Spring Ephemerals

I spent last Saturday in Dayton, Ohio, attending a spring wildflower symposium. After the day’s events concluded, I spent a couple hours photographing wildflowers in the area. Dayton is about 150 miles south of Toledo, and so things bloom earlier down there. It’s always so hard to wait for things to bloom up here when I start seeing pictures from more southern parts of the state. But down there I got my first looks at this year’s Virginia bluebells and Dutchman’s breeches, and that got me excited about getting out to see what might be blooming up here in the northern part of the state.

Dutchman's breeches under a magnolia tree w sig
Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)  Here’s proof that fairies hang their laundry beneath magnolia trees.

So a few days ago I drove west to Goll Woods State Nature Preserve, a remnant of the black swamp forest that once covered much of northwest Ohio. Not only does Goll Woods have oaks and cottonwoods that are 200-400 years old, but it contains a magnificent cornucopia of spring wildflowers as well.

I was disappointed at first, when I couldn’t find anything blooming in the first few minutes of my walk. But as I slowed down and looked closer, I began to find single early blooms here and there.  I figured I might not get the photos I’d hoped for, but then again, this was a good opportunity to study the leaves of the soon-to-bloom wildflowers and learn to identify them before the flowers appear.

It was easy to identify trout lilies by their fish-inspired leaf patterns:

Trout Lily at Goll Woods w sig
Trout lily (Erythronium americanum)

Last year I photographed a huge swath of trout lilies, shown here:

Trout lily collage w sig

And I had just learned about waterleaf on Saturday, so it was another easy one to identify. It looks like there’s water spattered on the leaves, doesn’t it?

Virginia waterleaf w sig
This is large-leaved waterleaf (Hydrophyllum macrophyllum) – thanks to JM for the correction

Another flower I just learned about is this one, harbinger-of-spring, also known as salt-and-pepper, for obvious reasons. It’s very tiny, only a couple inches tall.

Harbinger of spring w sig
Harbinger-of-spring (Erigenia bulbosa)
Hepatica at Goll Woods w sig
Hepatica nobilis

I soon found little clumps of spring beauties and hepatica, and then a few larger clusters at the bases of trees or next to decaying logs. Hepatica is one of the earliest wildflowers to bloom, and maybe it’s able to survive the cooler temps of late winter and early spring with help from its hairy stems and leaves. I’ve sometimes found this flower by gently moving aside decaying leaf litter in March to find it tucked underneath, just waiting for an opportunity to burst forth from its winter protection and reach for the sun.

I found a small patch of bloodwort in full bloom but the bright sunlight made it hard to get a nice photo, so here’s a single alabaster bloom:

Bloodroot at Goll Woods w sig
Bloodwort (Sanguinaria canadensis)

Ephemeral - graphic for blogAll of these flowers are known as spring ephemerals, flowers that arise from the leaf litter early in spring, taking advantage of the sun before the trees get their leaves to shade them out. They bloom and then retreat back into the ground to await their next performance the following spring.

Have you noticed that we tend to celebrate things that are only around briefly? I’m thinking of the fall colors on trees, or cherry blossoms, or warblers during spring migration, and of course, spring wildflowers. And conversely, we take for granted those that are around more often. When I think of this, I’m always reminded of the time I was chatting with some birders from California who had traveled to Ohio for the spring migration. They were excitedly telling me about the cardinals they’d seen, and it renewed my appreciation for this common yet stunningly beautiful bird that lives in my backyard all year long.

And speaking of getting excited…I am geeking out over something insect-related right now.  At Goll Woods I saw my first hoverflies (aka flower flies) of the year. They were plentiful but the only species I was able to photograph was Helophilus fasciatus, the narrow-headed sunfly. Isn’t he lovely?

Narrow-headed sunfly - helophilus fasciatus - on leaves w sig
Narrow-headed sunfly (Helophilus fasciatus)

Field Guide to Flower Flies of NE N America cover imageLast fall I wrote a post about my budding obsession with these tiny but important pollinator flies that are sometimes mistaken for bees. (You can go back to that post for some background and prettier photos.)

As I was googling around to confirm my identification and refresh my memory from last year, I stumbled upon this new book. Several months ago someone told me this book was going to be published soon, but I’d totally forgotten about it. I just pre-ordered it and it’ll be here in a few short weeks, and I’ll finally have a resource to help me identify these little cuties. I’m trying hard to restrain my excitement as I write this, but I am oh so geeked right now!

