Monday, December 15, 2014

Cranefly Orchid

The evergreen leaf of the Cranefly Orchid often has purplish bumps.

     Believe it or not, winter is one of the best times to find some of our native orchids. One of these is the Cranefly Orchid, which is also our most common. Perhaps this is because it may not be as picky of which mycorrhizal fungi it needs to survive as other North American orchids. Some other native orchids, such as the Ladyslippers, are very specific of which fungi they form a symbiotic relationship with. This is why they are not only rare, but normally cannot be moved, for if the fungi dies, so does the orchid. Cranefly orchids seem less specific of the fungi they need, but are certainly not considered common. They are considered endangered in some states.
     The reason that the Cranefly Orchid stands out during winter is that it is evergreen. More so, if you flip the leaf over, it is a bright purple underneath. This makes it easy to identify and also is the reason for the second part of its scientific name: Tipularia discolor. "Tipula" is Latin for "cranefly." It is the sole member of its genus in North America.

The underside of a Cranefly Orchid leaf showing its distinctive purple color.
 
     Each plant has a single leaf that emerges in September or so, but they can form small colonies with the tuberous roots close together and thus look multi-leaved. The lone leaf disappears in late spring when the plant flowers, so mark the location now if you wish to see one in bloom. This winter leafing out is termed a hibernal leaf.

Cranefly orchids flowering at night, awaiting their moth pollinators. They are somewhat fragrant at night also, helping to attract Noctuid moths.

     The flowers bloom in late summer after the leaves have disappeared, often in August. They are not that showy to us, being small, but are very attractive to Noctuid moths which are the main pollinators. Almost all of the pollination happens at night. Despite their common name, they are not pollinated by craneflies. I have however seen the pollen bags (pollininara) attached to moths, often to their eyes.


Cranefly orchid flowers up close. Some say they look like craneflies aloft and that being the reason for the name. Others think it was a misunderstanding about their main pollinators.

 
    The small flowers are said by some to look like craneflies, leaning to one side or the other and are asymmetrical. This is said by some to have resulted in its common names of Cranefly Orchid or Crippled Cranefly Orchids. The unusual flower shape and small size has also led to another common name: Elfin Spurs.
 

Cranefly orchid seed pods.

     The tuberous roots (corms in botanical terms) are said to be edible and potato-like, but I've never tried them. I think they are much too uncommon to harvest. Best to leave them for the moths, especially since they are, like most orchids, a favorite of deer and so are becoming rarer every day with the rising over populations of deer. I hope to spot them on winter woodland walks for a long time to come.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Oak Galls


One of the Oak Apple Galls (Amphibolips spp), a type of Cynapid wasp

     Galls are growths caused by an organism (usually an insect or mite) in an another organism (normally plants). There are over 2,000 different types in North America. Each type is very uniform in shape, host plant specific, and generally only occur on specific parts of their hosts. How the gall maker induces the plant to grow in such a uniform manner is not completely understood. The gall inducer lives inside the gall, which provides protection, nourishment, and water. It is for all practical purposes, its edible home.


Oak Bullet Gall (perhaps Disholcospis globulus?), caused by a Cynapid wasp.

     I am unaware of any plant that hosts more gall species than the oaks (Quercus spp.). Over 800 kinds of galls need oaks in order to survive. The vast majority of these galls are produced by the larvae of tiny wasps in the Cynapid family. There is not much known about the life cycle itself of most gall producers, and oak gall makers are no different. Here a few that I've encountered.

Lobed Oak Gall (Cynips strobiliana) on Swamp White Oak. This Cynapid wasp is usually restricted to Bur and Swamp White Oaks.


Gouty Oak Galls (Callirhytis quercuspunctata?) caused by Cynapid wasps.


Wooly Oak Leaf Galls (Callirhytis lanata) formed by Cynapid wasps.


Oak Wool Gall, another type of Cynapid wasp.


Horned Oak Gall (perhaps Callirhytis spp?), formed by another Cynapid wasp.

