Sunday, January 8, 2017

Spanish Moss Cold Hardiness II

Tillandsia usneoides that spent much (but not all) of the winter of 2015-16 outdoors in Mansfield, Connecticut.
A while back I wrote about the cold hardiness potential of Tillandsia usneoides (Spanish Moss). Last winter was a very warm one, and for a while it looked liked some experimental clumps of T. usneoides, the hardiest bromeliad, might make it through a whole year outdoors in New England. A specimen brought indoors on February 10, 2016, perked up in a cool greenhouse with no sign of frost damage.

However, one of the worst cold snaps in recent years started just a few days later, with five days around the weekend of February 13 not seeing temperatures above freezing at all, and the arctic outbreak reaching a nadir with a day with high temperatures only reaching 10°F (-12°C), lows of -10°F (-23°C), and howling winds. Although this was only a brief interlude in a record warm season, it was enough to kill all the T. usneoides material that was left outdoors.

Periods of more than a week without above-freezing temperatures, or absolute low temperatures below 0°F (-18°C) seem to cause severe or fatal damage to unprotected Spanish Moss. This winter in Connecticut we've already experienced enough cold weather to cause almost total dieback, but I wonder if some year soon we'll have conditions where T. usneoides survives an entire southern New England winter, and resumes normal growth in the spring?

Monday, November 14, 2016

Conophytum Flowers

Conophytum plants in flower. Conophytum cubicum up front with white flowers, C. burgeri pink at left, C. irmae yellow at front right, etc. etc.
  Here in New England, we're just reaching the end of the main flowering season for Conophytum (family Aizoaceae), my favorite group of dwarf succulents from South Africa (and slightly into Namibia). These plants grow during the cooler, shorter-day part of the year, and the majority of species bloom at the start of the growing season. For me, that's October, but in their native Southern Hemisphere habitat, they mostly bloom in April. A few species bloom earlier or later in the year, and a couple, like Conophytum bachelorum (purple plants at front left in the photo above), strictly flower in the late winter and spring.

More Conophytum flowers at a University of Connecticut greenhouse, October 2016.
The 100 or so species of Conophytum show a tremendous range of floral colors, but in all cases have a floral tube with a supply of nectar as a reward for pollinators. The tube is formed by the fused bases of the petals, which, technically, are thought to be modified stamens ("petaloid staminodes") in this family. The brightly colored daytime flowers that are most obvious in these photos are probably pollinated primarily by bees, long-tongued nectar drinking flies, and butterflies. They open on sunny days, close up at night, and tend to have only a faint, pleasant smell.

A number of species, like Conophytum calculus (grey-green spheres at lower left in the second photo), have nocturnal flowers that open fully after dark and produce strong sweet and spicy fragrances. Nocturnal Conophytum flowers are frequently a pale, dull yellow or straw color, but white, pale pink and dark bronze also occur. Nocturnal Conophytum flowers will only open properly at night if it has been sunny during the day. On the night after a dark, cloudy day, they remain closed, in what could be an adaptation to prevent the flowers from getting ruined by rain.

Monday, October 31, 2016

A Trip to Boston Hollow

Westford, Connecticut
I'm located in a more or less suburban neighborhood close to the University of Connecticut, which is practically a small city. The northeast quadrant of Connecticut is called the Quiet Corner for a reason, though, and if you travel just a few miles to the north and east, the landscape becomes pretty rural for the Nutmeg State. Westford, Connecticut is a tiny cluster of nineteenth and eighteenth century houses and a church within the town of Ashford. Taking the road east from Westford, the houses thin out and you enter an almost unpeopled landscape of swamps, overhanging cliffs and dark hemlock groves: Boston Hollow.

Campaign sign spotted by the road in Westford. "Sunken R'lyeh has the best leaders, tremendous, not like we have in this country. Great Cthulhu says nice things about me, folks, nice things, believe me. A strong leader, I hear him in my dreams, not like the dishonest media says. The Old Ones don't win anymore. Sad."
New England horror author H.P. Lovecraft's most famous creation is probably the invertebrate deity-whatzit Cthulhu, who is also a perpetual third party candidate for president (slogan: "Why settle for the lesser evil?"). Lovecraft was a Providence native, and his decadent hill towns with terrifying secrets were based mostly on certain backwards settlements around Springfield, Massachusetts. But he certainly was also familiar with eastern Connecticut, and parts of Ashford have a definite Lovecraft Nation feel about them.

Ashford was a prosperous farming community in the early nineteenth century, with 2661 residents in the 1830 census. It entered a steep decline in the mid-1800s, however, and was down to less than 700 residents around World War I. The region might have been very nearly abandoned in the early twentieth century, if it hadn't been for an influx of Eastern European immigrants looking for cheap farm land. The town has made a comeback since the mid-twentieth century, but as late as the 1970s, there were houses without electricity or indoor plumbing in the area, and some old-timers made a living with activities like burning piles of logs encased in earth to make charcoal, and cutting Witch Hazel branches for medicinal preparations.

Road through Boston Hollow
The history of Boston Hollow has also followed a Lovecraftian trajectory, from bustling center of activity, to nearly forgotten backwater. An important Native American route, the Old Connecticut Path, passed through the area, and the Hollow was part of the Center Turnpike, a major thoroughfare between Boston and Hartford at the peak of Ashford's first period of prosperity in the 1830s. Today Boston Hollow is part of the Yale Myers Forest, the road receives barely any traffic at all, and the Hollow is probably about just about the quietest corner of the Quiet Corner of Connecticut.

Not-quite the Old Man of the Mountain, in Boston Hollow.

