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.

Mountain laurel

Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) is currently in flower off the Blue Ridge Parkway in the mountains of North Carolina. Look for the white to pink bowl shaped flowers in dense showy clusters. While plants can be found both in open sunny areas and in shaded sites under a forest canopy, it's those plants that receive more sunlight that flower most prolifically.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Beargrass in flower

Beargrass (Yucca filamentosa) is now in flower in dry open woodlands, on rock outcrops, and along roadsides in the piedmont and mountains. For fruits to form, this plant requires the pollination services of a tiny moth (the Yucca moth). Unlike all but a few pollinators, the Yucca moth intentionally pollinates the flowers. After pollinating a flower, a female moth lays eggs in the ovary, the larvae hatch, and then feed on the developing seeds. Usually about 30 % of the developing seeds are eaten. In this plant-insect mutualism, the flowers get pollinated and the moth is rewarded not by pollen or by nectar (the usual floral rewards) but by seeds for its larvae. Look for the tiny cream-colored moths hanging out in the flowers during the day.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Listen to Rudy Mancke discuss my new wildflower book

Rudy Mancke did a nice audio piece on Nature Notes about Wildflowers and Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachian Mountains and Piedmont, UNC Press.

Wildflower pilgrimage

I had the opportunity to participate in the wildflower and bird pilgrimage in Asheville, NC the last weekend in April. It was wonderful! There were hikes in the woods, abundant wildflowers, and interesting people to share the fun. Yellow lady's slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum) was just one of the many species we saw in bloom in the southern Appalachian mountains.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Sweet Betsy flower color morphs

The flowers of Sweet Betsy (Trillium cuneatum) are usually purple in color, but some plants have yellow or greenish flowers. Here, we see the purple and yellow flower morphs on adjacent plants. The flowers often have a faint spice-like odor, but you usually have to get your nose up close to the plant to detect it.

Bloodroot in bloom

It's hard to resist taking a photo of bloodroot, especially when they've just emerged and are so fresh-looking with gobs of golden pollen. The flowers lack nectar, so it's pollen alone that attracts (and rewards) bees and flies that function as pollinators. If the flower fails to attract a pollinator within 3-4 days, the anthers curl into the stigma brushing pollen onto its surface, thereby self-pollinating the flower, a useful backup mechanism since low temperatures and wet conditions frequently reduce insect activity in early spring .

Sunday, April 3, 2011

We saw our first hummingbird this year on the first day of April. While it was visiting our feeder, another good source of sugar water (actually nectar) for it are the flowers of red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) which are currently in bloom in our yard.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Halberdleaf yellow violet

An early spring wildflower in deciduous forests of the eastern United States is halberdleaf yellow violet (Viola hastata). Look for its arrowhead-shaped leaves (the upper surfaces typically mottled with silvery blotches) clustered towards the stem tip and bright yellow flowers. When two or more species of violets occur in close proximity, it's not unusual for hybrids to form. Because hybrids have traits of both parental species, identification to species can be difficult.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Bloodroot in fruit

Already, bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is going to fruit here in the piedmont of South Carolina. Most bloodroot flowers successfully mature fruit because if cross-pollination fails to occur, the flowers can self-pollinate. Once the fruit (an elongate green capsule) matures, the ripe seeds are usually quickly carried off by ants which utilize a lipid-rich food body attached to the seed and drop the seeds unharmed, usually near their nests. So, when you see bloodroot, think too of the ants, which play a key role in dispersing the seeds of this plant.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


We lost our beloved dog Mocha this week to a sudden and serious illness (he was nearly 11). He had accompanied us on many a wildflower foray in the woods, often waiting patiently while I snapped photos of plants in bloom. He once scared off a bear coming around a trail very close to where we were perched. And, on hot summer days, he was always on the alert for a stream to get a drink and soak in. He'll be missed greatly!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Tag alder in flower

Another late winter flowering shrub is Tag alder (Alnus serrulata). This wind-pollinated plant produces long narrow male catkins that release enormous amounts of pollen from March to April, depending on elevation and latitude. The attached photo shows both a male (pollen producing) catkin and several female catkins with tiny red hair-like structures (the stigmas) whose function is to catch wind-blown pollen. If all goes well, the female catkins eventually mature ripe seeds within small cone-like structures.

Spicebush in flower

One of the first shrubs to flower in spring is Spicebush (Lindera benzoin). It produces tiny yellow flowers in clusters that are visited and potentially pollinated by flies and small bees. Because plants have either male or female flowers, the species is considered to be dioecious. Look for this widespread shrub in moist forests and bottomlands in the eastern United States .

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Bloodroot in bloom

Today I saw my first bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) of the year. It was a cool, somewhat cloudy morning so the large white flowers were slow to open fully. This time of year the lobed leaf at the base of each flower stalk has a vertical orientation whereas in summer the leaf gets even larger and has a horizontal orientation (to better capture light under a leafy canopy). Bees and flies occasionally visit the nectarless flowers for pollen, and in the process, may function as pollinators.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Round-lobed Hepatica

I saw my first Hepatica of the season today at the State Botanical Garden in Clemson, South Carolina. Hepatica is one of the very first woodland herbs to bloom in "spring" (or in this case, late winter) and it's always a treat to see.

The genus Hepatica is native to eastern North America, Europe, and Asia so I like to think that plant enthusiasts on all three continents are excited to see this early blooming species with its lovely flowers.

Dimpled Trout Lily

Today I found Trout lily (Erythronium umbilicatum) in full bloom near Clemson, South Carolina. It's both one of the first wildflowers to bloom in spring and one of the most beautiful with nodding yellow flowers that close up tight at night and gradually open the next morning. On warmer days, look for bumblebees visiting the nectar-rich flowers.

Trout lily is a classic example of a spring ephemeral. It emerges from an underground bulb as the soil begins to warm in late winter and dies back in spring as the canopy trees leaf out (thereby shading the forest floor). In a matter of just a few weeks it emerges, leafs out, flowers, sets fruit, and matures seeds. The rest of the year (10+ months) it persists underground as a dormant bulb. So, enjoy this plant while you can as it will soon retreat to its underground refuge.