F. Robert Wesley

January 2006

Ulota and Orthotrichum are two moss genera commonly found as epiphytes (epi = upon, phyte = plant) on hardwood trees in our area. These two genera are closely related and both are members of the family Orthotrichaceae. They can be seen throughout the winter in their cheerful green cushions often sporting sporophytes with beautiful hats. These “hats” called calyptrae (sing. calyptra) are the remnant of the top part of the archegonium (the ancient vessel), which held the egg that was fertilized to produce the sporophyte. The sporophyte has several other parts including the long stalk called a seta and the spore case (sporangium) often called a capsule.

In this sketch of Orthotrichum speciosum adapted from Draper et al. (2003), several sporophyte characters discussed in the article are labeled: a. hairy calyptra, b. seta (plural setae), c. capsule without ribs and d. capsule with ribs visible as darker stripes.

The most common member of the family in the area is in the genus Ulota - Ulota crispa (see photo). As the species name implies, the leaves on this moss are crisped, that is, curled inward and around one another when the plants are dry. On old sugar maples, you may also see Ulota coarctata with longer setae and more puckered, smooth capsules than U. crispa. The crisped leaf habit of these two species of Ulota contrasts with Orthotrichum which has straighter (erect) leaves wet or dry. Another difference between Ulota and Orthotrichum is that Ulota capsules are always exserted beyond the upper leaves, while in species of Orthotrichum the capsules are often partly hidden by the upper leaves. If you have a hand lens, you might also look at the shape of the leaves on your moss cushion. The leaves of Ulota are longer and more linear, while those of Orthotrichum tend to round outward in the middle and back up to the tip giving Orthotrichum stems a chubbier look.

There are several common species of Orthotrichum in the area including O. pusillum (illustrated here). Many microscopic features are generally used to distinguish between species of Orthotrichum, but here I attempted to make a field key to species of Orthotrichum that you are likely to see on hardwood trees in the Finger Lakes region. Please give it a try and let me know what you find!

 

 

 

Field Key to Orthotrichum species of the Finger Lakes region, NY

1 Stems of plants robust, and to several cm tall...................................2
1 Stems of plants small to medium, equal to or less than 1cm tall............3

2 Capsules 2-3x’s as long as wide and indistinctly ribbed (stripes), ribs only discernable near mouth of capsule .............O. speciosum
2 Capsule shorter and strongly ribbed, dark brown stripes apparent for length of the capsule............................................O. sordidum

3 Capsules usually absent, leaves with broadly rounded tips and brown pill-shaped gemmae visible with a hand lens on the inner leaf surface........O. obtusifolium
3 Capsules present, leaves with pointed tips and no gemmae.....................4

4 Stems of plants medium, 6-10mm high, calyptra hairy..............................5
4 Stems of plants small, 2-5mm high, calyptra smooth to sparsely hairy..........6

5 Capsules with ribs spaced apart along the length of the capsule, capsule not narrowed to the mouth, calyptra sparsely hairy...........................O. ohioense
5 Capsules with distinct ribs that approach one another below the mouth of the capsule, calyptra very hairy (pilose).........................................O. sordidum

6 Capsules delicate, not ribbed, light-colored, yellow-tan...........................O. pusillum
6 Capsules strongly ribbed, dark brown with age.........................................7

7 Yellow-brown plants, 3-5mm tall, leaves with acute tip, entire, capsules strongly ribbed (dark stripes) constricting the capsule so that it narrows and the ribs;touch below the mouth when dry (strangulate)...................................O. stellatum
7 Dark brownish plants, 2-3mm tall, leaves around capsule with sharply pointed and toothed tips, capsule somewhat narrowed but not strangulate......O. pumilum

This key benefited from comments by Sue Williams and was constructed with reference to Crum and Anderson (1981).

References cited:
Crum, HA and LE Anderson.1981.Mosses of eastern North America, volume 2. Columbia University Press.
Draper, I, F Lara, B Albertos, R Garilett and V Mazimpaka. 2003. "The epiphytic bryoflora of the Jbel Bouhalla (Rif, Morocco), including a new variety of moss, Orthotrichum speciosum var. brevisetum". Journal of Bryology 25:271-280.

