JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from the woods a few miles east of
NATCHEZ, MISSISSIPPI, USA

July 8, 2012

BOX TURTLE PUZZLEMENT
The Box Turtle, TERRAPENE CAROLINA, found this week on the dry, sandy floor of a deep, wooded ravine near the trailer was puzzling because he didn't look like the subspecies I'm used to seeing here, and which is supposed to be here.

Box Turtles are represented by four subspecies in North America. The shells of the ones usually seen here in southwestern Mississippi -- the ones supposed to be here -- are more or less evenly olive-brown. They are known by the name of Three-toed Box Turtle, Terrapene carolina ssp. triunguis. You can see the one found this week peeping from his shell 20 minutes after I'd disturbed him at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120708bx.jpg.

In that picture notice how the skin gathers in loose folds around his pulled-in neck, turtleneck style.

However, the top shell, or carapace, of the Three-toed subspecies isn't supposed to be ornamented with such conspicuous yellow rays. That's more typical of the northern subspecies known as the Eastern Box Turtle, Terrepene carolina ssp. carolina.

A while back Hillary on the Mississippi Gulf Coast sent us a picture of two box turtles he said were mating in his yard. You can see that interesting picture at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120429tu.jpg.

Thing is, the literature says that there on the Gulf Coast Hillary is supposed to have the subspecies known as the Gulf Coast Box Turtle, Terrepene carolina ssp. major, whose carapace is brown, very unlike those in Hillary's picture. Hillary's turtle looks just like the one found here this week in our ravine.

So, I don't know what's going on here and maybe nobody does. Several pages on the Internet describe the subspecies, making clear that there's lots of variation and overlapping of features among them, but still nothing accounts for what Hillary and I are finding. One page distinguishing the subspecies is at http://www.indianaturtlecare.com/Box%20Turtle%20Subspecies.html.

I think that these lumbering, simple-looking Box Turtles are up to things the experts haven't yet figured out.

*****

POST OAK'S DISTINCTIVE LEAVES
The "Mississippi Plants Checklist" on a University of Mississippi Pullen Herbarium page lists 35 oak species -- members of the genus Quercus -- for Mississippi, plus numerous named varieties and hybrids. The list is at http://www.herbarium.olemiss.edu/echecklist.php?genus=Quercus.

Distinguishing these species can be hard. However, this week as I biked down a backcountry road it was clear from a distance which oak species spread its boughs across the road ahead, because of its distinctive cross-shaped leaves. You can see them at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120708p4.jpg.

It was the Post Oak, QUERCUS STELLATA, a common species characteristic of dry soil throughout the US Southeast and as far north as southern Iowa and along the coast to southern Massachusetts. Our tree was perched atop a thin ridge of loess with deep ravines on both sides, a classic dry situation. Often Post Oak crowns bear gnarled, twisted branches but this particular tree was rather graceful looking. You can see its gray, scaly bark at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120708p5.jpg.

Last year's smallish acorns, with bowl-like cups covered with light gray, tightly overlapping scales enveloping about half the nut, were hard to find beneath the tree, attesting to their value as food for local wildlife. However, a few were found in the leaf litter, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120708p6.jpg.

The bark of all our oaks contain varying amounts of tannin, which is astringent (puckery) and somewhat antiseptic, and thus traditionally used medicinally by Native Americans. Among the applications listed are for indigestion, chronic dysentery, mouth sores, chapped skin, hoarseness, milky urine, and as a wash for fever and chills.

Post Oak wood has been valued not only for use as posts but also for railroad cross-ties and for construction, often the wood being marketed as "White Oak." Once the tannin has been leached from them, acorns of all oak species can be eaten by humans, usually cooked, made into flour or as a coffee-type drink. The leaching process takes some time. The classic leaching process is to grind them up, put them in a bag and let water run over them for days or weeks. Post Oaks, being members of the White Oak sub-group, produce acorns with less tannin than many species. One webpage on how to make acorns edible is at http://www.eattheweeds.com/nuts-for-acorns/.

