Joe O'Rourke

November 2008

Pellaea atropurpurea - From the Greek pellos, dusky, describing the bluish-gray coloring of the leaves and atro (dark) plus purpurea (purple).(Stuart 2008)

During a recent trip to a Lansing gorge, I was introduced to an interesting evergreen fern, Pellaea atropurpurea (purple cliff brake). It is fairly small, and does not attract attention like a large clump of Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) or marginal wood fern (Dryopteris marginalis), two of our region's common evergreen ferns. But it is one of those gems that forcibly reminds me to appreciate one of the Finger Lakes' characteristic habitats - lime outcrops and exposed shale in gorge walls - for those are the favored habitats of this little fern. Although purple cliff brake is native to a very wide region (Guatemala to southern New England & Canada to Florida), the descriptions of where it is found within its native range are all a variation on "dry, limestone rich cliffs and outcroppings". I gather that purple cliff brake can grow under other conditions, but is most common on these dry, limey situations or in the soil immediately adjacent to outcrops. This is particularly interesting to me, since the specimens I saw were just above the high water line in the gorge, along with some rather robust mosses. I would guess that the area is moist at least part of the year, although it probably bakes in the summer.

Identification: Pellaea atropurpurea is fairly distinctive, particularly if you look during the time of year when deciduous ferns are browning or absent. The overall look is an asymmetric clump; the leaves are growing from a rhizome and are slightly dimorphic, i.e. the fertile fronds are longer and more divided than the sterile fronds. The stipe (leaf stalk) is thin, wiry, and hairy, especially on the upper surface and colored dark purple or black. Although the fern is often described with blades from 2 inches to a bit over a foot long, the ones we saw were on the short side. According to the Flora of North America, some P. atropurpurea populations have hybridized with other Pellaea species. Luckily for Finger Lakes plant lovers, these are found west of our region. 

More specific ID:
Blade: usually 2-pinnate at the base, but sometimes only once pinnate, elongate-deltate to lanceolate, leathery, rachis hairy, sparsely villous below near midrib of ultimate segments.
Pinnae: 5 to 11 pairs, bluish-green, lower pinnae stalked, upper sessile, terminal pinnae like the upper lateral ones; pinnae perpendicular to rachis or ascending, not decurrent on rachis; pinnules (leafules) sessile or nearly so; veins obscure; margins weakly recurved to plane on fertile segments. Spores are clustered at the edges of the pinnules.

Pellaea glabella, the smooth cliff brake, is similar to P. atropurpurea, but differing in its monomorphic leaves, smaller size, and particularly the glabrous stipe and rachis. (The key point is that the wiry stalk in the middle of the frond is not hairy like the purple cliff brake.) Pellaea glabella is not nearly as common as the purple cliff brake in the Finger Lakes region, in fact P. glabella is threatened in New York (Weldy and Werier 2008). But you might find some.

Status: Pellaea atropurpurea is protected in New York State as "exploitably vulnerable", a status given to species which have sufficient population so long as collecting is prevented. Pellaea atropurpurea is endangered in Florida, Iowa & Rhode Island, and threatened in Michigan. (USDA Plants).

Growing and Propagating: The purple cliff brake grows in full to nearly full sun in dry limey conditions. It can be propagated by spores, which ripen June-September. Rock gardeners with crevice beds can provide the correct conditions (Goroff 2001), but most of us will have the fun of scrambling over the rocks to see it in a natural habitat. So, next time you find yourself next to a shale cliff, look even closer.

References: Note that the identification section above is a composite of all of these sources.

Connecticut Botanical Society; 2008 
Flora of North America; 2008; Volume 2 
Goroff, Iza; 2001; "Plant of the Month"; North American Rock Garden Society (2012: no longer on web site but in lots of new places)
Missouri Botanical Garden (Dan Tenaglia), 2008 
Stuart, Tom; Hardy Fern Library; 2008 
U. S. Department of Agriculture Plants Database ; 2008
Weldy, Troy and David Werier. 2008; New York Flora Atlas.

