Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Native plants rule!

The 3rd annual Midwest Native Plant Conference is approaching: July 8, 9, & 10 in Dayton, Ohio. If you are interested in native wildlife, this conference is for you. The focus is on native plants, but indigenous flora is the building block upon which animals flourish. Check the agenda out RIGHT HERE. There is a Saturday-only option as well, if time is tight.

One of the conference's field trip sites is the legendary Cedar Bog near Urbana. I was there last Saturday, ostensibly to teach a workshop on breeding birds, and we saw/heard plenty of those. But our group didn't ignore the entire ecosystem, either, and what an ecosystem! We saw a great many interesting plants and animals, and a few of the former follow.

Tightly clustered tiny white flowers collectively create a large and showy domelike inflorescence in elderberry, Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis. This common shrub is a staple of woodland borders, fencerows, ditches and lots of other habitats. A member of the honeysuckle family (Caprifoliaceae), its berries are often harvested for the production of various foodstuffs; even elderberry wine.

Elderberry, especially when in flower, lures an amazing diversity of interesting insects. They in turn attract predators higher up in the insect food chain, which then can become food for birds and higher animals. An elderberry specialist of the insect world is an absolutely gorgeous beetle called the elderberry borer. I have wanted to see one of these gems since I first saw a photo, and finally added one to my beetle life list a few weekends ago. I'll share it later, in a post about the wacky world of beetles.

Resembling a cluster of elfin beach balls, the fruit of starry false solomon's-seal, Maianthemum stellatum, provides a point of interest in Cedar Bog's wet woods. A member of the wildly diverse lily family (Liliaceae), this species is nowhere near as common as the false solomon's-seal, or solomon's plume, M. racemosum, at least in Ohio. Starry false solomon's-seal requires rich limey soil with an above neutral pH.

Certain to grab the eye in Cedar Bog's rich fen meadows is this odd member of the sunflower family (Asteraceae). It is fen indian-plantain, Arnoglossum plantagineum. It is quite rare in Ohio and highly restricted to high quality fens.

Further proof of the lily world's diversity can be found in this curious little herb, false asphodel, Triantha glutinosa. These little fellows might stretch to 8 inches or so in height, and occupy open marly flats within the fen meadow community. It, too, is quite rare in Ohio and is listed as threatened. The specific epithet, glutinosa, means "sticky" and that they are. The stem, especially the upper regions, are heavily beset with glandular hairs and so sticky that small insects frequently become stuck and perish. This stimulates questions about carnivory. Does the plant then absorb useful nitrogen and proteins from these bugs? I don't know that anyone has studied Triantha in this light.

Stars of the meadow, at this season, are the showy grass-pink orchids, Calopogon tuberosus. Grass-pinks are found in fens and bogs, and seeing how well over 90% of those habitats have been destroyed in Ohio since European colonization, the orchid has become quite scarce. Click the photo and you'll better see the small wasp that has landed on the labellum, or lip, of the flower.

Most orchids have the labellum fixed at the lower part of the flower; this arrangement is reversed in Calopogon. The labellum is adorned with a thick brush of hairs which look as if they are coated in tasty nectar. They're not - it's a ruse, but one that has attracted this wasp. The wasp wasn't heavy enough, but if a bee - a common pollinator - lands on that brush of hairs, the labellum will quickly fold downwards, catapulting the bee onto the column where it will be dusted with pollen. Should the bee already carry pollen from another orchid, it'll transfer that to the the stigma and thus pollinate the grass-pink. Apparently, it's primarily the younger bumblebees that fall for this trick; older bees become wise to the deceptive ways of the orchid and learn that there is no tasty nectar reward and ignore the grass-pinks.

Anyway, come out to the Midwest Native Plant Conference and learn much more about our botanical world - and you can even buy some plants!

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