Northern Prickly-ash

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

Northern Prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) branch with prickles

Northern Prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) branch with prickles

and the unusual fruit caught my eye.

Northern Prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) with ripe fruit

Northern Prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) with ripe fruit

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

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

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

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

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

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

Northern Prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) with unripe fruit

Northern Prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) with unripe fruit

On its way to fully ripening it turns red.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Posts

Milkweed – It’s Not Just for Monarchs

What Winter Reveals: Hoptrees

Black Cherry – For Wildlife, and People, too!

Slippery Elm in Bloom

Resources

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

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

Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Ethnobotany.  1998.

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

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

Missouri Botanical Garden

USDA Plant Database

Illinois Wildflowers

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

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

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

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

 

 

To Love Winter: Striped Wintergreen

It may be winter in the northern hemisphere (at least some days), but there is still plenty to see if you go for a walk in the woods. Some plants may be easier to spot in winter than they are during the growing season, because they have less competition for light, and for your attention.  Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) is one of those plants.  Striped Wintergreen can be seen in woodlands, skimming just above the fallen leaves.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) in fruit

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) in fruit

A clue that winter is the perfect time to look for this plant is found in the translation of its genus, ‘Chimaphila’, whose origins are the Greek words ‘cheima’, which means ‘winter’ and ‘phileo’, which translates as ‘to love’.   Plants of this genus are named for their love of winter.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata)

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata)

Why do they love winter? Striped Wintergreen is an evergreen perennial of the forest understory, growing to a height of about 4 – 12 inches (10 – 30 cm).  Somewhat woody at the base of the stem, botanists classify this species as a shrub or subshrub.  Its green and white striped leaves make it easy to spot in the winter months when leaves have fallen from the deciduous trees and shrubs that tower over this diminutive plant.  During the growing season, its taller neighbors often obscure Striped Wintergreen from view, as well as from the sun’s rays.  But throughout winter, Striped Wintergreen’s evergreen leaves have unfettered access to the sun’s energy.  They can photosynthesize, store the energy, and make it available to support Striped Wintergreen’s summertime reproductive efforts.

Striped Wintergreen is known by many other aliases (common names), including Spotted Wintergreen, Pipsissewa, and Rheumatism Root. Some of these names refer to the medicinal uses of this plant. Striped Wintergreen contains chemical compounds with antiseptic, antibacterial, and astringent properties, among others.  One of the compounds, ursolic acid, is effective in treating arthritis and other causes of pain and inflammation.  Striped Wintergreen and a close relative that is also called Pipsissewa (Chimaphila umbellata) have been used to treat urinary tract infections and kidney stones.  The name Pipsissewa is derived from a Creek Native American word that means ‘to break into small pieces’, referring to stones in the urinary tract.

Is it just lucky happenstance that Striped Wintergreen contains compounds that have beneficial medicinal effects for humans? Not completely.  Striped Wintergreen faces some of the same pressures that humans do from bacteria, fungi and microbes, all of which are present in the thousands in the fallen leaves with which Striped Wintergreen lives, and that are working to break down the leaves until they become the next layer of nutrient-filled soil.  Striped Wintergreen has evolved to produce chemical compounds to protect itself from this efficient recycling team surrounding it.  What is lucky for us is that these chemical constituents also have a positive effect in human bodies.

Striped Wintergreen blooms in summer, usually sometime from June through August.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) in bloom. Fruit capsule from previous season is visible on the left.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) in bloom. Fruit capsule from previous season is visible on the left.

When fully open, the flowers with their recurved petals resemble crowns, a possible explanation for another common name for this plant, Striped Prince’s Pine.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) flower. Notice its resemblance to a tiny crown.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) flower. Notice its resemblance to a tiny crown.

Striped Wintergreen’s primary pollinators are Bumble Bees (Bombus species), but Honey Bees (Apis mellifera) may also be enticed by nectar to visit the flowers.  If the bees help Striped Wintergreen successfully achieve pollination, the resulting fruit is visible throughout the winter.  These dry fruit capsules look like tiny turbans, or miniature winter squash split open at the seams to release the seeds inside.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) fruit capsules.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) fruit capsules.

The chemical compounds present in Striped Wintergreen, along with leathery, waxy-coated leaves, are generally effective in deterring herbivores. Deer don’t typically browse this plant, even though it’s one of only a few that are green in the winter.  But the photo below shows that someone, probably a Leaf-cutter Bee (Megachile species), has figured out a way to use parts of the leaves.  Leaf-cutter bees harvest regularly-shaped oval, circular or semi-circular pieces of leaves to construct cells in their nests.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) with semi-circles removed from the leaf edges, probably by a Leaf-cutter Bee.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) with semi-circles removed from the leaf edges, probably by a Leaf-cutter Bee.

Striped Wintergreen’s native range is the eastern third of the United States, north to a few locations in southern Ontario and Quebec provinces in Canada. It’s rare at the edges of its range, and is listed as endangered in Illinois, Maine, Ontario and Quebec, and exploitably vulnerable in New York state.

Experience some ‘Winter Love’ (another common name for Chimaphila maculata).  Look for Striped Wintergreen in winter, and you’ll know where to find it during the summer months when it’s in bloom.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) in bloom.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) in bloom.

More Reasons to Love Winter

Reasons to Love Winter

An Orchid in Winter

Coralberry – A Winter Standout

What Winter Reveals:  Hoptrees

Late Winter Bird Food

A Winter Garden Can Be a Wildlife Habitat

Resources

Buhner, Stephen Harrod. Pipsissewa.  From Planting the Future, Saving Our Medicinal Herbs, edited by Gladstar, Rosemary and Hirsch, Pamela.  2000.

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

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.

Martin, Laura C. Wildflower Folklore.  1984.

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

Evergreen Native Plant Database

Illinois Wildflowers

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Native American Ethnobotany Database

USDA NRCS Plants Database

 

 

A Holiday Break

If you feel the need for a little break from all the holiday shopping and festivities, I recommend a walk in the woods.

If the ground isn’t snow-covered, you might look for Patridgeberry (Mitchella repens) while you are out walking. It’s a low evergreen perennial that creeps across the forest floor, resembling strings of tiny holiday garlands.

Patridgeberry (Mitchella repens)

Patridgeberry (Mitchella repens)

Patridgeberry may be peeking out from under fallen leaves.

Patridgeberry (Mitchella repens)

Patridgeberry (Mitchella repens)

Look closely at a patch of moss, and you might find Patridgeberry interspersed with it.

Patridgeberry (Mitchella repens) mixed with mosses

Patridgeberry (Mitchella repens) mixed with mosses

Patridgeberry’s bright red fruit usually persists on the plant throughout the winter and even into spring.

Patridgeberry (Mitchella repens) in spring, with fruit from the previous year still present.

Patridgeberry (Mitchella repens) in spring, with fruit from the previous year still present.

It may actually be easier to find Patridgeberry in the winter than it is during the growing season, depending on its situation. This diminutive ground cover may be hidden by taller herbaceous plants and shrubs in the late spring when it begins to bloom.  If you find it in winter, you’ll know where to look to see the flowers, probably sometime in late May or June.

Patridgeberry (Mitchella repens) in bloom, partially hidden by taller plants

Patridgeberry (Mitchella repens) in bloom, partially hidden by taller plants

Bumble Bees are the primary pollinators of Patridgeberry’s tiny trumpet-shaped flowers. The flowers are always in pairs; in fact, they are actually joined.

Patridgeberry's (Mitchella repens) paired flowers in bloom.

Patridgeberry’s (Mitchella repens) paired flowers in bloom.

The two flowers share a single ovary, the part of the flower from which a fruit develops.  As a result, no more than one berry is produced for every pair of flowers.  You might think of this as analogous to conjoined twins that share a body part.  In recognition of this trait, another common name for this plant is Twinberry.  If you look closely at the fruit in the photo below, you can see two dimples, each with a somewhat jagged edge.  This is where each individual flower was joined to the ovary.

Patridgeberry (Mitchella repens) fruit. Notice the jagged edged 'dimples' where the two flowers were attached to their shared ovary.

Patridgeberry (Mitchella repens) fruit. Notice the jagged edged ‘dimples’ where the two flowers were attached to their shared ovary.

Wild Turkey, Ruffed Grouse, Bobwhite, White-footed Mice, Red Fox and Eastern Chipmunks are among the animals that eat Patridgeberry fruits. The animals subsequently disperse Patridgeberry’s seeds, which are accompanied by natural fertilizer (the animal’s excrement) to give the seeds a good start.

Native American tribes have used various parts of Patridgeberry, sometimes in combination with other plants, as a gynecological aid and pain reliever, as well as to treat rashes and urinary tract problems, among other problems.

Patridgeberry can be found in the woods of the eastern half of the United States, and in the Canadian provinces of Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and parts of Newfoundland & Labrador.

For the holidays, do whatever best renews your spirit. A walk in the woods will do it for me.

If the ground is snow-covered, there will be other holiday decorations to see, courtesy of nature. Nothing you have to put up, or take down.  No muss, no fuss.  Just beauty.

Patridgeberry (Mitchella repens) mixed with mosses and mushrooms

Patridgeberry (Mitchella repens) mixed with mosses and mushrooms

Related Posts

A Holiday Display, Courtesy of Nature

Resources

Capon, Brian. Botany for Gardeners.  2005

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.

Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Ethnobotany.  1998.

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

Illinois Wildflowers

Missouri Botanical Garden

USDA NRCS Plant Database

 

Bountiful Blue Wood Aster

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bumble Bees are the most frequent visitors.

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

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

An athletic Bee drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium). I'm not completely sure whether it's a Bumble Bee or an Eastern Carpenter Bee.

An athletic Bee drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium). I’m not completely sure whether it’s a Bumble Bee or an Eastern Carpenter Bee.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Mason Wasp stopped by for nourishment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Related Posts

Asters Yield a Treasure Trove!

New England Asters – A Hotbed of Activity!

Mysterious Bumble Bee Behavior

Resources

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

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

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

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

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

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

USDA NRCS Plant Database

 

Sneezeweed

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

Sachem on Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale)

Sachem on Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sweat Bee on Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale)

Sweat Bee on Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale)

Pearl Crescent on Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale)

Pearl Crescent on Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale)

Ailanthus Webworm Moth on Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale)

Ailanthus Webworm Moth on Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale)

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

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

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

Pearl Crescents on Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale)

Pearl Crescents on Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale)

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

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

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

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

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

Sachem on Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale)

Sachem on Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale)

Related Posts

Asters Yield a Treasure Trove

New England Asters – A Hotbed of Activity!

Fall Allergies? Don’t Blame Goldenrod!

Feasting on Green-headed Coneflower

Resources

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

Native American Ethnobotany Database

USDA Forest Service Plant of the Week

USDA NRCS Plant Database