Where do Winterberries Come From?

It’s difficult to walk past Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) when it’s in fruit without noticing it.  The abundant, vividly red, globular, fleshy fruits of this aptly named shrub never fail to catch the eye.  

Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) in fruit
Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) in fruit

Where do all of those luscious-looking fruits come from?  

Have you ever noticed Winterberry Holly in bloom?

In late spring, Winterberry Holly is covered with an equally large number of somewhat inconspicuous greenish-white flowers. The flowers bloom gradually over a period of a few weeks. 

Like all hollies, Winterberry usually has male and female flowers on separate plants. Only female flowers can develop fruit. Although it isn’t typical, there may occasionally be a specimen with male and female flowers on the same plant, or some flowers that are perfect, that is, they have both male and female parts. Plants often have some variation, as they continue to evolve to try to find the most effective and efficient survival strategies.

Female flowers are usually in small clusters of up to three. The flowers have a single pistil (the female reproductive part) at their center. The green rounded base of the pistil is the ovary. If a flower is successfully pollinated, the ovary will mature, becoming the bright red fruit we see later in the season. The ovary is topped by a stigma, where pollen must be deposited in order for pollination to occur and fruit to develop.

Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) female flowers in bloom.  The whitish specks on the branches are lenticels, through which the plant exchanges gases with the surrounding atmosphere. Lenticels are commonly seen on Winterberry holly branches.
Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) female flowers in bloom. The whitish specks on the branches are lenticels, through which the plant exchanges gases with the surrounding atmosphere. Lenticels are characteristic of Winterberry holly branches.

The white arrow- or spade-shaped projections in between the petals of the female flowers are sterile stamens; they don’t produce pollen that can fertilize the flowers.  It’s likely that they help attract pollinators. As these sterile stamens age, they turn brown.

Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) female flowers in bloom.  The female reproductive part, the pistil, is the green mound-shaped object in the center of the flower.  The ovary is at the base, and will develop into a fruit if pollination is successful and the ovules inside are fertilized. The flat-ish tissue at the top is the stigma, where pollen must be placed by an incoming bee or other pollinator.  The white arrow- or spade-shaped projections in between the petals are sterile stamens.
Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) female flowers in bloom. The female reproductive part, the pistil, is the green volcano-shaped object in the center of the flower. The ovary is the base of the volcano, and will develop into a fruit if pollination is successful and the ovules inside are fertilized. The flat-ish tissue at the top is the stigma, where pollen must be placed by an incoming bee or other pollinator. The white arrow- or spade-shaped projections in between the petals are sterile stamens.

Male flowers often bloom in crowded clusters of up to 10 or more.  The male reproductive parts, called stamens, reach upward from the face of the flower, the anthers at their tips ready to deposit pollen on a flower visitor.   

Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) male flowers, blooming in densely-packed clusters.
Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) male flowers, blooming in densely-packed clusters.
Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) male flowers in bloom. The male reproductive parts, called stamens, reach up from the face of the flowers.  Pollen is produced from the anthers at their tips.
Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) male flowers in bloom. The male reproductive parts, called stamens, reach up from the face of the flowers. Pollen is produced from the tan anthers at their tips.

Winterberry Holly needs third party assistance to move pollen from a male flower on one plant to a female flower on another plant, in order to achieve pollination. It may be easy for people to walk past without noticing when these shrubs are in bloom, but fortunately the flowers are enticing beacons to potential pollinators of many different species, especially bees. A recent study showed Winterberry Holly to be among the most attractive to bees of the flowering shrubs.

In my own garden I spotted Bumble Bees, Mining Bees, Sweat Bees, Small Carpenter Bees and a wasp visiting the flowers for nectar rewards. Bees also eat pollen, and female bees may collect pollen to feed their larvae.

Confusing or Perplexing Bumble Bee (Bombus perplexus) visiting a Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) female flower.
Confusing or Perplexing Bumble Bee (Bombus perplexus) visiting a Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) female flower.
Mining Bee with a Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) flower.
Mining Bee drinking nectar from a Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) flower.
Sweat Bee with a Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) female flower.
Sweat Bee visiting a Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) female flower.
Small Carpenter Bee (Ceratina species) departing from a Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) flower.
Small Carpenter Bee (Ceratina species) departing from a Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) female flower.
Eastern yellow Jacket drinking from a Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) female flower.
Eastern Yellow Jacket drinking from a Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) female flower.

