Downy Skullcap and the Amorous Skippers

Apparently I planted some Downy Skullcap (Scutellaria incana) in our garden last year and then promptly forgot, so it was a delightful surprise when the vivid blue flowers began to bloom in long stalks above gray-green foliage.

Downy Skullcap (Scutellaria incana) with Flower (Syrphid) Fly

Downy Skullcap (Scutellaria incana) with Flower (Syrphid) Fly

Each long tubular flower has an entrance with a hood- or cap-like overhang at the top, and a floor with a white pathway beckoning to visitors who might help pollinate the flowers.

Downy Skullcap (Scutellaria incana) Flower

Downy Skullcap (Scutellaria incana) Flower

The almost sapphire blue flowers are especially attractive to bees, and are thought to be most often pollinated by Bumble Bees (Bombus species) but they entice other pollinators as well, including flower flies, bee flies, and small butterflies.

I watched for visitors to the flowers in our garden and at another near-by site, Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve. At both locations, bees were the most frequent visitors on days when I checked, and of the bees, Small Carpenter Bees (Ceratina species) were the most common.

Downy Skullcap (Scutellaria incana) with Small Carpenter Bee (Ceratina species)

Downy Skullcap (Scutellaria incana) with Small Carpenter Bee (Ceratina species)

Don’t be put off by the fact that they are called carpenter bees.  These tiny bees won’t be drilling holes in the deck, siding or wood trim of your home.  They nest in the stems of dead or broken twigs, excavating nesting cells by chewing through the pith, the softer tissue inside the stem.  Small Carpenter Bees are pollinators of many plants, especially those with small flowers.

Each bee crawled inside the flower, disappearing down the throat until they reached the nectar reward at the bottom.

Downy Skullcap (Scutellaria incana) with Small Carpenter Bee (Ceratina species) crawling down the throat of the flower to reach the nectar reward

Downy Skullcap (Scutellaria incana) with Small Carpenter Bee (Ceratina species) crawling down the throat of the flower to reach the nectar reward

But it wasn’t just nectar they were after.  Bees need a balanced diet.  They wanted pollen, too, for the protein and lipids it provides.  The flowers’ reproductive parts, the stamens and pistils, are hidden under the hood at their entrance.  After emerging from drinking nectar at the depths of a flower, each bee then checked under the hood for pollen, which is dispersed from the anthers at the stamens’ tips.  Some bees even went straight for the pollen without bothering with the nectar.  Hopefully some of that pollen was later deposited on the stigma of another flower, the female flower part where pollen must be placed in order for pollination to occur.

Downy Skullcap (Scutellaria incana) with Small Carpenter Bee (Ceratina species) emerging from the flower

Downy Skullcap (Scutellaria incana) with Small Carpenter Bee (Ceratina species) emerging from the flower

Downy Skullcap (Scutellaria incana) with Small Carpenter Bee (Ceratina species) harvesting pollen

Downy Skullcap (Scutellaria incana) with Small Carpenter Bee (Ceratina species) harvesting pollen

Much larger relatives of these tiny bees, Eastern Carpenter Bees (Xylocopa virginica), also visited the flowers.  Although these bees can be excellent pollinators, it pains me to tell you that in the case of Downy Skullcap, Eastern Carpenter Bees are thieves. They can’t access the flowers’ nectar by going through the inviting entrance, thus interacting with the flowers’ reproductive parts and helping with pollination.  So instead, they bite through the floral tube near its base, directly accessing the nectar, doing nothing in return to assist the plant in its reproductive goals.  Interestingly, a Honey Bee tried to discourage the Eastern Carpenter Bees from this dishonest activity by trying to chase them away, with some success. And yes, regrettably, Eastern Carpenter Bees might choose to nest in the wood of your home.

Downy Skullcap (Scutellaria incana) with Eastern Carpenter Bees (Xylocopa virginica) robbing the flower of nectar by biting through the floral tube to drink it.

