Shrubby St. Johnswort

For about eight weeks during the summer, Shrubby St. Johnswort (Hypericum prolificum) is decorated with flowers, like ornaments on a holiday tree in mid-summer.

Shrubby St. Johnswort (Hypericum prolificum)

Each bright yellow blossom has five petals that provide a backdrop to a sphere-shaped burst of stamens, the male reproductive parts of the flowers.  Reaching out for a pollen deposit from the very center of the flowers are their female reproductive parts, called pistils.

Shrubby St. Johnswort (Hypericum prolificum) flower

This gaudy display is attractive to me, but more importantly, it’s a very effective lure for potential pollinators.  Bumble Bees are among the most likely visitors and effective pollinators.  While they climb around the stamens, eating and harvesting pollen from the anthers at their tips, they also pick up quite a bit of pollen on their hairy bodies.  As they forage, pollen on their bodies may be brushed off on the stigma at the tip of a flower’s pistil, setting the wheels in motion for pollination to occur.

Female Bumble Bee (Bombus impatiens) foraging on Shrubby St. Johnswort flowers

Female bees eat pollen themselves, and they also collect pollen to bring back to their nests to feed their larvae.  In the photo below, you can see the ‘bee bread’ this female has collected on her hind legs.  Quite a haul!

Female Bumble Bee (Bombus impatiens) harvesting pollen from Shrubby St. Johnswort flower

Other bees, like Sweat Bees, also visit the flowers for their pollen.

Female Sweat Bee (Lassioglossum species) harvesting pollen from Shrubby St. Johnswort flower

Female Sweat Bee (Lassioglossum species) eating pollen from Shrubby St. Johnswort flower. Notice the pollen on her back leg that she has harvested to take back to provision her nest for her larvae.

Flies are also consumers of pollen.  Flower Flies (also called Syrphid flies or Hover flies) are among those attracted to this pollen banquet.  They may also help with the pollination process, although their bodies are not as hairy as many of the bees.

Flower Fly or Syrphid Fly (Toxomerus geminatus) on Shrubby St. Johnswort flower

This bounty of pollen is so successful in enticing insects for whom pollen is an important part of their diet, primarily bees and flies, that Shrubby St. Johnswort doesn’t expend any energy producing nectar, finding it unnecessary to do so.

If the inadvertent pollination activities of these insects provide the expected payoff, this shrub lives up to the designation ‘prolificum’ in its scientific name, becoming ‘very fruitful’.  Fruit capsules replace the flowers, eventually opening to release their seeds for dispersal by gravity, or by hitching a ride on a passing animal. These dry fruits are visible throughout winter and into the following spring.

Shrubby St. Johnswort (Hypericum prolificum) fruit capsules

Shrubby St. Johnswort is related to the more well-known Common St. Johnswort (Hypericum perforatum), which is used for many medicinal purposes.  Shrubby St. Johnswort shares at least one chemical compound, hypericin, with its more famous relative.  Hypericin has a photosensitizing effect on its consumers, that is, it makes the skin of the animal that eats it especially sensitive to the sun, and exposure to sunlight after consumption results in rashes.  Producing hypericin evolved as an effective deterrent to animals that might otherwise be tempted to eat this plant, including deer.

Shrubby St. Johnswort is a relatively compact deciduous shrub that can grow to a height of about 6.5 feet (2 meters).  It does well in a variety of soils, from dry and rocky to moist, and can tolerate full sun to part shade.  Shrubby St. Johnswort is native in the eastern half of the United States, and in the province of Ontario in Canada.

Shrubby St. Johnswort (Hypericum prolificum)

 

Resources

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

Eastman, John.  The Book of Field and Roadside.  2003.

Hoffmann, David.  Medical Herbalism.  2003.

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

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

Illinois Wildflowers

USDA NRCS Plants database

Missouri Botanical Garden

 

Love Blueberries? Thank a Native Bee!

