Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Spring Stinks, Part II

The only thing that seems to be growing in our woods so far this spring season is skunk cabbage.
  Which may be one reason that skunk cabbage stinks so much.  The smelly cloaks may deter grazing animals from eating those first fresh plants of the year.  I can imagine a deer would enjoy crunching on those juicy leaves after spending the winter browsing on twigs and scratching around for acorns. However, the plants are chemically protected with volatiles like skatole and cadaverine.  These enable the skunk cabbage to mimic putrescence and this discourages most animals from eating it, except maybe very hungry bears. The skunk cabbage also has another chemical defense.  The plant contains calcium oxalate crystals which produce an intense burning sensation in the mouth.  No wonder that skunk cabbage is left basically alone even though it is on the front lines of spring.

  In my last post on skunk cabbage, I mentioned that hidden inside the hood (spathe) is the spadix with its flowers.  The spadix produces heat which protects the flowers from freezing. This heat production also wafts about the skunk cabbage's foul odor in order to attract pollinators. The spathe has a major role in this heating strategy.

 Not only is the spathe designed to protect the skunk cabbage, but the spathe is also engineered to create vortices that help maintain the elevated temperatures surrounding the spadix.  These swirling air currents help spread the plant's volatiles and may also entrain pollen into the wind to aid in the pollination process.

  I don't know about you, but when I see a skunk cabbage patch, I momentarily think spring stinks.  Then I realize how amazing it is to observe those specially designed, chemically protected, vortex making hoods work in conjunction with the thermogenic spadix as they perform their duties facilitating the pollination of our first spring wildflower. Spring only stinks momentarily.

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Friday, March 25, 2011

Spring Stinks

  Don't get me wrong, the spring season is my favorite time of year, but when I am walking through a patch of skunk cabbages it really stinks.

  The skunk cabbage is one of the first spring wildflowers to bloom in our area.  I took these photos a couple of days after the first day of spring.  As you can see, skunk cabbage isn't much of a flower to look at compared with our other spring beauties.  Actually, those skunk cabbage hoods (spathes) look more like elves's hats, or fat little badgers with pointy heads, than flowers.  In fact, the flowers are hidden in those little hoods and for good reasons.

  One reason the flower is hidden inside the spathe is for protection from the weather. Skunk cabbages produce their own heat to push back the snow, to keep their flowers from freezing, and also to help attract pollinators. To illustrate the thermogenic capabilities of skunk cabbage I set up this experiment.  You can see the ambient air temperature is near 40 degrees, while inside the spathe the temperature was a high as 61 degrees. 
Who would have thought I would be out taking the temperatures of skunk cabbages?   

 Don't do it, or some wet, cold, spring day you might be wishing you could crawl inside a skunk cabbage.
If you don't believe me, check out these next two pictures.

This spider set up shop early. 
You might say "its on the ball".
The spider's shop is sheltered, heated, and the only shop open for pollen collectors right now
 Bees find skunk cabbages to be ravishing beauties. 
You would too, if you were huddled together and shivering with your coworkers in some dark place all winter. You even had to go flowerless, until you found this cozy grotto so laden with pollen that you end up covered in it head to toe.

Here I removed the spathe to reveal the object of the bee's attention, and the source of the heat and pollen. 
The spadix and the hidden flowers of spring.

There is much more cloaked in that smelly robe that I haven't mentioned yet.  I'll post more soon.
Yes, skunk cabbage flowers are extraordinary.
This time of year a flower has got to have alot under the hood.
That's what all the stink is about.

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Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Beauty of Spring, Part II

In our area, the Round-lobed Hepatica's flowers are one of the earliest beauties of spring.
With the lengthening days and the warming sunshine, the first flowers awaken to bask in the sun.

Hepatica looking toward the sun.
 In my post The Beauty of Spring, I mentioned that hepatica has some ingenious design traits.  One of those traits is accentuated in these pictures that were taken toward the sun.  See the characteristically hairy buds and stems.

  These hairs may serve a two-fold purpose; warmth and defense.   "They may help the plant retain heat during the cool spring days and cold nights.  They may also dissuade ants from climbing to the flowers and stealing the nectar." (quoting Jack Sanders in The Secrets of Wildflowers: A Delightful Feast of Little-Known Facts, Folklore, and History)

Hepatica's Hairy Stems
  I was unable to find any research papers concerning these hairs. If you know of any, let me know. 
This does make sense though, as the hairs do make quite an obstacle course for ants raiding the flowers prematurely.  Also, I can believe the hairs could provide some kind of  insulating boundary layer.

Round-lobed Hepatica
  After the flowers have accomplished their work, the seeds mature.  As they do, the seeds grow a special handle and a fleshy area (elaiosome) containing substances that are effective ant bait. The ants harvest the baited seeds.  After consuming the elaisomes, the ants discard the seeds. Yes, they transport the seeds and plant them in return for a tasty morsel.  A seed dispersal system employing ants. Ingenious!  This very interesting design trait is called myremecochory.
Ah, spring! The parade of creative masterpieces is just beginning.
Things are looking up!

