JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from the woods edge near
Natchez, Mississippi, USA

March 9,  2009

BLUEBIRD NEST BOXES
A couple of weeks ago several Eastern Bluebirds, SIALIA SIALIS, began hanging around the abandoned orchard's open area. We put up a nest box and in less than an hour a pair came to check it out. You can see the male peering intensely through the hole at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090309bb.jpg.

That first day the birds put on a real show. The male would perch atop the box, fly onto the ground just below, then fly back as if visualizing himself doing that later when there's a brood to feed. The female entered the box and returned to the perch several times, giving the same impression. Most of the day they couldn't seem to get enough of entering and leaving the box.

The next day we put up two more boxes and before long they also had visitors. I think we have at least three pairs out there, maybe more.

Since that first day the birds haven't come around much, but at least once every day they do visit. Thinking anthropomorphically it seems that they've decided they like the nest boxes, but until they actually begin nesting they don't want to draw attention to them with their visits. However, at least once a day they can't resist a quick visit just to sure that everything still is there.

*****

FIELDS AWASH WITH BUTTERCUPS
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090309bt.jpg you see part of a large field in the Mississippi River floodplain near Natchez. Behind the truck in the picture the road climbs into the loess-mantled uplands where Natchez and I are situated. The field this side of the truck is yellow with untold millions of buttercups.

By "buttercup" I mean a member of the genus Ranunculus of the Buttercup Family, the Ranunculaceae. About 400 Ranunculus species are recognized and many are invasive weeds spreading far beyond their native grounds, so figuring out which buttercup you have can be a challenge. In Mississippi about 18 species wild- growing species are listed. The ones so prettily abloom in the field are Bulbous Buttercups, also called St. Anthony's Turnips, RANUNCULUS BULBOSUS. Bulbous Buttercups are invasive weeds from Europe. You can see the plant's stiff, slender stems, deeply divided leaves and five-petaled, yellow flowers at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090309bu.jpg.

Buttercup flowers are easy to identify because of their special anatomy, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090309bv.jpg.

In that picture the leafy, triangular items pointing downward are the flower's five sepals. I've removed two of the flower's five petals to show the sexual parts in the center. The longer, incurving, yellow things surrounding the greenish center are numerous male stamens, while the greenish center is composed of numerous female pistils, each composed of a stigma, style and ovary. Having both so many stamens and pistils is a little unusual in the flower world, but typical of the Buttercup Family. A more representative flower of "average" angiosperms would have maybe five stamens and a single pistil.

There's one more little buttercup-flower-recognizing trick that's fun to know about. Look at the petal at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090309bw.jpg.

At the very top of that buttercup flower petal held between my fingers, notice the triangular scale. That's a nectariferous, or nectar-producing, scale meant to attract pollinators. Anytime you want to make sure you have a buttercup blossom, check for such a nectar-producing spot, which may be a pit or mere spot instead of such a conspicuous scale.

Bulbous Buttercups enjoy considerable fame as homeopathic remedies. Concoctions made from them are said to act upon muscular tissue and skin, and particularly chest walls, and may be used against delirium tremens, spasmodic hiccough, chronic sciatica and much more. On the internet you can buy 75-80 pills based on this species for $8.99, so I just wonder how much the buttercups in that one field would be worth in pill form!

This species is also regarded as harmful to livestock when eaten raw, but loses its poison when dried as hay. Birds such as bobwhites and turkeys will thrive on the abundant mature fruits resulting from all those flowers.

*****

TINGES OF GREEN AND BROWN
Nowadays forest trees here are taking on hues of green and brown as buds release flowers, stems and leaves. A view from my hermit trailer showing an American Elm on the left and a Southern Red Oak on the right is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090309ol.jpg.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090309ok.jpg you can see a Southern Red Oak's red, emerging leaves and yellow, dangling clusters, or aments, of male flowers.

This week we've had several afternoons with temperatures in the lower 80s (±28°C). Spring is rushing at us.

