A Thistle Banquet

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

Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hummingbird Clearwing Moths on Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eastern Tiger Swallowtails also visited the flowers for nectar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eastern Goldflinches harvesting seeds from Field thistle (Cirsium discolor)

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

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

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

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

Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor)

 

Related Posts

A Butterfly garden that Embraces the Shade

Asters Yield a Treasure Trove

Black Cherry – for Wildlife and People, Too!

For Great-spangled Fritillaries, Leave the Leaf Litter

Spicebush or Forsythia?

Resources

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

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

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

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

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

Illinois Wildflowers

Invasive Plant Atlas of the United States: Bull Thistle

USDA NRCS Plant Database

USDA NRCS Plant Fact Sheet

 

 

 

A Wildlife, Family and Pet Friendly Lawn

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

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

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

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

Bumble Bee collecting nectar and pollen from White Clover

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

Honey Bee collecting nectar and pollen from White Clover

Many different butterflies visit White Clover flowers for their nectar.

Eastern-tailed Blue drinking nectar from White Clover

Pearl Crescent drinking nectar from White Clover

Gray Hairstreak drinking nectar from White Clover

Least Skipper drinking nectar from White Clover

Baltimore Checkerspot drinking nectar from White Clover

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

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

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

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

Eastern-tailed Blue drinking nectar from a dandelion

Sleepy Orange drinking nectar from a dandelion

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

Sachem butterflies, mating

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

Violets in the lawn ready for picking for a bouquet.

Pollinators like Bumble Bees will thank you for violet flowers.

Bumble Bee visiting violet flower for pollen and nectar

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

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

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

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

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

Bluets (Houstonia caerulea)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toxic to aquatic life with long lasting effects

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

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

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

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

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

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

Common Blue Violet (Viola sororia)

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

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

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

Here are some alternative actions you can take.

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

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

Our results when we tried to grow lawn in shade

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

Our ‘lawn’ when it rained

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

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

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

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

Variegated Fritillary drinking nectar from White Clover

Related Posts

For Great Spangled Fritillaries, Leave the Leaf Litter!

A Butterfly Garden that Embraces the Shade – Spring

A Butterfly Garden that Embraces the Shade – Summer and Fall

A Carpet of Spring Beauty, Woven by Ants!

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

 

 

References

A Homeowner’s Guide to Stormwater Management

 

NRCS

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

Lawn and Garden Care, Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay

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

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

 

Material Safety Data Sheets for some commonly used lawn chemicals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to interpret a Material Safety Data Sheet

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

 

 

Rue Anemone and a Bee Fly

Within the space of a day, Rue Anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides) grows from being invisible to attaining its full height.  Walk a trail one day and it is nowhere to be seen, the next day it’s up with its first flower opening, starting the race to reproduce. Rue Anemone blooms, produces fruit, then the above ground parts die back, all before the leaves in the trees above them finish opening for the season.

Rue Anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides)

Before opening, Rue Anemone’s flowers resemble tiny rose buds.  Pale pink sepals enclose the flowers’ reproductive organs, but quickly open for business.

Rue Anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides) in bud

There may be up to five flowers per plant, arranged in a whorl radiating from the main stem of the plant, with a whorl of leaves directly below the flowers.

Rue Anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides) in bloom

The flowers open one at a time, beginning soon after the plant emerges.  The petal-like sepals form the outermost circle of each floral display.  They may be pure white or retain the hint of pink they showed before the flowers opened.  Moving toward the center of the flower, numerous stamens (the male reproductive parts), comprise the next ring in the floral structure. Starting from the outside of this ring and gradually moving inward, the anthers, located at the tips of the stamens, open a few at a time to release their pollen.  At the very center of the flower, there is a cluster of female reproductive parts called carpels, or collectively, pistils. The whitish stigmas at the tips of the carpels are receptive, advertising their availability for a pollen deposit.

Rue Anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides) in bloom. The petal like sepals form the outer ring of the floral display. The next ring are the stamens, with the anthers of the outermost beginning to open to release their pollen. A cluster of carpels forms the center of the floral display.