Without the assistance of these flower visitors, pollination would not take place, no fruit would develop, and Winterberry Holly would not be able to reproduce. If these pollinators do the job the plants have enticed them to do, fruit develops, ripening by fall.

Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) in fruit.
Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) in fruit.

Birds are the primary target audience for the colorful display of Winterberry Holly’s bright red fruit. Many different species of birds including Eastern Bluebirds,

Eastern Bluebirds enjoy Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) fruit
Eastern Bluebirds enjoy Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) fruit

White-throated Sparrows,

White-throated Sparrows are among the birds that eat Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) fruit.
White-throated Sparrows are among the birds that eat Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) fruit.

and Hermit Thrush

Hermit Thrush sitting in a Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata)
Hermit Thrush in a Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata)

eat the fleshy fruit and later become the unwitting dispersers of the seeds inside as they deposit them with natural fertilizer when defecating.

Small mammals like mice and squirrels may eat Winterberry fruit, too. People are just the accidental beneficiaries of the bright spectacle, but shouldn’t eat the fruit, which is toxic to humans.

Winterberry Holly fruits contain more carbohydrates than fats, making them less preferred by birds than some other fruit available in the fall. As a result, Winterberry fruit is frequently passed over until later in the season, often well into winter, although sometimes a flock of hungry American Robins or Cedar Waxwings will strip a Winterberry Holly of all its fruit in a matter of hours.

American Robin in Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata).  A flock of hungry Robins can strip a shrub of its fruit in a matter of hours.
American Robin in Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata). A flock of hungry Robins can strip a shrub of its fruit in a matter of hours.

Winterberry Holly is a deciduous shrub or understory tree that grows to a maximum height of about 15 – 20 feet (5 – 6 meters). It prefers moist soil, and is indigenous in bogs and wet woods in the eastern half of the United States and Canada. It makes a great addition to your own landscape for its benefit to pollinators, birds and other wildlife. It doesn’t hurt that Winterberry Holly adds some bright color to a winter landscape.

Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) in fruit.
Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) in fruit.

Resources

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

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

Mach, Bernadette M.; Potter, Daniel A. Quantifying bee assemblages and attractiveness of flowering woody landscape plants for urban pollinator conservation. 2018.

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

Williams, Paul; Thorp, Robin; Richardson, Leif; Colla, Sheila. Bumble Bees of North America. 2014.

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

Illinois Wildflowers

Minnesota Wildflowers

Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Finder

USDA NRCS Plant Database

American Cranberrybush

American Cranberrybush  (Viburnum opulus var. americanum synonym V. trilobum), also called Highbush Cranberry, Cranberrybush Viburnum, and several other common names, is not the source of the cranberries often served for Thanksgiving dinner.  Those cranberries come from an unrelated species, Cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon), a member of the heath family, and a plant that is more closely related to blueberries than it is to American Cranberrybush.

American Cranberrybush (Viburnum opulus var. americanum) fruit

American Cranberrybush gets its common name from the color of its bright red fruit, which does resemble the cranberries so often used to make holiday side dishes or to garnish a salad.  The common name Highbush Cranberry refers to this shrub’s height, which can be in the range of 8 to 12 feet (2.5 – 3.6 meters), much taller than the species that yield fruit for those traditional dishes.

This lovely shrub blooms in spring, usually some time in May.  Its floral display consists of two types of flowers arranged in a large rounded cluster, creating a lace-cap effect.  Large white sterile flowers form the perimeter of the flower cluster, surrounding a dense group of much smaller fertile flowers that make up most of the inflorescence.  The job of the sterile flowers is to be showy enough to attract potential pollinators to the fertile flowers, where the work of reproduction is carried out.  This floral strategy is shared by Hobblebush Viburnum (Viburnum lantanoides, synonym V. alnifolia) and some of the hydrangeas.

The sterile perimeter flowers bloom first.

American Cranberrybush (Viburnum opulus var. americanum) flower cluster. The large sterile flowers around the perimeter are in bloom, while the fertile flowers are still in bud.

Then gradually, the fertile flowers open for business, enticing pollinators to visit, including many flies, bees and beetles, all important pollinators.

