Saturday, April 30, 2011

Some Flowering Perspectives

I have to say I'm particularly proud of the spring garden this year. So I've decided to discuss the plants here in this photo with some detail. Pictured here in the front are clumps of Viola sororia cf. It's seeds are distributed by ants, but as you can see from all the sprouting seedlings all around, they have no trouble spreading otherwise. They're the host plant to the Diana Fritillary, Speyeria diana, which is pretty butterfly found in the southern Appalachian mountains. The female is a mimic of the Pipevine swallowtail, both are black butterflies with the rear wings trimmed in cyan blue. Now it's worth noting that Pipevine is a recent addition to my garden, not pictured here, but I found a black butterfly with cyan blue trim flying about recently, and I wasn't able to get an ID. It will be neat to figure out which one that is.It's way more likely that I saw a true Pipevine swallowtail, Battus philenor, as I'm just outside of the Diana Fritillary's range.

While we're on the topic of Pipevine real fast, I've stumbled upon something of a mystery. On another blog we have a photo of ants covering the elaiosome covered seeds to  Aristolochia serpentaria, Virginia Snakeroot. Supposedly though ant dispersal of seeds in this plant is inconsistent. Apparently the elaiosome often dries up, (or perhaps ants of an inappropriate size are making off with the stuff without the seeds) and the true disperser of the seed is unclear. I may have to add this cousin of the Pipevine to my garden and see what the case may be. In the mean time I'll keep an eye on all of my plants should they decide to flower this year.

Next up we have the Trilliums, which are probably the best example of myrmecochory. I did a video on it last year and will probably do another later this year. I have so many Trillium flowers I can't wait to see how many pods I'll get to mess around with.

Claytonia virginica
Lastly we have a patch of Spring Beauty. This isn't my favorite plant for lots of reasons. Not the least of which being it has almost nothing to do with ants. The only ant related thing to mention about this flower is that flower stems are thin on purpose to discourage ants from walking up to the flower and stealing all the nectar. From The Secrets of Wildflowers: A Delightful Feast of Little-Known Facts, Folklore, and History by Jack Sanders we find more interesting facts though. For one the corm is edible and said to be delicious. Pinker members of the species are more likely to be pollinated by bumblebees than the whiter flowering forms. As a result white flowers get more attention where blooming and colder weather over lap, and are pollinated more by flies than bees.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Botanical Wonders: Yet Another Nail

Trillium simile
... Okay this is ... I'm speechless. So this is yet another one of those Botanical Wonder's Trilliums that I planted three years ago and it's just now started flowering today. So not only are they awful at taxonomy, but they're colorblind too! How anyone mixes Red and White up takes some talent.

There is no question in my mind that this company is simply a few people with shovels going around the country and digging up flowers without any permission at all. Trillium communities are tightly nit and at most you'll find 3 species growing in the same forest. There is no way they're getting the diversity I'm seeing here on such a large scale without raping woodland and natural areas.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Violets and Trilliums

A fast look at some Violets, and Trilliums in my garden. The Violet I believe to be, Viola sororia, the state flowers of New Jersey, who's seeds are distributed by ants but I rarely see this in action. Next we have Trillium cuneatum, which has the full red petals. This is not to be confused with Trillium viridescens, which has the half green petals. T. viridescens also produces a faint rotten apple smell to attract pollinating flies to it's flowers, but only in the late afternoon and only you can only smell it if you put your nose up to the flower.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Botanical Wonders Has Me Wondering

Lowes has been selling native plants for a few years now. I encourage people to buy them if they're growing in pots, but if they're in little air tight packets I'd ask you to think twice. These packets are provided from a company called Botanical Wonders and there's a serious issue of where they're getting their stock from. Numerous people have questioned Lowes about the company and to my knowledge no one has ever gotten a letter back with any thing concrete in it other than to say "We'll look into it."

The seriousness of the matter comes from the harvesting of Trilliums and a few other spring time ephemerals. Trilliums take two years just to germinate from seed, and then the better half of a decade to reach a flowering age from that. Adult plants do divide slowly but it's hard to imagen this happening on such a scale to supply a hardware store such as Lowes, let alone every store in the country. How anyone can get away with selling such plants for $3 a packet is astonishing. Native Plant Nurseries that sell Trilliums as Nursery Propagated rarely sell them for anything less than $10, and I've seen some go for as much as $50. This has lead many to believe that Botanical Wonders is simply digging it's plants up from our natural woodlands for a quick buck, and this is behavior that should not be tolerated.

