Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Cranefly Orchid (Tipularia discolor): A wintergreen orchid

This relatively common orchid in moist-to-dry forests throughout much of South Carolina has an unusual life cycle in that it is wintergreen and summer deciduous. Its dark green 2-4 inch leaves with a purple underside emerge from a small corm (underground food storage organ) in fall when most other deciduous plants are beginning to drop their leaves and go dormant. Then, in spring, when most other deciduous plants are producing new leaves and just beginning their growing season, the leaves of cranefly orchid wither and disappear. 
Its slender flower stalks and purplish-green to yellowish-brown flowers bloom in summer when the plant is leafless. Because the flowers blend in with the leaf litter on the forest floor, they are easily overlooked by wildflower enthusiasts, but are somehow found by its pollinators – night flying moths! Hikers are most likely to notice cranefly orchid in winter when its dark green to purple leaves stand out against the mostly grayish brown forest floor. Worldwide, there are three species of Tipularia – one in the eastern United States, one in Japan, and a third in the Himalayas.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Wildflower Hot Spots

Check out this article on wildflower hotspots of the world from the 12 July 2012 issue of the Wall Street Journal written by Steve Mollman.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Black Bears and Bear corn

Hiking in the Smokies in early June, I came upon a young black bear foraging in the woods. Partially hidden behind a large dead hemlock tree, and with a pair of binoculars in hand, I watched the bear consume the fruits and shoots on multiple clumps of bear corn, a process that went on for nearly an hour (and delayed quite a few hikers, too). A subsequent look at the literature revealed that the flowering and fruiting structures of bear corn are an important part of the diet of black bears. White-tailed deer as well as smaller mammals such as squirrels, chipmunks, and mice also feed on the flowers and fruits. In addition to obtaining nutrients, it's thought that bears seek out squawroot to stimulate bowel activity, particularly after emerging from hibernation.

What about the plant? Does it benefit from this interaction with mammals? As you may have guessed, the answer is yes, as viable seeds of bear corn have been recovered in the scat of black bears and white-tailed deer. While the tiny seeds of bear corn can be transported short distances by rainwater flowing across the soil surface, black bears and other mammals feeding on ripe fruits play an important role in dispersing the seeds over a larger area. This increases the chance that at least some seeds will be deposited in close proximity to the roots of a suitable host plant, required for successful establishment as bear corn is an obligate root parasite (mainly on oaks). 

There's a human connection to bear corn as well in that Native Americans of eastern North America used it as a medicinal plant.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Wildflowers & Waterfalls
George Ellison and Tim Spira Team up Oct. 21 to benefit Discover Life in America

This post first appeared in the Compleat Naturalist e-newsletter and was written by Laura Mahan, co-owner of the Compleat Naturalist, and the person who is organizing this presentation.

George Ellison writes the Nature Journal column for the Asheville Citizen-Times, among other things. He is well-known in our area as an excellent naturalist, writer, and teacher. This spring he wrote a review of the new book by Dr. Tim Spira, Wildflowers & Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachians & Piedmont, about which he said, "I never thought I'd see anything this good on this topic for this region in my lifetime." When he finally got to meet Tim, the two hit it off as fellow botanizers and they came up with the idea of doing a program together.

So that's how this program idea was born. George and Tim came to Laura Mahan and volunteered to do a presentation. The speakers did not want to be paid, but instead suggested that proceeds be given to a non-profit group. Compleat Naturalist owner Laura Mahan serves on the board of directors of Discover Life in America, and they agreed that this would be an excellent organization to support.

The next question was location-- where to have the program. The group decided to ask the Cathedral of All Souls in Biltmore Village, just a block away from The Compleat Naturalist, if they could have a presentation in the Parish Hall, and the church was most agreeable and supportive. Afterward participants will go to The Compleat Naturalist for a party and socializing.
We think this is a wonderful event that celebrates the beauty and biological diversity of the mountains while supporting a worthwhile cause, and giving everyone the opportunity for fun and socializing with other nature-minded folk. We hope you can come!

Oct. 21, 7-9 pm: Wildflowers & Waterfalls: A Closer Look (starts at Cathedral of All Souls; party at The Compleat Naturalist; Biltmore Village, Asheville, NC)

Monday, July 25, 2011

Sassafras Arching Trunks

Trees such as sourwood, black gum, and river birch often having a pronounced bend to their trunks. I've always assumed that it is a phototrophic response whereby the stems are simply growing towards the area where light is most readily available. But in the Sassafras trees growing in our home landscape (Clemson) something else seems to be going on. In the last 5 years or so there have been two years in which the female trees have had a super abundant fruit crop and the weight of all those developing fruits caused the stems to bend downward during the several weeks that the fruits matured. These periodic heavy fruit loads, I believe, contribute to the permanent bend often seen in Sassafras trunks. Additional support for this hypothesis is that male trees, which lack the burden of producing weighty fruits, generally have much straighter trunks than do the females, at least in our landscape. It would be interesting to see if this pattern holds true for Sassafras "in the wild".

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Black cohosh

Black cohosh (Actaea racemosa) is currently in flower off the Blue Ridge Parkway. It's easily recognizable by its 3-8 ft tall flower stalks with tassel-like white flowers and coarsely toothed leaflets. The fetid smelling flowers attract carrion flies and beetles which function as pollinators. In a pinch, you can rub the flowers on your exposed skin to ward off mosquitoes; however, in so doing you may attract carrion flies and beetles which think you're dead meat (not to worry, they don't bite).

Monday, May 30, 2011

Fire pink (Silene virginica)

Fire pink (Silene virginica) tends to be restricted to relatively open areas (such as rocky slopes with shallow soils) as it is a poor competitor. So, if you add this plant to your garden, you'll want to prevent neighboring plants from getting too close and overtopping it.

Fire pink is a classic hummingbird-pollinated plant as it has tubular red flowers with abundant nectar, no landing platforms (as is typically found in bee or butterfly-pollinated plants) and no detectable floral odor. The flowers depend on hummingbirds to transfer pollen from the anthers of one flower to the stigma of another for successful fruit and seed production.