Posts Tagged ‘Plants’

A Cabbage by Any Other Name (Would Still Stink)


Tuesday, December 11th, 2012
Skunk Cabbage

Skunk Cabbage © Michael M. Smith/View Two Plus

A Cabbage by Any Other Name (Would Still Stink) by Julie Craves

The edge of the wet woods on our property marks the border of an extensive plot of Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). If you’re out and about in late winter in a forested area with perpetually mucky soil, you are probably familiar with this unusual plant. Their large, mottled, maroon, hooded spathes cradle the inflorescence, and show themselves through the snow like the caps of crouching sylvan gnomes. When the small flowers bloom, they stink like carrion to attract the earliest pollinators on the wing, mostly small flies and gnats. These not only find the stench appealing, but are also attracted to the heat generated by the flower spike. The warmth is thought to protect the flowers from freezing, provide a warm micro-environment for pollinators, and aids in broadcasting the floral odor by taking advantage of the spiral construction of the spathe and thermal air currents.

After the spathe withers, the very large leaves unfurl from a patient neighboring shoot. The dramatic leaves might be over two feet long, but die off by mid-summer, melting into the wetland as they decompose. A number of fly larvae have been found to feed on rotting Skunk Cabbage vegetation.

Skunk Cabbage

Skunk Cabbage © Rob & Ann Simpson

Fewer of us are likely to see the fruiting bodies – not only is Skunk Cabbage habitat likely to be mosquito-infested and squishy in summer, but the fruits themselves tend to be hard to spot. They look like solitary hand grenades, or maybe small stalked pineapples, mired in the mud. They’ll soon fall apart, with the seeds falling on the wet ground. The fibrous roots of young Skunk Cabbages are often exposed in humps on the soil surface, and reflect the shallow germination. As the perennial plants age, the roots become deeper and voluminous, anchoring plants and pulling them deeper and deeper into the earth.

Still later in the season, when insects have died and the ground is starting to freeze, you might come across the tips of new leaf spikes poking through the leaf litter, gaining a head-start on the next growing season. As steward of such a large colony, I look forward to seeing these fascinating plants rise from the snow next year.

Invader, Meet Invader


Friday, August 3rd, 2012

Invader, Meet Invader – Garlic Mustard by Julie Craves

The non-native, invasive plant Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata), is such an abundant part of my urban landscape that I often don’t even notice it. So I surprised myself one day walking through my field site because, although my thoughts were elsewhere, I stopped in my tracks when I saw a Garlic Mustard plant with chewed leaves. Part of the success of many invasive, non-native plants is that they flourish in regions where they have no natural enemies. Not much eats Garlic Mustard in North America. Apparently I was so used to seeing intact leaves that these obviously browsed ones triggered a response in my subconscious.

Garlic Mustard Wildflowers

Garlic Mustard © K. P. McFarland

When I stopped to take a look, I saw two small Cabbage White (Pieris rapae) butterfly larvae feeding on the leaves. That’s another non-native, widespread species that’s so ubiquitous I hardly register their ever-presence. I found two more Garlic Mustard plants nearby that each had a Cabbage White caterpillar feeding on it.

Here, the plot thickens.

Cabbage White larvae feed on many species of plants in the mustard family (Brassicaceae). This includes crop species introduced into North America, including Brassica oleracea (from which cabbage, broccoli, kale, and other vegetables are derived), mustard greens, and turnips. In Europe, Cabbage Whites also use Garlic Mustard as a host plant.

Cabbage White Butterflies

Cabbage White © Rick Cech

Both Cabbage Whites and Garlic Mustard were first recorded in North America in the mid-1800s, in Quebec and New York, respectively. Despite long association in both their native and introduced ranges, there are relatively few reports of Cabbage Whites using Garlic Mustard as a host plant in North America.

Studies have suggested this may be due to the fact that the butterflies have so many delicious choices of host plants here that they can choose those that they prefer (mustard greens are a favorite), and don’t need to resort to Garlic Mustard. There is an organic garden and lots of “preferred” choices within 100 yards of where I found these caterpillars. Why Garlic Mustard was chosen instead in this case is a mystery.

I brought the four Cabbage White caterpillars indoors and successfully raised them to adulthood on wild Garlic Mustard. I released the adults, hoping that perhaps they might go on to begin a population with a taste for a host from the homeland that wasn’t also destined for own our dinner plates.

