The Artistry of Seedbox

Winter is the perfect time to see Seedbox (Ludwigia alternifolia) in fruit, and to understand how this plant got its name.

Seedbox (Ludwigia alternifolia) with fruit capsules

Attached along the length of the standing stems of this plant are fruit capsules that look like perfectly carved wooden boxes, each with a convex top and rounded bottom, and with elaborate designs that appear to be carved on the cube’s lid.

Seedbox (Ludwigia alternifolia) fruit capsules

These tiny decorative fruit capsules are often visible throughout winter, releasing the many tiny seeds inside through a pore on the top of the box, and eventually also by splitting open at the seams.  Before the fruit capsule opens, the seeds may rattle, giving this plant another common name, Rattlebox.

How is this perfectly shaped fruit capsule produced?  Who is responsible for the beautiful carvings on the lid? (Could it be tiny flower elves?  Maybe there is a less magical explanation.)

Seedbox typically blooms in mid to late summer, usually July and August.  Let’s look at the flowers and buds for an explanation.

Seedbox (Ludwigia alternifolia) in bloom

In Seedbox buds, sepals are the outermost layer of flower parts. They are green and leaf-like, and play the role of bud scales, enclosing and protecting the other parts of the flower before it opens.  The photo below shows a flower bud, enclosed by the sepals. In the upper right of the photo, there is a notch in the sepals at the base of the bud, a narrowing of the structure, and a squarish impression in the leafy covering.  This covering is enclosing the flower’s ovary, the flower part destined to become the fruit capsule.  We can see two sides of the ovary, already hinting at the box-like fruit capsule to come.

Seedbox (Ludwigia alternifolia) flower bud. In the top right corner, note the square ovary with a leafy covering at the base of the bud. The ovary will become the fruit capsule; its square shape is already in place.

The purpose of the flowers is to attract visitors to assist with cross-pollination. The most effective pollinator will have a tongue long enough to reach the nectaries on the face of the ovary below, while brushing its body on the flower’s reproductive parts, including the Sweat Bee in the photo below, and some Bumble Bees.  Other bees and beetles are known to visit the flowers for nectar and pollen, while flies, wasps, and butterflies only partake of the nectar.

Seedbox (Ludwigia alternifolia) flower with a visiting Sweat Bee. Her tongue is long enough to reach the nectaries while her body brushes against the flower’s reproductive parts, dropping off and picking up pollen.

The bee is rewarded for her pollination assistance with nectar and pollen for herself, and she will also carry some back to provision her nest for her larvae.

Seedbox (Ludwigia alternifolia) flower with a visiting Sweat Bee. Notice the pollen she has packed on her hind legs to bring back to her nest for her larvae.

Let’s look at an open flower.

Seedbox (Ludwigia alternifolia) in flower.

Working from the outer ring of flower parts layer by layer towards the center, each flower has four sepals, four yellow petals, four stamens (male reproductive parts) and one pistil (female reproductive part).  The pistil consists of a stigma at its tip, where the pollen must be deposited in order for pollination to take place, the style, which positions the stigma and through which the pollen must travel to get to the ovary, which is at the pistil’s base. Seedbox stigmas look like miniature pompoms perched at the top of their pedestal-like styles.  As the ovary ripens to a fruit capsule, if the pollen successfully reaches and fertilizes the ovules in the ovary, seeds will be produced.

Seedbox (Ludwigia alternifolia) in flower. The green sepals are peeking out from behind the yellow petals. The petals, stamens and style of the pistil are attached to the top of the ovary, while the sepals are appressed to the four sides of the ovary.

If we look at the very center of the flower, we can see the petals, stamens and pistil attached to the square top of the ovary, with the sepals appressed to the four straight sides around the ovary’s outside edges.

The flower parts that made pollination possible eventually wither and drop off, leaving their mark on the face of the ripening fruit capsule.

The petals drop off after about a day, leaving tiny scars that can be seen at each corner of the developing fruit capsule’s topside.  As the stamens drop off, each leaves a mark midway between the corners, just slightly in from the edge of the square.

Developing Seedbox (Ludwigia alternifolia) fruit capsule. Notice the scars left by the petals and stamens which have withered and dropped off. The stigma, style and sepals are still present.

Eventually the pistil’s stigma and style, positioned at the center of the flower above the ovary, drop off, leaving a round scar as a reminder of their role in the flower’s reproduction strategy.