American Cranberrybush (Viburnum opulus var. americanum) flower clusters. Many of the small fertile flowers in the center of the inflorescences are in bloom, in addition to the sterile flowers around the perimeter. If you look closely at the top cluster, you can see a fly (a potential pollinator) foraging for nectar and pollen.
Foraging Mining Bee (Andrena sp.) on blooming American Cranberrybush (Viburnum opulus var. americanum) flowers.
Mining Bee (Andrena sp.) and another tiny pollinator a bit above and to her right, on blooming American Cranberrybush (Viburnum opulus var. americanum) flowers.

Spring Azure butterflies use the flowers and buds of this and other spring-blooming viburnums, and a few other woody species as food for their caterpillars. 

Spring Azure butterfly

Hummingbird Clearwing and several other moth species also use this and other viburnums as food for their caterpillars.

Hummingbird Clearwing (Hemaris thysbe) moth

American Cranberrybush leaves have three lobes, resembling the leaves of Red Maple (Acer rubrum). To protect itself from hungry marauding caterpillars, American Cranberrybush has glands on its leaf stems just below where the stem meets the leaf blade. These glands are extra-floral nectaries, designed to lure insects that can be enticed by both a sweet nectar treat and the protein available from a caterpillar. Ants, wasps, even some flies are potential security guards that are paid for their presence with nectar from these glands, with the potential for a bonus: as many caterpillars as they can find.  Ants drink nectar and eat caterpillars and other insects. Wasps and flies drink nectar, and some also hunt caterpillars or other insects to feed their young.  The presence of these predatory insects helps protect American Cranberrybush from foraging caterpillars.

Note the bumps on the leaf stem, just below the 3-lobed leaf blade. They are the extra-floral nectaries.

American Cranberrybush is a variety of a look-alike shrub, European Cranberrybush (Viburnum opulus) which is of European origin and can become invasive in North America.  The two can interbreed, which has the undesirable potential to lead to the loss or alteration of the native variety. The best way to tell the two apart is by their extra-floral nectaries.  On American Cranberrybush, these nectaries are somewhat convex or slightly rounded at the top, while those on European Cranberrybush leaf petioles (stems) are concave.

By late June, developing fruit replaces successfully pollinated flowers, ripening as the summer goes on.  The fruit is a drupe, a fleshy fruit with a single seed encased in a stony pit. Peaches and cherries are examples of fruits that are drupes.

American Cranberrybush (Viburnum opulus var. americanum) developing fruit, late June in Pennsylvania.
American Cranberrybush (Viburnum opulus var. americanum) ripening fruit, mid-July in Pennsylvania.

American Cranberrybush fruit has a relatively low fat content, so it is less desirable for migrating birds than some other options like Spicebush (Lindera benzoin).  It often lasts well into the winter, but this year, where I live and play in central New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania, the fruit was already gone by mid-November. Of course, we have already had a few hard freezes, followed by warm-ups.

American Cranberrybush (Viburnum opulus var. americanum) fruit, November, in Pennsylvania.

Robins, Bluebirds, Hermit Thrush, Cedar Waxwings, grouse and many more birds eat American Cranberrybush fruit. 

Cedar Waxing – they are among the birds who eat American Cranberrybush fruit.

All kinds of animals, from moose to fox to squirrels and mice also eat the fruit.

Gray squirrels and many other animals eat American Cranberrybush fruit.

What about humans?  If we get to it before our animal neighbors do, can we use this fruit as an actual cranberry substitute?  If it is cooked with sugar or other sweetener added, people find the fruit of American Cranberrybush edible, too. Some sources say that fruit from European Cranberrybush tends to be more bitter.

Look for American Cranberrybush in wet woods or along streams in its native range, from Nova Scotia to British Columbia in Canada, and in the United States from Maine to Washington state, south to New Jersey, West Virginia and Illinois, although it is more common in the eastern US. The USDA also shows it in one county in New Mexico.

Happy Thanksgiving!  Enjoy those cranberries!

American Cranberrybush (Viburnum opulus var. americanum) fruit

Related Posts

Time for Cranberries!

Praying for Spring? So is Hobblebush Viburnum

‘Will Work for Food’ – Extra-floral Nectaries

Partridge Pea Puzzles

Resources

Beadle, David; Leckie, Seabrooke. Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America. 2012.

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

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

Levine, Carol. A Guide to Wildflowers in Winter. 1995.

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

Illinois Wildflowers

USDA NRCS Plant Database

USDA NRCS Plant Guide

Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Finder

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