From Georgia to Labrador in wet meadows and fens, fuzzy white flowers clustered together grow among rushes and sedges and other wildflowers. These candle-like blossoms with compound leaves are from a plant named Canadian Burnet. These flowers, laden with pollen attract bees and other pollinators. Since it grows in acidic environments, it absorbs tannins making it bitter to wildlife.
This burnet is abundant in the mid-Atlantic states, but is an endangered plant in some states it is found in.
In dry, sandy clearings from Florida to Canada on the east coast trailing arbutus, an evergreen plant, blooms in the spring. It is visited by bumblebees, a major pollinator for this plant, Once the flowers are pollinated, seed capsules with a fleshy parts develops. Ants find these grains and carry it to their underground bunker. The fleshy portion of the seeds are fed to their larvae. Then the seeds iare discarded in their underground waste pile where the capsules sprout.
Trailing arbutus is also called the Mayflower. It was the first flower the Pilgrims saw after their first grueling winter. It was a welcomed sight and a sign of the end of winter. Even I look forward to finding this plant each spring.
This wildflower deceives tiny gnats into thinking it is a fungus to trick the insects to pollinate it. Fungus gnats seek mushrooms to lay eggs so the larvae have a food source. Jack-in-the-pulpit gives off a faint mushroom-like odor that attracts the gnats. These insects land in the spathe shaped male blossom where they become trapped. It is challenging for the gnat to escape because the inside of the flower is slippery. In trying to leave the flower, they are dusted with pollen. The only way out is through a tiny opening at the bottom of the blossom where they make their escape.
You might think these bugs would learn from their mistake, but they cannot resist the attraction to the odor of the jack-in-the-pulpit and they continue to become trapped. Once they reach a female flower they are doomed. There is no escape like there is in the male blossom, but in doing so pollen is ultimately transferred to the female flowers. Once pollinated the flowers will produce a cluster of berries, green at first, then ripening into a brilliant red in the early fall.
Jack-in-the-Pulpit is a wildflower of wetlands and moist woodlands from the mid-west to the east coast of the U.S. Its deception to the fungus gnat ensures the plant’s survival.
My favorite shrub of beach environments is the beach plum. I always look forward to its prolific blooms of five-petaled white flowers in the spring. Once pollinated by bees and other pollinators, it produces lots of fruit that are green at first, but by the end of the summer the fruit ripen into a deep-purple fruit.
Not only are beach plums a delicacy to wildlife, people also harvest it, often to make beach plum jellies and jams. Some people eat them off the shrub, but it is not a taste that everyone likes. I have heard many versions of its taste from a cross between strawberry and an apricot to cranberry-peach. Its skin is tart, but its flesh is sweet.
It grows along the coast from Maryland to Maine in interdunal swales behind the protection of the primary dunes. It thrives on the shores of Long Island and Martha’s Vineyard, but is endangered in Maine and Maryland.
My first encounter with this thorny vine was as a 10-year old boy traipsing through the woodlands on Long Island in New York. It formed impenetrable thickets in the wetlands near the house I grew up in. Its sharp thorns caught my clothing and it did not easily let go. I eventually broke free, full of scratches, swearing never to stumble across it again.
There are many species in this family. The stems on common greenbrier are crayon green with numerous thorns. Its leaves are round shaped and it produces pale green flowers in the spring and early summer. Its tendrils enable the vine to climb onto shrubs and trees.
This greenbrier’s berries are purplish-black and this fruit persists into the winter when birds and wildlife will eat it. Its leaves also persist into the winter until deer carefully pull off the leaves for nourishment.
Its thorns are a way the plant protects itself from being dined on so it can be a nasty plant when encountered. It sure kept me away from it when I played in the woods!
If you see a small tree with with white blossoms that looks similar to a wild rose flowers, you may have found a species of chokeberry. Its five petaled bloom with pink stamens attract bees responsible for pollination. These small trees are four to eight feet tall and are members of the rose family. These dot the May woodlands in semi-dry and wet habitats.
There are two prominent species in the eastern U.S. One is red chokeberry with red fruit and the other is black chokeberry with purplish-black fruit. The berries on both these plants resemble small apples. As you can imagine, these fruits are treasured by birds.
There are other subtle differences that I will not bore you with here, but if you are able to recognize it as a chokeberry, then a good identification book will help you decide which species you have found.
The last few blogs, I featured some of the members of the heath family of plants including blueberry, huckleberry and swamp sweet bells. Another member of this family and sometimes mistaken for blueberry because of its white bell-like blossoms is the leatherleaf.
Leatherleaf has dark green leathery leaves on arching shoots often growing along the edges of streams and ponds. This shrub’s white bell-like blossoms bloom in a five-inch raceme at the tip of the plant. These flowers do not produce berries; its fruit is a dry woody capsule.
This shrub thrives in bogs and wetlands from the Arctic south to Georgia.