Ladies’-tresses

Slender Ladies'-tresses, Spiranthes lacera

We were at our Maplewood Bog MAPS station today. This is our second year running it, so we’ve already got one season under our belts. Although the exact dates that we’re visiting this year differ from last, the protocol for operations states that we must make seven visits approximately evenly spaced between last week of May and first week of August, so we do still get to see the site across the season. So it was with a bit of surprise that I noticed on this visit some wildflowers that I hadn’t seen there before, either this year or last. The discovery of new-to-me species wouldn’t be too noteworthy in and of itself, except for the fact that these were right beside the path. I mean right beside, like I could have stepped on them right beside. How had I missed them? Could they possibly have been present last summer and I’d just overlooked them?

Slender Ladies'-tresses, Spiranthes lacera

Perhaps part of the reason I might not have noticed is that they’re pretty small. Each flower is tiny, just a few millimeters wide. The stem itself is a little taller, but few were more than a foot/30 cm.

I thought I recognized that spiraling pattern of the flowers, either from browsing field guides or from some online research I’d done at some point. I had a suspicion that the plant was an orchid, but it was only confirmed when I returned with my camera and was able to get a photo of the flowers I could zoom in on (being close to the ground as they were and not wanting to cut any, it was tricky to see closely otherwise). They have that full lower lip and the two thin side petals that I tend to associate with orchids.

Slender Ladies'-tresses, Spiranthes lacera

The exact identity remained a mystery until I got home; I couldn’t even remember the common name of the group of orchids it belonged to. However, the answer was easily found: these are Slender Ladies’-tresses, Spiranthes lacera. This is one of the more common of the five species of Spiranthes that have been recorded in Lanark county (where our home is; Maplewood Bog is actually in Frontenac county, but they’re close enough that much of the flora is shared, and I only have a detailed checklist for Lanark). The Frontenac Provincial Park species checklist only lists four ladies’-tresses. They are much smaller than I thought ladies’-tresses were, and if they didn’t have that spiraling pattern I might not have clued in.

Slender Ladies’-tresses are the easiest to identify because, as their name implies, they have a very slender flower stem compared to the others. The “ladies’ tresses” part supposedly comes from the fact that the flower formations resemble the braids of long-haired women (particularly in some other species where there are double-spirals, instead of the single spiral as seen here). The Lanark checklist specifies that the species is found in dry, rocky meadows, and the spot at Maplewood sure fits the bill. The flower in July and August, and the leaves, present in the spring as a basal rosette, wither before the flowers open. Apparently they have a sweet scent, but I didn’t try sniffing them.

It is interesting to note that in that first photo, at the top, two of the stems spiral clockwise while the third spirals counterclockwise. I gather that this is a genetic difference akin to the right- or left-handedness of people. The flowers themselves grow with the thick lower lip at the top, and perform a 180-degree twist prior to opening so that the lip will be presented at the bottom of the flower (this is a characteristic true of most orchids; if you own potted indoor orchids, try watching the flower buds as they open).

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Shinleaf

Shinleaf

I did brave the woods – briefly – on Sunday afternoon, the only nice, sunny day we’ve had here during my stay. The mosquitoes were not deterred by the sunshine and especially not in the woods, and though I’d taken my camera I barely slowed down during the whole walk, which took me the approximately 1.1 km (0.7 mi) to the back of the property and back. I made one single stop, battling mosquitoes for the roughly 23 seconds I paused, to take a few photos of these flowers. On the way out I’d only noticed one, which happened to be growing right in the middle of the trail, and then a couple more nearby. On the way back, now that I was looking for them, I saw quite a few more near the trail edges. One of the reasons they’d particularly grabbed my attention was because there’d been one growing at our Blue Lakes MAPS site at our last visit, which I’d intended to get a photo of but forgotten whenever I passed by.

Shinleaf

I didn’t recognize the flower as one I’d encountered before, and had to look it up. My mom has quite a nice field guide called Forest Plants of Central Ontario, and a quick flip through the book turned up the flower. It’s Pyrola elliptica, which is most commonly known as Shinleaf, or less often Waxflower Shinleaf or White Wintergreen. As the last name suggests, it’s a type of wintergreen, in the family Pyrolaceae (the wintergreen family). The book lists five species of Pyrola in central Ontario, all of which look fairly similar. Shinleaf can be told apart from the others by its leaves, which are about the same length, or longer than, their stalks, and which taper into the stalk rather than having a clear point where the stalk joins the leaf.