Downy Skullcap (Scutellaria incana) with Eastern Carpenter Bees (Xylocopa virginica) robbing the flower of nectar by biting through the floral tube to drink it.

While looking for Downy Skullcap flower visitors in our garden, I spotted a male Zabulon Skipper drinking nectar.

Male Zabulon Skipper drinking nectar from a Downy Skullcap (Scutellaria incana) flower

Male Zabulon Skipper drinking nectar from a Downy Skullcap (Scutellaria incana) flower

A moment later, I noticed a female Zabulon Skipper, doing the same.

Female Zabulon Skipper drinking nectar from a Downy Skullcap (Scutellaria incana) flower. Notice the bee disappearing into the flower above hers.

Female Zabulon Skipper drinking nectar from a Downy Skullcap (Scutellaria incana) flower. Notice the bee disappearing into the flower above hers.

Then the male flew over to the female and suggested a ‘hook up’.

Female (top) and male (bottom) Zabulon Skippers, negotiating a hook up. Their wings are a little out of focus because both were vibrating them energetically as a lead up to an agreement.

Female (top) and male (bottom) Zabulon Skippers, negotiating a hook up. Their wings are a little out of focus because both were vibrating them energetically as a lead-up to an agreement.

She was apparently persuaded by his pitch.  They went off to a more secluded spot, and stayed there beyond the limits of my attention span.

Zabulon Skippers, mating

Zabulon Skippers, mating

Zabulon Skippers, mating

Zabulon Skippers, mating

These small butterflies are common in gardens and natural areas, specializing on many grass species as food for their caterpillars, including Purpletop (Tridens flavus), Purple Love Grass (Eragrostis spectabilis), and other related species.

Purpletop (Tridens flavus), a caterpillar food for Zabulon Skippers

Purpletop (Tridens flavus), a caterpillar food for Zabulon Skippers

When the flowers have finished blooming and drop away, a cap-shaped calyx, the set of sepals that act as bud scales remains, providing the inspiration for the common name ‘skullcap’.

Cap or dish like calyxes of Downy Skullcap (Scutellaria incana)

Cap- or dish-like calyxes of Downy Skullcap (Scutellaria incana)

‘Downy’ in the common name and ‘incana’ in the scientific name, which means hoary or quite gray, refer to the short soft hairs present on the flowers and stems of this plant. Hoary Skullcap is another common name for the species.

Downy Skullcap is native in the United States from New York west to Wisconsin, south as far as Texas and the Florida panhandle.  It can tolerate full sun to full shade, dry to moist soil. Blooming in mid-summer, it makes a dramatic addition to a garden.  Add it to yours and wait for the real drama (food foraging, bee face-offs, theft, flirtation, sex!) to begin.

Downy Skullcap (Scutellaria incana) with Small Carpenter Bee (Ceratina species)

Downy Skullcap (Scutellaria incana) with Small Carpenter Bee (Ceratina species)

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.

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

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

Willmer, Pat.  Pollination and Floral Ecology. 2011

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

Illinois Wildflowers

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center Plant Database

Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Finder

USDA NRCS Plants Database

 

A Showy Little Orchid

Blooming in mid-spring, Showy Orchis (Gaelaris spectabilis), also known as Showy Orchid, peeks out from its home on the forest floor from beneath the leaves of other species that tower above it.

Showy Orchis (Gaelaris spectabilis) in bloom, with Perfoliate Bellwort (Uvularia perfoliata)

Showy Orchis (Gaelaris spectabilis) in bloom, with Perfoliate Bellwort (Uvularia perfoliata)

A stem rises from two broad, firm, almost succulent leaves at the base of the plant, presenting a cluster of lovely flowers, typically purple and white.

