Rewards of a Butterfly Count

Common Buckeye

Why participate in a butterfly count? Well for one thing, you’ll be contributing to a citizen science project that gathers data to help assess how well butterfly species are doing over time.  Are numbers for each species in a given area declining, increasing, staying the same?  Are new species appearing in a location, are any disappearing?

Citizen science is my excuse, but it’s not my reason. I do it because it’s fun.

In mid-July, I participated in a count at Silver Lake Nature Center in Bristol, Pennsylvania. There were six of us.  We started looking for butterflies even before we entered the natural areas, searching carefully while walking across a lawn.  We were rewarded with sightings of Sachem, Peck’s Skippers, Eastern-tailed Blues, Common Buckeyes, Wild-Indigo Duskywings and Horace’s Duskywings.

Wild Indigo Duskywing on White Clover

Horace's Duskywing on White Clover

Horace’s Duskywing on White Clover

Eastern-tailed Blue

Are you wondering what attracted butterflies to the lawn, and why we even thought to look for them there?

It’s not every lawn that would be so productive. We were able to find butterflies in this lawn because it isn’t treated with pesticides or herbicides.  Most of the butterflies we saw were basking on blades of grass or drinking nectar from White Clover (Trifolium repens), a Pea (Fabaceae) family member.  If herbicides were used, the clover wouldn’t be there to feed butterflies, bees and other pollinators.  No crab grass would be available for Sachem and some other butterfly species to use as food for their caterpillars.  Pesticides would kill the butterflies directly.  Another bonus from having White Clover in the lawn is that it acts as a natural fertilizer, releasing nitrogen into the soil in a manner and quantity that can be used effectively by the other plants living there. It actually helps the grass to be healthier.  Even better, there is no excess chemical fertilizer to run off into streams, rivers and other waterways.  Years ago, white clover was included in grass seed mixes for this very purpose, until fashions changed, calling for a monoculture lawn with no clover, dandelions or violets.  Maintaining this uniform green carpet requires regular applications of herbicides to kill everything but grass, and synthetic fertilizer, to keep the grass growing.  The result is an expensive and toxic lawn maintenance regimen, devoid of butterflies, but welcoming to Japanese Beetles. As the fashion trend turns back, lawns become a safer, less toxic place to play for pets, children and even adults.

We worked our way across the lawn to the powerline cut through Delhass Woods. A male Widow Skimmer dragonfly stood guard in the grasses as we approached the entrance.

Male Widow Skimmer dragonfly

This is a much ricer habitat for butterflies, a sunny area filled with diverse plants that provide food for butterflies in the form of nectar, and food for their caterpillars in the form of the leaves of plants on which they specialize.  Plants in the Pea family, including Red Clover (Trifolium pretense), Crown Vetch (Securigera varia), and Wild indigo (Baptisia tinctoria), were a big draw for butterflies.

Wild indigo (Baptisia tinctoria)

Not only do the flowers offer nectar, but Wild Indigo Duskywings, Wood Nymphs, Clouded Sulphurs, Orange Sulphurs and other butterflies use these plants as food for their caterpillars.  All of these species were present in good numbers, along with Common Buckeyes, Peck’s Skippers, and Sachem.

Common Buckeye with Crown Vetch

Common Buckeye with Crown Vetch

Sachem on grape leaf

Pecks Skipper on Red Clover

Clouded Sulphur on Crown Vetch

We saw Wood Nymphs and Spicebush Swallowtails, but they didn’t pose for me this year. Last year they were pre-occupied enough with other activities to be more cooperative.

Spicebush Swallowtail drinking nectar from Turks-cap Lily

Wood Nymphs, mating

Surrounded by such a varied and rich habitat, an open area with woods on either side and a pond nearby, we couldn’t help but occasionally be distracted by birds and other critters, and some plants I don’t often see.

Maryland Meadow Beauty (Rhexia mariana)

Golden Hedge Hyssop (Gratiola aurea)

A Halloween Pennant dragonfly monitored our progress as we finished up our search of the powerline cut.

Female Halloween Pennant dragonfly

After a break, we moved on to the woods, marshes, and gardens. Cabbage Whites were everywhere.  Cabbage Whites aren’t native to North America, and can be a problem for farmers.  Their caterpillars feed on some plants in the mustard or cabbage (Brassicaceae) family. If you have ever found a small green caterpillar in your broccoli or kale (I have), it was probably a Cabbage White.  They have done so well in North America that they are often the species with the highest numbers for a count, as they were this day.  They ignored us while they mated in the woods.

