Northern Prickly-ash

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

Northern Prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) branch with prickles

Northern Prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) branch with prickles

and the unusual fruit caught my eye.

Northern Prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) with ripe fruit

Northern Prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) with ripe fruit

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

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

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

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

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

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

Northern Prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) with unripe fruit

Northern Prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) with unripe fruit

On its way to fully ripening it turns red.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Posts

Milkweed – It’s Not Just for Monarchs

What Winter Reveals: Hoptrees

Black Cherry – For Wildlife, and People, too!

Slippery Elm in Bloom

Resources

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

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

Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Ethnobotany.  1998.

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

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

Missouri Botanical Garden

USDA Plant Database

Illinois Wildflowers

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

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

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

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

 

 

Bountiful Blue Wood Aster

Blue Wood or Heart-leaved Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium) began its seasonal bloom in late September, and amazingly, at the end of November it’s still possible to find some blossoms.

Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium) with Sweat Bee (Halictus species)

Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium) with Sweat Bee (Halictus species)

Like all Aster (Asteraceae) family members, each flower ‘head’ of Blue Wood Aster consists of many tiny flowers that bloom gradually over a period of several weeks, offering nectar and pollen to a variety of flower visitors.  Each Blue Wood Aster flower head has an outer ring of ice blue petal-like ray flowers designed to advertise this feast. Tiny tubular disk flowers form the center of the display; this is where Blue Wood Aster makes its bountiful food available in hope that while dining, visitors will pick up pollen and transfer it to another plant of the same species, enabling pollination to occur.

Blue Wood Aster’s disk flowers are pale yellow when they’re in bud and when they first open. They turn pink or magenta as they age, and when they have been successfully pollinated.  This color change is a signal to pollinators, directing them to the receptive yellow flowers which are not yet pollinated and that will reward them with nectar, and steering them away from blossoms that are already satisfactorily pollinated and will not produce a nectar reward.  This evolutionary adaptation makes the most efficient use of both the plant’s and the potential pollinator’s efforts.

To share in the bounty offered by Blue Wood Aster, I invite you to a virtual time-lapse visit to our garden in central New Jersey.  You can see the last Blue Wood Aster blossoms for this year, and a selection of the many of the visitors that this lovely plant hosted throughout the season. Notice that the potential pollinators are generally visiting the yellow disk flowers, those that are still open for business, not the pinkish flowers that have shut down their nectar production.

Bumble Bees are the most frequent visitors.

Bumble Bee (Bombus species) drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

Bumble Bee (Bombus species) drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

An athletic Eastern Carpenter Bee drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium).

An athletic Eastern Carpenter Bee drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium).

But many species of Sweat Bees (Halictid bees), and even Honey Bees dine on Blue Wood Aster nectar and pollen.

Sweat Bee (Halictus species) with Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

Sweat Bee (Halictus species) with Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

Sweat Bee (Halictus species) drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

Sweat Bee (Halictus species) drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

A gang of Sweat Bees (Halictus species) drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

A gang of Sweat Bees (Halictus species) drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

Sweat Bees (Halictid bees) of two different species visiting Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

Sweat Bees (Halictid bees) of two different species visiting Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

A Sweat Bee (Halictid bee) drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

A Sweat Bee (Halictid bee) drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

A Sweat Bee (Augochlorella species) investigating Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

A Sweat Bee (Augochlorella species) investigating Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

A Sweat Bee (Augochlorella species) investigating Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

A Sweat Bee (Augochlorella species) investigating Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

A Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) nectaring from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

A Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) nectaring from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

A Mason Wasp stopped by for nourishment.

A Mason Wasp (Ancistrocerus species) drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

A Mason Wasp (Ancistrocerus species) drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

Many fly species paused to drink, most disguised as bees or wasps in an attempt to appear threatening to potential predators.