P.S. You can be sure there’s going to be more talk of hoverflies here in the very near future.

A Visual Ode to the Holiday

Insect Valentine's Day - heart - damselflies in tandem

These are Familiar Bluets in their heart-shaped mating wheel. These damselflies belong to the insect order called Odonata, and we often shorten that to “odes” when talking about them among other ode lovers.

And below is a photo of one of my favorite woodland wildflowers, Dicentra canadensis. As you might imagine, it’s related to the pink bleeding hearts that are common in gardens, but the pink ones are not native to North America. This plant has little yellow bulblets that look like kernels of corn, thus the common name of Squirrel Corn. I hope to get a photo of those sometime this spring.

Bleeding hearts - Dicentra canadensis - Squirrel Corn - Goll Woods w sig

Insects and wildflowers are much more interesting to me than cultivated flowers and candy so I just wanted to present the Nature Is My Therapy version of Valentine’s Day. And by the way, is it spring yet?!

Gentian Trifecta

I’ve mentioned that this spring and summer have been a time of flower exploration for me. Whereas in past years I  might travel to find certain bird species, this year I traveled around northern Ohio to see our various wildflowers as they bloomed.  I was enthralled by the early spring woodland flowers like Dutchman’s Breeches and White Trillium. Then I was kept busy by the abundance of summer blooms in both woods and meadows — things like the milkweeds, ironweed, coneflowers, and countless others.

And now, as we somehow find ourselves already near the end of September (how did that happen?), I’m pleased to discover that there’s still a surprising variety of fall-blooming flowers. The asters and goldenrods are the most obvious and abundant, often blanketing entire meadows. But there are other late-bloomers out there that I’d never even heard of before this year.

Goldenrod and asters in evening sun
Goldenrod and asters in evening sunlight at the Toledo Botanical Garden

I recently had the opportunity to spend a day exploring some of our Lucas County nature preserves with a botanist friend. Our primary goal was to find and photograph three species of gentians — Bottle Gentian, Fringed Gentian, and the state-endangered Soapwort Gentian.

I’d seen photographs of these beauties but had never seen any of them in person, so was eager to go on this quest.  And oh what a rewarding day this turned out to be, as we found all three species — thus my Gentian Trifecta!

I’ll start with my favorite, the Fringed Gentian (Gentianopsis virgata). Thoreau also found them lovely, comparing the blue of these flowers to that on the back of a male bluebird. These stunning flowers only open when the sun is shining, and will remain tightly closed on a cloudy day. When we found this plant it was early enough in the morning that it wasn’t fully opened yet. But when we passed it again about an hour later, it was wide open so we could better photograph the beautiful interior structures and patterns.

Gentianopsis virgata - Fringed Gentian - Irwin Prairie (8)
Fringed Gentian (Gentianopsis virgata)

Gentianopsis virgata - Fringed Gentian - Irwin Prairie w sig

Notice those blue lines on the interior of the flower? Those are basically a sign telling bees that “the pollen is this way!”

The second species found on this expedition was the Bottle Gentian (Gentiana andrewsii). This species keeps its petals tightly closed at all times. So, I know you’re wondering how it can be pollinated if it doesn’t open up, right? Well, it’s usually only pollinated by the big bumblebee, who is strong enough to pry the top of the flower open and slip inside.

Bottle Gentian - Irwin Prairie (3)
Bottle Gentian (Gentiana andrewsii)
Bottle Gentian - Irwin Prairie (5)
The delicate reproductive organs inside the  gentian

The final species we wanted to find this day was the endangered Soapwort Gentian (Gentiana saponaria). This one was a bit more difficult to find, but once we found the first one we looked around and noticed dozens of them hidden among the taller plants in the meadow, a secret treasure trove.

Soapwort Gentian - Gentiana saponaria - for blog (841x1024)
Soapwort Gentian (Gentiana saponaria)

As with the Bottle Gentian, this one keeps its petals closed as well, forcing a pollinator to either pry it open at the top, or chew through from the outside. We did find one or two flowers with holes in the sides, evidence that someone had done exactly that. (Several people have posted videos on YouTube showing bees going inside the closed gentians — here’s one of them.)

