Jewelweed Has a Back-up Plan

Jewelweed leaves emerge from the soil in early spring, the plant continuing to grow and mature until it finally begins to bloom in mid-to-late summer, and on through early fall. The name ‘Jewelweed’ has a few explanations, but the one I like best is that it’s a reflection of the fact that the surface of Jewelweed leaves causes water to bead up, glistening like a jewel.

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) with Sweat Bee (Halictid species). Notice the jewel-like drops and silvery sheen of water on the leaves.

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) with Sweat Bee (Halictid species). Notice the jewel-like drops and silvery sheen of water on the leaves.

There are two Jewelweed species that are common in eastern North America. One has orange flowers with dark reddish-orange spots or lines at the throat.  Some common names for this orange-flowered species are Jewelweed, Spotted Jewelweed, or Spotted Touch-me-not (Impatiens capensis).

Jewelweed or Spotted Touch-me-not (Impatiens capensis)

Jewelweed or Spotted Touch-me-not (Impatiens capensis)

The other species has yellow flowers, sometimes with reddish-brown dots at the throat, and is known as Pale Jewelweed, Yellow Jewelweed or Pale Touch-me-not (Impatiens pallida).

Pale Jewelweed or Pale Touch-me-not (Impatiens pallida)

Pale Jewelweed or Pale Touch-me-not (Impatiens pallida)

These Jewelweed species are annuals, meaning that each plant dies at the end of the growing season. In order for the species to continue to survive, it must produce seeds each year.  Jewelweed has two strategies to make sure that happens.

Jewelweed’s primary strategy for reproduction is to produce showy flowers that will entice animals to visit, and transfer pollen from one plant to another, successfully achieving cross-pollination.

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) with Bumble Bee (Bombus species)

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) with Bumble Bee (Bombus species)

When Jewelweed flowers open, their male reproductive parts (the stamens), mature first, making pollen available for transfer from the anthers at the stamen tips.

Pale Jewelweed (Impatiens pallida) with mature stamens at the inside top of the entrance of the blossom

Pale Jewelweed (Impatiens pallida) with mature stamens at the inside top of the entrance of the blossom

Later, the stamens wither and are replaced by the female reproductive parts (the pistils), the receptive stigmas at their tips waiting for a flower visitor to brush them with pollen.

Jewelweed (Impatiens pallida) with mature pistil at the inside top of the entrance of the blossom. (Being visited by a mystery critter!)

Jewelweed (Impatiens pallida) with mature pistil at the inside top of the entrance of the blossom. (Being visited by a mystery critter!)

Jewelweed’s showy flowers produce plenty of nectar to lure potential pollinators to visit. The nectar is found in long spurs at the back of the tubular flowers, so a visitor with a long tongue is most likely to have success accessing this treat.  The orange-flowered Jewelweed attracts a broad variety of insect visitors, including several bee species,

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) with Bumble Bee (Bombus species)

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) with Bumble Bee (Bombus species)

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) with Yellow Bumble Bee (Bombus fervidus)

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) with Yellow Bumble Bee (Bombus fervidus)

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) with Honey Bee

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) with Honey Bee

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) with Sweat Bee (Agapostemon species)

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) with Sweat Bee (Agapostemon species)

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) with Sweat Bee (Halictid species)

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) with Sweat Bee (Halictid species)

flies,

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) with Flower Fly (Copestylum species)

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) with Flower Fly (Copestylum species)

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) with Flower Fly (Syrphid species)

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) with Flower Fly (Syrphid species)

wasps,

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) with Yellowjacket

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) with Yellowjacket

and even beetles.

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) with Northern Corn Rootworm Beetles

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) with Northern Corn Rootworm Beetles

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) with beetle, probably Spotted Cucumber Beetle

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) with beetle, probably Spotted Cucumber Beetle

These beetles are interested in consuming floral tissue, and are probably not very helpful in assisting Jewelweed in attaining its pollination goal.

Given their anatomy and feeding style, Bumble Bees are among the most likely to help successfully pollinate the flowers. They are the most frequent visitors to Pale Jewelweed.

