A Dose of Spring

One thing we can still do while keeping a safe distance from other humans during the Covid-19 virus outbreak is to go outside for a walk.  It’s a great boost to your immune system, and contributes to an overall feeling of well-being.  If you go for a walk in a natural area, it’s especially beneficial.

Swan Creek, Rockhopper Trail, West Amwell Twp. NJ

Life goes on for the other species in the world while we humans are focused on the virus. Here are some animals and plants you might see if you go for a walk in my neighborhood in the mid-Atlantic United States.

Every morning now I hear Wrens, Cardinals, Titmice and other birds singing.  For several weeks Carolina Wren couples have been out shopping for real estate, looking for a good location to build a nest for the upcoming season.  These birds nest in cavities, usually from three to six feet off the ground.  A stump with a pre-made cavity like the one that the couple in the photos below is inspecting looks like very a very desirable property.

Carolina Wrens investigating a nesting site.

Carolina Wren investigating a fallen log with a natural cavity as a possible nesting site.

Carolina Wren standing watch at a possible nesting site.

While walking in the woods, you might hear a chorus of male wood frogs calling from a vernal pool, or see a mass of eggs that resulted from successful wood frog mating.

Male Wood Frogs

Wood Frog

Wood Frog egg mass

When temperatures are warm, bees and some butterflies may be active.  Even when spring temperatures are cooler, flies are active.

Greenbottle Fly (Lucilia sericata). This adult fly can be an effective pollinator, while its larvae are crime scene investigators’ friends, consuming dead rotting flesh or other decaying matter, a task that never goes out of season. The presence of these insects’ larvae can help determine time of death of a corpse.

Fly, unidentified.

Winter was unusually warm where I live in New Jersey.  As a result, the spring bloom season is about 3-4 weeks earlier than normal.  (This is a bit alarming, but since we have enough to worry about right now, I’m just going to focus on enjoying it.) With each passing day, more and more buds break and flowers bloom.

Leatherwood (Dirca palustris) is an early blooming shrub whose flower buds come with their own ‘fur’ coat, just in case the temperatures take a tumble. If the temperatures are warm, a lovely fragrance that even humans can detect wafts many feet away from the flowers.  When the air temperature is cooler, you can still catch the fragrance if you bring your nose right up to a flower and sniff.

Leatherwood (Dirca palustris). Bud scales act as a furry hood that protect the flowers.

The sunburst-like flowers of Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) are blooming, beckoning pollinators to visit, and promising fruit for birds in the fall.

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) blossom, male. Spicebush have male and female flowers on separate plants.

Hepatica, like Leatherwood, wears fur for warmth and to deter herbivores.  Depending on where you live, two species are possible, Round-lobed Hepatica (Anemone americana syn: Hepatica nobilis obtusa, Hepatica americana) and Sharp-lobed Hepatica (Anemone acutiloba syn: Hepatica nobilis acuta, Hepatica acutiloba).

Hepatica in bloom

The earliest of the Trilliums to blossom, Snow Trillium (Trillium nivale), has entered its short bloom season.  As you might guess, it is named for the fact that its flowers may open when snow is still present.  The Latin name nivale means ‘snow white, or growing near snow’.

Snow Trillium (Trillium nivale)

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) has opened its blossoms, hoping for insect visitors to help it with cross-pollination, but if all else fails it will self-pollinate.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

The lovely Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) is just starting to bloom, luring Bumble Bees to be their pollination facillitators.  This plant’s delicate appearance gives no hint of its narcotic-packed foliage, a reliable deterrent to herbivores that would otherwise be tempted to eat it.

Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)

The first Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) flowers are open, the beginning of several weeks of a floral display from this species.  There are specialist bees that depend on the pollen of this species as the only food that their larvae can digest. In return, these bees are very efficient and reliable pollination partners for Spring Beauty.

Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica)

Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica), with Toadshade (Trillium sessile) behind it, in bud

So many other species are waiting in the wings to be the next to bloom, including Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica).

Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica)

Everything changes so quickly in spring, from one day to the next and from morning until afternoon.  Visit a natural area often so that you don’t miss anything.  And to give your immune system a boost.  You might even learn something!  Just avoid people.

The author, out for a walk in the woods.

