My favorite of Missouri’s milkweeds

Milkweeds of the genus Asclepias are among my favorite plants, although I’m not fully sure why that is the case. Sure, their blooms are conspicuous and colorful, but so are those of many other plants. Perhaps one reason is their status as hosts for milkweed beetles (genus Tetraopes, family Cerambycidae). Four species of these beetles occur in Missouri, including the rare T. texanus. Another reason might be their diversity—in Missouri alone there are 16 different species, ranging from the ubiquitous common milkweed (A. syriaca) to the federally endangered Mead’s milkweed (A. meadii). The latter is one of six milkweed species occurring in Missouri that I have not yet seen, so I suppose I should withhold judgement until I’ve succeeding in finding all 16 species. Nevertheless, I would have to say that clasping milkweed (A. amplexicaulis) has to be my favorite of Missouri’s milkweeds.

Clasping milkweed (Asclepias amplexicaulis) | Sand Prairie Conservation Area, Scott Co., Missouri

Clasping milkweed (Asclepias amplexicaulis) | Sand Prairie Conservation Area, Scott Co., Missouri

Clasping milkweed (also known as sand milkweed—not to be confused with A. arenaria occurring further west in the Great Plains) is said to occur sporadically throughout Missouri in prairies, glades, rocky open woods, roadsides, and railroads. However, I have seen this species only a few times—all in dry sand habitats in the southeastern Mississippi Alluvial Plain (or, the “bootheel” as we say here in Missouruh). Until a few  years ago the only time I had ever seen this plant was many years in an eroded sandy opening on Crowley’s Ridge (an elevated ridge of alluvium and loess deposited during the last glacial maximum). Those plants were not in flower, but their was no mistaking their identity due to their erect stems and broad, cordate-clasping, tomentulose leaves with wavy margins. I would see this plant again a few years ago during my first visit to Sand Prairie Conservation Area, and although I would see it again on many subsequent visits, at no time did I succeed in seeing the blooms.

This species is characterized by broad, clasping, tomentulose leaves with wavy margins.

Broad, clasping, tomentulose leaves with wavy margins.

Finally, last year, I returned to Sand Prairie during late April (a weather-delayed installment of my Annual-Birthday-First-Bug-Collecting-Trip-of-the-Year). I had actually gone there to photograph Missouri’s unique intergrade population of the Festive Tiger Beetle (Cicindela scutellaris), but the weather was cool and the beetles apparently had decided to remain in their burrows. A bad day of collecting, however, is still better than a good day of just about anything else—perhaps because there are almost always consolation prizes, and my consolation prize on this day was my first sight of clasping milkweed plants in full bloom.

A single inflorescence atops each stem.

A single inflorescence atops each stem.

I may not be exactly sure why I like milkweeds so much, but I think I now know why I like clasping milkweed above all others. The softly colored green and pink blossoms are exquisite, to be sure, but more importantly the species is firmly linked in my mind to one of my favorite Missouri habitats. I imagine that clasping milkweed might be an attractive, if somewhat gangly, addition to a native wildflower garden. However, I’m not sure I would enjoy cultivated plants in my garden as much as I do seeing wild plants in one of Missouri’s rarest and most endangered natural communities.

Sand Prairie Conservation Area, Scott Co., Missouri

Sand Prairie Conservation Area, Scott Co., Missouri

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013

The 213-year old “Gran Gomero”

Here are two more views of the tree featured in ID Challenge #21. This is El “Gran Gomero,” a planted rubber tree (Ficus elastica) located in the upscale Recoleta district of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Whenever locals give a name to an individual tree, you know it has to be something special, and this tree certainly does not disappoint. Huge, buttress roots and massive branches supporting a majestic, 50-meter wide crown make it an impressive sight indeed. Its branches are so large that wooden supports have been placed beneath them to help support their great weight and prevent them from breaking.