Cabbages Whites mating

Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, Silver-spotter Skippers, Red Admirals and Sachem all enjoyed the nectar Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) provided in the marshy areas.  Sachem also enjoyed the garden.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)

Sachem

A week later I did another butterfly count at Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve near New Hope, Pennsylvania. We had our best year since 2013, seeing twice as many butterflies as we did in 2014-2016.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Joe-pye-weed (Eutrochium purpureum)

Some highlights were Juniper Hairstreaks, a small but beautiful butterfly that is considered ‘locally common’ because it is usually only found near its caterpillar food plant, Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana).

Juniper Hairstreak on Short-toothed Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum muticum)

We saw our highest number of Monarchs in the 6 years we have participated in the count.

Monarch butterfly resting on Yarrow

It was really exciting for me to see so many Sleepy Oranges, a southern species that returned to this Pennsylvania location after a nearly four-year absence.

Sleepy Orange drinking nectar from False Sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides)

So why do a butterfly count? You’ll get to see beautiful butterflies and other critters interacting with gorgeous plants, and you’ll share the day with people who are enjoying themselves as much as you are, all while contributing to a citizen science effort that monitors the health of butterflies.  And you’ll have fun.

Gray Hairstreak on Grass-leaved Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia)

To find a butterfly count near you, check with the North American Butterfly Association.

Related Posts

What Do Juniper Hairstreaks and Cedar Waxwings Have in Common?

Sleepy Orange Butterflies are Back

Sleepy Orange Butterflies Overwintering in Pennsylvania

Combating Japanese Beetles

Butterflies Eat Their Peas

 

 

Butterflies Eat Their Peas

Silver-spotted Skippers are wide-ranging butterflies that are active from May through early fall. When their wings are folded or when they’re in flight, a large silvery patch on their otherwise mostly brown wings makes them easy to identify.  The butterfly is named for this marking.

Silver-spotted Skipper

Silver-spotted Skippers open the upper (dorsal) side of their wings to the sun when they are basking, revealing markings that resemble a stained-glass window.

Silver-spotted Skipper, basking in the sun.

I have to wonder if the silvery wing spot is an adaptation to make this butterfly resemble bird droppings. Insects, even butterflies, can be an important source of food for birds and some predatory insects.  This disguise would likely give Silver-spotted Skippers some protection from these predators, since bird droppings don’t attract them.

Silver-spotted Skipper, eating minerals from bird droppings. Does that silver splotch on the wings seem like a good disguise?

Silver-spotted Skippers can be seen drinking nectar from a variety of blossoms in meadows, along roadsides, marsh edges, and open woodlands, any place where they can also find the food their caterpillars require.

Silver-spotted Skipper drinking nectar from Indian Hemp (Apocynum cannabinum)

Silver-spotted Skipper drinking nectar from Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

So what’s the connection to peas?  While Silver-spotted Skipper butterflies drink nectar from many different plants, it’s their caterpillars that ‘eat their peas’. Silver-spotted Skipper caterpillars specialize on certain members of the Pea (Fabaceae) family, including Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) trees, and several herbaceous (not woody) plants  called Tick-trefoils (Desmodium species).  The caterpillars typically munch on the foliage, flowers or buds of these plants, but they do it in such a discreet way that you would only notice if you were looking for it.

The Tick-trefoils all have three-parted leaves, and a tall-stemmed flower cluster. The pollinated flowers produce a chain of fruits that break apart when they’re ripe.  Fruits disperse as hitchhikers on passing animals, including humans.  I’ve often warn them home after a walk in the woods. This dispersal habit is the reason for the ‘tick’ part of the common name of these plants, since the fruits cling to an animal’s fur or clothing like a tick might.

Naked-flowered Tick-Trefoil (Desmodium nudiflorum) flowers and fruit

Naked-flowered Tick-Trefoil (Desmodium nudiflorum) flowers and fruit

Naked-flowered Tick-Trefoil (Desmodium nudiflorum) foliage

Naked-flowered Tick-Trefoil (Desmodium nudiflorum) foliage

Some of the food plants on which the Silver-spotted Skipper caterpillars depend are especially garden-worthy. Blue False Indigo (Baptisia australis), also called Blue Wild Indigo, and other plants of this genus are potential food plants for Silver-spotted Skipper caterpillars.  Its vivid purplish-blue flowers are primarily pollinated by Bumble Bees, but they are visited by other insects as well.  Blue False Indigo can grow to a maximum height of about 4 to 5 feet (1.25 to 1.5 meters), likes full sun to part shade, and can tolerate dry and clay soils.

