Border Rush


(If you wound up at Treasure Coast “Natives” in an article on border rush, out of interest in immigration policy, wrong blog)

Juncus marginatus and kindred species


Some plant families don’t get the attention they deserve. Yesterday marked the end of my fall term botanical field trip class, and to cap it off we circumnavigated the pond by the Palm Beach State College plant nursery.  A few steps around the shore revealed three species of rushes, about half the species hereabouts.  We saw border rush, needle pod rush, and the one I like to say: big head rush.  Reminds me of Rush Limbaugh:  Yakaloticus megacephalus var. tiltrightiana.

Rushes are the Juncaceae (junk-ACE-ee-ee), a relatively small family of maybe just 300 species around the world, more prolific in cooler climates than in the tropics.  Florida has a big handful, mostly in the genus Juncus plus a toehold by the genus Luzula.

Big Head Rush

Big Head Rush

Rushes, sedges, and grasses have long recognized as close allies.  I think it’s fair to portray the traditional view as sedges and grasses married, with the rushes a more primitive cousin.  However, surprise, DNA shows the rushes and the sedges to be the natural couple, and the grasses as the third wheel.

Big differences in the little flowers.  The rushes of the only ones of the trio to have flowers with sepals and petals.  (Some sedges have lame excuses for these.)  And further, unlike the single-seed grain-type fruits (achenes) of grasses and sedges, rushes uniquely have a woody capsule able to split open and release multiple seeds, often in vast numbers.

Border Rush pods (by John Bradford)

Border Rush pods (by John Bradford)

Wind is the pollinator for all three families, with exceptions.  As one insect-pollinated exception, Florida native plant enthusiasts enjoy the pretty painted sedges Rhynchospora colorata and relatives.  When I was younger these went by the name Dichromena, which I just like.  Unlike most sedges, the painted sedges have leaves beneath the tiny flowers either partially or completely white, mimicking petals and thus attracting 6-legged pollinators.

Pained sedge in Florida with white bracts around the smaller flowers

Pained sedge in Florida with white bracts around the smaller flowers

Why would I bother contaminating a post on poor under-valued rushes with insect-pollinated sedges?  Answer: rushes do essentially the same thing (with slightly different organs putting on the white), in Asia.  The insect-pollinated Juncus allioides looks much like our local painted sedges.  Botanists studying that Asian species suspect insect-pollination in rushes to be more fundamental and widespread than usually perceived.  And here’s why.  We know already how rushes have sepals and petals.  The purposes of these organs is to attract insects, so why do wind-pollinated rushes have them?  (Why do occasional human babies have tails?)   In rushes the petals are tiny and ineffective for as bug-lures.  They must be left over from insect-pollinated ancestors with bigger showier petals.  In other words, rush petals and human tails are vestigial.

Juncus allioides, insect-pollinated and white-topped, in Asia.  Photo by Susan Kelley, from Flora north america.

Juncus allioides, insect-pollinated and white-topped, in Asia. Photo by Susan Kelley, from Flora North America.

And there’s more:  In the rushes the pollen grains cling together in clumps of four known as tetrads.  This makes sense in an insect-pollinated flower where one Fed-Bug delivery drops off four pollen grains, but tetrads are rare in wind-pollinated flowers where lightweight, separate grains are obviously optimal.  Again, tetrads apparently vestigial.  So let’s all keep our eyes open for more insect pollination in rushes.

Weirdness Alert!  Stop and think about all that for a second, Juncus allioides shows doubly flip-flopped evolution.  Start with an insect-pollinated ancestor great granddaddy rush, and turn it wind-pollinated like most modern rushes, here’s flip-flop #1.  Then have a species go back to insect pollination, there’s the flop.