It’s blueberry season in New Jersey!  There are plenty of delicious deep blue orbs ripening for use on cereal, in pancakes, pies, crisps, cobblers, muffins, or just for snacking.  The blue color reflects the presence of anthocyanins, antioxidants with anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, and anti-cancer properties. Blueberries are not only tasty, but good for you.

A Bowl of Blueberries

For anyone who loves blueberries, you should know that some of our native bees are the most effective pollinators of this flavorsome fruit.

Blueberries are the fruit of deciduous shrubs that generally bloom in spring.  Most commercial blueberries in this region are cultivars of native blueberry species, usually Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum).  Lowbush Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium) is a species whose fruit is commonly harvested and sold in New England.  If the flowers are pollinated, the fruit ripens in mid to late summer, depending on their growing conditions.

Lowbush Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium)

An essential partner in the production of blueberries are the bees that are the primary pollinators for blueberry flowers.  While commercial growers may use Honey Bees to pollinate their crops, there are several species of native bees that are much more efficient blueberry pollinators.

How could that be?  Honey Bees pollinate flowers for a living.  Many are shipped from farm to farm specifically to pollinate crops.  (I think of them as the migrant workers of the insect world.)  How could there be bees that are more efficient pollinators?

Flowers come in all shapes and sizes, and they store and dispense their nectar (if they produce any) and pollen in many different ways.  Blueberry flowers are bell-shaped, with a narrow opening that allows access to the flowers’ nectar from the bottom of the hanging blossom.

Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) Flowers

Lowbush Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium) Flowers

The pollen is most efficiently dispensed from the flowers’ anthers through a process called sonication, or ‘buzz’ pollination.  Buzz pollination is a process of releasing pollen by which the pollinator clings to the flower and vibrates its wing muscles without moving its wings.  This sets up enough of a vibration for the anthers to discharge a dusting of pollen on the flower visitor.  The wing vibration makes a buzzing sound, which gives this technique its name.  (Buzz pollination is the bee equivalent of ventriloquism!.)  Some of the pollen will be carried from flower to flower to enable pollination, while the rest is a pay-off for this service, and will be eaten by the bee and her larvae.  Bees drink nectar, but pollen is also a very important food source for them.

Honey Bees are not capable of buzz pollination, but several families of native bees are, including bumble bees, large carpenter bees, mining (Andrenid) bees, many sweat bees, some mason (Osmia) bees and Melitta bees.  Highbush and Lowbush Blueberry shrubs evolved with these bees who are native to the same region and habitats.  These native bees are able to handle the flowers more quickly and dispense and carry more pollen than the Honey Bees who lack this athletic skill.  Mason bees generally are very swift and efficient pollinators, able to process flowers many times more quickly than Honey Bees.

Mining Bee (Andrenid) visiting Lowbush Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium) Flower

Some of the native bees who are able to buzz pollinate specialize on visiting the flowers of blueberries; they and their larvae can only digest pollen from blueberry plants.  This is a great benefit to the blueberries, since these bees spend all of their foraging time visiting blueberry flowers, and there is no risk of pollen being dropped off on the wrong species.  It’s a risk for the bees, however.  If no blueberry flowers are available when the bees are active, the bees have no back-up plan; they could starve.  On the other hand, if blueberry flowers are available, it’s like assembly line processing. The bees know how to handle the flowers very efficiently to get the nectar and pollen they need to survive.

Mason Bee (Osmia) visiting Lowbush Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium) Flower

Blueberries are not the only crop that is most efficiently pollinated through sonication.  Cranberries, tomatoes, tomatillos, potatoes, peppers and eggplant are some of the other crops that have a higher rate of pollination when native bees with this skill are available to help pollinate their flowers.

A love of blueberries is not exclusive to people. Many other mammals and birds also enjoy the tasty fruit. Black bears are probably second to humans as consumers of blueberries, but fox, rabbits, raccoons, mice and many more eat their share, too.

Red Fox are among the animals that love blueberries.

