from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
June 6, 2004
BIRD, GRASS & YELLOW FLOWERS
Down at the field pond while perched inside the Black Willow a modest commotion caught my eye across the pond in the tall grass along the bank. My binoculars showed that a small bird was snatching seeds from the fruiting heads, or inflorescences, of some tall grasses. Below the grasses, emerging from the shallow, green water, an aquatic plant bore yellow blossoms about an inch across.
Of course, this kind of thing occurs all the time. However, on this occasion, the details of the event were exquisite.
First of all, the bird was not just any bird. It was an adult male Painted Bunting, the most colorful of all North American songbirds. Blue head, yellow-green back, red rump and breast, blackish and greenish wings and tail suffused with red, black beak and red eyes... There's a fine picture of one singing at www.greglasley.net/paintedbunt.html
My bird was not singing. The large, coarse-bladed, clumping grasses spread their ample inflorescences well above their chest-high blades, and each inflorescence bore thousands of tiny grass seeds just of the kind small seed-eating birds relish. My bird would fly to an inflorescence, take part of it in his beak, and there in mid-air dart back and forth throwing his weight against the inflorescence branch like a snagged fish struggling with hook and line. Sometimes the grass would yield a snack, sometimes not. The grass was a weedy species introduced from the tropics, sometimes called Vaseygrass. It was PASPALUM URVILLEI, and you can see a picture of an entire plant at www.os-kaes.pref.kagoshima.jp/bokusou/images/photo_data/vasey.jpg You can see the grass's elegantly arranged flowers at http://botany.cs.tamu.edu/FLORA/pic03/DSCN2813.JPG
From the placid green water below the grasses emerged numerous aquatic herbs bearing glossy, simple, deep-green leaves with red speckles, and from among those leaves arose sprays of five-petaled, inch- wide, brightly yellow blossoms. These static, randomly disposed bursts of brightness arrayed against all the scene's greenness reposed in esthetic counterpoint to the tumult of colors and agitated inflorescences above. The yellow-flowered plant was the native American Water Primrose, JUSSIAEA REPENS, viewable at www.missouriplants.com/Yellowalt/Jussiaea_repens_page.html
Bird, grass and yellow flowers were subjects in an animated, green-toned montage accented with pin-prick outbursts of outrageous color, a work of art suddenly coalesced without fanfare on a steamy, drowsy Mississippi afternoon, and then the moment simply dissolved as the bird, with a magician's twist of its wings, instantly became no more than a modest and somewhat stubby silhouette hieing into the rank loblollies.
WASP CATERPILLAR-BUTCHERING TIME
If you're spending time with your flowers or garden you're likely noticing wasps flying among the plants, sometimes briefly landing and walking around, then flying on. Usually such wasps are looking for prey with which to provision their nests. Paper wasps, yellowjackets and hornets typically collect caterpillars while spider wasps and mud-daubers go for spiders instead.
This week Maureen in Florida wrote telling how she was enjoying the Monarch Butterflies she had attracted into her yard by planting milkweeds. But now wasps were preying on her Monarch caterpillars. She wrote: "Out of dozens and dozens [of caterpillars], only one chrysalis has occurred outdoors. The balance have been devoured, except for the 7 I have brought in to foster."
Maureen sent a picture of a wasp "cleaning up the leftovers from last night's massacre," showing a pretty paper wasp over a black smear. That kind of wasp kills and butchers caterpillars in situ, then carries the pieces back to the nest for feeding the larvae.
Maureen wanted to know how to control the wasps, at least enough to get a few more Monarch chrysalises, but I had to admit that I was the wrong fellow to ask that. My sentiments are with the system of which milkweed, Monarch caterpillars and wasps are part.
Of course, I can see Maureen's point, and I know the problems Monarch Butterflies are having. I've visited their highland central-Mexican winter refuges and I've seen how habitat destruction there threatens them, and, of course, up here I've seen how "neat-landscape" and pesticide-crazy people are destroying them. What Maureen is doing is wonderful.
Still, whenever I'm confronted with a question like this with so many interacting, dynamic parts, until someone can prove to me that my intercession is best for the system, my instinct is to grit my teeth and let the wasps butcher their caterpillars. When I follow the wasp and watch the complex, mutually supportive behavior of the sisterhood awaiting the wasp at her nest -- where a lack of butchered caterpillars means failure for the colony -- I always feel better about the caterpillar's demise.
HORSE NETTLES FLOWERING
Lately friends have asked about a spiny little weed flowering in our area. It bears pretty white to purple flowers about 3/4-inch across (2cm), and later in the season will produce yellow, puckered fruits about the size of marbles. It's the Horse Nettle, SOLANUM CAROLINENSE, and you can see one at www.shout.net/~jhilty/plantx/hrs_nettlex.htm
Throughout the eastern and central US Horse Nettle is common in weedy areas, including around the barn here and in my garden. I've been prejudiced against this plant since I was a kid because back then I went barefooted as much as I do now, so I have a whole life behind me of picking Horse Nettle stickers from my feet. Still, my friends' interest in the plant has caused me to take a second look at it and I have to admit that it has its agreeable attributes.
First of all, its white-to-purple flowers with their yellow centers are simply attractive. You might notice that they are structured very much like tomato flowers, and that makes sense because Horse Nettles and Tomato plants belong to the same family, the Black Nightshade Family, or Solanaceae. The centers of both flower types are yellow because they are composed of five prominent, elongate anthers (the male stamens' "pollen-bags"). In Tomato flowers, these anthers release their pollen through slits along their sides, while Horse Nettle anthers release their pollen through pores at the top of each anther. Such obscure details are profoundly important to botanists.
Later in the season if you find yellow Horse Nettle fruits and squish them you'll see that they are filled with tiny seeds similar to tomato seeds. The fruit stinks too much for humans to eat them, which is good, since they contain the toxin solanum. Still, the fruits are eaten by Wild Turkey, Bobwhites and other critters.
Most of our weeds come from outside the US, but Horse Nettles are American, justifying its being listed at one website as a "native wildflower of the prairie."
During my trip to Kentucky last September you may recall that between buses I wandered around Nashville's parks and streets gathering seeds. Nearly everything I picked germinated and right now Zinnias from seeds collected then are putting on a show. You might guess that I've added a new "Zinnia Flower Structure" page to my website, and you can see that at www.backyardnature.net/fl_zinni.htm
Zinnias do especially well in our area because they tolerate heat, humidity and droughts very well. One reason I like zinnias is that they're native Mexican, and I have a long history with Mexico. Most of today's many varieties and hybrid zinnia strains are derived from three wild zinnia species, all from Mexico. When the murderous conquistador Hernán Cortés and his Spanish army entered the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan, now called Mexico City, on the morning of November 12, 1519, among the amazing things they saw for the first time were elegant, well maintained Aztec gardens occupied with zinnias.
In fact, marigolds were there, too. Both zinnias and marigolds are Mexican, and right now the first thing I see each morning is long rows of intermingled marigold and zinnia blossoms. Nowadays, each of my mornings begins with a grateful "Buenos días, hermanitas."
You can read more about Zinnia culture at www.carolinagardener.com/profile/zinnia.html
LEAFHOPPER ON THE VERVAIN
One morning this week as I tended my breakfast campfire something peculiar caught my attention. Tiny droplets of clear liquid were shooting from the side of a vervain stem right next to me -- about a droplet every two seconds. I put my nose down to the stem and found what I expected, a pretty leafhopper with clear liquid shooting from his rear end. You can see that very leafhopper at the top of my "Homoptera Page" at www.backyardnature.net/homopter.htm
It's always worthwhile to take a close look when you suspect a leafhopper's presence because there are many very pretty species. Mine was a dark chestnut color thickly arrayed with tiny, white speckles, and with brown compound eyes and a tiny yellow "window" in the center of his back.
