Nature News: Yellow Toadflax Thrives in Concrete Wasteland

published July 22 with seacoastonline.com and in the Portsmouth Herald, the York Weekly, Foster’s Daily and other Seacoast newspapers

Yellow toadflax growing through a crack in the concrete. Sue Pike photo

I was up at a farmers’ market in Lewiston and in the midst of a veritable concrete desert, there, at the juncture of an old concrete building foundation and concrete/asphalt parking lot, was a burst of color, of nature, of growth.  A flower I knew as ‘butter-and-eggs’, also known as yellow toadflax, had made its way through some miniscule crack in the concrete to flower surrounded by desolation.  There was even a wasp slurping some nectar.  A little oasis in the desert! 

My first question was how is this possible? It turns out concrete, and probably almost anything we think of as impervious that we lay down on the ground, has microscopic cracks.  A seed germinating under one of those cracks pushes upwards, seeking the path of least resistance which it finds in those cracks and breaks through.  I forgot that there is actually dirt under all that concrete, evidently enough for the roots to grow, the roots help supply the energy for the plant to break through.  That’s all it needs–some oomph from the roots and then the sunlight on the other side of the concrete.  What kills me is that I struggle to grow certain plants in my garden, yet here the little yellow toadflax flourishes amidst the harshest of conditions.

Butter and eggs…what a great name!!

I have always had a soft spot for yellow toadflax, which is also called butter-and-eggs due to its rich two-toned snapdragon-type flower with a deep orange ‘lip’ (the eggs)  sandwiched between light yellow ‘lips’ (the butter).  Like a snapdragon you can squeeze the flower from the side to make it open its mouth.  Who couldn’t love this?  Unfortunately it is an invasive species-originally introduced from Eurasia that has spread everywhere and can be incredibly difficult to eradicate from your garden due to its tenacious creeping rhizomes, vegetative buds on its roots,  prolific seeds and the ability of root fragments as small as half an inch to grow into a new plant. 

According to Larry W. Mitich’s article ‘Intriguing World of Weeds’ (published in Dec 1991 in The Weed Science Society of America’s publication ‘Weed Technology’) yellow toadflax was 

“introduced to America from Wales, as a garden flower, by Ranstead, a Welsh Quaker who came to Delaware with William Penn… Ranstead shared it with other settlers who were eager to get it for use in a lotion that was unparalleled for insect bites….And before the introduction of screen doors, window screens, and flypaper, yellow toadflax was used to fight the swarms of flies that tormented settlers. The plant was boiled in milk which was set out in saucers to poison flies.…..But the widest use of yellow toadflax was for a dye. For centuries it had been used for a yellow dye in Germany, and immigrants, especially the Mennonites, were delighted to find Ranstead’s herb already established in the New World. Soon they were cultivating it in fields for making dye for their homespun apparel and other items.”  Over time yellow toadflax became naturalized throughout North America and has become a destructive weed in many states.  

Same butter and eggs as before–but note the wasp in the flower to the left-it is slightly more in focus than the first image Sue Pike photo

I am torn, I don’t have any in my garden right now, and know it should be avoided as a relatively aggressive, invasive plant.  On the other hand, while watching that tiny patch of yellow toadflax sprouting from the pavement it was visited by at least 3 wasps and a large number of bees-more than I’ve seen visit some of the flowers in my garden.  Friends who have it in their gardens tell me it is a bee magnet.  Only the larger bees can pollinate it since they need to force their way between those two lips to get at the nectar.  In a time where we are actively planting pollinator gardens because of decreased food sources for pollinating insects should we encourage everything that feeds the bees (and other insects)?  I don’t know what I will do about it if it shows up in my garden, but I do know that it made my day to see that yellow toadflax pushing through the pavement of that desolate parking lot, adding some life and beauty and color to an otherwise monochrome landscape. 

Nature News: Black swallowtails prefer carrot family plants

Published June 16th with seacoastonline.com and in the Portsmouth Herald, the York Weekly, Foster’s Daily and other Seacoast papers

An early instar of the black swallowtail caterpillar with its bird-dropping camouflage Sue Pike photo

While out weeding the garden the other day I excitedly approached my fennel.  I like to grow fennel, not just because I like to eat it, but because black swallowtail butterflies (Papilio polyxenes) do too.  And sure enough, munching their way along two robust stalks were a host of black swallowtail caterpillars.  Black swallowtails prefer to lay eggs on carrot, celery, dill, fennel, parsley, Queen Anne’s lace and other members of the carrot family. In my garden they seem to prefer the fennel over all others. Because of this they are considered pests by commercial growers of these crops.

