NATCHEZ NATURALIST
NEWSLETTER:
from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA

May 16, 2004

SILVERY SPIRES IN THE GARDEN
In my gardens nowadays nothing is prettier than the various onions and garlics. Their slender, arching, green blades are handsome enough but what really sets them off is their silvery, Byzantine-churchtower tops, or caps. The caps in one patch of garlic stand four feet high. Eventually the caps split, revealing enlarging flower clusters and/or small bulbs.

The world of onions and garlics -- of the genus ALLIUM -- is fascinating even if you don't eat them with relish as I do. Below is a "key" I've fixed up to help fix in mind the differences between the various common kinds of garden Alliums. If you can't make sense of the key, you might want to visit my page explaining identification keys at www.backyardnature.net/keys.htm

KEY TO COMMON, EDIBLE GARDEN ALLIUMS

A.  Leaves cylindrical, usually hollow
  B.  Flowering stem thick, inflated
     C. Leaves thick, few
        D. Bulb hardly thicker than neck: SPRING ONION
        DD. Bulb large, rounded.........: BULB ONION
     CC. Leaves slender, many...........: SHALLOT
  BB.  Flowering stem thin, not inflated: CHIVES
AA. Leaves flat, not hollow
   B. Bulb separating into cloves.......: GARLIC
  BB. Bulb not separating into cloves
     C. Flowers pinkish.................: LEEK
     C. Flowers not pinkish.............: RAMP

The above-mentioned onions and garlics just scratch the surface of the genus Allium. There's a world of Allium types known and enjoyed by other cultures but seldom seen in our markets -- such as eastern Asia's Allium tuberosum, which produces 1-3 brownish bulbs attached to a horizontal rhizome. There's a rainbow of Alliums with flowers pretty enough for any garden.

If you wonder how scallions fit into the picture, the term "scallion" is a general one applied to various kinds of young onion that haven't developed a bulb yet, though the base may be somewhat swollen. Scallions are pulled and eaten in salads and as greens. The term is also given to young shallots and leeks.

For more information about garden Alliums and to see what shallots, chives and some other things look like, go to www.botany.com/allium.html  

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BIRD-VOICED TREEFROGS CALLING
Down at the Field Pond, back when heavy frosts were still occurring, first the Spring Peepers started calling, followed quickly by Chorus Frogs, and then came Northern Cricket Frogs and the first Bronze and Leopard Frogs. Right now Bird-voiced Treefrogs, HYLA AVIVOCA, are especially noticable. You can confirm that their call sounds like a slipping fanbelt by listening to the MP3 audio file at http://frogcalls.home.mindspring.com/mp3s/Bird-voiced.Treefrog.mp3

At http://wwknapp.home.mindspring.com/docs/bird.voiced.tfrog.html you can see this pretty and highly variable treefrog, which is nocturnal and forages in trees and shrubs. It descends to the ground only to breed. A distribution map at the last link shows that the species mostly occurs in Mississippi, southern Alabama, central Georgia and eastern Louisiana.

I see this frog only by accident, when I happen to be looking at a stem or leaf anyway. At dusk when they begin calling it quickly becomes clear that the bushes and trees all around are filled with dozens of them, and it's amazing to sit there being unable to spot even one.

Some books describe the Bird-voiced call as the most beautiful of frog calls. During a misty dusk, immersed in a whole landscape of high-pitched peeps from invisible callers, another description that comes to mind is "mysterious."

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CRANEBILL CATAPULTS
For weeks a weedy species of "Wild Geranium," sometimes known as Carolina Cranebill, GERANIUM CAROLINIANUM, has been flowering here. The plant's deeply lobed leaves, fruits, and pea-sized, pale-pink blossoms are shown at http://knps.org/Wildflowers/cranesbl.htm

One curious thing about this plant is that its flowers are provided with a special structure that sow seeds a fair distance from the parent plant, by catapulting them. In fact, cranebills get their cranebill name from the tall, slender, longitudinally ribbed structure in the flower's center, and that structure does the catapulting.

If you can't visualize the catapulting structure, you may want to check out an image I've scanned and deposited at www.backyardnature.net/ecotravl.htm

When the tall structure matures, turns dark and dries, its ribs want to curl, like drying hairs. As they dry, tension reaches such a point in each individual rib that finally it rips away from the tall structure and snaps upward. Each rib is held in place at the structure's top, but the rib's bottom is attached to a lobe of the mature ovary below, and this lobe is only loosely attached to the rest of the ovary. When the rib above the lobe snaps upward, the lobe, which now behaves like a pouch containing a cranebill seed, is violently sprung upward. The seed is catapulted from the plant, hopefully into an open spot where a new cranebill plant can root and grow. After several days of rain such as we've just had this week, on a sunny afternoon when things are drying out fast, it's fun to sit beside a cranebill as it catapults its seeds surprising distances. Sometimes large catapulting plants produce a near constant snapping.

