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

August 5, 2012

BLUE SKIMMER DRAGONFLY
The day before last Saturday morning's cloudburst, which dumped 6.13 inches (5.7cm) of rain on us and washed away my campfire's hissing kindling before the cornbread got done, a dragonfly landed on a snag in the orchard. That day before the rain I wondered what a dragonfly was doing so far from any standing water, though it was true that a dry pond lay just downslope. I photographed the insect, taking care to keep the wings in focus, for vein configuration in wings often is determinative in dragonfly identification, and I was thinking that this might be an unusual species adapted for waterless upland habitats. You can see the photo at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120805df.jpg.

For some folks dragonfly identification has been raised nearly to the status of birdwatching, thanks to the availability of very fine dragonfly field guides such as those available at Amazon.com, linked to from my page at http://www.backyardnature.net/amazon/dragons.htm.

My own field guide soon revealed that our orchard visitor was one of the most common and conspicuous of skimmer dragonflies, the Great Blue Skimmer, LIBELLULA VIBRANS, mostly distributed in the US Southeast but occurring as far north along the coast as Massachusetts, and inland through most of Illinois. This species' most distinctive feature wasn't to be found among details of its wing venation, however, but rather its black wingtips, easily seen from a distance.

So, once you have something's name, you can look up what's special about it. My field guide describes Great Blue Skimmers as a "regal" species, often tame, allowing a close approach as it perches on a shaded twig -- exactly as was our case. It frequents swamp pools and slow forest streams, including temporary ponds, again exactly right for ours, since the next day a temporary pond did form not far away.

The name "giant skimmer" is given to members of the genus Libellula, of which about 23 species are recognized in North America. Male giant skimmers hover-guard egg-laying females, which usually splash their eggs onto banks.

Our orchard skimmer is a female and I just wonder: Did she really know that the morning after her visit there'd be a tremendous rainfall that would fill the then-empty pond just downslope from where she perched? The future pond was actually in her line of sight as she perched.

*****

DIET-CHANGING LARGUS BUG NYMPHS
Just two Newsletters ago we looked at our population explosion of mating Largus Bugs, as seen and described at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/a/largus-b.htm.

Nowadays you seldom see a Largus Bug, and maybe that helps explain why I didn't think about them the other day when I had an armload of pears picked from the orchard's grass and suddenly my arms and the backs of my hands starting itching as if tiny ants were gnawing on them. Numerous little red and black items hardly larger than aphids were escaping from holes in the pears and spreading all over me. Some looked as if they had their strawlike proboscises stuck into my weather-wrinkled skin busily pumping my bodily fluids into their plump little bodies, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120805ny.jpg.

The holes in my pears had been pecked by woodpeckers. When the pears drop, yellowjackets, carpenter bees, ants and other insects enter the holes to feast, often overnighting there. My little skin suckers must have been sucking pear juice, and now they were sucking my juices! I can't recall such flexible dietary habits in any insect, but there you have it.

Once I had the above image on my computer screen and could see the critters' strawlike proboscises, four-segmented antennae and general features I recognized that I had wingless nymphs of some kind of "true bug," but still I couldn't imagine what they were. Only when I began reviewing the insect species that have been most conspicuous here lately did it dawn on me to check out what Largus Bug nymphs look like, and then, bingo.

On the Internet many pages speak of Largus nymphs sucking juices from a wide variety of plants -- rarely damaging the plants -- but I can find no reference to them inserting their beaks into humans. Some pages specifically say that the adults don't "bite" humans. Now we know that at least the immature nymphs are more catholic in their cuisine than the adults.

*****

SOUTHERN HOUSE SPIDER
I write these newsletters in a seldom used storage room. Right above me and to the right, most days I have a companion: A fairly large spider who hangs about his dust-gathering, ceiling-corner cobweb as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120805sr.jpg.

The spider's body itself is about half an inch long (12mm), but from leg tip to leg tip he spans about two inches (5cm). You can see the black-bristled legs and the body's brown color and longish shape at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120805sp.jpg.

