Enchanter’s Nightshade

Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea canadensis), also called Broadleaf Enchanter’s Nightshade, is a small but eye-catching perennial that blooms in early to mid-summer along forest trails. Where I live and play in central New Jersey and Pennsylvania, that means late June through mid-July.

Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea canadensis)

This diminutive resident of the forest floor has several pairs of leaves opposite each other along the stem, with a cluster of tiny flowers rising above them. It often grows to about a foot (.4 m), but can reach as much as two feet (.7 m) in height, including the flower cluster (infloresence). The tiny white flowers are only about an eighth of an inch (4 mm) in diameter, and yet in the dim light of summer in the woods they are attention-grabbing, for both humans and pollinators.

Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea canadensis)

Each flower has two deeply lobed white petals that look a little like mouse ears, backed by two green, wing-shaped sepals that protected the flower before it opened. Two stamens, the male reproductive parts, reach out like arms from each side at the center of the flower, the anthers at their tips resembling mittened hands. The long narrow structure projecting from the very center of the flower is the pistil, the female reproductive part.  The circular washer-shaped tissue at the base of the pistil is the source of the flower’s nectar, which is offered to entice pollinators to visit.

Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea canadensis) flower, with 2 deeply-lobed white petals, 2 stamens reaching out like arms, and one pistil in the center with a circular nectary at its base.

In profile it’s easy to see the veining on the flower’s petals. They are nectar guides, directing pollinators to a potential reward inside.  The stigma reaches out beyond the petals, ready to accept incoming pollen on the stigma at its tip, positioned to be the first thing a pollinator encounters when visiting. The flower’s ovary, covered in hooked hairs, is visible behind the sepals. If pollination is successful, this will ripen to become a small burr-like fruit.

Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea canadensis) flower. Notice the veins that act as nectar guides on the petals, the pistil extending beyond the petals, and the hairy ovary behind the green sepals.

The stems of the entire inflorescence are covered with glandular hairs. Hairs on plant tissue usually serve to discourage herbivores from eating the plant, and glandular hairs often have the added benefit of emitting a chemical offense to enhance the deterrent effect.    

Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea canadensis) inflorescence. Note that in addition to the flower ovaries, the main stem and flower pedicels (stems) are all covered with glandular hairs, a deterrent to herbivores.

Even such tiny flowers have pollinators who are perfectly matched for them, primarily sweat bees (Halictidae) in the genus Lasioglossum and tiny flower flies, most commonly of the species Toxomerous geminatus. The group of bees called sweat bees get this common name from their habit of obtaining nutrients by licking up human sweat.

Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea canadensis) inflorescence, with a sweat bee visiting a flower near the top, and a flower fly perched at the tip of the branch in the lower right.

The bees visit the flowers for both nectar and pollen.  The little sweat bee in the photo below is feeding herself, but also gathering pollen, visible on her hind legs, to bring back to her nest for her larvae. 

Sweat bee, Lasioglossum species, visiting Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea canadensis) flower for nectar and pollen. Notice the pollen on her hind legs, which she will bring back to her nest to feed her larvae.
Sweat bee, Lasioglossum species, harvesting pollen from the anther at the tip of the stamen of an Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea canadensis) flower

On several occasions, I have watched small swarms of tiny flower flies hovering around Enchanter’s Nightshade flowers.  ‘Hover fly’ is another common name for this group of insects, because of their ability to perform this maneuver. Any individual I was able to see well enough to identify was a Toxomerous geminatus

A flower fly, Toxomerus geminatus, hovering near an Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea canadensis) inflorescence

Like the bees, the flies visit the flowers for both nectar and pollen, both of which are important food sources for them.

A flower fly, Toxomerus geminatus, harvesting pollen from an Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea canadensis) flower. As it first approached the flower, it came in contact with the stigma at the tip of the pistil, the female reproductive part, before moving on to harvest pollen.
Toxomerus geminatus at rest on a nearby leaf.

After pollination, the flower’s petals, sepals, stamens and pistils wither and fall away, leaving the ovary to ripen to a fruit.

The ovary of an Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea canadensis) flower, after its petals, sepals, stamens and pistils have withered and fallen off

As the ovary matures to a fruit, the hooked hairs covering the fruit stiffen, becoming an effective mechanism to grab on to the fur or pants of a passing animal who then unknowingly helps to disperse the seeds. 

Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea canadensis) inflorescence with many mature fruits positioned to hitch a ride on the fur or pants of a passing animal.

Enchanter’s Nightshade also has the ability to reproduce through its underground parts, sending up additional shoots to form colonies. 

Why the name Enchanter’s Nightshade?  The Greek goddess and accomplished enchantress Circe reportedly often used potions and herbs to achieve her ends, sometimes turning enemies into other animal species. Plants in this genus, Circaea, were thought to be among the ingredients she used, so were named for her. So far, unfortunately, I haven’t found any of her recipes.   

Enchanter’s Nightshade can be found along forest trails in the United States from Maine west to North Dakota, south as far as Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Georgia, and in Canada from Quebec and Nova Scotia west to Manitoba.  

Take a cooling summer walk in the woods to look for Enchanter’s Nightshade and its pollinators.

Small Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea canadensis) colony

Note:  Some sources refer to this species as Circaea lutetiana, Circaea lutetiana L. ssp. canadensis, or Circaea  quadrisulcata.

Resources

Boufford, David E. “The Systematics and Evolution of Circaea (Onagraceae).” Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden, vol. 69, no. 4, 1982, pp. 804–994. JSTOR,

Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF)

Illinois Wildflowers

Minnesota Seasons.com

Minnesota Wildflowers, copy and paste: https://www.minnesotawildflowers.info/flower/enchanters-nightshade

Niering, William A. The Audubon Field Guide to North American Wildflowers, Eastern Region. 1979.

USDA NRCS Plants Database

Wikipedia

Zakaria Hazzoumi, Youssef Moustakime and Khalid Amrani Joutei (June 24th 2019). Essential Oil and Glandular Hairs: Diversity and Roles, Essential Oils – Oils of Nature, Hany A. El-Shemy, IntechOpen, DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.86571.

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 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?

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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