Related Posts

Spicebush or Forsythia?

Bloodroot

Dutchman’s Breeches and Squirrel Corn

A Tale of Two Spring Beauties

Photo Locations

Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve

Goat Hill Overlook, New Jersey

Rockhopper, New Jersey

Resources

All About Birds

National Wildlife Federation Educational Resources

US Forest Service Plant of the Week, Snow Trillium

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

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

 

 

The Artistry of Seedbox

Winter is the perfect time to see Seedbox (Ludwigia alternifolia) in fruit, and to understand how this plant got its name.

Seedbox (Ludwigia alternifolia) with fruit capsules

Attached along the length of the standing stems of this plant are fruit capsules that look like perfectly carved wooden boxes, each with a convex top and rounded bottom, and with elaborate designs that appear to be carved on the cube’s lid.

Seedbox (Ludwigia alternifolia) fruit capsules

These tiny decorative fruit capsules are often visible throughout winter, splitting open at the seams when ripe to release the many tiny seeds inside.  Before the fruit capsule opens, the seeds may rattle, giving this plant another common name, Rattlebox.

How is this perfectly shaped fruit capsule produced?  Who is responsible for the beautiful carvings on the lid? (Could it be tiny flower elves?  Maybe there is a less magical explanation.)

Seedbox typically blooms in mid to late summer, usually July and August.  Let’s look at the flowers and buds for an explanation.

Seedbox (Ludwigia alternifolia) in bloom

In Seedbox buds, sepals are the outermost layer of flower parts. They are green and leaf-like, and play the role of bud scales, enclosing and protecting the other parts of the flower before it opens.  The photo below shows a flower bud, enclosed by the sepals. In the upper right of the photo, there is a notch in the sepals at the base of the bud, a narrowing of the structure, and a squarish impression in the leafy covering.  This covering is enclosing the flower’s ovary, the flower part destined to become the fruit capsule.  We can see two sides of the ovary, already hinting at the box-like fruit capsule to come.

Seedbox (Ludwigia alternifolia) flower bud. In the top right corner, note the square ovary with a leafy covering at the base of the bud. The ovary will become the fruit capsule; its square shape is already in place.

The purpose of the flowers is to attract visitors to assist with cross-pollination. The most effective pollinator will have a tongue long enough to reach the nectaries on the face of the ovary below, while brushing its body on the flower’s reproductive parts, including the Sweat Bee in the photo below, and some Bumble Bees.  Other bees and beetles are known to visit the flowers for nectar and pollen, while flies, wasps, and butterflies only partake of the nectar.

Seedbox (Ludwigia alternifolia) flower with a visiting Sweat Bee. Her tongue is long enough to reach the nectaries while her body brushes against the flower’s reproductive parts, dropping off and picking up pollen.

The bee is rewarded for her pollination assistance with nectar and pollen for herself, and she will also carry some back to provision her nest for her larvae.

Seedbox (Ludwigia alternifolia) flower with a visiting Sweat Bee. Notice the pollen she has packed on her hind legs to bring back to her nest for her larvae.

Let’s look at an open flower.

Seedbox (Ludwigia alternifolia) in flower.

Working from the outer ring of flower parts layer by layer towards the center, each flower has four sepals, four yellow petals, four stamens (male reproductive parts) and one pistil (female reproductive part).  The pistil consists of a stigma at its tip, where the pollen must be deposited in order for pollination to take place, the style, which positions the stigma and through which the pollen must travel to get to the ovary, which is at the pistil’s base. Seedbox stigmas look like miniature pompoms perched at the top of their pedestal-like styles.  As the ovary ripens to a fruit capsule, if the pollen successfully reaches and fertilizes the ovules in the ovary, seeds will be produced.

Seedbox (Ludwigia alternifolia) in flower. The green sepals are peeking out from behind the yellow petals. The petals, stamens and style of the pistil are attached to the top of the ovary, while the sepals are appressed to the four sides of the ovary.

If we look at the very center of the flower, we can see the petals, stamens and pistil attached to the square top of the ovary, with the sepals appressed to the four straight sides around the ovary’s outside edges.

The flower parts that made pollination possible eventually wither and drop off, leaving their mark on the face of the ripening fruit capsule.

