A Thistle Banquet

On a recent walk through a local meadow I spotted a bank of Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor).

Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor)

It was eye-catching for two reasons.  The sight of the plant itself is arresting, with its tall candelabra-like shape topped with purple pompoms of flowers instead of candle flames.  But it was the sight of so many visitors to the flowers, often several on a single flower head, that was really breath-taking.  Bumble Bees, Honey Bees, Clearwing Moths and so many different butterflies moved quickly from flower to flower, pausing briefly to dine.  Field Thistle presents a sumptuous feast for potential pollinators!

At one ‘banquet table’, a Honey Bee, a Thistle Long-horned Bee (Melissodes desponsus) and a Hummingbird Clearwing Moth all dined amiably together.

A Honey Bee, a Thistle Long-horned Bee (Melissodes desponsus) and a Hummingbird Clearwing Moth all drinking nectar from Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor)

At another, several Bumble Bees, Honey Bees and Thistle Long-horned Bees shared a meal.

Bumble Bees, Honey Bees and a Thistle Long-horned Bee (Melissodes desponsus) feeding from Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor)

How is it that one flower head can accommodate so many visitors simultaneously?  Field Thistle is a member of the Aster or Composite (Asteraceae) family.  Each of the purple pompoms consists of a cluster of many long narrow tubular disk flowers.  You can see the individual flowers in the head in the lower part of the photo below.

Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor). Note the individual narrow, trumpet-like disk flowers shown below the bee.

The Long-horned Thistle Bee in the photo below is actively eating both pollen and nectar, and harvesting more to provision her nest for her larvae.  You can see the pollen she has collected packed onto hairs, called scopae, on her hind legs. We know this is a female, because only female bees harvest food for their offspring.  This bee species specializes on pollen from Field Thistle and a few other closely related plants (all of the genus Cirsium) for her larvae.  This makes her an excellent pollinator for Field Thistle, since she won’t be visiting other flowers.  It also means that without these thistles, this bee species would not survive.  It’s the same concept as the Monarch butterfly’s dependency on Milkweeds (Asclepias species) for survival, because Milkweeds are the only food their caterpillars can eat.

Thistle Long-horned Bee (Melissodes desponsus) feeding on Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor). She’ll bring the pollen on her hind legs to her nest. Note the pollen grains all over her body! Some will help with pollination.

Although it appears in the photos above that the various visitors to these flowers are happy to share the wealth of the Field Thistle banquet, I’m sorry to have to report that the Honey Bees actually indulged in bullying behavior.  They were especially hostile to the Thistle Long-horned Bees, trying to chase them away by bumping them.

Honey Bee bullying Thistle Long-horned Bee (Melissodes desponsus) on Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor).

Fortunately, the Thistle Long-horned Bees were undeterred.  They were also respectful of other diners, even those smaller than themselves.

The small bee (possible Eucera species) in the upper left is harvesting pollen. With Thistle Long-horned Bee (Melissodes desponsus) on Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor).

I visited this meadow several times within a few weeks, and each time there were at least a half dozen Hummingbird Clearwing Moths at the thistle.

Hummingbird Clearwing Moths on Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor).

Their close relative, a Snowberry Clearwing Moth, also stopped by for a drink.

Snowberry Clearwing Moth drinking nectar from Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor).

One of the Hummingbird Clearwing Moths shared a thistle banquet table with a female Zabulon Skipper, while a male Zabulon Skipper and Peck’s Skipper dined together at another.

Female Zabulon Skipper and Hummingbird Clearwing Moth drinking nectar from Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor).

Male Zabulon Skipper (left) and Peck’s Skipper drinking nectar from Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor).

These skippers are small butterflies who specialize on various grass species as food for their caterpillars.  Many of these grasses can be found nearby in the meadow.

Peck’s Skipper drinking nectar from Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor).

Peck’s Skippers were ubiquitous, sipping nectar alone and in the company of others, including Spicebush Swallowtails and Great-spangled Fritillaries.

Spicebush Swallowtail and Peck’s Skipper drinking nectar from Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor).

Two courting Great-spangled Fritillaries and Peck’s Skipper on Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor).

