LAURELS IN DEERING

Two species of laurel occur in Deering, Kalmia angustifolia (sheep-laurel) and K. latifolia (mountain laurel).

Laurels are members of the plant family Ericaceae, along with blueberries, cranberries, rhododendron, azalea, trailing arbutus, Indian pipe, and many other plants that are common in our part of the world. The genus Kalmia was named by Linnaeus, in the 18th Century, in honor of one of his students, Peter Kalm, a Swedish-Finish botanist and naturalist who traveled and collected plants in the Americas during the 18th century.

Mountain laurel is a native North American evergreen, perennial shrub. It is common in acidic soils of the Appalachian Mountains, plateaus, piedmont, and coastal plains from southeast Maine to the Louisiana delta and north through Indiana and eastern Ohio to southern Quebec. It is found in the understory of conifer and hardwood forests, where it can form virtually impenetrable thickets, but it also forms dense cover on ‘balds’ at 4000 ft in the Appalachian Mountains. Typically the plant is a shrub, reaching 6 feet or so in height, but occasional ‘trees’ can reach 50 ft in height in the valleys of the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains of the southern Appalachians. and can form dense thickets.

The species is fairly common in south central New Hampshire, often forming dense thickets in shaded forests. Here in Deering it is not difficult to find plants of mountain laurel, but Deering’s mountain laurel plants are mostly low growing with woody stems and form a more or less densely ground cover on the deeply shaded forest floor. I have never seen these plants to flower. In my wandering in Deering I have seen flowering mountain laurel at only one site, on a town-owned lot not far from where Manselville Brook enters the Contoocook River. At this site there are not more than a half dozen upright woody shrubs, about 6 feet tall. They flower in the middle of June.

The chief pollinators of mountain laurel are bumble bees and other bees. The sPtamens, which carry pollen, adhere to the petals under tension. When a bee enters the flower, the tension is released and the pollen is shot onto the furry bee. The pollen can be shot for as much as a foot, fertilizing other flowers. If the flower is not visited by a bee, the stamens can release pollen and self fertilize their flower.

Members of the Ericaceae have fungi – – mycorrhizae — associated with their root hairs. The morphology of the mycorrhizal association, and the fungi that associate with roots of members of the Ericaceae are different from tree mycorrhizae. Tree mycorrhizae tend to be mushrooms while the fungi that associate with roots of the Ericaceae are taxonomically distinct. The nature of the ericoid mycorrhizal association is the least understood of all of the mycorrhizal associations.

Green parts of the plant, flowers, twigs, and pollen are all toxic, including food products made from them. Although mountain laurel pollen does not affect bees, the honey made from the pollen may induce neurotoxic and gastrointestinal symptoms in humans eating more than a modest amount. Symptoms of toxicity begin to appear about 6 hours following ingestion. Humans, their pets and livestock are all affected. Sheep and goats will readily graze on mountain laurel, and horses will eat the plant if there is nothing else to eat. Even ruffed grouse that feed on the leaves are sometimes killed.

Mountain laurel is unrelated to the true laurels (Lauraceae), which are used in cooking. Please do not substitute a leaf of a Kalmia species (mountain laurel, bog laurel, sheep laurel) for a bay leaf (Laurus nobilis) in your cooking!

Mountain laurel is the official state flower of Connecticut and Pennsylvania.

Sheep laurel, Kalmia angustifolia, is a perennial shrub that can get to be 3 feet tall and up to 6 feet wide. It has ridiculously showy, pink flowers in clusters formed below the branch tips so that leaves usually form further along the stem, above the flowers. Flowering is from late spring into summer. Leaves are held in whorls of two or three and are 1.5- 2.5 inches long. The plant forms a tap root that can be 3 ft deep, and a dense network of roots. Sheep laurel is colonial and can form dense stands.

Sheep laurel is native to northeastern North America. It is found from Newfoundland and Labrador west through Ontario and occasionally as far south as Georgia. It is common in the eastern Great Lakes region, the St. Lawrence region, northern New England, and the Maritime provinces.

There are two varieties of K. angustifolia. The variety carolina occurs in Virginia, the Carolinas, Tennessee and Georgia.

Sheep laurel is adapted to a wide range of habitats. bogs, swamps, other wetlands, and alpine summits in the Adirondack region of upstate New York. Here in Deering I have seen sheep laurel along water’s edge at Black Fox Pond, in the Audubon Preserve, and in Deering Lake.

Like mountain laurel, sheep laurel foliage is toxic. On the other hand, it provides winter forage and cover for wild grouse and other birds.

LOTUS CORNICULATUS: BIRD’S-FOOT-TREFOIL

A lot of plants having yellow flowers bloom late in June in what some would call their lawn. We don’t do anything to encourage a grassy expanse of lawn, so what we get is probably anathema to most home owners.

Well, one price they pay for that lush green-ness is that they don’t get to see much of a variety of wildflowers. Woe betide the not-grass that appears in the ‘well-manicured’ lawn.

OK, sermon ended.

Currently four species of hawkweed, at least two species of cinquefoil and a small St John’s wort are blooming in great profusion around town. All have yellow flowers. But, so do goldenrod, evening primroses and larger St. John’s wort, whose plants are up but not yet flowering. We have passed from the spring, when white and green flowers were effective in attracting wild bees and other insect pollinators maybe more by odor than plant color? But, now we are full on bee time and yellow is the dominant flower color of the day.

Scouting around our ‘garden’ a few days ago I noticed scattered plants of bird’s-foot-trefoil . I had not previously seen this species in Deering. It’s common enough. Certainly I have overlooked it.

Bird’s-foot-trefoil , Lotus corniculatus, is a member of the pea family. It’s low, sprawling herbaceous plants have 3 clover like leaflets (actually 5, with 2 opposite leaflets at the base of the ‘trefoil’ or triple leaflets. This is the only legume with 5 leaflets). The plants can stand up to 2 ft tall and flowering branches terminate in a head, or floret, of pea-like yellow flowers. The fruit is a pod about one inch long. One brown to purple seed pod is produced per flower situated at right angles to the flower stalk and thus the 5-6 splayed pods resemble a bird’s foot.

Bird’s-foot-trefoil is a perennial, native to Eurasia but now widely distributed in North America after having been introduced around 1900. It is a “long-day “plant, requiring sixteen hours of sunlight to flower, just right now for the end of June. In some parts of North America and Australia the plant is considered a bothersome invasive while elsewhere it is planted for erosion control, because of its deep tap root, and as a forage legume on poor soil because of its nodulated roots that fix nitrogen. Several cultivars are available for agricultural use.

Flowers of bird’s-foot-trefoil flowers occur in florets of 4-8. Each floret is bisexual, thus can self pollinate although the plant has a self-incompatibility mechanism that prevents self-seeding. Most pollination is effected between plants by insects. Pollen in the plant matures before the flower opens. Filaments push the loose pollen forward into the closed tip of the united lower petals (keel), and pollination occurs when an insect’s weight on the keel forces a ribbon-like mass of pollen from the keel opening, some of it adhering to the insect’s underside. Further pressure as the insect seeks the nectaries causes the female stigma to slide into the same contact area, where it’s stickiness may pick up pollen from another plant that got stuck onto the insect. Like some other legumes, the bird’s-foot-trefoil produces highly nutritious pollen.

Honey bees and, especially, bumble bees are the principle pollinators of bird’s- foot-trefoil. Some bees became highly specialized on these plants; in fact, the decline of several bumble bee species has been linked to the reduced availability of clover, bird’s-foot-trefoil and other legumes. In Scotland, three of the scarcest bee species are believed to be completely dependent on bird’s-foot-trefoil’s pollen; the pine-wood mason bee, the mountain mason bee (Osmia inermis) and the wall mason bee (Osmia parietina).

But more importantly for the aspect of ecosystem services, the bird’s-foot-trefoil is a larval food plant for several butterflies and moths and a valuable nectar source for many other insects.

Bird’s-foot-trefoil can be confused with another yellow-flowered herb, butter-and-eggs, Linaria vulgaris Butter-and-eggs, or common toadflax, occupies much the same habitat as bird’s-foot-trefoil but flowers much later in the season. Butter-and-eggs can be problematic because through its vigorous growth it can out-compete other pasture natives and form dense mats that prevent the establishment of desired species. The plant is mildly toxic to livestock.

