Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A grasshopper wee, and miscellaneous flora

Here in Ohio, snow has cloaked the landscape in a dense layer of fluff nearly all winter. Temperatures have been decidedly frosty as well, making one really yearn for something green. So, last Sunday, some of us headed afield in Adams County to see if any early flora could be found. Down there, hard on the banks of the mighty Ohio River, the broad valley of this 120,000 year old stream has its own microclimate. Winter's temperatures are moderated, and things heat up much earlier in spring. Get around some of the rock outcrops, and one should find a number of early-blooming wildflowers by now.

But it was not to be. This winter has been tough enough to turn Al Gore pink-faced with chagrin, and the plants just haven't popped. I bet by now, just days after the foray reported upon herein, many wildflowers are out, so quick are they to burst furth given a bit of warm weather and liberation from the snow coat.

We did find lots of interesting things - that's ALWAYS the case on one of our forays - and a few are pictured below.

A must-stop was Sandy Springs Cemetery, an old cacti-choked graveyard on one of the best remaining riverine sand terraces along the Ohio River. Our attention was quickly drawn to these tiny hirsute bees (we think they are bees), which were perhaps one-quarter inch long, many of which were patrolling low over the sands.

We were very interested in these bees, and spent perhaps too much time following them to see what they might be doing. Questions arise: What do they eat? Why are they out so early? Do they nectar at plants? If so, what? And so it goes.

It didn't take long to realize that the little bees were seeking suitable digging grounds. In the above photo, one has tunneled into the loose sand until only its tail end protrudes. In short order, it was completely buried and the sands had completely hidden it. A nest, possibly to become the crypt of some hapless paralyzed bug that will be Jr. Bee's first meal?

A healthy SPROING diverted our attention to this Lilliputian chap; an early instar of some species of grasshopper. It's extremities were flushed with rose, creating a showy contrast of colors. I am always curious about obscure animals in rare and odd habitats such as this; oftentimes they turn out to be something special. Even though this little fellow was perhaps 1/3 inch in length, it still could jump perhaps 75-100 times its body length.

Everyone knows our state tree, the Ohio Buckeye, Aesculus glabra. I think there is a football team named after that plant. Perhaps not all know that we've got a second buckeye - this one, the Yellow Buckeye, Aesculus flava. Taller and more stately, it occurs in our southern counties. At this site along a small stream, both species were present, with the yellows occupying higher slopes and the Ohio on the flats of the stream terrace.

The stump of a Black Locust, Robinia pseudoacacia, a large woody pea family member. This cutaway view enables us to see how quickly this species can grow - there are only about 15 or so annual growth rings, some of which are nearly the width of that penny.

We were excited to encounter this fine specimen - no, not the model, Bob Placier - but the green tree. It's a big American Holly, Ilex opaca. It was WAY off the beaten path, in a remote area far from roads or homes. This plant is a bit of an enigma in Ohio, which is at the extreme northern limits of its range. Undoubtedly native to lands along the Ohio River, it also escapes and one can really never be sure whether a "wild" holly is really wild. But when I see them in spots such as this, I do figure that they are natives, even if bird-assisted.

The beyond ripe fruit of Buttonbush, Cephalanthus occidentalis, dangle over a vernal pool, the gnarled contorted branches of the shrubs forming the backdrop. Buttonbush is a classic plant of swamps.

A light compression of the fingers and all of the individual achenes shattered from the ball-like fruit clusters. This is a good strategy - delayed ripening - for a plant intimately associated with watery habitats. Hold onto your fruit until the first rains of spring, then drop them in the drink to be carried off either by water or migrant Wood Ducks.

Following a similar strategy as the Buttonbush, the boxlike fruit of Seedbox, Ludwigia alternifolia, hold tight to their seeds until spring. Each little container contains myriad dustlike seeds, easily waterborn. This is a gorgeous little wetland herb with showy yellow flowers in addition to its namesake distinctive fruit; I'm not sure why it isn't utilized as a native rain garden plant. Maybe THIS CONFERENCE will help to change that.

Large orbicular masses of Mistletoe, Phoradendron leucarpum, clung to the crowns of elms, maples and oaks on the banks of the Ohio. This interesting hemiparasitic plant is near the limits of its range along the Ohio River, and it can be quite common in places. The sticky fruit are transported by birds, and if the expelled seed lands on a suitable bough, it augers into the tree via specialized roots called haustoria and begins a long arboreal life.

Finally! A true flowering plant, in flower! This is a Eurasian "weed", but it must be noted that the definition of a weed is in the eye of the beholder. Whitlow-grass, Draba verna, is a tiny mustard that is abundant in dry sparsely vegetated ground. Like many small things, when seen well it is quite showy and multidimensionally interesting. Mustards have four petals; it appears that there are eight on this plant. Each petal is deeply cleft, or bifid, nearly to the base, giving the illusion of an octet of petals.

We did see a few other weedy little species, such as Hairy Bittercress, Cardamine hirsuta, and Smooth Speedwell, Veronica polita, but even these earliest of bloomers were far behind their normal schedule. But make no mistake - the floodgates of spring have cracked open, and it'll be a cascade of plants tumbling forth from here on out.

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1 comment:

scott davidson said...

What an interesting blog, introduced by a thought-provoking photo. The unusual wall painting of the dwellings is also a strangely modern interpretation. Something like this hieroglyphic view of a park by Swiss painter Paul Klee, http://EN.WahooArt.com/A55A04/w.nsf/OPRA/BRUE-8LT475.
The image can be seen at wahooart.com who can supply you with a canvas print of it.