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!

 More to explore:


  1. Wonderful photos. If the hairs on the stems disuade ants from getting the nectar -- wouldn't they do the same thing for the seeds ?

    Can't wait for your spring to creep its way northward to Nova Scotia.

  2. Sybil,
    Yes, spring is creeping here too. I had to drive several hours south to get those hepatica pics. I was hiking through snowy woods today, trying to finds signs of life in our vernal pools. Not luck yet.
    The hepatica drops its seeds when they are ripe. Then the ants can carry them to another location.
    I should have clarified that quote about the ants raiding nectar. I understand that hepaticas don't produce nectar. Here is a quote from A.D.J. Meeuse in "Anatomy of Morphology" pg.49 "many pollen-producing Ranunculaceae...secrete no nectar at all and are visited by pollen-devouring or pollen collecting insects."
    Maybe the hairs are an obstacle course for ants raiding the seeds prematurely.