Friday, February 27, 2009

A Skunk, not a Robin, is the True Sign of Spring

Many people believe if they spot American Robins in their yard, spring is on the way. Actually, a type of skunk is the first sign of spring.

No, not that kind of skunk!

This kind of skunk-Skunk-cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus. It is one of the earliest wildflowers that pushes its odd-looking gnome's hat through the mucky ground of wetlands in late February and early March. The structure that looks like a gnome's hat is called a spathe.Skunk-cabbage is a common North American member of the Arum Family(Araceae). The largest member of this family is the spectacular Titan Arum from Sumatra, while the smallest is the tiny duckweed that floats on many of our ponds. Another member of the Arum Family many plant enthusiasts may be familiar with is the Peace Lily, a favored indoor plant.

These amazing plants are thermogenic; they can generate their own heat. The internal temperature of the spathe on Skunk-cabbage can reach temperatures well over 70 degrees F! Skunk-cabbage also produces foul-smelling chemicals called putrescine and cadaverine. They conjure the smells of death or putrifying flesh. The putrid smell plus the warmth attracts beetles and flies. These insects pollinate the tiny flowers found upon the ball-like spadix contained within the maroon spathe.

Above is a closeup of the spadix with the tiny flowers evenly spaced over the surface.

Soon the spathe and spadix will begin to wither and the furled leaves push through the mucky soil. In mid-summer and fall, a 2-3 inch oval fruit, shaped like a brain, will form. Inside, one will find ten to fourteen smooth, round seeds.

In late spring and early summer, the giant leaves of Skunk-cabbage can reach lengths of 20 inches and can measure 16 inches wide. When crushed, they also produce a pungent odor similar to a skunk. Native Americans would crush the petioles of the leaves containing the chemical calcium oxalate and apply to the skin to help heal deep bruises. If ingested, this chemical produces a sensation of hot, burning needles that can last for hours. This helps deter animals from eating the plant.
Look for Skunk-cabbage in wet woods and swamps. You can find the spathe and spadix in February and March and the leaves in early spring and throughout the summer.

The end.

(Photos of robin, skunk and skunk-cabbage leaves from Wikipedia)

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Midwest Native Plant Conference Logo

For our inaugural post I thought I would give you a little info on our logo for the Midwest Native Plant Conference, July 24th-26th. Go here for pre-registration and more info. There are four species represented in the logo; two flowers, one grass and one butterfly are skillfully weaved together by artist Ann Geise.

A field of Sideoats Grama at Green Lawn
Cemetery. Photo by Jim McCormac.

The grass that forms a graceful arch in our logo is Sideoats Grama, Bouteloua curtipendula. This short grass, which reaches one and a half to three feet in height, is a handsome plant even in winter. In the above photo, Sideoats Grama makes a welcome addition to a prairie planting at Green Lawn cemetery in Columbus, OH. In the photo below, Sideoats Grama creates an amber sea of grass surrounding the large wire bison statue on the White River Canal in Indianapolis.

Photo by John A. Lind.

Graceful, delicate stalks of Sideoats Grama. Photo by Kevin Tungesvick.

Each individual stalk creates a unique look, with seed heads forming along one side of the stem. This plant can grow in rocky, sandy and shallow soil, so it could be a nice addition to an area you cannot grow other grasses.

The golden flower head of Ohio Goldenrod welcomes butterflies. Photo by Jim McCormac

The yellow flower in the logo is Ohio Goldenrod, Oligoneuron ohioense . You may also see this plant listed as Solidago ohioensis. The goldenrod group went through some name changes a few years back. This beautiful plant, with large golden blossoms, is a butterfly magnet! It is especially attractive when paired with the rich lavender hues of New England Aster, Symphyotrichum novae-angliae (also known as Aster novae-angliae), which blooms about the same time. Absolutely gorgeous! I used to work at Spence Restoration Nursery and we had a few long rows of Stiff Goldenrod, a cousin to Ohio Goldenrod, planted for seed production. I looked forward to checking the row each day and seeing all the butterflies that smothered the blossoms, taking advantage of the nectar source. I marvelled at the variety of species I observed. By the way, the goldenrod species gets a bad rap for causing allergies in the fall. It is actually ragweed that is the culprit for most allergy symptoms.

This closeup shot by John Howard shows the purple
filaments of Dense Blazing Star, Liatris spicata.

A beautiful lavender field of Dense Blazing Star. Photo by John Howard.

The purple flower in the logo is Dense Blazing Star, Liatris spicata. This plant is another butterfly attractant. We, also, had a row of Dense Blazing Star at the nursery which monarchs really enjoyed. One day, I counted over 25 monarchs feeding on the Liatris in our field. The dense flower stalks are covered with seeds attached to fluffy pappus in the late fall and winter that many birds find irresistible.

Male Monarch butterfly on Common Milkweed.

That brings us full circle to the monarch butterfly in our logo. Monarchs are great ambassadors for nature. Adults and children alike delight in spying a monarch on the wing. Their bright orange and black signature colors may attract humans, but birds know it is a warning sign to stay away. Monarchs pick up cardiac glycosides from their host plants, poisons found in the milkweed family. The caterpillars munch away on leaves of milkweed, all the while protecting their delicate bodies from harm. If a bird eats a monarch caterpillar or adult, they will soon learn that it will cause vomiting and they will shun them from then on.

Migrating monarchs. Photo from. US Fish and Wildlife Service Digital Library.

Monarchs' annual migration to Mexico each year links many citizens from both countries. School children participate in many projects pertaining to the monarch migration. Citizen science tagging projects through Monarch Watch and Monarch Larva Monitoring Project involve many people in the U.S. on the tagging end of the project and Mexico on the recovery of the tags. The monarch is a very appropriate mascot, considering these insects truly connect people to nature and that is our goal, as well.