Within a few days, all of the flowers on the plant open, each at a slightly different stage of development as a result of their staggered opening.

Rue Anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides) in bloom

Rue Anemone partners with early flying bees and flies to assist with cross-pollination.  Like some other early spring wildflowers, including Hepaticas (Hepatica nobilis) and Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Rue Anemone has evolved to provide only pollen as an enticement to these flower visitors.  Pollen is an important part of a bee’s diet, and female bees also harvest it to feed to their larvae.  Flies of many species also consume pollen; the females of some species require the protein in pollen to enable egg development.

I watched while a Greater Bee Fly (Bombylius major) darted in and out of a Rue Anemone flower.  Bee flies have a very long proboscis (mouth parts), perfectly suited to reach and sip nectar that might be out of range for some other flower visitors.  Knowing that Rue Anemone doesn’t offer nectar, I assumed the Bee Fly was harvesting pollen, and I was curious to see how she did it.

Greater Bee Fly (Bombylius major) visiting a Rue Anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides) flower. Note the long proboscis (mouth parts)

In the photos below, it appears that the Bee Fly is harvesting pollen with its proboscis.  Once pollen is at the tip of its proboscis, a bee fly then mixes the pollen with fluids and sucks it up through its straw-like mouth parts.

Greater Bee Fly (Bombylius major) visiting a Rue Anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides) flower. Note she is opening the tips of the proboscis, apparently to harvest some pollen.

In exchange for the meal, the Bee Fly’s hairy body may pick up pollen and deposit it on another Rue Anemone, enabling cross-pollination.

Greater Bee Fly (Bombylius major) visiting a Rue Anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides) flower. Note she is opening the tips of her proboscis to harvest some pollen.

After pollination occurs, fruits develop at the center of the flower.  Ants disperse the seeds, enticed by the nutritious food packet, called an elaiosome, that is attached.

Rue Anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides). Note the green fruit capsules beginning to develop at the center of the largest flower.

Rue Anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides) in fruit.

Rue Anemone is a delicate looking perennial of wooded understories, usually about 6-8 inches (1 – 2 dm) tall, but its height can range from 4 to almost 12 inches, depending on growing conditions.  It is a member of the Buttercup (Ranunculaceae) family, and like other members of this family, the foliage produces a burning sensation if eaten, a survival strategy that discourages herbivores from consuming the plant.

Rue Anemone is native in the eastern half of the United States, and in the province of Ontario in Canada.

Rue Anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides)

Related Posts

A Carpet of Spring Beauty, Woven by … Ants!

Bloodroot

Hepatica’s Survival Strategy

Resources

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

Hoffmann, David.  Medical Herbalism.  2003.

Marshall, Stephen A. Flies The Natural History and Diversity of Diptera. 2012.

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

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

Illinois Wildflowers

USDA NRCS Plant Database

 

 

Bewitching Witch-hazel

It’s well into December, and American Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is still in bloom, brightening our winter shade garden and the woodland understory.

Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) in bloom, with open fruit capsules

The flowers are arranged in clusters, usually in threes.  Each flower has four long, spidery, streamer-like petals.  In the center of the flowers, you can see other flower parts that also come in fours.  Four stamens (male reproductive parts) are tucked in between the petals, protected from below by the four sepals that protected the flower until it was ready to open.  The pistils (female reproductive parts) can be seen in the very center of the flowers.

Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) flower beginning to bloom. The anthers have not yet open to release pollen.

Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) flower beginning to bloom. The anthers have opened to release pollen.

Even though Witch-hazel blooms when the weather is cooler, it relies primarily on insects for pollination.  Various fly species are the most frequent flower visitors. This is not too surprising, since many flies are active at fairly low temperatures. Several species of bees, small wasps, moths and even beetles have also been documented as potential Witch-hazel pollinators.  They are attracted by the color of the petals, a mild (to me, at least) fragrance, and the fact that there is not much else in bloom.  If the weather doesn’t cooperate and not enough insects are active, witch-hazel is capable of self-pollination, although cross-pollination with the assistance of an insect is preferred, since this produces a stronger genetic result.  Fertilization is delayed until spring, after which fruits begin to develop.