Pale Jewelweed (Impatiens pallida) with Bumble Bee (Bombus species), at Morrisville Riverfront Preserve, Morrisville, PA

Pale Jewelweed (Impatiens pallida) with Bumble Bee (Bombus species), at Morrisville Riverfront Preserve, Morrisville, PA

Pale Jewelweed (Impatiens pallida) with Bumble Bee (Bombus species) with back brushing stamens as it enters the flower, at Morrisville Riverfront Preserve, Morrisville, PA

Pale Jewelweed (Impatiens pallida) with Bumble Bee (Bombus species) with back brushing stamens as it enters the flower, at Morrisville Riverfront Preserve, Morrisville, PA

Even in the insect world there are individuals who like to cut corners and get something for nothing.  There are insects that cheat, chewing through the spur to directly access the nectar. These insects by-pass the flower opening and its reproductive parts, so they’re no help to Jewelweed in its pollination mission.

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are valuable pollination partners for Jewelweed. As these energetic little birds move from one Jewelweed flower to another, they are likely to pick up pollen on their heads as they brush against the anthers at the inside top of the flower entrance, subsequently depositing the pollen on the stigma of another flower.  In return, Jewelweed provides an important nectar source for them in late summer and early fall.

Male Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Male Ruby-throated Hummingbird

The name ‘Touch-me-not’ reflects the explosive spring-action opening of ripe fruit capsules. The slightest touch will trigger it, projecting the seeds for a distance of several feet.

Ripe Pale Jewelweed fruit capsule

Ripe Pale Jewelweed fruit capsule

The ripe capsule opens at the slightest touch

The ripe capsule opens at the slightest touch

Animal seed eaters include Ruffed Grouse, Bobwhites, mice and shrews.

Jewelweed also has a back-up plan for producing seed, one that doesn’t rely on the assistance of a third party for pollen transportation. In addition to the showy flowers that entice pollinators, Jewelweed produces cleistogamous flowers, a type of flower that doesn’t open and is self-fertilized. When the fruit capsules produced from these flowers open, the seeds fall in the vicinity of the parent plant.  The combination of the two types of flowers may allow Jewelweed to hold its existing territory, and extend it a bit.

Jewelweed contains lawsone, a compound with antihistamine and anti-inflammatory properties. Jewelweed has been used to treat poison ivy exposure, and stings from stinging nettle and insects.

Jewelweed prefers moist soil, and is often found along streams, in wet meadows, roadsides, swamps and open woods.

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis ) at Wiessner Woods, Stowe, Vermont

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis ) at Wiessner Woods, Stowe, Vermont

It may establish a large colony, with individual plants often growing to a height of 5 feet (1.5 meters).

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis ) at Wiessner Woods, Stowe, Vermont

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis ) at Wiessner Woods, Stowe, Vermont

The orange-flowered Jewelweed’s (Impatiens capensis) range includes the eastern two-thirds of the United States plus Idaho, Oregon and Washington, and all Canadian provinces and territories, except Nunavit.  Pale Jewelweed (Impatiens pallida) is less common, and more of an eastern species.  It can be found from Newfoundland and Labrador, west to Ontario and eastern North Dakota, and as far south as eastern Oklahoma and South Carolina.

 

Resources

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

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

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

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

Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Ethnobotany.  1998.

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

Colla, Sheila; Richardson, Leif; Williams, Paul. Bumble Bees of the Eastern United States. 2011

USDA Forest Service Plant of the Week – Jewelweed

Illinois Wildflowers

USDA NRCS Plant Database Impatiens capensis

USDA NRDS Plant Database Impatiens pallida

 

 

 

Who Uses Black Cohosh?

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

Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa, syn. Cimicifuga racemosa)

Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa, syn. Cimicifuga racemosa)

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

Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa, syn. Cimicifuga racemosa)

Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa, syn. Cimicifuga racemosa)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer Azure

Summer Azure

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

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

Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa, syn. Cimicifuga racemosa)

Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa, syn. Cimicifuga racemosa)

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

Related Posts

Spring Azures

Resources

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

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

Eisner, Thomas. For Love of Insects.  2003.

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

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

Hoffmann, David. Medical Herbalism.  2003.

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

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

Willmer, Pat. Pollination and Floral Ecology. 2011

USDA NRCS Plant Database

 

 

Black Cherry – for Wildlife, and People, too!

Black Cherry or Wild Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) is a bountiful tree for wildlife, and an important species for humans, too.  It blooms in spring, with a profusion of long, slender, densely packed flower clusters.

Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) in bloom

Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) in bloom

The flowers offer nectar and pollen as enticements to a variety of bee and fly species who need this food to survive. The insects become Black Cherry’s unsuspecting pollination partners.  In return for the food provided to these insect floral visitors, the flowers benefit by having some of their pollen transported on the insects’ bodies and deposited advantageously for pollination on other Black Cherry flowers.  Successful pollination will result in fruit that ripens in late summer and fall.

A broad spectrum of animals eat Black Cherry’s fleshy fruit. Many thrushes, woodpeckers, sparrows, bluebirds, tanagers, orioles, and Cedar Waxings are among the dozens of bird species that eat the fruit.

Wood Thrush

Wood Thrush

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Mammals as diverse as fox, squirrels, chipmunks, mice and even Black Bears eat Black Cherry’s fruit.

Eastern Chipmunk

Eastern Chipmunk

The fruit has evolved to lure animals to help Black Cherry spread its seeds. In exchange for the meal, the seeds are ‘dispersed’ after traveling through the animals’ digestive tracts.

Hundreds of insect species depend on Black Cherry for food, and in some cases, shelter.

In spring, finger galls caused by a mite (Eriophyes cerasicrumena) are conspicuous on Black Cherry leaves.  A gall is a plant’s reaction to being used as food and shelter by an insect.  The mite will feed on the tissue inside the gall until the mite matures and emerges from the gall.

Finger galls caused by a mite (Eriophyes cerasicrumena) on Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) leaves

Finger galls caused by a mite (Eriophyes cerasicrumena) on Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) leaves

You may be used to seeing Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies feeding on nectar from a variety of plants.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail nectaring at Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) flowers

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail nectaring at Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) flowers

But Eastern Tiger Swallowtail caterpillars have a completely different diet. They depend on the leaves of several woody plants species as their food source, including Black Cherry.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail caterpillar in Black Cherry leaf

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail caterpillar in Black Cherry leaf

Eastern Tiger Swallowtails are just one of 456 species of butterflies and moths whose caterpillars eat the leaves of Black Cherry and other Prunus species, according to research from Douglas W. Tallamy and the University of Delaware.  These caterpillars are in turn an important source of food for birds, especially when they are raising their young.

Tufted Titmouse - one of many bird species that harvest caterpillars from Black Cherry

Tufted Titmouse – one of many bird species that harvest caterpillars from Black Cherry

Tent caterpillars favor Black Cherry, a practice that gardeners usually view unfavorably.

Tent Caterpillar egg mass in winter

Tent Caterpillar egg mass in winter

But even Tent caterpillars have redeeming qualities, since they are an important food source for both Yellow- and Black-billed Cuckoos.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Adult butterflies and moths may also become food for birds or other insects, and in the case of night-flying moths (including Tent caterpillars that survive to become adult moths), for bats.

In addition to the nectar offered by its flowers, Black Cherry provides nectar from glands on its leaf stems. These nectaries are not targeting pollinators.  Instead, they are there to lure a mercenary army of ants to protect the tree from herbivores, especially caterpillars. The nectaries entice ants to visit the trees for a drink.  While there, the ants may also help to keep the caterpillar population in check, since ants also need insect protein as part of their diet.

Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) in bloom

Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) in bloom

People benefit directly from Black Cherry trees.  In addition to the beauty of its flowers, fruits and foliage, Black Cherry’s wood is an important timber crop, primarily for use in furniture and cabinet making.  Black Cherry’s fruit is used to flavor brandies and to make a liqueur called cherry bounce.  The fruit is somewhat bitter, but with added sugar it can be used to make jellies.  Eating the raw fruit is not advisable, since the seeds can be toxic.  Medicinally, Black Cherry’s inner bark has been used in cough suppressants.

Black Cherry can grow to a maximum height of 80-100 feet (24-30 meters). Its range is primarily eastern North America, from Canada through the United States and south into Mexico, although it is an adaptable species and may also be found in some areas of the Pacific Northwest.

Providing beauty, timber, food and medicine for humans, food for birds, mammals, pollinators and hundreds of other insects, Black Cherry is among our most productive native trees.

Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) in bloom

Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) in bloom

Related Posts

Will Work for Food – Extrafloral Nectaries

Resources

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.

Peterson, Lee Allen. A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants of Eastern and Central North America. 1977.