*****

OUR ABUNDANT, ENDEMIC TRILLIUM
Wildflower lovers in North America know trilliums as quintessential "spring wildflowers" -- early blooming, colorful, perfect size for admiring, woods-loving species. Forty to fifty species are recognized so they also can tease our brains when we want to know which species we have.

Currently in our upland pine/oak woods there's a trillium species so common and so conspicuous that after a while the eye stops noticing them. The thing is, in the whole world this species is found only in a small section of Louisiana and here in southwestern Mississippi. It's a true endemic, a species that wildflower fanciers in other parts of the world would feel honored to meet. You can see one next to my door showing the trilliums' distinctive three-petaled, three-sepaled flower atop a stem bearing three leaves at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090309tm.jpg.

This trillium species wasn't recognized as a distinct species until 1975 so it has no commonly accepted English name. Technically it's TRILLIUM FOETIDISSIMUM. Since foetidissimum means "very stinky," some book writers have called it the Fetid Trillium. Since it occurs only in our tiny area of the lower Mississippi Valley, others call it the Mississippi River Wakerobin, Wakerobin being a name sometimes applied to trilliums. A map showing its limited distribution at http://www.efloras.org/object_page.aspx?object_id=8107&flora_id=1.

Why does such a narrowly endemic wildflower species live in our area? Here's my guess:

The most closely related species to our Trillium foetidissimum is Trillium sessile, a common species in much of eastern North America, often called Toadshade or Sessile-flowered Wakerobin. Now look at Toadshade's distribution map at http://www.efloras.org/object_page.aspx?object_id=8117&flora_id=1.

That map shows that Toadshade's center of distribution is in the Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia area, but interesting unconnected or disjunct populations occur in places like northeastern Arkansas and southeastern Tennessee. When I see such disjunct populations for a species I assume that at an earlier time the species enjoyed a more extensive distribution, but now something has happened, possibly a change in climate, causing the population to withdraw from part of its distribution, leaving "islands" of plants behind. We've seen this a lot in the mountains of southern Mexico where plant communities were pushed south during the last Ice Age, then when the glaciers withdrew "sky islands" of very disjunct populations of eastern North American plants were left atop mountains down there.

So, I'm betting that long, long ago our area lay well within Toadshade's distribution area, but then that species began withdrawing northward, probably because of long-term warming after the last ice age. At first our disjunct "relict" trillium populations remained genetically the same as Toadshades, but as millennia passed and our population's gene pool acquired its own peculiarities not shared with the northern Toadshades, gradually our distinct species arose.

I'm just guessing on this story, but it's a story that's been confirmed for many species.

*****

THE FLORA OF NORTH AMERICA PROJECT
Those neat distribution maps linked to above are made available by the Flora of North America project. The project is unfinished, so that such maps don't exist for all plant groups. However, enough groups have been completed to make it worthwhile checking if you ever want definitive information about identification features and distribution of a North American plant.

For example, FNA offers a technical, all embracing technical key to North America's Trillium species at http://www.efloras.org/florataxon.aspx?flora_id=1&taxon_id=133668.

The index page to online family treatments is at http://www.efloras.org/flora_page.aspx?flora_id=1.

*****

PROSTRATE BLUE VIOLETS
The blue-flowered Common Blue Violets profiled a while back still are abundantly flowering in lawns and out in the woods, so it might be easy to overlook the blue-flowered violets commonly gracing the mossy, vertical slopes of the bayou below the house. However, the basic plant-body structure of what's down in the bayou is very different from that of the Common Blue Violet. Common Blue Violet leaves and flowers arise in a cluster from an underground root, like long-stem roses from a vase. What's down in the bayou has flowers and leaves arising from a slender stem that wanders across mossy cliff faces, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090309vi.jpg.

About 19 species of wild-growing violet species are listed for Mississippi, and what's shown above is one of the several that at first glance look like Common Blue Violets, but aren't. Those are Prostrate Blue Violets, sometimes called Walter's Violets, VIOLA WALTERI.

