Thursday, May 6, 2021

Lady's-slippers in a spring forest

Recent spring rains created swollen streams in Shawnee State Forest (Ohio) yesterday morning. I was down there early to meet John Howard and Cheryl Carpenter for a bit of "fishing". We were going to work these streams for various dace, darters and minnows for photography, but decided to defer that until lower water prevails.

Instead, we switched gears and went botanizing. The weather was perfect for plant photography. Overcast skies, and the previous night's rain had persisted into the morning, so everything was dripping with water and colors were richly saturated. For the most part, sunny skies (and wind!) are your enemy when shooting plants.

Plant subjects were plentiful - Shawnee hosts some 1,000 species of native plants - and we quickly immersed ourselves in finding rarities, and seeing lots of more common spring flowers along the way. I photographed far more subjects than I could ever post here, so I'll showcase some of the coolest plants in the eastern deciduous forest (and beyond): lady's-slippers.

A pair of stately Large Yellow Lady's-slippers, Cypripedium parviflorum, just perfect for photography. These are not especially common in Shawnee, although they are widely scattered throughout the forest and might be encountered almost anywhere.


A glance at the flowers reveals the source of the common name. Bumblebees often serve as pollinators. The gorgeous yellow blossoms are subtended by interesting twisted reddish sepals, and the overall effect is stunning.

Decidedly more common than the Large Yellow Lady's-slipper and sometimes forming sizable colonies is the Pink Lady's-slipper, Cypripedium acaule. This dry ridgetop woodland was dotted with plants, creating a spectacular, slightly surreal vision.

The scientific name's specific epithet, acaule, refers to its growth habit. The stems are leafless, capped only by the terminal flower. Leafless stemmed plants are called acaulescent. Scroll back to the Large Yellow Lady's-slipper photos for an example of a caulescent, or leafy stemmed, plant.

A freshly emerged Pink Lady's-slipper flower, not yet fully developed and wet with rain.

But hey! What is this? I was excited to see not one, but two specimens of the white-flowered form of Pink Lady's-slipper. The snowy-white flowers are truly amazing, and arguably showier than the typical pink-flowered type. This variant has been named forma albiflorum, and it is quite rare.

Forma albiflorum, standing tall.

I never divulge rare orchid locations (or most ANY orchid locale), because the human desire to possess exotic things sometimes overrides ethics. A plant such as this could be a sitting duck if its spot were widely known. A sad fact about orchid poaching is that few if any of the purloined plants will survive. Orchids are exceptionally particular in regards to micro-niches, and much of their finicky nature regards specialized fungi. Plant them in the garden and you have doomed these elegant plants. They belong in the forests where they naturally occur.

Some years back, a perhaps well-intentioned person foolishly wrote a letter to the local paper extolling the virtues of the forest and its lady's-slippers. The writer encouraged people to go see them and listed specific locations.

A botanical slaughter ensued. Many plants were dug, and we can be sure that all soon died. One site that I knew of with dozens of pink slippers was decimated and has not come close to approaching its former grandeur, years later.

Cypripedium acaule, forma albiflorum, botanical magic.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Nature: To fuel hummingbirds, think native plants

A female ruby-throated hummingbird taps nectar from a royal catchfly/Jim McCormac

Nature: To fuel hummingbirds, think native plants


NATURE
Jim McCormac

By the time you read this, “your” hummingbirds may have returned. Or maybe you belong to them. Common is the story of newly arrived hummingbirds hovering in front of windows, angrily chittering if their feeders have not yet been hung. Hummers have long memories. The slothful homeowner is shamed into rushing out with the sprite’s supply of sugar water.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds begin returning from tropical wintering haunts in the third week of April, and have recolonized Ohio by mid-May. These 3-gram elfins mostly winter from western Mexico south to Panama.

In an epic migration, many ruby-throated hummingbirds travel across the Gulf of Mexico. This nonstop water crossing is nearly 600 miles. Once the hummers make landfall along the Gulf coast, they’ve still got 750 miles to go to reach your Central Ohio yard.

Males precede females by a week or so, and quickly stake claims to suitable territories. When females arrive, amorous males begin a spectacular courtship. The Lilliput flares his colorful throat feathers, and launches into his dive display.

Like a feathered meteor, the male streaks earthward from on high creating a loud buzzing with its wings. At the bottom of its arcing parabola, which might be 50 feet below the starting point, the hummer pulls out and shoots skyward. The showoff might continue this incredible aerial display repeatedly.

Once a female expresses interest by perching nearby, the male zooms over and commences zipping side to side at insane speed, often within 2-3 of her.

If she is suitably impressed, they mate.

And so ends the male’s role in this relationship. He abandons the territory he had staked, and helps not a whit with nest construction, egg incubation, or care of the young. Once the avian lothario’s spectacular but brief fling is over, it’s back to a carefree lifestyle among the flowers.

The much more responsible female crafts an amazing golf ball-sized nest from plant down, binding it with spider silk, and shingles the exterior with lichens. Two eggs the size of jelly beans are laid.

After the impossibly tiny chicks hatch, she works tirelessly to feed them a mixture of nectar and insect soup. The female sticks her long bill deep down the baby’s gullet, and pumps in the nutritious gruel.

When she isn’t out foraging for food, the hummingbird broods her charges. A harder working bird you will not find.

About three weeks after hatching, the young hummers depart the nest. The female will continue to feed them for perhaps a week, but then it’s time to go solo. The youngsters have much street savvy to accumulate before jetting off to the tropics for the winter.

While feeding hummingbirds with sugar water (one part sugar, four parts water) is rewarding for all parties, there is a much better way to help them.

Grow native plants.

Hummingbirds have a long co-evolutionary history with our flora. The female in the accompanying photo is tapping nectar from a royal catchfly. Hummingbirds are likely the only suitable pollinator for that gorgeous prairie plant.

Some showy hummer-friendly native plants for the yardscape include bee-balm, cardinal flower, coral honeysuckle, fire pink, Ohio buckeye, both spotted and yellow jewelweed, trumpet creeper, wild columbine, and the aforementioned royal catchfly.

Help a hummingbird and add some native plants to the yard. Two excellent native plant nurseries in Central Ohio are Natives in Harmony (nativesinharmony.com) and Scioto Gardens (sciotogardens.com). The Midwest Native Plant Society has a wealth of helpful information (midwestnativeplants.org).

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first and third Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jim mccormac.blogspot.com. 

Lady's-slippers in a spring forest

Recent spring rains created swollen streams in Shawnee State Forest (Ohio) yesterday morning. I was down there early to meet John Howard and...