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Eastern Prickly Pear Cactus

When I lived and worked in New York and visited beaches along the north shore of Long Island in the summer, the sheltered areas of the beachfront were dotted with the yellow blossoms of the prickly pear cactus.

You normally associate cacti with deserts, but the sandy dry soils beyond the reach of high tides is the perfect place for this cactus to thrive. Its stems act like leaves. It is able to store water that it absorbs during rains. It has an anti-freeze like chemicals that prevents it from the freezing winter temperatures.

I once learned how this species protects itself when I knelt down to take a picture of the plant and accidentally brushed against a cactus I did not see. Its pads are covered in small barb-like thorns. It was painful and irritating and I learned to look all around before taking another photograph.

This is a cactus that grows in the eastern half of the U.S. It has many other species in the same genus that grow in the deserts of the western U.S. Its fruit is edible and although I have never tried it, I understand that it tastes a bit like watermelon.

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A Plant That Eats Bugs

In acidic wetlands in the eastern half of the U.S. and Canada you may find a small strange looking plant full of glistening dew drops. It thrives in bogs, fens and fresh water wetlands where the soil is acidic and poor in nutrients. Because not too many plants can thrive in this environment, there is little organic matter to decompose resulting in very little return of nitrogen to the soil, a vital nutrient plants need to grow.

So for a plant to survive, there needs to be a source of protein and the round leaf sundew is a plant that derives its need for nitrogen from insects. Its sticky dew prevents insects from leaving essentially causing the insect to get glued to the sundew’s leaf. The leaf slowly curls around the bug as digestive enzymes are released and dissolve the bug. Nitrogen is then absorbed by the leaf.

There are many species of insectivorous plants who earn their keep the same way. Often you will find spatulate leaved sundew and thread leaf sundew growing in the same areas. Both these species use the same process as round leaf sundew to obtain nitrogen. You may even find pitcher plant in wetter bogs that drowns insects in its digestive soup.

If you are ever out in a park that has acidic wetlands and see glistening leaves with a touch of red, you may have found these carnivorous plants.

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An Orchid Without Leaves

Most orchids have green leaves where the process of photosynthesis takes place utilizing the sun’s rays, water and minerals from the soil. The spotted coral root is an orchid that has no chlorophyll. It gets its nutrients in a unique way. It depends on mycorrhizal fungi in the soil to get its nutrients.

This orchid’s range includes most of North America from the west coast to the east coast. You can find it growing in the shade on the forest floor. In New York I once found it growing under a grove of white pine trees.

Note: The photographs posted here are of a plant that had already gone to seed.

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Slender Ladies Tresses

Another orchid that blooms in the late summer in the northeast and is related to the nodding ladies tresses is the slender ladies tresses. This has tiny delicate blossoms that form a distinct spiral on a single stem.


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Nodding Ladies Tresses

In the late summer and early fall, depending on where you live in the eastern U.S., this orchid blooms in wet meadows, bogs and fens. Nodding ladies tresses sprout through the chaotic growth of wild grasses, rushes and sedges with a spire of white blossoms no more than 12 inches tall. I have observed bumblebees sipping the nectar of this orchid making them efficient pollinators of this plant.

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The Unobtrusive Orchid

About thirty years ago, while conducting an environmental program for an elementary class, a strange plant caught my eye as I led the students on a trail through a freshwater wetland area in a state park preserve in New York.

The plant was about eight inches tall, purplish brown with a spike of tiny blossoms of the same color and two green basal leaves.  I knew that I had never seen it before and made a mental note of its location. After the program I returned to the area and examined the plant closely. The tiny flowers looked like orchids so with a guide book and wildflower plant key, I determined that it was southern twayblade, an orchid of wet woodlands and bogs. The identification was confirmed by botanists at Planting Fields Arboretum and it was the first time this plant was found along the Connetquot River wetlands.

This orchid is found from Texas to Vermont and is endangered in many states. In the north if you are in moist woodlands around Memorial Day Weekend, this plant’s peak bloom, look for it and if you do find it, let your local botanical society or botanical garden that you saw this plant. Due to its inconspicuous blooms it is possible that this plant is often overlooked by people visiting parks.

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The Orchid and the Fungus

An orchid that blooms in June of each year is the pink lady slipper. This orchid interacts with a specific soil fungus that enables its seeds to sprout. Unlike most seeds that have a food supply to provide nourishment for sprouting, this orchid’s seeds need the threads of the fungus to attach to the seed and to deliver important nutrients for the seed to grow.

What is interesting is once the plant grows it returns the favor by providing the fungus with nutrients for its survival. This mutualistic relationship is important to the survival of both species.

This is a fairly common orchid found in deciduous woodlands in the eastern U.S. Its showy, fragrance blossoms are easy to spot.

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