(In writing this post I relied heavily on The Book of Field and Roadside. Open-Country Weeds, Trees, and Wildflowers of Eastern North America by John Eastman. 2003. Stackpole books. It is one of three similar books by the same author. I am not sure that they are still in print. I found mine on E Bay).

TULIP POPLAR IN BLOOM!

When we took up residence at our new home on Hedgehog Mountain we planted three Tulip Poplar trees. We got them from Arbor Day Foundation as not very hopeful bare root sticks. Over the ten years we’ve been here, two have survived. One is not much more than 3 ft tall while the other is pushing 30 feet.

Late last year we found old flowers seeds on the big tree, but we had not seen flowering. Moreover, I had never seen flowers son the two really big trees in Appleton Cemetery.

Tulip poplar, Liriodendron tulipiera, is native to the mid Atlantic region and Appalachian Mountains. In its native range, trees can reach 150 or more feet in height, with long, straight, unbranched trunks and a spreading crown. I have seen magnificent trees in Maryland, not far from Washington DC, and in North Carolina. The species does not occur naturally this far north. These trees are beautiful. The few trees that I know for Deering are planted, the largest in the Appleton Cemetery sometime late in the 19th Century and in memory of some now unknown soul.

Although I had never seen the Appleton trees to flower, I have seen tulip poplar seedlings in Deering. One in Appleton Cemetery, next to the road and one deep inside the Titcomb Conservation Easement on Clement Hill Road — not so far from Appleton Cemetery. I am assuming the Appleton trees provided the seed. Maybe one day, with a warming climate, there will be magnificent specimens of tulip poplar in our forest?

The Appleton trees are currently in full bloom. It is a bit difficult to see the flowers in the trees as you travel at the legal speed of 35 mph on Deering Center Rd, but if you know to look at the trees, the flowers are visible from the road.

Tulip poplar is related to Magnolia, and their flowers are similar. But while the flowers of Magnolia are, basically, white or pink, the flowers of tulip poplar are orange and green. The flowers bear a superficial resemblance to a tulip. The flowers are quite beautiful and well worth a visit.

Here are some pictures.

NARROW-LEAVED BLUE-EYED GRASS

When I retired eleven years ago I decided that our new home would not have a lawn that required care. No verdant landscape rolling toward the horizon for me!

Here in Deering, on Hedgehog Mountain, what passes for soil is sand and is definitely on the acidic side. Just as well I didn’t want a lawn to mow because where we live, our little piece of heaven, is not a good bet for a grassy lawn anyway.

What we do have, though is a meadow of sorts. Not a lot of grass, but lots of flowering plants come up through the season. Pollinators love it.

One of the niftier North American native plants that flowers this time of year is narrow-leaved blue-eyed grass, Sisyrinchium angustifolium. Our plants stand maybe ten inches tall and have narrow, grass-like leaves. Pretty deep blue, star-like flowers having six points arise in succession at the tips of the branches. Usually about three flower buds occur at the end of a stem, but buds open in succession — not at the same time — and remain open for a day or less, never at night. Thus the time window for pollination is rather small, but this is made up for by the continuing succession of flowers from May through midsummer. Without the flowers it would be difficult to recognize the plant as anything other than a grass, but Sisyrinchium is a genus of the Iris family.

On-line pictures of blue-eyed grass show the plants growing in dense clusters. Not so here. Blue-eyed grass prefers moist habitats, where it can be seen to be quite exuberant. Maybe it’s our nasty soil, but for us the plants are abundant, but are typically scattered. They are perennial from a rhizome, and reproduce by seed. The fibrous rhizomes store food. The capsule contains three seeds.

The profuse blooms of Narrow-leaved Blue-eyed grass attract a variety of pollinators including sweat bees, bumble bees, bee flies, and syrphid flies as well as spring butterflies such as the lovely blue Azures. Their seeds provide food for songbirds. Native Americans cooked and ate the spring greens and used the plant medicinally “to regulate” the bowels and treat diarrhea, and made a plant tea to treat stomach aches, but it seems far too lovely to eat!

The plant can be propagated and can make a nice addition to your garden, for those who make a distinction between ‘garden’ and ‘not garden.’

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