Blue False Indigo (Baptisia australis) with likely pollinator

Blue False Indigo (Baptisia australis) with Silver-spotted Skipper

American Wisteria (Wisteria frutescens) is another favorite of Silver-spotted Skippers.  It is a deciduous vine with long hanging clusters of violet flowers in early summer, great for use on an arbor or fence.  If its flowers are pollinated, they are replaced by long pea pods later in the season.

American Wisteria (Wisteria frutescens)

American Wisteria (Wisteria frutescens) fruit

Female Silver-spotted Skippers lay eggs on the leaves of their caterpillar food plants. The caterpillars hatch from the eggs, spinning silk to pull the leaves of their host plants together to create a shelter.

Silver-spotted Skipper caterpillar in a shelter it created using its own silk and American Wisteria (Wisteria frutescens) leaves

Silver-spotted Skippers are not alone in their dependence on Pea family members. Gray Hairstreaks and Eastern-tailed Blues are among the other butterflies whose caterpillars ‘eat their peas’, using some of these same plants.

Female Gray Hairstreak butterfly preparing to lay an egg on flower buds of a Tick-trefoil

Eastern-Tailed Blue butterflies mating

Resources

Brock, Jim P.; Kauffman, Ken. Kaufman Field Guide to Butterflies of North America.  2003.

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

Glassberg, Jeffrey. Butterflies through Binoculars A Field Guide to Butterflies in the Boston-New York-Washington Region.  1993.

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.  1996

Illinois Wildflowers

Missouri Botanical Garden

 

 

 

 

Blackberries, Butterflies, Bees and Birds

Common, or Allegheny, Blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis) brambles are blooming in woodlands and meadows throughout the local areas I frequent in central New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania.  This Rose (Rosaceae) family member can be found from Quebec to Ontario provinces in Canada, south as far as South Carolina and Oklahoma in the United States.  It is also present in California and British Columbia.

Common, or Allegheny, Blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis)

At Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, near New Hope, Pennsylvania, I found masses of Wild Blackberry blooming in the meadow. Traditionally, the entire meadow is mowed during the winter, but this year a new method of meadow maintenance was introduced, one recommended by the Xerces Society.  Only part of the site was mowed last year, in order to preserve habitat for overwintering insects, birds, and other animals.  This new technique is already paying off, with an impressive display of flowering Blackberry canes, and an equally impressive variety of native pollinators visiting the flowers.

I wasn’t the only one to discover the Blackberries in bloom. From a distance, I could see that at least three Monarch butterflies were already there, flirting and drinking nectar, drawing me in to get a closer look.  They were my first certain Monarch sighting of the season.

Monarch on Common Blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis)

Monarch on Common Blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis)

The Monarchs weren’t alone. Little Wood Satyrs flitted about, occasionally stopping to drink nectar from the flowers.  Little Wood Satyrs are often found where woodlands meet meadow habitat.

Little Wood Satyr on Common Blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis)

Several Red-banded Hairstreaks visited the flowers, along with a few Zabulon Skippers, Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, and Silver-spotted Skippers.

Red-banded Hairstreak hanging out on Common Blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis)

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail drinking nectar from Common Blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis)

Zabulon Skipper drinking nectar from Common Blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis)

Bees and Common Blackberry have a mutually beneficial relationship. Bees are important pollinators for Common Blackberry, and Common Blackberry is an important source of nectar and pollen for the bees.  While I watched, Mining Bees, Bumble Bees, Carpenter Bees and Honey Bees worked the flowers.

Mining Bee (Andrena species) with Common Blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis)

A different Mining Bee (Andrena species) with Common Blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis)

Female Bumble Bee (Bombus species) foraging on Common Blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis). Notice the huge orange load of pollen she has harvested to take back to her nest to feed her larvae.

Eastern Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa virginica) with Common Blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis).

A pair of soldier beetles, Pennsylvania Leatherwings (Chauliognathus pensylvanicus) were mating at the same time the female impressively foraged the flowers for food, a pretty common beetle behavior combination.