About

By Rosemarie Parker

Photos by Joe O'Rourke

Plants Referenced

Common Name(s): 
purple cliff brake
Moisture: 
Dry
Light: 
Part Sun
Soil: 
Rocky/Stony
ph Preference: 
Lime Loving
Well-drained
Common Name(s): 
smooth cliff brake
Moisture: 
Dry
Light: 
Part Sun
Soil: 
Rocky/Stony
ph Preference: 
Lime Loving
June 2009

Indian cucumber-root, Medeola virginiana, is a fairly common member of our local forests and wetlands and can be found throughout the eastern half of North America. This perennial herb, a member of the lily family (Liliaceae), is readily identified by the whorl(s) of lance-shaped leaves surrounding the main stem. The leaf margins are entire and up to five inches long. The plant can attain a height of thirty inches. In a season when the plant is not going to flower it produces only one whorl of 5-10 lower leaves but when in flower, it produces a second, higher, tier of fewer leaves.

The flower is yellow-green and quite attractive, owing to the three brown stigmas that hang beneath the flower. Steve Broyles, Biological Sciences professor at SUNY Cortland and past guest speaker for our organization, recently said this about Indian cucumber root after finding it in a Cortland gorge: "The flowers open underneath the upper most whorl of leaves and are hidden unless you lie on the ground. As the fruits mature from these flowers, they are repositioned above the upper whorl of leaves. The berries become dark purple and the leaves will become red to contrast with and advertise the fruits."

Our regional native Americans ate the starchy rootstock which has a mild cucumber flavor- hence the common name. It is said that the peeled, raw, tuber can be used in salads. Flowering occurs in our area in May and June. Afterwards, the dark purple berries appear.

Although common in central New York, it is listed as endangered in Illinois and Florida.

 

 Photograph of fruit copyright Thomas H. Kent from Florafinder.com (Creative Commons license)

About

By Joe O'Rourke

Photos by Joe O'Rourke, Thomas H. Kent

Plants Referenced

Common Name(s): 
Indian cucumber root
Bloom Time: 
Late Spring
Early Summer
Moisture: 
Moist
Light: 
Part Shade
Soil: 
Humus-rich Woodland
September 2008


A couple of weeks ago I was in the woods looking for an uncommon fern ally which grew near a small pond. As I approached the pond, I saw some bright red patches through the trees. Such a sight left me wondering what it could be. I kept walking towards the pond, incorrectly figuring it must be that orange-red plastic fencing they use at construction sites. Could they be excavating by the pond? The idea made me shudder, but once I got close enough I realized I was seeing the largest colony of cardinal flower, Lobelia cardinalis, that I'd ever come across.

Most descriptions of the plant that I have found list it at less than four feet tall. The one in my garden certainly fits this description, but I am amazed at the height they can reach when growing where they choose to. The tallest plant I measured in the colony in the picture above reached a height of 71" with an included raceme (flower spike) of 31".

One of our most striking native perennial herbs, L. cardinalis is a member of the Bellflower family, Campanulaceae. Plants typically grow to four feet tall. The crimson flowers appear in late summer and are 5-lobed with three lower petals and two upper petals. The flower can reach to 1.5" across and attract hummingbirds, butterflies and bees. The leaves are lanceolate, to 6" long, and have a coarsely toothed margin. 

This plant is easily grown from seed and will thrive in a garden with moderate amounts of sun. Be sure to have plenty of organic matter in the soil, however, for the plant does not like to dry out. I grew plants of both L. cardinalis and another native and close relative, the great blue lobelia (L. siphilitica) from seeds obtained at our organization's "Winter Solstice Celebration" held each December. As the picture below shows, both are thriving. Although we do not have any white native lobelias, white cultivars are available from nurseries.

 

About

By Joe O'Rourke

Photos by Joe O'Rourke

Plants Referenced

Common Name(s): 
Cardinal Flower
Bloom Time: 
Mid Summer
Late Summer
Moisture: 
Moist
Wet
Light: 
Sun
Part Sun
Part Shade
Recommended for gardening
Used in traditional 19th century gardens
April 2008

I'm excited to write this article for several reasons. Foremost is that twinleaf is flowering for the first time in my garden. It took four years from seed to bloom, but several articles report it taking up to eight years before flowering.



Twinleaf, Jeffersonia diphylla, is an uncommon spring wildflower in our area. It has a New York State rarity rank of S2, "Imperiled in New York State because of rarity (6-20 sites or few remaining individuals) or highly vulnerable to extirpation from New York State due to biological factors," but has a "demonstrably secure" global status. A quick check of specimens at Cornell's Bailey Hortorium herbarium reveals only a handful of central New York localities where it has been found. Likely it no longer occurs at some of these places. Other than J. diphylla, there is only one other member of the genus: J. dubia, which is native in Eastern China and the Korean Peninsula.