We found many more fascinating life forms on this outing, including caterpillars, spiders, and other types of flowers. But since blue was the theme of this day, we were pleased to finish up in a meadow teeming with the stunning Blue-faced Meadowhawks, some of whom were quite easily photographed as they perched on Knotted Rush (Juncus nodosus).

Blue-faced Meadowhawk (10) w sig - on knotted rush, Juncus nodosus

Blue-faced Meadowhawk on knotted rush - Juncus nodosus - w sig

I’m already feeling wistful about the end of this amazing summer, but am reminded that every season brings something different to explore and celebrate in the natural world. And I have a feeling that the predominant color in my next post might be gold or red, as the trees are already beginning their autumn show.

Asters are Blooming, and You Know What That Means

White Wood Aster - Eurybia divaricatus - Wildwood Preserve
White Wood Aster (Eurybia divaricata)

This morning, as I often do, I went for a walk at my favorite metropark. There was an unusual but welcome chill in the air, so I put on long pants instead of shorts. And instead of my usual walk through the woods, I decided to start on the prairie and meadow trails so I could enjoy the sun and avoid the need for a jacket.

My purpose for this particular walk was exercise rather than nature exploration, so I wanted to keep up a rather brisk pace. It’s always a bit frustrating for me to walk without my camera, but when I’m trying to exercise I force myself to leave it behind. But I always have my cell phone with me, so I can still take some types of photos.

Today I was rewarded with quite a few blooming species that were near enough to the trails that I could get cell pics of them. So I stopped a few times to snap quick photos, but still tried to keep up a decent pace. I ended up doing three miles in just over an hour, so I think that’s still respectable in terms of a workout.

Rough Blazing Star aka Liatris aspera
Rough Blazing Star (Liatris aspera) – also a member of the aster family

When I got home I immediately began the process of identifying the flowers I’d photographed. That’s always fun for me because I inevitably learn something new as I thumb through my various wildflower field guides and books. Today I learned that the aster family is one of the largest flower families in the world, with over 20,000 species. Several of the species I’m showing you today are in the aster family.

Cutleaf Coneflower - Rudbeckia laciniata - Wildwood
Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia), another member of the aster family

In this part of the world, asters are classic signs of autumn. Despite the cooler temperatures, I’ve been in denial about summer coming to an end soon. But when I found White Wood Aster today, I had to face reality. True, this is one of the earliest asters to bloom, but nevertheless, it’s a sure sign of the impending change of seasons.

In case you didn’t notice in that first picture at the top, some of the White Wood Asters are yellow in the centers while others are pink. The yellow ones are younger blooms, and the pink ones are older.  I think they’re so beautiful and dainty.  I like them so much that I think I’ll put them on my list of plants to put in my garden as I remove the non-native species.

New England Aster - Symphyotrichum novae-angliae (1024x683)
New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), not yet in bloom here but coming soon

My summer has been so full and interesting this year that I get a bit melancholy when I think of it ending soon. Of course I’ll still be hiking in the fall and winter, but there won’t be as many opportunities to photograph flowers or insects again until next spring.

But maybe it’s good to have a season off from exploring so much–I’ve got a big backlog of photos to sort through, after all. I can see myself spending some very pleasant time with a cup of tea by the wood stove, doing research and writing about things I learned this summer as I explored various facets of the natural world in northwest Ohio.

Evening Primrose I think
Common Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis) – NOT a member of the aster family, by the way

I’m glad I was in the park early enough to see this lovely primrose with open blooms. The flowers bloom at night and usually close by mid-day.  Now if only I could manage to get into the park at night to see the hawk moths that come to pollinate this beauty.

Speaking of moths, I’ve found a few of them recently too, so I hope to show you some of their understated–and underappreciated–beauty in a separate post very soon. Now I’ve got to go toss a rotten banana on my patio and sprinkle it with brown sugar…moths will eat that up…literally. 🙂

Note: As always, if you think I’ve misidentified any plants or animals here, I would be grateful if you’d let me know.

 

Wildflower Wanderings

This spring I’ve spent more time than ever before searching for wildflowers around northwest Ohio. I’m a novice at identifying them, but I’m having a blast and am learning new things every day.

