The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

Category Archives: Flowering Plants

Beautiful Killer

I spotted this small plant for the first time earlier this week on a gently sloped, sopping wet and grassy stretch of land next to a lake.   The deep purple flower reminded me of a tiny violet.  The most striking feature, however, was the whorl of leaves at the base.  They were an unusual shade of pale green unlike any other foliage I’d seen up here to date.  Sadly, it was overcast and rainy, so photographs were not an option that day; I put it on my mental list of Things To Take A Picture Of At Some Point.

A few days later, as I was stalking bees and wasps amongst dwarf willows and thick patches of vetch near the Coppermine River, I stumbled on a patch of about a dozen individuals of the same purple-flowered plant.  And just my luck: the weather was just fine for taking a few pics before I carried on with my hym hunt.    I got down on my belly and started snapping away. 

I’m not sure what it was that made me pause for a moment to reach out with one finger in order to touch one of the curled leaves; I think that bizarre chartreuse colour was what pulled me in.  When I withdrew my hand, I immediately realized something unusual was going on.  It was a warm, sunny, breezy day, yet my finger felt wet.  I touched my thumb to the finger, rubbing…no, not wet: slimy.    Slimy?  I touched another leaf, running my finger down its length.  Yep, definitely slimy.  I inched forward on my elbows until my nose was nearly touching the stem.  That’s when I noticed the little black flecks dotting each leaf: flies!  Tiny flies! I scanned the other plants and found the same thing.  It finally dawned on me: these dainty purple beauties were in fact killer carnivores! 

 

The unusual leaves, and even the stem of this plant (whose name I later learned is Pinguicula vulgaris – common butterwort) are covered with pedundular glands: hair-like stalk cells topped with a number of secretory cells.  The secretory cells produce a droplet of mucilage – the slime.   When a fly or other small insect touches the ensnaring slime and begins to struggle, the glands produce even more mucous; it doesn’t take long for the prey to become immobilized.    Sessile glands on the flat leaf surface then releases digestive enzymes.  Nutrients from the prey are absorbed through pores until all that remains is the chitinous exoskeleton.   The flowers on butterworts are held high from the leaves on a long stem, so as to avoid killing potential pollinators.

All the insects on the photo above were dead except for the tiny wasp on the stem; I watched it struggle valiantly downwards, its actions becoming increasingly laboured.  It must not have known that leaves were just as treacherous, and would in fact mean its death.

Plant people…HEEELLLP! Update: mystery solved!

Now that I have your attention…what in the HECK is this????

The plant grows in a small, roundish cluster of stems, and stands about 2 inches off the ground.  Each “cup” is about 4 mm across.    I found it growing alongside a road, on sand, about 15 feet from a lake.  So very cool, and so very weird.   I’d love to put a name to it, or at least get an idea of where to start looking.

Your thoughts, oh learned and clever readers?

ADDED:

You guys are gosh-darned awesome! 

These great little structures are called “splash cups”…the seeds cradled within get forcibly tossed out when raindrops land in the cup – a fantastically neat method of seed dispersal!  The cups belong to a Saxifrage; although there seems to be some debate over the taxonomy of closely related species, it might be safe to label this as Golden Saxifrage (Chrysoplenium tetandrum), which is common to this area.  A neat note on this species’ habitat: it is often associated with high loads of animal waste.  Indeed, the strip of beachfront where I found these plants was littered with pintail duck poop.  

Hm.  I feel like I should be awarding points or something here…

5 to Susannah for thinking outside the box

10 to Katie for IDing the seed-dispersing structure correctly

20 to Peter for nailing the plant ID

You may all cash in your points for…um…my undying appreciation.

Gems of the arctic

You may recall that my first impression of the arctic landscape was less than favourable…it seemed so dark and barren and devoid of life.  I’ve been out on the land every day since my arrival, though, and that idea has been completely erased from my mind.  Granted, the tundra is no temperate forest; the tallest tree I’ve seen here is about chest height, and one does not have the same sense of lush verdant life that one finds in the south. 

But the flowers here…oh my, the flowers. 

Three species seem to dominate the drier areas, especially those on sun-kissed slopes.  The first was immediately recognizable as akin to something I’ve planted in my own garden:

Arctic Lupins (Lupinus arcticus)

I actually exclaimed, “Hey, they’re LUPINS!” when I realized I knew what they were…much to the amusement of my field assistant who simply smiled and said, “Uh-huh”.    These are the probably the tallest non-woody flowering plant growing right now.  The flowers stand about 12 inches high or so, though I’ve read they can grow taller.  The lovely indigo colour is striking.

