Wednesday, July 18, 2012


Pickerelweed -- © Dave Spier

In the world of emergent, aquatic plants, Pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata) is similar in size and habitat to the Arrowheads and Arrow Arum, but instead of having arrowhead-shaped leaves with pointed lobes, it has leaves more like an upside-down heart. These are held erect above the water by stiff stems. The leaf veins are linear (non-feathery and non-branching) and generally follow the outline shape of the leaf. In the spring, young curled leaves can be collected and added to salads or boiled for 10 minutes and eaten like a cooked green.

Pickerelweed (named for the pickerel fish which frequents the same habitats and sometimes hides under the plants in some locations) is common along sunny, shallow margins of rivers, streams and ponds in much of the eastern half of North America. Even though the plant can reach a height of three feet or more, some of that is underwater. A thick pad of fibrous roots anchors the colonies in the mud. Pickerelweed is intolerant of shade so you’re unlikely to find it in wooded swamps.

The showy blue to blue-violet flowers are arranged in distinctive clusters called spikes at the top of thick, fleshy stalks. Use binoculars to look at the individual flowers if you don’t want to get your feet wet (and don’t have waders or a canoe/kayak at the moment). Each blossom is 2 lipped, and each lip has three lobes for a total of six "petals." Most wildflowers have golden anthers that produce yellow pollen, but the Pickerelweed has dark blue anthers. Instead, a double yellow spot on the top-center "petal" serves as a guide for bees and insects to reach the nectar. Pickerelweed is popular for water gardening because of the attractive blue-violet flowers.

Seeds produced by cross-fertilization are sometimes eaten by Black Ducks and Wood Ducks. Muskrats may also eat a few seeds as well as some of the foliage, and deer feed on the plant. The nutritious, starchy seeds can be eaten like nuts or added to granola, but they are small. It takes roughly 5000 seeds to weigh a pound. They can also be roasted and ground into flour.

The perennial Pickerelweed is a monocot, meaning that each seed produces a new sprout with one (mono) seed leaf, just like cattails, lilies and irises (all plants with parallel-veined leaves). Another similarity with lilies is the trumpet-shaped flowers with six fused petals.

The shed nymph cases of dragonflies and mayflies may sometimes be found clinging to the plant stems. The previous occupants, after spending their youth underwater, climbed into the air, split the shells and emerged to spend the remainder of their lives above water.

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Thursday, July 5, 2012


Bunchberry -- © Dave Spier

Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis, subgenus Chamaepericlymenum) is essentially a miniature Flowering Dogwood, hence its nickname, Dwarf Dogwood or Dwarf Cornel.

What look like white petals are actually bud scales or bracts. They surround a dense cluster of tiny flowers, each with its own set of four yellow petals that nearly require a magnifying glass. What's unusual is the speed with which each flower opens. The highly-elastic petals snap back to release spring-loaded stamens which then catapult the pollen into the air. The plant generally blossoms in June, but sometimes later.

The flowers and later the fruits are held on a stem above a whorl of generally six strongly-veined leaves (two large plus four smaller ones growing from the axils). The leaf veins converge again toward the pointed tips in typical dogwood fashion. Unlike its woody relatives, the herbaceous Bunchberry dies back to its roots and rhizomes at the end of the growing season.

Bunchberry prospers in acidic soils over an extremely wide elevation range from low swamps through moist, intermediate forests to high alpine zones on Mt. Marcy. It has a wide geographic range across Alaska, all of Canada, the northern states and down through the Rockies, but it doesn't stop there. Bunchberry is also found in the montane and boreal zones of China, Russia and Japan

Look for its clusters of bright scarlet-red "berries" (actually drupes) from mid-August through September. They are edible, but considered tasteless. Eat them raw or cook like a pudding or make the fruits into jelly. Birds (grouse, veery, vireos, etc.) also eat the fruits and deer browse the perennial plants that often grow in clonal colonies.

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