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

Tallamy, Douglas W. Bringing Nature Home, 2007,

Illinois Wildflowers

USDA Plant Database

 

Slippery Elm in Bloom

Color is slowly easing back into the deciduous woods.  Branches that were bare all winter are beginning to show the subtle reds, greens and yellows of early blooming trees and shrubs.

Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra) in Bloom

Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra) in Bloom

Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra) is among the early flowering trees, often blooming sometime in March.  Before blooming, its rusty colored, fuzzy-hairy flower buds are visible throughout winter.

Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra) Buds

Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra) Buds

Slippery Elm blooms before its leaves appear, making it easier for the wind to carry Slippery Elm’s pollen to another flower, helping this species to achieve successful pollination. Wind pollination is a good evolutionary adaptation for an early blooming tree, since wind is a more reliable pollination partner in the usually cool blustery days of March than insects are.  (Although this spring is exceptionally warm in the Northeastern United States!)

Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra) in Bloom

Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra) in Bloom

Flowers that are successfully pollinated produce fruits that many birds eat, including Carolina Chickadees, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and Purple Finches.

Female Purple Finch. Purple Finches are among the birds that eat elm seeds

Female Purple Finch. Purple Finches are among the birds that eat elm seeds

Squirrels and other small mammals also eat Slippery Elm seeds.

Red Squirrel - a consumer of elm seeds

Red Squirrel – a consumer of elm seeds

Slippery Elm leaves are large and rough, with distinctly toothed edges.

Slippery Elm Leaf

Slippery Elm Leaf

These leaves provide food for many insects that in turn provide pollination services for other plants, or food for other animals. Over 200 species of butterfly and moth caterpillars (Leipidoptera), including those of Mourning Cloak, Question Mark and Eastern Comma butterflies and Polyphemus moths may eat the leaves of Slippery Elm and its close relatives.

Eastern Comma Butterfly

Eastern Comma Butterfly

Polyphemus Moth caterpillar, looking for a place to pupate. What a plump, juicy treat for a hungry bird!

Polyphemus Moth caterpillar, looking for a place to pupate. What a plump, juicy treat for a hungry bird!

Birds depend on these insects as protein for themselves and their growing offspring.

Male Black-throated Blue Warbler. Warblers, Chickadees, Titmice and most other birds depend on insects for a large percentage of their diet.

Cavity nesting birds or small mammals may find a suitable home site in Slippery Elm, while other birds, like Baltimore Orioles, may build their nests in its branches.

Natural cavity in a Slippery Elm. Some strings of nest material are draped below the opening.

Natural cavity in a Slippery Elm. Some strings of nest material are draped below the opening.

Slippery Elm gets its name from its inner bark (the phloem) which is part of the vascular system that transports food throughout the tree. Slippery Elm’s inner bark is mucilaginous (thick, sticky) and fibrous.  Indigenous North American peoples used the inner bark fibers to make rope or other cordage.

Slippery Elm’s inner bark has also been used to make a tea that is easy to digest and high in nutrients; it was given to people who had difficulty consuming food. The inner bark was also dried and ground to make a flour high in nutritional value.

Slippery Elm has many medicinal uses. As a demulcent it is well suited for treatment of inflamed mucous membranes throughout the digestive tract.  It also has anti-inflammatory and astringent properties, and has been used externally to treat skin problems including wounds, ulcers and boils.  Slippery Elm is available as an over the counter supplement, and has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in throat lozenges.  Even plant-derived supplements can have unwanted side effects, so careful research or consultation with a physician should take place before consuming Slippery Elm.

Slippery Elm can be found in much of the eastern two-thirds of the United States and Canada, often in moist woods, stream banks, and woodland edges. Look for it blooming now in a natural area near you.

Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra) in Bloom

Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra) in Bloom

 

Resources

Beresford-Kroeger, Diana. Arboretum America: A Philosophy of the Forest.  2003

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

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

Tallamy, Douglas W. Bringing Nature Home, 2007,

Illinois Wildflowers

USDA Database

 

 

Evening Primrose

By late February, the spent stems of many herbaceous plants are beginning to fall to the ground and break down, adding to the nutrients in the soil, or making nesting material available for birds and other animals. Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis) is an exception, with stems still upright, and fruit capsules still dispersing seeds – via wind, or scattered on the ground near parent plants.  Evening Primrose is a biennial, a characteristic reflected in its scientific name, ‘biennis’.  This means that it typically lives only two years, the first as a ground-level rosette of leaves.  If it gathers enough energy, the second year of life it will bloom, develop fruits, and die.  Replacing the parent plant with offspring in the same location is a good evolutionary strategy for the plant.