These are one of our most common butterflies.  Like monarch butterflies black swallowtails are lovable, charismatic insects.  The adults are large black butterflies with two rows of yellow spots along the margins of the wings, and those characteristic drooping “swallow” tails on the hindwings.   The caterpillars are, I think, just as attractive. 

Black swallowtail caterpillars, like most insects, have an arsenal of defenses against predators that they employ at different stages of their life cycles, I will focus on camouflage and mimicry here.  As they molt and go through progressive developmental stages, called instars, they change appearance quite dramatically.  

When they first hatch out, black swallowtail caterpillars are prickly and black with a white splotch around the middle.  At this stage they closely resemble a bird dropping, terrific camouflage for the young butterfly.  This kind of cryptic coloration isn’t unusual, other species of swallowtails use this approach to predator avoidance, as do some spiders, even frogs. 

That white splotch might have dual functions.  It is caused by uric acid deposits that are thought to protect the caterpillars from a toxic chemical (furanocoumarin) found in their diet. Members of the Umbelliferae family, like fennel, dill and carrots, all of which are host plants for black swallowtail caterpillars, produce furanocoumarins-thought to help deter insect predators and various fungi.  Black swallowtail caterpillars are specialist feeders that have co-evolved with their carrot-family food and have adapted to the high levels of furanocoumarins found in these plants (most other types of butterfly larvae cannot feed upon the Umbelliferae).

Later instars will become less prickly and drop the bird-dropping disguise in favor of a different type of cryptic coloration-alternating stripes of green, white and yellow that help break up their profile in the dappled light of the delicate foliage of their host plants.  

Here is a caterpillar molting-shedding its bird-dropping coloration for the bold yellow, black and white striping of the mature caterpillar. This caterpillar will go through a few more molts as it grows and readies itself for metamorphosis into the adult butterfly.

In New England, vast meadows and fields are few and far between and are getting scarcer as farmland is replaced by suburban sprawl.  We can all help by planting native plants in our gardens, avoiding pesticides (which are taking a heavy toll on many pollinators) and turning our lawns, which are typically as biodiverse as a corn field, into meadows populated with native plants, havens for butterflies, bees and other pollinators.

Nature News: Milk snakes often mistaken for timber rattlesnakes

Published June 24 with seacoastonline.com and in The Portsmouth Herald, the York Weekly, Foster’s Daily, and other local newspapers.

milk snake
Milk snake along trail on South Moat Mountain Sue Pike photo

While hiking up South Moat Mountain last week a large milk snake crossed the trail.  This was a beautiful snake-reddish blotches ringed in a darker brown against a grayish-tan background.  So of course, since this is one of the snakes most often confused with a rattlesnake, we began wildly speculating about whether it was actually a rattlesnake, and whether there are any timber rattlesnakes in New Hampshire. We were afraid to get too near its head-end; milk snakes aren’t venomous but I think they are much more aggressive than garter snakes.  I’ve been attacked by milk snakes in the past-instead of slithering quickly away like their garter snake cousins they seemed more likely to rear up and try to bite.  However if you do some research into our local snakes you’ll find that milk snakes are considered to be quite passive-they won’t bother you unless you bother them….which makes me rethink my stance on the aggressiveness of these snakes….the only times they seemed more aggressive than a garter snake were times when I was trying to pick one up.  Who was the aggressor in that interaction?

As we tried to get close to this particular milk snake it started rattling its tail, we excitedly looked for rattles-but there were none (we still wanted it to be a rattlesnake).  It did make an effective rattlesnake mimic, its vibrating tail rattling the dried leaves in a convincing rattlesnake-esque way. 

The origin of the name ‘milk snake’ most likely comes from the old belief that these snakes sucked the milk from cow udders (there is a bird that has the colloquial name ‘goatsucker’ for a similar incorrect belief).  This is likely because milk snakes are common around barns-though they are there in search of mice and rats rather than cow udders.  This is one of the many reasons you should leave these snakes alone.