Hemlock forest on the steep sides of the Hollow.
The deep, shaded ravine in the heart of Boston Hollow is cooler and damper than surrounding areas, and just about all available surfaces on the forest floor seem to be covered with ferns, mosses and lichens. Striped Maple, an understory shrub or small tree that is common in the north woods of New England, occurs all over the steep slopes of the Hollow, but is otherwise an uncommon sight this far south.

Peligera cf. canina, Dog Lichen
Umbilicaria mammulata, Smooth Rock Tripe
I noted a couple of interesting lichens on a recent foray into Boston Hollow. Rock Tripe is large and impressive (as lichens go) lichen that is not uncommon in the right sort of habitats in Connecticut: shaded and undisturbed rock faces and large boulders. It gets especially abundant and luxuriant in Boston Hollow, though, along with Rock Polypody (Polypodium virginianum), a poikilohydric or "resurrection" fern, which can dry to a crisp in drought, then rehydrate and reanimate itself when rain returns. There were also some blackish patches of Dog Lichen, with reddish sporocarps (fruiting structures), which I haven't seen very often, but which does also grow in a bare spot in my yard, for some reason.

There is a lot to explore around Boston Hollow, with close to 8,000 acres of forest preserved for research by Yale, a number of nearby state parks, and large additional parcels of forested land owned by a local timber company. But, and maybe it's just because I'm originally a New York City native, it's hard to shake the feeling that the place is just a little too far from the madding crowd, and decidedly not the sort of woods where you would want to be caught after dark on Halloween.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Albino Woodland Plants

Albino Fagus grandifolia, Meredith, NH, July 2016.
Albino plants, which have lost the ability to make the green pigment chlorophyll, show up occasionally among seedlings or as abnormal growth from an established plant. This summer, I've noted a couple of photosynthetically-challenged native plants in my travels, including the American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) above. American Beeches send up root-borne shoots as a method of vegetative reproduction; in this case something went wrong with chlorophyll synthesis in part of the root system of a normal mature beech, and there were several pale shoots like this in a small area of the forest floor. The albino shoots are supported by sugars produced by the original green, photosynthetic portions of the clonal grove of trees. The albino beeches were in a pine/maple/hemlock forest near Winnesquam Lake in New Hampshire.

 Albino Cypripedium acaule, Mansfield Center, Ct, May 2016.
Back in Connecticut, I discovered an immature Pink Lady's Slipper with a completely albino leaf. This was the first time I've seen a true albino form of this woodland orchid, though apparently others have been photographed, including one that grew to flowering size. Almost all orchids have minute seed and seedlings that cannot survive on their own at first, relying on symbiotic fungal hosts from which they absorb the nutrients they need to grow. All Pink Lady's Slipper seedlings go through a subterranean phase that can last several years, when they produce no foliage at all. Presumably, an albino Cypripedium seedling can survive for an indefinite period, by relying on its parasitic relationship with fungi long after normal green plants would be making most of their own food. 

White flowered Cypripedium acaule, Mansfield Hollow.
Back around Memorial Day I revisited the white-flowered Pink Lady's Slipper that I found two years ago in Mansfield Center, Ct. It's still doing well, although I looked last year and couldn't find it; possibly it skipped a year without blooming.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Carnivorous Plant Meeting at UConn

Carnivorous plant collection at the UConn Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Teaching and Research Greenhouses.
The New England Carnivorous Plant Society held their May 14 meeting at the University of Connecticut. Activities included a tour of the botanical teaching collections, which include a good selection of carnivores. After the business portion of the meeting was concluded, some of us headed to the Dunhamtown Forest preserve, less than a mile from the center of campus, to look for some of the local carnivorous plants and other spring wildflowers. 

Dunham Pond, Storrs, Ct.
We hiked on the trails to the bank of Dunham Pond. The pond is a natural body of water, and is probably a kettle pond dating back to the last ice age, formed as a depression left behind by the melting of a large residual mass of ice left behind by the glaciers. Dunham pond hosts several species of aquatic Utricularia (bladderworts), but it was too early to see any sign of these. Purple Pitcher Plants (Sarracenia purpurea) also grow in the preserve, but in a very difficult to access swampy thicket, so we didn't get chance to visit them this time. There is an old herbarium record of Sarracenia flava, one of the large, upright southern pitcher plants, naturalized at Dunham Pond. These must have been planted out by a local botanist, and there is no sign of them surviving today.

Arisaema triphyllum, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, in the Dunhamtown Forest.
Various spring wildflowers were in bloom along the trails, such as Canada Mayflower, Wood Anemone, and Jack-in-the-Pulpit, one of our local aroids. People often misidentify the inflorescences of Jack-in-the-Pulpit for pitcher plants, but no one from the NECPS was going to make a rookie mistake like that.

Drosera rotundifolia, the Round-leaf Sundew.
In the end, the only carnivore we saw at Dunham Pond was Drosera rotundifolia. This is the only sundew (of two potential local species) that occurs at the site. The plants were fairly abundant on Sphagnum moss tussocks, and sometimes growing directly in rotting wood on waterlogged fallen tree trunks.

Sarracenia purpurea in Willington, Ct.
A few of us took a break after the walk at the UConn Dairy Bar, and decided to head to another nearby bog, in Willington, Connecticut, to see Purple Pitcher Plants. The bog, a classic site for UConn biology field trips, is a floating Sphagnum mat with one of the most vigorous populations of S. purpurea that I know of, and also plenty of Round-leaf Sundews. It was a little early for the pitcher plants, which were just starting to produce flower buds and only had overwintered pitchers from last season. 
Rhododendron canadense, Rhodora, in early May, Willington, Ct.
Rhodora, a Rhododendron of bogs and swamps in the Northeast was in full bloom. This low shrub was growing in a couple of scattered spots on the Sphagnum mat, among the pitcher plants and a much more abundant ericaceous shrub, Chamaedaphne (Leatherleaf).