Even during and after our first snowstorm of the season with about 5 inches of wet snow, these tough little flowers hung on, looking as fresh as ever.

Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), still blooming in spite of the snow.

Such tenacity can pay off.  While looking at the flower photos that I took during the storm, I found a moth taking refuge on a branch near the flowers, waiting for the temperatures to warm up enough to become active and search for nectar.  That little moth could make a nice snack for a Chickadee and Titmouse searching the seemingly baren winter branches.

A moth sheltering on Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) during a December snow storm.

The flowers are accompanied by fruit capsules that look like small flowers carved from wood. These fruit capsules are the product of the previous year’s successfully pollinated flowers.

Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) in bloom, with open fruit capsules

In early October, as the leaves began to turn from green to yellow, the fruit capsules and flower buds were still tightly closed.  As this season’s flowers began to bloom, the fruit capsules opened explosively, ejecting the seeds several feet away.  The seeds will wait through two winters before they germinate.  Ruffed Grouse, Northern Bobwhite, Wild Turkey, as well as some rabbits and squirrels eat the fruit.

Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) in early fall, with fruit capsules and flower buds still tightly closed

Witch-hazel is well-known for its use as an astringent and anti-inflammatory agent.  You may have a bottle in your medicine cabinet now.  Witch-hazel is used to treat wounds and hemorrhoids, and it’s an ingredient in some cosmetics.  It acts as a styptic to stop bleeding, and reduces bruising and inflammation.  It also helps reduce the chances of infection.

It’s not by accident that Witch-hazel has these properties.  The tannins found in the leaves and inner bark of Witch-hazel provide these benefits.  Witch-hazel produces these compounds as protection from herbivores, and to inhibit the growth of fungi and bacteria that might be harmful to the plant.  Fortunately for us, humans can also benefit.

The tannins are not 100% successful in deterring herbivores.  There are some insects that specialize on Witch-hazel as their source of food, including the caterpillars of several moth species.  There are also two aphid species that produce eye-catching galls. (A gall is a growth that is the plant’s reaction to being used as a source of food and shelter by an organism such as an insect, fungus or bacteria. Galls seldom cause any harm to the plant, and they may stimulate the plant to produce more protective chemicals.)

Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) in bloom, with spiny Witch-hazel bud galls

The spiny witch-hazel bud gall aphid (Hamamelistes spinosus) is named for the appearance of the gall the plant produces from bud tissue in response to being used as a home by the developing aphids.  At this time of year, the gall looks woody.  At a quick glance it might be mistaken for a fruit capsule, until you notice the spines.

Earlier in the season, the spiny witch-hazel bud gall is green and fleshy.

Spiny Witch-hazel bud gall, with ants. What’s the attraction?

It’s interesting that there are so many ants swarming this gall.  If the gall were open and the aphids were available, the ants would likely be milking them for delicious ‘honeydew’ (excrement).  But the aphids have not reached maturity, they are still safely encased inside the gall.

Ants are often very beneficial to plants.  They disperse the seeds of many spring blooming wildflowers, for one thing.  Ants also provide protection from herbivores like caterpillars who might eat a plant’s leaves, flowers or buds, because other insects are an important part of an ant’s diet.  Plants often emit a chemical call to arms to alert ants and other predators to the availability of insect food. The plant may offer an additional reward and reason to stick around in the form of nectar not associated with flowers (extra-floral nectaries) or resins, specifically aimed at payment to their protectors.

It’s a mystery to me what caused the ants in this photo to visit.  Maybe this Witch-hazel detected the presence of a new generation of insect eggs (not visible to me), and sent out a distress signal to the ants.  Any other ideas?

Pristine leaves unfold in spring, but they are often quickly put to use as food and shelter by another aphid (Hormaphis hamamelidis), the Witch-hazel leaf or cone gall aphid.  This gall resembles a cone, or a witch’s hat.

Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) leaves in spring

Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) leaf with Witch-hazel cone gall, caused by an aphid (Hormaphis hamamelidis)

Both of these aphids spend part of their life cycle on birch trees.

Witch-hazel branches have been used as divining rods to find underground water sources, a practice sometimes referred to as ‘water witching’.  In theory at least, the branch would point or bend towards the ground when it detected water.  The ‘Witch’ in ‘Witch-hazel’ is based on an Anglo-Saxon word, ‘wych’, that means ‘bending’.

Witch-hazel is a multi-stemmed shrub that can grow to a height of about 16 feet (5 meters), and can tolerate shade.  It is native in the Eastern half of the United States, and Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in Canada.

Enjoy these bright blossoms while they last!

Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) in bloom

 

Related Posts

A Carpet of Spring Beauty, Woven by Ants!

Will Work for Food – Extra-floral Nectaries

Resources

Capon, Brian.  Botany for Gardeners.  2005

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

Eiseman, Charley; Charney, Noah.  Tracks & Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates.  2010.

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.

Martin, Alexander C.;  Zim, Herbert S.; Nelson, Arnold L.  American Wildlife & Plants A Guide to Wildlife Food Habits.  1951.

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

Williams, Ernest H. Jr.  The Nature Handbook – A Guide to Observing the Great Outdoors.  2005.

Clemson Co-operative Extension – River Birch Aphid

Illinois Wildflowers

USDA NRCS Plant Database

USDA FEIS

 

 

Crayon-colored Hickories

Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa)

The compound leaves of Hickory (Carya species) trees still clinging to their branches are displaying colors that remind me of crayons:  yellow-green, yellow-orange, lemon-yellow, chestnut, burnt umber.  Together with the reds and browns of Oaks, the tans and peach of American Beech, they are part of the mid-fall forest pallette.   Shagbark (Carya ovata), Mockernut (C. tomentosa) and Bitternut (C. cordiformis) are the Hickories I encounter most often.

Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa).

Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa).

Those Hickory leaves may have supported up to 200 different species of butterflies and moths as food for their caterpillars, all without any negative impact on the appearance of the trees. Some of the species Hickories support are Banded and Hickory Hairstreak butterflies, and many moths, including Hickory Tussock, Yellow-shouldered Slug, and the dramatic Hickory Horned Devil, the largest of our native North American caterpillars.

Banded Hairstreak on Indian Hemp (Apocynum cannabinum). Banded Hairstreak caterpillars eat Hickory leaves, as well as some other woody species.

Banded Hairstreak on Indian Hemp (Apocynum cannabinum). Banded Hairstreak caterpillars eat Hickory leaves, as well as some other woody species.

Hickory Tussock Moth Caterpillar

Hickory Tussock Moth Caterpillar

Yellow-shouldered Slug

Yellow-shouldered Slug

The aptly named, acrobatic Hickory Horned Devil caterpillar.

The aptly named, athletic, Hickory Horned Devil caterpillar.

All of those caterpillars are fair game for birds, looking for food for themselves and their growing offspring. Insects, especially caterpilIars, are an important source of food for birds.  It can take thousands of caterpillars to raise a hungry clutch of baby birds.

Wood Thrush at the nest with babies

Wood Thrush at the nest with babies

Some caterpillars may fall victim to other predators, like spiders, predatory wasps or flies, and assassin bugs.

Brown Assassin Bug (Acholla multispinosa) on Bitternut Hickory bud.

Brown Assassin Bug (Acholla multispinosa) on Bitternut Hickory bud.

Hickory nuts also supply food for animals, including people. The husks have four sections that split open to reveal the hard shell protecting the nut ‘meat’ inside.

Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) nuts

Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) nuts

Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa) nuts split partially open, like this one.

Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa) nuts split partially open, like this one.

Hickory nut on the right, empty husk pieces on the left

Hickory nut on the right, empty husk pieces on the left

Eastern Chipmunks, Red, Gray, Fox and Flying Squirrels, Raccoons, and rabbits all eat Hickory nuts. Squirrels may bury some of the nuts rather than eating them right away.  This habit helps to disperse the Hickories if the squirrels don’t come back and eat the nuts at a later date.