Interestingly, it’s completely unrelated to what we typically associate with the name “Wintergreen”, Gaultheria procumbens, as the latter is actually part of the heath/blueberry family, Ericaeae. It’s this latter plant that we associate with the scent/flavour of wintergreen.

Shinleaf

Pyrola elliptica is found throughout the deciduous and mixed forests of the northern hemisphere, on both Eurasia and North America. It’s a common species, occurring south through the Appalachians in the east as far as North Carolina, and down the Rockies in the west to New Mexico. It favours moist woods, and certainly much of my parents’ forest is damp or swampy.

Its name comes from its historic medical use as a topical salve and pain-reliever; crushed leaves were applied to bruises or injuries, and the aspirin-like compounds in the leaves would ease pain. Such pastes were called “shin plasters”, hence the name. It and other members of the Pyrolaceae have evergreen leaves, remaining green even under the winter snows, which provides the group’s common name of wintergreens.

Wildflowers

Meadow wildflowers

This was actually supposed to be yesterday’s Sunday Snapshots, but I’ve been without internet for the last couple of days. I’m housesitting for my parents while they’re away touring the GaspĂ© Peninsula of Quebec. The internet was acting up on me when I arrived, and then it quit altogether. I finally left the modem and router unplugged for the night. This morning they seem to be functional again. The up-side to being without a connection for a while is that one tends to find one’s productivity greatly increases without the distraction… I made some good progress with the moth guide, and that’s a good thing.

Dan actually called yesterday to make sure I was alright as he hadn’t heard from me, and I hadn’t posted to the blog – which seemed a funny point to notice, but then, I do try to keep it regularly updated. Providing the connection here continues to cooperate (knock on wood) I should be back to normal.

Meadow wildflowers

The photos today are from the meadows that make up about a quarter of my parents’ 65-acre property. It might be the loveliest summer wildflower display I’ve seen. Certainly our own fields at Tay Meadows are only intermittently scattered with flowers; most fields I see are mostly grass. I attribute the profusion of flowers here to the fact that the area was grazed over by horses for a while, before my parents bought the place. The horses would have eaten the grasses but largely ignored the wildflower vegetation, which allowed the flowers to get a strong foothold in the soil – one of the reasons that artificial wildflower gardens often fail is that the grass, which is a stronger competitor, moves in before the wildflowers can become fully established. Whatever the reason it’s there, it makes for quite a lovely scene.

Meadow wildflowers

I didn’t actually pause to identify all the species of flower present in the meadow while I was out there – we’ve had so much rain here this spring that the swamps and vernal pools that are normally nearly dry by July are still quite full of water, and have been breeding mosquitoes like mad. I didn’t put any bug spray on as I quite dislike the stuff and only use it if I anticipate having to pause in one spot for long periods (for instance, when we’re out doing MAPS I have to apply it, though I’m careful to cleanse my hands afterward).

From the photo, though, I can spot the following species: Black-eyed Susan, Ox-eyed Daisy, Cow Vetch, Red Clover, Alsike Clover, Yellow Hop Clover, Philadelphia Fleabane, and St-John’s Wort. And although I don’t think any made it into the photos, there’s also Bird’s-foot Trefoil, Swamp Vervain, and Common Yarrow, that I noticed out there.

Meadow wildflowers

Spurge

Leafy Spurge

When I first arrived at Innis Point at the start of the banding season, one of the first wildflowers I noticed were these brightly-coloured yellow ones. They reminded me an awful lot of the spurge that I had growing in my garden, even if the shape wasn’t quite right. They were growing in pockets here and there of one or two or four individuals. On one lovely warm sunny afternoon I saw quite a few with native ladybugs on them. I was quite taken with them, because they were somewhat unusual and showy.

In looking them up once I was home, it turns out I wasn’t far off in thinking they seemed like my garden spurge. They’re Leafy Spurge, Euphorbia esula, so are from the same genus. These ones happen to be an introduced species, however, first found in Ontario in 1889. Over the last century they’ve spread very well. Their seed capsules explode the same way we might think of those of touch-me-nots doing, flinging seeds up to 5 meters/yards away. Seeds growing near water also float and can be distributed that way. Broken roots can develop into new plants. They’re very prolific. As most well-established introduced species that populate our roadsides and disturbed areas seem to be.