El "Gran Gomero" rubber tree (Ficus elasticus) | Buenos Aires, Argentina

El “Gran Gomero” rubber tree (Ficus elasticus) | Buenos Aires, Argentina

There seems to be some question about how old this tree actually is. A Wikipedia entry on the Recoleta district mentions that the tree was planted in 1791 by Martín José Altolaguirre, a landowner in the area at the time, making it a cool 222 years old! Wikimapia claims that the tree was planted in 1826 by Martín de Altolaguirre in the adjacent Recoleta Cemetary (itself worth a blog post) and transplanted to its current location eight years later. Still other sources, such as Buenos Aires Delivery and numerous individual blog posts state that the tree was planted in 1870 by the monks of the Recoleta. Finally, there is a sign at the base of the tree that says the tree was planted in 1800, again by the monks of the Recoleta, and that the fence was donated to the city by the nearby cafe La Biela. Unfortnately, I did not photograph the sign, but I did find a photo of it on Flickr. Perhaps the 9-year difference in planting date between the sign and Wikipedia has to do with the transplanting from its original location in the cemetary as mentioned by Wikimapia. Regardless of its true age, El Gran Gomero must certainly be among the oldest of any residing in a city as large as Buenos Aires.

 

Huge buttress roots support a massive, 50-meter wide crown.

Huge buttress roots support a massive, 50-meter wide crown.

Just when I was beginning to think nobody read this blog anymore, a record 30 people participated in this ID Challenge. Even more impressive is that more than a few got it right! Timing is everything, however, and 3-time BitB Challenge Champion Ben Coulter takes the win due to his speedy response and early-bird bonuses that netted him a total of 23 points. Also making the podium were Chelydra and Brady Richards with 18 each. The overall leader is now Ben Coulter with 33 points. Bill Rockenbeck and Chelydra both follow with 21 points, but in the event of a tie-breaker Bill would get the nod by virtue of having participated in more challenges. Look for another installment of BitB Challenge Session #7 in the near future.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013

ID Challenge #21

Time for another installment of BitB Challenge Session #7. This one is going to be a bit different from previous versions—can you identify the tree in the photo? Not the scientific name, not the common name, but the actual name of this particular tree. Include its location and any cultural significance it may have (both historical and current) and you’ll be well on your way towards winning this challenge. Points structure will be decided after I see what kind of response I get (this is also a test to see if anyone still reads this blog).

Good luck!

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Copyright © Ted. C. MacRae 2013

These are a few of my favorite trees

Adrian Thysse recently posted a video of a talk by Wayne Maddison titled “Jumping Spider Melodies,” given November 2012 at the Joint Annual Meeting of the Entomological Society of Canada and the Entomological Society of Alberta. It was a fascinating talk that revealed some interesting correlations between the phylogeny and geographical patterns of distribution of jumping spiders—those bright-eyed, bouncy, almost kitten-like darlings of the spider world. One quote from the talk, however, that stood out for me above all others went something like “Scientists have a rational motivation to seek truth and an emotional motivation to seek beauty.” I think this is true especially for biologists and natural historians—who among us that studies that natural world in adulthood didn’t start out with a love of the outdoors as a child? For me it was the woods that ignited my passion, and still today nothing rejuvenates my spirit like the overwhelming beauty and solitude of the forest.

Shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata) | Wayne Co., Missouri

Shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata) | Wayne Co., Missouri

Wintertime especially is when I enjoy my visits to the forest. Far from the cacophony of summer, my mind is free to explore the open canopy, to examine the fabric of the landscape and ponder its history—unhurried, without objective. During the summer, trees are host plants—I see them not for what they are, but for the beetles that might be on them. I identify them, sample them, assess them for where their guests might be. In winter though, without beating sheet in hand, without collecting vials in the pocket, I see trees as works of art—freed from their summer cloaks, living skeletons on a living landscape.

Honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) | Wayne Co., Missouri

Honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos)

Different trees are my favorite at different times for different reasons. Blazing hot orange sugar maples (Acer saccharum) at peak fall color, stately white oaks (Quercus alba) with their ash-gray branches, broad-crowned post oaks (Quercus stellata) dotting a remnant savanna, or even gnarled, ancient red-cedars (Juniperus virginiana) clinging tenuously to life on the edge of a dolomite bluff. Most often for me, however, the beauty is in the bark. The deeply fissured, reddish plates of shortleaf pine (Pinus echninata), the terrifyingly thorned trunks of honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos), the shaggy, peeling strips of shagbark hickory (Carya ovata). Even in their winter nakedness, the bark of these trees gives them year-round personality that is lacking in lesser-barked trees.

Shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) | Wayne Co., Missouri

Shagbark hickory (Carya ovata)

Honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) - thornless individual | Wayne Co., Missouri

Honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) – thornless individual

The tree in this post were photographed during November 2012 while hiking the Wappapello Section of the Ozark Trail in the Ozark Highlands of southeastern Missouri (Wayne Co.). 

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013

Fathers Day at the Missouri Botanical Garden

Yesterday my girls (wife Lynne and daughters Mollie and Madison) took me and my father to the Missouri Botanical Garden for Fathers Day. Although I’m an entomologist, I also have a strong botanical bent, and although my wife and father are not scientists like me, they nevertheless find a day at the Missouri Botanical Garden as enjoyable as I do. The girls, on the other hand, will never admit that they like it the way the rest of us do, but I think deep inside they enjoy it very much and, in later years, will look upon these visits as some of their fondest Mothers and Fathers Day memories.

Me and daughters Mollie and Madison.

My father and I have been back together for 20 years now. With my wife and daughters, he has become one of the most important persons in my life. I wrote an essay about my father four years ago that explains how he made me whole—it still rings true today.

Me and Pop.

I have been to the Missouri Botanical Garden many, many times over the years, but one sight have have still never seen is a corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum). I learned earlier this week that one of their plants is about ready to bloom, so I eagerly looked for this plant as we wound our way through the Climatron. As we came near the end and I still hadn’t seen it, I wondered if somehow I had missed it along the path. Suddenly I caught a glimpse of the giant 3′ tall flower bud near the end of the footpath, and I knew instantly that I had found what I was looking for.

Corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum) getting ready to bloom.

I will be keeping track of the progress of this flower over the next couple of weeks on the Missouri Botanical Garden Facebook page in hopes that I can see it again when the flower opens fully—a rare botanical treat that few people ever get the chance to experience!

Corpse flower explained.

In my younger years when I had a bit more free time on my hands I was a hobbyist orchid grower. I didn’t have a greenhouse but nevertheless managed to keep a steady supply of plants in bloom by growing them outdoors under shade cloth with heavy watering and fertilizing during the summer and moving them indoors under fluorescent lights and in bright windows during the winter. I don’t have nearly the time for such pursuits these days, but I still enjoy looking at their exquisite and infinitely diverse blooms whenever I have the chance, and the Climatron never fails to disappoint.

One of many epiphytic orchids blooming in the Climatron.

While walking through the Climatron, I noticed a very exotic looking lizard on the trunk of one of the trees. I watched it licking exudate from the trunk and thought such behavior seemed rather odd. I later learned that this was the Standing’s day gecko (Phelsuma standingi), and that it might have an important role in pollinating the double coconut palm (Loidiocea maldivica). Both are endemic to the Seychelles Islands north of Madagascar, with the latter bearing the largest seed of any plant in the world (up to 45 lbs. in weight). The photo below was taken of another individual through the glass of its terrarium and, thus, lacks some clarity, but it shows the vivid colors and markings that distinguish these diurnal geckos from the other more typically nocturnal members of the gecko infraorder.

Standing’s day gecko (Phelsuma standingi).

While not gracing this post in a photo, many thanks to my loving wife, Lynne, who is the best mother my daughters could ask for and who helped make yesterday the special day for me and my father that it was!