Ruffed and Spruce Grouse relish the bounty blueberries provide,

Spruce Grouse

as do many other birds including Bluebirds, Catbirds, Scarlet Tanagers, Tufted Titmice, Veeries, Robins, and Brown Thrashers.

Eastern Bluebirds love blueberries

Veery in Fringtree (Chionanthus virginicus) Veeries are among the many birds who eat blueberries.

Butterflies and moths depend on blueberries, too, but in a completely different way.  Many species use the leaves and flowers as their caterpillar food.  The Natural History Museum’s Database of the World’s Lepidopteran Hostplants (HOSTS) lists 32 species that use Highbush Blueberry as caterpillar food, 42 that use Lowbush Blueberry.

Spring Azure butterfly. Highbush and Lowbush Blueberry shrubs are a caterpillar food plant for Spring Azures.

Saddleback moth caterpillar. Highbush and Lowbush Blueberry shrubs are a caterpillar food plant for Saddlebacks.

Caterpillars are an important part of the diet of many birds and other animals, so feeding caterpillars means that these other species will have the food they need, too.

Female Common Yellowthroat with Caterpillar

Blueberries are great landscape plants.  Not only do they provide food for our many animal neighbors (and us, if we’re quick!), but they are beautiful throughout the seasons, with their spring flowers, summer fruit, fabulous fall color and winter architectural structure and slightly shredding bark.  Why would anyone plant the non-native, invasive Burning Bush (Euonymus alatus) for its brief flash of color, when they could have blueberries instead?

Lowbush Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium) with Lichen in Fall

Highbush Blueberry is native primarily in the eastern third of the United States and Canada, but also in Washington state and British Columbia.  It is common in dry to wet woods, in thickets and on stream banks.  It can grow to a height of about 13 feet (4 meters).  Lowbush Blueberry is native from Manitoba to Newfoundland and Labrador provinces in Canada, and south as far as Tennessee and North Carolina (except Kentucky) in the United States. It can be found in dry woods and barrens, where its partnership with mycorrhizal fungi helps it to get the nutrients it needs from the soil.  It is a low growing plant, usually to a maximum height of about 2.5 feet (.75 meters).

The USDA NRCS Plant Database lists 25 species of blueberries that are native in different regions in North America.  Find one that’s native where you live, and add it to your landscape to enjoy its beauty and bounty.

A Bowl of Blueberries

A Bowl of Blueberries

Related Posts

Nutritious Fall Foliage – What Makes Leaves So Colorful?

The Buzz About Shooting Star

Partridge Pea Puzzles

Resources

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

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

Eastman, John.  The Book of Field and Roadside.  2003.

Holm, Heather.  Bees An Identification and Native Plant Forage Guide.  2017.

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

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

Tallamy, Douglas W.  Bringing Nature Home.  2007

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

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

Illinois Wildflowers

Natural History Museum’s Database of the World’s Lepidopteran Hostplants – Vaccinium corymbosum

Natural History Museum’s Database of the World’s Lepidopteran Hostplants – Vaccinium angustifolium

 

Goldthread

On a recent trip to Vermont, we spotted the bright white flowers of Goldthread (Coptis trifolia) dotting the forest floor’s green carpet.  We saw it growing in mossy areas, and often in the company of Canada Mayflower (Maianthemum canadense) and ferns.

Goldthread (Coptis trifolia), Canada Mayflower (Maianthemum canadense) and ferns

Our timing was perfect to see these tiny flowers, since each half inch diameter blossom is typically only in bloom for about a week.  Each flower is perched about six inches (15 cm) from the ground on its own straight stem.

Goldthread (Coptis trifolia) flowers

From a human’s eye view, the showiest parts of the flower are white petal-like sepals.  The primary function of sepals is to protect the other flower parts while the flower is developing, but in some plants, including Goldthread, they are also a showy part of the floral display to help attract pollinators.

From a pollinator’s eye view, additional flower parts come into focus, and offer some surprises.  Working in from the sepals, the unconventional petals make up the next whorl of flower parts. They are much smaller than the sepals, spoon-shaped, with bright yellow, rounded, concave tips.  Not only are these bright yellow petal tips attractive to pollinators because of their color, but also because they produce nectar, an extra enticement for a pollinator’s visit.

Next are the many stamens, the male reproductive parts. Goldthread stamens mature a few at a time, starting from the outside of their cluster.  As the stamens mature they release pollen from the anthers at their tips.  At the very center of the flower are the green pistils (or carpels), the female reproductive parts.  Pollen must be deposited on the stigmas at their tips in order for pollination to occur.

Goldthread (Coptis trifolia) flower. Only some of the stamens have matured.

Goldthread (Coptis trifolia) flowers. (One with a tiny mystery visitor.) All of the stamens are open for business.

Goldthread (Coptis trifolia) flower, When all of the stamens are mature, as they are in this specimen, they make a perfect rounded cluster.

While we watched, a flower fly (Megasyrphus laxus) visited the flowers.  This little fly seemed to be focused on harvesting pollen.  Flies drink nectar, but they also need to eat pollen for its protein.  Everyone needs a balanced diet!

A flower fly (Megasyrphus laxus) hovering over a Goldthread (Coptis trifolia) flower. This group of flies is also called hover flies, or Syrphid flies.

A flower fly (Megasyrphus laxus) eating pollen from a Goldthread (Coptis trifolia) flower. Its proboscis (mouth parts) are directly touching one of the anthers.

If the flowers are pollinated, fruit capsules develop.

Goldthread (Coptis trifolia) fruit capsules

Goldthread leaves are evergreen. In spring dark green leaves from the previous season are visible, and new leaves emerge concurrently with the flowers blooming.

Goldthread (Coptis trifolia). The dark green leaf is from the previous season, the light green leaves have recently emerged.

Goldthread’s scientific name is based on the shape of its leaves, with ‘Coptis’ referring to their deeply cut appearance, and ‘trifolia’ to the three leaflets of each leaf.  The common name Goldthread refers to the plant’s golden colored thread-like underground rhizomes.

Goldthread is a member of the Buttercup (Ranunculaceae) family.  Like some other family members, Goldthread contains berberine, a compound that has anti-fungal, anti-bacterial and anti-tumor properties, among other things.  Plants produce these properties to protect themselves from invaders and consumers.  Although it can be toxic, in the proper doses, Native Americans have found many medicinal uses for this plant.

Goldthread has a northerly distribution. It is native in Alaska, most of Canada except the Northwest and Yukon Territories, the northern tier of the United States from Minnesota east to Maine, and south in the east along the coast as far as North Carolina (except Delaware!).  It can also be found in a few counties in Oregon.  Its preferred habitat is rich, moist woods, and also bogs and swamps.

Goldthread (Coptis trifolia), Canada Mayflower

Related Posts

Rue Anemone and a Bee Fly

Hepatica’s Survival Strategy

Resources

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.

Mauseth, James D.  Botany An Introduction to Plant Biology.  2014.

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

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

Minnesota Wildflowers

USDA NRCS Plant Database

Flora of North America

 

Bloodroot

In spite of the weather whiplash we’ve experienced since late February, spring wildflowers are slowly, cautiously beginning to emerge and bloom.  One of the first spring blossoms I saw this season was Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis).

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

The sight of this stunning white blossom holding its face up to the sun was especially welcome after a snowy, chilly March.

With each sunny day more flower shoots make their way through their winter blanket of fallen leaves.  As Bloodroot emerges, it leads with a flower stem, each one wrapped by a single leaf.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) emerging from its winter blanket of leaves

The flowers open as the temperatures warm, advertising their presence to early flying pollinators.  The veins in the pure white petals, contrasted with the yellow stamens surrounding the pistil in the center of the flower make a perfect target for foraging pollinators.  The stamens are the male reproductive parts, the pistils are the female reproductive parts.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

The most likely flower visitors are early flying bees or flies that can tolerate low temperatures.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) with Bee

Each plant species evolves to utilize its energy to maximize the chances of survival and reproduction.  Like Hepatica and some other early spring flowers, Bloodroot’s strategy is to produce an enticing floral display whose only reward is pollen;  the flowers don’t produce nectar.  This works, because pollen is an important food source for many of the insects active at this time of year.  Bees consume pollen, and female bees also collect it to feed their larvae.  Flies and beetles visit flowers for their nutritious pollen.  Not many of the insects that prefer nectar, like butterflies, are active at the time Bloodroot is blooming, so there would be little added benefit in offering it.

As unpredictable as spring weather is, even the hardiest insects may not always be available in the short window of time a Bloodroot flower is open for business.  Each flower remains open for about three days, closing at night and on rainy days to protect its pollen when insects are unlikely to be active.

When a Bloodroot flower opens, its stigma, located at the tip of the pistil, is receptive.  Pollen must be deposited on the stigma in order for pollination to occur. At this time, the stamens are curved away from the stigma to clear the way for an insect’s access to the receptive stigma, hopefully bringing pollen.

Newly open Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) flower, in the female phase

After a few hours, some of the anthers, located at the tips of the stamens, begin to dehisce, or open, making pollen available.  The remaining anthers open gradually over the three-day period that Bloodroot flowers are typically open. The continuing separation of the anthers from the stigma helps minimize the likelihood of self-pollination.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) flower with some of the anthers open to make pollen available

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) flower. Notice the pollen around the edges of the anthers where they have opened to make pollen available.

If after three days the flower has not been pollinated with the assistance of an insect, the stamens will begin to curve inward toward the center of the flower. The anthers touch the stigma, depositing the pollen.  In Bloodroot’s world, it’s better to self-pollinate to ensure reproduction than not to reproduce at all.  The flower drops its petals within hours of pollination.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) flower with some of the anthers beginning to curve back towards the stigma to enable self-pollination

After pollination, the thick, almost succulent leaves that protected the flower stem gradually open, expand, and capture energy from the sun for several more weeks.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) leaf in late spring. the leaf will continue to photosynthesize for much of the summer.

Pollinated flowers produce a fruit capsule that develops under the protection of the expanding leaves.  The capsule splits open when it’s ripe, making the seeds inside available for dispersal.  Like many early spring blooming wildflowers, Bloodroot has evolved to partner with animals, in this case ants, to disperse its seeds.  Each seed has  a packet of food called an elaiosome attached.  The elaiosome’s chemical make-up mimics the nutrition of insects, a preferred food for ants.  The ants take the seeds to their homes, where they eat the elaiosome and discard the seed, effectively planting it.

Both the common name, Bloodroot, and the genus, Sanguinaria, refer to the color of the sap found in the plants’ foliage and rhizomes (the plants’ underground parts).  This sap contains chemicals with a narcotic effect that Bloodroot produces to protect itself from herbivores. This is a common and highly effective strategy of the Poppy (Paperaceae) family, of which Bloodroot is a member.  As a result, Bloodroot does well even where there is serious deer pressure.

Native Americans have used Bloodroot for many medicinal purposes.  One of the chemical constituents of Bloodroot, sanguinarine, has also been used commercially in toothpaste and mouthwash to help prevent gingivitis. The red sap is also used as a dye.

Bloodroot can be found in rich, deciduous woods throughout much of the eastern two-thirds of the United States and Canada.  Look for it and other spring wildflowers along a wooded trail near you!

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

Related Posts

Hepatica’s Survival Strategy

A Carpet of Spring Beauty, Woven by… Ants!

A Tale of Two Spring Beauties

Dutchman’s Breeches and Squirrel Corn

Resources

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

Gracie, Carol.  Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast. 2012.

Hoffmann, David.  Medical Herbalism.  2003.

Illinois Wildflowers

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Native American Ethnobotany 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