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!
Sometimes a photo opportunity may come when you are not expecting it or when it is not convenient. I was out taking some photos of flowers for my other project and realized that the local insects had other things on their mind.
A pair of platysomatid flies (Genus Rivellia) were performing a courtship dance on my left ring finger. These odd looking flies are often confused for fruit flies but are their own distinct genus. The description in my Kaufman’s Guide to Insects of North America says their “biology and life histories are essentially unknown”. Well, I can vouch for a bit of their courtship behavior.
The female fly leads the dance with the male fly mirroring her every step in a close formation directly behind her. Both flies will flip their wings as the dance zigs and zags across the dancefloor, in this case, my finger.
As the dance progresses the male closes the gap making the dance more and more intimate until…
the female pauses for a brief moment allowing the male to mount the female and transfer sperm. (I’m just glad my cuticles look as good as they do!)
The actual even of mating lasted only a couple of seconds before the male released his grasp.
As soon as the act was finished the dance picked up again and the male quickly jumped back into the rhythm of the females lead. I can only assume the mating continued after they flew away from the voyeuristic primate with a camera pointed at them.
Take not of the little things and relish the small beauties and wonders that are, sometimes, literally on your fingertip.
Tis the season of love all around us. Birds, insects, mammals and especially amphibians are all trying to pass on their genes to the next generation. Male frogs call in the hopes of attracting a female to mate with, being selected based on the volume a frequency of his call. Males will call almost continuously through the peak of the mating season, day and night. I have seen dead frogs in ponds that, I can only assume, have literally called themselves to death.
The Northern Leopard Frog is amongst the first frogs to begin calling in the spring. They will call at he surface or just below making a call that is very difficult to describe in words.
The green frog is a large frog, second only to the bull frog in Minnesota. The green frog is a late season caller and wraps up the mating season for amphibians around my house. Their call sounds like plucking an out of tune banjo. Their tadpoles will spend the entire next year underwater before emerging as young adults the following summer.
Frogs, and other amphibians, are an important of the environment, serving as predator and prey for many other species. Unfortunately their global populations are falling as human influences to environment continue to marginalized their habitats and other needs for life. Amphibians are an indicator species of overall health of an ecosystem. If global populations are decreasing what does that mean for the overall health of the planet??
Photos taken on my iPhone 4S.
With spring comes rebirth and revitalization. Spring is also a time of death. All the new life requires energy. For many animals that energy comes from the young and vulnerable. Every year I welcome spring by watching the chickadees and other birds begin building their nests. I have several nest boxes around my property that have yielded dozens of broods of wrens, chickadees, and bluebirds. See my post documenting a brood of chickadees here.
This year the chickadees built their nest of hair, lichens and moss in a nest box I inherited from my grandparents. I watched as they diligently shuttled all the nest materials into the box. We would periodically lift the top of the box to check on the progress of the nest. Sometimes the female would allow the minor disturbance and would not leave her incubation of 7 tiny eggs.
All was going well until I noticed some clumps of lichen and hair outside the nest box. My heart sank and I knew this was not good. Opening the box I found the nest in disarray. The eggs had been moved but were still intact. The female was no were to be found.
The hole to enter the nest box had evidence of recent scratching and nest material being removed.
Directly below the nest box I found the evidence I was hoping not to find. Evidence of predation, the right wing of a chickadee. The feathers were mangled and disheveled hallmarks of a bird predated by a salivating mammal, most likely a raccoon. Smaller body feather littered the grass around the wing.
All hope for the survival of the eggs had been lost. Seven little chickadees that will never see the sun or herald in the spring with their phee-bee call. Their mother plucked from the nest as she warmed them on a cold spring night to meet her fate in the belly of a raccoon.
When explaining this to my 5-year-old daughter it was difficult for her to process. I could tell she wanted to be angry at the raccoon and mourned the loss of “our” chickadees. But without the sacrifice of the chickadees, the raccoon could not feed their own young. The raccoon knows not of right and wrong only of survival and the next opportunity for food.
Out of curiosity, I removed one of the eggs from the failed nest.
I carefully removed the eggshell to reveal the fully formed chickadee embryo inside, probably just days from hatching. The tiny feet curled up into the fetal position
The somber emotion of this picture defines the dichotomy of spring. It is a time of rebirth through death. This cycle is essential for the survival of all species. Without death, there cannot be life.
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!!