Developing Seedbox (Ludwigia alternifolia) fruit capsule. The stigma and style have dropped off. The sepals are still present.

Finally the sepals are gone, leaving the bare woody ‘seedbox’.

Seedbox (Ludwigia alternifolia) fruit capsules

The face of a Seedbox fruit capsule records the history of its pollination story. The four large-ish evenly spaced ovals in each quadrant on the top of the fruit capsule were the nectaries, the source of the beverage that enticed the flower’s visitors.

Seedbox (Ludwigia alternifolia) fruit capsules. The scars from the petals and stamens are visible near the edges of the fruit capsule’s top, the round scar in the center marks the spot where the style was attached, and the four ovals are the flower’s nectaries.

Seedbox prefers moist soil, and can be found growing in wet meadows, prairies and woods, as well as in drainage ditches. It is native in Quebec and Ontario provinces in Canada, and in the United States from Vermont west to Wisconsin, southwest to Colorado, then south as far as Texas and the Florida panhandle. It is a member of the Evening-primrose (Onagraceae) family.

If you’re looking for something to do while waiting for spring, look for Seedbox!

Dedication:  Pam, this is for you!

Related Posts

Evening Primrose

Resources

Illinois Wildflowers

Illinois Wildflowers Flower Visiting Insects

Missouri Botanical Garden

USDA NRCS Plant Database

A Tree Reincarnated

There is a section of trail at Spring Lake at Abbott Marshlands in Hamilton Township, New Jersey that was once called the Beech Trail, named for a majestic American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) tree that dominated a spot on the south side of an island that is part of the nature preserve.

American Beech (Fagus grandifolia), the island at Spring Lake, Abbott Marshlands

The tree was unusual on the island, which is otherwise dominated by River Birch, Oaks, Tuliptrees, Maples and Sassafras, with a rich understory that includes Arrowwood Viburnum, Common Spicebush, Winterberry Holly, Highbush Blueberry, and an herbaceous layer with Wild Oats, Canada Mayflower and Virginia Spiderwort, among many others.  Maybe I wasn’t observant enough, but I never noticed another Beech tree in the vicinity of this one.

American Beech (Fagus grandifolia), the island at Spring Lake, Abbott Marshlands

For years, this beautiful Beech dominated its surroundings, overseeing the marsh below where Wood Ducks, Mergansers, Mallards and other ducks are often seen foraging for food, especially in winter.

Common Mergansers, south marsh, Abbott Marshlands

As Beech Trees sometimes do, this tree developed a natural cavity at its base, a cavity large enough to provide shelter for some of the Island’s animal inhabitants.

Cavity developing at the base of the American Beech (Fagus grandifolia)

In spite of this cavity, the Beech tree continued to grow and prosper, its remaining inner bark undisturbed and providing a sufficient vascular system to pump food to all of the tree’s branches and leaves.

American Beech (Fagus grandifolia), the island at Spring Lake, Abbott Marshlands

Then one day as my husband and I approached the tree, we saw evidence of a fire in its open base. One or more individuals had been setting fires in the hollow of this and other trees on the Island.

Evidence of fire is visible in the hollow of this American Beech (Fagus grandifolia), the island at Spring Lake, Abbott Marshlands

The fire didn’t kill the tree, but it did weaken and stress the wood that provided structural support for this lovely giant.

After a few years the stress took its toll, and major branches of the tree began to break.

Weakened by fire, the branches of the once majestic American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) begin to break

Weakened by fire, the branches of the once majestic American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) begin to break

Over the next few years, more of the branches broke down. Eventually, all of the major branches of the tree broke off.  Because of its proximity to the trail, the wood was cut up and removed.

Broken branches of the once majestic American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) are cut up and removed

Now on the approach to the area where this once magnificent tree stood, the only remaining visible evidence of the tree is a burned snag less than 10 feet tall.

On the approach, the only remaining evidence of the beautiful American Beech is a burned out snag.

When I see the remains of this vibrant tree, it makes me sad to think how destructive we humans can be.

But the last time we visited the area, I took a closer look and began to be encouraged.  From a different angle, I could see that there was still one living branch coming from the dead-looking stump stretching out towards the sun and the marsh below.

One branch stretches off to the right of the remains of the American Beech (Fagus grandifolia), with side branches reaching for the sun and sky.