About

By Nat Cleavitt

Photos by F. Robert Wesley, drawings by Nat Cleavitt

Plants Referenced

Common Name(s): 
tree cushion moss
Moisture: 
Moist
Wet
Light: 
Part Shade
Common Name(s): 
Tree cushion moss
Moisture: 
Moist
Wet
Light: 
Part Shade
April 2005

On a spring woodland walk in our region you may spy, among other early flowering plants, a true spring ephemeral with a string of whimsical little creamy white flowers suspended upside down on short stalks from a nodding stem. The common name, Dutchman’s breeches, comes from the appearance of these flowers, which are reminiscent of pantaloons. They will also have a golden colored tip, like a band around their imaginary waistlines. The cluster of flowers will be hanging above a clump of delicate, finely lobed, blue-green foliage.

Come back when the tree canopy has leafed out and the whole above-ground plant will have disappeared, after gathering needed sunlight, converting it into nutrients, and setting its seeds. The above-ground work accomplished for the year, it will await the signal of next year’s warming sunlight before again growing stems, leaves, and flowers for its brief annual sojourn above the surface.

Dicentra cucullaria grows 6 to 12 inches tall from a cluster of pink to white grain-like tubers, closely packed like scales of a bulb, which soak up and store nutrients for its rapid spring growth. The much dissected leaves are basal, soft, and form mounds. The ¾ inch flowers consist of two pairs of petals. The outer pair is long spurred and white. The smaller beaked inner pair is cream to yellow and forms a small crest shape around the pistil and stamens.

Dicentra cucullaria is dependent on bees for pollination, but unless they are large bees with a long proboscis able to pry open the petals, they receive no reward of nectar for their services. Bees find these plants by scent though they are essentially lacking in scent to us.

Dicentra cucullaria is a member of the fumitory family (Fumariaceae). Previously the fumitory family was recognized as a subfamily of the poppy family (Papaveraceae). The name Dicentra is Greek for two spurred; di meaning two and kentron meaning spur. Cucullaria is from the Latin cuculus which means hood and refers to the smaller petals which form a cap over the inner parts of the flower.

Another common name for D. cucullaria is blue staggers. Alkaloids contained in the plant have been known to kill cattle that ingest it. Symptoms become evident 48 hours after ingestion and include trembling, staggering, and difficulty breathing. Despite (or perhaps because of) the alkaloids, the plant was used by European colonists in salves for skin diseases and also for urinary tract infections.

Dicentra cucullaria is found from southeast Canada to the mountains of Georgia and west to North Dakota and Oklahoma. It is also disjunct in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. We find this spring ephemeral throughout our region primarily in rich deciduous forests and borders. These habitats not only provide sunlight in early spring but offer a neutral soil which this species prefers. They make a beautiful contribution to the woodland garden when mixed with ferns and other plants which will fill the space they vacate early in the growing season. Just don’t plant them near conifers unless you plan to side dress them regularly with lime.

Propagation is fairly difficult (but rewarding) from seed as the seeds will not tolerate any drying and require a warm then cold then warm stratification. They are normally dispersed by ants, which carry the seeds to their nests. The ant nests provide good conditions for stratification and germination the following spring. At the same time, the ants reap the benefit of the nutrients in the elaisomes (an oil-rich fleshy structure) attached to the seeds. In the garden, the easiest way to duplicate this is to watch the flowers closely and sow the seeds as soon as you notice the fat pods starting to rupture and the seeds turning black. Vegetative propagation is fairly easy. Dig the bulblets in the summer when they are dormant and replant or pot them. Please, only propagate the bulbs from garden settings in order to protect the wild populations of Dutchman’s breeches and the habitat they depend upon. Plants can sometimes by obtained from local nurseries, but be sure to ask about their sources and whether they can certify the plants are nursery propagated.


[Editor's note:  Dicentra cucullaria can be distinguished from the similar-leaved D. canadensis, squirrel corn, by its "split legs" and relatively thicker leaves. Squirrel corn leaves are more finely divided. Click on images for larger version.]

About

By Alice Grow

Photos by F. Robert Wesley

Plants Referenced

Common Name(s): 
Dutchman's breeches
Bloom Time: 
Early Spring
Moisture: 
Dry
Moist
Light: 
Part Shade
Shade
Soil: 
Humus-rich Woodland
ph Preference: 
Neutral
Recommended for gardening
Ephemeral
Common Name(s): 
Squirrel corn
Bloom Time: 
Mid Spring
Moisture: 
Moist
Light: 
Part Shade
Shade
Soil: 
Humus-rich Woodland
Ephemeral