     If you were to look inside any active gall, you would find the gall maker inside feeding. If you see holes on the outside of the gall itself however, there is a good chance that gall maker(s) has already exited through the opening. Galls may contain one or multiple occupants within the overall structure depending on the species. Below you can see the larvae that was living inside a pin oak gall (click to enlarge as always).

Larvae inside of an oak gall

     Although the majority of oak galls are produced by Cynapid wasps, a few are caused by some others organisms, especially various midges. A few of these are presented below.

Oak Pill Gall (Cincticornia spp?) caused by one of the gall midges.


Oak Leaf Galls (Polystephe pilulae?) caused by midges.


Vein Pocket Galls (Macrodiplosis qoruca?) caused by midges.

     This is just a small sample of the many kinds of oak galls, and I have done my best to identify them, but please realize that there is so much still left to discover about galls and disagreement about others. It is amazing what little we know of even some of the organisms that live right outside many of our homes. It just goes to show the vastness of the natural world, even that found near the nation's capitol.


Saturday, November 22, 2014

Turkey Tidbits

Two Wild Turkey hens

     Wild Turkeys have made an incredible come back. Not that long ago, all the wild turkeys were believed to have been wiped out from the DC region. Very few, if any, remained in the woods of Maryland and Virginia, and certainly none in DC. Thanks to great restoration efforts by game commissions and hunting groups, Wild Turkeys were re-introduced into their former ranges, including into Maryland and Virginia. The first efforts using farm birds failed miserably, but netting and capturing wild stock soon worked. Now they are once again part of our landscape, and getting more common each year. That landscape does not need be that wild either. They are found in even suburban areas such as Arlington and Fairfax. The photo below shows two wild turkey hens in my driveway near Kingstowne in Alexandria for example, a far from wild place! 

These two hens were in my driveway in front of my wife's van in suburban Alexandria, VA

     I now regularly see wild turkeys. Last week I saw over a dozen gobblers in a large field on the Eastern shore as well as two weeks prior in Madison, Virginia. Turkeys regularly go into open fields when it rains. Not being able to depend on the leaves rustling, turkeys instead depend on their sharp eyes to detect danger under these conditions. It's not just humans that like to eat turkeys. I've seen red foxes hunting them, even having called them in while calling for turkeys. One red fox got so close (within 5') that I could even see that it had just one good eye and that the chickadees were mobbing it. My father has seen a coyote charging into a flock, barely missing them as they flew up into the air. 

A series of turkey hunting calls, including an old time call made from turkey bones in the middle. 

     But turkeys are quite wary and hard to see most of the time. Often, I only see the signs they leave behind such as their large tracks, feathers, "paint" from their droppings under a roost, scrapes from their searching for nuts in the leaves, or just hearing them gobble. 

Wild Turkey tracks. Given their large size, these are likely from a gobbler. 

Turkey scrapes where turkeys were searching for nuts to eat, using their large feet to rake away the fallen leaves.. 

     This time of year, turkeys are in single sex flocks. The males (called "Toms" or "Gobblers") are all in one flock while the females (hens) are in another. Turkeys sleep up in trees to avoid predators, often picking evergreens to shield them from the elements and prying eyes. The ones along the Potomac River often fly onto islands in the river to roost, the water offering them an added protection from man and beast alike. Since turkeys can defecate every half hour or so, the areas under such roosts are often covered in white droppings and thus called "paint." 

Think you know a thing or two about turkeys? Here are some turkey tidbits you might not have heard, just in time for Thanksgiving:   