Prostrate Blue Violets are distinguished from the other species mainly by those slender stems snaking across the ground. At the left in the picture notice how small leaves and flowers arise from the stem running parallel with the left side. Also notice the purplish, deeply cut, frilly items giving the stems a shaggy appearance. Those are stipules arising at the bases of leaf petioles. In most plants stipules are small and fall off early, but these are very conspicuous and long-lasting. Other violet species may have conspicuous stipules but few are so deeply cut into such narrow sections.

This species forms pretty, many-flowered mats on bayou walls and should be grown horticulturally for shady spots in gardens. Prostrate Blue Violet is a southeastern US species specializing in shaded, moist, rich soils.

*****

HYACINTHS FLOWERING
Karen's hyacinths began flowering a couple of weeks ago, first the white ones, then later the bluish and pink ones. You can see a blue-flowered one at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090309hy.jpg.

Common Hyacinths, HYACINTHUS ORIENTALIS, like all hyacinths, used to reside in the big Lily Family but now they have their own family, the Hyacinth Family, or Hyacinthaceae. Among features distinguishing hyacinths from many other lily-like plants are the fact that they arise from bulbs, their stemlessness, and their flowers being deeply lobed, bell-like affairs with narrow lobes equal to or shorter than the tube below them.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090309hz.jpg you see a cross section of the lower, tubular part of a flower. Notice that there's no green calyx below a colored corolla, which is typically the case. Here the calyx and corolla are fused into just one, colored, corolla-like thing known as the perianth.

Sitting in the bottom of the flower is the female pistil composed of the oval, greenish ovary at the bottom and the blue, neck-like style atop the ovary topped with the white, fuzzy stigma. The dark, banana-shaped items attached to the perianth's wall just above the stigma are male, pollen-producing anthers, and the whitish dust all over the place is pollen. Pollen grains land on the stigma, germinate, and send a pollen tube down through the style to ovules inside the ovary. The male sex germ migrates down the pollen tube and fertilizes the ovules. Ovules mature into seeds, and the pistil into the hyacinth's fruit.

Seeing so much pollen dusting the flower's interior you might wonder what's to keep the blossom from pollinating itself. I'm unsure how hyacinths do it but often flowers in this and nearby taxa practice "proterogyna" (the pistil matures before the anthers) or "proterandry" (anthers first).

About 2000 cultivated forms of the Common Hyacinth are recognized. The wild stock originally came from southwestern Asia, Turkey, Syria and Lebanon. Hyacinth bulbs are poisonous.

*****

PEAR TREES FLOWERING
Plum trees, bodaciously white-flowered the last couple of weeks, now are fading, presenting a diffuse, greenish-brown appearance. However, pears trees have come online to take their place and are just as pretty, though esthetically very different. The plums were high-contrast black and white, seemingly etched against cold, crystalline, blue sky. Pear blossoms harmonize with a warmer, more easy going world, seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090309pr.jpg.

Plums and pears are both members of the big Rose Family, and the flowers of both are white with five petals that get knocked off by raindrops, and with many stamens in their centers, so what are the main differences between them?

The most profound structural difference is that plum blossoms have superior ovaries while pear flowers have inferior ones. A diagram differentiating the two types is at http://www.backyardnature.net/inf_sup.gif.

The hyacinth flower we looked at above has a classic superior ovary: The ovary arises above the platform formed by the stamen-bearing perianth beneath it. Pear blossoms are inferior, with the ovary residing below the attachments with anthers and sepals, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090309ps.jpg.

In that picture the numerous, incurving, matchstick- like items are male stamens. The spherical, green mass at the bottom is the sliced-across female ovary. The five greenish, stiff-looking, slender things entering the ovary from above are stigma-topped styles. At the style "roots" deep inside the ovary you can see at least one pale, oval ovule. Eventually that ovule becomes a pear seed and the ovary itself mature into a pear fruit.

