Today is hot and humid and the last thing most people are thinking about is snow and ice. Plants, however, operate on a different timeline. Even though it is simply uncomfortable to be outside many of the flowers that are blooming now will continue to bloom right through to the first frosts of fall. There aren’t going to be the explosions of flowers like we had in May and April, instead many of the final flowers of the season are in full bloom for as long as the weather will permit.
Those flowers who do not bloom until the frost will go to seed and supply enough energy for the seed to produce the next generation the following summer. As we sweat through the day just waiting for the heat to lift the plants all around us are already preparing for next year, thinking well beyond their own lives to ensure the perpetuation of their species. Perhaps we have quite a bit to learn from the humble flowers that bring us so much joy and beauty.
When I hear the word “flower” it brings to mind the day lilies, tulips, cone flowers and the other traditional flowers. We tend to think of flowers as objects of beauty rather than the functional sex organs that they are. We look out the window speeding past millions of sex organs, plain as day, in the ditches throughout the world. We even consume the immature sex organs of many different plants (your broccoli will never look the same).
My point is, flowers may seem intricately beautiful as if place here only for our pleasure, when in reality, they serve only to perpetuate the plant species in the most efficient manner possible.
So here are some of those sex organs that we see baring it all on the highway and others who want to get intimately close to you. Enjoy!
Curly dock has these very simple flower head that will turn into a heavy head of dark brown seeds that look almost like tobacco. I see these all over the roads here in Minnesota but have never known exactly what it was.
On the road of life, there are hitchhikers. Seeds will do best when they can get away from their parents. This leads to the samaras, or helicopters, on the maples, the light fluff of a dandelion or even the buoyant nature of a coconut. Other plants have a different strategy. The White Avens, pictured above, produces hook like seeds that will attach themselves to any passerby. I found this plant on a well-traveled deer trail in my backyard, quite literally a highway.
Here is the king of all the plant hitchhikers, the burdock. The little-hooked barbs of the seed are already formed on the flower. These aggressive seeds will create large mats of hair in any mammal unlucky enough to get snagged. I once found coyote tracks on my ice covered pond and you could clearly see where it had stopped and wiggled to remove 6 burdocks from its hindquarters, leaving only the seeds and a little hair behind. An annoyance for the coyote was free transportation for the burdock.
This small flower is another hitchhiker with the surname of stickseed (you know it means business). The seeds produced by the stickseed are small sticky burrs. The stem branches are nearly perpendicular to the ground and each branch is covered with tiny sticky seeds ready to hitch a free ride.
Not all plants we commonly see on the side of the road are hitchhikers, some simply take advantage of the good sun and reduce competition from habitual mowing.
Here are two examples of flowers in my yard that are common on roadsides as well. Unlike the hitchhikers these two thrive in the semi-maintained ditches across the Midwest because they offer the right light and reduced competition.
To finish here are a couple more pictures that don’t necessarily fit this theme but still need to be documented for my Year in my Yard project to document all the flowers on my property. Enjoy!
Summer has set in and the heat and humidity are making it known. The flurry of flowers between spring and early summer have come and gone while the familiar faces of summer are settling in for their turn.
As I am identifying the flowers on my property I am beginning to learn the history of the land. What I am finding is a story of disturbance and inconsistency. Many of the flowers I have photographed outside my manicured (used in the slighted use of the word) are either foreign invaders or natives that thrive with disturbance. These first two flowers are examples of each. The motherwort is a native that thrives and forest edges. In a natural setting, this would be in blowdowns, fires or other places the forest has opened up. Here I found it where my lawn meets the forest. The Canada Thistle is a foreign invader from our neighbors to the north. It also thrives and proliferates in disturbed soils, so much so that I have attempted to remove as many of the flowers, before they go to seed, as possible. This is a tough decision to make as the flowers serve as a valuable food source for pollinators.
June 21: Common Elderberry
Here is another native that thrives with disturbance. Each of these flowers will become a very edible berry after it is pollinated. The berries are good to eat provided you can beat the birds to them!
June 21-26: Echinacea
Here is one of the masters of the native plants, echinacea, the mighty cone flower. This flower and its allies dominated the native prairies, grasslands and savannahs for thousands of years before the plow. The pictures above are all of the same individual flower, taken over several days. The petals expand and fill with color as they mature. The bees, flies, butterflies and moths were eagerly awaiting the production of nectar, “testing” the flower from the moment it emerged.
