Watching Winter Aconite, a Spring Emphemeral

In March, here in Ithaca, NY, spring is a pop-up affair. Bright yellow winter aconite suddenly illuminate muddy earth and sludgy leaves. Spring ephemerals, winter aconite vanish as soon as they have finished their work, so it is best to watch their behavior carefully while you have the chance.

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Winter aconite remain closed on rainy, gray days.

When the sun is out, and I can’t resist being out also, there they are: golden bowls lifted off the ground on short but sturdy stalks,  embellished by a distinctive green ruff. The flowers open and close depending on temperature and light conditions.

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It’s a sunny day!

Winter aconite flowers benefit the first pollinators of spring. Each flower is a “goblet” offering sugary nectar and pollen, vital food for the first foraging bees of the season.

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A whorl of anthers sit above a whorl of funnel-shaped nectaries. Greenish  carpels (ovaries) are visible at the center, tilted to the right.

Polish researchers Krystyna Rysiak and Beata Żuraw discuss many aspects of the flowers in their study “The Biology of Flowering of Winter Aconite.” Like the hellebore, their close relative in the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae), winter aconite guide honey bees to their pollen and nectar through scent and the reflection of UV rays. Each flower has on average 29 stamens, which shed pollen copiously for only 2-3 days, so the bees have to watch for visiting opportunities, and 3-6 funnel-shaped nectaries, which produce on average 1.23 mg nectar per flower. The concentration of sugars in the nectar averages 72.11%.  In the 75 or so open flowers I observed on the one sunny day this week, I only noticed one bee. I went inside to get my iPhone and when I came back it was gone and did not return. It was a sunny but windy day. According to the Polish researchers, honey bees prefer sunny windless days.

Botanically, the winter aconite flower is not what it appears. The yellow “petals” are actually sepals, having become petal-like,  and the nectaries are considered modified petals. The “Elizabethan” ruff leaves are considered “stem” leaves, while “true” leaves emerge after flowering.

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The funnel-shaped nectaries are clearly visible in this photo.

Once the bees have been fed, the flowers complete their reproductive cycle, offering up seeds when mature in lacily veined  “chalices” (carpels or ovaries), to continue the goblet metaphor.

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Mature carpels (ovaries) open to release seeds. Photographer: Rüdiger Kratz (Wikimedia Commons).

Botanical illustrations often clarify the confusing relationships of floral parts seen in photographs. The floral diagram (number 7 in the image below) shows five carpels (ovaries) surrounded by many anthers (two circles end to end). The outer ring of heart-shaped symbols represents the nectaries.

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Original book source: Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885, Gera, Germany
Permission granted to use under GFDL by Kurt Stueber
Source: www.biolib.de

In Lublin, Poland, the flowering period recorded during Rysiak and Żuraw’s study lasted from February 5th to March 22nd. This is a good long spell for foraging bees. Here in Ithaca I suspect the duration of flowering is much shorter, but I will have to record dates.  The researchers noted that snowfall did not injure blooming buds.

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This flower will reopen when conditions improve. [By Goranpavic (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons]

Winter aconite has been cultivated since 1570, and its small tubers are readily available in bulb catalogues and garden centers for fall planting. They also naturalize by seed, creating cheerful, golden patches that are good for us and the bees. They are the gardener’s friend for two reasons: they repel deer and they can colonize under black walnuts, whose secretions of allelopathic chemicals deter many species from growing within their root sphere.

There is one very large patch in Ithan Valley Park (Radnor Township, Pennsylvania) that horticulturalist Carolyn of Carolyn’s Shade Gardens calls “a wonder of nature.” Carolyn writes that “There is so much yellow that I think it must be visible from outer space.” Be sure to scroll all the way down to the end of her post. The patch was originally part of an arboretum belonging to botanist John Evans (1790-1862). The biographical entry in the History of Delaware County, Pennsylvania, From the Discovery of the Territory Included within its Limits to the Present Time, With A Notice of the Geology of the County AND Catalogues of its Minerals, Plants, Quadrupeds and Birds, Written under the Direction and Appointment of the Delaware County Institute of Science (1862) by George Smith, M.D., portrays a lovely man who earned his living in the milling business while pursuing horticulture and natural history as an avocation:

Being almost shut out from social intercourse, our young miller, after having attended closely to his business on week days, spent much of his time on Sundays, in rambling over the wild and romantic country that surrounded his mill–in traversing its streams and in scaling its precipices. It was in this state of isolation from civilized society that the habits and tastes of John Evans underwent a change. It was in these solitary rambles that he laid the foundation of his character in after life. Here he became a devoted lover of nature, acquired the habits of close observation, and fitted himself for the successful study of the natural sciences.

Evans  became a well-respected amateur botanist, maintaining an extensive correspondence with like-minded people in Europe, including Sir William J. Hooker, Director of Kew Gardens. In exchange for American plant material, he received European material from Sir William. Perhaps tubers of winter aconite, considered native to southern Europe and east to Asia, were included in these exchanges.  Plant hunter Joseph D. Hooker, Sir William’s son, shared seeds from his Himalayan expedition of 1847-1851. Evans was interested in local flora as well and traveled extensively in the United States on collecting trips. A devoted horticulturalist, Evans used saw dust from his mill to mulch his extensive collection of local and exotic plants and is described as dying somewhat prematurely from a “consuming disease” after too much “exposure” in his garden.

Because winter aconite are so agreeable, they get a fair bit of press. The Guardian featured the winter aconite in their  Plant of the Week column in 2017. The column offers useful horticultural advice and a lively Comment field. ‘HumptyDumpty’, the first to comment, offered this story:

The novelist Anthony Powell was once at Buckingham Palace receiving some medal or gong, and when he went into the investiture room where the Queen awaited him, gong/medal in hand, she wished him a good February morning, enquired where he lived (“in the country, your Maj, near Frome)”, and she then asked:

“Do you have aconites?”

AP, wondering what the bloody hell they were, decided they must be some unpleasant but not fatal medical condition, possibly related to piles, so answered:

“not as yet, your Majesty, although at my time of life I find a careful diet is advisable”

A careful diet should include the omission of winter aconite. Closely related to the beautiful but deadly garden plant monkshood (Aconitum sp.), they are full of cardiac glycosides. ‘Wolf’s bane’ and ‘queen of poisons’ are some of the common names for monkshood.

As I watch winter aconite responding to the vagaries of late winter-early spring weather, open and closing with the changes in temperature and sunlight, I become more attuned to changes everywhere. I also realize how much weather can influence a successful relationship for the winter aconite and the honey bee. When the weather is bad, as it has been all this week, the flowers are closed and the bees are absent. (I need to find out more about how the bee benefits the winter aconite. It seems probable that they can self-pollinate, but cross-pollination is always a good thing.)

I am happy with my small patches of winter aconite. They are close at hand where I can keep my eyes on them–right by the back door (which I use as the front door) and by the driveway where I can see them as I come home. If the flowers are open, it’s a sign to go outside. By “outside” I mean “Outside” in the John Muirean sense:

I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.

–John Muir (John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir)

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Neerland’s Plantentuin : Afbeeldingen en beschrijvingen van sierplanten voor tuin en kamer by Oudemans, Cornelis Antoon Jan Abraham, 1825-1906; Glijm, C (Biodiversity Heritage Library)

 

p.s. Today, March 31, 2018, is sunny, 51degrees F, with a slight wind chill. The winter aconite have opened and the solitary bee who visited the front-of-the-house patch last Tuesday, is back. (Of course, it could be a different bee, but it seems likely the same bee has come back, as honey bees are known to be repeat visitors.) Here is a video of today’s visit.

 

The New Year, 2018, Begins in Vinegar Hollow

It looks like my New Year’s post from Vinegar Hollow is going to be an annual event. What new is there to say one might ask? I am different, the land is different, the weather is different–more wear and tear in general–not that these are necessarily bad things. Some wear-and-tear is simply polishing. In the hollow I never tire of looking at the trees

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View from apple orchard to old barn (center) at the Big Meadow.

 

and the hills and the play of light, and I always see new designs and colors in the landscape. The snow illuminates the hoof-marked cow trails, while Mike’s tractor, which delivers hay morning and afternoon to the

This, the old locust grove, is where the cows prefer their hay. The little barn is more visible.

 

cows, uncovers grass still green. Yesterday Mike and I had a talk about the cows’ preference for the locust grove  this time of year. He is surprised they are not out in full sun on these cold days and observes that this is their favorite spot. They are reluctant to move around when he delivers hay elsewhere, which is fine with him  because when he leaves hay near the barn, they stomp around and unplug the automatic timer to his tractor. Which is not good, because then on these cold mornings, some below zero, he can’t get the tractor started.  (The timer activates the heating of the engine oil so it is not too sludgy on a bitter cold morning.) He thinks the cows prefer the locust grove because it is their shady home place of summer.

Tractor ready to distribute hay bales for the next feeding.

Cows have memories he says. When it is time for a twice-bred cow to go into the barn to calve, he just opens the door and she heads straight into the stall she had the year before. If there is a cow in there already, there is sure to be a terrible fight. On the other hand, getting first-time mothers into the barn presents a problem. Mike has tender feelings for his cows in the winter when he is out feeding no matter the weather and his bad knee. Cows can withstand the cold if all their several stomachs are full. The gut bacteria create a literal fire in the belly. It’s freezing rain that causes Mike to tighten his lips and shake his head about the suffering of domesticated animals.

On a clear day when the sun reflects off a layer of snow, it’s hard to notice anything but a beautiful dazzle.

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Looking south to Stark’s Ridge.

Farms have a lot of fences and gates that create intersecting shadows. Because of some construction going on at the old house, there is provisional wire fencing adding to the complexity of the design above.

The fence in the center divides the orchard (very few trees left) from the orchard meadow. A few small sinkholes are visible in the ground that rises to the hillside.

On a day when the sun is wan, the colors of a winter landscape become subtle. I notice the soft brown of frozen mud, the pale russet of dried sage grass, and snow poked through with a thousand blades of grass. Tree branches are witchy, twitchy, sometimes ungainly, and always beautiful against the sky.

The side of Stark’s Ridge with tree branches against a wan sky.

I walk around the farm looking at everything, trying to understand placement of objects, natural and unnatural, how a landscape becomes what it is.

Layers of limestone that have heaved and broken apart provide dens for foxes.

 

A cattle chute with rusty chains.

Maybe I have a memory like the cow going into the stall where she has been before. Since brought home to the farm at birth, I always return, amazed at how much more there is to see and think about. When I visit Roy, my neighbor, who will be 94 on January 24 of this new year, we deconstruct  the history of the hollow, no moment or detail too small for discussion.  He lives alone with his cat Big Red, who for the first time deigned to sit in my lap before jumping, somewhat gracefully for a big cat, from the kitchen counter to a perch on top of the refrigerator. Mike checks on Roy every morning and the driver of the woman who cleans his trailer brings two apples each week for his old, long-legged donkey.

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Roy’s mailbox. The road at the upper right winds around to his home. Cow in front of the old barn seen from a distance in the first photo.

Roy only needs one meal a day now he says–two fried eggs, two pieces of toast, a rasher of sausage, and a cup of coffee. He fixes it himself even though his hands are almost curled shut with arthritis. I took him two bite-size mincemeat pies made by my English friend who makes wonderful pie crust. That’ll be dinner he said as I set them by his easy chair. The thing I puzzle about is that Roy even in midwinter, when he can’t sit outside on the top step to his trailer, seems to know what is going on in the hollow. It’s as if he is now not bounded by walls and poor vision (he lost sight in one eye as a child) because he is so attuned to the hollow. “You should see Mike’s dog running after the tractor. Down the road and back up the road these cold mornings. You should see that,” he tells me. I have seen that but I wonder when he has.

A paper wasp nest dangles from the copper beech branches in the foreground; Stark’s Ridge in the background.

On the long drive from Ithaca to Mustoe, we listened to the audio version of La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman. As a frontispiece he  quotes a few lines from Irish poet Louis Macneice’s  “Snow” , a poem about how much lays before our view– how “the world is suddener than we fancy it.” The hollow has always looked “sudden” to me. Now it’s time to say good-bye again; I have had my reset for the New Year!

Outside with Henry: Looking for Pill Bugs

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This spring and early summer I have been looking for pill bugs with Henry, my 20-month old grandson, who lives in Ludlowville near Ithaca. Henry is happiest outside, looking for bugs. “Outside” was his first peremptory command.

This is the way it works with pill bug exploration. We turn over a rock and Henry squats with the intensity of a prospector looking for gold. There are always pill buggies. He carefully picks up one between thumb and forefinger. His parents have encouraged him  to be gentle with everything. He passes it to my palm—saying “pill buggy.” I watch as the pill bug unrolls and starts to roam the palm of my hand, its touch imperceptible. According to Henry’s wish, I then transfer it to an area where it can go home to do “booby.” If it is large, it is a mommy; if it is small, it is a baby. In either case, there is a need for nursing, i.e., doing booby.

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Selfie with pill buggy.

As it turns out Henry is intuitive about the family life of pill bugs. The females are “maternal” and the males “paternal.” The female carries eggs in special fluid-filled pouches. Pill bug families live in burrows, and males and females raise their young together. Cleaning the burrow is a communal activity. In time young adults move out, find mates, and establish their own burrows. Individuals can live for up to five years.

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I remember now that when I was a teaching assistant in General Biology at UT-Austin, pill bugs were used in exercises demonstrating responsiveness to stimuli. The lab technician had a cage of tarantulas next to the pill bug terrarium. He told me that tarantulas were as inoffensive as pill bugs, and tried to persuade me to let one crawl up my arm, but I resisted. Like Henry, I find pill bugs perfect companions.

Pill bugs are blue-blooded, a quality they share with their fellow crustaceans the lobsters. Lacking wax on their exoskeletons like insects, they need at least 50% humidity to survive on land. A list of 10 Fascinating Facts about Pill Bugs reminds one that small, drab-looking bugs should not be underestimated. Although called woodlice and pests, their ability to detoxify soil outweighs a little minor nibbling on plant material. Their capacity for rolling into a ball, termed conglobulation, inspires one of their other common names, roly-polies. Their Latin name, Armadillidium vulgare, references their armadillo-like appearance.

A serious recycler, Henry also has an eagle eye for cigarette butts and bottle caps, which he also routinely hands to me for better disposal than on the Earth. Now on my morning walk around the block with Belle the dog in my neck of the woods, I see pill bugs where I have never noticed them before–and cigarette butts. While they are said to be nocturnal, Henry and I have observed a lot of pill bug activity during daylight hours.

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I love watching Henry pick up pill bugs and witnessing his intuitive understanding that all living creatures belong to one family. I think he’s a naturalist. Soon Henry will be moving from Ludlowville, but fortunately there are pill bugs everywere.

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