Showy Orchis (Gaelaris spectabilis)

Showy Orchis (Gaelaris spectabilis)

The purple hood-like structure at the top of the flower is made up of three sepals abutting each other.  The sepals acted as bud scales that protected the flower before it opened; in bloom, the sepals are part of the showy floral display, and at the same time they continue to protect the flower’s reproductive parts.  Each flower also has three petals, two of which are tucked up on the underside of the hood, the third is the long, white petal hanging down below the hood.  This petal is called a lip or labellum, and makes a good landing platform for visiting insects.

Showy Orchis (Gaelaris spectabilis). If you look carefully, you can see where the edges of the sepals touch each other to form the hood.

Showy Orchis (Gaelaris spectabilis). If you look carefully, you can see where the edges of the sepals touch each other to form the hood.

While the flowers are usually purple and white, occasionally they are all white (forma gordinierii) or all purple (forma willeyi), like the plant in the photo below.

Showy Orchis (Gaelaris spectabilis) forma willeyi

Showy Orchis (Gaelaris spectabilis) forma willeyi

This native orchid grows to a height of about 4 to 8 inches (10 to 20 cm), but its beauty is arresting.  Both the common name, Showy Orchis, and the scientific name accurately reflect the appearance of this petite beauty. Showy Orchis’s genus, Gaelaris, means helmet, referring to the helmet-like hood at the top of the flower.  Spectabilis means spectacular or showy, something these flowers certainly are, proving once again that you don’t have to be large to make a statement.  (See American Hazelnut and Purple Milkwort flowers.)

Showy Orchis (Gaelaris spectabilis) in bloom. To give some size perspective, notice the Round-lobed Hepatica leaf to the left of the Showy Orchis flowers.

Plants that have bright showy flowers have evolved to attract animals to be pollen couriers, since the animals have the ability to carry pollen from one plant to another.  This assistance is necessary for the plant species to accomplish its objective of cross-pollination.  Showy flowers attract potential pollinators with the promise of food, much like signs for our favorite restaurants attract us.  In North America, insects are the most common target audience for this display.

While some plants can self-pollinate, including Showy Orchis, cross-pollination yields a stronger genetic result.  (It’s the same reason people are told not to marry a cousin or other close relative.)  Plants can bend, but they can’t move from the spot where they are rooted. They have to enlist a third party to assist them in transporting pollen.

Insects don’t help with pollination out of altruism.  They are foraging the flowers for food for themselves, and in the case of female bees, they also need to bring food back to their nests to feed their kids (larvae).  They expect to be compensated for their visits, usually in the form of nectar or pollen, or both.  If a plant species wants a potential pollinator to keep visiting enough flowers to help with cross-pollination, it will likely have a higher success rate if it provides payment for services rendered.

Not all plants play by this rule. The Lady’s Slippers and Puttyroot orchids are among the thirty percent of orchid species that rely totally on deception to entice potential pollinators; they don’t actually offer any payback.  They have attractive flowers that advertise a reward, but they don’t deliver.  This could explain their low rate of pollination success.

Pink Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium acaule). A deceptively attractive flower that doesn't deliver a reward to pollinators

Pink Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium acaule). A deceptively attractive flower that doesn’t deliver a reward to pollinators

Showy Orchis has evolved to take a less risky approach.  This lovely species provides nectar to pay its pollination partners for their services.  The white petal, or lip, extends into a long nectar spur at the back of the flower, accessed at the flower’s throat from beneath the hood.

Showy Orchis (Gaelaris spectabilis). Note the long white nectar spur extending from the back of each flower.

Showy Orchis (Gaelaris spectabilis). Note the long white nectar spur extending from the back of each flower.

Queen Bumble Bees are the primary pollinators for Showy Orchis. In spring they can often be seen flying a few inches above ground when woodland wildflowers are blooming.