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HONEY LOCUST'S BIG LEGUMES & THORNS
In moist, fertile soils along creeks and in bottomland woods, Honey Locusts, GLEDITSIA TRIACANTHOS, are putting on dark, twisty, foot-long (30cm) legume-type fruits that dangle conspicuously among their acacia-like leaves, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120708hl.jpg.

Legume fruits and acacia-like leaves attest to the Honey Locust's membership in the big Bean Family. The tree's twice-pinnate leaves are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120708hm.jpg.

As a kid on the farm in Kentucky my main thoughts about Honey Locusts concerned their branched spines that could grievously injure bare feet. Honey Locust spines have stabbed deep into my feet, even through the gummy soles of gym shoes, and back when I was driving I got more than one flat tire by running over the spines on forest roads. You can see such spines about eight inches long (20cm) growing from a tree's trunk at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120708hn.jpg.

You can imagine that such spines can keep critters like opossums from climbing the trunks -- which they might want to do in order to eat the soft, developing fruits. When the legumes are mature they drop to the ground and then the tree encourages animals to eat the legumes by providing "honey" inside the pods. The "honey" is a gummy, honey-colored substance that's sweet enough and plentiful enough to entice not only wildlife but people to break open the pods for woodland nibblings. Of course the tree at that point "wants" animals to feed on the pods so the hard seeds can pass through the animals' guts and be deposited in new territory. Opossums, squirrels, rabbits and birds eat the pods.

I've encountered Honey Locusts throughout forested eastern North America so I was surprised to learn that originally the species was native just to east-central North America -- absent from east of the Appalachians. Trees present in the eastern coastal states are "naturalized" -- they or their immediate ancestors have been introduced there from father west.

A 2002 genetic study of the Honey Locust genus Gleditsia, appearing in the American Journal of Botany (vol. 90, #2), concluded that the genus arose in eastern Asia during the Eocene epoch ±55.8 to ±33.9 million years ago, when the Earth's first monkeys and horse-like ancestors of modern horses were evolving into existence. Eastern North America's Honey Locust probably evolved from ancestors that migrated across the Bering land bridge between present-day Russia and Alaska.

Horticulturalists, appreciating the Honey Locust's prettiness and ability to thrive in abused landscapes, have developed spineless cultivars that are often planted along city streets.

*****

WINGED SUMAC FLOWERING
Later in the year, with its bright red leaves and fruits, one of the most colorful bushes or small trees in our landscape here will be what's called the Winged or Shining Sumac, RHUS COPALLINA. Nowadays Winged Sumac is producing dense, cantaloupe-sized heads of tiny, greenish-cream, pollinator-attracting flowers, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120708su.jpg.

In that picture notice that the rachis, or "stem," of the long, pinnately compound leaf projecting toward the picture's top, right corner is "winged" -- bears flat, green leafy tissue held in the same plane as the leaflets. These rachis wings are distinctive of the species, making this one of the easiest-to-identify woody plants in our area, and accounting for the name Winged Sumac. Who knows what purpose the wings serve? In the Northeast a similar species, the Staghorn Sumac, also has compound leaves but does perfectly well without wings along its rachises.

A close-up of some female Winged Sumac flowers, whose petals are only about 2mm long (3/16ths inch), is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120708sv.jpg.

In that picture you see that each flower consists of a green calyx with five sepals, five cream-colored petals, and inside each flower arises a hairy, green ovary with three styles topped with brownish stigmatic areas where pollen grains germinate. Sumacs can bear flowers with only female parts, such as these, as well as flowers with both male and female parts, and male-only flowers, in which the pollen-producing stamens project conspicuously from the blossom, with no evident female parts.