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Monday, March 21, 2011

The Beauty of Spring

The Round-lobed Hepatica is blooming!
Need I say more?

I should say I took these photos on Saturday at Shenks Ferry Wildflower Preserve
Up here in north central PA the snow is barely gone, but at Shenks Ferry the beauty of spring is beginning to appear above the litter of last year's leaves.

Tiny Wasp on Hepatica
Even a wasp was enjoying the hepatica.
Fortunately, I had my Pentax Optio W90  in my pocket, because when spring served up a surprise like this extremely tiny wasp, I was't able to take the shot with my DSLR.

Round-lobed Hepatica

Hepatica is much more than just a beautiful early spring flower.
Some very ingenious design traits belong to this delicate looking flower. 
I'll post some more hepatica photos and comment on those traits soon.

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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Horned Grebe Visits Picnic

We were enjoying a lakeside picnic when a horned grebe came by the picnic table.
 The water is a little high at Bald Eagle State Park. The lake is used for flood control, and we recently had some rain that joined the melting snow to almost flood our rivers.

  Fortunately we could leave the grebe have a picnic table, since there were other tables on higher ground where we could eat.

Horned Grebe
 Even though the grebe still has its winter plumage, it is still an interesting bird. 
Check out its diving techniques.

 Out of sight enjoying an underwater picnic.
The "boiling water" (I forget the word) reminds me of when a whale dives.
Soon the grebe pops back up.
I'd like clothes that would bead water like those feathers! 
I was thrilled the grebe popped in on our picnic.

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Monday, March 14, 2011

Poet's Trees

  Today I was walking toward the afternoon sun.  The sun occasionally shone through the cloud cover and lit up the young beech trees that are still clinging to last fall's leaves.  There was something poetic about those moments.
Robert Frost must have thought so too.

Out through the fields and the woods
And over the walls I have wended;
I have climbed the hills of view
And looked at the world, and descended;
I have come by the highway home,
And lo, it is ended.
The leaves are all dead on the ground,
Save those that the oak is keeping
To ravel them one by one
And let them go scraping and creeping
Out over the crusted snow,
When others are sleeping.
And the dead leaves lie huddled and still,
No longer blown hither and thither;
The last long aster is gone;
The flowers of the witch-hazel wither;
The heart is still aching to seek,
But the feet question 'Whither?'
Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?
                                                                    By Robert Frost

  Dried leaves that have failed to fall are commonly seen on young oaks and beeches. I've read that retaining the old leaves may deter browsing. There may be other benefits as well. The word for this phenomenon is marcescence.

 Lingering leaves are lovely.

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Saturday, March 12, 2011

Almost gone

This was our front porch view yesterday.
There goes the snow!
This was the view four days ago. 

The snow is leaving fast.

Look what the melting snow revealed.

Better yet, look what's poking through the leaves alongside the house.
This winter green plant is called hairy bittercress or shot weed.       
 It might be a weed, but like many plants, it has some very amazing characteristics.
Give the little weed a couple months, and I'll show you what it can do.
In the meantime, there are many other fascinating "spring specials" coming to the north central PA mountains.
I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, March 10, 2011


The birds are thinking spring.  I'm getting a little winter-weary myself.
Interesting things happen when winter's wearing off mixes with the arrival of spring.
The other morning was beautiful with a sunrise similar to the one pictured above. 
 It was a frosty morning so the steaming river and the hoar frost added to the view. 
I hope you can put the golden sunrise, the hoar frost, and the fog together in your mind, because my camera's card wouldn't cooperate so I don't have pictures of these exact events.
While I was enjoying the view similar to this one, a common merganser floated by through the fog.
 Can you picture that?  
 Not only that, but soon a coot was entertaining the neighborhood ducks. Then I really wished my camera would work. Fortunately, I have some other photos to help convey what I saw. 
   Incidentally,when the mergansers started hanging around here the other day, the neighbor's flock of domesticated ducks went over with a threatening cacophony.  The mergansers allowed the posse to almost overtake them and then simply dove and disappeared.  The domestic ducks were left bewildered.  If I could have taken some pictures, imagine my blog post title; "dumb domestic ducks duped by diving ducks".  They really took a ducking.
That beatiful foggy morning, a coot was enjoying the driftin' diner.
   The crazy coot went over and joined the neighbor's flock of domesticated ducks that were dabbling by the far shore.  Can you imagine my photo caption, "crazy coot caught carousing with cacophanous covey of ducks"?  Anyway, my crazy camera card is working again, so I'll try to capture more of this spring's surprises.
 I did get some pictures of the hooded mergansers putting on quite a display.
They must be thinking spring.

 Like this grackle that was recently eyeing up my bird feeder.
 The red-winged black birds also showed up.
 This red-winged black bird looks a little uncomfortable at being flanked by two woodpeckers.
An intruder in the snowbird's territory. 

Here on the riverbend, the snow is leaving as fast as the migrating birds are arriving.
 The birds have begun their singing as well.  Which is very pleasant to hear, especially combined with seeing the morning sun filtering through the trees and the fog rising off the river. Makes me realize I'm winter weary.
I'm starting to think about spring!

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