Trillium grandiflorum
Among their selection of Trilliums is T. grandiflorum, T. erectum, and T. luteum, which are all easy to recognize. However, one packet is simple labeled as "Red Trillium," which is the common name to T. erectum, however, the picture on the bag is clearly something in the sessile group, where the flower is connected to the main leaves and not separated by a stem. To me this is a major red flag. Part of the native plant movement is Knowing the Species Name of What You're Planting!

So it's been a few years since I planted my "Red Trilliums" and they've all started flowering, some even dividing. Seen here in the foreground is Trillium cuneatum which isn't native to New Jersey but is found in Pennsylvania so I guess that's close enough. Note how the anthers have pollen going all the way up towards the tips, and how the clawed flower petals are red colored all the way up. Now note the two growing in the background. The red color stops about half way and I'd say they're more a green color. I assumed these were the same species until I realized another key difference.

They were producing a rotten apple-like fragrance in the late afternoon to attract pollinating flies. The T. cuneatum were not doing this at all! After strumming through a Trillium book I got at the Mt. Cuba Center I quickly found out what they were actually Trillium viridescens. You can see from their distrubiton at the bottom, here, that they're only native to patches of Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri and Kansas. (Though apparently cold hardy enough to be growing happily in New Jersey.) 

In our front garden I have what appears to be Trillium recurvatum, in another garden I have what might be T. sessile which hasn't flowered yet and I'm left wondering what other surprises I've planted for myself. I'll admit identifying random Trilliums is fun but I would have rather known what I was planting before hand, if only to group them better.

In summary, the only native Trillium in my garden at the moment is Trillium grandiflorum. I don't hate the plants I got from Botanical Wonders, I'll be growing and propagating them as much as I can, but I can say for sure that I will never be buying a plant with their name on it ever again. What a tragedy it would be to find they were the blood diamonds of the plant world.

Pride, Science & Law

 Youtube user Quarryjoy, has uploaded a wonderful series of informative nature landscaping videos. The world needs more videos like this!

Trillium cuneatum and virvidescens in Flower

Trillium cuneatum and T. virvidescens are blooming. I'm happy to see multiple ones that flowered last year have produce another one this year equally strong.

Trillium virvidescens
In the mid to late afternoon, as the intensity of the sun dies down, small flies show up to the flower. I like to think of the flower as some sort of trendy night club but really it's not that exciting.

Trillium cuneatum
I have no idea what species of fly this is. Some women on the internet is calling these Black Fly which bite humans. I fail to see how this little vinegar fly looking thing could penetrate skin. I'll keep an eye out though.

Trillium virvidescens
So far I believe these are pollinating the flowers as I've seen then marching around on the anthers. Now this leads me to believe that T. cuneatum is producing some sort of fragrance to do that. I'll have to put my nose down tomorrow and smell. I know T. erecta smells like rotting fish. 

[Added Later] It turns out I have two species of Trillium pictured here. T. cuneatum has full red petals and doesn't produce any odor. Trillium virvidescens has the half green petals and is producing a rotten apple-like fragrance to attract the flies. 

Trilliums are probably the best example of plants that disperse their seeds with ants. I'll have more on that later in the year.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

An Apple Tree Buzzing

While spending Easter at my grandparents house I noticed their apple tree was in bloom. The fruit is a small green crabapple of some sort, not very edible at all. The flowers were being swarmed by bees though. Assorted Mason Bees were the main pollinator here. I hardly saw any Honeybees on it at all but they were there. I think they were more interested in my grandparent's flowering quinces (an Asian plant that can produce edible fruit farther south). Bumblebees were there too but they're not in as great of numbers at this time of year. 

A Late Earth Day Post

So yesterday was Earth Day and unfortunately my work schedule is forcing me to mix my days up. I don't have anything in particular to add which is why this post is so belated.

Here is a message from President Obama on Earth Day.

And here is what I wrote in:
This isn't restricted to Earth Day, but over the past few years I've been reestablishing our backyard to be a our own private nature reserve. The emphasis is on spring ephemerals and prairie plants. I've also encouraged beekeepers in our state to stop planting and praising invasive plants as nectar sources in favor of appropriate native alternatives to limit the impact on the environment.