When I looked around, I noticed two vigorous young Beech trees directly across the trail intersection from this tenacious tree.

Vigorous young American Beech across the trail

A glance down the trail to the east revealed parchment-like winter leaves vibrating in the breeze in many places, a tell-tale sign of many more young beech trees of varying ages.

Young American Beech trees all along the trail to the east

As I looked to the west, there were young healthy Beech trees every few feet lining the trail as far as I could see.

Young American Beech trees lining the trail as afar as the eye can see

Beech trees are able to reproduce through the nuts they produce, but they also have an extensive root system from which they send up new shoots.  Many, if not all, of these young Beech trees are shoots from the one formerly majestic mother tree that still clings to life at the edge of the island.  She lives on.

Seeing the proliferation of young Beech trees gives me hope that the other species in our ecosystem will help heal the wounds inflicted in our world by unthinking members of our own species.

The magnificent mother Beech (Fagus grandifolia) lives on.

Thanks to Jeff Worthington for the use of his excellent photos documenting a few slices in the life of this American Beech.

For more information about American Beech trees, click here.

 

 

Holiday Gift Ideas for Your Wild Neighbors

American Robin with Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) at Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, New Hope, PA

Looking for the perfect holiday gifts for the birds, butterflies, bees and other wildlife neighbors outside your windows?

The answer is simple.  Give them plants that are native to where you live.  Plants and animals have evolved together over many centuries in such a way that they depend on each other for their survival.  Animals depend on native plants for food, shelter, nesting sites and materials.  Plants in turn depend on animals to help disperse their seeds, and in many cases for essential assistance in reproduction, as their pollination intermediaries.

You’ll be doing yourself a favor, too, since native plants, once established, typically don’t require fertilizer, watering or other special care.

The American Robin shown here with Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) was one member of a flock of Robins that swooped down to devour the bright winter-time fruit.  Winterberry Holly has fruit high in carbohydrates and low in fats, a recipe for being ignored during migration season in fall, but devoured during the cold days of winter when birds need those carbohydrates. In exchange for this winter feast, birds ‘disperse’ the seeds complete with fertilizer after the seeds move through a bird’s digestive system.

If you live in North America, here are a few resources to help you learn which plants are native where you live:

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Audubon

North American Native Plant Society

Also check with your local state or province native plant society.

For the birds, another great gift idea is a heated bird bath.  Birds need to drink and bathe even in winter.

What else can you do? Less:

  • Leave the fallen leaves in your planting beds.  They provide habitat for overwintering insects, and the insects are food for birds.
  • Don’t use pesticides or herbicides
  • Reduce your lawn size if possible
  • Chop up leaves on your lawn with a mulching mower to create a natural chemical-free fertilizer

Happy holidays!

Related Posts

A Wildlife, Family and Pet-friendly Lawn

Red-banded Hairstreaks Need Sumacs and Leaf Mulch

For Great Spangled Fritillaries, Leave the Leaf Litter

American Robin with Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) at Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, New Hope, PA

Time for Cranberries!

Image

Cranberries, especially in the form of relishes and baked goods, are a Thanksgiving tradition made possible by Cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon), a low-growing, creeping, evergreen shrub native to North American bogs and fens. Cranberry lends itself well to cultivation for commercial use, making cranberry based dishes possible throughout the year.

Cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon)

The flowers of this native shrub bloom in early to mid-summer, a prerequisite for the fruit that will come later in the season.

Cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon) in flower

In order to produce the tart but luscious and festive fall fruit, Cranberry’s flowers must be pollinated with assistance from insects, primarily bees.

Cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon) flowers

The flowers are most efficiently pollinated by bees who are capable of sonication, or buzz pollination.  In the case of Cranberries, this process is performed by bees that are able to hang upside down from the bottom edge of the flower’s corolla (collection of petals) and vibrate their wing muscles without moving their wings.  This sets up just the right motion to release pollen from the flower like salt from a shaker dusting the bee’s underside.  When the bee moves on to the next flower, its pollen-dusted abdomen brushes the flower’s stigma (female reproductive part), depositing pollen from the previous flower.

It’s not every bee that has this special talent.  Honey Bees don’t have the skills necessary to buzz pollinate.  The best Cranberry pollinators are the native bees with which it has evolved, and who can sonicate (buzz pollinate), including several species of Bumble Bees, Sweat Bees (Halictidae) and Mining Bees (Andrenidae).  The presence of these native bees significantly increases the yield of commercial cranberry operations.