June 21: Stinging Nettles
Here is a great example of different strategies flowers use to reproduce. Some flowers like the lily, pictured above, produce one large flower with a large reservoir of nectar and pollen. This single flower can produce multiple seeds. The Gaillardia, also pictured above, is a composite flower meaning that it is actually hundreds of tiny flowers pushed together. Each of these tiny flowers can only produce one seed each, but because they are numerous, one flower head can produce hundreds of tiny seeds. Yet another adaptation is exemplified by the stinging nettles. It too produces a plethora of small flowers but in less organized groups. Each small flower will produce a single seed.
This has to be the smallest flower I have seen all year. Each tiny bloom is only a couple of millimeters in diameter. These flowers must surely be pollinated by small flies as anything larger wouldn’t be able to land on the stem let alone access the nectar at the bottom of the flower.Cats as pollinators?? Think about that for a while….
Catnip is in the mint family. The flowers are clustered radially around the square stem. I have other members of the mint family coming in a future post so make a note to compare the flower shape, color, and patterns!
Is there another flower in this post that’s in the mint family? Go back and see if you can figure it out!!
The ability to identify patterns is one trait that truly separates us from many other life forms. It is our innate ability to see patterns in nature that have given us an advantage over our competition. Instead of simple depressions in the ground our ancestors recognized the patterns of toes, hooves, and claws in tracks giving them the ability to meticulously track their prey. We also have the inborn ability to recognize faces (a pattern of eyes, nose and mouth) from birth. This unique ability explains why some claim to see Jesus or the Virgin Mary in their toast or a myriad of other objects. The ability to learn the patterns of nature is also the very foundation of science. Those individuals who are
The ability to learn the patterns of nature is also the very foundation of science. Those individuals who were the best at identifying patterns in the tracks were more successful than those who could not. The process of tracking involves an observation, hypothesis, test, peer-review, and conclusion; all of the steps of the, so called, scientific method. As our ancient ancestors began to live a more civilized life they began to notice more subtle patterns in nature. These patterns eventually developed into math.
The mathematical patterns found in nature are so ingrained that is often wondered if math was invented or discovered. As we uncover more about the natural world, down to the quantum level, we begin to see these same mathematical patterns repeated at an ever smaller scale.
One of the most famous patterns in nature is the Fibonocci Sequence (0,1,1,2,3,5,8,13…). This sequence can be seen in snail shells, flowers, pinecones, and pineapples. The sequence is calculated by summing the two previous number in the sequence. This means the next number in the sequence above would be 8+13 or 21. The best example of this pattern can be seen in composite flowers like this daisy below.
And just because it’s a totally cliche picture….
Looking at the center of the daisies picture above we see an intersecting spiral pattern going in both a clockwise and counter-clockwise direction. The arc of each spiral fits the Fibonacci sequence as it spirals away from the center of the flower.
Check out another example of the same pattern in this coneflower.
Although a bit more subtle than the previous examples the clover pictured above has an abbreviated spiral pattern to its flower.
Fibonacci’s patterns are usually not obvious but once you know the pattern you will begin to see it everywhere. Finding an appreciating patterns in nature is more than looking at flowers and such, it is recognizing one of the fundamental abilities that define our species. Go outside, look for patterns, and appreciate your abilities.
I have challenged myself to document and report all of the flowering plants on my property for they year. I will be sharing my findings as they happen throughout the flowering season.
Spring in Minnesota is full of extremes as the weather seems to go through mood swings, personalities and extremes all within several weeks. This spring started very early with nearly a week of very above normal temperatures. But in true spring fashion, the warmth was short=lived and the cold returned for several weeks. For us humans this is not a big deal as we just have to put on the winter jacket again and wait out the cold. But plants have much more at stake.
Each spring plants play the odds for when to withdraw from their energy reserves and begin to produce leaves and flowers. Those who bud out too soon risk losing their investment with late frosts. Those who bud out too late miss out on valuable solar energy to capture.
Plants also risk missing their pollinators if they bloom at the wrong time. Many plants rely on insects to transfer pollen from one flower to another increasing genetic diversity within the population and producing the next generation of the species. Because of climate change we are now witnessing an upset in some of these relationships. Some species of plants are blooming before their pollinators are present. This may not seem like a big deal but the very survival of some species is on the line.
And now here are some of those early gamblers:
April 2, 2016
Slippery Elm, Ulmus rubra
These small flowers have been nipped by the frost. Notice the wilting on the stamen and the damage to the bud scales. This tree took a hit but I think the gamble ultimately paid off. This is a tree species that I did not realize I had on my property and was a new one to identify as well!
April 14, 2016
Crocus, Crocus sativus
April 16, 2016
Pussy Willow, Salix discolor
Here is an example of how one species prevents self-fertilization. The first picture is the flower bud taken on March 26, 2016. The second and third pictures are from two different trees. The second picture is the male stage of the flower with the flamboyant male stamen spreading their pollen. In the third picture, the stamen have wilted and the female stigma has matured to receive pollen from another tree.
