Feeling Antsy

Ants are everywhere, but only occasionally noticed. They run much of the terrestrial world as the premier soil turners, channelers of energy, dominatrices of the insect fauna…

~Bert Holldobler

The more I learn about them, the more I appreciate plants. Working at the NC Botanical Garden allows me to see the passage of time through the eyes of a variety of native plant species. I have witnessed slow, long-term seasonal changes, as well as brief glimpses of wonder. And so it was that last Friday when a coworker came in right before closing and showed me her phone video of ants dispersing the seeds of a trillium in the Herb Garden. It was amazing to see them carrying such a huge load across the rocks. I grabbed my camera and headed over, hoping I wasn’t too late.

side view of ant carry trillium seed

An ant carrying a Trillium seed back to its nest (click photos to enlarge)

I have seen this phenomenon, called myrmecochory (seed dispersal by ants), a few times before and reported on it in an earlier post. Estimates are that 30%-40% of our spring-blooming woodland flowers rely on ants for seed dispersal. Another source stated that elaiosomes occur in over 11,000 plant species! There are various theories as to why ants do this and how it benefits the seeds:

  • the lipid-rich appendage is a food reward that is fed to the ant larvae when it is taken back to the nest
  • the seed is dispersed away from the parent plant, which may provide a better growth environment by reducing parent-offspring or sibling competition
  • by quickly transporting the seed to its nest, the ants’ behavior reduces the time the seed may be exposed to various seed predators (the seed might get eaten by a bird or mouse, for example)
  • when the seed is discarded into the ant “trash pile”, it is in a nutrient-rich environment ideal for germination

In addition, one author speculates there may be some benefit from the anti-microbial properties within ant nests that will reduce the susceptibility of the seed to various pathogens.

Studies where a researcher has removed some of the elaiosomes and compared removal rates have shown that ants remove seeds with elaiosomes more quickly, often using the appendage as a handle.

But the most intriguing research I have seen focuses on the reason the ants pick up the seed in the first place. It seems that elaiosomes rich in oleic acid trigger a stereotyped carrying  behavior in a variety of ants. E.O. Wilson, the dean of ant researchers, showed that a dead ant starts emitting oleic acid about 48 hours after its death. This is a signal to other ants to pick it up and carry it back to the nest and discard it. He even added a drop of the “dead ant” acid to a live ant, which was quickly picked up and carried to the trash pile, in spite of its thrashing and obviously living qualities. To quote an NPR story on this experiment, Dead is what you smell — not what you see — if you are an ant. So, do plants mimic an insect chemical in order to get ants to carry out their seed dispersal tasks? It appears there may also be some benefit to the ants in this relationship, but the origins of this behavior are fascinating to ponder.

Below is a series of images depicting about 45 minutes in the long life story of one wildflower – a plant that may take 2 years for its seed to germinate, and then another 5 or 6 years to flower and produce its first seed. And, it seems to have figured out a way to con a bunch of insects (yellow jackets are also known to disperse seed with elaiosomes) to carry its seeds back to their trash pile. There appears to be a lot going on out there in the woods that we are just beginning to understand. All the more reason to plant some native plants and get outside and observe your wild neighbors.

Trillium cuneatum

The source of the seeds – Little Sweet Betsy, Trillium cuneatum (this photo was taken in another location in the garden back on March)

trillium

This is how the Trillium that provided the seeds looks now (this photo was taken a couple of days after the ant dispersal images and the seed pod has now disappeared)

trillium seed pod

The seed pod was lying on a leaf and was laden with ants

Trillium seed pod with ants inside

A peek inside at the seeds with elaiosomes and ants

ant carrying seed out of seed pod

An ant lugs a seed up and out of the pod

ant carrying seed down the plant

Then it is easy-going downhill on a leaf

ant carrying trilliun seed by the elaiosome

Then on to a lichen- and moss-covered rock

ant about to drop off steep edge of rock with seed

The first hazard on the journey – the steep drop-off of the front edge of the rock (as I watched, a fewants fell off this ledge with their heavy loads)

Ants on trillium seeds in Herb Garden

A feast when a few seeds fell out onto the rock

ant carrying trilliun seed by the elaiosome 1

The elaiosome provides a good grip for an ant’s jaws

IMG_7207

The path taken by the ants – about 6 feet across an open walkway to the rock in the background

ant nearing nest entrance under leaves

An ant with its prize just before disappearing into the nest beneath the leaf litter

The Spirit of Spring

April hath put a spirit of youth in everything.