Twinleaf is a perennial herb in the Berberidaceae (Barberry) family. It is one of our early spring wildflowers, blooming in our area in mid-April to early May. The emerging flower buds appear atop a single stem and resemble eggs. The white flower, about one-inch in diameter, has four sepals and about eight petals. A large, oddly-shaped, fruit later appears from fertilized flowers.

The common name refers to its paired leaflets that resemble butterfly wings, both open and shut. The Latin name was bestowed by the famous botanist Benjamin Smith Barton to honor Thomas Jefferson, at a meeting of the American Philosophical Society on May 18, 1792 - a meeting that Jefferson did not attend.

Like many of our spring ephemerals, twinleaf seeds need multiple periods of alternating cold and warm periods before they will germinate. This requirement, called stratification, is carried out by nature to ensure that our early wildflowers do not germinate prematurely during that first warm spell in April when a later May frost may kill the young seedlings. If the seeds are not fresh enough, they may not grow. Once germinated, however, twinleaf will readily thrive and spread in rich soil with a shady habitat. They naturally like rich, deciduous woods, but mine is in a small garden bordering my back deck where it only receives the morning sun. 

If you'd like to see this plant in bloom, perhaps the best place to visit is the Mundy Wildflower Garden at Cornell Plantations. It flowers there beginning in mid-April. Better yet, purchase some seeds or plants and plant them in your own garden where you'll have your own welcomer of flowers to come.

About

By Joe O'Rourke

Photos by Joe O'Rourke

Plants Referenced

Common Name(s): 
Twinleaf
Bloom Time: 
Mid Spring
Moisture: 
Dry
Moist
Light: 
Shade
ph Preference: 
Neutral
Recommended for gardening
November 2006

Early in September, 1998, I had the pleasure of seeing three of our native gentians, Gentiana clausa, Gentianella quinquefolia, and Gentianopsis crinita. I did this as a participant in one of the summer plant walks sponsored by the Finger Lakes Native Plant Society, led by David Nakita Werier.

We started our walk in the Connecticut Hill area and found Gentianella quinquefolia (stiff gentian or ague-weed) after a few minutes of searching, on the margins of a gravely road turn-around. This gentian is listed in Rare and Scarce Vascular Plants of the Cayuga Lake Basin (by Robert Wesley) as “scarce”, which means there are six to twenty known occurrences. It is a pretty little thing: an annual or sometimes biennial. The specimens that we saw were all shorter than typical, perhaps because they had been mowed earlier in the season by a road crew. Nonetheless, they were in full flower. Gentianella quinquefolia has exquisite small flowers in many terminal clusters of three to five. When viewed from above, it looks like a handful of 15 or 20 small amethyst gems. These flowers were generally closed, although they do open up in the sun when mature. After finding it in this spot, we walked back down the road and found it in a dozen more places, always on the side of the road ditch, where the soil looked heavy but full of gravel. I should mention that this was a wooded area; the only sun exposure was the road and road margins.

Our next find was half a county away in Shindagin Hollow, where Gentiana clausa was growing on the side of the ditch. It was competing with other rampant growth and was about 2.5 feet tall. Gentiana clausa, also listed as scarce by Wesley, is called the closed or bottle gentian, for the simple reason that the flowers never open up. They are borne in terminal and sub-terminal clusters. I have to admit that I have a soft spot for this gentian, because for many years it has grown happily in my garden in Allegany County, in extremely heavy clay soil. It is stunning in bloom and even makes an excellent cut flower. It gets a wonderful reddish cast on the foliage as the weather turns frosty.

Gentiana clausa is often confused with G. andrewsii. In fact, I always thought the gentian that I grew was G. andrewsii. To tell the difference, you take a blossom, slit it lengthwise and open it out flat. On G. clausa the plicae that are between the segments of the corolla are divided into 2 or 3 segments and are not fringed. On G. andrewsii they are fringed.

Our last gentian was one that I have always wanted to see: Gentianopsis crinita, the fringed gentian. This gem was very impressive. We could have gotten a perfectly good look at it without getting out of our cars. Out of respect, we did disembark, and took our life in our hands as we huddled on the narrow shoulder of the road, peered down into a wet ditch, and then gazed up a bank so steep that only one of our group ventured up it. He reported that the gentian grew not only in the ditch, but also quite a way up this bank. This site was sunny, but since there was water running in the ditch, I suspect that even the soil up the hill might have been moist. Gentianopsis crinita is a biennial, with single terminal flowers that were larger than I had imagined. Each stunningly blue flower was about two inches long, with heavily fringed petals. Although on this site it was obviously thriving, it is listed as “rare”, which is two to five occurrences on Wesley’s list.

