from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
August 11, 2002
DAYS OF ST. ANDREW & ST. JOHN
Nowadays along the one-lane gravel road running into the plantation you spot here and there a pretty plant about knee high with 4-petaled, yellow flowers the width of a nickel (23 mm). It's the St. Andrew's Cross, HYPERICUM HYPERICOIDES, a not-uncommon citizen of dry woods throughout the US Southeast. Naturally I made a scanning of some flowers and you can see them at www.backyardnature.net/fl_varia.htm#h where I talk about the flowers' curious sepals. If you want to review basic flower anatomy you can visit a page at www.backyardnature.net/fl_stand.htm.
Bearing four petals is a little special among wildflowers. Though Mustard-family species also usually have four, possessing five petals or multiples of five is much more common among wildflowers. Similarly, "average wildflowers" have calyxes with 5 sepals, but the calyx of St. Andrew's Cross only has two. Therefore, anyone sensitive to "how most wildflowers look" is struck by this plant's curious combination of 4 petals and 2 sepals. St. Andrew's Cross is a kinky little plant, fun to look at.
Not twenty feet from the St. Andrew's Cross whom I greet each morning there's another yellow-flowered, knee-high plant very closely related to it, being in the same genus -- though it possesses the more traditional 5 petals and 5 sepals. This other plant might be thought of as "St. Andrew's famous brother," because it's the St. John's- wort, HYPERICUM PERFORATUM.
If you keep up with the medicinal herb scene you know that during recent years St. John's-wort has become a real star because of its reputed ability to cheer people up. It's sold as a natural antidepressant. As one site says, "... it mildly inhibits the enzyme monoamine oxidase (MAO)... By inhibiting MAO and increasing nor epinephrine, it may exert a mild anti-depressive action." I've never been able to test this, since I'm habitually too cheerful to know if an antidepressant should work.
About 200 species of St. John's-wort are known throughout the world and Timme's "Wildflowers of Mississippi" contains pictures of six different species all under the name of St. John's-wort. However, the St. John's-wort sold as a medicine is the one I'm talking about here, Hypericum punctatum. You can see a flowering branch of this species at www.delawarewildflowers.org/hypericum_punctatum_b.jpg
There's more about St. John's medicinal possibilities at www.herbalremedies.com/october2001.html. The going price for an ounce (30 ml) of St. John's-wort extract seems to be about $7.95.
I wouldn't be at all surprised if St. John's-wort contains some dandy chemicals, for the plant is densely covered with tiny black dots and translucent oil glands. These dots and glands may contain exotic chemicals that not only keep bugs from eating the plant but also affect the human nervous system. It's often the case in nature that a chemical works one way on lower animals but another on us higher ones. I have scanned and much magnified a section of a St. John's-wort leaf showing these black dots and translucent oil glands, and you can see this at www.backyardnature.net/spines.htm#s
An even more exciting find this week is the Crane-fly Orchid, TIPULARIA DISCOLOR. At a spot in deeply shaded woods near my trailer three slender flowering spikes about 15 inches high (38 cm) poke from the leaf litter bearing dozens of tiny, mostly brown and purple orchid blossoms about 0.4 inch wide (10 mm). Each flower possesses a slender spur some 0.8 inch long (2 cm), kind of like a larkspur blossom. You can see a nice close-up of some flowers at www.delawarewildflowers.org/tipularia_discolor.jpg
During the fall the plant issues a single dark-green, purple-blotched leaf that survives during the winter but disintegrates the following summer. At this time around the flowering spikes there's not a hint of a leaf. Up close you might wonder why the flowers would be colored such a mishmash of greenish, yellowish, reddish and purplish. It's easy to understand why when you view the spikes from a few feet away. These jumbled colors create a wonderful camouflage against the leaf litter of a summer forest's floor.
Another neat thing about the blossom is that the top of the flower consists of a sort of stalk arching over the lip, which extends below, and on this stalk there's a glistening spot looking exactly like a droplet of nectar. But if you touch the spot you see that it's hard, not liquid at all. I think this must be a trick the flower uses to attract pollinators interested in nectar. I've known several flowers with such glistening spots, so it must be a trick that works.
This species is fairly persnickety in its habitat requirement, needing well developed forest. In fact, research shows that its seeds require rotting wood to germinate well.
This is the first time I've seen this species flowering here, though I've noticed its leaves during winters. In the October 28, 2001 Newsletter I described the Nodding Ladies'-tresses and in the March 10, 2002 Newsletter I reported the Southern Twayblade. So this is the third species of tiny-flowered, fairly rare orchid I've found in the woods around my trailer.
One just never gets over the thrill of discovering new neighbors such as this!
PLANT INFORMATION ON THE WEB
If you ever hanker to see a picture of a native US plant or to see if it grows in your area, take a look at the US Department of Agriculture's Plants Database site at http://plants.usda.gov Sometimes this site's pictures aren't the best but the distribution maps are wonderful. The database focuses on vascular plants, mosses, liverworts, hornworts, and lichens of the U.S. and its territories.
When you land at the site's front page, type your plant's common name or scientific name into the search box. If you type in a common name you are much more likely to go astray so try to use the scientific name if you can.
The Flora of North America site at http://www.fna.org/ works in a similar fashion and also is an amazing resource.
These days on hot afternoons sitting next to a pond it's hard not to be visited by one or more Hackberry Butterflies, sometimes called Hackberry Emperors, ASTEROCAMPA CELTIS. These critters love sweat even more than mud, and they'll land on a naked leg, arm or head and not fly away unless really harassed. When you see how jittery most butterflies are, you have to wonder how this one got so nervy. If you move slowly you can actually position your fingers around his closed wings, then lift him up as his legs wiggle comically in mid air. If you spit on a finger and place the butterfly's proboscis in the spit while slowly releasing his wings, he'll walk onto your finger, never removing his proboscis from the spit, and not fly off until he has drunk all he wants.
Hackberry Butterflies aren't particularly pretty, being mostly gray and brown, until you look at them closely, and of course you can do this if he's sipping spit on your finger not 6 inches from your nose. Up close you can see his several black eyespots, the neat borders along the outer wings, the elegant wing venation, and the way the browns gently glow in sunlight. On young individuals the wings display a marvelous green sheen.
This butterfly is married to one genus of tree, the genus Celtis, which contains Hackberry and Sugarberry trees. We are too far south to have wild Hackberry trees, Celtis occidentalis, but Sugarberries, Celtis laevigata, are abundant, particularly at forest edges and along roads. You can see Sugarberry leaves at http://home.earthlink.net/~chouder/cellae.JPEG
At http://users.ev1.net/~bige2000/hackberry.htm you can view a nice series of photos taken from the moment a female Hackberry Butterfly lays her eggs to when a freshly emerged adult is enjoying its first view of the world. Good caterpillar pictures grace this page so you might enjoy looking at them and seeing if you can spot some on your own local Celtis trees.
SQUASH MOZAIC VIRUS
When I enumerated some of the interesting diseases besetting my gardens last week I forgot one of the most conspicuous, Squash Mosaic Virus, a virus sometimes known as CUCURBITAVIRUS MACULANS. This virus causes yellow summer squash plants to grow very slowly, and then if fruits are produced they are runty and blotched with green patches. You can see what I'm talking about at http://hcs.osu.edu/hcs300/virus.htm
Viruses are fascinating if only because some very serious biologists are not at all certain that viruses are even living things. Viruses are so small that they can be crystallized in the lab, and sometimes their molecular weights are given. Typically we think of molecules as having molecular weights, not living organisms. The molecular weight of Squash Mosaic Virus is around 6,000,000.
When I think of "life in general," I always keep in mind this fact that there appears to be a gradual transition between the living and the non-living. In this Universe, nothing is black and white, and the most interesting stuff is always tinged with gray.
TADPOLE-INSPIRED THOUGHTS ABOUT LIFE
Last week I told you how Gray Treefrogs had left eggs in the dishpan from which I bathe each morning after jogging. On that first morning, though the eggs were only a few hours old, I could already see black frog zygotes suspended inside clear, gelatinous egg-masses. By the next morning the developing frogs had developed through the blastula and late embryo stages, and the slender larvae already had the shape of tadpoles, though they were still suspended in their gelatinous eggs. On the third morning the larvae were free of their jelly and were free-swimming tadpoles. Hundreds of them.
Each morning this week the robust froggy developments in my dishpan have set the mood for thinking about life in general. For example, one day I heard how recently discovered paleontological evidence suggests that life on Earth may have originated more than once. Perhaps it arose earlier than we ever thought, then went extinct, and then life arose again.
Or perhaps life on Earth has ignited several times, and continues to be generated even now, so that the living things around us today do not all necessarily share a common distant ancestor. Genetic sequencing indicates that some bacteria and virus-like and fungus-like organisms are so strange that it's simply hard to fit them onto a Tree of Life with only one trunk.
I personally find it easy, almost obligatory, to accept that life could have arisen several or many times on Earth. Moreover, if I had to guess, I'd say that throughout the Universe life has appeared innumerable times and continues to do so, for, from what I see with my own eyes, the Creator's life-forming and life-evolving instinct is irrepressible.
When I think of what must be the Creator's mood with regard to life, the gleeful rambunctious Finale in Beethoven's Seventh Symphony always comes to mind -- a piece that's powerful not with broad, sweeping gushes of conventional creativity but with an ongoing series of erratic eruptions of good-humored, unanticipatable genius and energy. Those hungry, wiggly tadpoles in my dishpan each of these mornings, they make me hear those melodies!
Infinitely expanding waves of laughing melodies, peals of energizing God-laughter rippling forever throughout the Universe... and I am sure that my squirmy little tadpoles are responding to tickles of those ripples, and when I see this and understand it for what it is, I chuckle and squeal, too, maybe becoming God-laughter myself.