Eastern Tiger Swallowtails also visited the flowers for nectar.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail drinking nectar from Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor).

All of these large butterflies specialize on plants found in the adjacent woodlands as food for their caterpillars.  Spicebush Swallowtails require Spicebush (Lindera benzoin), their namesake plant, or Sassafras (Sassafras albidum);  Great-spangled Fritillaries need violets; and Eastern Tiger Swallowtails use various tree species, including Ash (Fraxinus species), Tuliptrees (Liriodendrun tulipifera), and Black Cherry (Prunus serotina).

It was very encouraging to see that there were many Monarch butterflies partaking of the thistle feast.  Both Common (Asclepias syriaca) and Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) were available in the meadow for egg-laying.

Monarch butterfly drinking nectar from Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor).

Even Ruby-throated Hummingbirds visited the thistles for nectar, but they didn’t stay long enough for a photo op.

Field Thistle’s strategy to protect itself from being eaten is to have very spiny leaves and branches.  This works well in deterring mammals from munching the plant; Field Thistle is not a species that deer are likely to browse.  But caterpillars are a different story.  Painted Lady butterflies as well as Common Loopers and some other moth species use this plant as food for their caterpillars.

Painted Lady on White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima). Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor) is one of the plant species that Painted Lady butterflies can use as food for their caterpillars.

Common Looper Moth on New England Aster ( Symphyotrichum novae-angliae). Common Looper Moths caterpillars also eat the leaves of Field thistle (Cirsium discolor).

After all of this help with pollination, Field Thistle produces seed-like fruits called achenes.  They have a light, white fluff (called pappus) attached, enabling their dispersal by the wind. But these fruits are also desirable food and nesting material for Goldfinches and other birds.

Eastern Goldflinches harvesting seeds from Field thistle (Cirsium discolor)

Field Thistle is native from Saskatchewan to Quebec provinces in Canada and in much of the eastern half of the United States, although it is less common in the southeastern states and absent from Florida.  The flower color can vary from purple to pinkish, and is occasionally white.  Field Thistle is a biennial or short-lived perennial, replacing itself by producing seeds.  It can grow to a height of five to seven feet (1.5 – 2.1 meters).  Unlike some non-native thistles, Field Thistle is not invasive.

There is a non-native thistle, Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare), that closely resembles the native Field Thistle.  Some differences in their characteristics that can help tell them apart include:  Field Thistle leaves have consistently white felt-like or woolly undersides, Bull Thistle leaves are green to greenish-white below;  Bull Thistle has winged stems where the leaves meet them, Field Thistle does not;  Field Thistle usually has a ring of leaves pointing upward hugging the base of the inflorescence (flower head), like a very pointy stand-up collar, Bull Thistle may have one or two leaves below the inflorescence.

Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor) with great-spangled Fritillary butterfly. Note the stand-up leaf collar hugging the base of the flower head.

Field Thistle isn’t traditionally used in gardens, but in the right location in a sunny garden, it could really make a statement, and bring so many visitors!

Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor)

 

Related Posts

A Butterfly garden that Embraces the Shade

Asters Yield a Treasure Trove

Black Cherry – for Wildlife and People, Too!

For Great-spangled Fritillaries, Leave the Leaf Litter

Spicebush or Forsythia?

Resources

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

Clemants, Steven; Gracie, Carol. Wildflowers in the Field and Forest. 2006.

Newcomb, Lawrence.  Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide.  1977.

Peterson, Roger Tory; McKenny, Margaret.  A Field Guide to Wildflowers of Northeastern and Northcentral North America. 1968.

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

Illinois Wildflowers

Invasive Plant Atlas of the United States: Bull Thistle

USDA NRCS Plant Database

USDA NRCS Plant Fact Sheet

 

 

 

A Wildlife, Family and Pet Friendly Lawn

Are you using chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers on your lawn?  If so, you really should stop.  For a few reasons.

One reason is that you’re missing out on a lot.

Herbicides used on lawns will kill beneficial plants including White Clover, dandelions, violets, Spring Beauty and more that would otherwise grow in harmony with grasses.  Why do I say these plants are beneficial?