Eastern Chipmunk (with full cheeks!)

Eastern Chipmunk (with full cheeks!)

Gray Squirrel

Gray Squirrel

Fox may also eat Hickory nuts, or they may eat the smaller animals who eat the nuts.

Red Fox eating Gray Squirrel

Red Fox eating Gray Squirrel

Wild Turkeys, Bobwhites, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Blue Jays, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and even Wood Ducks are among the birds that consume the tastier species of Hickory nuts.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Male Wood Duck in non-breeding plumage

Male Wood Duck in non-breeding plumage

Hickory trees provide food and building material for humans, too.   Shagbark is the species whose nuts are most often sold commercially.  As you might guess from its name, Bitternut Hickory is not sought after for its nuts.  Pecans (Carya illinoinensis) are in this same genus and are an important commercial crop.  Hickory sap can be used to make syrup or other sweeteners.

Shagbark is also the species whose wood is most often used commercially for making handles, ladder rungs, wheel spokes, flooring, and a hickory-smoked flavor for cooking. Named for its shaggy strips of bark, Shagbark Hickory stands out from the crowd.

Can you pick the Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) out of the crowd?

Can you pick the Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) out of the crowd?

The bark offers warm, dry accommodations for insects and others trying survive the winter.

Spider web on Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata)

Spider web on Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata)

Eastern Comma butterflies survive the winter as adults, if they can find a warm dry shelter like a space under the loose bark of Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata).

Eastern Comma butterflies survive the winter as adults, if they can find a warm dry shelter like a space under the loose bark of Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata).

Mockernut Hickory also has distinctive bark, but in a completely different way. Its gray, smooth-looking, corky exterior forms sinuous ridges along the length of the trunk.

Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa). Notice the curved ridges in the bark, especially in places where branches have fallen off.

Look for Hickory trees even after their leaves fall. You may be able to identify them by their bark and their buds.  Hickories typically have a single large end bud at the tip of their branches that is usually quite distinctive, different for each species.  There are smaller buds spaced alternately along the length of the branches.

Mockernut Hickory buds are somewhat rounded, echoing the curved pattern of the bark ridges.

Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa) branch in winter. Notice the large end bud with rounded sides.

Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa) branch in winter. Notice the large end bud with rounded sides.

Shagbark Hickory usually retains contrasting bud scales, which you might think of as being reminiscent of the shaggy bark.

Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) bud. Notice the bod scales hugging the sides.

Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) bud. Notice the scales hugging the sides of the bud.

Bitternut Hickory buds are a bright mustard color that is difficult to mistake for anything else.

Bitternut Hickory (Carya cordiformis), showing its distinctive mustard-colored buds.

Bitternut Hickory (Carya cordiformis), showing its distinctive mustard-colored buds.

As winter turns to spring, watch for these buds to swell and unfold like flowers.

Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa) leaves unfolding in spring.

Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa) leaves unfolding in spring.

Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) in spring

Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) in spring

The range for Shagbark and Bitternut Hickory includes much of the eastern two-thirds of the United States, and Ontario and Quebec provinces in Canada. Mockernut’s range is similar, but it does not include the Canadian provinces, or some of the northern tier of the United States.

Enjoy the colorful foliage while it lasts!

Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa)

Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa)

Related Posts

Nutritious Fall Foliage: What Makes Leaves So Colorful

American Beech

In Praise of Black Walnut Trees

Resources

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

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

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

Martin, Alexander C.; Zim, Herbert S.; Nelson, Arnold L. American Wildlife & Plants A Guide to Wildlife Food Habits.  1951.

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

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

Tallamy, Douglas W. Bringing Nature Home.  2007

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

Illinois Wildflowers
http://www.illinoiswildflowers.info/trees/plants/btnt_hickory.html
http://www.illinoiswildflowers.info/trees/plants/mock_hickory.html

Tallamy, Douglas W. Bringing Nature Home

USDA NRCS Plant Database
https://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=CAOV2
https://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=caco15
https://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=CAAL27

The Wood Database