Thursday, April 28, 2016

Lady Slippers

Lady Slippers are so special that when discovered it is like finding a treasure.  Wildflower lovers will keep their location secret, in fear that those who don’t understand their complexity will pick them or dig them up.  Both spell disaster to the plant.  Just to germinate, they require acidic soil that contains a fungus of the Rhizoctonia genus.  Like most orchids, their seeds do not contain a food supply.  Under the right conditions, the fungus will crack the seed and attach itself.  It will pass along nutrients to promote germination and growth.  Once the plant is established and producing its own nutrients, the fungus will extract food from the slipper’s roots.  In this way, both benefit from their relationship.  Lady Slippers take years to reach the flowering stage and bees are its sole pollinator.  Attracted by color and scent, the bee enters through the front slit into a one-way labyrinth that contains no nectar.  Near the exit, hairs will grab onto any pollen the bee may be carrying before depositing new pollen onto its back.  Such an elaborate system leads to very few flowers being pollinated.  However, a pollinated flower can produce 60,000 seeds.  In that a Lady Slipper’s average life span is 20 years with some living much longer, they have a long time to successfully produce one pollinated flower.   (Photo:  Donna Roscoe)

Friday, April 15, 2016

First Spring Butterflies by Allison Archambault
While hiking in late March, I saw my first butterfly of the season; a mourning cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa).  I wondered how could it be here so early when most butterflies are en route with the spring migration, and what is it feeding on as the nectar plants aren’t out yet?  A few days later I saw a few more of these distinctive large butterflies, with their dark maroon/brown wings with a cream edge and iridescent blue spots just inside the light edges.  This got me curious, so I did a little research.  I learned that the mourning cloaks are out so early because they don’t all migrate like many other species of butterflies (the monarchs for example).  They over-winter hiding in tree cavities and under loose bark in a state similar to hibernation.  This gives them an advantage come the spring in that they don’t have to travel long distances to return, and can get a jump start on mating.  The adult mourning cloaks feed primarily on tree sap and depend less on nectar, which would explain how they can survive this time of year.  They also live up to a year, which makes them one of the longest living butterflies, if you consider how adult monarchs only live for two to six weeks!  In the spring, the females lay their eggs on host plants such as willow, elm, hawthorn, hackberry, wild rose and poplar.  The larvae which emerge are called spiny elm caterpillars, and they have black bodies with red dots down their back, red legs and a number of long black spines, plus shorter spines with white on the tips.  They have voracious appetites for such small creatures and can grow up to two inches long before they pupate and go through the fifteen day process of metamorphoses before the beautiful adult butterflies emerge.
Mourning cloak butterfly (Ann Murray photo)