I'll go into more detail with both points later on. Hopefully some of you were more productive on the day than I was.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Helicopter to Drop Thousands of Eggs

So when I was first told that some groups rent helicopters to drop eggs for children on easter I thought "Wow is there anything helicopters can't do?" Followed shortly by "Wait, they're plastic eggs right? And these are not over neighborhoods?" Thankfully, yes, they are plastic, and they are dropped over a field. Let's take a look at one of these events in action.

Wow this totally required the use of a helicopter. They're hovering about 6 feet off the ground to drop a couple thousand eggs in an area that looks smaller than a football field. They get points for creativity and I'll admit the helicopter probably draw a crowd, but I feel something is lost with the use of the helicopter. Like, it should be higher off the ground, it should be a wider area, perhaps more efforts should be put into people manually hiding them along trails that connect fields the helicopter scattered eggs over. Also, Pinatas!

Happy Easter. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Ant Chat Episode 27: Ants and Wildflowers

A pairing of spring wildflowers and the ants I find around them. Even before planting all these wildflowers I already had a lot of ant diversity. So with this video I'm basically documenting the wildflowers I've planted around certain ant colonies and in the future I'll be noting any interest if at all.

I also open up one of my honey bee hives that didn't survive the winter and see what's lurking about. I am certain they died of starvation and not CCD.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Formica Pergandei

Formica pergandei worker
While out transplanting some things I disturbed a fold of cardboard in the garden to find a colony of Formica (either pallidefulva or incerta) mixed with the parasitic Formica pergandei. While observing I was surprised to find that the smallest F. pergandei workers are much smaller than their host species. I find this strange for an ant that is supposed to be completely dependent on their host. How could a polymorphic caste system be beneficial in this case?

Vote for Me

The folks over at Prairie Nursery are holding a photo contest, and I would appreciate your vote. Or... yah know go ahead and enter yourself, either way is good. The contest is being held on facebook and you must have an account to vote. You can view my entries by clicking here "Chris Murrow's Entries"

Granted this is the "Spring Shoots" contest and one of the rules is they must show the spirit of the season, but I see other people posting pictures of summer blooming plants, so hopefully it's up to interpretation. You can read the official rules here.

- Prairie Nursery Gift Certificate $100.00

- Prairie Nursery Gift Certificate $50.00

- Prairie Nursery Gift Certificate $35.00

Friday, April 15, 2011

Honeybees and Corn

While chatting with a friend the topic of good nectar and pollen plants came up. He and I have a competitive friendship when it comes to gardening. Not that we argue at all, I think it's more that we share opinions about our experiences with native plants. The current conversation was focused on Honeybees as I'd just written an article for the New Jersey Native Plant Society News Letter. I'll be posting it here later on. And I realized I'd forgotten to mention a plant. Corn!

Honeybees love corn! Despite being wind pollinated, the anthers to the plant are way up high and out in the open for all to see. The female part of the plant is down about half way to the ground and requires pollen to drop down onto it, preferably from neighboring plants.

As with willow trees bees can't help but take advantage of the free pollen. In theory they're helping the pollination by flapping their wings about and freeing it into the air, but I imagen they're eating more than they're blowing about.

The best part is you get a crop out of this plant. You'll read in books that it's best to have at least a 5 by 5 block of 25 plants to get good pollination. In truth all you need is 2 plants and you can just shake them when they're flowering. There is so much pollen up top that doing this creates a visible cloud of pollen dispersing down. I recommend for the home gardener willing to try this to stick with planting 10 to 15 plants at first and maybe again in 2 to 4 weeks time for a later harvest. It's hard enough to eat 25 ears of corn all in one sitting so it's a good idea to break it up a little. 

Here is a video showing how all the pros pollinate their crops...

By renting a helicopter!

So if the honey bees die out completely I shell be investing heavily in helicopter pollination services.

Twinleaf Before and After

Twin Leaf, Jeffersonia diphylla.

 Just one day after blooming most of the petals have already fallen off.