When I got home from this “walk”, which I renamed a “drive”, I was tired—of driving—but thrilled to have seen these three plants in their native habitats.

 

This article was originally written for and published in The Green Dragon, newsletter of the Adirondack Chapter of the North American Rock Garden Society.

 

Additional images added:  
G. clausa - Mt. Cuba Center -  http://www.mtcubacenter.org/plant-finder/details/gentiana-clausa/
G. quinquefolia - Rob Baller, courtesy of Fred Burwell in a lovely ramble about Wisconsin wildflowers http://fredburwell.com/tag/wildflowers/

 

About

By Anne Klingensmith

Photos by Joe O'Rourke, Rob Baller, Mt. Cuba Center

Plants Referenced

Common Name(s): 
Closed Gentian
Bloom Time: 
Early Fall
Moisture: 
Moist
Wet
Light: 
Part Sun
Recommended for gardening
Common Name(s): 
stiff gentian
Bloom Time: 
Early Fall
Moisture: 
Dry
Moist
Light: 
Part Sun
Part Shade
Common Name(s): 
Fringed Gentian
Bloom Time: 
Early Fall
Moisture: 
Moist
Light: 
Sun
Part Sun
ph Preference: 
Neutral
Common Name(s): 
Prairie Bottle Gentian
Bloom Time: 
Early Fall
Moisture: 
Moist
Light: 
Part Sun
July 2007

Drosera rotundifolia, the round-leaved sundew, is one of several insectivorous plants that live in our area. It is the more common of our two native sundews, the other being D. intermedia, the spatulate-leaved sundew. As the common names indicate, the leaves of D. rotundifolia are round while those of D. intermedia are more oval, or spoon-shaped. Both belong to the family Droseraceae.

Although D. rotundifolia is common in our area, many have never seen it. It is a tiny plant whose leaves are only 1/2" long and it often grows mixed in with sphagnum moss. When enough plants congregate, the bright red color often reveals its presence. I've seen it in bogs, on hummocks in fens and growing in a wet area right along the side of Route 11 in Tully, NY. Drosera intermedia is much more scare. I've only seen it once in a bog near Whitney Point. Both of these species are protected plants in New York State, classified as EV (Exploitably Vulnerable).

The sundews thrive in environments where other plants cannot compete. Under conditions that lack the nitrogen and phosphorous that plants need, or low PH that prevents plants from utilizing the available nutrients, sundews compensate by capturing insects and obtaining the needed nutrients directly from the insect bodies.

The plant morphology efficiently supports this lifestyle. The leaves form a rosette which lies nearly on the ground, exposing its upper leaf surface. The surface is covered with red tentacle-like hairs that exude a sticky, sweet, substance that attracts insects. When an insect lands on a leaf, the mucilage helps to hold the insect while the leaf secretes proteolytic enzymes that digest the insect, releasing nutrients that are absorbed by the leaf surface. Unlike the well known Venus Flytrap, Dionaea spp., Drosera does not snap its leaf shut on a captive, but its sticky tentacles slowly move to increase the amount of surface contact with its prey.

In July and August the sundew blossoms, producing a raceme with up to fifteen white or pink flowers, all growing on one side. The stalk is leafless and can be 2" to 14" long. Each flower has 5 petals and 5 sepals.

Drosera have medicinal properties and are used today in hundreds of registered medications to treat respiratory ailments such as asthma. Native sundews are protected in nearly all countries in the world, so they must be raised commercially for the pharmaceutical industry. Drosera rotundifolia and D. intermedia are fast-growing members of the genus, and thus are two of several Drosera species commercially grown.

About

By Joe O'Rourke

Photos by Joe O'Rourke

Plants Referenced

Common Name(s): 
round-leaved sundew
Bloom Time: 
Mid Summer
Late Summer
Moisture: 
Wet
Light: 
Sun
Part Sun
ph Preference: 
Acidic
Common Name(s): 
spatulate-leaved sundew
Bloom Time: 
Mid Summer
Late Summer
Moisture: 
Wet
Light: 
Sun
Part Sun
ph Preference: 
Acidic
August 2005

'Joe-Pye weed'. It's the common name given to several species of the genus Eutrochium. Many of us know these flowers as members of the genus Eupatorium. Just last year, based on chloroplast DNA analysis, it was proposed that Eupatoriadelphus should be treated as a distinct genus and that the earlier name, Eutrochium, be applied to the Joe-Pye weeds.