A Syrphid or Flower fly drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

A Syrphid or Flower fly drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

A Syrphid or Flower Fly (Toxomerous geminatus) drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

A Syrphid or Flower Fly (Toxomerous geminatus) drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

A Syrphid or Flower Fly (Syrphus ribesii) drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

A Syrphid or Flower Fly (Syrphus ribesii) drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

A Syrphid or Flower Fly (Sericomyia chrysotoxoides) drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

A Syrphid or Flower Fly (Sericomyia chrysotoxoides) drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

A Syrphid or Flower Fly (Eristalis tenax) drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

A Syrphid or Flower Fly (Eristalis tenax) drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

Greenbottle Fly (Lucilia sericata) drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

Greenbottle Fly (Lucilia sericata) drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

Even late season butterflies and moths were able to refuel on Blue Wood Aster nectar.

A Clouded Sulphur butterfly drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium). Notice the heart-shaped leaves that are characteristic of this species.

A Clouded Sulphur butterfly drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium). Notice the heart-shaped leaves that are characteristic of this species.

A Pearl Crescent butterfly drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium). Not only do these butterflies benefit from the nectar, but their caterpillars dine on the foliage of several aster species.

A Pearl Crescent butterfly drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium). Not only do these butterflies benefit from the nectar, but their caterpillars dine on the foliage of several aster species.

A Corn Earworm Moth drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium).

A Corn Earworm Moth drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium).

A Yellow-collared Scape Moth (Cisseps fulvicollis) and Bumble Bee on Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium).

A Yellow-collared Scape Moth (Cisseps fulvicollis) and Bumble Bee on Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium).

Meanwhile, a Brown-hooded Owlet Moth caterpillar dined on the leaves and spent flowers of Blue Wood Aster.

Brown-hooded Owlet caterpillar eating Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium) leaves and flowers.

Brown-hooded Owlet caterpillar eating Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium) leaves and flowers.

Blue Wood Aster is native in much of the eastern half of the United States, and in British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia in Canada. It can be found in a variety of habitats, including woodlands, meadows and roadsides.  There may still be some blooming near you!

 

Related Posts

Asters Yield a Treasure Trove!

New England Asters – A Hotbed of Activity!

Mysterious Bumble Bee Behavior

Resources

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

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

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

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

Wagner, David L.; Caterpillars of Eastern North America, 2005.

Wilson, Joseph S.; Carril, Olivia Messinger. The Bees in Your Backyard. 2016.

USDA NRCS Plant Database

 

Sneezeweed

Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale) blooms for many weeks, starting in late summer and continuing through mid-fall, offering nectar and pollen for hungry insect foragers late in the growing season.

Sachem on Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale)

Sachem on Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale)

It is a member of the Aster family, a vast group second only to the Orchid family in the number of species it includes. There are Aster family members blooming in early spring, but mid-summer through the end of fall is the time that ‘asters’ really dominate the landscape.  Coneflowers, goldenrods, asters, bonesets, tickseeds, beggar-ticks, dandelions and more all belong to this huge plant family.

Goldenrods and New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) are Aster (Asteraceae) family members

Goldenrods and New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) are Aster (Asteraceae) family members

The Aster family is also sometimes called the Composite family, because their many tiny flowers grow in clusters, called heads, that look to us like a single flower. There are two types of flowers possible in an ‘aster’ flower head, ray flowers and disk flowers.  Sneezeweed has both.  Ray flowers look like petals, and disk flowers are tiny tubular flowers clustered in the center of the flower head.  When both ray and disk flowers are present in a flower head, the ray flowers may not produce any nectar or have any reproductive parts.  In this case, the function of the petal-like ray flowers is primarily to add to the floral display and landing platform that will entice pollinators to come to visit.  The disk flowers are where all the action takes place, offering nectar and pollen to potential pollinators.  The photo below shows a butterfly foraging on the disk flowers of a Sneezeweed flower head.

Pearl Crescent drinking nectar from the disk flowers of a Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale) flower head (inflorescence). The petal-like floral structures are ray flowers.

Pearl Crescent drinking nectar from the disk flowers of a Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale) flower head (inflorescence). The petal-like floral structures are ray flowers.

Which brings us to the name, Sneezeweed. Is this the plant that has been causing you to sneeze, making your eyes itchy and watery, and your nose runny?  No!  Well, maybe it’s goldenrod?  No again!  We can tell just by looking at these plants that they are unlikely to cause allergies.  How?  Because they have bright, attractive flowers.  Plants that have showy flowers have evolved to use their floral display and food rewards to entice animals to visit.  The animals, usually insects, become unwitting partners with the plants, helping them to achieve their pollination goals.  The flowers’ pollen is heavy and waxy, designed to adhere to a pollinator’s body and highly unlikely to float in the wind.  Plants that are wind pollinated, like Ragweed, have light, fluffy pollen that may find its way up your nose or in your eyes.