Border Rush in flower (by JB)

Border Rush in flower (by JB)

Speaking of oddball reproduction, many plants sprout among their flowers baby plantlets called bulbils.  (Pups in garden parlance.)  These clones of the parent plant back up or even replace the sexual flowers.  Rushes occasionally make bulbils.  As an extreme for instance, Juncus pelocarpus has a southern variant formerly called Juncus abortivus, presumably because it’s flowers abort to make way for bulbils.  Our own border rush seems to sport bulbils, although it might be a good idea to do dissect a few to see if the emerging babies are bulbils or, alternatively, seeds germinating inside the fruit while still in the mama plant.  I’m betting on bulbils.

Border rush with apparent bulbils sprouting on the parent plant

Rushes have some human history.  Around the world they yield fibers (Juncus textilis) used for cords, nets, basketry, and mats, including the beautiful tatami mats of Japan.

Apocalypse survivors may sleep on rush mats, catch fish with Juncus nets, and light their smelly hovels with rushlights.  Historically in Europe, especially the U.K., people of meager means—or the budget minded—made rushlights using soft rush, found in England, in Florida, and vastly far beyond.  (In fact the same species is the one in the Japanese t-mats.)  To make a rushlight you harvest soft rush, peel off most of the skin, dry it, soak it in kitchen grease, and fire up an inexpensive candle.  These were mounted in rushlight holders, which now are collectors items and museum pieces.  Soft rush is abundant in the U.K., and I’m hoping our British blog friend Mary Hart is reading this and may perhaps even comment.  Not too many species shared between Palm Beach County and Worcester (go Wolves!) in Worcestershire.

Rushlight (see link in text)

Rushlight (see link in text)

(Here is a great link to rushlights, and the source of the photo I stole.)

This post is getting too long so we better rush to wrap it up, and to help with that here is Aesop with rushlight wisdom, oh so apropos to us blog writers as we self-proclaim our value as unvetted, unedited, uncorrected un-competitive luminaries:

 A Rushlight that had grown fat and saucy with too much grease, boasted one evening before a large company that it shone brighter than sun, moon and all the stars.  At that moment, a puff of wind came and blew it out.  One who lighted it again said, “Shine on, friend Rushlight, and hold your tongue; the lights of heaven are never blown out.




Who took today’s pictures?

For some photos, I do not recall who took what.   They are from the catacombs.   If it is sharp and vibrant, probably John.  Out of focus, me.

For the gardeners:

Big Twister

Not rushes:

Bulrush (Schoenplectus, and other sedges, and Typha)

CatTails (Typha species)

Spikerush (Eleocharis species, sedges)

Scouring Rush (Equisetum species, “Fern Allies”)

Flowering Rush (Butomus umbellatus)

Species you might find in our haunts, quickie notes:

(I am not interested in taxonomic/geographic/nomenclatural quibbles.  These topics are not of much interest here and now.  Quibblers:  git yer own pretentious dang blog):

Juncus effusus.  Soft Rush.  Worldwide. Looks substantially different from the other local Juncus species; resembles a Bulrush at a glance

Juncus marginatus.  Border Rush.  The most abundant species locally, flower heads small, irregular, and messy, not globose.  Leaves not septate.

Juncus megacephalus.  Big Head Rush.  Common, flowers heads big and globose.  Leaves septate.

Juncus paludosus.  A recently named species restricted to Florida, resembling J. polycephalus.

Juncus polycephalus.  Many Head Rush.  Many small globose heads, marginal geographically to us

Juncus repens.  Often submersed, flat, different from the others.  A popular aquarium species.

Juncus scirpoides.  Needlepod Rush.  Common.  Flower heads half-globose, a little messy.  Leaves septate.

Needlepod Rush

Needlepod Rush


Posted by on December 12, 2014 in Border Rush



How Do Puffball Spores Resemble the National Debt?


(Varied Fungi)

Today the heavenly weather lured John and George into Seabranch State Park near Hobe Sound, Florida.  The scrubby flatwoods openings were gardens of Golden Asters, with tiny mystery bungee-larvae nestled in their flowering heads. CLICK for a flashback.