~William Shakespeare

Things have been so busy at work that I have failed miserably at getting outside with camera in hand to document some of the beauty around me. I made amends Saturday afternoon, and spent a few hours just wandering around the yard, observing and enjoying. I highly recommend it, especially this time of year. It is good for the spirit.

The species name means “spreading”, and, indeed, it does. There are large patches of this beautiful early bloomer in our shade garden.

One of my favorite spring wildflowers, wild geranium can vary quite a bit in the intensity of flower color. The ones in the yard are pale compared to those at work.

When viewed from above, a patch of mayapples looks like a crowd of ornate umbrellas. Kneel down and you see something quite different this time of year. If the plant has two leaves, it can produce a large white flower.

The common name comes from the small, apple-like fruit produced on fertile plants. These fruit are eaten by box turtles and mammals such as opossums, and the seeds dispersed in their droppings. Ripe fruits are edible, but all other parts of the plant are poisonous. Extracts from this species are being used to treat some forms of cancer.

 

This small creeping wildflower is easily overlooked, but is well worth the effort once you find it. I planted some in a soil-filled split in a log and it has now started to spread out on the ground around it.

Wild ginger

Hexastylis arifolia – Little brown jug (also called heartleaf, and wild ginger)

The distinctive heart-shaped leaves always give me pause to scrape away some leaves to see if I can find the flower that gives this widespread woodland plant one of its common names, little brown jug.

 

The flowers are believed to be pollinated by beetles, thrips, and small flies. Seeds are ant-dispersed.

 

This wildflower is quickly becoming one of my favorites. I bought a few plants from the NC Botanical Garden and the combination of unusual leaves and abundant flowers is a great addition to any woodland garden.

The airy nature of its abundant white flowers, coupled with long stamens, gives this beautiful wildflower its “foamy” appearance (and common name). I enjoy watching large bumblebees grab onto the column of small flowers and take a rapid dip toward the ground as their weight bends and bounces the stalk, providing some nectar, pollen, and a joy ride to the foraging bees.

The nodding yellow flowers of this plant have warty knobs on the inside of the petals. The protuberances may help bees get a better grip on the flowers as they climb in for nectar and pollen.

Sometimes, when you take the time to look around you, the familiar things take on a new beauty that helps you appreciate them. A pine cone among the wildflowers caught my eye and helped me appreciate the many patterns in nature.

Tree seedlings are a constant source of work in any woodland wildflower garden. If allowed to grow, they may quickly overtake and shade out many of the plants we hope to grow. But, I occasionally leave some as potential host plants for passing butterflies and moths. One tulip poplar sapling, growing at the corner of the house, managed to entice a passing female tiger swallowtail to pause and lay an egg. This egg seems to have an extra supply of whatever it is she uses to “glue” the egg to the leaf surface. Sometimes, less weeding pays off.

 

 

Patterns of Spring

We find the works of nature still more pleasant, the more they resemble those of art.

~ Joseph Addison

This Spring has been incredibly beautiful here in the woods. Always a favorite time of year for me, it has been heightened by the almost perfect weather in recent weeks. The fresh green color of the season seems to sparkle in the sunlight streaming through the leaves. On the ground, there are daily discoveries to be made of something emerging from the leaf litter or starting to bloom. And while I have had plenty of chores and appointments to keep me occupied, I try to walk the yard as often as possible, and notice the players in this ephemeral show. If I pause and look around, there are always colors, shapes, and patterns that affirm that this is the month where new life bursts forth and beckons us to slow down and notice, before it disappears for another year.

Here are just a few indicators of the season from the past couple of weeks…

pawpaw flower and bud

The unusual flower of pawpaw (click photos to enlarge)

trillium leaves 1

Trillium leaves

fern fiddlehead

A fern fiddlehead

mayapple leaves

Mayapple leaves

red buckeye flowers up close

Red buckeye flowers up close

red buckeye flowers on duckweed

Red buckeye flowers that have fallen into the water garden onto a bed of duckweed

foamflower

Foamflower

tent caterpillar silhouette

Eastern tent caterpillar headed down a tree trunk to pupate

Phlox flowers

Phlox flowers

dutchman breech's leaves

The lacy leaves of Dutchman’s breeches

columbine flower

Wild columbine

A Fiery Combination

Nature feeds her children chiefly with color.

~Henry David Thoreau

My wildflower garden is between seasons right now, so color is hard to come by. The whites, light blues, and pinkish-reds of spring’s onslaught of ephemerals and early bloomers has passed, and the bright yellows, oranges, and kaleidoscope of colors of summer flowers has not quite exploded onto the scene. This is especially true in my largely shaded yard. There are few openings in the canopy and the understory is in its jungle-takeover phase, especially with the recent rains. So, green is the dominant color out my windows right now, lots of it. But, if you look around some of the edges, where there is some dappled sunlight filtering in at least part of the day, you will see a hint of color.

Spigelia offers a dash of color this time of year

Spigelia offers a dash of color in the shade garden this time of year (click photos to enlarge)

As you get closer, the faint glimmer transforms into a fiery combination of scarlet and yellow.

Spigelia

Spigelia marilandica flowers

These are the flowers of an uncommon wildflower, Spigelia marilandica. It goes by many common names – Indian Pink, Woodland Pink Root, Worm Grass, most of which refer to its use by Native Americans as an effective treatment for intestinal worms. All parts of the plant contain a poisonous alkaloid, spigeleine (a compound related to strychnine), which gives the plant its medicinal properties and makes it toxic if too much is consumed.

Spigelia flower buds

Spigelia flower buds in late afternoon light

The flowers are arranged in an unusual manner on an arched, one-sided spike at the top of the plant. There is a swelling a little over midway on the flower, and then the tip splits into five bright yellow petals when it opens. One field guide described the flower buds as resembling bowling pins sharpened to a point.

Spigelia from above

The color combination of scarlet and yellow is eye-catching

Flowers can be self-pollinating, but Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are known to pollinate these plants. In fact, it is listed as one of the top ten native plants for hummingbirds by Operation Ruby Throat in South Carolina. Spigelia is apparently more common in that state. The only place I have seen this delicate flower in the wild is in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The plants in the yard were obtained from the NC Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill, a great place to learn about and purchase native plants.

Spigelia blossom 1

Spigelia blossoms close up

I read that the seed capsules swell and then split open, shooting the seeds away from the plant. This gives me another reason to appreciate this fiery beauty, and something to look for later this summer. It is becoming increasingly apparent that I could never leave the yard and still have so much to see and learn from nature.

Destination Damascus

The longer I live the more my mind dwells upon the beauty and the wonder of the world… I have loved the feel of the grass under my feet, and the sound of the running streams by my side.  The hum of the wind in the treetops has always been good music to me…

~John Burroughs

Last week, I went to visit my parents in Damascus, VA, to celebrate Mother’s Day and my Dad’s 84th birthday. In what has become somewhat of an annual tradition, we went up to see the wildflower display at Elk Garden, part of the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. It did not disappoint, and the array of blooming flowers was spectacular. Here are just a few of the stars of the trail…

Fringed Phacelia

Fringed Phacelia (click photos to enlarge)

Twisted Stalk

Twisted Stalk

Umbrella Leaf

Umbrella Leaf

 Violet

Canada Violet

Wake Robin pair 1

Wake Robin Trillium

Beech leaf out

American Beech leaves bursting out

While we were up the trail gawking at flowers, my folks stayed at the parking lot and talked with the many hikers heading north on the Appalachian Trail (AT). The wildflower display is on part of the AT. Damascus, known as the Friendliest Town on the AT, is hosting its annual Trail Days on May 15-17, where thousands of people join hundreds of hikers to celebrate all things AT, so traffic on the trail tends to increase this time of year.

