil in the center with a circular nectary at its base.

In profile it’s easy to see the veining on the flower’s petals. They are nectar guides, directing pollinators to a potential reward inside.  The stigma reaches out beyond the petals, ready to accept incoming pollen on the stigma at its tip, positioned to be the first thing a pollinator encounters when visiting. The flower’s ovary, covered in hooked hairs, is visible behind the sepals. If pollination is successful, this will ripen to become a small burr-like fruit.

Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea canadensis) flower. Notice the veins that act as nectar guides on the petals, the pistil extending beyond the petals, and the hairy ovary behind the green sepals.

The stems of the entire inflorescence are covered with glandular hairs. Hairs on plant tissue usually serve to discourage herbivores from eating the plant, and glandular hairs often have the added benefit of emitting a chemical offense to enhance the deterrent effect.    

Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea canadensis) inflorescence. Note that in addition to the flower ovaries, the main stem and flower pedicels (stems) are all covered with glandular hairs, a deterrent to herbivores.

Even such tiny flowers have pollinators who are perfectly matched for them, primarily sweat bees (Halictidae) in the genus Lasioglossum and tiny flower flies, most commonly of the species Toxomerous geminatus. The group of bees called sweat bees get this common name from their habit of obtaining nutrients by licking up human sweat.

Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea canadensis) inflorescence, with a sweat bee visiting a flower near the top, and a flower fly perched at the tip of the branch in the lower right.

The bees visit the flowers for both nectar and pollen.  The little sweat bee in the photo below is feeding herself, but also gathering pollen, visible on her hind legs, to bring back to her nest for her larvae. 

Sweat bee, Lasioglossum species, visiting Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea canadensis) flower for nectar and pollen. Notice the pollen on her hind legs, which she will bring back to her nest to feed her larvae.
Sweat bee, Lasioglossum species, harvesting pollen from the anther at the tip of the stamen of an Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea canadensis) flower

On several occasions, I have watched small swarms of tiny flower flies hovering around Enchanter’s Nightshade flowers.  ‘Hover fly’ is another common name for this group of insects, because of their ability to perform this maneuver. Any individual I was able to see well enough to identify was a Toxomerous geminatus

A flower fly, Toxomerus geminatus, hovering near an Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea canadensis) inflorescence

Like the bees, the flies visit the flowers for both nectar and pollen, both of which are important food sources for them.

A flower fly, Toxomerus geminatus, harvesting pollen from an Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea canadensis) flower. As it first approached the flower, it came in contact with the stigma at the tip of the pistil, the female reproductive part, before moving on to harvest pollen.
Toxomerus geminatus at rest on a nearby leaf.

After pollination, the flower’s petals, sepals, stamens and pistils wither and fall away, leaving the ovary to ripen to a fruit.

The ovary of an Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea canadensis) flower, after its petals, sepals, stamens and pistils have withered and fallen off

As the ovary matures to a fruit, the hooked hairs covering the fruit stiffen, becoming an effective mechanism to grab on to the fur or pants of a passing animal who then unknowingly helps to disperse the seeds. 

Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea canadensis) inflorescence with many mature fruits positioned to hitch a ride on the fur or pants of a passing animal.

Enchanter’s Nightshade also has the ability to reproduce through its underground parts, sending up additional shoots to form colonies. 

Why the name Enchanter’s Nightshade?  The Greek goddess and accomplished enchantress Circe reportedly often used potions and herbs to achieve her ends, sometimes turning enemies into other animal species. Plants in this genus, Circaea, were thought to be among the ingredients she used, so were named for her. So far, unfortunately, I haven’t found any of her recipes.   

Enchanter’s Nightshade can be found along forest trails in the United States from Maine west to North Dakota, south as far as Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Georgia, and in Canada from Quebec and Nova Scotia west to Manitoba.  

Take a cooling summer walk in the woods to look for Enchanter’s Nightshade and its pollinators.

Small Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea canadensis) colony

Note:  Some sources refer to this species as Circaea lutetiana, Circaea lutetiana L. ssp. canadensis, or Circaea  quadrisulcata.

Resources

Boufford, David E. “The Systematics and Evolution of Circaea (Onagraceae).” Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden, vol. 69, no. 4, 1982, pp. 804–994. JSTOR,

Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF)

Illinois Wildflowers

Minnesota Seasons.com

Minnesota Wildflowers, copy and paste: https://www.minnesotawildflowers.info/flower/enchanters-nightshade

Niering, William A. The Audubon Field Guide to North American Wildflowers, Eastern Region. 1979.

USDA NRCS Plants Database

Wikipedia

Zakaria Hazzoumi, Youssef Moustakime and Khalid Amrani Joutei (June 24th 2019). Essential Oil and Glandular Hairs: Diversity and Roles, Essential Oils – Oils of Nature, Hany A. El-Shemy, IntechOpen, DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.86571.