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

Friday Flower: Phacelia purshii

Phacelia purshii (Miami mist) | Sam A. Baker State Park, Wayne Co., Missouri

It’s been rather a long time since I’ve featured a botanical subject here, so it seems a good time to resurrect my “Friday Flower” meme with this delightful little wildflower seen on my birthday field trip a few weeks ago. Phacelia purshii (family Hydrophyllaceae), also known as Miami mist, is one of only four species in this rather large genus (159 species in North America according to the USDA Plants Database) found in Missouri. Though the flowers are small, their deeply fringed petals are quite striking. The late Dan Tenaglia¹ notes at his Missouriplants.com website that the species is limited in Missouri to the extreme eastern portions of the state—the plant shown here was one of several I saw in rich, bottomland forest along Big Creek at Sam A. Baker State Park in Missouri’s southeastern Ozark Highlands.

¹ Dan Tenaglia was not only an expert botanist but a enthusiastic cyclist. He died in February 2007 after being struck by a car while riding his bicycle. Dan’s wife has kept Missouriplants.com up and running since then in honor of his passion for plants. You can help support its maintenance by making a donation to the “Dan Tenaglia Foundation”: 1416 Victoria Avenue, Opelika, Alabama 36801.

This particular woods is one of the richest I’ve seen in the state, and in the past two years I’ve featured a number of interesting plants (Phlox bifida and Tradescantia longipes), invertebrates (Drosphila sp., Magicicada sp.Calosoma scrutator, Pleuroloma flavipes, Graphisurus trianguliferG. fasciatus, Arrhenodes minutus, Neoclytus scutellaris, Corydalus cornutus and Panorpus helena) and even snakes (Crotalus horridus and Agkistrodon contortrix phaeogaster) from there. This year marks the third consecutive birthday that I’ve visited these woods, and since I’ve found something I’ve never seen before each time (hint: just wait till you see what I still have coming from there!), I have a feeling the trend will continue next year as well.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

Friday Flower – Spring Coralroot Orchid

As flowers go, I have a passion for orchids.  Despite comprising perhaps the largest family of flowering plants on earth, most people think of orchids as rare, epiphytic plants restricted to the lush, hyper-diverse, tropical rain forests of South America and southeast Asia.  In reality, terrestrial orchids abound in the temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere, with more than 200 species occurring in the United States and Canada.  Some, such as the lady slippers (genus Cypripedium),  have blossoms as magnificent as their tropical counterparts, while others are less conspicuous and easy to overlook; however, all share the hallmark that unites the family—a modified petal forming a conspicuous lower lip¹

¹ Interestingly, the lip is actually derived from the uppermost petal, but in most species the flower twists during development so that the lip is oriented at the bottom.

Missouri is home to 34 species of orchids (one introduced, and another discovered in Missouri for the first time just a couple years ago).  None of them are truly common like Rudbeckia or Coreopsis, although some are far more common than is realized.  I’ve featured a few of these previously, including Spiranthes magnicamporum (Great Plains Ladies’-tresses), Platanthera lacera (green fringed orchid), Aplectrum hymenale (Adam and Eve orchid), and Goodyera pubescens (rattlesnake plantain orchid).  I’ve traveled to the far corners of the state to see them, but for today’s featured species—Corallorhiza wisteriana (spring coralroot)—I had to travel no further than my front yard.


I’m sure my neighbors hate my front yard. I don’t use fertilizers or herbicides, and I’m unconcerned about the moss that grows amongst the thin stands of mixed grasses under the tall native oaks that shade much of the yard. My neighbor down the street especially probably shakes his head as he walks his dog past my yard every day, frustrated that I don’t share his passion for the lush, thick, über-green bluegrass monoculture that he has achieved (and must pay somebody to cut at least once a week). Spring must be especially frustrating for him, as I don’t even cut the grass until late May, giving the lawn an especially ragged, unkempt appearance. However, whatever my yard lacks in graminaceous greatness, it more than makes up for in its diversity of woodland natives—spring beauty, toothwort, trout lily, violets, coral bells… and spring coralroot. I have several colonies growing at different spots in the yard, all marked with surveyor’s flags to prevent accidental trampling until their bloom period ends and I can (begrudgingly) begin mowing the grass (no more than once a month, if I can get away with it). I’ve enjoyed these coralroot colonies every spring since I’ve lived here, but this spring was the first that I took the opportunity to photograph their blooms.