The Trek for Sheep Laurel


Friday, July 20th, 2012

The Trek for Sheep Laurel by Lisa Densmore

One of my early summer delights is spotting a patch of Sheep Laurel (kalmia angustifolia) on a mountain when its showy pink flowers are blooming. Last weekend, I found some while hiking with my family up Catamount, just north of Whiteface Mountain, in the High Peaks region of the Adirondacks. I’ve always loved the hike up Catamount. Though I put it in my guidebook, Hiking the Adirondacks (FalconGuides, 2010), it remains off most hikers’ radar because it’s summit elevation is under 4,000 feet. I don’t mind having the route to myself. It’s an entertaining climb with lots of rock slab to traverse and many rock chimneys to scramble up and down. Now I love it even more upon discovering one of my favorite wildflowers near its top.

Sheep Laurel Trees

Sheep Laurel © Lisa Densmore Location: Catamount Mountain, Adirondacks, NY

Sheep Laurel is technically a flowering 3-foot tall boreal shrub. It’s native to eastern North America from Ontario and Quebec south to Virginia. Though it has narrow green leaves rather than needles, it is evergreen similar to its relative Mountain Laurel and to Rhododendron.

Its 3/8-inch pink cupped flowers are bee and butterfly attractors. When blooming, its flowers grown in clusters below the end of each stem, making the plant look like it fell out of the pages of a Dr. Seuss book. Perhaps that’s why I’m so fond of it, but only to look at it. Most of the plant contains andromedotoxin. Sheep Laurel has been known to kill both wild and domestic grazers, hence its nicknames, lambkill, sheepkill, calfkill, pig laurel and sheep poison. Don’t worry. I do not have plans to eat it.

The Moth that Came from the River


Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

Chestnut-marked Pondweed Moth by Julie Craves

One of a child’s first natural history lessons is usually that caterpillars grow up to become butterflies or moths. Eager to witness this transformation, we seek out caterpillars in yard and field to shepard through this remarkable metamorphosis. We soon learn the importance of raising the larvae on the same species of plant on which they were found. For many of us, this is our introduction into the interdependence of plants and animals, and the complex life cycles of even common organisms around us.

A couple of years ago I was doing an insect survey on a property along the Detroit River. I noted a pretty little moth which was quite common; many appeared freshly emerged, which made me curious about what the caterpillars fed on. From my photograph (above) I identified the moth as a Chestnut-marked Pondweed Moth. “Pondweed” is a pretty generic term, but I’ve generally heard it refer to submerged plants in the genus Potamogeton. Sure enough, Potamogeton is the host plant for this species…and the larvae are aquatic. I consider myself pretty well-versed in various butterfly and moth species and their host plants, but aquatic caterpillars were new to me.

This moth is not unique. In this same genus are species whose larvae feed on waterlilies, watermilfoil, and other water plants. Most feed on submerged parts. Other moths in the same family feed on algae scraped from rocks or diatoms trapped in silken sheets spun by the caterpillar. Many have gills for all or part of their larval stage. Females of some species may submerge themselves in an air pocket to lay eggs up to four meters underwater! Members of a number of other moth families are also known to have aquatic larvae.

When I think of flying insects that have an aquatic larval stage, my first thought is always dragonflies. Then many species of flies, as well as beetles, caddisflies, and some true bugs. Now I can add moths to this list, something I never imagined when I raised my first sphinx moth from a “tomato worm” as a bright-eyed child.

Flowers for Father’s Day


Monday, June 18th, 2012

Butterfly Orchid (Encyclia tampensis) by Jungle Pete

The Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve is a nine-mile long, third of a mile wide, linear strand of forest in Fort Myers, Florida. I assume the name “Nine Mile Cypress Slough Preserve” had already been taken. The 2500-acre preserve is home to a remarkable diversity of plants and wildlife, many of which can be seen on a two and half mile boardwalk.

My dad and I came out here years ago and while others were quick to speed around the circuit we stopped and sat on a bench. We watched Green Anoles flaring their dewlaps in a reptilian show of dominance. We watched a Yellow Rat Snake glide between cypress knees. We spotted a female Northern Cardinal flitting from branch to branch and we listened to a Carolina Wren belt out an unimaginably loud call for such a small bird. A couple of people walked by at a brisk pace and dejectedly remarked that there was nothing to see here. I’ve heard this complaint repeated many times through the years no matter where I go. I’m hoping they’re referring to the wildlife and not me.

I spent Father’s Day at the Six Mile Cypress this year. The rains have yet to fill the swamp and I found myself saying how little there was to see. Thinking about my visit with my father, my wife and baby stopped and took it all in.