The second-best show was the weird fairyland of wacky fungi known collectively as Gasteromycetes (gassed arrow my seats).   The Gasteromycetes are not a natural evolutionary grouping, yet they share an important feature:  Unlike most of their relatives which launch their spores directly into the breeze, a Gasteromycete usually stores the spores until release time. The name Gasteromycetes means, rather loosely, “stomach fungi,” not because they are good to eat (!) but because they collect spores in their tummies.

Fungal classification is complex and changing rapidly, especially with DNA evidence.   Not the time or place (nor expertise) to delve into it, but there are Gasteromycetes with similar appearances and similar English names not particularly related to each other.  This creates hazards for enthusiasts who feel the best way to enjoy nature is to eat it, as misidentifications can be uncomfortable to fatal.  The best senses to enjoy nature are sight, sound, smell, and touch.  Oh, oops, did I leave out taste?

The ground today was littered with Earth Stars which look more like sea creatures than terrestrial life forms.  As with most fungi, what you see is the reproductive tip of the iceberg while the rest of the fungus conducts organic decay in the sand below. Raindrops hitting the Earth Stars poof the spores out of the pore on top.

Earth Star by John Bradford

Earth Star by John Bradford

Puffballs and Earthballs bubble up above the ground surface to produce a bag of spores, sometimes existing via a pore up top, sometimes not.  Every kid of our generation has stomped’em to conjure a cloud of smelly spore “smoke.”  Most of the puffballs are mycorrhizae.  Mycorrhizae are fungi in a symbiotic relationship with plant roots.  One end of the fungal strand penetrates the oak or pine root while the other end procures nutrients by decay or theft from other plants.

The abundant puffdaddy species today was a species of Scleroderma.  It has a tough skin and a mass of chocolate-colored spores inside, before opening at the top and spilling forth its dust.  By the way, these balls are toxic. Some similar species have spores in the mind-boggling trillions.  Go ahead, count them.

Scleroderma by John Bradford

Scleroderma full of spores by John Bradford

And even weirder Puffball-ish species is called Pisolithus tinctorius.  We didn’t see these in the park today,  but some conveniently inhabit my back yard.  This widespread and well-known fungus has many English names, one of those suitable for a polite blog is Dyer’s Fungus.  Fungi sometimes serve as sources for fabric dyes, and this one makes a dark black dye. I’m no surgeon but if you cut it open in my imagination it resembles some sort of human organ loaded with gallstones.  The innards are pebbled. Each pebble is a mass of spores. At risk of going on a little too long, there’s one more interesting point to make on Pisolithus.  The species in North America favors Pines and Oaks, the dominant trees hereabouts.  But other species in other regions favor species of trees such as Acacias, alien and introduced into Florida for landscape purposes, raising the possibility of inadvertently bringing new species of Pisolithus into our flora.  Sure hope that’s ok with our local Oaks and Pines!

Pisolithus conveniently in hand at my home.  look at those gallstones.

Pisolithus conveniently in hand at my home.  Or is that somebody’s gallbladder?

Last Gasteromycetes of all, not seen today but also plentiful near my domicile, are the Birds Nest Fungi. These decomposers make little splash cups were the “eggs in the nest” are spore masses flung skyward by falling rain. In some species sticky tails on the spore masses to cling to foliage eaten by passing herbivores for manure-aided dispersal.

A Bird's Nest in old mulch by my home.   The "eggs" are spore masses.  They remind me of tiddly winks.

A Bird’s Nest in old mulch by my home. The “eggs” are spore masses. They remind me of Tiddlywinks.

To wind up by going one fun step further, the Cannonball Fungus looks like a tiny birds nest and it likewise masses it spores into packets, but instead of splash power the packets go forth BOOM as itsy bitsycannonballs.  You may enjoy seeing that in this video.  CLICK here for the artillery.