There are nine species of snakes in Maine, none are venomous.  There are eleven species of snakes in New Hampshire, only the endangered timber rattlesnake is venomous. There are fourteen species of snakes found in Massachusetts, only two of them (the endangered timber rattlesnake and the endangered copperhead) are venomous.  There is a trend here-fewer snakes the further north you go (because snakes are cold-blooded they don’t do well in northern climates), and the chance of encountering a venomous snake becomes less and less likely. So, you should assume that if you see a snake around here that you think is a rattlesnake, it is most likely a milk snake.   

Timber rattlesnakes used to be found in both Maine and New Hampshire.  The autumn 2014 edition of Northern Woodlands has a lovely description of the northern expansion of timber rattlesnakes into New England following the last glaciation.  “Approximately 8,000 years ago, a period of global warming called the Hypsithermal Interval stimulated timber rattlesnakes to move north from the vicinity of Long Island. They followed river corridors – the Delaware, the Hudson, the Connecticut, the Housatonic, the Merrimack – and eventually reached southern Quebec and southwestern Maine. Wherever passageways in bedrock or talus led to frost-free winter retreats, the snakes established colonies….Today, rattlesnakes thrive where the human population is sparse – land that is wide-open, wind-swept, and remote.“  (Ted Levin).   

Currently there are no known populations of timber rattlesnakes in Maine, and only one population in New Hampshire (making it one of the most endangered wildlife species in the state).  The reason for this is unrelenting persecution by humans-they are hunted and they are collected and are therefore gone. They are no longer present in Maine due to hunting and collecting by humans.   I found it incredibly sad that the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department web page about snakes has to explicitly state “PLEASE DO NOT KILL SNAKES. New Hampshire has only one venomous snake, the timber rattlesnake, which is protected by law. If you think you see a timber rattlesnake, please leave it alone, and let us know. There is no reason to kill a New Hampshire snake.”  I would suggest that the next time you see a snake get excited that you are seeing one, that some are still here, managing to coexist with us.

Nature News: Blue mussels may seem mundane, but they play a foundational role

You can see both incurrent and excurrent siphons poking out of the open mussel shells as they feed on plankton.

Published July 2 on seacoastonline and in the Portsmouth Herald, York Weekly, Fosters Daily and more.

I spent time last week driving up the coast, checking out all the beaches and birding spots I have recently been avoiding as I try my best to socially distance.  My first stop was Wells Harbor.  I love this place.  It is a beautiful access point to the Webhannet estuary, and I have a long history of bringing students down to the dock to hang off the edge and learn about the diversity of marine life that attach to that artificial border between land and sea.  On this particular trip I was watching the blue mussels  (Mytilus edulis): how they cling to the dock, shoulder to shoulder with green sea lettuce and other seaweeds.  Their shells agape, filtering plankton and detritus (dead organic material) out of the water column, mussels seem innocuous but play an incredibly important role in our coastal ecosystems.  

Blue mussels are foundation species.  Foundation species are organisms that play a critical role in structuring a community.  Corals and beaver are foundation species for obvious reasons.  Mussels are foundation species because their presence influences the diversity of intertidal habitats-when  mussels are abundant there are higher numbers of other intertidal species.  If you think about it, having masses of mussels attached to intertidal rocks creates a reef—a complex environment that provides shelter for some species and novel attachment sites for others.  

In addition to their role as foundation species,  mussels are filter feeders-they clean the ocean around them-filtering out plankton (their food) bacteria, heavy metals and toxins (I have a friend who refuses to eat all filter feeders for this reason).    

Watching the mussels packed in along the edge of the dock I had a hard time remembering that these bivalves can move if they want to.  They have a slender, brown foot that they use to hold onto surfaces, but the more permanent attachment is via a strong thread-like anchor called the byssal thread.  These are very cool-the mussel secretes the tread as a liquid from a gland near the foot, the threads then harden upon contact with water.  Byssal threads bind a colony of mussels together–they tend to be gregarious and often grow in huge dense colonies.  This, however, can be their undoing as overcrowding can result in mortality – as the mussels stack up the underlying mussels are often starved or suffocated causing the entire colony to detach and get washed away.      