Note how the anthers were pretty much already self pollinating the plant when the flower opened. I believe this is why the flower doesn't last as long. This begs the question, why bother flowering at all? Last year I had only one plant flower and it went on to produce an acorn sized seed pod that popped open, though not enough to say this plant spreads by launching it's seeds. Seeds have elaiosome on them, but not a whole lot. Elaiosome is a substance attached to seeds to get ants to haul them back to the nest. An issue though it's the size of the elaiosome is a direct indicator on the quality of the seed it's attached to. When pollination is poor the elaiosome pocket will be smaller. In this case the Twinleaf seeds had really tiny pockets of elaiosome, I'd say smaller than 1/20th the seed mass. That's asking a lot even for an ant though I imagen something may have found it tasty enough to drag a few inches. 

Thursday, April 14, 2011

More Spring Wildflowers

I was out planting the prairie garden and every now and then I took a short break to see what's flowering around the yard. 

Hepatica sp. 
This is still blooming from a few weeks ago. It's mostly past it's prime but I still love it.
Twinleaf, Jeffersonia diphylla
Twinleaf is notorious for it's short lived flowers. I will be amazed if it still has all it's petioles tomorrow.

Spring Beauty, Claytonia virginica
Spring Beauty has just started flowering today. The blooms are only slightly larger than those of a Bluet. I wish they were a little more pink but they're pretty all the same. I should get lots of flowers out of these by the end.

Jacob's Ladder, Polemonium reptans 
One of the plants going in the prairie garden is Jacob's Ladder. Of 10 or so plants I found one of them had started blooming. I think May is more appropriate a time for them to bloom but this is welcome all the same. Hopefully the prairie grows well and I'll have more blooms to report back with later in the summer.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Mark Moffett @Google Talks Interview

Mark Moffett, author of Adventures Among Ants: A Global Safari with a Cast of Trillions, gives a short talk for @Google Talks a series devoted to just interviewing people. I'm not sure why Mark Moffette's book is rated 5 stars, as I found it a little much to read. He talks more about his experiences as a National Geographic photographer as he traveled the world photographing really interesting ants. The issue though is I don't think this reads well as a book but it works great in interviews and he's become something of the mascot of Myrmecology over the past few years.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Some Lasius interjectus

Sorry for no posts in a bit. I've been busy trying to finalize the design for my new garden. Now that most of the plants have showed up I feel I've procrastinated on that topic long enough. I'll hopefully post images of the design on paper as well as photographed in person. For now though here are some ant pictures I've taken while digging about.

These are Lasius interjectus. Though what makes them that species isn't apparent from these photos. First there is the smaller eyes in comparison to the head. As well as having a very diminished looking maxillary palp (an antenna-like structure that hangs below the mandibles). This puts them in the claviger group and I should state when I say diminished looking maxillary palp what I mean to say is it's really really hard to see with the naked eye. In books you'll read it's 3 segments long and even then it's dam near microscopic.

Had the eyes been larger as well as the maxillary palp more visible, 6 segments long and a whole lot easier to see, that would put them in the umbratus group. Again assuming the worker color leans more towards orange and not brown.

Both claviger group and umbratus group can produce a citronella odor when disturbed though it's more common for species in the claviger group. Something else I've noticed is they don't always produce the odor when disturbed, and I'm not sure why this is. I've opened the same colony time and time again and sometimes they get alarmed and freak out while other times they don't bother with it at all.

In the US the two most common claviger group species are Lasius claviger itself and Lasius interjectus. The main difference between these two as far as the workers are concerned is the arrangement of hairs on the gaster (abdomen). If they're messy and almost randomly placed all over then it's L. claviger itself. If the hairs are more neatly arranged in lines going left to right then it's L. interjectus as I've photographed above. You can sort of make this out by zooming in on the pictures above.

It's worth noting though that the US and Canada has about 30 or so species of Lasius that all have orange workers, all have queens that are social parasites (at least those not in the flavus group), and are all almost completely subterranean root aphid farmers. This is an excellent example of redundancy in nature. Getting a correct ID on these ants can be a living metaphor for splitting hairs.

Monday, April 4, 2011

I Apparently Hate Mexicans?

On April 2ed the New York Times released an article titled Mother Nature’s Melting Pot.

For whatever reason Hugh Raffles, the articles author, has taken the opinions of conservationists and spun them so they are in support of the governor of Arizona's No Mexicans agenda. There's so much wrong here and I wonder why it's even brought up as it's not even the focus of the article. Humans are all one species so his analogy doesn't make sense.  

