Sunday, January 25, 2009

Southern (?) Twayblade

Another sure sign of early spring is the emergence of the Southern Twayblade (Listera australis). I put a question mark in the title, as the common name (and the specific name australis - meaning 'southern') imply that this is an orchid only of the south. In fact, its range extends from near Sarasota, Florida to the north well into southern Canada, so it could just as easily be viewed as a northern species as a southern one. In my native haunts of yesteryear in Tallahassee, Florida, these plants would typically emerge in mid-February and persist through mid-March, depending on the population -- some sites would tend to bloom earlier than others. One time, I encountered a very large plant blooming in mid-June in an area to the northwest of Tallahassee, although this is very atypical. In central Florida, the plants are right now in full bloom, with a few stragglers still showing buds.

It is hard to appreciate how small these plants are until you see them in person. In fact, if you do see one, don't look away before you mark the spot, as it will likely take you several minutes to relocate the plant. In fact, this very thing happened to me the first time I found one as a teenager in the woods behind my house. The plant itself consists of a small stem, often tinged with purple, that supports two teardrop-shaped leaves. The leaves are a bit unusual for a monocot, as they almost seem to support a small network of veins rather than having strictly parallel veins. Typical leaf size is about 1 inch long by 1/2 inch wide, although especially large plants can have larger, wider, almost-round leaves about 1.5 inches in diameter. I have seen around 35 flowers on these more robust plants, where the typical flower count is around 8 or 9 per stem. The flowers themselves are about 1cm long and 2-3mm wide...extremely small and difficult to appreciate without the benefit of close up photography. Seedlings consist of just a pair of leaves without the flowering stem.

Below is a photo of a typical plant.

The flower structure, although miniaturized to the point that only a few hundred cells make up the petals, are still a typical orchid flower structure. Arranged around the central column is the usual cadre of three sepals, two petals and a disproportionately large lip. The lip curls around the column and then extends downward a ways before forking into two lobes. From a distance, these flowers look like pinheads with small threads glued onto them. Below is a closeup of just the flower.

Below are a few more shots taken during this same field trip.



Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Another spring orchid.

Here in central Florida, spring is already underway. While many of the deciduous trees are still bare, several species of orchids take advantage of this greater amount of light reaching the forest floor to do their business of growing and/or reproduction.
You've already met Wister's Coralroot in a previous post. Here is another of these spring orchids...Mesadenus lucayanus (formerly known as Spiranthes polyantha in Luer's work). It's common name is the Copper Ladies' Tresses (a number of members of the genus Spiranthes and related genera are called "Ladies' Tresses" or "Ladies' Traces" because they alternately reminded folks of the braid of a woman's hair or the laces of a bodice). It bears a basal rosette of light green leaves throughout the summer and right up to when it blooms in early spring. At this point the leaves are fading or already faded, the seedlings seeming to persist a little longer than mature, blooming-sized plants.

This particular species is hard to find when in flower, its slender copper-colored spikes bearing 5mm wide flowers blending in quite well with the leaf litter that blankets the forest floor. Here are some photos taken over the weekend of this diminutive and elusive species:

Mesadenus lucayanus - flower spike

Mesadenus lucayanus - closer view of flowers on spike.

Mesadenus lucayanus - closeup view of flowers on spike.

Mesadenus lucayanus - detail from preceding photo.

Many thanks to Paul Martin Brown and Larry Roberts for cluing me into this particular locality for this species.


Friday, January 16, 2009

Visiting with the Ents

Many may not realize this, but central Florida is host to a very special tree. Named "The Senator", it is believed to be the oldest and largest baldcypress tree in the United States. Estimated to be 3500 years old, it started growing around the same time that the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt occurred. It would have already been an impressive tree around the time of Christ's birth, having been around for 1500 years then. Here are some other statistics for this tree:
  • Age: 3500 years – one of the oldest trees in the U.S.A.
  • Diameter: 17.5 feet.
  • Circumference: 47 feet
  • Height: 118 feet
  • Board feet of wood: Approximately 50,000
Here is a photo of several of my children, several of my nieces and a family friend all near the tree. Note that the perspective effects of the wide angle setting on my camera makes the tree seem smaller than it is by comparison, as they are some 30 feet or so from the tree where they are standing. If they were all standing near the base, the tree would be roughly as wide as the whole group.

This tree can be found in Big Tree Park in Lake Mary, Florida, along with its 2,000-year-old companion, Lady Liberty. The Cross Seminole Trail runs by this park as well, across US 17-92 and on into the Spring Hammock Preserve. The nearby Soldier Creek Trail boast several other large cypresses as well. To make a lame attempt to relate this back to orchids, we've seen three species along these trails, Epidendrum magnoliae, Spiranthes odorata, and Habenaria odontopetala.

Both the big trees at Big Tree Park evoke a sense of awe and wonder...each rising like a giant column out of the earth. Unlike younger cypresses which tend to be thin at the top and much wider at the bottom, these trees are roughly straight-sided all the way to their crowns high above. It is rather sad when you think that entire forests of giants like these used to roam our state before falling to the woodsman's axe.