Hang your head over a dock and watch mussels feed. It is absolutely mesmerizing, hypnotic, meditative.  If you look carefully you’ll see two short siphons (tubes) with wavy edges extending from the inside of each mussel-these are the incurrent and excurrent siphons, they bring in water, from which the mussel extracts its planktonic food and expels wastes.  If a mussel doesn’t like its location, it can move by severing its byssal threads, extending its foot and inching along to a better locale.

Sadly blue mussel populations are in decline in the Gulf of Maine as a result of a combination of factors; warming ocean temperatures,  increased harvesting by humans, and predation by invasive species. For example, since I moved back to Maine in the mid-1990s the invasive Asian shore crab (Hemigrapsus sanguineus) has also moved in.  One study in Long Island Sound found that Asian shore crabs accounted for as much as 25% of the blue mussel mortality at the site studied.

Human harvesting has also increased.  Maine and Massachusetts account for the majority of wild blue mussel harvesting on the East Coast.    When I moved back to Maine in the early 1990s I could go down to the coast and harvest large numbers of mussels.  Now, the abundance isn’t there, I don’t harvest because I feel like I might be removing the last mussels from a given location.   Human harvesting coupled with warming ocean temperatures might be enough to extirpate blue mussels from the Gulf of Maine.

Most studies of biodiversity decline indicate that we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, an extinction event comparable to the one that saw the end of the dinosaurs. This is the first mass extinction to be caused by a single species (humans).  I find this hard to comprehend, I feel like if we’re in a mass extinction animals and plants should be dropping dead all around us on a daily basis. I am usually able to convince myself that it really isn’t that bad….and then I personally experience something like the decline of the mussels and realize that it is.  

Nature Minute: Carnivorous plants in local bogs

A Nature Minute about pitcher plants and sundews-both are carnivorous plants that live in our local bogs. The acidic conditions in these bogs limit nutrient availability-an adaption to this is to supplement nutrients from the soil with nutrients from insects.

The sticky hairs on these tiny sundews trap insects. The digestion takes place further down the stem. The sticky hairs are projections of the leaves. Each is tipped with a sticky gland that produces droplets that look dew glistening in the sun-hence the name. The sticky stuff is nectar that attracts prey but is also an adhesive that traps it as well as digestive enzymes to eat it. They eat a lot of mosquitos and other flying insects. They can kill an insect in 15 minutes!!!

The pitcher of a pitcher plant-traps mostly slow moving ground-crawling insects. Insects explore the pitcher, slide into the digestive-juice containing water trapped in the pitcher and can’t get out. A grisley death!
Pitcher plant flower–this will eventually turn a nice red and yellow color

Nature Minute: Wood Sorrel

Here is a nature minute about wood sorrel

These nature minutes are from a project I started in response to COVID to produce at least one nature minute a day. I was successful for about a month. The aim here is to highlight what is happening in our backyards while we are stuck at home.

This is the wood sorrel flower. In the video I said it was a spring bloomer–was wrong–its flowering right now!

Nature News: Crows flock in families, constantly in conversation

published July 7th in the Portsmouth Herald, Foster’s Daily, the York Weekly, seacoastonline.com etc.

Young crow almost ready for release from the Center for Wildlife in Cape Neddick ME.

When I was a kid, one of my biggest fantasies was to have a pet crow. I was recently reminded of this by an active family of crows that lives down by the river behind our house.  I haven’t found the nest yet but the young crows are extremely noisy, at least one seems to caw all day, a plaintive cawing that sounds to me like an attempt to get the attention of its parents.  I’ve caught glimpses of these crows while kayaking, they wing away ahead of the kayaks in a cacophony of  harsh cawing and squawking. This is my first experience with such a noisy group. Crows are known to have more than 20 calls.  I can believe it-this group seems to be carrying on constant and varied conversations. 

Luckily I never found a baby crow and tried to raise it-it would have been doomed to forever being a pet, not a wild and free animal.  It requires some expertise to raise a baby crow so that it can successfully live in the wild.  The Center for Wildlife in Cape Neddick is currently caring for 9 young crows.  Four were admitted after their nests were destroyed (a great reason to avoid tree work during the spring and summer) and five came in after being caught by domestic cats as fledglings (a great reason to keep cats indoors).  According to Kristen Lamb, executive director of the Center for Wildlife, crows imprint very easily, so it is imperative that they are raised with conspecifics (siblings of their own age and species). Due to their intricate social structure juveniles can be rejected or even killed by non-family members. For these reasons caretakers of young crows at the Center for Wildlife do not talk to them, they are kept with other crows and are given ample opportunity to forage and interact with other crows at the facility.  The hope is that when they are released they will be able to interact with wild crows and not be drawn to humans.

Crows are long-lived highly social birds.  The oldest known wild crow was at least 16 years old and the oldest captive bird lived to be 59 years old!! According to the Cornell Lab “Young american crows do not breed until they are at least two years old, and most do not breed until they are four or more. In most populations the young help their parents raise young for a few years. Families may include up to 15 individuals and contain young from five different years.” I love this.  The noisy flock of crows in the woods along my river has at least 8 individuals, it’s neat to think that some are aunts and uncles chipping in to help with the babies.

Crows are a synanthropic species.  According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary a synanthrope is “an undomesticated organism and especially an animal (such as a mouse, pigeon, or raccoon) that lives in close association with people and benefits from their surroundings and activities.”  Crows do better when we are around.  They like to eat our crops and our garbage.  And so, around here, they are hunted.  I’m not sure how I feel about this, just like humans, crows can be extremely annoying and destructive-but does this mean they should be shot and killed? I find it interesting that American crows are federally protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act but can still be hunted. 

My childhood impulse to want a pet crow is not uncommon.  We humans naturally seem to feel an affinity for these magnificent birds.  Crows have shown up in various mythologies as tricksters, symbols of good luck and of bad luck, symbols of prophecy and creation. I wasn’t raised with any of these mythologies, but, for me crows symbolize a bridge between nature and humans. This sounds hokey, but when I hear crows talking from the trees I feel like nature is reaching out and trying to have a conversation with me in a language that I can just barely grasp, a primeval language I have lost and wish I could relearn. 

Nature News: Eastern red-spotted newts have a poisonous adolescence

Published July 14 in the Portsmouth Herald, York Weekly, Foster’s Daily, seacoastonline.com etc.

A red eft on the prowl. You can see the beautiful red spots on its back. This one was at least 1/2 mile from the nearest pond. photo by Sue Pike

One of my favorite memories is hiking up Mount Kearsarge with my dad and finding tiny red newts climbing along the trails with us.  These are the “teenage” stage of the eastern red-spotted newt, a type of salamander with a fascinating life cycle. 

Eastern newts breed and lay eggs in ponds, their olive-green colored, gill-bearing larvae hatch out and spend at least a few months in the water. After approximately 5 months  these aquatic larvae metamorphose into the terrestrial red eft stage and spend the next two to seven years roaming the woods eating a variety of insects and snails and tiny jumping springtails (I feel like they must be the popcorn of the woods).   

The bright red color of the eft is a terrific defense against predators. Those tiny bumps just visible on their backs contain tetrodotoxin, a deadly neurotoxin. Bearing this bright color is a great example of warning (or aposematic) coloration-the use of conspicuous colors or markings to scare off predators. Because the toxin is located on the back, most animals that do prey upon salamanders have learned to eat only the heads and bellies. As they become sexually mature and transform into aquatic adults, efts lose their bright colors and some of their toxicity, resorting to camouflage as their best means of avoiding predation.  However, they do retain remnants of that warning in the form of little red spots fringed with black on their back…warning that they are distasteful enough that they shouldn’t be eaten.  For this reason the adults can coexist with fish- handy since the adults live in ponds.

I tend to associate newts with witches due to that famous witches chant in Shakespeare’s Macbeth  “Eye of newt and toe of frog, Wool of bat and tongue of dog, Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting, Lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing, For a charm of powerful trouble, Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.”  Sad for the newt but definitely a powerful image.  Luckily for the newt most of the ingredients in that witch’s cauldron were actually terms for herbs used in potions: eye of newt was another name for mustard seeds, toe of frog was buttercup and wool of bat meant holly leaves.

One rather magical thing about newts is their ability to regenerate body parts–not just tails or limbs, but organs and tissues like heart muscle, parts of their nervous systems, even the lens of their eyes!  Because of this they have long been studied in the hopes that if we can uncover how they are capable of such extreme regenerative feats we can apply this understanding in human regenerative medicine.  

It had been hoped that the red spotted newts’ regenerative ability relies on a basic genetic program common to all animals.  Instead of sequencing the entire newt genome (it is huge, ten times larger than our own!), researchers have looked at RNA transcripts in both normal and regenerated tissues to try to understand when, in evolutionary history, the newts’ regenerative ability arose.  Ideally this ability would be present in ancient ancestors, making it more likely that we might carry the seeds of regenerative ability in our own genes, wouldn’t it be neat if we could flip a genetic switch and regrow a lost limb!  Unfortunately, the results of these studies suggested that this regenerative ability arose relatively recently, so the chances for that kind of switch are very low.

A red eft along the trail at Blue Job

Just the other day I was hiking up Blue Job Mountain in Farmington, New Hampshire. It was extremely humid and foggy, perfect weather for a newt – and there, along the trail, this tiny bright splash of red materialized out of the mist.  Like a salamander (newts are a type of salamander) their skin needs to be kept moist, so you are most likely to see them  out and about on rainy days.  If you happen to be on Blue Job Mountain (or any wooded area with a pond in the vicinity) sometime in the future, look for them along the trails.  Take time to pause at the end of the pond near the top and look for their parents in the shallows.  You’ll see them if you are patient: hanging motionless in the water or gliding along the bottom hunting for prey: small molluscs and crustaceans, insects, snails and other amphibians.

Nature News: Skunk Cabbage generates heat in early spring to melt snow

published April 21 The Portsmouth Herald, Foster’s Daily, The York Weekly, etc.

Skunk cabbage leaves are huge!

Whenever I go into the woods this time of year,  I look for spring wildflowers to be in bloom.  There are a large variety of plants that take advantage of the scanty leaf canopy of early spring to grow and bloom quickly, before the trees leaf out.  Where I live in North Berwick we are behind most of the Seacoast region in terms of blooms–my garlic is barely up yet, the ponds by the river still have some ice every morning!!!  In search of wildflowers, I went for a walk (by myself)  at Great Works Regional Land Trust’s Rocky Hills Preserve last week and came upon one of the earliest wildflowers to bloom in New England-one of my favorite plants-skunk cabbage! This patch of skunk cabbage had been in bloom for awhile, I could tell this because in addition to the flowers the leaves were already out and gloriously unfolded into bright green skunky masses.  

It is only after the flowers are pollinated and begin to wilt that the leaves unfurl-this is how I knew pollination was long over-those huge cabbage-like leaves.  Early in the spring the skunk cabbage sends up a fleshy, highly-modified leaf forming that distinctive purplish hood. The scientific term for this is the spathe. Inside the spathe is a knoblike structure, a collection of tightly-packed flowers, called the spadix. Next time you see one, take a close look at the spadix.  The structure of the spathe is really interesting–the petals emerging from a jigsaw puzzle-like surface that looks, to me, like the carapace of a turtle.  

The spadix of a young skunk cabbage

In the spring, often before the ground begins to thaw, cells in the spadix start to respire, breaking down starches stored in the root at an alarming rate. This rapid respiration produces heat! Studies have shown that respiration rates in thermogenic (heat-producing) plants such as skunk cabbage often equal those of mammals of similar sizes. The hood acts as an insulator, trapping the heat generated by the spadix, creating a balmy little microclimate (usually a fairly consistent 60- 70 degrees) that can melt the surrounding snow. I love Craig Holdredge’s (from the Nature Institute) description of the air currents generated by this warmth: “Due to the warmth production, a constant circulation of air in and out of the spathe occurs. From the flower head, warmth is generated and the air moves up and outward, while cooler air is drawn into the spathe. A vortex is formed with air streaming along the sculpted, curved surfaces of the spathe. In a habitat with numerous skunk cabbages, a microcosm of flowing warmth and odiferous air is created in which the first insects of spring fly.” 

I have a large colony of false hellebore-a plant that looks somewhat similar to skunk cabbage and, as far as I know, inhabits the same kind of ecosystem–wet, marshy areas– growing along my river.  I wish I also had skunk cabbage, and wonder why they don’t grow there as well.  I have thought about trying to transplant some in, but it is usually a mistake to try to re-engineer an ecosystem.  I worry that the skunk cabbage might take over-much as I love them I don’t want them to crowd out the false hellebore (another plant with an amazing back story).  Skunk cabbages can form large colonies with extensive root systems that consist of a central rhizome that grows one or two feet into the ground with roots radiating out. The roots contract as they grow, pulling the plant down into the ground as it grows in the spring, keeping the stems and leaves at ground level. So the skunk cabbage, as a whole, grows downward every year, making it extremely difficult to remove. What’s more, these root systems and the colonies of skunk cabbage that erupt from them every spring can be hundreds to possibly thousands of years old!