Leafhoppers insert their very slender, strawlike proboscises into plants and suck the plants' juices, filtering them for nutrients. Naturally they need to rid their bodies of excess liquid, and that's why you often see what I did. The squirted-out, excess liquid is called honeydew, and it still contains so many nutrients that other insects are attracted to it, particularly ants.
SWAMP CHESTNUT OAKS
One of the most impressive trees in our forest here is notable not for its flowers or fruits, but simply because its size, growth pattern, leaves and bark all project an image of robust, dignified strength. It's the Swamp Chestnut Oak, sometimes called Cow Oak, QUERCUS MICHAUXII. Throughout the Southeast it grows to 80 feet tall (24 m) and produces a solid, massive trunk. Its large, symmetrical, sinuate leaves, which are dark green above and silvery below, are handsome in a classical Greek manner. You can glimpse what I'm talking about at www.duke.edu/~cwcook/trees/qumi.html
In the eastern US several oak species have wavy leaf- margins and they can be hard to distinguish. In Mississippi we have only two wavy-margined species, the other being the Chinkapin Oak.
Typically, Swamp Chestnut Oaks favor rich, moist soils, while Chinkapin Oaks favor drier upland soils. However, the two species often mingle in our Loess Zone. Average leafshapes of the two species are somewhat different, but there's a lot of overlapping. Obscure technical features differentiate them, but for the average person probably the best way to distinguish them is to get fixed in the mind how the Swamp White Oak's leaves average being larger and wider above the middle (blackjack-shaped) than the Chinkapin's.
To compare the leafshapes, Swamp Chestnut Oak leaves can be seen at www.duke.edu/~cwcook/trees/qumi.html, while Chinkapin Oak leaves are presented at http://www2.vscc.cc.tn.us/jschibig/Quercusmuehlenbergii.htm The distribution map for the Swamp Chestnut Oak is at www.na.fs.fed.us/spfo/pubs/silvics_manual/volume_2/quercus/michauxii.jpg
Swamp Chestnut Oaks are noble trees worth getting to know. It makes you feel good just standing beside their trunks, looking up through their leaves. If merely looking at anything can make you feel healthy and confident about life in general, surely experiencing these trees while breathing the air their leaves have purified will accomplish exactly that.
TAKE A WALK, SAVE THE EARTH
It's been a stormy week here. Electricity was off several times, stopping my Internet work. During downtimes when it was raining too hard to go walking and it was too dark to read, sometimes I reflected on how -- even in this gardening-hermit life -- I am very connected to the rest of the world, and dependent on it.
By depending on the electrical grid and the telephone network for my Internet work, I enrich myself by participating in an evolving cyberspace sociology. When I eat cornbread made of cornmeal and flour trucked over society's interstates, my garden space is freed up for planting zinnias and marigolds.
Yet, it seems to me that most Americans take extremist positions by relying too much on "the system." The most conspicuous example is that average Americans do not take enough responsibility for their own health. They rely too much on the profit-driven medical industry for drugs and hospital procedures. Consequently far too many of us feel bad and live in a state of debt peonage because of obscenely high medical bills. During recent decades I've had most of my doctoring done abroad, so I have seen how responsible the medical industry can be, and I can tell you that our system is out of whack.
Anyway, by exercising daily, eating and drinking in a healthy manner, and avoiding dangerous behaviors such as smoking and excessive drinking, most Americans can improve their quality of life tremendously.
This is such a self-evident, simple matter that I hesitated to mention it. However, during one particularly long black-out this week, it occurred to me that bringing up the matter is appropriate for a naturalist newsletter. Here's why:
I love the living things around me and want to protect them. The greatest danger to living things is the behavior of people. Yet, people can't be expected to respect plants and animals if they themselves feel bad most of the time and don't like how they look. You can't love nature if you don't love yourself.
At least in my mind, by taking a walk instead of watching TV, a person is contributing to sustaining life on Earth in more ways than one.