  • Here’s some “turkey talk”for you. A mature male turkey is called a “Tom” or “Gobbler;” a mature female is called a “Hen;” a yearling male is a “Jake;” a yearling female is a “Jenny;” and a baby is called a “Poult.” In the farm trade, a turkey under 16 weeks is a “Fryer” and those 5-7 months old are called “Roasters.” Although it’s okay to call a group of turkeys a flock, some people prefer to call a bunch of turkeys a “rafter” or “muster.”
  • Only male turkeys “gobble.” Wild turkeys are said to have 28 recognized calls in their repertoire which they use to communicate with one another. Some are given such names by hunters as the “lost call”, the “putt” (alarm call), and the “kee-kee run.”
  • Turkeys have very distinctive heads that can even change color depending on the bird’s (especially the tom’s) mood. The fleshy growth on top of a turkey’s beak that can expand and change color is called a “snood” or “dewbill.” The bumps along a tom’s mostly-bare head are called “caruncles.” The loose skin hanging below the head is often referred to as the "dewlap" or "wattle."
  • All species of turkeys are native only to the Americas, but it is said that the King of Spain as early as 1511 asked that any ships returning from the New World bring several turkeys back with them. Domestic turkeys were common on many European farms soon after. Even 200 years ago, turkeys in England were being walked to market wearing “booties” on their feet to protect them.
  • The world’s oldest domestic turkey was believed to be 12 years and 4 months old. The oldest wild turkey was thought to have been 15 years old and was found in Franklin County, Massachusetts.
  • As of December 12, 1989 the heaviest domestic turkey ever (as recognized by Guinness Book of World Records back then) weighed 86 pounds and sold at auction for $4,400 – another record. Wild turkeys typically weigh about 18 pounds for a tom and 8 for a hen. The heaviest known wild turkey weighed 36 pounds.
  • Modern domestic turkeys have been bred so large that they have to be artificially inseminated. They are not usually capable of breeding on their own. Their large size and weight causes them to suffer numerous heart, respiratory, and other health problems. Even those that are each year presented to the sitting president and given the “Presidential Pardon” at Thanksgiving rarely live more than 2-3 years after that. This tradition of pardoning a turkey at Thanksgiving is said to have been started by Lincoln in response to his son Tad's pleas. Truman then pardoned one, but this didn't become the trend until George H Bush did so again.
  • All 3,500 feathers on a turkey are shed, except for those comprising the tom's "beard.” These are special long, hair-like feathers that grow on the chests of tom turkeys (and every once in a while, a few hens). The older the bird, the longer the protruding feather beard.
  • Turkey hens lay on average 10-12 eggs on a nest hidden on the ground. The eggs normally hatch in 28 days. The poults can usually fly by the time they are 2 weeks old. Yes, wild turkeys can fly, over 40 miles per hour, but tire quickly and prefer to run up to 35 miles per hour instead. Hearing a turkey crash through the canopy when flying-scared makes it easy to understand why they prefer to run. Having almost been knocked out of tree stand by an incoming tom, I can say they are not that good at flying.
  • Where does the word “turkey” come from? Some say the English thought the birds came from Turkey. Some say it comes from a Native American Indian name that sounded like “firkee.” Others say the word is derived from “tukki,” after an Indian Tamil word meaning “trailing skirt” and used by Jewish merchants in Spain. It may also have come from the word “tuka” used in India to describe peacocks. Still others claim that it comes from the turkey’s alarm call, or “putt” that to some people sounds like “Turk! Turk! Turk!”
  • In Mexico, Aztec Emperor Montezuma received 365,000 turkeys per year as tribute from his subjects.
  • Rumor has it that the term “Tom Turkey” came about as the mocking of Tom Jefferson by Ben Franklin when Franklin opposed the turkey as our national bird. Surprisingly, the turkey was not either’s first choice.
  • Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson supposedly released turkeys into their tobacco fields to help control “green worms” (caterpillars).
  • The first TV dinner was roast turkey with stuffing, sweet potato and peas, a Swanson 98 cent special back in 1954. It was said to have been Thomas Swanson’s idea of what to do with Thanksgiving left-overs and aluminum airline trays.
  • Neil Armstrong’s and Edwin Aldrin’s first meal on the moon was turkey.
  • June is officially National Turkey Lovers’ Month.
  • White farm turkeys developed as a result of people wanting “cleaner” looking, unblemished meat on turkeys displayed for sale. Dark turkey feathers often leave blemishes where they are plucked and so were not as marketable. White turkeys were bred to compensate. 
  • In bowling, when a player bowls 3 strikes in a row it’s often called a turkey.
  • A turkey has 157 bones.
  • Henry VIII was the first English King to eat turkey. Edward VII started the tradition of eating it for Christmas.
  • Canada’s Thanksgiving is celebrated the second Monday in October.
  • North Carolina produces more turkeys than any other state. 90% of homes in the US eat turkey on Thanksgiving (that’s about 45 million turkeys!) but Israel consumes more turkey per capita than any country in the world (about 28 pounds per person!).
  • Although a lot of Native American Indian tribes ate turkey, some like the Tineh (Apache) refused to eat it or even use turkey feathers on weapons because they thought it a cowardly and timid bird. Other tribes used the fighting spurs found on the legs of gobblers as arrowheads for small game or even made turkey calls from their very wings. Many used the tail feathers as fletching to stabilize their arrows in flight.