Large Flowered Bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora) (1024x682)
Large-flowered Bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora) — it’s so delicate-looking! (Goll Woods)

One rainy day in April I took a road trip west to visit Goll Woods in Butler County. I’d read that it’s the place to go for spring wildflowers in this corner of the state, so I grabbed my rain jacket and headed into the woods. One thing I always tell people when they look at me like I’m nuts for walking in the rain: “Hey, if you want to have a place almost to yourself, then walk in the rain.” And it was true on this day too, as I only saw two other people there for the two hours I walked.

Admittedly, it was a bit of a challenge to juggle two cameras, binoculars, and an umbrella, but I made it work. Luckily it wasn’t a heavy rain, so occasionally I could put the umbrella on the ground in order to take some flower photos. I could have left the binoculars in the car, though, because birds were few and far between on this day. I guess I have such a habit of always carrying the binoculars that I didn’t even consider leaving them behind.

White Trillium - Goll Woods (1024x768)
White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum)

There were hundreds and hundreds of White Trillium in bloom, and a few pinkish ones, which I believe are still White Trillium but they turn pink as the flowers age. I’m still investigating this.

White Trillium - Goll Woods v2 (1024x768)

Pinkish Trillium - Goll Woods (800x533)
White Trillium turning pink as it ages (I think)

After I got accustomed to all the trillium, I was able to begin to look at things that were not trillium. And that’s when I found one of my most-sought-after wildflowers of the day. This is Dutchman’s Breeches, which I’d never seen in person before.

Dutchman's Breeches wildflower at Goll Woods
Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)

They really do look like pairs of pants hung out to dry, don’t they? Apparently there was some controversy in Victorian times about calling them “breeches,” as it was considered rude to refer to clothing that covered the–ahem–lower portion of the body. (A little tidbit I learned from one of my favorite books, The Secrets of Wildflowers, by Jack Sanders.)

And then I found another surprise, a white variety of Bleeding Hearts:

Bleeding hearts v2 (1024x955)
Squirrel Corn (Dicentra canadensis) – closely related to Bleeding Hearts

I later learned from my friend Kelly that these are commonly known as Squirrel Corn. I couldn’t understand where that name came from until she told me that if you dig just below the soil surface, you’ll find little bulblets that look like kernels of corn. I wish I’d known that while I was there so I could have seen them for myself. But here’s a link to Kelly’s blog where she shows you a photo of the “corn” kernels.

Ent from Lord of the Rings - Goll Woods (682x1024)Goll Woods has some of the oldest trees in Ohio, with some as much as 400 years old. And trees that live that long tend to get pretty darn big. Some of them are 4 feet in diameter. This one made me think of Ents from Lord of the Rings. (Ents are a race of tree-like creatures…read more here if you like.) My imagination instantly saw that tree as a sleeping Ent who might, at any moment, rise up and tower over me. Fun stuff.

A couple weeks ago I was on my way home from Cleveland and decided to take a slight detour south near Sandusky to visit Castalia Prairie. I wanted to see White Lady’s-slippers for the first time and I was not disappointed. I saw hundreds of them all over the place. I had my macro lens and tripod but wasn’t sure about what the rules were there for going off the trail. To be honest, there was barely a “trail” at all, just a path where I could tell someone else had walked and flattened the grass down.  I did my best to get some photos without stepping on anything endangered, and had a great time discovering new things. (And the next morning I made a less-welcome discovery, as a tick had hitched a ride on me…shudder. Reminder to do a tick check immediately, not the next morning. Duh.)

White Lady's-slipper orchid, Cypripedium candidum (1280x853)
White Lady’s-slipper (Cypripedium candidum)

I also found a bunch of these one-inch snail shells scattered around. I didn’t find any evidence of the former inhabitants of the shells though.
Snail shell from Castalia Prairie v2 (1024x749)

It’s funny, I just realized that I’m traveling around to see flowers in much the same way I would normally search for birds. Except the flowers are easier to find and to photograph because they can’t fly away. It’s a nice change of pace, both mentally and physically, and it’s great to be learning about an entirely different part of the ecosystem.

I’m excited to be heading down to Urbana this week to meet a friend and see the Showy Lady’s-slipper orchids at Cedar Bog. And I may also be going up to Ann Arbor to see the magnificent peony garden at Nichols Arboretum. If I could only have one type of flower in my garden for the rest of eternity, it would be peonies. I can almost smell them now….sigh. So stay tuned for more botanical beauties!

