Monday, April 30, 2012

Plant Quiz Solved: Seaside Arrow-grass (Triglochin maritima)

Congrats and thanks to Justin for correctly identifying this plant as Seaside Arrow-grass (Triglochin maritima).  This unusual and rare species is listed as threatened in Ohio largely due to its ever-shrinking habitat of calcareous fens, marshes, swales and sandy beaches.  It's very similar to another species; Marsh Arrow-grass (T. palustris) which is also rare in Ohio, where they can occasionally grow alongside one another.  Seaside arrow-grass is much larger and more robust containing flowers on shorter, nearly sessile peduncles and six stamens/carpels; while marsh arrow-grass is smaller, thinner and has three stigma/carpels on flowers with longer peduncles. 

*Update*  Some additional clues to the identity of this species is its circumboreal distribution; the fact it is a monocotyledon; and the blurred background contains a diverse display of last year's grasses, sedges, spikerushes and bulrush in a wet, alkaline habitat.

Here is this week's plant quiz.  Take a look at the photograph below and comment with your answer or best guess!  Both plants in the picture are the same thing with the left specimen in full bloom.  Notice the blurred background hinting its typical habitat here in Ohio.  Good luck!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Showy Orchis (Galearis spectabilis)

I can still distinctly remember my first experience finding and observing a wild species of orchid out in the field.  I had long admired their beauty and unequaled physique in pictures from wildflower books and the internet but had never tangibly witnessed one with my own eyes.  It was four years ago on a warm and sunny afternoon in mid-May as I slowly weaved my way between the large tuliptrees, yellow buckeye and beech of a mature, mixed-mesophytic forest deep in Zaleski state forest.  The sun streamed through the closing emerald canopy and scattered in a patchwork fashion amongst the carpet of wildflowers and ferns below, while the newly arrived migrating birds whistled and warbled above.  I wasn't looking for anything specific other than to soak in the scenery and atmosphere of my new home here in the rolling, unglaciated hills of southeastern Ohio.  My casual gaze was caught by an exceptionally large yellow buckeye tree with a scattering of thick, succulent leaves emerging from the loamy soil; each with a short raceme of unusual pinkish-purple and cream colored flowers.  My heart skipped a beat as the realization slowly sank in that I was standing in front of my first orchid, the Showy Orchis (Galearis spectabilis).

Showy Orchis (Galearis spectabilis)

 After that initial experience my fate was sealed and I quickly became passionately obsessed with searching out and finding as many native wild orchids as I possibly could.  Only a short four years later has resulted in over 50 species of North American orchid (even one naturalizing European taxon) from all over the eastern United States and even parts of Canada.  My goal of seeing all 46 indigenous species to Ohio's soil currently stands at 39 with high hopes of crossing a few more off this season.  We'll see what mother nature has in store for me in the near future!

Showy Orchis distribution map courtesy of BONAP

The showy orchis is one of eastern North America's most well-distributed species ranging from the Great Lake states south to the Ozarks of Missouri and Arkansas; east across the Piedmont and southern Appalachians then continuing up through New England.  In Ohio it occurs throughout a majority of the state, only being absent in the northwest quarter.  Galearis spectabilis is diagnostic of mesic forests and woodlands with both acidic and calcareous situations.  It especially prefers north-facing slopes and well-drained ravine bottoms that have an accompanying diverse display of spring ephemeral wildflowers.  I have witnessed it in a variety of woodland sites but it seems to prefer and thrive in more mature, undisturbed forests rather than young and cut over stands.  In southeastern Ohio I seem to almost always find it in close association with the aforementioned yellow buckeye (Aesculus flava); which is an excellent indicator of its mixed-mesophytic/Appalachian cove home.

Showy Orchis (Galearis spectabilis)

Plant taxonomy is an ever-changing and evolving science and despite what others may say, it's never safe to get too comfortable with a plant's name.  Originally put under the Orchis genus banner by Linnaeus well over 200 years ago, it was separated and put into a new genus (Galearis) by botanist and overall Renaissance man Constance Rafinesque in an effort to set it apart from the Old World Orchis taxa.  Some botanists and taxonomists still refer to it as an Orchis but I do my best to stay up with the latest nomenclature and stick with Galearis; which in turn is a very fitting name.  Derived from the Greek word galea, meaning 'hood', Galearis refers to the confluence of the lateral petals and sepals that form a hood over the column and lower lip.  G. spectabilis is the only North American taxon of the genus with Asia's G. cyclochila being the only other member worldwide.

Showy Orchis (Galearis spectabilis)

It's always an excellent idea to take a closer look at this stunning orchid if for nothing else than to get a whiff of its intoxicating fragrance.  The charming 'hood' colored in soft pink or purple mixes nicely with the snow white lower lip, giving off an overall appearance of an opening mouth waiting to devour its pollinators.  There are two accepted color forms of the showy orchis: forma gordinierii which exhibits all-white flowers and forma willeyi which has entirely pink flowers.  I've yet to have the pleasure to see either form in person but have high hopes of doing so in the future!

Showy Orchis (Galearis spectabilis)

An even closer examination of the hood's underside reveals the sophisticated reproductive parts of the orchid.  Pollinators are attracted to the flowers by the long nectar-filled spur that protrudes out the back of the inflorescence.  Upon landing on the lower lip or 'runway', the insect probes the spur for a nectar meal and hopefully in the process picks up one of the two pollinia (special packages of pollen in orchid-speak) which are located within a sleeve-like structure under the hood.  Once finished with that particular individual inflorescence it's off to the next where it deposits the pollinia into the column (fused pistil and stamen of orchids) of the new flower.

Showy Orchis (Galearis spectabilis)

A side shot of the raceme of the showy orchis better reveals the hood, lower lip, and nectar spur.  Your blogger has a hard enough time keeping his nose away from the enchanting aroma of these flowers so I can only imagine the insatiable drive of its insect pollinators to get a taste of the equally delicious nectar.  Such an amazing symbiotic relationship insects and wildflowers share; a simple and perfectly evolved 'I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine'.  The insect gets a nutritious nectar and/or pollen meal while the plant gets pollinated and can set to seed; hopefully supplying the forest with future plants for other fellow orchid lovers and appreciators to find.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Rare and Intriguing Heart-leaved Plantain

Scattered amongst the rocks and vegetation along this gravel bar lies one of Ohio's great vascular rarities: the Heart-leaved Plantain (Plantago cordata).  It's certainly not the type to jump out and catch your attention with it's inconspicuous flowers or basal rosette of leaves but it does have a beauty all its own.  This obligate wetland species is mostly restricted to small, clear, forested streams in areas with underlying dolomite limestone on gravel bars, rock crevices and banks.  The heart-leaved plantain relies on streams that are regularly eroded to aid in dispersal and cannot withstand additional sediment loads or siltation caused by agriculture and development; a major reason and cause for its subsequent population declines.  It has also been known to occur and grow in swampy, wet woods as well as forested floodplains.

Plantago cordata distribution map courtesy BONAP

Plantago cordata has a wide-spread distribution across the eastern half of the country; primarily in the Great Lakes region and Missouri with disjunct populations in New York state and to the Southeast.  Despite its broad range it has only been known from scattered and localized occurrences; even dating back to pre-settlement times, suggesting it has always been relatively rare.  Of the 18 states with known occurrences it's considered rare (threatened/endangered) in 13 of them, Ohio included, and extirpated/historic in 4 others.  It was once under consideration for federal listing and perhaps still is as I don't see this unusual plant's situation ever improving.

It's no easy task being a traditionally rare species with a strong association for pristine habitat and unaltered watersheds in today's world.  Stream degradation from logging and agricultural practices, development, and water pollution/sedimentation have all had immediate and drastic effects on the health and numbers within any population and are all major players in the continued decline of this fickle plantain.  Watershed protection and habitat management are crucial tasks necessary to preventing extirpation of this species.  Unfortunately our streams and waterways are continuously being ruined and polluted by human activities, leaving this fascinating plant in very real danger of extirpation from previous localities and eventually extinction.

This and other members of the Plantago genus are all very similar and seem to run together when trying to identify down to the species level.  There are ways to distinguish P. cordata from the other native/naturalized plantains in our state and it starts with the leaves.  Heart-leaved plantain dwindles down to a small rosette of basal leaves in the fall and over-winters as such before bouncing back with new growth in the spring.  The large, cordate (heart-shaped) leaves synonymous with this species aren't fully grown until the summer months after the flowering period but are still mature enough to use to distinguish in the spring.  Other plantains such as  P. rugelii and P. major have smaller leaves and have parallel venation with veins that branch off at the very base of the leaf where the petiole attaches.  On P. cordata the veins branch off further up the main vein instead of purely at the base (as seen above).

The flowers are similar to all other plantains; both native and introduced such as the English Plantain (Plantago lanceolata) you see in your yard. The 1-2' tall spikes consist of dozens of tiny, individual flowers with long protruding stamens and the pistils tucked further inside.  Once pollinated the ovary matures into a capsule containing a couple seeds that are water-dispersed.   Due to its semi-aquatic habit each seed has evolved to contain fleshy parts that are both buoyant and sticky so the seed will be able to float on the water during dispersal and stick to the substrate once it finds a suitable place to land and germinate.  It is said this has the lowest reproductive rate of any other Plantago species, adding to its population problems.