During my hermit days I loved collecting Winged Sumac fruits. A handful in a pot of boiling water produced a very nice tea, sour like lemonade. Sumac-tea purists would regard that as barbaric, though, since boiling water tends to leach out too much tannic acid, causing the brew to be a bit bitter. It's better to put the fruits in a bowl of water and squeeze them together, breaking up the acid glands on the hairs covering the fruits. Then strain out the fruits and heat the water. The fruits also can be dried and ground to make a lemony spice that can be kept on the shelf.

Medicinally, as you'd expect of anything producing acidy fruits and containing lots of tannin, Native Americans used it for many purposes -- dysentery, mouth sores, skin eruptions, etc.

*****

LIKE REALLY BIG DANDELIONS
For about a month some yellow-blossomed, white-puffball-producing wildflowers have been gracing the seldom-mowed orchard. They'd remind anyone of Dandelions, but they're far too large, over knee high, and their flowering and fruiting heads arise on branching, leafy stems, not on leafless, cylindrical little "peduncles" the way Dandelions do. A typical view of some closed flower heads and a puffball-like fruiting head is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120708pz.jpg.

A close-up of a fruiting head in the process of dispersing its white-parachuted, achene-type fruits, very much like a Dandelion, is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120708pv.jpg.

A flowering head, also very much like a Dandelion, is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120708px.jpg.

This being in the Composite Family, each of those many flattish, yellow, strap-shaped items is the corolla of a "ray flower." Notice that each corolla tip bears five little teeth. These teeth represent the five petals or corolla lobes of typical non-Composite blossoms. The slender, dark items are the flower's five pollen-producing anthers grown together along their common margins, forming cylinders around each flower's slender style (ovary neck). Each style is tipped with a Y-shaped stigma -- nice and fuzzy for grabbing onto pollen grains, which are supposed to germinate there. A flower head broken open to show individual ray flowers packed next to one another is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120708pw.jpg.

In that shot, below the dark anthers the corollas are mostly hidden by many very slender, stiff, white hairs. These hairs encircle the corolla bases and arise atop white, slender-necked, future achene-fruits at the base of each corolla. The collection of hairs arising atop an achene-type fruit is known as the pappus. When the flowers are pollinated the heads will close up as shown in the first picture, the fruits will enlarge, the slender necks atop the achenes will elongate tremendously as the corollas fall away, and the pappi will form the white parachutes atop each achene in the puffball-like head.

Also similar to a Dandelion who produces all of its leaves in a rosette at the base, most of this plant's leaves also arise at the base, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120708py.jpg.

So, one name for this pretty plant naturally is False Dandelion. However, editors seem to agree on the injustice in calling such a pretty plant "false" so probably the most commonly used English name is Carolina Desert-Chicory, though that's a clumsy name and one wonders about the desert and Chicory parts. Fact is, no good name has been settled on for this common, conspicuous wildflower. It's PYRRHOPAPPUS CAROLINIANUS, the "pyrrho" referring to "fire," as in pyromaniac, and "pappus" referring to the white hairs. "Fire-pappus" or "Fire-fluff" -- easily understandable when you see the puffball-like heads in morning sunlight.

Indigenous Americans traditionally ate the taproots, and some people say the leaves can be eaten raw or cooked, though I find them a bit bitter and tough.

Pyrrhopappus carolinianus is native mainly to the Southeastern US, though it's found as far north as Pennsylvania and Nebraska

*****

BULL THISTLE ROSETTES
Speaking of plants with leaves clustered toward the base, the Bull Thistles, CIRSIUM HORRIDULUM, in the orchard are biennials that overwinter as ground-hugging rosettes, and already here in early July their rosettes are well formed. If you need to be reminded of how incredibly spiny and robust these plants are, you can see one from the orchard here in March at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/h/bullthst.htm.

A rosette over a yard across (1m), is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120708bt.jpg.

The general idea behind the biennial, rosette-forming strategy is that for months of the first year the plant photosynthesizes and stores energy in the form of carbohydrates kept in storage roots and the plant body, then on the second year the plant draws upon that store energy to fuel a spurt of growth enabling the plant to overtop surrounding herbs with no stored energy. Bull Thistles do have stout taproots and fleshy lateral roots. In an emergency these starchy roots can be cooked and eaten during their first year, but during the second they are too tough.