If you can get outside, take a walk in the woods and look for spring wildflowers.  We are lucky enough to live in a place with 4 distinct seasons and are able to track the passage of time by immersing ourselves in the highlights of each season (trailing arbutus is flowering-a highlight, black flies are out in my neck of the woods–not a highlight!).  During this historic and stressful time it is more important than ever to get some green time if at all possible.  I would love to hear about what you are seeing out in the woods.  Please email me (spike3116@gmail.com ) or post sightings of signs of spring to my website www.pikes-hikes.com

Nature News: Wildflower Trillium is starting to bloom

published May 20, 2020 seacoastonline.com, the York Weekly, York County Coast Star, Portsmouth Herald and Foster’s Daily

One of the ways I have been dealing with staying at home is getting to know my backyard better through a daily ‘nature minute’ where I find something in my backyard, flora or fauna (though usually flora because plants don’t move) to do a short video about (you can find these at @pikeshikes).  I’ve gone through most of the obvious candidates; dandelions, unusual spring wildflowers, my first animal-a gray tree frog.  We have trillium starting to bloom along the bank that goes down to the river.  I can’t believe I thought this, but when I saw them I thought “why discuss trillium, everyone knows what they are, they probably have a boring backstory”.  What bothers me most about this is that I thought they might be boring. One of my guiding tenets is that nothing is boring unless you choose to be bored.  My other main tenet is that nature is awesome and wonderful.  So, I decided to read up on trillium.

Trillium are, indeed, a well-known wildflower.  As a spring ephemeral I would bet they are second only to lady’s slippers.   First, the name.  All trilliums are in the genus Trillium, which according to Merriam-Webster comes from New Latin and is an alteration of the Swedish word ‘trilling’ which means triplet.  This refers to the three parts of the flower, the three sepals directly behind the petals as well as three “leaves” which, technically, aren’t true leaves.  Those 3 big green things are a type of modified leaf known as a bract.  According to the US Forest Service “ Morphologically, trillium plants produce no true leaves or stems above ground. The “stem” is just an extension of the horizontal rhizome and produces tiny, scale-like leaves (cataphylls). The above-ground plant is technically a flowering scape, and the leaf-like structures are bracts subtending (underlying) the flower. Despite their morphological origins, the bracts have external and internal structure like a leaf, function in photosynthesis, and most authors refer to them as leaves.”

Since trillium are part of my backyard biodiversity study it made me inordinately happy to learn that the eastern United States has the highest trillium biodiversity in the world.  Of the forty three species of trillium (that we know of) found world-wide, thirty eight are found in North America! Four of these are native to New England: Trillium cernuum (whip-poor-will flower or nodding trillium), T. erectum (red trillium or stinking Benjamin), T. grandiflorum (great white trillium), and T. undulatum (painted trillium).  Other colorful common names for the trillium are wakerobin because they bloom with the first robins,  toadshade and birthroot due to traditional use during childbirth.

After taking a closer look at the trillium at my house I realized I have two different species, what I thought was just a big wilted one turned out to be nodding trillium, the white flower dangles, hidden, under the big, floppy, leaves.  Nodding trillium has the northernmost distribution of any of the North American trilliums.  Painted trillium have a more classic trillium look, flowers held above the bracts and easy to see.  One confusing thing about painted trillium is that their white flowers with a reddish or purplish blotch at the base can turn pink following pollination.  I only have three of these in flower, but can’t wait to see what happens.  

A friend just sent me a photo of a third native-red trillium.  I wish I had these at my house.  In addition to their colorful reddish flowers they attract pollinators in an unusual way.  They produce no nectar instead relying upon a fetid, rotten-meat smell that attracts flies (hence the common name stinking Benjamin). 

I know that I have a bit of a bias against big, showy, famous wildflowers-I tend to be drawn to the hidden, the not-so-obvious bits of nature that can take some effort to find.  But, after exploring the backstory of the trillium in my backyard I have a whole new appreciation of who they are.  As with everything in nature the more you learn the more you realize how little you know.