Wild turkey feathers from a gobbler .

         So with these tidbits in mind, I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Lawns, Tiger Moths, and Woolly Bears, Oh My...

     Tiger Moths are a fascinating group of moths in the subfamily Arctiinae (formerly family Arctiidae). They are better known from their larva, the normally hairy caterpillars with the typical "woolly bear" look that we often see crossing our lawns and driveways. The hairs on the caterpillars easily come off and are uncomfortable for many animals' throats, giving them some measure of protection. Most of the caterpillars themselves are distasteful to many potential predators as well.
     They are most commonly seen while wandering about in Fall when many species are looking for places to overwinter. Many of them spend the winter in caterpillar form, under a log or otherwise hidden. They awaken the following spring and continue feeding as caterpillars for a while before pupating and emerging as tiger moths in the summer.

The Woolly Bear caterpillar, the larva of the Isabella Moth and predictor of winter weather.

     The best known and typical member of the family is the Woolly Bear or Woolly Worm, black on both ends and reddish brown in the middle. Because it curls up into a bristly ball when it is in danger, it is also sometimes called the Hedgehog Caterpillar. This is the larva of the Isabella Moth (Pyrrharcttia isabella) and folklore claims that by looking at the amount of black on its body, the severity of the winter can be forecast. The longer the black bands, the colder the winter, while the longer the brown band, the milder. The color differences are more likely due to what the larvae experienced in the past rather than what will occur in the future. They are commonly seen crossing roads, lawns, and driveways in the Fall and sometimes even on warm winter days. 
    There are several other species of woolly bear-type caterpillars in this group, only a couple of which are shown here. Most feed on a variety of low to the ground plants, overwinter as larvae, and then complete their metamorphosis the following summer, but there are several exceptions.

The Northern (Giant) Leopard Moth caterpillar, not only larger than the typical woolly bear, but also has red segments in between black bristles.

They Yellow Bear, the caterpillar of the Virginian Tiger Moth, is very variable, ranging from yellow to almost red, but always with hairs on its body of different lengths.

The Delicate Cycnia or Dogbane Tiger Moth caterpillar is usually more visible in summer, light colored on dogbane or milkweeds.

Fall Webworm Moth caterpillars are usually noticed in their web nests, but wander off to pupate.

The Agreeable Tiger Moth can be a bit variable, but is a fast moving caterpillar, often with hairless segments. 

     The adult tiger moths tend be bright colored, often white, as warning colors at night. Several of the fuzzy moths are poisonous to many potential predators. They not only announce this by their coloration, but have another means of doing so. When a tiger moth hears a bat coming after them and using its echolocation to find them, they not only take evasive action like most moths, but also vocalize back.

Delicate Cycnia or Dogbane Tiger Moth, showing the typical white coloration of the family. 

     The sounds they send out originally were believed to "jam" the bat's echolocation, but now it appears that they are actually warning sounds. They warn the bats that the tiger moths are distasteful. If they eat one, they will there after link the sound the tiger moths make with how bad they taste.

An Agreeable Tiger Moth - most tiger moths are white or light colored; the only warning colors that show up at night.
 
The Clymene Haploa is sometimes called the Upside-Down Cross Moth.


