Sunday, February 26, 2017

Late Winter in Connecticut

Sugar Maple and melting snow, Feb. 21, 2017.
 It's that time again: late winter in New England, when the sun is getting noticeably stronger, life in the woods is stirring, and a young man's fancy turns to thoughts of sap. It's been another mild season overall, but with periods of typical cold and a fair amount of snow. The Sugar Maple sap run was pretty good since Valentine's Day, but incredible warmth the past few days (a new all time high for the month of February in Boston yesterday, for example) has wiped out the snow cover and stopped the flow for the time being. There are some cold snaps in the forecast into early March, so maybe the sugaring season isn't quite done yet. My only boil so far was about 12 gallons of sap, yielding a quart and one cup of syrup, for a 38:1 ratio.

Honeybees bringing in Skunk Cabbage pollen, Feb. 25, 2017.
 Honeybee survival has been acceptable for the winter of 2016-17 to date, with six out of seven hives in the home yard doing well (and the one loss being a small colony that was looking troubled even back in October). I was surprised to see them bringing in fresh pollen yesterday, especially since just last weekend I was out snowshoeing in the woods.

Symplocarpus foetidus (Skunk Cabbage) with Huperzia lucidula (Shining Clubmoss), Feb. 25, 2017.
The pollen was coming in from Skunk Cabbage, always the earliest significant bee forage source in Connecticut. Skunk Cabbage produces only pollen as a pollinator reward, so the bees will probably have to wait several weeks at least, depending on the weather, for their first big nectar harvest of the spring, from Red Maple and willow flowers. They might get a little taste of nectar on warm days between now and then from early cultivated bulbs like snowdrops and crocus. 

Skunk Cabbage emerging from a quiet stream in Mansfield Center, Ct.


Monday, February 13, 2017

Dodder Cultivation

Cuscuta europaea on a sad Coleus, with flowers and mature fruits.
Dodders (genus Cuscuta) are twining parasitic plants in the morning glory family (Convolvulaceae). Cuscuta plants are holoparasites, which have non-functional scale leaves and have lost the ability to make chlorophyll, and thus are completely dependent upon host plants for all of their nutritional needs. Cuscuta europaea is an annual species that thrives on a wide variety of hosts, and is one of the easiest parasitic plants to cultivate indoors or in a greenhouse.

Cuscuta europaea seeds and one week seedlings.
Dodder has small seeds, and the nearly rootless, filamentous seedlings must attach to a host plant soon after germination, or they will quickly exhaust their resources and die. It seems to be beneficial to scarify the seeds by rubbing them lightly on sandpaper; otherwise germination can be poor. The seeds can be sown on the soil surface next to an appropriate host plant. I've used Coleus hybrids with good results, but C. europaea isn't picky and a wide variety of common garden plants work, including Impatiens, sunflowers and tomatoes. Cuscuta seedlings latch onto smaller, tender shoots more easily than to older host growth, so freshly established Coleus cuttings are a good starting point.

Cuscuta europaea, young seedlings establishing on Coleus.
Only a fairly low percentage of dodder seedlings manage to wrap around a host stem and form haustoria--the nutrient-absorbing connections to host vascular tissues. If successful, the peg-like vestigial root and lower parts of the dodder seedling wither away, while the portion in contact with the host remains alive. The live portion of an establishing seedling spends a week or so as a tiny yellowish ring around the host stem, not putting on much obvious growth, perhaps while the haustoria are working their way into position. After they get organized, though, young dodder plants explode into growth, sending branching stems in every direction and establishing new haustorial connections to their host plant wherever they make contact, and eventually reaching outwards to infest other compatible plants within reach.

Cuscuta europaea, one month old and spreading.
Cuscuta europaea reaches maturity within a month or two of germination, producing clusters of small, pale, non-showy flowers. These are self-pollinating, and almost all of them yield papery fruits containing several viable seeds, even in the absence of any pollination agents. This particular dodder species is short-lived, and begins to slowly decline as the seeds start ripening and the host plant loses vigor. The plants will hang on for six months to a year before dying out completely, assuming they don't kill their host outright, but need to be restarted from seed periodically. Dodder stems trained onto fresh hosts can be severed from the original plant after they have formed haustoria, and these cuttings often seem to be reinvigorated, at least temporarily. Dodders are potential invasives, so old plants with seeds should be disposed of in a way that the seeds will be destroyed or not potentially spread into the environment.

Ironically, C. europaea is itself easy pickings for common greenhouse insect pests like aphids and mealybugs. It's possible to control these with the usual insecticidal soap or appropriate pesticides, but often it seems to make more sense to just start over with a fresh sowing of seeds, given how quickly C. europaea grows. Many aphid species can be controlled with a minute parasitic (technically a parasitoid, since it invariably kills its host. Like Aliens.) wasp, Aphidius spp. Aphidius themselves are sometimes subject to infection with hyperparasite wasps such as Dendrocerus. Parasites on parasites on parasites on parasitic plants on hapless green plants; an appropriate vignette of how the natural world works, to think about during this Darwin Day season.