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 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

 

 

Wingstem

There are still pockets of Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) in bloom along the Delaware and Raritan Canal in central New Jersey.  This species has been flowering in nearby locations since August.

Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) along the Delware and Raritan Canal in central New Jersey

Like so many other plants that bloom in late summer and fall, Wingstem is a member of the prolific Aster (Asteraceae) family, which consists of more than 23,600 species.

Aster family members have a floral display that is a composite of multiple flowers, called a flower head, inflorescence, or capitulum.  What our brain wants to interpret as a single flower is really a group of many flowers, all attached to the same platform, or receptacle.

There are two types of flowers that may be present in the flower head of an aster family member, ray flowers and disk flowers.  Each ‘petal’ we see is an individual ray flower that consists of a single petal.  The other type of flower is a disk flower, whose petals have fused to form a narrow tube.  Many Aster family members have a classic look with both ray and disk flowers, while some have evolved to produce just ray flowers, and others just disk flowers.

Aromatic Aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium) is a classic aster family member with both ray and disk flowers. A pair of mating Flower (Syrphid) Flies is visiting.

For many species that produce both ray and disk flowers, the ray flowers are sterile; they don’t have functioning reproductive parts.  Their role is just to look pretty, to be part of an appealing advertisement that attracts pollinators to the disk flowers in the center of the flower head.  It’s the disk flowers that produce pollen and nectar, and where the business of reproduction is carried out.

Wingstem is a species that has sterile ray flowers and fertile disk flowers, all attached to a rounded receptacle.  The disk flowers are large and distinct; it’s easy to see each individual flower, especially when insects are foraging for food.

Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) flowers with foraging bees. Notice the large but narrow tubular disk flowers projecting from the round recepticle, with the petal-like ray flowers below.

Like its relatives, Wingstem is a great source of food for late season pollinators. The ray flowers open first as a signal to pollinators that the flower head is open for business.  The disk flowers bloom a few at a time, starting with those closest to the ray flowers, then over many days gradually working towards the center of the head.  In each disk flower, the male reproductive parts (stamens) mature first, opening their anthers to make pollen available. Later the female reproductive parts (pistils) replace the stamens, the stigmas at the tips of the pistils becoming receptive to pollen.  At any time while in bloom there may be some flowers in a head that are in the male phase, others in the female phase.

Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) with foraging Bumble Bee. Note the distinct disk flowers. Those with a straight brown projection (the anthers) emerging are in the male phase. The disk flowers with yellow curliques (the stigmas) are in the female phase.

It’s easy to see how the pollen-covered Bumble Bee in the photo below would be an effective pollination partner for Wingstem.

Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) with foraging Bumble Bee

Not all pollen is destined to be used for pollination, however, since it’s an importance source of food for bees and flies.  Bees and flies drink nectar, but they also eat pollen.  Female bees also collect pollen to bring back to their nests to feed their larvae.  The female below already has a good quantity of food to bring to her offspring, packed onto the bristly hairs on her hind legs.

Female Bumble Bee on Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) foraging for food for herself and her offspring. The orange blob on her hind leg is pollen and nectar that she has already gathered to bring back to her nest. Note the long hairs on that leg, perfectly suited to transporting this food.

Sweat Bees and Small Carpenter Bees also visit Wingstem flowers for the nectar and pollen banquet they provide.

Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) with visiting Sweat Bee

Small Carpenter Bee on Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia)

This Toxomerous geminatus, a Flower Fly, may not have a tongue long enough to reach the nectar, but it can still consume pollen from these abundant flowers.

Toxomerous geminatus, a Flower Fly, eating pollen from a Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) disk flower

Wingstem nectar is a welcome offering for butterflies.

Summer Azure butterfly drinking nectar from a Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) disk flower

Even this thread-waisted wasp is doing her best to get into the flowers to drink nectar.

Mating Thread-waisted Wasps, with female attempting to drink nectar from Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) flowers

If these insects assist in transporting pollen to help achieve successful pollination, the disk flowers will produce dry, winged fruits (achenes) that will take the place of the flowers on the globe-shaped receptacle.  The fruits may drop in place, be scattered by wind, or dispersed with the assistance of a passing animal hooked by the pointy bristles on each achene.

Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) with fruit still attached to the round recepticle

Deer and other mammals avoid eating Wingstem because of its bitter taste. But there are some insects that happily get nourishment from this species.  The caterpillars of Silvery Checkerspot butterflies and some moths eat Wingstem leaves.

A Yellow Bear moth caterpillar taking refuge in a Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) leaf

The aphids in the photo below are feeding on Wingstem sap, while the ants are drinking the aphids’ honeydew (excrement).  The ants will protect the aphids in exchange for this treat.

Aphids on Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) flower head, being tended by ants

Wingstem is an herbaceous perennial that often grows to a height of 5-6 feet (1.5-2 meters), but can reach eight feet (2.5 meters) tall.  It can tolerate full sun to part shade, average to moist soil.  This plant’s name describes its appearance, providing clues to its identification.  ‘Wingstem’ refers to the leafy wing-like appendages along the sides of the main stem of the plant.  ‘Verbesina’ means that its foliage is similar to that of verbena, and ‘alternifolia’ tells us that the leaves are alternate, not opposite each other where they attach to the stem.

Note the alternate leaves. The leafy appendages along the sides of the stem, giving this plant its common name, ‘Wingstem’

Wingstem is native in the United States in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and from New York west to Nebraska, south as far as northeastern Texas and the Florida panhandle.  In Canada, it can be found in Ontario province.  Wingstem is less common in the northern and southernmost parts of its range.

Look for Wingstem and its visitors in late summer and fall.

Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) with Bumble Bees

Related Posts

Bountiful Blue Wood Aster

New England Asters – A Hotbed of Activity!

Asters Yield a Treasure Trove

Fall Allergies?  Don’t Blame Goldenrod!

‘Will Work for Food’ – Extra-floral Nectaries

Milkweed – It’s Not Just for Monarchs

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

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

Illinois Wildflowers

Missouri Botanical Garden

USDA NRCS Plant Database

 

 

Shrubby St. Johnswort

For about eight weeks during the summer, Shrubby St. Johnswort (Hypericum prolificum) is decorated with flowers, like ornaments on a holiday tree in mid-summer.

Shrubby St. Johnswort (Hypericum prolificum)

Each bright yellow blossom has five petals that provide a backdrop to a sphere-shaped burst of stamens, the male reproductive parts of the flowers.  Reaching out for a pollen deposit from the very center of the flowers are their female reproductive parts, called pistils.

Shrubby St. Johnswort (Hypericum prolificum) flower

This gaudy display is attractive to me, but more importantly, it’s a very effective lure for potential pollinators.  Bumble Bees are among the most likely visitors and effective pollinators.  While they climb around the stamens, eating and harvesting pollen from the anthers at their tips, they also pick up quite a bit of pollen on their hairy bodies.  As they forage, pollen on their bodies may be brushed off on the stigma at the tip of a flower’s pistil, setting the wheels in motion for pollination to occur.

Female Bumble Bee (Bombus impatiens) foraging on Shrubby St. Johnswort flowers

Female bees eat pollen themselves, and they also collect pollen to bring back to their nests to feed their larvae.  In the photo below, you can see the ‘bee bread’ this female has collected on her hind legs.  Quite a haul!

Female Bumble Bee (Bombus impatiens) harvesting pollen from Shrubby St. Johnswort flower

Other bees, like Sweat Bees, also visit the flowers for their pollen.

Female Sweat Bee (Lassioglossum species) harvesting pollen from Shrubby St. Johnswort flower

Female Sweat Bee (Lassioglossum species) eating pollen from Shrubby St. Johnswort flower. Notice the pollen on her back leg that she has harvested to take back to provision her nest for her larvae.

Flies are also consumers of pollen.  Flower Flies (also called Syrphid flies or Hover flies) are among those attracted to this pollen banquet.  They may also help with the pollination process, although their bodies are not as hairy as many of the bees.

Flower Fly or Syrphid Fly (Toxomerus geminatus) on Shrubby St. Johnswort flower

This bounty of pollen is so successful in enticing insects for whom pollen is an important part of their diet, primarily bees and flies, that Shrubby St. Johnswort doesn’t expend any energy producing nectar, finding it unnecessary to do so.

If the inadvertent pollination activities of these insects provide the expected payoff, this shrub lives up to the designation ‘prolificum’ in its scientific name, becoming ‘very fruitful’.  Fruit capsules replace the flowers, eventually opening to release their seeds for dispersal by gravity, or by hitching a ride on a passing animal. These dry fruits are visible throughout winter and into the following spring.

Shrubby St. Johnswort (Hypericum prolificum) fruit capsules

Shrubby St. Johnswort is related to the more well-known Common St. Johnswort (Hypericum perforatum), which is used for many medicinal purposes.  Shrubby St. Johnswort shares at least one chemical compound, hypericin, with its more famous relative.  Hypericin has a photosensitizing effect on its consumers, that is, it makes the skin of the animal that eats it especially sensitive to the sun, and exposure to sunlight after consumption results in rashes.  Producing hypericin evolved as an effective deterrent to animals that might otherwise be tempted to eat this plant, including deer.

Shrubby St. Johnswort is a relatively compact deciduous shrub that can grow to a height of about 6.5 feet (2 meters).  It does well in a variety of soils, from dry and rocky to moist, and can tolerate full sun to part shade.  Shrubby St. Johnswort is native in the eastern half of the United States, and in the province of Ontario in Canada.

Shrubby St. Johnswort (Hypericum prolificum)

 

Resources

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

Eastman, John.  The Book of Field and Roadside.  2003.

Hoffmann, David.  Medical Herbalism.  2003.

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

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

Illinois Wildflowers

USDA NRCS Plants database

Missouri Botanical Garden

 

Trilliums, Flies and Ants

For a few brief weeks in spring, Painted Trillium (Trillium undulatum) opens for business, the business of surviving as an individual plant and reproducing to ensure the continuation of the species.

Painted Trillium (Trillium undulatum)

Trilliums get their name from their structure.  Their leaves and flower parts are in threes or multiples of three.  Each plant has a whorl of three leaves below a single flower that has three petals, three sepals, six anthers, and a three-celled ovary.  ‘Undulatum’ refers to the wavy edges of the flower petals.

Painted Trillium’s three leaves act like solar panels to gather energy from the sun, enabling this plant to produce the carbohydrates it needs to grow and thrive, and to produce flowers that will enable reproduction if the flowers are pollinated.

Painted Trillium (Trillium undulatum)

Painted Trillium flowers have three bright white petals with paint-splatter-like dark red splotches at their base, bleeding into the petal’s veins.  This color contrast is an advertisement designed to attract potential pollinators to visit the flowers, implying that there is nectar and pollen available for a hungry insect to eat.  Painted Trillium offers these rewards because it needs help from a courier to move its pollen to another plant if it is to successfully reproduce through cross pollination.

Fly investigating Painted Trillium (Trillium undulatum), attracted by the dark red nectar guides

There is not a lot of documentation about the likely pollinators for Painted Trillium, but on more than one occasion, I have seen flies visiting the flowers.  The showy display works!  But the flies’ motivation is not to help with pollination.  They have their own needs to meet, mainly finding food.  They may visit the anthers to eat some nutritious pollen,

Fly harvesting pollen from Painted Trillium (Trillium undulatum)

and follow the colorful guides at the throat of the flower, diving deep to look for nectar.

Fly looking for nectar in a Painted Trillium (Trillium undulatum) flower

While foraging on the flower for food, the fly will likely rub its body or legs against the stigmas at the tips of the flower’s female reproductive parts, depositing pollen she may have brought on her body from a previous visit to a Painted Trillium flower.

Fly foraging on a Painted Trillium (Trillium undulatum) flower, with the underside of its abdomen brushing against the stigmas at the tips of the female reproductive parts of the flower. If this Painted Trillium is lucky, the fly will be depositing pollen picked up from another flower.

Fly foraging on a Painted Trillium (Trillium undulatum) flower, with its legs grasping the stigmas at the tips of the female reproductive parts of the flower.

It will also likely rub against the anthers of this flower, picking up pollen to take with it to deposit on the next Painted Trillium flower it visits.

Fly on a Painted Trillium (Trillium undulatum) flower, with its legs brushing against the anthers, from which pollen is dispensed.

Fly on a Painted Trillium (Trillium undulatum) flower, with the underside of its abdomen brushing against the anthers, hopefully picking up some pollen to take to another flower.

This inadvertent pollen transport is what Painted Trillium is counting on.  It has evolved to attract these unwitting pollination partners, and is willing to pay the energy price to reward them in exchange for their assistance with cross-pollination.

Several Trillium species with dark red flowers have evolved to attract flies as their pollinators.  The dark red flower color is often accompanied by a somewhat rank aroma. Together these features are meant to mimic dead rotting flesh (ok, carrion) or other decomposing matter.  Several fly species seek out this kind of material to lay their eggs.  When the larvae emerge from the eggs, they eat the decaying matter, breaking it down and add the result to the soil layer after it passes through the larva’s body.  These insects help crime scene investigators estimate time of death for a corpse, based on the stage and rate of development of the insect in the decaying body.  Many fly species are attracted to the flowers that use this strategy, only to be disappointed when there is no suitable place to lay their eggs.  At least the flies can console themselves with a pollen snack.

Trillium species that use this deceptive strategy include Red Trillium (Trillium erectum), and Toadshade (Trillium sessile, T. cuneatum).

Red Trillium (Trillium erectum)

Red Trillium has many aliases.  It is also known as Purple Trillium, Wake-robin and Stinking Benjamin, this last name a nod to the flowers’ scent, Wake-robin because it blooms at about the same time Robins returned from their wintering grounds, back when they used to migrate more.

Toadshade gets its name from stories of toads taking refuge under the umbrella-like leaves of the plant.

Toadshade (Trillium cuneatum, T.sessile)

In the photo below, a fly is investigating one of the anthers, the source of the flower’s pollen.

Toadshade with fly

If the flower is successfully pollinated, a fruit develops and ripens later in the summer.  The fruit is a berry that splits open when ripe, making its many seeds available for dispersal.  Each seed has an elaiosome attached, a nutritious food packet whose chemical content mimics that of an insect.  This mechanism has evolved to attract ants to disperse the seeds.  It works because ants are omnivorous; they eat some plant material and enjoy sweet treats such as nectar, but insect protein is an important part of their diet.  The ants are attracted to the seeds because of the elaiosome.  They take the seeds back to their homes, eat the elaiosome, and toss the seed on their compost heap, effectively planting the seed in a fertile, protected location.  This evolutionary strategy, known as myrmecochory, is shared by many spring blooming wildflowers.

If you need proof that other insects are important ant food, you’ll find some evidence in the photo below.  I watched while this ant worked tirelessly to drag to its home the moth it’s grasping, working its way across the trail, letting no obstacles like sticks, leaves or rocks deter it from its mission!

Insects are an important source of food for ants. This ant worked tirelessly to drag the moth back to its home.

The elaiosome strategy works in much the same way that fleshy fruits attract birds and other animals to eat their fruits and ‘disperse’ the seeds complete with fertilizer after the seeds pass through the animal’s digestive system, a trait used by many plants that bloom later in the season.

Trilliums typically grow in moist woods.  Painted Trillium is native from Ontario and Quebec south through northern New Jersey and much of Pennsylvania, from there south through the Appalachian mountains to northern Georgia and South Carolina.  It is also present in parts of Michigan.  Red Trillium’s range is a bit broader, from Ontario, Quebec and Michigan, south through northern Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, with some presence in Indiana and Illinois.  Trillium sessile can be found from western New York state west to Illinois, Missouri and western Kansas, south from Oklahoma to north Carolina.  Trillium cuneatum is native in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia, west to southern Illinois and south from Mississippi to Georgia.

These lovely Trilliums depend on flies and ants for their continued survival.

Painted Trillium (Trillium undulatum)

Related Posts

A Carpet of Spring Beauty, Woven by … Ants!

Resources 

Gracie, Carol.  Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast. 2012.

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

Marshall, Stephen A.  Flies The Natural History and Diversity of Diptera.  2012.

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

Michigan Natural Features Inventory, Trillium undulatum. Willdenow. 2004.

USDA NRCS Plants Database

https://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=TRUN

https://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=TRER3

https://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=TRSE2

https://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=TRCU

USDA Forest Service Plant of the Week, Painted Trillium (Trillium undulatum), Larry Stritch