     This group of hairy caterpillars and the tiger moths they turn into are interesting and luckily fairly common. People of all ages always seem to be amused and curious when they discover them. Now perhaps we can appreciate them even more knowing more about them.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Jamestown Weed



     The story of how Jimsonweed received its common name goes back to early Virginia history. In 1676, British soldiers were sent to quell Bacon's Rebellion and were stationed in Jamestown. A plant later called "Jamestownweed" was boiled for inclusion in a salad which the soldiers ate.
     As told by Robert Beverly in The History and Present State of Virginia (1705): The soldiers presented "a very pleasant comedy, for they turned natural fools upon it for several days: one would blow up a feather in the air; another would dart straws at it with much fury; and another, stark naked, was sitting up in a corner like a monkey, grinning and making mows at them; a fourth would fondly kiss and paw his companions, and sneer in their faces with a countenance more antic than any in a Dutch droll."
     "In this frantic condition they were confined, lest they should, in their folly, destroy themselves - though it was observed that all their actions were full of innocence and good nature. Indeed they were not very cleanly; for they would have wallowed in their own excrements, if they had not been prevented. A thousand such simple tricks they played, and after 11 days returned themselves again, not remembering."
     The name of the plant used in this salad eventually was corrupted to "Jimsonweed" (though it goes by so many other names). The hallucionatory properties of the Datura genus are well known throughout the world, including in my ancestral lands of Peru where the plant goes by the Quechua names of "Chamico" or "Rurutillo." It has been used in religious ceremonies, as well as to get a high, throughout the world. It has spread from its original range in Mexico and the Southwest all over. Other names for it include: Concombre Zombi (Carib for "Zombie Cucumber"), El-rita (Morocco), Feng-chieh-erh (Chinese), Herbe Aux Sorciers (French "Sorcerer's Plant"), Tatula (Perisan), Yoshu Chosen Asago (Japanese "Exotic Flower"), and numerous Spanish names such as Hierba del Diablo ("Devil's Herb"), Manzana del Diablo ("Devil's Apple"), and Papa Espinosa ("Spiny Potato").
     In Virginia, the plant has a deep and important cultural connection. Jimsonweed played a vital role in the initiation rite of young boys into adulthood among many of the Algonquian speaking tribes such as the Powhatan. Called the "Huskanaw," this ritual lasted for many days where the young teens "died" ceremoniously and were reborn as adult members of the tribes. This was often misunderstood by the colonists who sometimes referred to this ceremony as the "Black Boy Death," perhaps partly due to the ritual painting during part of the initiation. It was believed by them that the boys actually died during the ceremony, which of course would mean a tribe would not last very long sacrificing their teens in this way.
     Rather, the boys fasted, underwent many rituals such as running a gauntlet, and partaking of a special potion which is believed to have contained Jimsonweed. This likely led to hallucinations and perhaps vision quests. Some certainly may have died, especially if they did not perform the ritual correctly, not forgetting their former lives, and having to immediately repeat the initiation in an even weaker condition. Thus this psychoactive plant played a vital role in this all-important rite of passage among these native peoples.
     I still remember working in a park many years ago when some teens approached me asking me if I was familiar with the plants in the park. They actually asked me to help them find Datura stramonium. This was likely the only scientific plant name they knew, but I'm pretty sure I know why they knew it and why they wanted to find it. A very dangerous experiment and way to get high indeed...

The Devil's Snare: Jimsonweed

Jimsonweed plant with its closed flower waiting for dusk to open.

     Few plants have as rich a folklore and history of uses as Datura stramonium, which goes by such a varied assortment of common names: Jimsonweed, Devil's Snare, Mad Apple, Thornapple, Moon Flower, Stinkweed, Hell's Bells, Raving Nightshade, Devils' Trumpet, Jamestown Weed, Locoweed, Prickly Bur, Angel's Trumpet, and Devil's Cucumber, among others. This annual herb can grow to 2-5 feet high and is a member of the Solanaceae (night shade) family. Although originally thought to be native to Mexico, it spread to our region and naturalized long ago. It has since spread to many parts of the world as well.

Its spiny seed pod has led to many common names.

     It has been used medicinally all over the world, as well as a recreational and religious drug. Medicinal uses included smoking it for asthma treatment, to treat nerves and colds (by the Chinese), and to treat impotence as well as to stupefy sacrificial victims (in India).
     Francis Porcher in his Confederate medicinal treatise praised its many applications: "A well-known narcotic and antispasmodic, employed in mania, epilepsy, chorea, tetanus, and palsy... maniacs restored to perfect saneness of mind, which they never afterward lost...The seeds are soporific, and are said to induce delirium and partial forgetfulness." He suggested using it to treat "mania without fever...nymphomania...asthma...eaten to control pains, ulcers, tumors,..and dilate pupils. I've seen the extract used to a large extent in the New York Eye Infirmary."


Seed pod and seeds

      Native peoples used it quite extensively as medicine also. The Zuni used it to relieve pain while setting bones. The Aztecs for paralysis and cuts. The Cherokee as a poultice for boils, piles, and to treat asthma and wounds. The Rappahanock would use it for fevers and pneumonia. The Navajo used it for eyes, tooth aches, and even to treat the castration wounds in their sheep.
     But its psychoactive properties were what it was best known for. Whether used in religious ceremonies in India, by the Aztec in Mexico, and even in the most important rite of passage by Virginia's native people (covered in a separate blog posting), it was often assigned religious significance. It has since been rediscovered as a recreational drug, usually utilizing the seeds as a smoking mix. But all these are dangerous practices, especially since the active ingredients of atropine and scopolamine can vary with the age of the plant, the weather conditions, and how fertile the ground is where it is growing. It can have fatal consequences very easily, particularly when its seeds are used.
     While introduced into this region, it has now become quite common. It blooms mostly at night or when the sky is cloudy, the trumpet-like flowers opening and releasing fragrance. I have often seen sphinx moths necataring at it at dusk. Better they partake in it rather than people.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Jack-o-lantern Mushrooms


Jack-o-lantern Mushrooms at the base of a tree stump.

     In honor of Halloween, here is a fascinating and fitting fungus: the Jack-o-lantern Mushroom (Omphalotus illudenss). These bright orange mushrooms can be found growing in clumps on decaying stumps and base of dead trees in the Fall. A fairly good identification trait is that they have gills that run part way down their curved stalks. As they grow older they, they often are sunken in the middle top of their caps as well.

The gills run part way onto the crooked stalk.

     Jack-O Lanterns are most famous for an eerie, though rarely seen, trait, as they can glow green in the dark! Conditions have to be perfect for this to happen though. They must be mature, but not too old, and should be moist. It also helps if it is very, very dark and you concentrate on looking at their gills. I've tried this many times but have not been rewarded that often. For the best chances, make sure you let your eyes get accustomed to the dark a few minutes, use the freshest mushrooms you can find, stare at their gills, and make it as dark as possible. Jack-o-lanterns are among the 71 or so fungi (out of over 100,000 species worldwide) that show bioluminescence.

The best my camera could do to capture the bioluminescence of the mushroom gills.

     People have confused them for edible Chantarelles (which do not grow in clumps for the most part, do not have gills running down the stalks, and often grow on the forest floor rather than on stumps or base of trees). Jack-o-lanterns are supposed to have a soapy taste. Take a bit of care though since these are considered to be poisonous mushrooms. Ingesting them won't kill you, but you will be in terrible gastric distress for a couple of days (and they say, perhaps wishing you were dead).
     It is this poisonous quality that is being studied in cancer research. It appears that several types of cancer are affected by the chemicals found in Jack-o-lanterns. They also seem to have anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties as well.
     Although not unpleasant in smell, these fungi tend to attract a lot of flies and other insects, especially once they start to decompose. I've seen lots of fungus gnats, various species of flies, and even yellowjackets all in great abundance around Jack-o-lantern Mushrooms. It may be that these insects help disperse the spores, but they may just be feeding on the decomposing flesh also. Here are a couple of photos showing some.

A pair of either Drosophilid or Lauxaniid flies attracted to the mushrooms.

A fly feeds on a Jack-o-lantern Mushroom.

     Jack-o-lantern Mushrooms are definitely one of the more fascinating types of fungi. There orangish color, emergence near Halloween, and eerie green glow I thought made them very appropriate for a Halloween post. Just don't try and make pie from them...