Let’s take White Clover (Trifolium repans) as an example.  Native Bumble Bees are important pollinators for both native plants and agricultural crops, and are frequent visitors to White Clover flowers, eating and harvesting pollen and nectar.

Bumble Bee collecting nectar and pollen from White Clover

Honey Bees love to visit the flowers for nectar, and they make a great tasting honey for the bees and for people.

Honey Bee collecting nectar and pollen from White Clover

Many different butterflies visit White Clover flowers for their nectar.

Eastern-tailed Blue drinking nectar from White Clover

Pearl Crescent drinking nectar from White Clover

Gray Hairstreak drinking nectar from White Clover

Least Skipper drinking nectar from White Clover

Baltimore Checkerspot drinking nectar from White Clover

Some butterflies who specialize on Pea (Fabaceae) family members as caterpillar food use White Clover.  The females lay eggs on the plant, and after hatching, the caterpillars munch on White Clover flowers or leaves.  The female Clouded Sulphur in the photo below is drinking nectar from a dandelion.  If the male Clouded Sulphur is successful in persuading her to mate with him, there is White Clover nearby for egg-laying.

A female Clouded Sulphur nectaring from a dandelion, while a courting male hovers hopefully nearby.

What about dandelions?  If you aren’t using chemicals on your lawn, you can pick dandelion leaves and add them to salads, or cook them with a little olive oil and garlic or onions.  Dandelion leaves have many times the nutritional value of spinach, and if you pick them from your lawn they’re free.

Eastern-tailed Blues and Sleepy Oranges are a few of the butterflies who visit dandelion flowers for nectar.

Eastern-tailed Blue drinking nectar from a dandelion

Sleepy Orange drinking nectar from a dandelion

Got crabgrass?  This pair of Sachem will thank you, because the female can lay her eggs on crabgrass, one of the few plants her caterpillars are able to digest.

Sachem butterflies, mating

Let violets creep into your lawn, and you can add the leaves or flowers to your salads.

Violets in the lawn ready for picking for a bouquet.

Pollinators like Bumble Bees will thank you for violet flowers.

Bumble Bee visiting violet flower for pollen and nectar

You may see Great Spangled and other fritillary butterflies, too, because violets are the only food their caterpillars can eat.

Great Spangled Fritillary butterflies drink nectar from many flowers, including the Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) shown here, but their caterpillars can only eat the leaves of violets.

None of these caterpillars will damage your lawn.  The caterpillars may make it through metamorphosis to become butterflies, or they may become a meal for hungry ground-feeding birds like Robins.  Both fates are good options.

American Robin. Insects, especially caterpillars, are an important source of food for birds. It can take thousands of caterpillars to feed one clutch of hungry baby birds!

Bluets mix well with a lawn, and their basil leaves are evergreen.

Bluets (Houstonia caerulea)

While in bloom their tiny flowers offer nectar for a myriad butterflies, bees, flies and moths.

White-spotted Sable Moth drinking nectar from a Bluet (Houstonia caerulea) flower

If you are using herbicides to kill the violets, dandelions, clover, crabgrass and other plants, you are eliminating any value your lawn may have for wildlife.

If you are using chemical pesticides, you are killing these animals outright, along with thousands of beneficial microbes that live in and help aerate the soil.  These microbes help keep the soil healthy.

Not convinced yet to stop using chemicals on your lawn?  Let’s consider a reason that might be more compelling.

You are also adding toxins to your soil, toxins that may find their way into the groundwater, our watersheds, and ultimately into your drinking water.

How toxic could these chemicals be?  Let’s look at a few highlights from their material safety data sheets to find out.

One commonly used fertilizer shouldn’t be too toxic unless a large amount is ingested.  But exposure can cause eye irritation, skin irritation, and if inhaled, may cause ‘respiratory tract irritation’. It also carries this warning:  “Avoid discharges into waterways as fertilizer can cause nitrification and algae blooms.”

The material safety data sheets for herbicides, the chemicals that kill plants, are positively frightening.  Here are a few excerpts (Bold added by me):

There is no specific antidote if this product is ingested.”