Packages waiting for hikers at Mount Rogers Outfitters

Packages waiting for hikers at Mount Rogers Outfitters

Another sign of trail traffic is the large number of packages waiting to be picked up by through-hikers at the Damascus Post Office and trail-friendly vendors in town like Mount Rogers Outfitters.

There is another famous trail that passes through this little mountain community, and one that, In spite of having spent a lot of time in Damascus over the years, I had not made the time to properly visit. I am speaking of the famous Virginia Creeper Trail.

Creeper Trail

The Virginia Creeper Trail

The Virginia Creeper Trail is a 34-mile rail-to-recreation trail that runs from Abingdon, VA, through Damascus, and up to Whitetop Station near the VA-NC border. The last train to run this route was in 1977. The conversion to a trail was completed in 1984. Over 100,000 people now ride the trail each year, bringing tens of thousands of dollars into the local communities. There are at least five bike rental shops in Damascus alone. The sight of multiple vans hauling trailer loads of bikes on almost any warm weekend is one of the reasons I probably have put off doing this trail (crowds not being my thing). It has also probably been twenty years since I have been on a bicycle, so that may have entered into the equation as well. But, being there on a weekday, early in the season, I thought it was finally time. As it turned out, there were very few people on the trail that morning, other than the family of 6 that rode the thirty minutes up to Whitetop Station in our van. After traveling only a few hundred yards down the trail, my first thoughts were you really do never forget how to ride a bike, and why had I waited so long to experience this – it is beautiful!

Trestle

One of the 47 trestles on the Virginia Creeper Trail

Even though the trail is at times a fairly narrow path through private lands, it is full of pastoral scenes, lush forests, and abundant wildlife. A favorite part of the trail for me was passing over the numerous trestles that bridge ravines or the many creeks along the way.

Snake and millipede on trestle

Some elongate visitors on one of the trestles

On one of the higher trestles, I stopped to take some photos and was surprised to see two linear sightseers seemingly enjoying the view down into the ravine – a Black Rat Snake and one of my favorite millipedes, Narceus americanus. These large millipedes (they can attain lengths of over 4 inches) are common in eastern forests, especially in the mountains. By the way, notice the milky eye color on the snake – this is a sign it is getting ready to shed its skin.

Scene along Creeper Trail

Farmland scene along the trail

Fire Pink

Fire Pink flowers on a moss-covered cliff

We stopped in Taylor’s Valley for a leisurely lunch at the Cafe, a welcoming destination for hungry and thirsty cyclists.

Taylor's Valley

Creeper Trail Cafe in Taylor’s Valley

William Lane Dunn bridge

William Lane Dunn bridge in Taylor’s Valley

Before leaving, I had to pose for a photo at the bridge in Taylor’s Valley, named in honor of my Dad’s Uncle Bill. William Dunn was an important member of the community, and loved to fish from that bridge, so the townsfolk had the new bridge named in his honor when it was rebuilt.

Laurel Creek

Laurel Creek, one of the waterways along the Virginia Creeper Trail

Laurel Creek

Inviting mountain streams wander along much of the route

Laurel Creek, Straight Branch, and a host of small mountain streams are your company along much of the trail, providing a beautiful backdrop to the experience. We biked the 17 miles from Whitetop Station to Damascus in a little less than four hours, stopping frequently along the way to bird watch, look at plants, enjoy the scenery, and have lunch. The ride was magical, and, as the proprietor of the bike rental shop told us, once you go, you will come back. I think he is right. Spring is great on the trail (lots of migratory birds to enjoy), but I bet autumn would be spectacular as well, with the areas’ renowned fall colors. I almost forgot to mention one of the primary reasons this bike trail is so popular with everyone…the entire 17 miles we rode is downhill or flat, making it a very easy trip, even for beginners.

If you are in southwest Virginia, I encourage you to consider exploring the region around Damascus – Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area, Grayson Highlands State Park, the Virginia Creeper Trail, and so much more. And, if you need a cozy place to stay while in the area (Warning – shameless family promotion about to occur), I can highly recommend a rental property run by a very nice couple (Mom and Dad). Check out the Country Cottage, and tell them you know me:)