*****

LONG-FLOWERING BUTTERFLY PEA VINES
For over a month a Bean Family vine has been gracing our roadsides and woods edges with conspicuous, 1-1/3-inch long (35mm), blue-and-white flowers and trifoliate leaves similar to those on garden bean vines, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120708ce.jpg.

A close-up of the blossom, a little unusual for the Bean Family, is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120708cf.jpg.

If you're familiar with Bean-Family "papilionaceous" flowers (diagrammed on our Bean-Flower page at http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_beans.htm), you'll wonder what that hooded structure is occupying the blossom's center. What's happening is that, relative to the vast majority of flowers of other Bean Family species, this flower presents itself upside-down. The hood is actually the "keel," which in most such blossoms consists of the flower's two lowermost petals fused at their edges to form a scoop-like structure. The broad "pollinator landing pad" occupying most of the picture in other flowers is the topmost petal, known as the "standard" or "banner." If you look closely you can also see the two side petals, the "wings," clasped against the keel. You can see what's happening inside the keel in a close-up where I've removed one side of the keel at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120708cg.jpg.

There you can see nine stamens grown into a tube at their bases, with one stamen held apart, a situation peculiar to the flowers of many Bean Family genera. Such stamens are said to be "diadelphous." Notice the white, fuzzy-stigma-tipped style curving from the stamen tube. All this makes sense when you see a pollinator entering the blossom, its weight and actions causing the stigma to thrust farther from the tube, to snag pollen off the pollinator.

The most common English name for this pretty and long-flowering vine is Spurred Butterfly Pea. It's CENTROSEMA VIRGINIANUM, native to the US Southeast, but extending as far north as New Jersey along the coast and Illinois inland.

A much more widely distributed Bean Family vine with very similar flowers, found in most of the eastern and central US, is easy to confuse with Spurred Butterfly Pea. It's the Atlantic Pigeonwings, Clitoria mariana. That species' sepals are short and arise from a distinct calyx tube. Our Spurred Butterfly Pea's calyx is very different, with long, slender sepals, is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120708ch.jpg.

Spurred Butterfly Pea produces a long, slender legume, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120708ci.jpg.

In that picture you can see that the beans will be too small, and the pod too stiff and woody, to provide much food value for humans when the revolution comes, though ground-feeding birds might relish them.

Seeing this Spurred Butterfly Pea gives me a special pleasure because back in the Yucatan along the road I jogged each morning leading to Hacienda Chichen, during the dry season another butterfly pea species adorned the roadside with similarly pretty flowers. You might enjoy comparing our US one with the Yucatan's -- getting that "variation-on-a-theme buzz -- at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/butt-pea.htm.

*****

GRACEFUL WILD RYE ALONG THE ROAD
Nowadays along roadsides not mowed and herbicided into oblivion, among the more graceful presences are the flowering grasses shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120708ry.jpg.

A close-up shows the grasses' very unusual spikelets at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120708rx.jpg.

If you are familiar with the "normal" construction of more typical grasses such as bluegrass and fescue, what that picture shows may not make much sense. You can review "normal" glass-flower anatomy at http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_grass.htm.

On that page, notice the scoop-shaped glumes at the bottom of a typical spikelet. Our roadside grasses also have glumes, but they are highly modified, in that they are twisted around so that they are positioned side-by-side, not opposite one another as is more typical. Also the glumes in our roadside grass, instead of being scoop-shaped, are flattened and elongated, and tipped with needlike spines, or "awns." You can see two spikelets removed from their spike, with grain-producing florets between their two glumes, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120708rz.jpg.

This peculiar anatomy distinguishes an important grass genus, the Wild Rye or Wheatgrass genus Elymus, of which about 150-200 species are recognized, depending on your expert. The genus is best represented in Asia and North America, but present elsewhere, and is thought of as a "cool-temperate" genus. Some species are grown for forage. Western North America has more species than the East.

Our roadside Elymus is Virginia Wild Rye, ELYMUS VIRGINICUS, a perennial found throughout most of forested eastern and central North America, and likely to be found in open woods, thickets, stream banks, open ground, and very often along roadsides.

Wild Rye, genus Elymus, is very different from the Rye of rye bread fame, which is the Eurasian Secale cereale. Rye has "normal" glumes, nothing like Wild Rye's strange, side-by-side, flattened ones.

*****

DOG STRETCHING
Maggie the Jack Russell Terrier, bred to be loyal to the alpha dog, waits for me outside whatever door I happen to have entered last. As soon as I exit she rouses herself from her snooze, gets up and stretches exactly as is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120708mg.jpg.

She does this so consistently, day after day, that I have to think that stretching is important to her, and maybe to me, too.

On the Internet you can find pages describing how to massage and stretch your dog before competitions and shows when the dog needs to perform flawlessly. Just search on the keywords "dog stretching" and you'll see. Massaging and stretching "keeps the dog well-balanced, both physically and psychologically, allowing it to retain the agility of the young dog well into an advanced age," one page says.

The more lazy dogs here only occasionally stretch. However, Maggie is an obsessive hunter and very active. Apparently such active dogs need to be ready for action at a moment's notice, so as they were bred, their stretching predisposition was maintained.

New research shows that in humans stretching may not be as important as we've been led to believe, except for athletes about to push their bodies to the limit. However, about a year ago I developed an Achilles tendon problem so painful that I feared I'd have to give up jogging. But then at the Hacienda I met a podiatrist who showed me a simple stretching exercise to do before every run, and the pain almost vanished in a few days.

So, stretching may well be another of those many things that can be of great value to us, even though they're free. Certainly Maggie not only feels compelled to stretch, but obviously enjoys it. A good stretch feels good to me, too.

Have a good stretch yourself, and just notice the pleasant feeling.

*****

XYLARIA IN A SPOOKY LANDSCAPE
A couple of Newsletters back we looked at the strange little fungus known as Candlesnuff, Xylaria carpophila, growing from a fallen Southern Magnolia fruiting body. Candlesnuff's page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/x/xylaria.htm.

This week we have a similar but less slender and more branching Xylaria species that lives on wood and is more commonly encountered. It's shown in its forested, ravine-bottom habitat, which in my picture unexpectedly turned out to look like a very lugubrious and foreboding place, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120708xy.jpg.

This fungus, like our last one, sometimes also is known as the Candlesnuff Fungus, but also it's called Candlestick Fungus, Carbon Antlers, Stag's Horn Fungus and other names. The taxonomy of the genus Xylaria is poorly understood, but I'm labeling our find XYLARIA HYPOXYLON because of this: Michael Kuo at MushroomExpert.Com writes that "Even with identifiable specimens in hand, there is no getting around the fact that microscopic analysis is frequently necessary for accurate Xylaria identification -- which leads many collectors to label their collections of fat specimens 'Xylaria polymorpha' and their skinny collections 'Xylaria hypoxylon,' since these are species frequently included in field guides."

We've encountered the "fat" Xylaria in the Yucatan. You can see how fat it was at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/earth-tg.htm.

Michael Kuo further writes that "The genus Xylaria consists of funky, club-like decomposers of wood or plant debris that become black and hard by maturity, reminiscent of carbon or charcoal."

*****

FEATURED ESSAYS FROM THE PAST:

"Me and The Russian Revolution" from the July 4, 2004 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/040704.htm.

"Big Church Lawns" from the July 28, 2008 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/080728.htm.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

All previous Newsletters are archived at www.backyardnature.net/n/.

Even without a Facebook account you can access an index to this week's essays, with each essay on its own page and with images with the text, on the Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Jim-Conrads-Naturalist-Newsletter/412345652126940.

Visit Jim's backyard nature site at www.backyardnature.net