Boxelder, Acer negundo
Boxelder trees are short lived, water loving members of the maple family. They produce samaras (the helicopter seeds) like other maples. Growing up my favorite climbing tree was a boxelder.
Eastern Cottonwood, Populus deltoides
I have a love-hate relationship with cottonwoods. Their rapid and impressive growth make 50-year-old cottonwoods look like giants compared to other species 3 times their age. Because they are a member of the Poplar family they have very soft wood and will often drop branches or limbs during storms. As the name suggests they also produce cotton that will infiltrate every crack and crevice around the house, cars,and your own body. The yellow bud scales that protected the flower before it bloomed are quite sticky and will readily be tracked through the house on my feet, socks and shoes. I always seem to find them stuck in places well after the flowers have finished blooming.
Siberian Squill, Scilla siberica
Ground Ivy, Glechoma hederacea
Ground Ivy, commonly called Creeping Charlie, is a very common weed in many yards and lawns. Despite its negative reputation as a weed, this plant serves as an important early spring food source for many insects. The trumpet-shaped flowers are a product of coevolution with the insects that pollinate them. The shape forces the insect to enter the flower to access the nectar deep in the trumpet. In doing so the insect becomes covered with pollen, which is then transferred to another flower. Flowers are, for all intents and purposes, billboards for insects. They are advertisements that have evolved in response to pollinators. Each flower is adapted to a specific set of pollinators and each pollinator is adapted to a specific set of flowers. Which bears the question which came first?
The gamble of making energy demanding flowers is the dependence on the pollinator to complete the act of pollination. Without the pollinators, the plants would not be able to reproduce. This subtle relationship is often taken for granted but our very existence depends on it.
I have two more flowers I have yet to identify. New post coming soon!
It has been a very long time since I last posted. Raising children, moving jobs and houses is demanding in its own right. Last summer, in a moment of humility, I realized I there were plants on my property that I couldn’t name or even identify. In this moment I gave myself a challenge to photograph and document every flowering plant on my modest 4 acres. This challenge will give me an opportunity to better understand and connect with the land and improve my understanding of the plants in the place I call home.
SO here we go. I’m going to post as the flowers pop and try to keep up!
March 22, 2016
Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum)
The Silver Maple is a very common tree in southern Minnesota. It is native to the floodplains and basins of the great rivers where it thrives in the sandy moist soil. It’s rapid growth rate made it an ideal tree for yards and developments and today we see them in many more places than their native habitat.
The photo below is the the female flowers of the Silver Maple tree. The long red protrusions are the stigma of the flower each awaiting a single grain of pollen. Once the stigma absorbs a pollen grain from a male flower it will develop into a seed. Come summer each of these seeds will come whirling down as a samara or as my daughter calls them “helicopters”
The male flowers illustrated below have long pollen covered stamen that allow any passing breeze to release the pollen in the hopes of connecting with a stigma of another Silver Maple.
In many species of plants the flowers will start off in one sex and then morph to the other to prevent self fertilization. This adaptation maximizes the chances of cross pollination between individuals and thus adding genetic variation to the population.
Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides)
My property has many many aspen trees. These soft wooded trees can reproduce in several ways. They have the traditional sexual reproduction using flowers, called catkins, pollinated by the wind but they can also clone themselves. Cloning occurs when the roots from an adult tree spread to a neighboring area and sprout as a tree. In the mountains of Colorado there are vast forests of aspen trees comprised of only a few individual actual trees, making them one of the largest single living organisms all connected through a maze of roots.
My students often find these “caterpillars” on the ground in the spring. What they have actually found is the reproductive organs of the aspen, a catkin. These unique looking flowers are often one of the first signs of spring. Their fuzzy appearance helps catch the slightest breeze sending a load of pollen to the sky.
Note the yellow pollen on my hand in the picture below.
Snow Drop (Galanthus sp.)
This is the first non-tree flower of the year. As the common name suggests the Snow Drop can often be in full bloom even with snow still on the ground. The day after I took the picture below we had several inches of snow. These and other flowers are an important early season pollen resource for bees and other pollinators. The Snow Drop lays dormant for nearly 10 months a year as a bulb. The bulb stores all the energy the plant needs to push through the soil, produce leaves, and flower. After a short month or so above ground the plant will once again retreat below ground to wait for the following spring.
That’s all for now. I’m anxiously waiting for the boxelder, cottonwood, and a tree that I’m not sure of to pop! I also have tulips, daffodils and iris poking through the soil, not to mention the ground ivy or creeping Charlie that will be flowering soon too!!