For dermal exposure or inhalation, effects of exposure include:  “Possible carcinogenicity, Allergic skin reaction, Drowsiness or dizziness”.

Highly toxic to fish and invertebrates. Practically non-toxic to birds and bees.”  (Please note, bees are invertebrates.)

“May cause an allergic skin reaction
May cause drowsiness or dizziness
Suspected of causing cancer
May cause damage to organs through prolonged or repeated exposure

Toxic to aquatic life with long lasting effects

Danger. Causes irreversible eye damage. Harmful if swallowed. Harmful if absorbed through skin.

Application around a cistern or well may result in contamination of drinking water or groundwater.”

Some of these material safety data sheets include a skull and cross bones for emphasis.  If you would like to read them in their entirety, there are links to them at the end of this post.

Do you want you, your kids, grandkids, or pets to play and roll around on that chemically treated surface?  Do you want these chemicals getting into our water supplies and watersheds?

The use of these chemicals in lawn care is just a fashion, a choice.  It’s not a necessity.

Years ago, lawn ‘fashions’ were different.  White Clover was included in seed mixes for lawns, because the clover releases nitrogen into the soil in amounts that can be used by the soil and its microbe community. This helps lawn grasses thrive.  Violets were commonly seen creeping in with lawn grasses, aided by their seed dispersers and excellent soil aerators, ants.  When I was a little girl, I loved to pick bouquets of violets and clover from our backyard and give them to my mom.

Common Blue Violet (Viola sororia)

With the fashion that has been in favor now for a number of years, lawns must consist of nothing but carefully selected grasses, species that naturally thrive in cool, moist conditions.  They may look lush in spring, but when the heat and drought of summer arrives, lawns must be watered to maintain that green appearance.  That costs money and uses a valuable resource unnecessarily. Some states and municipalities have instituted hefty fines for watering lawns.

Money is spent on chemicals that are applied to the entire lawn surface to kill the clover, dandelions, crabgrass, violets and other non-lawn-grass plants that might otherwise creep in.  Chemical fertilizers are purchased and applied to add nitrogen to the soil, a job that White Clover does for free.  This chemical application of nitrogen is often more than the soil can absorb.  The nitrogen runs off, contaminating our waters with a toxic effect on aquatic plants and wildlife, and ends up in our drinking water.

We’re actually spending money to make our soil less fertile, our lawns toxic, and to contaminate our waters.  Who benefits from this, other than chemical companies, and lawn maintenance companies who apply the chemicals?

Here are some alternative actions you can take.

Instead of using chemical fertilizers, when you mow, let grass clippings fall into the soil.  In autumn, use a mulching mower to chop up any leaves that have fallen on the lawn.  The leaves and grass clippings will act as natural fertilizer, breaking down with the aid of the microbes in the soil, improving the health and consistency of the soil. Microbes and invertebrates will aerate the soil, making it more hospitable to plant roots, and more absorbent of rainwater.

Are you trying to grow lawn grass in the shade?  Just give up.  Please.  It’s a losing battle.  Lawn grasses will never thrive in shade.  In my experience, the grass will die every year by July, no matter what kind of seed mix you apply or how much soil you add.  If you start with sod it might take a bit longer, but the grass will still die eventually.

Our results when we tried to grow lawn in shade

Are you concerned about standing water in your lawn after a rainfall?  Do you see erosion in some places?  That’s because lawn grasses have very short roots.  They are only a tiny bit better than pavement in absorbing rainwater.

Our ‘lawn’ when it rained

The solution to the shade, standing water and erosion problems are all the same. Plant shade-loving native perennials, shrubs and trees instead.  They’ll do well and be far more healthy and productive for you and for local wildlife.  Their leaves will slow the flow of falling rain, and the roots will help the soil absorb rainwater, while holding the soil in place.

Soon after we replaced our lawn with a garden of native plants. It’s even more lush now.

Be cutting edge.  Be part of the lawn fashion revolution.  Welcome the arrival of clover, dandelions, crabgrass, violets, bluets, spring beauty, sedges and so many other plants to your lawn.  Don’t try to grow grass in the shade, where it will never thrive.  You’ll be keeping your family healthier, and save money at the same time.

