A Spring Ephemeral Ecosystem That Hosts Butterflies

There is a time during early spring when woodland understory plants carpet the forest floor.  These plants emerge from the ground through a covering of fallen leaves, and before the tree canopy above them finishes leafing out, they bloom, develop fruit, disperse their seeds, and their visible parts die back.  They spend the rest of the year storing energy in their underground root systems, waiting for their window for photosynthesis the following spring.  These plants are the spring ephemerals, a term that reflects the brevity of their appearance above ground.

Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum), Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginiana), and Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum)

Spring ephemerals support an entire ecosystem of animals that depend on them for their continued existence.  Some of those animals are also ephemeral in nature, active and visible to us humans for the same time period during which the plants on which they depend are active.

Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica), Trout Lily or Dogtooth Violet (Erythronium americanum), and Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) are just a few of the spring ephemerals. They all provide food for a variety of pollinators, primarily native bees and flies who are active during the brief time these flowers are blooming.  Bees and flies visit flowers for both nectar and pollen, essential food for themselves, and in the case of bees, also for their larvae.

Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica)

Trout Lily or Dogtooth Violet (Erythronium americanum)

Spring Beauty and Trout Lily host mining bee species that specialize on their pollen.  Just as Monarch butterfly caterpillars can only eat the leaves of Milkweeds (Asclepias species) to survive, these bees can’t digest the pollen of any other plants. Without these plants, we wouldn’t have the bees.  In turn the bees are very efficient pollinators for the plant species on which they specialize.  About twenty-five percent of our native bees are specialists on a small group of related plants.

Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) with mining bee

Trout Lily or Dogtooth Violet (Erythronium americanum) with mining bee, probably the specialist Andrena erythronii

In addition to bees and flies, Spring Beauty’s shallow bowl-like flower shape also accommodates dining for spring flying butterflies.

Juvenal’s Duskywing drinking nectar from Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica)

Dutchman’s Breeches’ primary pollinators are queen Bumble Bees, newly emerged from their winter shelters.

Queen Bumble Bee pollinating Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)

Some native Mustard (Brassicaceae) family members are spring ephemerals, including Cut-leaved Toothwort (Cardamine concatenata), Toothwort or Crinkleroot (Cardamine diphylla), and Smooth Rockcress (Arabis laevigata).  The flowers of Mustard family members have four petals arranged in a cross shape, often forming a tube at the base of the flower.

Cut-leaved Toothwort (Cardamine concatenata)

Toothwort or Crinkleroot (Cardamine diphylla)

Smooth Rockcress (Arabis laevigata)

Not only do these plants provide nectar and pollen for early flying bees and flies,

Cut-leaved Toothwort (Cardamine concatenata) with bee

but they are also food plants for the caterpillars of some butterflies in a group called the Whites.  Where I live in New Jersey, Cut-leaved Toothwort and Smooth Rockcress host a member of this group called the Falcate Orangetip.  At rest they are unmistakable, with a gray and white marbled pattern on their ventral (under) side, the males with the distinctive orange wing tips above. They are very flitty, though, so it’s hard to get a good look, or a photo!

Falcate Orangetip drinking nectar from Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica)

It was only a year ago that I first spotted this butterfly, on a woodland trail where Cut-leaved Toothwort and Smooth Rockcress are both present.

In the northern tier of the eastern United States and in parts of Canada, the Mustard White butterfly uses some of these same Mustard family members as its required caterpillar food.  The West Virginia White, a fairly uncommon butterfly’, uses both Toothwort species.

Mustard White drinking nectar from Bluets (Houstonia caerulea)

In flight both the Falcate Orangetip and Mustard White can easily be mistaken for the very common, non-native Cabbage White, so in spring it’s worth taking a careful look at any small white butterfly you see in a woodland area where these native mustard family members are present.  The butterflies’ active period mirrors that of their caterpillar food plants, so you can only see them for about 4-6 weeks during the spring.

Cabbage White

Without our native Mustard family members, the Falcate Orangetip and Mustard White and West Virginia White butterflies would cease to exist.

There is a whole ecosystem of species interdependent with native spring ephemerals that can only be observed during the fleeting weeks of early spring.  This is just a tiny window into that world.  For more on the spring ephemeral ecosystem, see the posts listed below. Even better, go outside and experience it for yourself!

Cut-leaved Toothwort (Cardamine concatenata) with bee

Related Posts

Cut-leaved Toothwort

A Carpet of Spring Beauty, Woven By Ants

Dutchman’s Breeches and Squirrel-corn

A Tale of two Spring Beauties

Signs of Spring – Mining Bees

Bloodroot

Spring Comes to the Sourlands

Rue Anemone and a Bee-fly

Trillium, Flies and Ants

Milkweed – It’s Not Just for Monarchs

Resources

Butterflies and Moths of North America

https://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/species/Anthocharis-midea

https://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/species/Pieris-oleracea

Pollen Specialist Bees of the Eastern United States

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.  A Swift Guide to Butterflies of North America.  2012.

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

 

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

 

Another Migrating Butterfly, and the Plants that Sustain It

Common Buckeyes have been, well, really common this year.

Common Buckeye drinking nectar from Short-toothed Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum muticum)

That isn’t the case every year in the areas I frequent near the Delaware River in central New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania.  Common Buckeyes are not year-round residents this far north. They migrate south in late fall to spend the winter in warmer territories, often as far south as Florida.  In migration they can sometimes be seen in large numbers, often moving along the coast in the eastern United States, or sometimes following river valleys.  They migrate north in spring and early summer, sometimes reaching as far north as southern Canada.  Their numbers vary from year to year in these northern locations, becoming increasingly rare the further north they go.

On warm sunny days even in late October, I am still seeing Common Buckeyes often drinking nectar, mostly from flowers that are members of the Aster family.  This family of plants, which includes asters, goldenrods, sunflowers, bonesets, beggar-ticks, and more are typically the most abundant plants blooming in late summer through the end of the growing season.

Common Buckeye nectaring on Aromatic Aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium)

Common Buckeyes can also be found basking at ground level, catching the low rays from the late season sun.

Common Buckeye basking

Common Buckeyes frequent open fields, roadsides, gardens, and even beaches, especially where nectar plants are available.

Common Buckeye drinking nectar from goldenrod flowers along the sandy beach at Cape May, New Jersey

Common Buckeyes have a fairly broad geographic range, and have evolved to use a variety of plants as food for their caterpillars, including plantains, figworts,

Lanceleaf Figwort (Scrophularia lanceolata), a caterpillar food plant for Common Buckeye butterflies

gerardia,

Purple Gerardia or Purple False Foxglove (Agalinis purpurea), a caterpillar food plant for Common Buckeye butterflies

Monkey Flower,

Allegheny Monkey Flower (Mimulus ringens), a caterpillar food plant for Common Buckeye butterflies

and Wild Petunia.

Fringeleaf Wild Petunia (Ruellia humilis) a caterpillar food plant for Common Buckeye butterflies

The coloration of the Common Buckeye’s outside hind wing early in the season is mostly tan, with prominent eye spots.

Common Buckeye drinking nectar from Short-toothed Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum muticum). Note the tan color and eyespots of the hind wing.

The wing color can be quite different in late summer and fall, taking on a rosy hue.  This may be an adaptation that helps Common Buckeyes blend in with the changing color of the surrounding foliage.

Common Buckeye in autumn. Note the rosy color of the hind wing.

Keep an eye out for Common Buckeyes on these last warm days of fall!

Common Buckeyes on goldenrod

 

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.  A Swift Guide to Butterflies of North America.  2012.

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

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

Canadian Biodiversity Information Facility: Butterflies of Canada

Butterflies and Moths of North America

 

 

Wingstem

There are still pockets of Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) in bloom along the Delaware and Raritan Canal in central New Jersey.  This species has been flowering in nearby locations since August.

Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) along the Delware and Raritan Canal in central New Jersey

Like so many other plants that bloom in late summer and fall, Wingstem is a member of the prolific Aster (Asteraceae) family, which consists of more than 23,600 species.

Aster family members have a floral display that is a composite of multiple flowers, called a flower head, inflorescence, or capitulum.  What our brain wants to interpret as a single flower is really a group of many flowers, all attached to the same platform, or receptacle.

There are two types of flowers that may be present in the flower head of an aster family member, ray flowers and disk flowers.  Each ‘petal’ we see is an individual ray flower that consists of a single petal.  The other type of flower is a disk flower, whose petals have fused to form a narrow tube.  Many Aster family members have a classic look with both ray and disk flowers, while some have evolved to produce just ray flowers, and others just disk flowers.

Aromatic Aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium) is a classic aster family member with both ray and disk flowers. A pair of mating Flower (Syrphid) Flies is visiting.

For many species that produce both ray and disk flowers, the ray flowers are sterile; they don’t have functioning reproductive parts.  Their role is just to look pretty, to be part of an appealing advertisement that attracts pollinators to the disk flowers in the center of the flower head.  It’s the disk flowers that produce pollen and nectar, and where the business of reproduction is carried out.

Wingstem is a species that has sterile ray flowers and fertile disk flowers, all attached to a rounded receptacle.  The disk flowers are large and distinct; it’s easy to see each individual flower, especially when insects are foraging for food.

Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) flowers with foraging bees. Notice the large but narrow tubular disk flowers projecting from the round recepticle, with the petal-like ray flowers below.

Like its relatives, Wingstem is a great source of food for late season pollinators. The ray flowers open first as a signal to pollinators that the flower head is open for business.  The disk flowers bloom a few at a time, starting with those closest to the ray flowers, then over many days gradually working towards the center of the head.  In each disk flower, the male reproductive parts (stamens) mature first, opening their anthers to make pollen available. Later the female reproductive parts (pistils) replace the stamens, the stigmas at the tips of the pistils becoming receptive to pollen.  At any time while in bloom there may be some flowers in a head that are in the male phase, others in the female phase.

Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) with foraging Bumble Bee. Note the distinct disk flowers. Those with a straight brown projection (the anthers) emerging are in the male phase. The disk flowers with yellow curliques (the stigmas) are in the female phase.

It’s easy to see how the pollen-covered Bumble Bee in the photo below would be an effective pollination partner for Wingstem.

Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) with foraging Bumble Bee

Not all pollen is destined to be used for pollination, however, since it’s an importance source of food for bees and flies.  Bees and flies drink nectar, but they also eat pollen.  Female bees also collect pollen to bring back to their nests to feed their larvae.  The female below already has a good quantity of food to bring to her offspring, packed onto the bristly hairs on her hind legs.

Female Bumble Bee on Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) foraging for food for herself and her offspring. The orange blob on her hind leg is pollen and nectar that she has already gathered to bring back to her nest. Note the long hairs on that leg, perfectly suited to transporting this food.

Sweat Bees and Small Carpenter Bees also visit Wingstem flowers for the nectar and pollen banquet they provide.

Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) with visiting Sweat Bee

Small Carpenter Bee on Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia)

This Toxomerous geminatus, a Flower Fly, may not have a tongue long enough to reach the nectar, but it can still consume pollen from these abundant flowers.

Toxomerous geminatus, a Flower Fly, eating pollen from a Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) disk flower

Wingstem nectar is a welcome offering for butterflies.

Summer Azure butterfly drinking nectar from a Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) disk flower

Even this thread-waisted wasp is doing her best to get into the flowers to drink nectar.

Mating Thread-waisted Wasps, with female attempting to drink nectar from Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) flowers

If these insects assist in transporting pollen to help achieve successful pollination, the disk flowers will produce dry, winged fruits (achenes) that will take the place of the flowers on the globe-shaped receptacle.  The fruits may drop in place, be scattered by wind, or dispersed with the assistance of a passing animal hooked by the pointy bristles on each achene.

Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) with fruit still attached to the round recepticle

Deer and other mammals avoid eating Wingstem because of its bitter taste. But there are some insects that happily get nourishment from this species.  The caterpillars of Silvery Checkerspot butterflies and some moths eat Wingstem leaves.

A Yellow Bear moth caterpillar taking refuge in a Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) leaf

The aphids in the photo below are feeding on Wingstem sap, while the ants are drinking the aphids’ honeydew (excrement).  The ants will protect the aphids in exchange for this treat.

Aphids on Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) flower head, being tended by ants

Wingstem is an herbaceous perennial that often grows to a height of 5-6 feet (1.5-2 meters), but can reach eight feet (2.5 meters) tall.  It can tolerate full sun to part shade, average to moist soil.  This plant’s name describes its appearance, providing clues to its identification.  ‘Wingstem’ refers to the leafy wing-like appendages along the sides of the main stem of the plant.  ‘Verbesina’ means that its foliage is similar to that of verbena, and ‘alternifolia’ tells us that the leaves are alternate, not opposite each other where they attach to the stem.

Note the alternate leaves. The leafy appendages along the sides of the stem, giving this plant its common name, ‘Wingstem’

Wingstem is native in the United States in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and from New York west to Nebraska, south as far as northeastern Texas and the Florida panhandle.  In Canada, it can be found in Ontario province.  Wingstem is less common in the northern and southernmost parts of its range.

Look for Wingstem and its visitors in late summer and fall.

Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) with Bumble Bees

Related Posts

Bountiful Blue Wood Aster

New England Asters – A Hotbed of Activity!

Asters Yield a Treasure Trove

Fall Allergies?  Don’t Blame Goldenrod!

‘Will Work for Food’ – Extra-floral Nectaries

Milkweed – It’s Not Just for Monarchs

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.

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

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

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

Illinois Wildflowers

Missouri Botanical Garden

USDA NRCS Plant Database