The flowers are visited by bees, butterflies, moths and beetles.

Sweat Bee on Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale)

Sweat Bee on Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale)

Pearl Crescent on Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale)

Pearl Crescent on Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale)

Ailanthus Webworm Moth on Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale)

Ailanthus Webworm Moth on Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale)

A soldier beetle, Pennsylvania Leatherwing (Chauliognathus pensylvanicus) on Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale)

A soldier beetle, Pennsylvania Leatherwing (Chauliognathus pensylvanicus) on Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale)

Sneezeweed flowers seem to be a popular location for meeting members of the opposite sex, at least if you are an insect.

Pearl Crescents on Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale)

Pearl Crescents on Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale)

Two pairs of beetles on Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale). The dark pair in the upper right of the flower head are a lady beetle species, Microwesia misella.

Two pairs of beetles on Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale). The dark pair in the upper right of the flower head are a lady beetle species, Microwesia misella.

Then why is this plant called Sneezeweed? Because many Native American tribes used dried flowers or leaves of this plant as snuff to induce sneezing, especially as a treatment for colds.  Gardeners considering using this plant may find its alternative common name, Helen’s Flower, more appealing.  This name is a reflection of Sneezeweed’s genus, Helenium, and a reference to Helen of Troy.

Sneezeweed has chemicals that are toxic to mammals, so it is highly deer resistant. It is native in 47 of the 48 the contiguous United States (New Hampshire is the exception), and much of Canada.  Sneezeweed can be found in sunny locations with moist or wet soil, in marshes, along river or stream banks and in wet meadows.

Sneezeweed – Not the most enticing name for such a beautiful flower!

Sachem on Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale)

Sachem on Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale)

Related Posts

Asters Yield a Treasure Trove

New England Asters – A Hotbed of Activity!

Fall Allergies? Don’t Blame Goldenrod!

Feasting on Green-headed Coneflower

Resources

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

Native American Ethnobotany Database

USDA Forest Service Plant of the Week

USDA NRCS Plant Database

 

 

 

 

 

Swamp Rose Mallow – for Bees, Butterflies, Beetles, Birds and Beauty

Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos)

Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos)

The huge, showy blossoms of Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos), a member of the Mallow (Malvaceae) family, begin to appear in mid-summer, and continue into early fall.  The flowers are most often pink

Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos)

Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos)

or white, sometimes with a red throat, inspiring a different common name, Crimsoneyed Rose Mallow.

Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos)

Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos)

But deeper shades of pink and even red are possible.

Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos)

Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos)

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly nectaring at Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos)

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly nectaring at Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos)

Insects like the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail in the photo above are enticed to visit Swamp Rose Mallow’s flowers for the nectar accessible through slits at the base of the flower.

In addition to seeking nectar, bees visit to harvest the abundant pollen the flowers offer. Bees eat pollen, and female bees gather it to provision their nests with this nutritious food for their larvae.  The Rose Mallow Bee (Ptilothrix bombiformis) is a specialist forager that only eats the pollen of plants in this genus (Hibiscus) and one other, Morning Glories (Ipomoea).

Bees harvesting pollen from Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos). Note the pollen grains all over their bodies.

Bees harvesting pollen from Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos). Note the pollen grains all over their bodies.

Numerous stamens (the male reproductive parts) form a tube that encircles the pistils (female reproductive parts). Each stamen is topped by an anther that releases pollen.  At the tips of the pistils are the stigmas, the receptive part of the pistil where the pollen must be deposited in order to initiate pollination.  The stigmas extend significantly beyond the stamens, separating them from the flower’s own pollen, thus decreasing the chances that the flower will be self-pollinated.

Bee harvesting pollen from Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos). Note the stigmas to the left of the bee.

Bee harvesting pollen from Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos). Note the stigmas to the left of the bee.

Bees are thought to be the primary pollinators of Swamp Rose Mallow, in spite of the fact that they devour vast quantities of its pollen.  It also seems plausible that large butterflies such as the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail are effective pollinators of Swamp Rose Mallow. Butterflies visit the flowers purely for nectar; they have no interest in consuming pollen.  Butterflies head for the nectaries, accessed through slits at the throat of the flower.  As the butterflies drink, their bodies brush against the anthers, picking up pollen.  When the butterfly moves on to a different flower, some of that pollen may adhere to the stigmas of the new flower, triggering pollination.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail nectaring at Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos). The butterfly's wings and body brush against the anthers, picking up pollen.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail nectaring at Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos). The butterfly’s wings and body brush against the anthers, picking up pollen.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail nectaring at Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos). The butterfly's wings and body brush against the flower's stigmas, depositing pollen, then against the anthers, picking up pollen.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail nectaring at Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos). The butterfly’s wings and body brush against the flower’s stigmas, depositing pollen, then against the anthers, picking up pollen.

There isn’t much waste in nature.  Bees even scavenge pollen that has fallen onto the flower petals.  Beetles join the bees at this pollen feast.  Hibiscus Seed Beetles (Althaeus hibisci) are primarily interested in eating the seeds of Swamp Rose Mallow and other related species, but while they wait for the seeds to become available, they also consume pollen.  As an additional benefit, cruising the flowers is an effective way for the beetles to hook up with members of the opposite sex!

Bee and Hibiscus Seed Beetles (Althaeus hibisci) scavenging for pollen that has fallen onto the petals of a Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) flower.

Bee and Hibiscus Seed Beetles (Althaeus hibisci) scavenging for pollen that has fallen onto the petals of a Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) flower.

Hibiscus Seed Beetles (Althaeus hibisci)

Hibiscus Seed Beetles (Althaeus hibisci)

Swamp Rose Mallow benefits butterflies in other ways.  It is a potential food plant for the caterpillars of several butterflies, including the Gray Hairstreak, Common Checkered-skipper, and Painted Lady.

Gray Hairstreak on goldenrod. The caterpillars of the Gray Hairstreak butterfly eat the foliage of members of the Mallow (Malvaceae) and Pea (Fabaceae) families, as well as some other plants.

Gray Hairstreak on goldenrod. The caterpillars of the Gray Hairstreak butterfly eat the foliage of members of the Mallow (Malvaceae) and Pea (Fabaceae) families, as well as some other plants.

Common Checkered-skipper on aster. The caterpillars of the Common Checkered-skipper butterfly have evolved to eat plants from the Mallow (Malvaceae) family.

Common Checkered-skipper on aster. The caterpillars of the Common Checkered-skipper butterfly have evolved to eat plants from the Mallow (Malvaceae) family.

Painted Lady on Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea). The Painted Lady is the most widespread butterfly in the world. It is a generalist, with its caterpillars able to eat plants from the Mallow (Malvaceae) and Pea (Fabaceae) families, along with thistles, sunflowers and many other plants.

Painted Lady on Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea). The Painted Lady is the most widespread butterfly in the world. It is a generalist, with its caterpillars able to eat plants from the Mallow (Malvaceae) and Pea (Fabaceae) families, along with thistles, sunflowers and many other plants.

Birds also benefit from the presence of Swamp Rose Mallow. Red-winged Blackbirds may use it as a nesting site.

Male Red-winged Blackbird

Male Red-winged Blackbird

Swamp Rose Mallow’s seeds are a fall and winter source of food for birds,

Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) fruit capsules open to release their seeds.

Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) fruit capsules open to release their seeds.

including Northern Pintails, Wood Ducks and Blue-winged Teal.

Northern Pintails with Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) in winter

Northern Pintails with Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) in winter

Wood Duck pair in non-breeding plumage. (Female left, male right.)

Wood Duck pair in non-breeding plumage. (Female left, male right.)

Blue-winged Teals

Blue-winged Teals

Swamp Rose Mallow is native from Ontario, New York and Massachusetts in the north, south to the southeastern and south central United States. It can grow to a height of about 6.5 feet (2 meters).  Swamp Rose Mallow’s natural habitats are primarily wetlands, including swamps, marshes

Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) at the Abbott Marshlands, Hamilton Township, Mercer County, New Jersey

Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) at the Abbott Marshlands, Hamilton Township, Mercer County, New Jersey

and wet meadows.

Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) in the meadow at Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve, New Hope, PA

Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) in the meadow at Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, New Hope, PA

Resources

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

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

Willmer, Pat. Pollination and Floral Ecology. 2011

Illinois Wildflowers

Shimamura, Ryouji; Kachi, Naoki; Kudoh, Hiroshi; Whigham, Dennis F. Visitation of a specialist pollen feeder Althaeus hibisci Olivier (Coleoptera: Bruchidae) to flowers of Hibiscus moscheutos L. (Malvaceae). 2004.

USDA NRCS Plant Database

U.S. Forest Service Database

Klips, Robert A.; Sweeney, Patricia M.; Bauman, Elisabeth K. F.; Snow, Allison A. Temporal and Geographic Variation in Predispersal Seed Predation on Hibiscus moscheutos L. (Malvaceae) in Ohio and Maryland, USA. 2005.

 

 

Who Uses Black Cohosh?

Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa, synonym Cimicifuga racemosa) blooms in mid-summer, lighting up the forest understory.

Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa, syn. Cimicifuga racemosa)

Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa, syn. Cimicifuga racemosa)

The spikes of white flowers seem to glow even in the dark, begging to be called Fairy Candles, one of the other common names by which Black Cohosh is known.

Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa, syn. Cimicifuga racemosa)

Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa, syn. Cimicifuga racemosa)

Black Cohosh flowers are arranged in long narrow clusters called racemes, blooming from the bottom of the flower stalk to the top. Each individual flower looks like a pom-pom, formed by an aggregation of many stamens (the male reproductive parts) surrounding a single pistil (the female reproductive part).

Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa, syn. Cimicifuga racemosa) flowers

Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa, syn. Cimicifuga racemosa) flowers

Black Cohosh depends on the assistance of animals to achieve pollination. The flowers are visited by many species of insects whose bodies may come in contact with pollen dispensed from anthers at the tips of the stamens.  Some of that pollen may adhere to the insect’s body.  When the insect moves to a flower of another Black Cohosh plant and brushes against the flower’s stigma (the receptive part of the pistil), then Black Cohosh’s pollination goal is achieved.

It’s not an accident that insects visit the flowers. Plants and animals have evolved together over centuries to depend on each other.  About 80% of flowering plants depend on animals to carry their pollen to other plants of the same species, helping them achieve successful cross-pollination.  In exchange, many animals depend exclusively, or for at least part of their diet, on plants.

The most common food enticements that plants offer to flower visitors are nectar and pollen. Many insects visit flowers for nectar, but some are also interested in eating pollen, and in the case of bees, harvesting it to bring back to their nests to feed their larvae.

Black Cohosh has evolved a strategy of offering pollen, but not nectar, to entice potential pollinators. Plants evolve to be as efficient as possible, trying not to expend unnecessary resources.  Black Cohosh is able to attract enough visitors to its flowers by offering them pollen only.

Insects want to eat pollen and plants want insects to transport their pollen to another plant of the same species. If this sounds like a potential conflict of interest, it is.  Only about 2% of pollen is actually used for pollination.  Potential pollinators or their offspring eat much of the remaining 98%.

In spite of the fact that another common name for Black Cohosh is Bugbane, many insects are more attracted than deterred by its fragrance. Bees, flies and beetles visit Black Cohosh flowers to eat or harvest pollen.  While I watched for just a few minutes, the activity at a small group of Black Cohosh plants included bees, flies and beetles.  Bumble Bees, Sweat Bees, and Leaf-cutter Bees, all worked the flowers.

Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa, syn. Cimicifuga racemosa) with Leafcutter bee (Megachile species)

Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa, syn. Cimicifuga racemosa) with Leafcutter bee (Megachile species)

Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa, syn. Cimicifuga racemosa) with Sweat bee (Haictidae)

Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa, syn. Cimicifuga racemosa) with Sweat bee (Haictidae)

Bumble Bee visits were the most brief. They stopped for just a few seconds per plant before moving on to another.  It may seem counterintuitive, but this may make Bumble Bees the most successful of Black Cohosh’s cross-pollinators, since they are the most likely to move the pollen to a different plant.

A Flower or Syrphid Fly (Toxomerus geminatus) dined on the flowers’ pollen.

Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa, syn. Cimicifuga racemosa) with Flower Fly (Toxomerus geminatus)

Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa, syn. Cimicifuga racemosa) with Flower Fly (Toxomerus geminatus)

At least two species of tiny Tumbling Flower Beetles (Falsomordellistena pubescens and Mordellistena fuscipennis) munched on the flowers’ tissues.    Tumbling Flower Beetles are named for their behavior when threatened; they bounce and tumble unpredictably and may fly away, carrying pollen to another plant, possibly helping to meet Black Cohosh’s pollination needs.

Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa, syn. Cimicifuga racemosa) with Tumbling Flower Beetle (Falsomordellistena pubescens) in upper right

Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa, syn. Cimicifuga racemosa) with Tumbling Flower Beetle (Falsomordellistena pubescens) in upper right

The Tumbling Flower Beetles were joined by at least three species of Longhorn Beetles, the Banded Longhorn Beetle (Typocerus velutinus), and two others, Metacmaeops vittata, and Analeptura lineola.

Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa, syn. Cimicifuga racemosa) with Longhorn Beetle (Metacmaeops vittata), upper right, and Tumbling Flower Beetles (Mordellistena fuscipennis)

Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa, syn. Cimicifuga racemosa) with Longhorn Beetle (Metacmaeops vittata), upper right, and Tumbling Flower Beetles (Mordellistena fuscipennis)

Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa, syn. Cimicifuga racemosa) with Longhorn Beetle (Analeptura lineola), center, and Tumbling Flower Beetle (Mordellistena fuscipennis)

Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa, syn. Cimicifuga racemosa) with Longhorn Beetle (Analeptura lineola), center, and Tumbling Flower Beetle (Mordellistena fuscipennis)

For an insect, visiting Black Cohosh flowers is not without its risks. Predators like the perfectly camouflaged Crab Spider in the photo below may be lurking in the shadows, waiting for an unwary victim.

Crab Spider with a fly victim (upper left), bee and Tumbling Flower Beetle on Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa, syn. Cimicifuga racemosa)

Crab Spider with a fly victim (upper left) on Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa, syn. Cimicifuga racemosa) with bee and Tumbling Flower Beetle

Black Cohosh is the only food Appalachian Azure butterfly caterpillars can eat. Female butterflies lay their eggs on flower buds.  When the caterpillars hatch, they begin eating the buds and flowers, moving on to leaves if no flowers remain.  Like the other Azure butterfly caterpillars, the Appalachian Azure caterpillars are protected by ants in exchange for the delicious honeydew the caterpillars excrete.  Depending on the species, ants have different forms of defensive weapons; they may bite, sting, or spray an acid at their enemy targets, deterring even birds from their prey.

Appalachian Azure caterpillar being tended by ants, on Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa) flower buds

Appalachian Azure caterpillar being tended by ants, on Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa) flower buds

Although I have seen Appalachian Azure caterpillars, I’ve never seen the butterfly. The Appalachian Azure closely resembles the Summer Azure, pictured below.

Summer Azure

Summer Azure

People use Black Cohosh, primarily the root, for medicinal purposes. Black Cohosh contains chemical compounds that are anti-inflammatory, antirheumatic, and that have efficacy in managing female reproductive system problems.  Black Cohosh is approved in Germany for treating menopausal symptoms.  Several indigenous Native American tribes also used Black Cohosh to treat rheumatism and other ailments.

Black Cohosh is native primarily in the eastern United States and the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Ontario. It grows in rich, moist woods, in ravines and on slopes.  Its height can range from just over two feet (.7 meters) to as much as eight feet (2.5 meters).  Black Cohosh will light up a shade garden, blooming from late June through early August.

Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa, syn. Cimicifuga racemosa)

Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa, syn. Cimicifuga racemosa)

Who uses Black Cohosh? Insects do, including bees, flies, beetles, ants, and butterflies; spiders and other predators of the insects feeding there do, and even people use it, for medicinal purposes and for the beauty it brings to a garden.

Related Posts

Spring Azures

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.

Eisner, Thomas. For Love of Insects.  2003.

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

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.

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

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

Willmer, Pat. Pollination and Floral Ecology. 2011

USDA NRCS Plant Database