Ohio Has the Blues

Looking up at tall trees - (800x594)
Looking skyward in a grove of evergreen trees at Oak Openings Preserve

Living in the Oak Openings book cover (785x1024)The region of northwest Ohio where I live is called the Oak Openings. It’s one of the world’s rarest habitats, a band of sandy soil about five miles wide and 80 miles long, stretching across Ohio and southeastern Michigan.  When the last glacier receded from this area 15,000 years ago, it left in its wake a large lake that eventually became present-day Lake Erie. That ancient lake deposited large amounts of sand on top of the clay soil, and this unique combination is what has allowed the formation of a variety of ecosystems, ranging from open oak savannas to wet prairies to sand dunes. The Oak Openings region is home to dozens of rare species of plants and animals. And since I live here now, I want to learn all about it.

Girdham Road Sand Dunes sign with fairy (1024x683)
The sand dunes are one of my favorite places at Oak Openings Preserve

What better place to begin my exploration than Oak Openings Preserve, the largest of the Toledo Metroparks. We’re in the midst of  “Blue Week” here, an annual celebration of the special flora and fauna of the Oak Openings area, particularly those that are blue. The iconic plant associated with Blue Week is the Wild Lupine, which is found in large swaths throughout the metropark right now.

Blue lupines (2) (1280x853)
Wild Lupines (Lupinus perennis)

I had seen lupines before, but never in such abundance. I love the gorgeous blue spikes rising above the bright green blanket of leaves. And the circular arrangement of the leaves is really pleasing to my geometry-loving brain.

Blue lupines v3 (1) (1280x853)

Blue lupines with bee (2) (1132x1280)

There’s a tiny endangered butterfly that can only breed in places that have Wild Lupines, and so I was hoping to catch a glimpse of one of them as well. They’re a subspecies of Blue butterfly called the “Karner Blue.” I’d read that they were the size of a nickel, so I had a feeling it would be hard to find them. I was standing out in a sandy path listening to birds when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw fluttering movement. I glanced down to see a tiny blue butterfly flitting among the grasses at the edge of the path.

I wasn’t able to get very good pictures of this guy, and I first thought it was a Karner Blue. But I think it’s actually an Eastern Tailed Blue instead. Another very pretty butterfly, but a disappointment on this particular day.

Karner blue butterfly - rare endangered (1)

Karner blue butterfly - rare endangered (2)
Nope, not a Karner Blue. This is an Eastern Tailed Blue.

I wish I’d been able to see a Karner Blue, and maybe I will one day.  If you want to read more about why this species is endangered, the US Fish & Wildlife website has some good information.  Before I realized this wasn’t a Karner Blue, I had a “connect the dots” moment out there in that windswept sandy prairie, seeing the endangered plant and (I thought at the time) the endangered butterfly that depends on it for survival.

Ferns - weird two shades of green (1280x960)
Not blue, but an interesting fern with two shades of green —  I need to investigate this one.

Boardwalk and bridge at Oak Openings (1280x960)

And, as luck would have it, just as I was finishing this article for the blog, I got to do this:

Lupines I transplanted for Toledo Metroparks

Yes, I got to help the metroparks by transplanting some Wild Lupines from cell packs to 4″ pots. I had volunteered for a day of potting tree seedlings, but when I arrived for my shift they had already finished the trees. I was very disappointed, thinking I’d made the 30-minute drive for nothing. So I asked if there was anything else I could do, and that’s how I ended up spending almost three hours with the lupines.

I found this to be such a satisfying job now that I know how important those plants are to the ecosystem. Each time I popped a tiny plant out of the cell pack, I envisioned it standing tall and blooming on the sand dunes at Oak Openings, providing nourishment for the Karner Blue butterflies that can’t survive without it.

And as if that wasn’t enough for a gratifying experience, they gave me six tiny lupines for my yard! I had mentioned to the greenhouse supervisor that I was considering trying to grow them in my garden, and as I was preparing to wrap up my shift, she made the sweet gesture of offering me a six-pack of baby plants. I was overwhelmed, and cannot wait to find the perfect (sandy) spot in my garden for them.

Speaking of my garden, perhaps in an upcoming post I’ll show you some of the plants that have been blooming here lately. My new yard has been full of surprises!

P.S. I found an interesting bird-related trivia tidbit about the phrase “to have the blues.” It goes back at least as far as 1827, when John Audubon used the phrase in a letter to his wife Lucy.