Jack-o-lanterns emerging

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Carpenter Bees

Carpenter Bee nectaring on Goldenrod

    Eastern Carpenter Bees (Xylocopa virginica) are not always well liked by people. First of all due to their large and intimidating appearance, and secondly due to the perceived damage they can cause wood. They look like very large bumble bees, but are not only larger, but also have bulkier heads and little to no "hair" on their abdomens. This often gives them a shiny, blue-black appearance unlike the hairy look of the smaller bumble bees.

Bumble Bee (left) and male Carpenter Bee (right) on Goldenrod

     Despite their large size, these are fairly docile creatures, very rarely stinging. The males can be told apart from females due to the white patch on their face and are the ones who likely make these bees look intimidating. They stake out a territory near wood structures that females are tunneling into. They then patrol, challenging anything that comes into their little area. Being somewhat short sighted,  they sometimes get uncomfortably close checking out who has entered their territory. They are completely harmless however, doubly so since only female bees/wasps can sting any ways. Stingers are modified ovipositors (egg-layers) so males do not have any way to sting.

Inside look at a Carpenter Bee hole

     Carpenter bees are solitary, unlike bumble bees, with a single mother building, tending, and occupying a tunnel with her young. She chews a hole into old wood and then angles off to one side where she builds separate cells for each of her young. She collects pollen/nectar to provision the chamber (cell) and then seals it off with saw dust from the next cell. You can often tell an active hole by the saw dust underneath.

Post showing both Carpenter Bee hole and and damage by woodpeckers drilling out bee larvae.

 Although this is usually just cosmetic and not structural damage, it can cause some harm and concern long term or if there are many holes. This is especially so since carpenter bees show great nest fidelity, with the young coming back and building in the same wood that their mothers used and often expanding existing tunnels even more. That means that preventing them from even starting is a huge factor in making sure they do not establish a colony. Although they may tunnel into stained wood, they do not like painted, pressure treated, or varnished surfaces. Filling the empty holes and/or screening them off also can greatly help.

Carpenter Bee cheating by robbing nectar from base of hole chewed at base of flower.

   Carpenter bees are actually beneficial insects and act, for the most part, as pollinators for many flowers. Their tongues however are not as long as some bumble bees and so sometimes cannot reach into deep flowers. That means that they sometimes "cheat" and chew a hole into the base of the flowers to steal nectar without providing pollination services, something that some other bees like honeybees also can do.

Carpenter Bee sleeping under the cover of a leaf and flowers.

     Though over the summer many carpenter bees, especially males, just hid under flowers and leaves to spend the night, many are now heading back to the holes to overwinter. They will remain dormant in these holes until spring arrives and they start the cycle all over again.
     There are many dangers to carpenter bees besides angry homeowners. One such danger is a creature who's whole existence depends on its carpenter bee hosts. A large fly called the Tiger Bee Fly (Xenox tigrinus) is often noticed hovering near carpenter bee tunnels. It is a parasatoid, laying its egg in the opening and then having its own larvae kill and eat the carpenter bee larva when it is pupating. Without carpenter bees there would be no Tiger Bee Flies, so they do not end up killing them all and are not a threat to people or the bee population as a whole.

Tiger Bee Fly
                                                                             
     Carpenter bees are not liked very much or are not well appreciated, but are fascinating and important parts of the natural world. They are intricately tied into the lives of flowers and of course the Tiger Bee Fly. Just something to think about the next time an inquisitive male buzzes you or you see one near the eaves of your porch.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Persimmon - "Fruit of the Gods"

American Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) the "Fruit of the Gods"

     Few trees have as much lore and ethnobotany surrounding them as the American Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana). Though best known for its delicious edible qualities (but only when completely ripe), it has so many other traits. It is however hard to get past the wonderful taste of the fruits of this Genus of small trees. Its scientific Genus name Diospyros translates to "Fruit of the Gods" and many would say that is indeed a fitting name. The Algonquian name for them was something akin to "putchamin" which led to the name we have for it now. 
     Even when not full of fruit (and since this tree is dioecious, only female trees produce flowers resulting in fruit), the flat, corky rectangular bark is often enough to identify American Persimmon. It is a member of the Ebony family, with very dense, strong, and almost black heartwood. The wood has been used for spindles and to make golf clubs, but it doesn't grow large enough for any real lumber uses. 