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THRIPS ON MY IRISES
Last fall neighbor Karen Wise gave me some iris rhizomes, which I buried next to the barn door and forgot all about. Now each morning I'm greeted by gorgeous purplish blossoms. I like to just sit beside them studying their graceful forms, letting the hot, humid breezes carry the blossom's fragrance to me, and watching the parade of insects that come searching for nectar or just to hang out in a flower.

After several days of blossoming, some of the flowers began looking a little peaked. Silvery blemishes appeared on the petals and the petal surfaces looked dusted with yellowish, powdery sawdust. My handlens showed that the sawdust particles were actually tiny insects, and apparently those insects were responsible for the silvery blemishes. They were thrips of the insect family Thripidae, order Thysanoptera. You can see a much magnified picture of a thrips just like mine at www.uidaho.edu/so-id/entomology/thrips.jpg

My thrips were only about 1/32nd inch long (1 mm) and they moved very fast. If you try to identify thrips from a book you may have problems because books habitually show drawings of thrips with spread wings, with each wing consisting of a midrib bristling with hairs -- very different from the usual cellophane-like insect wing with veins. It's true that thrips have such wings, but in real life thrips hold their wings along their backs so that you usually can't see the wings. Usually thrips look completely wingless. To read a lot about the life history of thrips and to see a drawing showing the bristly wings, go to www.ipmofalaska.com/files/thrips.html

Some of my thrips appeared to feed on the pulpy edges of the iris's petals. A much greater number, however, were more interested in mating. About one in a hundred thrips was a little larger than the rest and, instead of being pale yellow, was dark orange. These larger thrips were females, and their rear ends were nearly always attached to a smaller male's rear end as numerous other hyperactive males jockeyed for position.

I don't see that these thrips are really harming my irises, but I know that in greenhouses sometimes they do cause problems. A large greenhouse grower in The Netherlands found that garlic plants were effective in repelling them. He used three potted garlic plants for every 30 square feet of bench area.

*****

TOAD PAROTOIDS
During heavy rains such as we've experienced this week (10 inches exactly, 25.5 cm, since Wednesday), ankle- deep water flows over the ground between the barn and my trailer. I've placed planks there to keep the area from getting muddy. The planks are a bit loose and the other day when I stepped on one it banged into another plank, which then popped up and came down hard on an innocent toad. The toad died, I grieved properly, and then I scanned him for my nature site. I've been wanting to show kids what toad parotoids look like, and my several attempts as scanning live toads proved to be hard on man, toad and scanner.

Parotoids, according to the dictionary pronounced pah- ROH-toid, and not to be confused with parotid glands near the salivary gland below and in front of the ear, are large glands on a toad's top, where a viscous, white poison is produced. When a cat or other creature attacks a toad, the parotoid secretion inflames the predator's mouth and throat, causes nausea, irregular heartbeat and, rarely, even death. Survivors seldom attack another toad.

Anyway, at www.backyardnature.net/toads.htm, now I provide a fine picture of toad parotoids. There you can see that parotoids are large bumps on a toad's back, right behind its bulging eyes. They look like tumors, but may constitute the main reason toads feel at liberty to roam around in broad daylight in full view of predators who would seem glad to eat them.

*****

PERSIMMON TREES FLOWERING
The Southern Magnolias are flowering now, adding their personal touches of grace to the landscape. Much less conspicuous are the blossoming Persimmon. This week trees next to my trailer contributed scanning flowers for my new "Persimmon Flowers" page at www.backyardnature.net/fl_prsmn.htm

One interesting feature of Persimmon flowers is that they come in male and female editions, and usually a tree bears flowers of just one sex -- there are male trees and female ones. If all you have is male trees, forget about ever getting any fruit. As the pictures on my page showw, the yellowish, urn-shaped male flowers are smaller and much more numerous than the female ones. Lately I've come upon several large male trees beneath which the ground was practically yellow with discarded blossoms, for once the flowers' anthers release their pollen, the blossoms fall off, and the male tree can then take the rest of the summer off, focusing strictly on photosynthesizing and growing.

For flowers on female trees, however, the season's work has just begun. Throughout the entire summer their tiny pistils will gradually enlarge, the ovules inside them slowly maturing into those hard, thumbnail-size seeds that next fall will show up in raccoon poop along the trail.

As shown on the picture of the Persimmon fruit on my page, the mature fruit bears a curious, semi-woody, four-parted item beneath it. That is what has become of the flower's calyx -- the green structure arising below the corolla. In most blossoms, the calyx shrivels up and maybe drops off, so it's a special feature of female persimmon blossoms that their calyces grow, harden, and fall with the fruit.

Here's one last curious thing about Persimmon flowers: The female flowers do contain vestigial stamens, and normally those stamens produce no pollen. However, rarely they do. Therefore, it's at least possible that a female Persimmon tree with no male tree in the neighborhood might produce persimmons.

*****

BIGLEAF MAGNOLIAS FLOWERING
In the woods right now surely the most spectacular flowering is that of the Bigleaf Magnolia, MAGNOLIA MACROPHYLLA. What an unusual species this is! The tree itself is gangly. When young, it looks like an umbrella with huge, spreading leaves at the very top. Then, as the tree ages, its trunk branches asymmetrically. Still, this tree is a delight to find in any forest. The glossiness and huge size of its leaves -- up to 30 inches long (76 cm) -- give the forest a tropical feeling. Also, the tree's spectacular white blossoms spreading up to 12 inches across (30.5 cm) more than compensate for any stem-gawkiness. When you see enormous Bigleaf Magnolia flowers glowing in the forest understory's gloom, you just have to stand and look. Though the picture doesn't convey the feeling of beholding something special in a cathedral- like setting, you can see a blossom at www.ag.auburn.edu/hf/landscape/dbpages/images/52c.jpg

At www.herbarium.olemiss.edu/echecklist.php?genus=Magnolia the "Mississippi Plants Checklist" lists the following magnolia species for Mississippi:

  • Southern Magnolia: Magnolia grandiflora
  • Sweetbay: Magnolia virginiana
  • Cucumbertree: Magnolia acuminata
  • Umbrella Magnolia: Magnolia tripetala
  • Pyramid Magnolia: Magnolia pyramidata
  • Bigleaf Magnolia: Magnolia macrophylla

None of these magnolias bears leaves approaching the 30-inch length of the Bigleaf's. The closest is the Umbrella Magnolia, with 20-inch leaves. These two species are easy to distinguish because the Bigleaf's leaves are "eared" at their bases, with lobes projecting backwards where the petiole joins the blade, while the Umbrella's leaf base narrows gradually to its petiole, with no ears.

During the evolution of flowering plants, the magnolia flower-type was one of first to appear. Its "primitive" features include the flower's large size, its radial symmetry and saucer shape, its numerous stamens, its being pollinated by beetles and flies instead of by bees and butterflies, and its fruit type. When you stand and look at one of these trees in flower, its noble antiquity is part of its beauty.

*****

LONG'S "SECRETS OF THE WOODS"
Stephanie in Nashville has introduced me to William J. Long's online book "Secrets of the Woods," published in 1901, and now available and downloadable at http://jollyroger.com/library1/SecretoftheWoodsbyWilliamebook.html

Long was based in New England, and his book is full of stories about his life in the forest. He writes in a rambling, old-timey manner that readers of this newsletter might find congenial. Stephanie has her girls read the book for a taste of natural history. It might be a good resource for homeschoolers.

*****

STRUGGLING TOWARD A MORE ARTICULATE CROAK
Perched inside the Black Willow while the Bird-voiced Treefrogs call, I know that the same urgency that makes the frogs croak also stirs me. Something here sets us both trying to express ourselves, vigorously to participate in the Universal blossoming, to be worthy parts of the Creator's majestic song.

With regard to the frog, I must say that no matter how beautiful and mysterious its call sounds, after a while it becomes a bit monotonous. One wishes for an unexpected flourish or improvisation. However, it's part of frogness that embellishments and jazzing are not allowed; such expressiveness lies purely within the domain of humans.

So far in human history nothing has affected the trajectory of our mental evolution more than the primal impulses of sex, power, property and prestige. Another way of saying that is that frogs fulfill their potentials, but not us humans. Sharp insight and enlightened living patterns just flicker here and there in a human landscape of animalish mediocrity.

Therefore, this week I have struggled to come up with something new to say, or at least an artful new way of saying what I always say. However, after a week of effort, I can't bring myself to showcase any thought that might distract from my usual theme: I just can't NOT repeat, ploddingly and monotonously, that the first step we humans must take to begin living up to our potential is to assure that our biological selves continue to survive; that our brains and spirits are capable of nothing if the animal bodies containing them aren't properly maintained, and that no animal body can survive without being enmeshed in a healthy ecosystem.

Therefore, I am like the Bird-voiced Treefrog after all. The Bird-voiced Treefrog repeats its simple message ad nauseam, and I have my message, too, which I likewise regard as so important that embellishments and jazzing are not allowed: Shreeeep-shreeeep-shreeeep; sustainable behavior, sustainable behavior, sustainable behavior...