The two others that seem to enjoy the same habitats as the lupins are White Mountain Avens (Dryas octopetala) and Arctic Rhododendron (Rhododendron lapponicum).  Both stand about 6 inches tall and grow in small clusters.  Those Avens look like they’re just begging to be pollinated, but I’ve yet to spot any takers.

White Mountain Avens (Dryas octopetala)

Arctic Rhododendron (Rhododendron lapponicum)

I’ve found the dainty Arctic Poppy (Papaver radicatum) on very dry, rocky outcrops near the mouth of the Coppermine River.   These lovely gems are heliotropic: the flower heads move to face the sun throughout the day.  In the photo below, the poppy’s head is nodding downhill, so as to face the midnight sun lying low over the Arctic Ocean.

Artic Poppy (Papaver radicatum)

A neighbour to the poppy was this small patch of Moss Campion (Silene acaulis); it was nestled cosily in a shady crevace in the rocky hilltop.   This flower forms dense cushions of moss-like leaves which retain heat when the sun is shining.  They’re also considered a “compass” plant…the south-facing side of the mound will flower first, followed by the north-facing side.

Moss Campion (Silene acaulis)

If you want to enjoy the flora in the arctic, you really need to stop and LOOK.  Never assume that you’re simply looking at a patch of moss or grass…there is almost always a tiny gem hiding within.   The best way to LOOK (and to photograph) is lying on your belly…everything here grows very low to the ground in order to avoid the strong and cold arctic winds.  The flowers I’ve shared here are the showier, more obvious ones I’ve seen (but still required belly-style photography!).  I’m going to work on capturing the even smaller, more secretive ones for next time.

Best Cherry Tree EVER

We have a cherry tree that I. Just. Love.

It’s kind of special to me.  About 5 years ago, I was in Alberta giving a talk, and my host was the man who created the hybrid (it’s called an Evans’ Cherry).  It was a gift, and as far as I know we’re the only people in Ontario to possess one.    I remember distinctly: we were out on his acreage, next to one of his many greenhouses (in which he was creating any number of beautiful plants) and he handed me a stick. 

Yes, a stick.  About one foot tall.  “Put this in the ground”, he said, “and water it for a bit, then forget about it.”   I wrapped the spindly roots in wet paper towels, kept it in my hotel room for another day, then gingerly placed it in my backpack and we flew back to Ontario together.  I did as I was told: stuck it in the ground and watered it.   That little stick grew like no other plant I’ve ever seen: it’s now about 10 feet tall, 8 feet wide, and is just COVERED in gorgeous white blooms that seem to want to grow out of every available surface on every available branch.  Last year, it tried to make cherries, but only succeeded in producing a few green balls.  I’m hoping that, with an extra year of maturity, this year we’ll get some real fruit.

Flower cluster on Evans Cherry (Prunus ‘Evans’)

Which leads me to my little black friends: ants.  The ants frickin’ LOVE this tree, just love it. 

Does that not look like a happy ant? Smile for the camera!

The flowers have a hearty nectar load that makes the surrounding leaves sticky to touch, and the ants spend most of the day drunkenly diving for the sweet liquid:

Once they’ve had their fill, they grudgingly withdraw and then langorously groom sugary nectar from their slender antennae and delicate paws.

The pollen is also a hit…

The flowers attract all kinds of flies and bees as well.  We planted the right next to our back porch, so I can sit in my Muskoka chair and watch the buzz and activity in comfort.  I think I’ll have to get in touch with Dr. Evans soon as see if he can send a few more “sticks” my way 🙂

It’s pretty as long as it’s not biting me

I have to admit: this Deer Fly (more commonly known as a Get The @#$% Away From Me You @#$% Fly) was pretty.  It was feeding on the nectar of these tiny Spirea blossoms (I’m pretty sure I could spend all day hanging around this one bush and find a gazillion different species).  With its patterned wings, face dusted in yellow pollen, and rainbow-hued compound eyes, it was a pleasure to watch.

Chrysops sp. (Tabanidae)

Equally lovely, this little face peeking out from between the blooms was incredibly well camouflaged:

Misumenops celer - Celer crab spider (Thomisidae)

I only noticed it after it shifted a little when my finger (which was poking a mosquito carcass) got too close for comfort.  During my various ew-yucky-spider rants, I fear I neglected to include Crab Spiders on my (short) list of Spiders That Are Not Gross and Creepy.  I think it’s their calm, patient demeanor and beautiful cryptic coloration that I admire and appreciate.

%d bloggers like this: