Wildflower Wednesday: A Look at Summer’s Blossoming Bounty with Carol Gracie

Carol Gracie, queen of  flora, is at it again. Carol Gracie

The author of Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast: A Natural History has a new project in the works. The forthcoming book, to be called Summer Wildflowers of the Northeast, isn’t technically a field guide; but we’re betting it will be no less comprehensive. In it, Gracie plans to give a full account of the fascinating history of summer wildflowers: what pollinates them, what eats them, how their seeds are dispersed, as well as their practical and historical uses. The facts are further complemented by Gracie’s striking photographs, which we’ve sampled below. Be on the lookout for this one!

Carol Gracie is an acclaimed naturalist, photographer, and writer. Now retired, she worked for many years as an educator and tour leader with the New York Botanical Garden before teaming up with her husband, Scott Mori, on botanical research projects in South America. Her books include Wildflowers in the Field and Forest.

Enjoy these beautiful photos, and let us know in the Comments section which flowers you’ve noticed so far this season.

Monotropa Uniflora (Indian Pipe)
Opuntia humifusa showing ovaries
Datura stramonium
Nelumbo lutea
Platanthera ciliaris
Oenothera biennis
Lobelia cardinalis
Parnassia glauca
Solidago speciosa
Sarracenia purpurea

Monotropa uniflora (Indian Pipe)

Indian pipe is a flowering plant that lacks chlorophyll, the green pigment that allows plants to capture the sun's energy and allow them to produce carbohydrates. Instead, Indian pipe has a relationship with a fungus that absorbs nutrients from the roots of nearby trees and transports them to the underground parts of Indian pipe.

Opuntia humifusa (Prickly pear cactus) showing ovaries

Many people are surprised to learn that we have native cactus plants in the Northeast. Yet this species and a few others are adapted to surviving our cold northern winters. The lovely yellow flowers are pollinated by several species of bees.

Datura stramonium (Jimsonweed)

Farmers consider jimsonweed to be a noxious field weed, yet it produces lovely, fragrant flowers that don't open until almost sunset. The flowers are visited, and pollinated, by moths during the night. Jimsonweed played an important role in the colonial history of Jamestown, VA.

Nelumbo lutea (American lotus)

Our native lotus is a showy aquatic plant with large, orbicular leaves and the largest native flower in the Northeast. Many parts of the plant are edible.

Platanthera ciliaris (Orange fringed orchid)

Fringed orchids are pollinated primarily by butterflies, such as this spicebush swallowtail. Other species have flowers in shades of purple, white, or greenish-white.

Oenothera biennis (Evening primrose)

As its name suggests, evening primrose has flowers that open in the evening to attract their moth pollinators. One of the pollinators, the primrose moth (Schinia florida) also feeds on the plant as a larva, and may sometimes be found resting, partially camouflaged, in the flowers during daylight hours.

Lobelia cardinalis (Cardinal flower)

The deep, brilliant red of this flower is a beautiful, but sad, reminder that summer will soon draw to a close. Found in moist areas, cardinal flower provides a nectar source for hummingbirds that are migrating south in late summer.

Parnassia glauca (Grass-of-Parnassus)

Another late bloomer, grass-of-Parnassus has strikingly patterned flowers with bold green lines on a white background. Surrounding the true stamens is a ring of false stamens, each topped by a glistening yellow or green sphere that attracts insects. Grass-of-Parnassus is found in marshy seeps on limestone soils.

Solidago speciosa (Showy goldenrod)

Showy goldenrod is one of the latest species of goldenrod to bloom, filling meadows with its bright yellow flowers. Goldenrod meadows are a wonderful place to see the many species of insects that feed on, or get nectar from, goldenrod.

Sarracenia purpurea (Purple pitcher plant)

Pitcher plants live in nutrient-poor wetlands (acidic bogs or calcium-rich fens) and must supplement their nutritional needs with insects that are captured in their tubular leaves. Certain insects have evolved to withstand the digestive enzymes secreted by the leaf and use the pitcher plant as their only domicile.

Monotropa Uniflora (Indian Pipe)  thumbnail
Opuntia humifusa showing ovaries  thumbnail
Datura stramonium  thumbnail
Nelumbo lutea thumbnail
Platanthera ciliaris thumbnail
Oenothera biennis thumbnail
Lobelia cardinalis thumbnail
Parnassia glauca thumbnail
Solidago speciosa thumbnail
Sarracenia purpurea thumbnail

Wildflower Wednesday — False hellebore

Veratrum_Caltha_Symplocarpus


© 2012 Carol Gracie.
The pleated leaves of false hellebore growing among
skunk cabbage and marsh marigold.

 

False hellebore

False hellebore (Veratrum viride) is a plant that grows in swampy areas often intermixed with skunk cabbage. Although it is a large plant with a long, upright inflorescence of flowers, it can go unnoticed because of the similarity of the leaves in size and color to those of skunk cabbage. Closer examination will show the differences: the leaves of false hellebore are pleated and grow up the stem rather than just from the ground like those of skunk cabbage.

 

Like some other wetland plants, including skunk cabbage, it has deep, tenacious roots that help hold it in place in the wet, sometimes flooded swamp.

And as with many poisonous plants, false hellebore is also important medicinally. A compound responsible for lowering blood pressure is obtained from its roots.

 

Plants do not flower until they have reached maturity at about 10 years, and then only erratically. The flowers of false hellebore must be examined closely to be appreciated. They are about 1” across and the same green as the rest of the plant with bright yellow anthers being the most noticeable part. Each tepal has a pair of nectar-producing glands at the base. Ants visit to feed on this sweet resource.

 

Learn more about false hellebore and other spring wildflowers in Carol Gracie’s book, Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast: A Natural History.

 

Wildflower Wednesday — Fringed Polygala

Polygala_paucifolia

© 2012 Carol Gracie.
Two magenta flowers of fringed polygala are held above
the glossy green leaves of this plant of the forest floor.

 


Fringed Polygala – An Instant Favorite

It’s love at first sight when a hiker catches his first view of the shocking pink flowers of fringed polygala (Polygala paucifolia). Its strangely shaped flowers might fool someone into thinking that this is a member of the orchid family, or perhaps the pea family. No other flower in the Northeast looks quite like it—that is no other flower of its size (ca. 1.5 inches long). The other members of the same genus are so tiny that they require examination with a hand lens to see the detail.

The flaring wings and propeller-like fringe on the flower’s tip give it the appearance of a small magenta airplane. Only by pressing down on the “fuselage” of the flower can you find its reproductive structures. The two sides of the flower that form the forward-pointing portion open up and the stamens and pistil are exposed—just as they would be if a bumblebee were to land on the flower. And, indeed, like many of our spring wildflowers, bumblebees are the principal pollinators of fringed polygala.

Fringed polygala often grows in large colonies and particularly favors mossy sites. A small plant, the contrasting glossy green leaves and pink flowers make a striking ground cover.

Learn more about fringed polygala and other spring wildflowers in Carol Gracie’s book, Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast: A Natural History.

 

Wildflower Wednesday — Early Saxifrage

Micranthes_virginiensis

A mature plant of early saxifrage growing
on a moss-covered rock cliff. Some of the
basal leaves are still red.

Early Saxifrage – The name “saxifrage,” from the Latin saxum meaning “rock” and frangere, “to break,” was given to members of the genus Saxifraga because many saxifrage species grow in crevices of rock cliffs where they appear to have caused the cracks in the rock. Our own early saxifrage often grows in just such places.

The plant maintains a basal rosette of leaves throughout the winter, the toothed leaves sometimes becoming bright red during that season. In spring the leaves turn green, and the flower buds at the center of the rosette open, first at ground level, and then on ever elongating and branching stems until the plant reaches 15” in height.

Saxifrages, in general, are known for their hardiness, growing in high mountains from the Alps, to the Andes, to the Himalayas. In fact, one saxifrage, Saxifraga oppositifolia, is one of only four plant species to grow in the northernmost place on earth where plants are able to grow, at 83°24’ N on Lockwood Island, off the north coast of Greenland. Recent molecular studies have resulted in almost all species of our eastern North American saxifrages being transferred to the closely related genus Micranthus; thus this species, formerly Saxifraga virginiensis, is now known as Micranthus virginiensis.