Butterfly Orchid (Encyclia tampensis) by Jungle Pete

Clinging to a Pop Ash, about ten feet off the dry swamp floor was a beautiful Florida Butterfly Orchid (Encyclia tampensis). This bee pollinated epiphyte (a plant that grows on another plant) gets its name from the way the flowers dance in the wind like butterflies. The relatively common orchid blooms from May through August from central Florida south through the Everglades. The plant is not parasitic but does get support from the tree and nutrients and water from its heightened position.

We spotted five different flowers in the preserve today which is five more than I’ve seen before here. It helped to have beautiful yellow flowers cast about in the breeze but I might have missed them had I not stopped to look up and around.

I couldn’t be with my father today but here are some flowers for Father’s Day.

Butterfly Orchid (Encyclia tampensis) by Jungle Pete

Prairie Smoke


Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

Prairie Smoke by Jack Ballard

The return of the robin from its southern wintering grounds is thought to be an indication of spring to folks in many parts of the country. But in the northern Rockies the robins are often in error. They may show up in early March when there may still be many weeks of winter to come, regardless of when “spring” is technically designated on the calendar.

For me, the emergence of certain budding trees and flowering plants is a more reliable indication of milder days ahead. In the foothills and out on the plains, the appearance of Prairie Smoke (geum triflorum) seems to coincide predictably with real springtime weather.

Also known as “old man’s whiskers” or “three-flowered avens,” prairie smoke sports a flower that looks more like a bud and a seedhead that may look more like a flower. The “old man’s whiskers” moniker stems from the seedheads, which are pinkish-purple in color and quite feathery, resembling small tufts of whiskers. The name “prairie smoke” also references the seedheads, which remind some people of tiny puffs of smoke.

In the spring, prairie smoke flowers emerge from the plant’s erect stem that supports drooping buds and blossoms. Stands of prairie smoke are eye-catching in both the blossoming and seed-bearing stages, giving the plant a summer-long appeal. As such, it is sometimes cultivated for inclusion in flower gardens where it prefers plenty of sun and well-drained soil.

The War on Dandelions


Friday, May 18th, 2012

Common Dandelion by Lisa Densmore

Location: Chateaugay Lake, NY

I grasped the base of the plant below its jagged-edged leaves, urging its roots to release their tenacious hold on the dark brown soil. Gotcha! I gave the green and yellow clump a satisfying fling into a nearby wheelbarrow. Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) have always been the bane of my lawn. By late April, they’ve already poked their annoying yellow blooms above my otherwise green grass. For every dandelion I uproot, three sprout in its place. The cursed yellow flowers grow everywhere, not only around my house, but also along roads, in fields, along hiking trails, even in the sand at the beach! This could be a hopeless war, but I wasn’t ready to wave the white flag. As the general of my attack on dandelions, I decided to get more information about this enemy ground force.

As it turns out, the weed I’ve tried in vain to eradicate is a nutritious herb, valued in Europe and the sub-Indian continent for a myriad of medicinal uses. Though bitter when eaten alone, it is a nutritious enhancement in many recipes, loaded with vitamins A, C, K and B6, potassium, manganese and a number of other important nutrients.

Common Dandelion by Lisa Densmore

The Chinese and Indians gathered wild dandelions to treat boils, bronchitis, pneumonia and ulcers for centuries, though the Arabs were likely the first to cultivate them. As early as 900 AD, they used the root of the plant as a cure for liver disease. Today herbalists brew dandelions into tea, toast it, mixed it into tinctures, and dry it to derive various health benefits from this common plant such as reducing hypertension and stabilizing mood. Perhaps if I try eating the darn things my mood will improve when I pluck them from my yard.

Pasque Flower


Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012

American Pasque by Lisa Densmore

Location: Red Lodge, MT

I declare it officially spring. Of course the calendar declared the start of spring at the March equinox, but for me, it happened two days ago. While taking an early evening walk around my neighborhood, I decided to cross a dry irrigation creek split in two by a 4-foot high narrow grassy ridge. Based on its flat, well-trodden crest, the local White-tailed Deer have used it as a walkway into a clump of tall shrubs about 50 feet away. Luckily, they haven’t strayed close to the edges. Just at the point where the ridge-top goes from flat to vertical, I spied a clump of lilac-colored Pasque flowers (Pulsatilla hirsutissima or Pulsatilla patens), then another and another. What a delight!