Bumble Bee getting in position to buzz pollinate a Shooting Star (Dodecatheon Meadia) flower. The structure of this flower is very similar to those of Cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon).

Other food we eat, including blueberries, tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers are produced by plants whose flowers are also most effectively pollinated through buzz pollination.

With the help of the bees, this tough little shrub produces abundant fruit that ripens in the fall and resists spoiling, perfect timing for inclusion in a late fall or winter feast.

Cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon)

In addition to being tasty and nutritious, Cranberry has medicinal value. Consumption of cranberries or unsweetened cranberry juice can help prevent urinary tract infections.

Humans are not the only consumers of cranberries.  Birds including Sharp-tailed and Ruffed Grouse, Bobwhites, Mourning Doves and American Tree Sparrows are known to eat cranberries,

Ruffed Grouse

American Tree Sparrow

as are Chipmunks.

Eastern Chipmunk

Cranberry hosts the caterpillars of several moths who can only eat the leaves of this and a few related species.  The Bog Copper butterfly is also a specialist on Cranberry and the closely related Small Cranberry (Vaccinium oxycoccus).

Cranberry is indigenous in the United States from Maine to Minnesota, south from northeastern Illinois to Delaware, and from there reaching as far south as Tennessee and North Carolina primarily through the Appalachians; it can also be found in coastal Washington state and Oregon, and Nevada county in California.  In Canada it is native from Newfoundland to Ontario, in British Columbia and the Northwest Territories.  The top five states in commercial cranberry production are Wisconsin, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington.  British Columbia and Quebec are the top cranberry producing provinces in Canada.

Why is the range of this plant primarily in northern latitudes and higher elevations?  The answer lies in the fact that Cranberry is much less successful in producing flowers and fruit unless it goes through a sufficient period of dormancy induced by day length change and cold temperatures.  To successfully break dormancy, the plants must experience a cumulative number of ‘chill hours’, usually defined as temperatures between 32 and 45 °F (0 – 7.2 °C), during the winter months.  A study done by University of Wisconsin researchers found that 1500 chill hours seemed to be in the optimal range for successful bloom of cranberry flowers.  As the climate changes and night time temperatures warm, the geographic range where these optimal conditions can be met may shrink.

Enjoy those cranberry dishes while you can!

Manoff’s Apple Cranberry Chutney!

Related Posts

The Buzz about Shooting Star

Love Blueberries?  Thank a Native bee

Resources

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

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

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

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

Hoffmann, David.  Medical Herbalism.  2003.

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

Biobest Sustainable crop Management

Illinois Wildflowers

https://illinoiswildflowers.info/plant_insects/plants/vaccinium_macrocarpum.html

http://www.illinoiswildflowers.info/flower_insects/plants/lg_cranberry.htm

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center Plant Database

The Canadian Encyclopedia

University of Wisconsin Extension; Cranberry Crop Management Journal

University of Massachusetts, Natural History of the American Cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon)

USDA NRCS Plants Database

USDA REEIS Cranberry Cold Hardiness in Relation to Dormancy and Bud Development; Source: University of Wisconsin

United States Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service New Jersey Field Office – Cranberry Highlights

US Forest Service – What is a Fen?

WisCONTEXT: Pollinators Provide Extra Buzz To Wisconsin’s Cranberry Crop

https://www.wiscontext.org/pollinators-provide-extra-buzz-wisconsins-cranberry-crop

Another Migrating Butterfly, and the Plants that Sustain It

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

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

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

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

Common Buckeye nectaring on Aromatic Aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium)

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

Common Buckeye basking

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

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

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

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

gerardia,

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

Monkey Flower,

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

and Wild Petunia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Common Buckeyes on goldenrod

 

Resources

Brock, Jim P.; Kauffman, Ken.  Kaufman Field Guide to Butterflies of North America.  2003.

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

Glassberg, Jeffrey.  A Swift Guide to Butterflies of North America.  2012.

Glassberg, Jeffrey.  Butterflies through Binoculars A Field Guide to Butterflies in the Boston-New York-Washington Region.  1993.

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

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

Canadian Biodiversity Information Facility: Butterflies of Canada

Butterflies and Moths of North America