In the Rose Family, fruits developing from inferior ovaries are called pomes. A pome is a fleshy fruit formed from an inferior ovary with several locules. Locules are the pie-serving-shaped chambers seen when you cut across a tomato, for instance. Pear flowers have 2-5 locules.

*****

MYSTERIOUS ORANGE SLIME
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090309of.jpg you see Karen examining an orange gob of jello-textured slime developed beneath a bleeding wound on a wild grapevine down in the bayou below the house. In early spring fairly regularly you see such gobs around here, always on bleeding grapevines.

I'd assumed the gelatinous mess was a slime mold but when I sent the picture to Internet fungus-guru Tom Volk he said he'd never seen anything like it and suggested it might be something congealed from the grapevine sap. I've worked on the question all week and so far remain stumped. The only progress has been to find a picture of what seems to be the same thing in Florida and possibly also on a grapevine. That person identifies it as a slime mold, but goes no further and I don't know how credible the ID is.

If this is indeed a slime mold it would be pretty interesting, if only because it's so large (sometimes foot-long stalactites dangle from bleeding vines), is so common in the Deep South, and Tom Volk didn't recognize it.

Is there anyone out there who knows more about this?

*****

MUD BALLS
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090309mb.jpg Karen's hand is holding what we call a mud ball. In places down in the bayou such balls of very fine clay are common. The pebbles are restricted to the ball's exterior. With a knife you can cut across the ball passing through nothing but very fine clay with alternating white and reddish layers.

This clay was deposited about 700,000 years ago, before the last ice age, so our layers of clay lie below the deep mantle of windblown ice-age loess covering the uplands here. During my hermiting days near here I experimented with firing pots and cups with this clay. I reported in a 2002 Newsletter, "The next morning as I prepared breakfast over a campfire, the cup baked among the coals. When it cooled, I thumped it and it clinked just like a piece of china. I couldn't scratch it with a fingernail. Later in the day I filled the cup with water and drank from it."

Karen says that when you find such mud balls in the bayous you can start looking for Indian artifacts, suggesting that Indians were attracted to the deposits

At http://www.backyardnature.net/loess/ind_miss.htm you can see Indian pottery shards I found in local bayous back during my hermit days.

*****

LYING, ROBBERY & MURDER
Humans are subject to the same laws of Nature as all other species. This week I've been thinking about this in the context of news about the collapsing international monetary system. Here's something that's occurred to me:

In Nature there are many examples of lying (orchid flowers shaped like female insects to trick male pollinators), robbery (Magnificent Frigate Birds stealing meals from seagulls) and murder (predators eating). When we find lying, robbery and murder so widespread in Nature, and recognize that humans are absolutely embedded in and dependent on Nature, it shouldn't surprise us that those vile features of human nature show no signs of dying out. In a sense, Nature tells us that these behaviors, if nothing else, can be part of a sustainable system.

On the other hand, I find no analogy in Nature to human behaviors associated with "the consumer society." Where in Nature is there long-term expenditure of resources far exceeding income? Where is there vast abuse and wastage of vital resources, and where is there intense focus on the individual organism's WANTS, instead of the community's NEEDS? What sustainable natural community functions only as long as it grows, consuming ever more resources?

In short, it seems that, from Nature's perspective, the dominant traits of "the consumer society" are so much more heinous than lying, robbery and murder that they are simply not tolerated.

On the other hand, as the economic crisis unfolds, people are buying less and saving more. We are more likely to prepare our own food and pay attention to what we're eating. We're using less energy, and suddenly we even seem less interested in conducting unnecessary wars abroad, and sitting by as "globalization" transfers simple, local jobs to the opposite side of the planet.

These changes represent healthy, sustainable trends toward simplification and self reliance. If human economy really is governed by Natural Laws, then these changes constitute another case of "Nature healing Herself." This healing must occur so that further evolution can occur.

Evolution is hard and most real changes are painful. However, in the end, without evolution and change, many of the rewards of being a human struggling toward enlightenment and long term happiness and fulfillment are impossible.

The current economic disaster is the greatest opportunity for human advancement I've seen in all my lifetime.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim