24 June 2011

A Minnesota Cedar Swamp

On a recent work trip to Superior, Wisconsin, our group of monitoring biologists made a brief trip to Carlton County, Minnesota to check out the flora in a rich conifer swamp dominated by Northern White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis). These groundwater-influenced wetland communities are often known as cedar swamps.

I was excited to find a club moss that I'd never seen that generally has a more northern distribution (with populations ranging south into the Appalachians in eastern North America and into New Mexico in western North America). Stiff Clubmoss (Lycopodium annotinum), shown below, grows in coniferous forests and in exposed rocky areas.

Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis, below) is also a species of northern North America that extends south in higher elevations in the western United States into Arizona. Like the inflorescences of the related Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida), the widespread small tree of the eastern United States, the four large white "floral" structures are actually bracts, or modified leaves, not petals. The flowers are the small white structures clustered above the bracts.

A boreal lily species of eastern North America that is common in the northwoods is Bluebead (Clintonia borealis), shown below. The crushed leaves of this species emit an odor that smells like cucumbers.

Yet another boreal species that we saw at the Carlton County Cedar Swamp was Goldthread (Coptis trifolia), shown below. Named for its threadlike yellow roots, Goldthread grows in mixed and coniferous forests, bogs, and on tundra.

One of the most interesting aspects of Labrador Tea (Ledum groenlandicum, below) is the dense reddish-orange tangled pubescence on the undersides of the revolute-margined leaves. The flowers aren't half bad to look at, either. This shrub is found in boggy areas in Canada and only the northernmost parts of the United States. Some botanists now consider this species to be in the genus Rhododendron.

Naked Mitrewort (Mitella nuda) gets its common name and specific epithet from its naked (usually lacking leaves) stem. With a distribution that barely reaches into the northern United States, this is a boreal species of forests, swamps, and bogs. Shown below, the flowers of this species remind me of snowflakes.

One of two orchid species that we saw in the cedar swamp was Moccasin Flower (Cypripedium acaule), another plant with a leafless stem. This species of eastern North America, shown below, grows in acidic soils in forests, woodlands, and bogs.

The only places I have seen Yellow Coralroot (Corallorhiza trifida), shown below, are in Superior, Wisconsin and in this Minnesota cedar swamp. In addition to the northern parts of the eastern United States, this small partially parasitic orchid also grows in montane regions of the western Unitied States, as well as throughout Canada. It can be found in forests and swamps.

I look forward to my return trip to the northwoods in August to see what other boreal delights we can find.

17 June 2011

What's That Sedge?

That's a question I hear fairly often, at least from the somewhat more botanically advanced people who join me in the field. To most, the leafy monocot in the photograph below probably looks like any other "grass," but in fact, it is a sedge, a member of the family Cyperaceae, an evolutionarily advanced family of plants that does not waste energy creating showy petals to attract pollinators. The genus Carex is a member of this family characterized by having perigynia (modified bracts around the flowers and fruits) that completely enclose the flowers except for a pore at the tip from which the style protrudes, and that usually has leaves along the stems (not just at the base of the plant). There are approximately 150 Carex here in the Chicago Region, but the one below is one of the easiest to identify.

You can tell that the sedge above is rhizomatous, meaning that it spreads by horizontal underground stems, leading to the presence of a large colony (as opposed to being cespitose, or clump forming). The coarse leaves are also long and arching, and they are green to yellow-green in color. Some sedges have pubescent leaves and/or sheaths, but this one does not. Many people would consider this one of the lake sedges.

Because this plant spreads so readily by underground stems, it often does not need to produce seed, and therefore does not flower. If you are lucky enough to find the flowers, shown above, you will notice that the perigynia are more than 5 mm long and pubescent, and that the female and male flowers are in separate elongated spikes. In the photograph above, the female, or pistillate, flowers are the yellowish structures, whereas the male, or staminate, flowers are the pinkish-brown structures at the top of the photo.

If these characteristics weren't enough, or if you couldn't find flowers, all you would need to do to correctly identify this sedge would be to check out the ventral sides of the leaf sheaths. As shown above, there is a dark red-purple v- or y-shaped area at the top of the inner band of the sheath. All of these characters point to this sedge as being Hairy-fruited Lake Sedge, Carex trichocarpa. Hairy-fruited Lake Sedge can be found in calcareous meadows, wet prairies, and marshes throughout much of the northern half of the eastern United States, as well as in the adjacent Canadian provinces.

11 June 2011

Our Newest Resident

This spring, Lindsay and I had been hearing an Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius) singing regularly around our house. On a couple of occasions, I saw a first summer male Orchard Oriole, as well as a female Orchard Oriole near our house. A couple of weeks ago, I found this nest about eight feet off the ground in a Norway Spruce (Picea abies) in front of our house.

I knew immediately by the shape of the nest that it was an oriole nest, and my suspicion was that the Orchard Orioles we had been hearing and seeing had built the nest. Orchard Orioles usually nest in trees in riparian areas, but they are also known to nest on farms and in parks.

Today, I caught the female in the nest. You'll probably need to click the photo below to see her in the nest.

I have some concerns about the location of this nest, as the branches to which it is attached blow around quite a bit in the wind. I'll keep an eye on the nest, and hopefully I'll have the chance to post photos of young Orchard Orioles soon.

04 June 2011


In early May, Justin Thomas and I went on our annual spring botanical trip. This year's trip was to South Carolina. I will be posting more photos here and at Get Your Botany On! soon, but in the meantime, here is a photo of an Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina) of which I am quite fond.