Joe-Pye weed is a member of the aster family, Asteraceae. In this area of central New York State, four species can be found: E. dubium (Joe-Pye thoroughwort), E. fistulosum (hollow Joe-Pye weed), E. maculatum (spotted Joe-Pye weed), and E. purpureum (sweetscented Joe-Pye weed). This article will focus on the more common one in our area, E. maculatum var. maculatum, spotted Joe-Pye weed.

Eutrochium maculatum likes wet soil conditions and is a common sight in our calcareous fens, wet meadows and thickets. Besides reproducing by seeds, this perennial herb spreads by rhizomes and is sometimes found in large colonies.

The stem often has dark purple specks, from which it derives part of its common name, although it may be solid purple. The other part of its name is said to derive from a Native American doctor who used the plant to cure fevers in colonial times. The stem is pubescent, not glaucous. Most eye-catching are the four (sometimes three) or five whorled leaves surrounding the stem. The leaves are coarsely dentate, lanceolate, and 2 1/2-8" long.

The flowers are borne in flat-topped inflorescences, 4 to 5 1/2" wide. The fuzzy pinkish-purple clusters, consisting entirely of disk flowers, are frequented by nectar-seeking insects such as butterflies, bees, dragonflies and wasps. Under the right conditions, the plant can grow to a height of seven feet. The plants emerge in early June, but do not begin flowering until mid-July. They reach their peak in mid August.

The entire plant is known historically as an alternative medicinal for various purposes. The leaves, when crushed, have an apple smell and, when burned, are said to repel flies. A concoction made of the tea from the roots or flowers can reputedly cause sweating and was used by the early settlers to break fevers. Our native white-tailed deer and eastern cottontail will feed on the whole plant and turkeys, mallards and the white-footed mouse will eat the seeds.

The flowers are attractive and are usually carried in nurseries for they make appealing garden plants. The bud clusters are colorful, even before opening, and they are long-blooming afterward. Because they are heavy pollen-bearers, perhaps their greatest commercial appeal is their ability to attract large, showy butterflies like swallowtails and monarchs.

 

For additional photos, click on the plant name in the box on the right.

About

By Joe O'Rourke

Photos by Joe O'Rourke

Plants Referenced

Common Name(s): 
Spotted Joe-Pye Weed
Bloom Time: 
Late Summer
Early Fall
Moisture: 
Wet
Light: 
Sun
Part Sun
Recommended for gardening
Attracts butterflies
December 2009

In early December, once all of the surrounding perennials have departed for the winter, I have a striking view out my kitchen window. A lime-green trident glows against the stone wall in the morning light. It is a hart’s tongue fern, and it spends most of the year hidden by its neighbors. I didn’t realize that hart’s tongue fern was evergreen, as I have only once seen it in the wild, and that was in summer. My fern is not the local genotype, A. scolopendrium var. americanum. Mine is the progeny of a plant donated to Cornell Plantations by a local plant enthusiast, who knew it was not the local genotype, but could not remember whether it was of European or Mexican origin. I am betting on the first, A. scolopendrium var. scolopendrium, partly because the European variety is common in cultivation and partly because it has been bred to have around 200 cultivars (Ref. 3 p224 & Ref. 4), including many with striking leaf variations. My plant has a strong tendency toward split, almost crested, frond tips. If I had ready access to a lab, perhaps I could be certain, as the European hart’s tongue fern is diploid, while the American variety is tetraploid (double the "usual" number of chromosomes, sometimes seen in hybrids). (The Mexican version is A. scolopendrium var. lindenii, but I have not found much information on the variety (Ref. 2 & 7)).

Status & Range

The American hart’s tongue fern is state and federally listed as threatened, globally imperiled, and generally rare and very patchy throughout its range. It is currently known from two counties in NY, but ranges into New Brunswick, the Bruce Peninsula of Ontario, and Upper Michigan, with two disjunct populations in cool sinkholes and caves of Tennessee and Alabama. According to Don Leopold, the first discovery of this species in North America was at a central NY site in 1807, and the NY sites represent 9% of the US populations (Ref. 4). The European plants are much more wide-ranging both ecologically and geographically, and are relatively speaking, common, whereas the North American plants are very rare and local. As described below, this more exacting nature extends to its suitability to cultivation.

Appearance

Hart’s tongue fern is quite distinctive when seen outside of a garden (where anything goes). The easy way to remember the look of this fern is given by Wikipedia. "The tongue-shaped leaves have given rise to the common name ‘Hart's tongue fern’. The sori pattern is reminiscent of a centipede's legs, and scolopendrium is Latin for ‘centipede’."

Long strap-like fronds are 6-8" long (up to 16" for European variety) and 1-2" wide (European variety is generally wider than the American variety). The frond is glossy, bright green, somewhat leathery, and the margin is entire. The frond tip can be pointed or blunt (more pointy in the American variety), the veins fork, and the base is chordate. The stalk (rachis) is brownish and glabrous, with lanceolate scales (again more pointy in the American variety). The sori are linear and perpendicular to the rachis; the American variety is likely to have sori only on the upper two-thirds or half of the blade, while the European variety MAY be more completely covered. Some individuals in the wild North American populations may have been modified by genetic contact with each other and/or European varieties, either accidentally or via misguided, albeit well-intentioned, efforts to "save" the plants by transplants and spore releases (Ref. 5). Thus some NY specimens may have some aspects of the European variety. (Ref. 6)

Habitat

The European variety is common in England, France and Germany, where it can be found on limestone walls of old churches & gardens and in calcareous ravines. It can also be found in scattered locations elsewhere in Europe. The American variety shows a similar preference for neutral to limy soil, rocks, and high humidity. American hart’s tongue fern is found on wet limestone cliffs, cave entrances, and outcrops (Ref. 1). In New York they are generally found on north-facing slopes (mid-slope position) under deciduous canopy or in glacial plunge basins and narrow meltwater channels with high humidity (Ref. 4).

Cultivation

Although earlier texts state that both American and European varieties can be grown "if natural conditions are simulated" (Ref. 3), more recent texts strongly differ. To start with, several references note that part of the reason for the scarcity of the North American variety is due to plant collectors. William Cullina summarizes the experience of the New England Wildflower Society’s Garden in the Woods this way: Asplenium scolopendrium var. americanum has a "well-deserved reputation that is far less amiable [than the European variety]" ... [It has] proven recalcitrant in cultivation and quickly perishes even under expert care ... [As a] rare species, even spore collection is discouraged ... (Ref. 1)."

And why would you want to? A rare species which dies on the experts? The Garden in the Woods opted to grow the European variety as a substitute. The European variety grows very well in gardens and provides all the visual benefits of the native one. It can be started easily from spores and transplants well. This time, ethics, morality, and practicality all lead to the same conclusion. If you are so lucky as to see a wild hart’s tongue fern in the North American woods, leave every bit of it there. Take pictures. Wish it well. Don’t reveal the location!

References

1. Cullina, William, New England Wildflower Society, Native Ferns, Moss & Grasses, Frances Tenenbaum, 2008, p36-37.
2. EFloras: Flora of North America Vol. 2
3. Foster, F. Gordon, Ferns to Know & Grow, 2nd revised ed., Hawthorne Books, 1976, p152-153.
4. Leopold, Donald J., Native Plants of the Northeast, Timber Press, 2005, p40.
5. Nature Serve - Version 7.1 (2 February 2009), Data last updated: July 17, 2009 Nature Serve 
6. Weldy, Troy and David Werier. 2009 New York Flora Atlas. [S. M. Landry and K. N. Campbell (original application development), Florida Center for Community Design and Research. University of South Florida]. New York Flora Association, Albany, New York. 2009 New York Flora Atlas
7. Wikipedia: Wikipedia

About

By Rosemarie Parker

Photos by Joe O'Rourke, Rosemarie Parker

Plants Referenced

Common Name(s): 
harts tongue fern
Moisture: 
Moist
Light: 
Part Shade
Shade
ph Preference: 
Lime Loving
August 2007

Summer time for me is the season for fresh local fruit and ... wildflowers! Since this is a group devoted to the study of our local flora, I am confident that there are others who share my excitement about taking a hike to a new section of the woods in the cool of the morning hours and discovering yet another new wildflower. I get a sense of satisfaction from making a new notation in my Newcomb’s for that new wildflower sighting.

Lately, I have taken on the task of identifying butterflies in our area - great spangled fritillaries, little wood satyrs, orange sulfurs, etc. Unlike wildflowers, the challenge with identifying butterflies is that they just won’t stay still for this curious naturalist, which usually results in a chase. Anyway, wildflowers, especially ones in sunny areas, are generally aflutter with butterflies, each busily probing its host plant with its proboscis, or mouthpart, seeking nectar. So, to fully appreciate our wildflowers, it is prudent to learn who their pollinators are. Butterflies are among the many flying insects that happily take on this job.

One of the host plants which several of our local butterfly species depend upon is Spreading Dogbane, Apocynum androsaemifolium. Here in the Finger Lakes region, it blooms from late June to early August. This common native is a shrubby wildflower which grows to a height of 2-4 feet. It can be locally abundant, growing in colonies, and in sunny, dry areas such as roadsides, sandy areas, old fields and disturbed places. The delicate, light pink blossoms are about ¼", bell-shaped, and form in loose clusters on the ends of branches. The leaves are oval with a rounded point, alternate, entire, hairy beneath, and up to 4" long. Its distinct reddish stems lack a defined central stalk. The fruit are long, slender, and pointed pods, found hanging in pairs. (Ladd, 2001)

Dogbane is an old-fashioned term, referring to the fact that it was once used to treat a dog bite. “The only apparent connection between the American plant and dogs was its occasional use to treat people bitten by mad dogs.” (Sanders, 2003) However, “... they are certainly the bane of flies and various other smaller insects for whom they are a deathtrap.” (Sanders, 2003) Other insects with shorter mouthparts become mercilessly stuck in the flower’s interior area, which is barbed. These unwelcome pollen poachers are hopelessly trapped and die. It is common to see these dead insects dangling by their tongues from the flower. (Sanders, 2003)

Typical of dogbanes, the latex-like sap is poisonous and acts like a deterrent to most animals. It is mildly toxic to humans. When exposed to air, the white sap will dry into a soft rubbery substance. Since the leaves have an intensely acrid taste, this plant was once called bitterroot. (Sanders, 2003)

By design, dogbane flowers are adapted to attract butterflies, upon which the wildflower is dependent as a pollinator. A butterflies, such as a monarch, dips its proboscis into the blossom to collect the sweet nectar therein. The nectar serves as an attractant to lure the butterfly into the pollen-bearing region of the flower. (Sanders, 2003) The pollen brushes off onto the legs and other body parts of the pollinator, which is then transported to neighboring plants of the same species for fertilization, ensuring genetic variety. While this plant maybe poisonous to most mammals, it is highly attractive to butterflies and other insects. Even though school children are taught that milkweed is their only food, spreading dogbane is also the monarch butterfly’s host plant. They will feed on the leaves and make their chrysalises on the undersides of the leaves. [See editor's note, below.] Like monarchs and milkweeds, the toxins found in the latex sap of the dogbane provide a natural chemical defense against predators once it has been ingested by the butterfly larvae. (Sanders, 2003) Other butterflies, such as the Canadian tiger swallowtail, cabbage whites, hairstreaks, fritillaries, checker spots, and red admiral, also feed upon spreading dogbane. (Weber, 2002)

Should a colony of dogbane be located near an open hilltop, one may find numerous butterflies clustered at the top, in a behavior known as ‘hilltopping’. This involves mainly the males, actively cruising the singles scene, who congregate at the highest point of the surrounding landscape looking for a mate. Due to the butterfly’s limited distance vision and the fact that its host plants are naturally widely disbursed, hill tops serve as a singles bar. Since males are very territorial, early arrivals choose the most strategic spots to patrol, which is heartily defended, and chasing away rivals is all part of the action. The chances of successfully finding a mate increase significantly if everyone congregates in one area. A female will take a break from seeking a host plant upon which to lay her eggs long enough to fly uphill and mate. It is found that different species of butterflies dominate a hilltop at different times of the day, perhaps as a way of avoiding the distraction of other types of butterflies also seeking mates. Other insects, such as wasps and bees, also use this 'hilltopping' strategy. (Williams, 2005)

Another courtship behavior, ascending flight, occurs when a female is uninterested in the advances of an amorous male. This uninterested female signals that she is unready to mate by flying upwards; the male pursues. The resulting upward spiraling flight occurs when the male pursues the female, but does not take the hint that she is unready to mate. The same instinctive flight pattern occurs between rival males while defending their territories during intense mating activity. (Williams, 2005)