Evening Primrose fruit capsules

Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis) fruit capsules

Not all seeds are destined to grow into another Evening Primrose plant, since some will become a snack for hungry birds. Evening Primrose can afford this loss.  There are plenty of seeds, with potentially hundreds produced by each fruit capsule.

Eastern Goldfinches eat Evening Primrose seeds.

Eastern Goldfinches eat Evening Primrose seeds.

Evening Primrose can be found throughout most of the United States (some Rocky Mountain states are an exception) and Canada, blooming from late June through much of the fall, often in disturbed areas.  ‘Evening’ in this plant’s name refers to the fact that the flowers open late in the day, usually blooming from dusk until the early morning hours, although they may stay open longer on cloudy or overcast days.

Evening Primrose in bloom

Evening Primrose in bloom

Plant species that bloom at night have generally evolved to partner for pollination services with an animal that is active at night, usually moths or bats. The flowers are fragrant, which is another characteristic of night blooming plants.  Many moth species can detect fragrances from long distances, and will follow the fragrance to find their nectar reward.  Moths, particularly some sphinx moths, are among Evening Primrose’s pollinators.

During those daylight hours that the flowers are open, butterflies may drink nectar from Evening Primrose flowers.

Little Glassywing drinking nectar from an Evening Primrose flower.

Little Glassywing drinking nectar from an Evening Primrose flower.

Many bee species also visit the flowers, including some that specialize on Evening Primrose and other related species.

Sweat Bee, probably Lasioglossum oenotherae, on Evening Primrose

Sweat Bee, probably Lasioglossum oenotherae, on Evening Primrose

Sweat Bee, probably Lasioglossum oenotherae, harvesting pollen from Evening Primrose. These bees have evolved scopa that are efficient for handling Evening Primrose's stringy pollen.

Sweat Bee, probably Lasioglossum oenotherae, harvesting pollen from Evening Primrose. These bees have evolved scopa that are efficient for handling Evening Primrose’s stringy pollen.

Some of these specialists are able to fly in dim light during dusk and dawn, and even into the night when there is enough moonlight. In addition to the large compound eyes on each side of their faces, bees have ocelli, simple eyes at the top of their heads.  Ocelli help the bee in positioning and orientation, with the aid of light from the sun or even a full moon. These specialist bees are aided by larger ocelli than the typical bee, so they can function in low light.

Sweat Bee, probably Lasioglossum oenotherae, on Evening Primrose.  These bees have evolved scopa that are efficient for handling Evening Primrose's stringy pollen.  Look for the ocelli (eyes) at the top of its head.  They look like  little dots.

Sweat Bee, probably Lasioglossum oenotherae, on Evening Primrose. These bees evolved scopa on their hind legs that are efficient for carrying Evening Primrose’s stringy pollen. Look for the ocelli (eyes) at the top of its head. They look like little dots.

Caterpillars of several moth species feed on the leaves or flowers of Evening Primrose.

Yellow Bear (Virginian Tiger Moth) caterpillar on Evening Primrose

Yellow Bear (Virginian Tiger Moth) caterpillar on Evening Primrose

For human consumers, the young leaves, flowers, shoots and first year roots of Evening Primrose are edible, with the proper preparation. The leaves and roots are thought to have a peppery taste.   Evening Primrose is cultivated for its oil, which contains some essential fatty acids (Omega-6 fatty acid, linolenic acid and gamma-linolenic acid). Evening Primrose oil has been licensed in several countries for treatment of eczema and breast pain.  Native Americans used it to treat a broad range of ills.

Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis)

Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis)

Look for Evening Primrose fruit capsules now,

Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis) fruit capsules

Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis) fruit capsules

and watch for new plants blooming at nearby locations this summer.

Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis) in bloom

Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis) in bloom

 

Resources

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

Peterson, Lee Allen. A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants of Eastern and Central North America. 1977.

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

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

Illinois Wildflowers

Discover Life

USDA Plant Database

Mayo Clinic