In the presence of these ancient and mighty trees, it is easy to feel just how fleeting and ephemeral our lives really are.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Senseless... and Illegal

Today, I went hiking with several of my children at our favorite local wildlife sanctuary, owned by Audubon of Florida. Sporting a 2-mile long trail, it is open to hikers and bikers from sunup to sundown. It is really a beautiful place--a riverine swamp with hardwood trees covered in various species of Tillandsia (and even a few Epidendrum magnoliae to boot). I was, in fact, making a short jog off the main trail to check up on one of these plants. It had several seedpods and one new flower, but nothing photogenic enough to capture in pixels.

Suddenly, I hear my children are yelling "Dad, a deer!". I came over quickly, expecting to see a live deer somehow browsing fearlessly nearby despite the yells from the children. Alas, it was not so...there before our eyes was a deer carcass, not even 24 hours dead, with a huge gash in the top of its was the obvious work of poachers who wanted nothing more than the poor creature's antlers to hang up on their wall like some grisly prize. I was sickened and angered by what lay before me and what my children had to endure seeing this particular day.

Now, I am a happy omnivore and enjoy a good slab of meat on my plate, so I have no qualms with killing an animal for the purpose of eating it...but this...this was the senseless taking of a life just for a few inches of anatomy attached to its head. Further, the signs posted at the entrance and along the trail in this sanctuary make it abundantly clear that hunting is illegal in this area, so guests of this sanctuary jog, hike, and bike through the area with a sense of safety, not expecting to meet Bubba and Jim Bob with their guns pointed at them...and I seriously doubt that these were the responsible types of "hunters" who wait for a clear kill shot before shooting, so as not to wound the animal only but ensure a humane end to its life. In short, these idiots are putting human lives at risk for the purpose of their "sport", hiding in a no-hunting zone wildlife sanctuary and shooting at anything that moves.

I reported this incident to the Florida poaching hotline (aka the FWS wildlife alert hotline), along with geocoordinates from my handy GPS, at 888-404-3922. Apparently, poaching in Central Florida is becoming quite rampant, as is evidenced by this story. If you see a similar incident, please report it to the local authorities. While the senseless criminals got away with it this time, perhaps next time they won't.

Color me angry...

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Look Ma! No Leaves!

This past weekend, a colleague and I were visiting an area in central-west Florida that is host to one of Florida's rarest endemic orchid species, only found within our state as far as anyone knows - Triphora craigheadii. It is likely that it grows elsewhere in tropical America, but its small size and secretive habit makes it very difficult to see. This same site hosts a number of plants of Copper Ladies Tresses (Mesadenus lucayanus), which were in bud, but not yet in flower, their slender coppery spikes blending in quite well with the fallen leaves. As we were poring over the site, looking to see if any T. craigheadii remained aboveground, we spotted some other coppery-colored spikes in full bloom. These, however, belonged to a completely different species, Corallorhiza wisteriana, also known as Wister's Coralroot or the Spring Coralroot. This plant is most notable in that it lives its entire life without ever growing a single leaf, relying instead on a special relationship to survive.

Most monotocotyledonous plants, such as corn and wheat, include a healthy dose of energy-rich starches in the seeds, which is what makes them useful to humans as a food source.
As you may or may not be aware, orchid seeds are small and dust-like, containing only an embryo wrapped in a thin sheath without any nutrients added to the packet to get the seedling started on its new life. These seeds, in order to germinate, must fall in an area where specific fungi are growing...these fungi then begin to infect the seedling, and in the process begin to funnel nutrients through their mycelia into the plantlet. Thus, the orchid seedling begins its life in complete dependence upon the fungus. As the seedling grows, it typically develops its own leaves and begins the process of photosynthesis to produce some or most of its own nutrients. Its roots, however, will continue to host a population of these fungi, consuming bits of fungus at times, in a relationship termed myco-heterotrophy.

Coralroots are part of a unique group of orchids termed saprophytes, which continue to rely almost entirely on this fungal relationship for the necessary nutrients to live and grow. This particular species grows rather large underground root structures to host its fungi, which look a bit like a branching marine coral, hence the common name. The only clorophyll these plants ever produce is in very small quantities in the above-ground flowering stems, which come up briefly in the spring, to set seed and die back before a month has passed.

Their small flowers have a definite reptilian quality, looking like a number of tiny Cottonmouth snakes striking out at a hapless passerby. They are suffused typically with small purple polka-dots on all the floral parts, which looks particularly striking on the white lip. Here is a photo of one of the plants we saw that day. As we understand it, this was the first time this species has been observed growing at this particular site, probably because the main star here, T. craigheadii, blooms in June-July, and although Mesadenus do bloom here at this time, there is a site nearby where they are much more abundant...hence, I don't think anyone was watching this site at this time of year.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...