The petals drop off after about a day, leaving tiny scars that can be seen at each corner of the developing fruit capsule’s topside.  As the stamens drop off, each leaves a mark midway between the corners, just slightly in from the edge of the square.

Developing Seedbox (Ludwigia alternifolia) fruit capsule. Notice the scars left by the petals and stamens which have withered and dropped off. The stigma, style and sepals are still present.

Eventually the pistil’s stigma and style, positioned at the center of the flower above the ovary, drop off, leaving a round scar as a reminder of their role in the flower’s reproduction strategy.

Developing Seedbox (Ludwigia alternifolia) fruit capsule. The stigma and style have dropped off. The sepals are still present.

Finally the sepals are gone, leaving the bare woody ‘seedbox’.

Seedbox (Ludwigia alternifolia) fruit capsules

The face of a Seedbox fruit capsule records the history of its pollination story. The four large-ish evenly spaced ovals in each quadrant on the top of the fruit capsule were the nectaries, the source of the beverage that enticed the flower’s visitors.

Seedbox (Ludwigia alternifolia) fruit capsules. The scars from the petals and stamens are visible near the edges of the fruit capsule’s top, the round scar in the center marks the spot where the style was attached, and the four ovals are the flower’s nectaries.

Seedbox prefers moist soil, and can be found growing in wet meadows, prairies and woods, as well as in drainage ditches. It is native in Quebec and Ontario provinces in Canada, and in the United States from Vermont west to Wisconsin, southwest to Colorado, then south as far as Texas and the Florida panhandle. It is a member of the Evening-primrose (Onagraceae) family.

If you’re looking for something to do while waiting for spring, look for Seedbox!

Dedication:  Pam, this is for you!

Related Posts

Evening Primrose

Resources

Illinois Wildflowers

Illinois Wildflowers Flower Visiting Insects

Missouri Botanical Garden

USDA NRCS Plant Database

 

 

A Tree Reincarnated

There is a section of trail at Spring Lake at Abbott Marshlands in Hamilton Township, New Jersey that was once called the Beech Trail, named for a majestic American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) tree that dominated a spot on the south side of an island that is part of the nature preserve.

American Beech (Fagus grandifolia), the island at Spring Lake, Abbott Marshlands

The tree was unusual on the island, which is otherwise dominated by River Birch, Oaks, Tuliptrees, Maples and Sassafras, with a rich understory that includes Arrowwood Viburnum, Common Spicebush, Winterberry Holly, Highbush Blueberry, and an herbaceous layer with Wild Oats, Canada Mayflower and Virginia Spiderwort, among many others.  Maybe I wasn’t observant enough, but I never noticed another Beech tree in the vicinity of this one.

American Beech (Fagus grandifolia), the island at Spring Lake, Abbott Marshlands

For years, this beautiful Beech dominated its surroundings, overseeing the marsh below where Wood Ducks, Mergansers, Mallards and other ducks are often seen foraging for food, especially in winter.

Common Mergansers, south marsh, Abbott Marshlands

As Beech Trees sometimes do, this tree developed a natural cavity at its base, a cavity large enough to provide shelter for some of the Island’s animal inhabitants.

Cavity developing at the base of the American Beech (Fagus grandifolia)

In spite of this cavity, the Beech tree continued to grow and prosper, its remaining inner bark undisturbed and providing a sufficient vascular system to pump food to all of the tree’s branches and leaves.

American Beech (Fagus grandifolia), the island at Spring Lake, Abbott Marshlands

Then one day as my husband and I approached the tree, we saw evidence of a fire in its open base. One or more individuals had been setting fires in the hollow of this and other trees on the Island.

Evidence of fire is visible in the hollow of this American Beech (Fagus grandifolia), the island at Spring Lake, Abbott Marshlands

The fire didn’t kill the tree, but it did weaken and stress the wood that provided structural support for this lovely giant.

After a few years the stress took its toll, and major branches of the tree began to break.

Weakened by fire, the branches of the once majestic American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) begin to break

Weakened by fire, the branches of the once majestic American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) begin to break

Over the next few years, more of the branches broke down. Eventually, all of the major branches of the tree broke off.  Because of its proximity to the trail, the wood was cut up and removed.