I've been a native plant gardener and conservationist for a number of years now and I have yet to meet anyone who is 100% against nonnative anything. The genuine consensus is "We hate invasive species!" Not "we must only use species that are native to within 10 miles of our home." 

It’s true that some non-native species have brought with them expensive and well-publicized problems; zebra mussels, nutria and kudzu are prime examples. But even these notorious villains have ecological or economic benefits. Zebra mussels, for example, significantly improve water quality, which increases populations of small fish, invertebrates and seaweeds — and that, in turn, has helped expand the number of larger fish and birds.
Well who cares about more fish and birds? Our native mussels filter water as good as the best of them. And they're not growing prolifically in city plumbing system causing millions in repairs each year. I don't see anyone making Nutria skin coats anymore. Kudzu beneficial!? This man is an idiot! That fucking plant turns forests into topiary graveyards! I don't care how many sheep it feeds. The dam livestock isn't eating enough of it! We need to import Giraffes to get it off our trees and power lines!

Indeed, non-native plants and animals have transformed the American landscape in unmistakably positive ways. Honeybees were introduced from Europe in the 1600s, and new stocks from elsewhere in the world have landed at least eight times since. They succeeded in making themselves indispensable, economically and symbolically. In the process, they made us grateful that they arrived, stayed and found their place.
But the honeybee is a lucky exception. Today, a species’s immigration status often makes it a target for eradication, no matter its effect on the environment. Eucalyptus trees, charged with everything from suffocating birds with their resin to elevating fire risk with their peeling bark, are the targets of large-scale felling.
Honeybees are pollinating the fucking Kudzu!
Yet eucalyptuses are not only majestic trees popular with picnickers, they are one of the few sources of nectar available to northern Californian bees in winter and a vital destination for migrating monarch butterflies.
Monarchs on Eucalyptus trees!? How many Eucalyptus trees does California have? What about our native Asters, Goldenrod, Iron Weed, and late flowering Eupatoriums (boneset and joe pye weed)? What about what's native to California!? Yah know; the stuff that was growing there before humans ever arrived. How on earth did the Monarch butterfly ever take care of itself before the Eucalyptus tree was imported? Maybe if they didn't have to compete with the Honey Bee for nectar it wouldn't be a problem.

Or take ice plant, a much-vilified Old World succulent that spreads its thick, candy-colored carpet along the California coast. Concerned that it is crowding out native wildflowers, legions of environmental volunteers rip it from the sandy soil and pile it in slowly moldering heaps along the cliffs.
Yet ice plant, introduced to the West Coast at the beginning of the 20th century to stabilize railroad tracks, is an attractive plant that can also deter erosion of the sandstone bluffs on which it grows.
A creeping succulent to stabilize rail roads, what is this man smoking? How the hell does that work? Here in New Jersey we use rocks along our road sides and they seem to work great!

The rest of the article is crap. He's talking about nonnatives making habitat ... thanks to climate change killing off what used to be there. And how climate change has opened the range to some natives that have become pests. He makes a point or two about some natives no longer being suited to their environment but this is all due to climate change.

I don't understand the over all point of this article. Should we stop conservation efforts? Lower our standards on importation perhaps? Hell let's just legalize pot and opium while we're at it.

On and that picture they used for the article sucks. It's clearly a 6th grader's interpretation of Dr. Seuss and it only makes the article that much more confusing to read. Fuck him.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Hepatica Flowering

The Hepatica has started blooming again. It's a lot healthier looking than last year too.

Last year's flowers were a structural disappointment. See Here. They were tattered looking, pale, and far fewer in number. This year though they're shaping up to be very garden worthy. They haven't officially opened 100% yet but there are lots of them emerging from the ground and opening slightly before reaching their peak.

The inside is somewhat complex when observed up close. Several dozen anthers surround a single green stigma. Hopefully they'll get pollinated and I'll get more seeds. It's worth noting that ants transplant seeds for the plant.

Bluets on the other hand have far less complex flowers. (Also note the mite on the lower left petal.)

Friday, April 1, 2011

Monarchs Already?

Spring has hardly begun here and I'm already hearing a lot on Monarchs butterflies from places like the Pollinator Partnership, and of course Monarch Watch

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It's worth noting that Milkweed down was once used to stuff pillows. I hear it makes excellent bird nests too.