A wildlife, family and pet friendly lawn should be small, just big enough for playing.  It should consist of a mix of grasses, clover, and other plants that might readily grow in harmony with each other, without any chemical applications.

Variegated Fritillary drinking nectar from White Clover

Related Posts

For Great Spangled Fritillaries, Leave the Leaf Litter!

A Butterfly Garden that Embraces the Shade – Spring

A Butterfly Garden that Embraces the Shade – Summer and Fall

A Carpet of Spring Beauty, Woven by Ants!

More pollinators on Bluets:  https://the-natural-web.org/2015/06/19/late-spring-in-stowe-vermont/

 

 

References

A Homeowner’s Guide to Stormwater Management

 

NRCS

https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/il/plantsanimals/?cid=nrcs141p2_030726

Lawn and Garden Care, Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay

Lowenfels, Jeff; Lewis, Wayne.  Teaming with Microbes – The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web.  2010

Mader, Eric; Shepherd, Matthew; Vaughan, Mace; Black, Scott Hoffman; LeBuhn, Gretchen.  Attracting Native Pollinators: Protecting North America’s Bees and Butterflies.  2011.

 

Material Safety Data Sheets for some commonly used lawn chemicals

http://msds.mkap.com/LiquidFertilizer/2800.pdf

http://www.powerlineproducts.com/images/28_0_0UANSolutionMSDS.pdf

http://www.cdms.net/ldat/mp5JC002.pdf

http://www.fluoridealert.org/wp-content/pesticides/msds/prodiamine.barricade.4fl.2005.pdf

http://www.cdms.net/ldat/mp5JC002.pdf

http://www.keystonepestsolutions.com/labels/Trimec_992_MSDS.pdf

http://natseed.com/pdf/Trimec%20992%20-%20MSDS%20Sheet.pdf

https://www.domyown.com/msds/Q4Plus-MSDS.pdf

http://www.pesticideinfo.org/Detail_Chemical.jsp?Rec_Id=PC33374

How to interpret a Material Safety Data Sheet

http://www.ilpi.com/msds/ref/hazardclassification.html

 

 

Encounter with a Bluebird Family

As I approached a place where a meadow meets a narrow strip of woods, I noticed some movement in the shadows cast by a Tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera).  The light was low, so I had to use binoculars to be able to see that the bird flying from the ground to a low branch was an immature Eastern Bluebird.

Immature Eastern Bluebird

This is just the kind of habitat Eastern Bluebirds prefer, open meadows or even lawns with trees nearby for perching and nesting.  Bluebirds nest in cavities, using natural cavities and abandoned woodpecker holes in trees. This kind of real estate is in high demand, so Bluebirds also use nesting boxes.  The male brings materials to the nesting site, including grasses, spent plant stems and pine needles for the outside of the nest, finer grasses and sometimes animal hair for the inside.  The female is in charge of construction, building the nest inside their chosen cavity.

This youngster was apparently already learning and practicing a common Bluebird food foraging behavior, that of sitting on a low branch and flying down to capture an insect meal.  As is the case with most birds, insects and spiders are an important part of a Bluebird’s diet. Bluebirds eat quite a variety, including beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, and caterpillars.

Grasshopper – A good meal for a hungry Bluebird!

Tulip Tree Beauty – Nothing beats a caterpillar as a tasty treat!

In fall and winter fruit is added to this insect diet.

In fall and winter, Bluebirds add fruit like that offered by this Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) to their diet.

While I focused on this young bird, someone else entered my line of sight.  It was a vividly colorful mature male Bluebird.  He landed in a low bare branch of the Tuliptree, the remnants of last year’s fruit only slightly obscuring my view of him.

Male Eastern Bluebird in Tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera)

This dazzling male seemed intent on mesmerizing me with his beauty so that I would forget about his offspring in the shadows behind him.

Male Eastern Bluebird in Tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera)

His strategy was pretty effective.  While I didn’t forget about the young bird, I couldn’t take my eyes off its father.

Male Eastern Bluebird in Tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera)

But eventually my peripheral vision picked up some movement behind this stunning male.