Broken branches of the once majestic American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) are cut up and removed

Now on the approach to the area where this once magnificent tree stood, the only remaining visible evidence of the tree is a burned snag less than 10 feet tall.

On the approach, the only remaining evidence of the beautiful American Beech is a burned out snag.

When I see the remains of this vibrant tree, it makes me sad to think how destructive we humans can be.

But the last time we visited the area, I took a closer look and began to be encouraged.  From a different angle, I could see that there was still one living branch coming from the dead-looking stump stretching out towards the sun and the marsh below.

One branch stretches off to the right of the remains of the American Beech (Fagus grandifolia), with side branches reaching for the sun and sky.

When I looked around, I noticed two vigorous young Beech trees directly across the trail intersection from this tenacious tree.

Vigorous young American Beech across the trail

A glance down the trail to the east revealed parchment-like winter leaves vibrating in the breeze in many places, a tell-tale sign of many more young beech trees of varying ages.

Young American Beech trees all along the trail to the east

As I looked to the west, there were young healthy Beech trees every few feet lining the trail as far as I could see.

Young American Beech trees lining the trail as afar as the eye can see

Beech trees are able to reproduce through the nuts they produce, but they also have an extensive root system from which they send up new shoots.  Many, if not all, of these young Beech trees are shoots from the one formerly majestic mother tree that still clings to life at the edge of the island.  She lives on.

Seeing the proliferation of young Beech trees gives me hope that the other species in our ecosystem will help heal the wounds inflicted in our world by unthinking members of our own species.

The magnificent mother Beech (Fagus grandifolia) lives on.

Thanks to Jeff Worthington for the use of his excellent photos documenting a few slices in the life of this American Beech.

For more information about American Beech trees, click here.

 

 

Holiday Gift Ideas for Your Wild Neighbors

American Robin with Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) at Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, New Hope, PA

Looking for the perfect holiday gifts for the birds, butterflies, bees and other wildlife neighbors outside your windows?

The answer is simple.  Give them plants that are native to where you live.  Plants and animals have evolved together over many centuries in such a way that they depend on each other for their survival.  Animals depend on native plants for food, shelter, nesting sites and materials.  Plants in turn depend on animals to help disperse their seeds, and in many cases for essential assistance in reproduction, as their pollination intermediaries.

You’ll be doing yourself a favor, too, since native plants, once established, typically don’t require fertilizer, watering or other special care.

The American Robin shown here with Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) was one member of a flock of Robins that swooped down to devour the bright winter-time fruit.  Winterberry Holly has fruit high in carbohydrates and low in fats, a recipe for being ignored during migration season in fall, but devoured during the cold days of winter when birds need those carbohydrates. In exchange for this winter feast, birds ‘disperse’ the seeds complete with fertilizer after the seeds move through a bird’s digestive system.

If you live in North America, here are a few resources to help you learn which plants are native where you live:

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Audubon

North American Native Plant Society

Also check with your local state or province native plant society.

For the birds, another great gift idea is a heated bird bath.  Birds need to drink and bathe even in winter.

What else can you do? Less:

  • Leave the fallen leaves in your planting beds.  They provide habitat for overwintering insects, and the insects are food for birds.
  • Don’t use pesticides or herbicides
  • Reduce your lawn size if possible
  • Chop up leaves on your lawn with a mulching mower to create a natural chemical-free fertilizer

Happy holidays!

Related Posts

A Wildlife, Family and Pet-friendly Lawn

Red-banded Hairstreaks Need Sumacs and Leaf Mulch

For Great Spangled Fritillaries, Leave the Leaf Litter

American Robin with Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) at Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, New Hope, PA

Time for Cranberries!

Image

Cranberries, especially in the form of relishes and baked goods, are a Thanksgiving tradition made possible by Cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon), a low-growing, creeping, evergreen shrub native to North American bogs and fens. Cranberry lends itself well to cultivation for commercial use, making cranberry based dishes possible throughout the year.

Cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon)

The flowers of this native shrub bloom in early to mid-summer, a prerequisite for the fruit that will come later in the season.

Cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon) in flower

In order to produce the tart but luscious and festive fall fruit, Cranberry’s flowers must be pollinated with assistance from insects, primarily bees.

Cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon) flowers

The flowers are most efficiently pollinated by bees who are capable of sonication, or buzz pollination.  In the case of Cranberries, this process is performed by bees that are able to hang upside down from the bottom edge of the flower’s corolla (collection of petals) and vibrate their wing muscles without moving their wings.  This sets up just the right motion to release pollen from the flower like salt from a shaker dusting the bee’s underside.  When the bee moves on to the next flower, its pollen-dusted abdomen brushes the flower’s stigma (female reproductive part), depositing pollen from the previous flower.

It’s not every bee that has this special talent.  Honey Bees don’t have the skills necessary to buzz pollinate.  The best Cranberry pollinators are the native bees with which it has evolved, and who can sonicate (buzz pollinate), including several species of Bumble Bees, Sweat Bees (Halictidae) and Mining Bees (Andrenidae).  The presence of these native bees significantly increases the yield of commercial cranberry operations.

Bumble Bee getting in position to buzz pollinate a Shooting Star (Dodecatheon Meadia) flower. The structure of this flower is very similar to those of Cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon).

Other food we eat, including blueberries, tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers are produced by plants whose flowers are also most effectively pollinated through buzz pollination.

With the help of the bees, this tough little shrub produces abundant fruit that ripens in the fall and resists spoiling, perfect timing for inclusion in a late fall or winter feast.

Cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon)

In addition to being tasty and nutritious, Cranberry has medicinal value. Consumption of cranberries or unsweetened cranberry juice can help prevent urinary tract infections.

Humans are not the only consumers of cranberries.  Birds including Sharp-tailed and Ruffed Grouse, Bobwhites, Mourning Doves and American Tree Sparrows are known to eat cranberries,

Ruffed Grouse

American Tree Sparrow

as are Chipmunks.

Eastern Chipmunk

Cranberry hosts the caterpillars of several moths who can only eat the leaves of this and a few related species.  The Bog Copper butterfly is also a specialist on Cranberry and the closely related Small Cranberry (Vaccinium oxycoccus).

Cranberry is indigenous in the United States from Maine to Minnesota, south from northeastern Illinois to Delaware, and from there reaching as far south as Tennessee and North Carolina primarily through the Appalachians; it can also be found in coastal Washington state and Oregon, and Nevada county in California.  In Canada it is native from Newfoundland to Ontario, in British Columbia and the Northwest Territories.  The top five states in commercial cranberry production are Wisconsin, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington.  British Columbia and Quebec are the top cranberry producing provinces in Canada.

Why is the range of this plant primarily in northern latitudes and higher elevations?  The answer lies in the fact that Cranberry is much less successful in producing flowers and fruit unless it goes through a sufficient period of dormancy induced by day length change and cold temperatures.  To successfully break dormancy, the plants must experience a cumulative number of ‘chill hours’, usually defined as temperatures between 32 and 45 °F (0 – 7.2 °C), during the winter months.  A study done by University of Wisconsin researchers found that 1500 chill hours seemed to be in the optimal range for successful bloom of cranberry flowers.  As the climate changes and night time temperatures warm, the geographic range where these optimal conditions can be met may shrink.

Enjoy those cranberry dishes while you can!

Manoff’s Apple Cranberry Chutney!

Related Posts

The Buzz about Shooting Star

Love Blueberries?  Thank a Native bee

Resources

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

Eastman, John.  The Book of Swamp and Bog.  1995.

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

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.

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

Biobest Sustainable crop Management

Illinois Wildflowers

https://illinoiswildflowers.info/plant_insects/plants/vaccinium_macrocarpum.html

http://www.illinoiswildflowers.info/flower_insects/plants/lg_cranberry.htm

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center Plant Database

The Canadian Encyclopedia

University of Wisconsin Extension; Cranberry Crop Management Journal

University of Massachusetts, Natural History of the American Cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon)

USDA NRCS Plants Database

USDA REEIS Cranberry Cold Hardiness in Relation to Dormancy and Bud Development; Source: University of Wisconsin

United States Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service New Jersey Field Office – Cranberry Highlights

US Forest Service – What is a Fen?

 

 

WisCONTEXT: Pollinators Provide Extra Buzz To Wisconsin’s Cranberry Crop

https://www.wiscontext.org/pollinators-provide-extra-buzz-wisconsins-cranberry-crop