A pair of soldier beetles, Pennsylvania Leatherwings (Chauliognathus pensylvanicus) mating, at the same time the female impressively forages Common Blackberry flowers for food.

A Flower or Syrphid Fly (Toxomerus geminatus) ate pollen from the flowers, probably not helping very much to pollinate the Blackberries.  Flies, bees and even beetles all consume some of the pollen.  Only about 2% of pollen is actually used for pollination. The rest serves as an enticement to flower visitors.

A Flower or Syrphid Fly (Toxomerus geminatus) eats pollen from Common Blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis) flowers

A Flesh Fly, and a Robber Fly disguised as a Bumble Bee paused on Blackberry leaves. As a carnivore, the Robber Fly’s mission is to capture and eat other insects.  The disguise may help it elude predators and seem harmless to its intended prey.

A Robber Fly ( Laphria flavicollis) pausing on a Common Blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis) leaf

A Flesh Fly (Sarcophaga species) on Common Blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis)

At a woods edge location nearby in New Jersey, a Bumble Bee and Orange Sulphur enjoyed the nectar the Blackberries offered.

Bumble Bee (Bombus species) on Common Blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis).

Orange Sulphur drinking nectar from Common Blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis).

Common Blackberry has high value for other animals. The insect flower visitors will help to ensure a late summer feast of blackberries for birds, and mammals from mice to fox, and even bear.  They’re very healthy for humans, too!

Ripe fruit of Common Blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis).

Wild Turkey is one of the many animals that benefit from eating Common Blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis) fruit

During the summer, these Common Blackberry brambles offer the perfect nesting habitat for Indigo Buntings. I saw a flash of blue feathers heading for a nearby tree, so they may already be in the process of establishing their nesting territory.

Male Indigo Bunting in Eastern Red Cedar

Multiflora Rose (Rosa multiflora), another Rose family member, is also in bloom.  This species was introduced from Asia for use in hedgerows, especially around farm fields.  As is so often the case, it turned out the introduction was a bad idea.  Multiflora Rose has since become invasive in much of the United States and Canada.  Several states list it as a noxious weed, and some prohibit it.

Plants and even animals that are introduced in a location far from where they evolved often become a problem in their new environment, since the natural predators with which they evolved are not present. In their native locations, these predators help to keep the plant or animal population in balance with other species.  Without these natural checks, the introduced species can crowd out the native plant species on which the animals with which they evolved depend.  We end up losing both plant and animal species as a result.

There is a family resemblance between Common Blackberry and Multiflora Rose, but it’s fairly easy to tell them apart.

Common Blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis) flowers

Common Blackberry flowers are usually white, about 1-1 ½ inches (2.54-3.8 cm) in diameter. The petals have rounded tips.  A large cluster of greenish pistils, the female reproductive flower parts, are visible at the center of the flowers.  These pistils together produce an aggregation of tiny fleshy fruits (called druplets) that are what we know as a blackberry.  The fruits start out green, turning red and eventually black when they’re ripe.  The stamens (male reproductive parts) surround the pistils.  They have white filaments topped with brownish anthers from which pollen is released.

Multiflora Rose (Rosa multiflora) flowers

Multiflora Rose flowers are also usually white, or rarely pinkish. They are just a bit smaller, and the tip of each petal is notched, not rounded.  There is a single greenish pistil at the center of the flower that produces a single round red berry-like fruit called a hip. The pistil is surrounded by stamens with creamy yellow filaments and darker golden anthers.  Multiflora Rose leaves have a distinctive fringe along the sides of the base of the stem.  This is not present in Common Blackberry.

Where I have seen Common Blackberry and Multiflora Rose in close proximity to each other, the pollinators always choose Common Blackberry. It may be a small sampling for a scientific study, but it seems like a pretty telling endorsement to me!

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail drinking nectar from Common Blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis)

Related Posts

Indigo Buntings – Living on the Edge!

For Information on Meadow Maintenance from the Xerces Society

http://www.xerces.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/PollinatorsNaturalAreas_June2014_web.pdf

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

The Xerces Society

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.

Evans, Arthur V. Beetles of Eastern North America.  2014.

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

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

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

Illinois Wildflowers

USDA NRCS Database

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

For Information on Mutiflora Rose

USDA NRCS Database

USDA National Invasive Species Information Center

Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health

 

 

 

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)

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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