Sunday, May 27, 2007

Wildflowers of moist woods

One of the downsides to hanging out with botanists is the constant reminder of the botanist's value system. Many serious plant enthusiasts I know ignore common plants, despite the plants' natural history and prevalence in the landscape. Values are placed on plants based on rarity: a tiny, 2 cm. tall federally endangered bulrush will be the highlight of a botany outing even after the group plowed quickly through a valley full of showy tickseeds, bluestems and liatris. I know a lot of birders who have value systems, too. A wood thrush singing it's mellifluous song in plain view will be dismissed in lieu of a worm eating warbler's chip note. I'm the sucker who stops for the wood thrush before rushing after the warbler.

Appreciation for the natural world is manifest in deeply personal and complex ways which should not be judged. Nevertheless, I personally try not to be dismissive of the common plants and animals, despite how prolific they are. They're just as important to biodiversity as many uncommon and rare plants. The wildflowers below can be found not only throughout Missouri in moist woods, but in most of the eastern U.S. None of them are rare, threatened or endangered, but all are part of the matrix of the bottomland hardwood forest, they're all in bloom now and they'll continue provide nectar and seeds to insects and birds through July.

Wild petunia (Ruellia strepens) can be found in damp woods in almost every state east of the Rockies. It belongs to a large genus that includes over 150 species, most bearing the same delicate purple flower. Named after French herbalist and physician to Francois I, Jean de la Ruelle, ruellia is not a true petunia but an acanthus. The family Acanthaceae includes literally hundreds of showy South American plants. Petunias are actually members of the nightshade family, like tomatoes and eggplants.

Touch the inflated seedpod of jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), and it explodes, sending seeds everywhere. This delicate, fleshy wildflower tends to grow alongside stinging nettle (the host plant to red admiral butterflies), a plant covered in small toxic hairs that cause rather intense itching when it makes skin contact (I wear jeans all summer because of the prolific stinging nettle populations). The juice of jewelweed stops the itching caused by stinging nettle. I find it unfathomable how often this theory is tested by teenagers in the park.

Louisiana's premier naturalist, Caroline Dorman, once pondered over lizard's tail, "it's a mystery why anyone would give a horrid name to such a pretty plant." Granted, if you like lizards, the name isn't so horrid. Nevertheless, this plant is covering the forest floor, which means that there has been sufficient water to support its population this year. It's a good indicator plant of wetland status: even though the forest's water is beginning to evaporate, the clumps of lizard's tail show you where water was earlier this month. Lizard's tail (Saururus cernuus) has been especially favored by tiger swallowtails lately; it will continue to bloom well into July.

Water primrose (Ludwigia peploides) is a common plant throughout Missouri, but this year's plants represent the first population for the park in many years. This delicate yellow flower is growing for the first time since the 1980s in thick mats along the edges of the swamp. There hasn't been enough water during the spring to support it for many years. Water primrose has long stems that drift on the water's surface and "air roots," spongy, floating structures that absorb gases from the air. Snout butterflies hover in rather large groups around the floating flowers, feeding on nectar and available mud.

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