A close-up of the body's front section, the cephalothorax -- illuminated by a high-intensity flashlight -- showing eight beady little black eyes clustered atop it is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120805sq.jpg.

About 3000 spider species are listed for North America (some 35,000 worldwide), so I figured I'd have problems identifying my storage room companion. However, before I began the technical approach I made a wild guess with a search engine: I searched on the keywords "southern house spider."

And, by golly, that's exactly who my friend is: The Southern House Spider, KUKULCANIA HIBERNALIS. Traditionally its technical binomial has been Filistata hibernalis, but genetic sequencing is rearranging spider taxonomy same as it is for plants, birds and insects. Southern House Spiders are distributed from the US's southern tier of states inland as far north as Tennessee, and south through the tropics and subtropics to Argentina and Chile.

Here are the Southern House Spider's main field marks:

The spider in our picture is a male. The female is much darker with a considerably larger body but proportionally much shorter thicker legs. I read that females are seldom seen.

Our spider's genus name, Kukulcania, was bound to arouse my interest, since for the last two and a half years I've lived a brief stroll from the Pyramid of Kukulcan at Chichén Itzá. It happens that the spider expert who created the genus in 1967, Pekka T. Lehtinen, fancied creating names from mythology, so in this instance he chose the Mayas' Kukulcan.

*****

SPICEBUSH'S RED DRUPES
In the understory of a valley-bottom forest's deep shade I was surrounded by such dim greenness that it was like being a fish in an alga-chocked aquarium. But then a pinpoint of shining scarlet caught my eye, at eye level, on the slender branches of a nearby understory bush. You can see exactly what I saw at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120805li.jpg.

A close-up of the red fruit -- a drupe because it is fleshy, contains a single seed and doesn't split at maturity -- is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120805lj.jpg.

This is an old friend from Kentucky where it's much more common than in these parts. Here it's only spotty in rich-soiled little coves well protected from the elements, but up there it's fairly common in bottomland woods and lower slopes. This is the Spicebush, LINDERA BENZOIN, on fieldtrips always easy to remember for students just learning their local flora, because its leaves and stems smell so wonderfully spicy. People love to chew on the stems for the clean-mouth feeling. In very early spring before its leaves appear the head-high bush may erupt with many bright yellow flowers, and in the fall and winter the branches of female plants -- the plants are "dioecious" -- may bear clusters of very red fruits.

I was surprised, however, to see fruits turning red this early in the season. I think of the fruits as adorning the bush after the leaves already have fallen off, deep in the winter. But our pictures were taken the last week of July! Well, this year because of a mild winter and warm spring, everything seems two or three weeks advanced.

There's no surprise that the Spicebush should be so spicy. It's a member of the Laurel Family, which is famous for harboring species with aromatic foliage. Besides the bay-leaf-producing Laurel itself, other members of the mostly tropical Laurel Family include the Avocado, Camphor Tree, Cinnamon Tree, and our own similarly fragrant, Temperate Zone Sassafras. The fragrance is produced by aromatic "essential oils" in the plants' vegetative parts. An oil is "essential" merely in the sense that it carries a plant's distinctive scent, or essence. And once you smell the Spicebush's distinctive spicy odor, you'll understand how essential it is.

Spicebushes are widely distributed in eastern North America from Maine and Ontario to Kansas south to Texas and northern Florida.

*****

JACK-IN-THE-PULPIT IN AUGUST
Jack-in-the-pulpit, ARISAEMA TRIPHYLLLUM, is one of eastern North America's best-loved and most recognizable wildflowers. It gets attention in early spring when its unusual spike of flowers, or "spadix," (the "Jack") arises inside a hooded cylinder of leafy tissue referred to as the "spathe," (the pulpit). Woods walkers in late fall also notice its clusters of bright red, pea-sized fruits on dead stems attached to brown, frost-killed leaves, though often they don't realize that these are Jack-in-the-pulpit fruits. Nowadays in midsummer's sublimely green, lush forest those fruits are serenely and inconspicuously maturing, already fairly large but still hard and green, as shown nicely green-camouflaged on a fruiting stem from which the pulpit-like spathe has fallen away, and which arises between two trifoliate leaves at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120805jp.jpg.

A close-up of the fruits, which botanically are berries (fleshy fruits not splitting at maturity and bearing more than one seed), is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120805jq.jpg.

Another name for Jack-in-the-pulpit is "Indian Turnip." Indigenous Americans did make flour from the ground and water-leached corm, and they cooked it and ate it. As a kid back in Kentucky, one cold, bright spring morning after I'd read that I decided to see what the corm tasted like without bothering to ground, leach or cook it. I simply sliced off a piece from a freshly dug root and tossed it into my mouth.

In my entire life I have never experienced such a jolt of pain from anything put into my mouth. For several minutes I coughed and spit and was sure that at any moment I'd die. Hot, twisting needles inserted into my tongue would not have hurt more. I was experiencing the effects of the tiny calcium oxalate crystals Mother Nature put into Jack-in-the-pulpit corms to keep moles and such from nibbling them.

Despite the fact that these crystals can be destroyed or removed by drying, leaching, roasting and cooking, it would be a shame to do this, for several wildflowers would have to be sacrificed just for a rather bland mouthful or two.

Medicinally, Jack-in-the-pulpit's acid-filled tubers have been used in such varied ways that you wonder if any are really very useful. One interesting-sounding use reported of indigenous Americans was to grind the raw corm and mix with lard to be smeared on ringworm infections. Other treatments have been documented for use against arthritis, asthma, bronchitis, stomachache, gas and headache, and for use as an insecticide.

Jack-in-the-pulpit is a member of the same large, predominantly tropical family as philodendrons, callas, caladiums and the enormous-leafed elephant ears outside my hut in the Yucatan. It's the Arum Family, or Araceae. You can think of Jack-in-the-pulpit as an unusual Temperate Zone fringe element of that heat- and moisture-loving family. The basic Jack-in-the-pulpit flower structure -- many tiny flowers covering a spiky spathe attended by a leafy, often enveloping sheath -- is typical in that family.

*****

CLIMBING DOGBANE'S STRINGY FRUITS
A fairly common but easily overlooked vine twining around stems at woods edges, along hedgerows, around brush piles and the like is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120805ts.jpg.

You can see that vegetatively it could be confused with Japanese Honeysuckle, but of course honeysuckle doesn't produce those long, slender fruits dangling from the vine. The fruits are technically follicles, which means that they are dry instead of fleshy, upon maturity split apart to release seeds only on one side, and that it is a product of a single pistil. Notice that the follicles arise in pairs from woody stems. These stems are peduncles, each of which formerly bore a single flower. Therefore, two follicles have been produced by each single flower.

When you see such an arrangement you should immediately think of the huge and important but mostly tropical Dogbane Family, the Apocynaceae. In recent years the Milkweed Family, better known to Northerners, has been lumped into the Dogbane Family. When the slender follicles in the picture split open, white-parachuted seeds will emerge looking very much like those white-parachuted seeds milkweeds launch into late summer and fall breezes. In fact, one way to distinguish this vine is by the milky sap that issues from its injured parts, which is typical of members of the Dogbane and former Milkweed Families.

It happens that back in mid May I photographed this species' small, inconspicuous, greenish-yellow flowers, so you can see them at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120805tr.jpg.

This vine is Climbing Dogbane, usually still technically referred to as TRACHELOSPERMUM DIFFORME, though recent genetic studies have caused some experts to rename it Thyrsanthella difformis. It's mostly a southeastern US species, reaching as far north as Delaware and Illinois and south into northern Mexico.

*****

A BEAUTIFUL OLD GARDEN RELICT
In an isolated part of the county the weedy edge of an upland woods gave way to something new, something definitely not part of the local natural flora, obviously an ornamental plant escaped from cultivation or surviving as a relict where once a house stood, though now there was nothing but woods. You can see the seven-ft-tall (2m) wall of foot-long leaves and cantaloupe-sized flower heads at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120805cn.jpg.

A close-up of a cluster of five-lobed, rosy-pink flowers is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120805cl.jpg.

Even closer you can see the flowers' slender, inch-long (2.5cm) corolla tubes with slender, white styles projecting from them, and each with four stamens that curve backwards, away from the style, hindering self-pollination, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120805cm.jpg.

We've seen something very close to this down in the Yucatan, and you might enjoy comparing the above pictures with what's shown on our page at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/javaglor.htm.

Notice the flower structure of both species is very similar, both even having turned-back stamens, but the plants display different growth forms. The Yucatan plant, the Java Glorybower, was Clerodendrum speciosissimum, so I figured that what we had here was another Clerodendrum, a genus in the Verbena Family famous for producing spectacular shrubs and trees mostly in tropical Asia. Members of the genus Clerodendrum often are known as glorybowers.

Our relict roadside plant is CLERODENDRUM BUNGEI, from China, so widely planted throughout warm parts of the world that it has many English names, including Rose Glorybower, Cashmere Bouquet, Mexicali Rose and Mexican Hydrangea.

The attractiveness of this bush is obvious so I figured that online gardening forums would be filled with adulatory remarks from growers. Gardeners in the US Deep South, especially Florida, do agree that it's an elegant presence in any garden, but nearly everyone also remarks on how aggressively it expands into new territory and how hard it is to get rid of. And some complain of the stinky foliage, which one grower describes as like a giant vitamin pill. I found the odor penetratingly musky in a way typical of many vebenaceous species, but not really unpleasant. Everyone agrees that the odor makes them invulnerable to deer.

Whatever the consensus among gardeners regarding Clerodendrum bungei, discovering it surviving so lustily at an isolated woods edge, swarming with pollinators and adding spectacular splashes of color to an otherwise endless murmuring of shadowy shades of green, I was glad to make its acquaintance.

*****

MAIDENHAIR FERN
Down in the rich-soiled, moist, heavily shaded, forested bottoms of the steep-walled ravines we call bayous in this area sometimes you can find the pretty and distinctive fern shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120805ad.jpg.

Notice its black, slender stem rising from the bottom, left. This is the Northern Maidenhair Fern, ADIANTUM PEDATUM, one of the best known and easy to recognize ferns throughout eastern North America, except for Florida and eastern Texas. Here we're not far from its southernmost point of distribution. Back in Kentucky it commonly occurred in many moist, protected habitats.

Among the many ferns we've profiled in our Newsletters we've seen that the most common manner of producing spore-producing sporangia is to gather them in distinct clusters of various shapes on the frond's undersurface. The clusters are called sori. Maidenhair ferns do something very different with their sori: Along the margins of one side of their leaflets, or pinnules, they curve the blade downward and around the sori. You can see what this looks like at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120805ae.jpg.

About 200 maidenhair fern species are recognized -- 200 species of the genus Adiantum. In the Yucatan we profiled two of those species. If you enjoy experiencing "variations on a theme," you can compare our Northern Maidenhair with the Brittle Maidenhair at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/britmaid.htm, and the Hairy Maidenhair at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/hairmaid.htm.

If you do compare the three maidenhair species you'll see that our Northern Maidenhair stands apart from the others by the way its fanlike frond's larger divisions radiate out from the stem, or stipe. The vast majority of maidenhair fern species aren't fanlike like that. Another way to look at it is that the Northern's frond is wider than long, while the fronds of both Yucatan species exhibit the much more common aspect being longer than wide.

The Cherokee traditionally smoked the Northern Maidenhair's powdered fronds for heart trouble, and a powder of the plant was smoked and used as snuff for asthma. The Hequiat chewed its green fronds for shortness of breath, plus dancers during the winter chewed it for strength and endurance. In fact, medicinal uses among the various cultures are all over the place, with few usages held in common.

However, various cultures softened the fern's black stems for weaving into baskets to make black designs, and the Karok wove the black stems into certain of their ceremonial dresses.

