Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Outwitting the Wily Orchids

Dan, Dan, the orchid man McDowell, my mentor for all things botanical, is fond of saying, "Peter, the neat thing about orchids is they can hide, but they can't run." But knowing this to be true is not always helpful in finding the less showy members of the orchid family.

There are three woodland species of orchids here in Indiana that can neither hide, nor run, during the winter months. The green over-wintering leaves are easy to spot among the decaying leaf litter on the forest floor. Find those leaves now before the green-up, mark their location with a GPS and return later when they are in bloom, and likely to be hidden by closely growing associates.

(1) Aplectrum hyemale
Common name: puttyroot, Adam-and-Eve orchid

(2) Tipularia discolor
Common name: crane-fly orchid

(3) Goodyera pubescens

Common name: downy rattlesnake plantain

Aplectrum hyemale sends up a single leaf in late September which is usually shed when the flower stalk is present in May. It is common to find an abundance of leaves at a winter location only to find a few flowering stalks when you return in the spring.

This is the rarer greenish form of Aplectrum hyemale forma pallidum which grows at a site in LaPorte County.


Tipularia discolor, like the puttyroot, Aplectrum hyemale, produces a single leaf in September which is absent during flowering. I recently counted 22 leaves of this species at a LaPorte County site in April, but found only one flowering stalk when I returned in August.

Note the purple underside of the leaf of Tipularia discolor.


Unlike the preceding two species, the strikingly patterned foliage of Goodyera pubescens can be found throughout the year, and is present during flowering in July and August.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Pondberry pursuits

Pondberry (Lindera melissifolia) is a federally endangered shrub, and Missouri has just one population on the Arkansas border at Sand Pond Conservation Area (and adjacent TNC property). I got to see it in bloom yesterday.

The area was hard hit by a severe ice storm in January of 2009. The largest overstory trees came crashing down, and the remainder were stripped of all their branches. You can see a large canopy gap in the photo below.

The pondberry was thriving in ankle-deep water at the base of this behemouth blown-down tree. See the person in the background for scale.

The pondberry appears to do best with specific hydrology: it tolerates being innundated with water, but apparently doesn't want water that is too deep (you can see here that it is growing only on the edges of this deeper pond. The water levels are most likely lower than usual this year: southern MO has had a relatively dry winter/spring). In other areas of the preserve, it is growing in somewhat drier areas. Although the pondberry has responded well to the canopy opening created by the ice storm, it is being outcompeted in the drier locations by greenbriar, poison ivy and other shrubs and vines which have also benefitted from the greater light levels. Pondberry seems to thrive only where it is just wet enough to keep the competition down.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Mysterious Trillium nivale

Even in Indiana, March isn't too early for some good botany. Last weekend, Lee Casebere and I headed to southeastern Indiana in search of the stunning and pre-spring blooming Trillium nivale. The specific epithet nivale means "of the snow," leading to the common name Snow Trillium for this species, which is sometimes seen blooming when snow is covering the ground. According to Wildflowers of South West Indiana, Trillium nivale was in bloom as early as March 3 this year!

There it is, right at home growing from a crevice in a moss-covered limestone outcropping. This is a tough plant, for sure, considering that it can withstand being frozen every night, and that it grows on nearly bare rock. These conditions are exactly what Trillium nivale needs, as it doesn't do well when in competition with other vegetation. Another habitat in which this little wonder is found is in gravelly-sandy alkaline floodplains, where the periodic disturbance of overbank flooding creates conditions where not many plants will grow and Trillium nivale can benefit from the lack of competition.

Trillium nivale has a somewhat spotty distribution throughout the Midwest, Great Lakes, and New England states. Its strongholds appear to be Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana, where it is locally abundant. Even so, it is often difficult to predict exactly where you will find Trillium nivale; you can often find it growing abundantly in one spot, yet not find a single plant in the exact same habitat a few hundred feet away. I hope you are all lucky enough to find Snow Trillium in the short time that it blooms, from March to early April.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A Fruit Salad of Mosses (apples and pears, that is)

In early spring botanists get itchy feet and head out to find the first blooms of the season. Unfortunately, they are initially met with standard fare such as Erigenia bulbosa, Lamium amplexicaule or Houstonia minima. If you find yourself in this situation and since you are peering intently at the ground anyway, you may as well keep a humble eye out for a bryophyte or two; no doubt you will see many.

Here are two of the more easily identified mosses you could encounter. Though not a purely unique character, both species have rather spherical capsules. The first is Physcomitrium pyriforme.
In my experience, this moss is usually found in rather disturbed or recently burned areas with full sun and is readily identified by the tongue-like leaves with apiculate tips and the pear-shaped (broadly obovate) capsules; a character from which the species epithet is derived (Pyrus being the genus of pears). The second species is Bartramia pomiforme.
This is a species of higher floristic quality. It is an acidophile and is pretty much restricted to wet sandstone ledges, bluffs and terraces in shaded forests; the kind of places you expect to see an abundance of mosses. With its narrow pointed leaves, yellow-green coloration and soft texture there are few mosses with which to confuse it. The nearly perfect spheres that are the capsules pretty much seal the deal. Though I don't like to perpetuate the use of common names, this one is apt. It is called Apple Moss which jives well with the specific epithet (a pome being the fruit type of the apple). At maturity the capsules turn reddish-brown and then look so much like apples that Eve herself would not be able to resist them.

And if you have no taste for mosses, fruity or otherwise, it won't be long before the woods are once again heavy with tracheophyte greenery and the floral distractions there unto.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

An Early Sign of Spring, Corylus americana

I was reading Shrubs of Indiana by Weeks and Parker when I realized that I had never taken the time to find and appreciate the female flowers of American Hazelnut. I found a nice thicket while hiking at Spring Mill State Park, in Lawrence County, Indiana. I like the female flowers, maybe because I had to look for them. Plants are monecious, so you can find both flowers on the same plant.

The male flowers are easy to see from a distance, as they are several inches long, numerous, and hang out in the open.