Butterflies gain needed sodium and other nutrients by eating soil and drinking from muddy puddles. In a behavior known as ‘puddling’, male butterflies will congregate at puddles and form ‘puddle clubs’. “It has been shown ... that the sodium accumulated during puddling is passed on, along with sperm, to a female at mating in a nuptial gift he helps by providing nutrients.” (Williams, 2005) These extra nutrients are used by the female for egg production. “Tiger swallowtails are notorious puddlers.” (Weber, 2002) Other sources of sodium are “carrion, animal excrement, sweat-soaked clothing, campfires, and urinals.” (Williams, 2005) So, while puddle clubs are stag parties for males, they also enable the male to contribute to reproduction in a more passive manner. (Williams, 2005)

Other behaviors include nectaring (when the adults feed on nectar, their primary food) and basking, which is when they warm themselves up by “spread[ing] their wings in sunny sites and act[ing] like small solar panels to collect heat.” (Weber, 2002)

Next time you are out hunting for that elusive wildflower, take the time to see who is fluttering in the neighborhood. Remember, wildflowers do not occur in isolation, but are part of a larger interconnecting ecosystem, in which they form a vital link. Without butterflies, there would be no spreading dogbane, and vice versa.

Sources:

Sanders, J. 2003. The Secrets of Wildflowers. Lyons Press, Guilford, CT
Ladd, D. 2001. North Woods Wildflowers. Falcon Publishing, Helena, MT
Weber, L. 2002. Butterflies of New England. Kollath-Stensaas Publishing, Duluth, MN
Williams, E. 2005. The Nature Handbook. Oxford University Press, NY, NY

 

Editor's note Jan. 2014.  Following up on a reader's question suggests that references to monarchs utilizing Apocynum may be a case of repeated references to an original, erroneous report.  Robert Dirig, Cornell, states the following:

"Here's a quote from a long essay on the Monarch that I wrote a few years ago:

Confined N.Y. females refused to oviposit on Spreading Dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium, Apocynaceae), nor would larvae eat it.  Literature reports of this plant as a Monarch larval host may be misidentifications, since dogbanes also contain milky latex and superficially resemble slender milkweeds.

I have never found a wild larva on either Spreading Dogbane or Indian Hemp. Female Monarchs also would not lay eggs on local Vincetoxicum/Cynanchum species, and larvae wouldn't eat them.  In the Northeast, they seem to be confined to milkweed hosts (Asclepias)."

About

By Melanie Kozlowski

Photos by Joe O'Rourke

Plants Referenced

Common Name(s): 
spreading dogbane
Bloom Time: 
Summer
Moisture: 
Dry
Light: 
Sun
Part Sun
Part Shade
Soil: 
Sandy
Can be weedy
Attracts butterflies
September 2009

Hedge Bindweed, Calystegia sepium, is a member of the morning-glory family, Convolvulaceae. It is a climbing, twining, perennial with attractive, large, flowers.

The flowers are generally white but sometimes have a pink tint. They are funnel-shaped and can reach 3" in length. The leaves are large, triangular in shape and have pointed tips.

Although native to our area, their aggressive growth habit makes them somewhat of a nuisance. They can reach ten feet in height and smother the plants they are growing on. Their huge network of creeping rhizomes, plus a taproot that can be up to ten feet in length, can make them very difficult to remove. They are also allelopathic, releasing toxins into the soil that inhibit or retard plant growth.

Hedge Bindweed is often confused with another common wild morning-glory, Field Bindweed, or Convolvulus arvensis. Field Bindweed is non-native, has smaller flowers and leaves, and prefers more open areas. It is easily differentiated from our native species by inspecting the leaves. In C. sepium, the base of the leaf has two points,  or 'dog ears,' whereas the base of a C. arvensis leaf comes to a single point.

In the 60's, it was a fad to crush the seeds of the popular garden variety "Heavenly Blue" morning glory and consume them. In small quantities the seeds produced hallucinations. In large quantities they were poisonous. The seeds of our native morning-glory have the same hallucinogenic effect.

C. sepium blooms in our area from June to September.

About

By Joe O'Rourke

Photos by Joe O'Rourke

Plants Referenced

Common Name(s): 
Hedge Bindweed
Bloom Time: 
Mid Summer
Late Summer
Moisture: 
Dry
Moist
Light: 
Sun
Part Sun
Can be weedy