A female Eastern Bluebird was flying from a nesting box in the meadow, to the far edge of the tree line.  She flew back and forth, until the young bluebird finally followed her and they disappeared together through the trees.  When I looked again for the male, he had also taken off.

I walked to the lawn on other side of the wood line toward the place where the Bluebirds had escaped from my view and found lots of activity.  The female, now with two immature Bluebirds, flew back and forth from the lawn to the trees.  Practice flights?  One of the youngsters decided to stay in the grass, poking at the ground in search of insect food.  Mom stayed for a while, coaching her young student.

Female Eastern Bluebird (left) with tutoring her young offspring

Eventually Mom flew back to the shelter of the trees.  After a moment, the young bird followed the rest of its family, disappearing into the trees.

Young Eastern Bluebird

 

Resources

Eastman, John.  Birds of Forest, Yard, and Thicket.  1997.

Harrison, Hal H.  Eastern Birds’ Nests.  1975

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

Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds

 

Goldthread

On a recent trip to Vermont, we spotted the bright white flowers of Goldthread (Coptis trifolia) dotting the forest floor’s green carpet.  We saw it growing in mossy areas, and often in the company of Canada Mayflower (Maianthemum canadense) and ferns.

Goldthread (Coptis trifolia), Canada Mayflower (Maianthemum canadense) and ferns

Our timing was perfect to see these tiny flowers, since each half inch diameter blossom is typically only in bloom for about a week.  Each flower is perched about six inches (15 cm) from the ground on its own straight stem.

Goldthread (Coptis trifolia) flowers

From a human’s eye view, the showiest parts of the flower are white petal-like sepals.  The primary function of sepals is to protect the other flower parts while the flower is developing, but in some plants, including Goldthread, they are also a showy part of the floral display to help attract pollinators.

From a pollinator’s eye view, additional flower parts come into focus, and offer some surprises.  Working in from the sepals, the unconventional petals make up the next whorl of flower parts. They are much smaller than the sepals, spoon-shaped, with bright yellow, rounded, concave tips.  Not only are these bright yellow petal tips attractive to pollinators because of their color, but also because they produce nectar, an extra enticement for a pollinator’s visit.

Next are the many stamens, the male reproductive parts. Goldthread stamens mature a few at a time, starting from the outside of their cluster.  As the stamens mature they release pollen from the anthers at their tips.  At the very center of the flower are the green pistils (or carpels), the female reproductive parts.  Pollen must be deposited on the stigmas at their tips in order for pollination to occur.

Goldthread (Coptis trifolia) flower. Only some of the stamens have matured.

Goldthread (Coptis trifolia) flowers. (One with a tiny mystery visitor.) All of the stamens are open for business.

Goldthread (Coptis trifolia) flower, When all of the stamens are mature, as they are in this specimen, they make a perfect rounded cluster.

While we watched, a flower fly (Megasyrphus laxus) visited the flowers.  This little fly seemed to be focused on harvesting pollen.  Flies drink nectar, but they also need to eat pollen for its protein.  Everyone needs a balanced diet!

A flower fly (Megasyrphus laxus) hovering over a Goldthread (Coptis trifolia) flower. This group of flies is also called hover flies, or Syrphid flies.

A flower fly (Megasyrphus laxus) eating pollen from a Goldthread (Coptis trifolia) flower. Its proboscis (mouth parts) are directly touching one of the anthers.

If the flowers are pollinated, fruit capsules develop.

Goldthread (Coptis trifolia) fruit capsules

Goldthread leaves are evergreen. In spring dark green leaves from the previous season are visible, and new leaves emerge concurrently with the flowers blooming.

Goldthread (Coptis trifolia). The dark green leaf is from the previous season, the light green leaves have recently emerged.

Goldthread’s scientific name is based on the shape of its leaves, with ‘Coptis’ referring to their deeply cut appearance, and ‘trifolia’ to the three leaflets of each leaf.  The common name Goldthread refers to the plant’s golden colored thread-like underground rhizomes.

