Plant Ballistics: Mountain Laurel’s Explosive Pollen Bullets

Mountain Laurel, Terrys Fork, Virginia

The intricate design of the Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia) was a marvel for me in 1970 when I was a student on a field trip to the Smokies from Auburn University. Systematic Botany was a wake-up call to a budding zoologist who should not think there was little to learn from fixed, do-nothing greenery. I declared a botany minor after that field trip.

Laurel’s ten spring-tethered anthers (the pollen package) are arranged radially around the receptive stigma–the female part–in the very center of the flower.

A visiting insect would typically land on the disk and walk around the center in search of high-calorie nectar. And zap! the tension in the tethering “filaments” would shoot pollen onto the bee who would fly off with pollen from Plant A to deposit it on the female parts of flowers on Plant B.

But wait. Is this REALLY the strategy and method Kalmia uses to maintain genetic vigor? High-speed filming has revealed some answers.

Another similar method is used by a dogwood called Bunchberry–but the anthers additionally are able to swivel at the end of the filaments–creating more of a trebuchet force than a simple catapult like Kalmia.

Watch this short video of explosive Bunchberry pollen at 10k frames per second.

Not New To Science But To Me: Spikenard

I was alerted of a low tire by the pressure sensor dashboard light before I reached the hardtop one day last week. So I pulled off at the next wide place along our gravel road and plugged in the small pump we keep in the car for just such a purpose.

And while waiting for the few minutes it would take the pump to make the warning light go off, I wandered the edge of the woods in thick shade of Rhododendrons and failing Hemlocks.

And there was this curious plant I had never seen before–almost looked like a small shrub, with large, odd feather-compound leaves. The beginnings of flowers were forming at the axils of the leaves, so I came back a few days later for a photo of the early blooms that would help with the ID.

I had already wondered if this was in the family Araliaceae–the ginseng family, that includes wild sarsaparilla, that we find on our land at times. And sure enough, it is Aralia racemosa, or American Spikenard.

It has some history of use as a flavoring, and like most native plants, has purported medicinal uses of minor importance, far as I could determine.

I just have to wonder if I have simply been NOT SEEING this plant for not knowing to look for its form in shady moist rich woods. Will I see it everywhere, now that my brain has the “search pattern” for it?

If so, maybe I will save some seeds and hope others will want Spikenard growing in their Floyd County woods. I’m thinking this plant was once much more common, before land disturbance for timber extraction (often down to the roots), housing, farming, and road-building.

As some of you know, we have an active native plant rescue operation underway in the county, as well as increased interest in NTFP (Non-Timber Forest Products) and rewilding. So maybe Spikenard can hitch its coat tails to some of that and be repatriated into the forest from which it seemingly has been largely cast out by human alterations to the forest landscape.

If, among the few readers of Fragments, there are other observations of this plant in Floyd County, please let me know, with info about habitat, relative abundance, and companion plants. My specimen was growing with wild ginger, black cohosh, and Catawba Rhododendron.

Abbott’s Sphinx Moth Caterpillar

The caterpillar is heading stage left, eyespot on the other end, an intended distraction.

As if I knew this beauty–or even did the work to key it out for myself. I’d never seen it, and failing in a five-minute scroll of Google and Bing images of North American caterpillars, I resorted to a kind of benign cheating.

I posted the image to the Caterpillar Identification group on FB at 4:20 this morning and less than an hour later, had a correct ID. Many thanks!

So I’ve gathered a few resources to store away with this new fact (yes, they DO still exist on Goose Creek, if not in our nation’s capital.)

Both the caterpillar and the adult moth are quite variable. I HAVE seen the moth but did not know what it was. I will next time–my world richer for knowing one more living thing and fellow creature, by name.

The Trickster Among Moths: Abbott’s Sphinx | Featured Creature 

Abbott’s Sphinx Caterpillar – What’s That Bug?

Sphecodina abbottii 

Abbott Sphinx – Google Search

 

 

 

Audubon’s Crow

American Crow–from the Audubon Collectio

If you have an interest in birds and art and writing and natural history in general, bookmark John J. Audubon’s Birds of America.

He did not only seek out (and shoot) and paint a vast number of American birds. He also paid careful detail to their habits and habitats.

The site makes for an interesting hour if you are hole-up in a dentist waiting room–like I expect to be next week.

I notice he observes that when you see crows, you won’t see ravens. We have both species co-existing here on Goose Creek, year ’round, and it is helpful to see the two in the air at the same time–the raven much the more heavy-bodied of the two, and more given to soaring than to flapping; their hoarse ROOK! so different from the nasal CAW! of the smaller bird.

 

Amphibian Encouragement

amphibianphotos.com
Spring Salamander

Maybe they won’t be quite as fast to disappear from the scene as the climate warms–according to a recent study.

Salamanders show more resistance to global warming than previously believed

As a life-long resident of the southern Appalachians, you might say that my totem creature is the salamander. No place on earth boasts the diversity and the numbers to be found in a typical, intact mountain forest. The statistics are quite eye-opening:

“No one really knows how many salamanders reside in the southern Appalachians. However, it is estimated that the salamanders inhabiting just a square mile of forest would have a combined biomass of 2,500 to 5,000 pounds—which is made even more impressive when you consider that many salamanders weigh about as much as a teaspoon of sugar.”

I took herpetology my first semester in graduate school. Ann wasn’t too keen on the snakes that stayed in the clothes hamper overnight until I could claim credit-points for them. But the frogs and salamanders in south Alabama (Auburn U) were present in amazing diversity, and it is from those warm wet nights in the forest that most of my herpetophilia was born.

When is the last time you saw a salamander? Summer is not a great time to look during the day, but on a wet night with a flashlight, you might be rewarded by a good bit of activity if you look in the right place.

We have a hard time caring about things we never see. Maybe if we looked harder and kept our eyes open, we’d care more about a lot of living things we manage to be unaware of.