Monday, July 8, 2013

A smattering of summer woodland wildflowers

Traipsing through the woodlands in the heat of summer lacks a bit of the charm of a cool spring hike. I've been deep into Hocking County twice in the past two weeks, and on both days the temps hit the 80's (F) and worse yet, the humidity must have been hovering near 100%. After some hill-climbing and bush-whacking, it's as if you've gone for a swim. Couple that with various and sundry biting or otherwise annoying insects, and summertime forays can grow tiring.
But not to me! At least for the most part. One, heat has never really bothered me very much. And I like insects. Suffering a few of the pests in order to have the opportunity to find some really interesting bugs is well worth the annoyance, and unless clouds of mosquitoes or blackflies are part of the equation, you'll seldom hear me complaining about insects.
As for as botany goes, mid-summer carries with it a whole set of fascinating but often overlooked flora. People are less apt to go crashing through the forests in July, for the aforementioned reasons. Too bad, and following is a pictorial snippet of what Ohio's summer forests are growing about now.
A heavily wooded slope awash in the ghostly white spires of Black Cohosh, Actaea racemosa. Some ginseng diggers claim this is a "pointer plant": an obvious easily seen plant that indicates the presence of ginseng. If so, a digger would go ape upon spotting this site.

Black Cohosh is a member of the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae), and its flower buds are food for caterpillars of the beautiful Appalachian Azure butterfly.

Plants in the mint family (Lamiaceae) form a conspicuous component of summer's cast of chlorophyll-bearing characters. This is an easily found species, American Germander, Teucrium canadense.

The pale pink flowers lack an upper lip, and resemble scoops that have been sprayed with lavender dust.

I was pleased to encounter a small population of Hairy Wood Mint, Blephilia ciliata. I find it less commonly than I do our other species, the Downy Wood Mint, B. ciliata (which you can see RIGHT HERE). Note the flashy little purple dots on the flowers - they serve as neon lights to lure in pollinating insects.

This is a big, picturesque mint even if it is clad all in white. It is White Bergamot, Monarda clinopodia, and it likes the shade. There are four species of Monarda that grow native in Ohio, and each comes with a different color of flowers: pink, red, yellow, and white.

This, need I say, is the RED Monarda, otherwise known as Bee-balm, or sometimes Oswego-tea. No matter your choice of common names, it'll always be Monarda didyma. The inflorescence is a botanical fireworks show, and running across a patch of these plants amongst the lesser greenery will give just about anyone pause.

A personal fave among summer woodland wildflowers is the Pale Jewelweed, Impatiens capensis. Entering the flower, to an insect pollinator, must be akin to going caving. Few plants are more succulent than are the Impatiens; it's as if they are made of water. Back in my rabid plant-collecting days, I always found jewelweeds difficult to work with. You've basically got to flatten them on the spot - they don't last long once separated from the earth.

Other than good looks, jewelweeds have edibility going for them. Try the ripe seeds sometime. They taste like walnuts. Just be sure and pop open the pod in your closed hand. The fruit are coiled under pressure, and when the pod bursts they'll go flying.

This little beauty is often overlooked, due to its diminutive stature. You could probably pack a few hundred of those flowers in a coke bottle cap. It's the bloom of Enchanter's Nightshade, Circaea lutetiana, a shade-lover that seldom grows more than 6-8 inches above the forest floor.

Note the bristly ripe fruit in the backdrop. The stiff hook-tipped hairs are for mammalian dispersal. Rabbits and other little animals have probably unwittingly carted untold billions of these tiny fruit around over the eons.

Striped Wintergreen, Chimaphila maculata - always a crowd pleaser!  This miniature shrublet, a member of the heath family (Ericaceae) is worth braving the heat and humidity to see. The leaves are evergreen, conspicuous and easily identified throughout the year. But one must venture out in July to observe the amazing little waxy-white flowers, which droop on arcuate filaments, condemned to stare only at the forest floor.

A close ally of the wintergreen is this even tinier heath, the Wintergreen, or Teaberry, Gaultheria procumbens. This fine specimen is in full flower, and it'd be quite easy to pass right by the plant and never notice the little urn-shaped flowers.

By getting downslope and laying on my belly, I was able to secure a passable image of the flowers. It would be interesting (at least to me) to know what insect(s) enter the mouth of this flower for pollination purposes. Discovering such things would require much time prostrate on the leaf litter, and few of us take time for such things (or consider such knowledge important).

Ah! A ghostly plant indeed, arising like a dead man's fingers from the humus. This is the strange Indian-pipe, Monotropa uniflora, and it utterly lacks chlorophyll, hence the lack of greenness. It can shun the sun by tapping into mycorrhizal fungi associated with tree roots, thus it is an indirect parasite of trees.

I would be hard-pressed to name a cooler summer wildflower than this one, the Leather-flower, Clematis viorna. A vining member of the buttercup family, Leather-flower can rather easily be overlooked in its shady haunts. It is well named: those flowers are indeed thick and quite leathery to the touch. Why this plant hasn't been captured and put into the ornamental trade, I do not know. Or perhaps it has, and I'm just unaware.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to determine the primary pollinators of Leather-flower. Large well-fuzzed bumblebees in the genus Bombus were swarming the blossoms, stuffing their fuzzy selves deep within to access the nectar.

It was with a slight tinge of sadness that I observed this big coarse plant sending forth its pilot flower. When the Cup-plant, Silphium perfoliatum, begins to bloom, you can be assured that summer is near its zenith and will soon show signs of fading. The Cup-plant is Act I in a large and diverse procession of fall composites: asters, sunflowers, goldenrods and more. They are harbingers of winter, ushering in cold weather and dormancy in the plant world.

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