Goldthread is a member of the Buttercup (Ranunculaceae) family.  Like some other family members, Goldthread contains berberine, a compound that has anti-fungal, anti-bacterial and anti-tumor properties, among other things.  Plants produce these properties to protect themselves from invaders and consumers.  Although it can be toxic, in the proper doses, Native Americans have found many medicinal uses for this plant.

Goldthread has a northerly distribution. It is native in Alaska, most of Canada except the Northwest and Yukon Territories, the northern tier of the United States from Minnesota east to Maine, and south in the east along the coast as far as North Carolina (except Delaware!).  It can also be found in a few counties in Oregon.  Its preferred habitat is rich, moist woods, and also bogs and swamps.

Goldthread (Coptis trifolia), Canada Mayflower

Related Posts

Rue Anemone and a Bee Fly

Hepatica’s Survival Strategy

Resources

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

Hoffmann, David.  Medical Herbalism.  2003.

Mauseth, James D.  Botany An Introduction to Plant Biology.  2014.

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

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

Minnesota Wildflowers

USDA NRCS Plant Database

Flora of North America

 

The Buzz About Shooting Star

Shooting Star (Dodecatheon meadia) is an herbaceous perennial named for the shape of its flowers and the flowers’ curved stems, which together look a bit like a shooting star with a tail following it through the sky.

Shooting Star (Dodecatheon meadia)

Shooting Star blooms in spring over a period of several weeks. Each flower shoot produces multiple flowers, each flower with its own curved stem (or tail).  The flowers can be white or pink.

Shooting Star (Dodecatheon meadia)

Shooting Star (Dodecatheon meadia)

If the flowers are pollinated, fruit capsules take their place and along with the leaves remain visible for many weeks in the summer.

Shooting Star (Dodecatheon meadia) fruit capsule

Shooting Star requires a partner with special skill to help achieve successful pollination,  an insect with the athletic ability to hang from below the flower and vibrate its wing muscles without moving its wings, in order to shake pollen loose from the flower.  This is called buzz pollination, because the vibration makes a buzzing sound.  Queen Bumble Bees have this ability, and they are the perfect unsuspecting collaborator in Shooting Star’s pollination.

Queen Bumble Bee on Shooting Star (Dodecatheon meadia)

When a female Bumble Bee like the one shown here clings to a Shooting Star flower from below, her abdomen touches the plant’s stigma, the place on the pistil (female reproductive part) where pollen must be deposited if pollination is to take place.  If pollen is present on the bee when she arrives at a flower, it will be brushed from her abdomen onto the flower’s stigma, possibly with some assistance from static electriciy.  As the Bumble Bee clings to the flower she vibrates it, causing a dusting of pollen to be releases onto her abdomen.  She then carries the pollen to the next flower she visits.

Queen Bumble Bee on Shooting Star (Dodecatheon meadia). The flower’s stigma is touching the bee’s abdomen. Notice the dusting of pollen that is beginning to accumulate.

Honey bees don’t have this special skill. Only native bees like Bumble Bees and some others are able to buzz pollinate.  Blueberries, cranberries, tomatoes, eggplants and peppers also require buzz pollination.  If we didn’t have these bees, we wouldn’t have this food!

Shooting Star doesn’t produce nectar, so why would bees keep visiting these flowers?  They don’t do it altruistically, they need some incentive.  Bees visit the flowers for pollen, a food source high in the protein and lipids bees need. After she has visited enough flowers, the Bumble Bee will groom herself, eating some of the pollen and storing the rest on her legs to carry back to her nest to feed her larvae.

Queen Bumble Bee on Shooting Star (Dodecatheon meadia). She has collected pollen on her rear legs to take back to her nest to feed her larvae.

Other small bees may visit the flowers to harvest pollen, but because of the way these smaller bees handle the flowers, the chances are lower that they will encounter the stigma and deposit pollen.

Shooting Star is native in Manitoba in Canada, and much of the eastern half of the United States except the New England states, New Jersey and Delaware.  It is most commonly found in some of the mid-western states.  Shooting Star likes shade to part shade and can be found in open woods.

Resources

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

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

Willmer, Pat.  Pollination and Floral Ecology. 2011

Illinois Wildflowers

USDA Plant Database