Rectangular bark typical of persimmon


Urn shaped flowers

     The leaves are simple, nondescript, and the flowers, though fragrant, are not often noticed. It seems as though the only time people notice these small trees (growing less that 70' in most cases) is when they are loaded down with fruits.

A ripe 'Simmon ready for eating

     Although many would say it is deservedly called the "fruit of the gods" when ripe, few things compare to biting into a green persimmon. They are astringent and tart to the extreme! They so completely dry out your mouth, that it is quite a memorable experience for all the wrong reasons (and a favorite prank to play on people who are uninitiated and then tricked into biting into an unripe fruit). Captain John Smith, while near Jamestown, Virginia in the early 1600's, wrote: "If it be not ripe, it will draw a man's mouth awrie with much torment." The puckered mouth is said to last up to a full day (or at least it seems that way for those of us who have tried to eat one). So astringent is the green fruit that Francis Peyre Porcher in his Civil War treatise that is often referred to as the "Confederate Ethnobotany" says that it is better than oak for tanning (and does contain tannins). 

Sweet, colorful pulp and seeds of a ripe persimmon.

     A fully ripe persimmon is something else altogether though, considered delicious by most.  Some compare the flavor to that of dates. Although many believe that 'simmons are not edible until they have been hit by hard frosts, this is simply not true. While the cold does reduce some of the tannins and makes the fruit slightly sweeter, if the persimmon falls off the tree with only a slight pull or by shaking the tree, they should be good to eat. Ripe ones should be slightly squishy and have lost most of their green coloration as well. A stem attached to the fruit is a good clue that it fell off before being completely ripe as well, and is not ready to eat.
     The fruits are full of vitamin C, can be eaten raw, used to make puddings, breads and cakes, or made into alcoholic drinks. In fact, Porcher, in his aforementioned Confederate Civil War manual, lists not one, but three different recipes for using persimmon to make beer. He also mentions that they can make a "particularly fine brandy."
          Porcher also notes that various parts of persimmon can be used to treat fevers, diarrhea, dysentery, and sore throats. Other sources report Confederate soldiers using the roasted seeds as a coffee substitute and the seeds for buttons. The lack of supplies due to Union blockades led to many sought after substitutes for goods no longer available in the South, and persimmons answered the call for many. Similarly, various tribes used persimmon not only for food but for other purposes as well. The Cherokee for example used it to treat diarrhea, sore throats, heart burn, and even hemorrhoids. The Rappahannocks made a strong spirit similar to beer out of it as well. Oil from the seeds is said to taste similar to peanuts.

Persimmon seeds

     One of the most unusual uses for persimmons though deals with folklore claiming that one can predict how harsh the winter will be by cutting a seed in half. Legend says that if you look at the split seed, you should see one of three objects. If you see a spoon, then you will be shoveling lots of snow. If you see a knife, then it will be icy cold and the wind will cut like a knife. Finally, if you see what looks like a fork, then the winter will be mild and there will plenty to eat. 
     I must admit, the seeds are not easy to slice and the insides not that easy to interpret. Having said that, below are some I cut yesterday and which I think resemble mostly spoons and a few knives. Supposedly a bitterly cold winter with lots of snow... Let's see if that prognostication has any merit this winter.

Persimmon seeds split in half, showing mostly spoons and some knives (open to interpretation)

     Animals of course also make use of persimmon trees. Forty-six different species of caterpillars have been documented feeding on them. The fruits are consumed by numerous animals, though seem to be a favorite of raccoons, possums and foxes in particular. In fact, their scat often have persimmon seeds in them this time of year and they are likely the main dispersers of these trees. They're sometimes even called "possum trees."
     I thoroughly love to eat persimmons. They can hang on the trees for most of the winter. Though they may be shriveled, they still are quite tasty and a nice surprise on what might be an otherwise dreary day, assuming the cold has preserved them that is.