Pollen is an important part of a bee’s diet, so a visiting queen Bumble Bee would also love to be able to harvest and eat the orchid’s pollen in addition to drinking nectar.  But Showy Orchis pollen is not dispersed in loose grains that can be accessed easily by a pollinator. Instead, its thousands of tiny pollen grains are packaged in pollinia, which are a little like tiny saddle bags of pollen. Milkweed pollen is also packaged this way.

Bees don’t knowingly move pollen from one flower to another, they typically have to be manipulated by the plant to carry out this task.  Showy Orchis is capable of such manipulative behavior.  The flower’s reproductive parts are sheltered in a column under the hood of the flower.  The stigma, the female flower part where pollen must be deposited in order to initiate the pollination process, is close to the opening for the nectar spur.  A small projection called a rostellum tops the stigma, and the male reproductive parts are next to the rostellum.

Showy Orchis (Gaelaris spectabilis). The entrance to the nectar spur is at the throat of the flower, just below the hood. The flower's reproductive parts are suspended from the hood. The rostellum is the small projection with two rounded humps. The sheaths that hold the male reproductive parts are above the rostellum, the stigma is behind it.

Showy Orchis (Gaelaris spectabilis). The entrance to the nectar spur is at the throat of the flower, just below the hood. The flower’s reproductive parts are suspended from the hood. The rostellum is the small projection with two rounded humps. The sheaths that hold the male reproductive parts are above the rostellum, the stigma is behind it.

As a bee moves into position at the flower’s throat to drink nectar, its head touches the rostellum, breaking it open.  This triggers the release of the pollinia from sheaths in which they developed on the underside of the flower’s hood, and of sticky pads concealed in the rostellum that attach the pollinia to the bee’s forehead between its antennae.

As Showy Orchis (Gaelaris spectabilis) flowers age, their hoods lift, revealing the reproductive parts that were hidden. In this photo, the reproductive parts viewed together look like a boxer whose outsized arms and hands are raised in victory. What appears to be the boxer's body is the rostellum, the stigma is below, as if it were a podium hiding the rest of the boxer’s body. The stamens (male reproductive parts) were enclosed in what look like arms, the pollinia in the 'gloves'.

As Showy Orchis (Gaelaris spectabilis) flowers age, their hoods lift, revealing the reproductive parts that were hidden. In this photo, the reproductive parts viewed together look like a boxer whose outsized arms and hands are raised in victory. What appears to be the boxer’s body is the rostellum, the stigma is below, as if it were a podium hiding the rest of the boxer’s body. The stamens (male reproductive parts) were enclosed in what look like arms, the pollinia in the ‘gloves’.

Showy Orchis (Gaelaris spectabilis). In this photo, it appears that the pollinia were not released, and are still enclosed in their sheathing.

Showy Orchis (Gaelaris spectabilis). In this photo, it appears that the pollinia were not released, and are still enclosed in their sheathing.

The pollinia is now attached to the bee in the perfect position to deposit on the stigma of the next Showy Orchis flower she visits.  She will unwittingly aid Showy Orchis in cross-pollination.

If a flower is successfully pollinated, it will produce a dry, woody fruit capsule containing thousands of dust-like seeds.

Showy Orchis (Gaelaris spectabilis) fruit capsules

Showy Orchis (Gaelaris spectabilis) fruit capsules

The fruit capsule persists through the winter months and even into the following spring.  When it finally breaks open, these weightless seeds are dispersed by the wind.

Showy Orchis (Gaelaris spectabilis) fruit capsules are often still visible the following spring.

Showy Orchis (Gaelaris spectabilis) fruit capsules are often still visible the following spring.

The seeds don’t have any food reserves of their own, so in order to get the nutrients they need to develop into a viable plant, the seeds have to find the right mycorrhizal fungi with which to partner.  Mycorrhizal fungi live in the soil and partner with plants, providing nutrients from the soil to the plants.  In return the plants provide carbohydrates to the fungi.  The fungal network may also help plants share nutrients with each other.  Current scientific thought is that Showy Orchis partners only with fungi in the genus Ceratobasidium.  Without this fungal partnership, Showy Orchis won’t survive.

Showy Orchis is often found growing in the company of Mayapple, Perfoliate Bellwort, Solomon’s Seal, False Solomon’s Seal, Rue Anemone, Hepatica, Spring Beauty, Jack-in-the-pulpit, Bloodroot, Spicebush, and other spring blooming wildflowers and ferns.

Showy Orchis (Gaelaris spectabilis) in bloom, with Bloodroot (Sanguineria canadensis), Perfoliate Bellwort (Uvularia perfoliata), violets (Viola species) and a fruit capsule

Showy Orchis (Gaelaris spectabilis) in bloom, with Bloodroot (Sanguineria canadensis), Perfoliate Bellwort (Uvularia perfoliata), violets (Viola species) and a fruit capsule

Showy Orchid is native in the rich, deciduous woods of the United States from Maine to Minnesota in the north, south to southeastern Oklahoma and northwestern South Carolina, and in Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick provinces in Canada. Look for its showy display in mid-spring.

Showy Orchis (Gaelaris spectabilis) in bloom

Showy Orchis (Gaelaris spectabilis) in bloom

Related Posts

Yellow Lady’s Slipper – Like Winning the Lottery

An Orchid in Winter (Puttyroot)

A Tantalizing Promise – Cranefly Orchid

Signs of Spring – Hazelnuts in Bloom

A Small Beauty: Purple Milkwort

Milkweed – It’s Not Just for Monarchs

Resources

Consortium of Midwest Herbaria

Dieringer, Gregg; The Pollination Ecology of Orchis Spectabilis L. (Orchidaceae); 1982

Encyclopedia Britannica

Flora of North America

Hutchings Bee Service

Living in the Dunes

U.S. Forest Service Plant of the Week

Native Plant Trust Go Botany

North American Orchid Center Orchid Science

North American Orchid Center Gaelaris spectabilis

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

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

USDA NRCS Plant Database

Wikipedia

Wildflowers of the United States

Your Dictionary.com

 

 

A Spring Ephemeral Ecosystem That Hosts Butterflies

There is a time during early spring when woodland understory plants carpet the forest floor.  These plants emerge from the ground through a covering of fallen leaves, and before the tree canopy above them finishes leafing out, they bloom, develop fruit, disperse their seeds, and their visible parts die back.  They spend the rest of the year storing energy in their underground root systems, waiting for their window for photosynthesis the following spring.  These plants are the spring ephemerals, a term that reflects the brevity of their appearance above ground.

Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum), Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginiana), and Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum)

Spring ephemerals support an entire ecosystem of animals that depend on them for their continued existence.  Some of those animals are also ephemeral in nature, active and visible to us humans for the same time period during which the plants on which they depend are active.

Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica), Trout Lily or Dogtooth Violet (Erythronium americanum), and Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) are just a few of the spring ephemerals. They all provide food for a variety of pollinators, primarily native bees and flies who are active during the brief time these flowers are blooming.  Bees and flies visit flowers for both nectar and pollen, essential food for themselves, and in the case of bees, also for their larvae.

Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica)

Trout Lily or Dogtooth Violet (Erythronium americanum)

Spring Beauty and Trout Lily host mining bee species that specialize on their pollen.  Just as Monarch butterfly caterpillars can only eat the leaves of Milkweeds (Asclepias species) to survive, these bees can’t digest the pollen of any other plants. Without these plants, we wouldn’t have the bees.  In turn the bees are very efficient pollinators for the plant species on which they specialize.  About twenty-five percent of our native bees are specialists on a small group of related plants.

Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) with mining bee

Trout Lily or Dogtooth Violet (Erythronium americanum) with mining bee, probably the specialist Andrena erythronii

In addition to bees and flies, Spring Beauty’s shallow bowl-like flower shape also accommodates dining for spring flying butterflies.

Juvenal’s Duskywing drinking nectar from Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica)

Dutchman’s Breeches’ primary pollinators are queen Bumble Bees, newly emerged from their winter shelters.

Queen Bumble Bee pollinating Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)

Some native Mustard (Brassicaceae) family members are spring ephemerals, including Cut-leaved Toothwort (Cardamine concatenata), Toothwort or Crinkleroot (Cardamine diphylla), and Smooth Rockcress (Arabis laevigata).  The flowers of Mustard family members have four petals arranged in a cross shape, often forming a tube at the base of the flower.

Cut-leaved Toothwort (Cardamine concatenata)

Toothwort or Crinkleroot (Cardamine diphylla)

Smooth Rockcress (Arabis laevigata)

Not only do these plants provide nectar and pollen for early flying bees and flies,

Cut-leaved Toothwort (Cardamine concatenata) with bee

but they are also food plants for the caterpillars of some butterflies in a group called the Whites.  Where I live in New Jersey, Cut-leaved Toothwort and Smooth Rockcress host a member of this group called the Falcate Orangetip.  At rest they are unmistakable, with a gray and white marbled pattern on their ventral (under) side, the males with the distinctive orange wing tips above. They are very flitty, though, so it’s hard to get a good look, or a photo!

Falcate Orangetip drinking nectar from Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica)

It was only a year ago that I first spotted this butterfly, on a woodland trail where Cut-leaved Toothwort and Smooth Rockcress are both present.

In the northern tier of the eastern United States and in parts of Canada, the Mustard White butterfly uses some of these same Mustard family members as its required caterpillar food.  The West Virginia White, a fairly uncommon butterfly’, uses both Toothwort species.

Mustard White drinking nectar from Bluets (Houstonia caerulea)

In flight both the Falcate Orangetip and Mustard White can easily be mistaken for the very common, non-native Cabbage White, so in spring it’s worth taking a careful look at any small white butterfly you see in a woodland area where these native mustard family members are present.  The butterflies’ active period mirrors that of their caterpillar food plants, so you can only see them for about 4-6 weeks during the spring.

Cabbage White

Without our native Mustard family members, the Falcate Orangetip and Mustard White and West Virginia White butterflies would cease to exist.

There is a whole ecosystem of species interdependent with native spring ephemerals that can only be observed during the fleeting weeks of early spring.  This is just a tiny window into that world.  For more on the spring ephemeral ecosystem, see the posts listed below. Even better, go outside and experience it for yourself!

Cut-leaved Toothwort (Cardamine concatenata) with bee

Related Posts

Cut-leaved Toothwort

A Carpet of Spring Beauty, Woven By Ants

Dutchman’s Breeches and Squirrel-corn

A Tale of two Spring Beauties

Signs of Spring – Mining Bees

Bloodroot

Spring Comes to the Sourlands

Rue Anemone and a Bee-fly

Trillium, Flies and Ants

Milkweed – It’s Not Just for Monarchs

Resources

Butterflies and Moths of North America

https://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/species/Anthocharis-midea

https://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/species/Pieris-oleracea

Pollen Specialist Bees of the Eastern United States

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.

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

 

A Dose of Spring

One thing we can still do while keeping a safe distance from other humans during the Covid-19 virus outbreak is to go outside for a walk.  It’s a great boost to your immune system, and contributes to an overall feeling of well-being.  If you go for a walk in a natural area, it’s especially beneficial.

Swan Creek, Rockhopper Trail, West Amwell Twp. NJ

Life goes on for the other species in the world while we humans are focused on the virus. Here are some animals and plants you might see if you go for a walk in my neighborhood in the mid-Atlantic United States.

Every morning now I hear Wrens, Cardinals, Titmice and other birds singing.  For several weeks Carolina Wren couples have been out shopping for real estate, looking for a good location to build a nest for the upcoming season.  These birds nest in cavities, usually from three to six feet off the ground.  A stump with a pre-made cavity like the one that the couple in the photos below is inspecting looks like very a very desirable property.

Carolina Wrens investigating a nesting site.

Carolina Wren investigating a fallen log with a natural cavity as a possible nesting site.

Carolina Wren standing watch at a possible nesting site.

While walking in the woods, you might hear a chorus of male wood frogs calling from a vernal pool, or see a mass of eggs that resulted from successful wood frog mating.

Male Wood Frogs

Wood Frog

Wood Frog egg mass

When temperatures are warm, bees and some butterflies may be active.  Even when spring temperatures are cooler, flies are active.

Greenbottle Fly (Lucilia sericata). This adult fly can be an effective pollinator, while its larvae are crime scene investigators’ friends, consuming dead rotting flesh or other decaying matter, a task that never goes out of season. The presence of these insects’ larvae can help determine time of death of a corpse.

Fly, unidentified.

Winter was unusually warm where I live in New Jersey.  As a result, the spring bloom season is about 3-4 weeks earlier than normal.  (This is a bit alarming, but since we have enough to worry about right now, I’m just going to focus on enjoying it.) With each passing day, more and more buds break and flowers bloom.

Leatherwood (Dirca palustris) is an early blooming shrub whose flower buds come with their own ‘fur’ coat, just in case the temperatures take a tumble. If the temperatures are warm, a lovely fragrance that even humans can detect wafts many feet away from the flowers.  When the air temperature is cooler, you can still catch the fragrance if you bring your nose right up to a flower and sniff.

Leatherwood (Dirca palustris). Bud scales act as a furry hood that protect the flowers.

The sunburst-like flowers of Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) are blooming, beckoning pollinators to visit, and promising fruit for birds in the fall.

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) blossom, male. Spicebush have male and female flowers on separate plants.

Hepatica, like Leatherwood, wears fur for warmth and to deter herbivores.  Depending on where you live, two species are possible, Round-lobed Hepatica (Anemone americana syn: Hepatica nobilis obtusa, Hepatica americana) and Sharp-lobed Hepatica (Anemone acutiloba syn: Hepatica nobilis acuta, Hepatica acutiloba).

Hepatica in bloom

The earliest of the Trilliums to blossom, Snow Trillium (Trillium nivale), has entered its short bloom season.  As you might guess, it is named for the fact that its flowers may open when snow is still present.  The Latin name nivale means ‘snow white, or growing near snow’.

Snow Trillium (Trillium nivale)

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) has opened its blossoms, hoping for insect visitors to help it with cross-pollination, but if all else fails it will self-pollinate.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

The lovely Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) is just starting to bloom, luring Bumble Bees to be their pollination facillitators.  This plant’s delicate appearance gives no hint of its narcotic-packed foliage, a reliable deterrent to herbivores that would otherwise be tempted to eat it.

Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)

The first Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) flowers are open, the beginning of several weeks of a floral display from this species.  There are specialist bees that depend on the pollen of this species as the only food that their larvae can digest. In return, these bees are very efficient and reliable pollination partners for Spring Beauty.

Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica)

Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica), with Toadshade (Trillium sessile) behind it, in bud

So many other species are waiting in the wings to be the next to bloom, including Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica).

Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica)

Everything changes so quickly in spring, from one day to the next and from morning until afternoon.  Visit a natural area often so that you don’t miss anything.  And to give your immune system a boost.  You might even learn something!  Just avoid people.

The author, out for a walk in the woods.

Related Posts

Spicebush or Forsythia?

Bloodroot

Dutchman’s Breeches and Squirrel Corn

A Tale of Two Spring Beauties

Photo Locations

Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve

Goat Hill Overlook, New Jersey

Rockhopper, New Jersey

Resources

All About Birds

National Wildlife Federation Educational Resources

US Forest Service Plant of the Week, Snow Trillium

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

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

 

 

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.