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Posted by on December 5, 2014 in Gasteromycetes, Mushrooms, Puffballs



Wild Rice and a Dash of Smut

Wild Rice (unrelated to true Rice)

Zizania species


Thanksgiving weekend so field trip deferred, but no loss; our blog friend Sally Brodie suggested filling the gap with the seasonal topic of wild rice.  That is a wonderful idea, having grown up with a Minnesota-native grandfather and wild rice served with memories of harvest by canoe.  Moreover, within the spirit of our native plants blog, one species is native to Florida, although north of our usual explora-zone which is why the only picture is a link CLICK.

Most classifications recognize four WR species.  The whole quartet winds up served with gravy, and the main grain is Zizania palustris, a native blessing to the Great Lakes Region and much of Canada.  The historical harvest is centered in Minnesota, although California has become the national cultivational epicenter, at least if the Big Drought has not changed things.  Scattered other countries have their own WR farms.

Southern Wild Rice, Zizania aquatica, ranges from the Great Lakes Region southward to the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. This is the Florida representative.

Ho-hum, no surprises so far, but here come two Zizania zingers:

Surprise #1:   Zizania texana is a federally listed endangered species surviving only on the San Marcos River in one Texas county. Preliminary research suggests this isolated population oddly to be more closely related to the Asian species—stay tuned—than to the other two North American species.  It seems to have two survival challenges…ecotourists on inner tubes and hungry non-native Nutria, both drawn to the spring-fed habitat.

Surprise #2: The fourth species, Zizania latifolia, resides oceans apart from its three American cousins.  Manchurian Wild Rice extends from Russia and India to Japan and Korea.  This big ornamental grass has become an invasive pest in New Zealand.  Having a gourmet factor, Manchurian WR is tempting to cultivate in favorable climates, including in the U.S., but is banned with prejudice due to a fungal partner potentially able to render American wild rice populations sterile.  After all, imported Chestnuts brought us the Chestnut Blight.

Although historically important as a grain, especially in China, Manchurian WR has become rare outside of cultivation and has lost its favored-grain status.  Down on the farm it is a stem vegetable happily infected with a smut fungus known as Ustilago esculenta. (Esculenta means edible.)  The fungus softens and thickens the stem to a rotted tasty treat, and makes the plants sterile, propagated by rhizome segments.  Wild Rice is not the only grass gourmets like to eat infested.  Corn plants stinko with the closely related Corn Smut Ustilago maydis become ruined crops or become the Mexican delicacy huitlacoche, depending on your outlook.

Infected flower head on Sagittaria.  Sagittarias suffer from smuts, although I am not sure if this infection qualifies.  Like a good smut, it "goes for" the ovaries. is a thing of beauty to enjoy since we have no photos of Wild Rice..

Infected flower head on Sagittaria. Sagittarias suffer from smuts, although I am not sure if this infection qualifies. Like a good smut, it “goes for” the ovaries.

To extend the smuttiness to other local species:  Smuts specialize on Monocots, most famously grains, often invading the ovaries and seeds.   Some turn up conspicuously on local wildflowers such as on Inundated Beak Sedge (Testicularia cyperi, see end-note), and on Sagittaria.

Testicularia cyperi smut on Inundated Beaksedge. (See end-note following text.)

Testicularia cyperi smut on Inundated Beaksedge.

A big invasive African grass in our area, Guinea Grass, has its own Ustilago, most studied in South Africa as a suspect in the sheep disease “Dikoor.”  An apparent smut disfigures Guinea Grass here too, perhaps the same fungus among us?

Guinea Grass seed head with apparent Smut fungus.  Could this be the Ustilago responsible for a veterinary problem in Africa?

Guinea Grass seed head with apparent Smut fungus. Could this be the Ustilago responsible for the veterinary problem Dikoor?

Note:  John B. took a convincing look into the Rhynchospora smut ID,  but the Sagittaria and Guinea Grass infection identifications are inexpert quick suspicions added for decoration and for interest.

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Posted by on November 30, 2014 in Grass, Wild Rice


What Tea-Drinking Philadelphia Mayor Escaped from Cannibals?

Dahoon Holly

Ilex cassine


On this blustery overcast late autumn day John and George walking Seabranch State Park felt the chilly ghost of Jonathan Dickinson pass by retracing his shipwrecked footsteps near were we were today, and at nearly the same season.