Upon closer inspection the flower spikes of the heart-leaved plantain are uniquely elegant and delicate and worth the camera's attention.  Unfortunately, Ohio's populations have severely declined in the last century with only two counties (Adams and Hardin) having extant populations with the other county records since destroyed or lost to the ages.  These images of the few dozen plants still clinging to existence along the waters of Plum Run are just one of a handful of populations left in Ohio for this endangered species.  I fear by the time I'm old in the knees and leading around a young and aspiring botanist through my old stomping grounds in the future I will be forced to merely share this plant's story rather than share the plant itself.  With the continued degradation of our natural world it's only a matter of time before this species and others in similar situations lose out to the times and slip into oblivion, only to survive on the tongues of those who saw them before they were gone...

Monday, April 16, 2012

Plant Quiz Solved: Cardamine rotundifolia, Round-leaved Bittercress

 Kudos to DenPro for correctly identifying this species as Cardamine rotundifolia, Round-leaved Bittercress!  Woodswalker was certainly not wrong but I was waiting for a more specific answer to appear!  This is our native watercress and can be found in clear, rocky streams; wet woods; and seepage areas throughout its range from the southern Appalachians in Tennessee and North Carolina, up through the Allegheny plateau and into New York state.  Once state-listed in Ohio, it has since been removed from the list but still remains as a rather uncommon species found in a dozen or so scattered southeastern counties.

Following the same theme as my botanically-themed blogging friends over at Get Your Botany On!, I figured I'd start posting quick plant quizzes every once-in-a-while for interested folks to participate in.  Read the short description below and peruse the accompanying photograph then feel free to I.D. the plant or just throw out a guess!  You don't have to be signed in or a follower to comment; it's open for anyone and everyone to try!

This plant was photographed in Jackson county, Ohio on April 14, 2012.  The photograph is focused on its leaves but the flowers and habitat can also be seen in the back/foregrounds.

American Bittercress - Cardamine rotundifolia

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Spring Wildflower Slideshow

Hello to all and rest assured I am alive and well!  I have received a number of emails from concerned followers and readers the past couple months curious where I've been and what's caused my continued absence from this blog but no need to worry.  I had decided to take a step back and focus on other things for a while and come back to this blog when the energy and drive returned on its own volition and I'm happy to say it has!  I have a lot to catch up on and hope to bring you as much of the spring season as I can before it quickly sets into summer; something that will happen sooner than later this year.  It seems I chose an unintentionally terrible time for my hiatus as this spring has rocketed out of the gate at a record pace!

A warm and mild winter transitioned into an early spring with the first true ephemerals showing their faces in mid to late February before the floodgates fully opened in March.  Nearly constant temperatures in the 70's and even 80's throughout March led to many species breaking bud and blooming weeks ahead of schedule.  I've seen some interesting species combinations that normally aren't seen due to such different blooming schedules but all that has gone out the window this year.  If someone were to keep me locked away for an undisclosed amount of time and upon release was told to guess the date based on the progression of the flora I would have confidently surmised late April in mid-March.  In fact, this past March was the warmest on record for the entire United States.  I certainly don't doubt it looking back on days spent in sweat-drenched shirts and a sunburned face.  I can't recall ever feeling sticky and steamy a la July in March.  Bleh.

Luckily I found some time to head outside and catch the spring wildflower show as it progressed at a record rate the past month and a half.  At this time last year my species list had barely cracked 100 plants while I have already surpassed 200 this season.  Who knows what the rest of this year holds but if it's anything like this spring I'd better buckle up because it's going to be a fast ride!  To make up for the lost time here are a number of wildflower species that no Ohio spring would be complete without.  Hope you enjoy and look back often for a revived and more frequent posting schedule!

Snow Trillium (Trillium nivaleLiliaceae: Lily family

Harbinger-of-Spring (Erigenia bulbosaApiaceae: Carrot family

Yellow Trout-lily (Erythronium americanumLiliaceae: Lily family

Twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphyllaBerberidaceae: Barberry family

Jacob's Ladder (Polemonium reptansPolemoniaceae: Phlox family

Moss Phlox (Phlox subulataPolemoniaceae: Phlox family

Large-flowered Trillium (Trillium grandiflorumLiliaceae: Lily family

Long-spurred Violet (Viola rostrataViolaceae: Violet family

Azure Bluet (Houstonia caeruleaRubiaceae: Madder family

Broad-leaf Toothwort (Cardamine diphyllaBrassicaceae: Mustard family

Foamflower (Tiarella cordifoliaSaxifragaceae: Saxifrage family

Blue-eyed Mary (Collinsia vernaPlantaginaceae: Plantain family