Of the three Corallorhiza species that can be found in Missouri, C. wisteriana is the most common, occurring in rich or rocky acidic soils of low wooded valleys, ravine bottoms, along streams and on ridges and slopes of open woods (Summers 1981).  My yard qualifies as the latter, occurring on a limestone ridge in mesic upland forest made only slightly more open by the late 1980s construction of the neighborhood and its minimal disturbance limited to the roads, driveways, home footprints and a small amount of associated lawn.  It is distinguished in Missouri from C. odontorhiza (Autumn coralroot) by its spring flowering period and larger flowers with notched or lobed lip, and from the rare C. trifida (known from only a few Missouri counties) by the purple or brownish stems and spotted lip.


As suggested by the unusual coloration, Corallorhiza species are largely (though not completely) lacking in chlorophyll, and as a result are mostly unable to photosynthesize their own food. Instead, the bulbous rhizomes remain hidden within the soil for much of the year, forming symbiotic relationships with soil fungi and flowering only when conditions are favorable (Luer 1975). The past several springs have been wet here, and accordingly I’ve been rewarded with the wonderful sight of these exquisite tiny blossoms.

I can’t say that I’m entirely happy with these photographs, as I found it difficult to get the entire blossom in focus—when the petals were in focus the lip was not, and vice versa, even in straight lateral profile.  Nevertheless, they still show the delicate structure of the lip, with its scalloped edge and crystalline-appearing surface.  The blooms are fading now—soon there will be no above-ground evidence of their existence, and my neighbor and wife will likely gang up on me to finally power up the lawn mower.

REFERENCES:

Luer, C. A.  1975.The Native Orchids of the United States and Canada Excluding Florida.  The New York Botanical Garden, 361 pp. + 96 color plates.

Summers, B.  1981. Missouri Orchids.  Missouri Department of Conservation, Natural History Series No. 1, 92 pp.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011

Friday Flower – “Palo Borracho”

Ceibo may be Argentina’s national flower, but Ceiba is its most iconic flower.  That’s right—Ceibo and Ceiba are two, completely unrelated species!  Ceibo is the common name in Argentina for Erythrina crista-galli, a tree in the family Fabaceae, while Ceiba is a genus of flowering trees in the family Bombacaceae that includes the species pictured above—Ceiba speciosa (syn. Chorisia speciosa), known in Argentina as “Palo Borracho.”  This translates literally to “drunken stick”—a reference to the pot-bellied trunk with narrowed base that gives the tree the appearance of a wine bottle (Haene and Aparicio 2007).  Native to the dry forests of northeastern Argentina, C. speciosa has become an enormously popular street tree in the country due to their dazzling displays of hot pink blossoms, especially in Buenos Aires whose green spaces and wide boulevards are lined with grand old specimens.

Interspersed amongst the pink flowering trees are occasional specimens with the flowers mostly white but otherwise looking much the same as C. speciosa.  These are the closely related species C. chodattii (syn. Chorisia insignis), or Yuchán.  This species is native to more western, even drier areas of northern Argentina than C. speciosa and has also become popular as an ornamental tree in urban areas, though it has been planted with less frequency than its hot pink-flowered congener.

Bombacaceae also contains the famously odd baobab and kapok trees—also distingished by bulging trunks that serve as an adaptation for water storage in seasonally dry environments.  The trunks of Ceiba trees exhibit an additional water conservation adaptation with thick, conical-shaped thorns that are also capable of water storage.  The young tree picture here was photographed in Campinas, Brazil and exhibits the green coloration typical of younger trees that functions to augment their photosynthetic capabilities. In fact, the dry forests in which Ceiba spp. evolved often contain a number of unrelated plants that also are thorny and have green bark.

REFERENCE:

Haene, E. and G. Aparicio.  2007.  100 Trees of Argentina. Editorial Albatros, Buenos Aires, República Argentina, 128 pp.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011