I didn’t try picking any, and it seems that it was just as well: the sap can apparently cause chemical burns to sensitive skin, and even cause blindness if you get it in your eyes. Leaves bundled up with hay that start to decay, or decayed leaves eaten by animals among their natural forage in the field, can be poisonous. Ironically, the genus name Euphorbia is taken from the name Euphorbus, physician to King Juba II of Numidia some two thousand years ago. He apparently used a plant of this genus as an herbal remedy, once to cure the king’s stomachache.

Leafy Spurge

Promises

Trout Lilies

I suppose it must simply be because of this early spring we’ve experienced this winter, all the snow gone by mid-March, but I seem to be getting ahead of myself this year. I was absolutely convinced that by this time last year the slope leading down to the water at the lake house had been carpeted in wildflowers. That I hadn’t yet seen any wildflowers here I attributed to the fact that we were slightly farther north, didn’t have same sort of nice exposed eastern slope, and – yes, I’ll admit it – I still miss the lake house and have a slightly biased view of it having been a better-quality habitat. Or richer in biodiversity, anyway. I hadn’t seen any evergreen hepatica leaves in our forest here, and so I just figured all those lovely spring wildflowers that I seemed to remember popping up at the cusp of April, the hepaticas and spring beauties and Dutchman’s breeches, must not occur around here.

I’m slowly coming to realize that, as much as I loved that spot, and it did perhaps have a slightly higher number of provincially rare species, much of what was found there I can also find here. I went out into the woods yesterday afternoon to see if there were any signs of spring ephemerals yet. Any at all, and I was fully prepared to not find anything, since, after all, I hadn’t spotted any hepatica and it should be visible as soon as the snow’s melted. I was pleased when I came across a patch of Trout Lily in one of the little patches of trees left in the middle of the first meadow. Just the leaves so far, the flowers will be a while to come yet. But it will still be nice to have that splash of colour on the forest floor.

Dutchmen's Breeches

I wandered through another patch of trees without seeing anything, and then ducked into an area that’s effectively just part of the expansive woods that fill the neighbour’s property, distinct only in that a cedar rail fence runs through it, half a dozen meters from the edge of the trees, defining the boundary between the two properties. I found some more Trout Lily, and then, a short distance away, some frilly leaves that I recognized at once. Dutchman’s Breeches! I looked more carefully, and sure enough there was another patch, and then another. One or two even had flower stems with half-formed flower buds on them, promising of good things to come. Oh, how exciting!

Dutchmen's Breeches

I pushed on, looking more carefully now. Probably they hadn’t been present a week ago when I wandered through, or maybe I just wasn’t looking in the right spots then, but now as I looked I discovered there was quite a bit of the wildflower. In one spot, on a fairly steep east-facing slope, there were even a couple of plants with nearly fully-formed flowers. That’ll teach me to doubt!

white trillium

I found a few other things while searching the forest floor, too. I turned up two trilliums, this one with a flower bud. I don’t think of trilliums as blooming until two or three weeks after this other stuff, so this individual seems quite early to me. It looks like it will be a white flower – perhaps not a great surprise, as that’s the most common colour in our forests.

Spring Beauties

In a few spots there were these small, tapered leaves, growing in pairs, scattered in patches. I didn’t know what they were and I walked right by them at first. Then one caught my eye: it had flower buds! Looking more closely, it turned out that these were Spring Beauties, not yet opened. Another I hadn’t expected to see here! Neither the Dutchman’s Breeches nor the Spring Beauties grew in the mixed-wood forest where I grew up, and I’d come to regard them as a Carolinian species. I knew that pseudo-Carolinian habitat extended up from the Kingston area along the Frontenac Arch, where we were at the lake house, but figured we were too far north here for them, especially when there weren’t any hepaticas. I know, I know – I hinged quite a lot on the presence or absence of those hepaticas.

flowering grass sp

And finally, a flowering grass, which I almost passed by before I realized it was blooming. I’m not sure what species this is; I tried looking it up, but without success. There are just so many species, and searches are complicated by all the cultivated varieties available for gardens. So it will have to remain unidentified.

This afternoon I looked up my wildflower post from last year. Sure that it had been in the first week of April, I was surprised to discover I’d posted it on April 17. The photos used in it were taken on April 14. So we really are right on time this year.