The Potawatomi carried the black stems as hunting charms to bring good luck.

*****

GOBLET FUNGUS FILLED WITH RAINWATER
Sometimes in the forest you find something so pretty and unexpected that for a moment you can only stand looking, enchanted, your rational and analytic mind stunned into inaction like a hypnotized hen. That's how it was this week when I came upon a fungus I'd never seen before spotlighted by a narrow beam of sunlight shooting down through the forest gloom. The fungus was shaped like a frilly-rimmed, four-inch-wide bowl (10cm) crafted of thin paper. A small red and black beetle floated in sparkling rainwater half filling the bowl. It was a genuine golden chalice. You can glimpse the visual effect -- which lasted only a minute or so as the beam of sunlight moved away -- at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120805fv.jpg.

The fungus arose from a surprisingly dry, intact tree limb on the ground. The slender, silhouetted grass flowering-head cutting across the picture's lower left corner (that's Longleaf Woodoats, Chasmanthum sessiliflorum) magically passes right through the bowl's wall. A side view of it all showing the bowl to be a stemmed one is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120805fu.jpg.

A close-up showing that this fungus's underside, unlike the vast majority of fungus fruiting bodies, bear no gills, no pores, and no teeth, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120805fw.jpg.

This amazing fungus was featured in none of my mushroom-identification books and it didn't key out in any of the online guides. I had to cheat by Googling words I thought some other amateur might use to describe it, hoping that they'd managed to identify it. The keywords "fungus papery bowl" brought up thumbnail photos of similar mushrooms in the family Meruliaceae, which I'd never heard of, but which is home to maybe 47 genera and over 400 species (estimates vary wildly) of mostly tropical, wood-rotting fungi. Looking for species of Meruliaceae documented in this part of the world finally our magic mushroom's identity became clear:

Our sunlight-glowing chalice is CYMATODERMA CAPERATUM, for which I can find no English name, though some species in the genus bear names such as Leather Goblet, Wine Glass, and the like. The species is fairly widely distributed in the American tropics. In our area it's been documented in Florida and Louisiana.

As discovery confirms, the Meruliaceae family is characterized by its fruiting bodies bearing no gills, pores or teeth. The clublike, spore-producing basidia typically lie close to the body's papery or leathery surface or are fairly encrusted in it.

What a pleasure finding this amazing organism, and what fun figuring out its identity, and learning what I could about it!

*****

MUSHROOM EMERGING FROM BUTTON STAGE
After last weekend's cloudburst among the most eye-catching developments in the fungus world was the emergence of many deliciously flavored, very pretty Caesar's Mushrooms, which we profile at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/x/caesar-m.htm.

Mushrooms are a fungus's reproductive structure. The "working part" of a fungus consists of white, threadlike hyphae that spread through the soil or organic matter like much-branching tree roots. When conditions are right for reproduction the hyphae combine into egglike objects known as mushroom "buttons." At this stage you can cut across the button and see the future mushroom's cap and stem in cross section. The button's "shell" in which the future mushroom is protectively embedded is referred to as the "universal veil." When the mushroom emerges, it bursts through the veil. Sometimes parts of the veil stick to the mushroom's cap becoming distinctive patches or warts on the cap.

Sometimes the mushroom emerges from the button leading the button bottom surrounding the stem's base like a cup. This is what we see the emerging Caesar's Mushroom doing at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120805am.jpg.

There the mushroom's red cap emerges from its button. The bottom of the button now can be referred to as the mushroom's "volva." Some mushrooms have volvas but others don't. Its presence is an important feature to look for during mushroom identification. Caesar's Mushrooms have very well devloped ones.

*****

FEATURED ESSAYS FROM THE PAST:

"Neatness as Abomination" from the April 11, 2004 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/040411.htm.

"Picking Up Trash" from the May 8, 2011 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/110508.htm.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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

Even without a Facebook account you may be able to access an index to this week's essays, with each essay on its own page and with images embedded in 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