Pasque by Lisa Desnmore

This is my first spring in Montana. I had never seen a pasque flower, which is so named because it blooms around Passover and Easter. It’s also called a May Day flower for the same reason. It reminds me of an oversized version of the purple crocuses that poked their heads above the ground in my New Hampshire garden as the last crystals of snow melted into the earth, but they aren’t related. Pasque flowers are wild tundra anenomes, that blooms throughout the northwest and Alaska. It is the state flower of South Dakota. Though more than one flower stem can emerge from its woody taproot, it propagates by seed. If you look below this lavender beauty’s showy 3-inch flower, you can see its silky hairs along its short stem, which helps insulate it from the inevitable early spring cold snap.


American Pasque by Lisa Densmore

Pasque flowers were used by the early Blackfoot Indians to induce abortions and childbirth. Today, it is a homeopathic treatment for cataracts, but this is in the category of “don’t try this at home”. Excessive ingestion of this toxic plant can lead to heart failure. I would rather have my heart beat pick up a little whenever I see this ground hugging flower, not only for its colorful display, but also because it signals warmer weather and a greener landscape close at hand.


Pasque by Lisa Desnmore

Prickly Pear Necessities


Monday, April 30th, 2012
Prickly Pear

Eastern Prickly Pear by Jungle Pete

Wherever I wander, I keep one eye on the ground and one eye ahead in search of the next fun thing to write about. Occasionally this method leads to an inspiring albeit cross-eyed vision. Green Briars (Smilax sp.) are a particularly nasty, thorny vine. Field Sandspurs (Cenchrus incertus) are alarmingly painful and hurt as bad being pulled out as when they went in. The Eastern Prickly Pear (Opuntia humifusa) is the grand daddy of local thorny plants with long, sturdy spines attached to fleshy, succulent pads. So far I’ve had the good fortune of avoiding them. A friend of mine? Not so lucky.

Devil's-tongue by Jungle Pete

Watching someone stomp out of the woods like Yosemite Sam with a cactus pad and spines sticking out of their leg is cartoonishly comical. But it’s best to keep your amusement to yourself. It was hard not to feel his pain as he yanked each spine from his shin. In addition to the obvious barbs, smaller tufts of hair-like spines called glochids are located closer to the pad and can cause serious irritation.

Eastern Prickly Pear Flower by Jungle Pete

Despite being torn from the parent plant, the cactus pad that ended up in my friend’s shin and subsequently discarded, is capable of putting down roots and continuing to grow. Prickly Pears are right at home in an astounding diversity of environments, from the coastal dunes of Massachusetts, to the sandstone cedar glades in Kentucky to the saw palmetto scrub of Florida. One thing they don’t tolerate is shade, but where there is sun, watch out for the Indian Fig as it’s also called.

Prickly Pear

Eastern Prickly Pear by Jungle Pete

In Florida, Prickly Pears bloom all year, producing a waxy, yellow flower that grows at the top of the pad. Eventually an edible, red “fig” remerges. Both fruit and pad are edible but all spines and glochids have to be removed. If you don’t want it stuck in your leg you certainly don’t want to ingest it.

Prickly Pear

Devil's-toungue by Jungle Pete

The Prickly Pear is found throughout two-thirds of the United States and part of Canada, so watch your step and watch for critters that use the cactus as a spiny fortress.

Catkins on Aspens


Wednesday, April 18th, 2012

Catkins on a Quaking Aspen by Lisa Densmore

Location: Red Lodge, MT

I always smile at the thought of catkins, one of the sure signs of spring. These delicate two-inch fingers hang from every branch of the Quaking Aspens by my deck, but they don’t last long. I noticed the whitish bits of fluff on Monday. By Friday, the few that remained clung to sporadic twigs like dry, shriveled worms.

A catkin, also called an ament, is actually a skinny, gracefully drooping flower cluster with either very tiny or no visible petals. Its name comes from the Dutch word, katteken, which means kitten’s tail. They look like the tail of a miniature kitty and often feel as soft.

Many trees and shrubs bear catkins in the spring, including birch, alder, willow and hickory, though not all catkins arch downward. In some plants, only the male flowers cluster in catkins (the drooping kind). Others have female catkins, which are usually smaller, rounder, upright and turn into nuts later in the year. In yet others, such as Quaking Aspens, both male and female flowers are in catkins.

Aspen trees are “dioecious”, which means each tree is either male or female, unlike most trees, which are “monoecious” (both sexes occur on the same tree). Both male and female aspens produce catkins in early spring before leafing out. Pollinated female catkins release microscopic hairy seeds in early summer weighing about 1/10,000th gram. If the wind doesn’t quickly deposit the seed on a moist spot with favorable soil and weather conditions – pretty low odds in the Rocky Mountains – it won’t germinate. That’s okay. Aspens propagate mainly by growing new shoots off their root systems.

Do you know other species that proliferate in multiple ways?