We enjoyed our field trip, but Jonathan Dickinson, not so much. As we arrive at Thanksgiving, contemplate JD’s heartfelt thanks for escaping Florida in 1699:

“God’s protecting Providence, man’s surest help and defense in the times of the greatest difficulty and most imminent danger, evidenced in the remarkable deliverance of diverse persons from the devouring waves of the sea, amongst which they suffered shipwreck. And also from the more cruelly devouring jaws of the inhumane cannibals of Florida. Faithfully related by one of the persons concerned therein, Jonathan Dickinson.”

I wonder if Jonathan Dickinson at any point had a few moments to enjoy the beautiful plants of what is now Seabranch State Park.  If he’d not been starving, fearing for the life of his family and companions, freezing, and threatened by murder, Jonathan might’ve had a chance to enjoy the golden asters, palafox, and blue curls.  He did come across one of the more beautiful autumn species, magnificent for its red berries, Dahoon Holly, Ilex cassine.   JD encountered it as the tea known as black drink.

Dahoon Holly.  All photos today except the fungal galls by John Bradford.

Dahoon Holly. All photos today except the fungal galls by John Bradford.

Bear with me through another long quote from Jonathan Dickinson. It is worth it:

 “In one part of this house where the fire was kept choose one, was an Indian man, having a pot on the fire wherein he was making a drink of the leaves of a shrub which we understood afterwards by the Spaniard is called caseena, boiling the said leaves, after they had parched them in a pot; then with a gourd having a long neck and at the top of that a small hole which the top of one’s finger could cover, and at the side of it a round hole of 2 inches diameter, they take the liquor out of the pot and put it into a deep brown bowl, which being almost filled containeth nigh 3 gallons. With this gourd they brew the liquor and make it froth very much. It looks of a deep brown color. In the brewing of this liquor was this noise made which we thought strange; for the pressing of this gourd gently down into the liquor, and the air which it contained being forced out of the little hole at the top occasion to sound; and according to the time and motion given would be various. This drink when made, and cooked to sup, was in a conch shell first carried to the Cacique, who threw part of it on the ground, and the rest he drank up, and then would make a loud he-m; and afterwards the cup passed of the rest of the Cacique’s associates…”

(There is some disagreement and confusion in the historical literature as to the relative importance of Dahoon Holly as opposed to Yaupon Holly in preparation of the black drink. Both species apparently were in the brew.   Without much evidence I suspect  JD’s quote to refer to Dahoon Holly.  Its species name cassine is a historical term for the black drink.  The species name for Yaupon Holly, vomitoria, likewise refers to the black drink which caused vomitoria after indulgence.)

Dahoon Holly is one of multiple Holly species native to Florida, the other locally abundant native Holly being  Gallberry.  Gallberry is a small shrub, whereas Dahoon Holly can range from a good-sized shrub to a tree, generally in wet habitats.   The light-toned bark is often decorated with red lichens. The tiny springtime flowers are white. The trees are usually described as having separate male and female individuals, although I don’t think this is strictly true.



On the female trees in season the red berries can be as eye-catching as a fire truck.

Let’s return to making tea from Hollys.  Beyond coffee and grocery store Tea, how many plants provide caffeinated beverages?  Holly’s are one.  In Asia, South America (yerba mate), and in the Southeastern United States multiple Holly yield caffeinated teas.  There’s more than one bioactive compound in Holly preparations, and everything is not necessarily safe to drink.  You have theobromine, an alkaloid occurring also in cacao.  More ominously to the tea-sipper, reports of preparing the black drink, including the one given above, mention whipping it into a froth. That’s a hint of compounds called saponins, which lather in water, kill fish, and are variably toxic to humans.  Among the old reports of Dahoon Holly’s use in making the black drink, are also reports of applications as soap.

This post is getting a little long so let me finish it up quickly with an unrelated item potentially of interest to some readers, who may notice it on their own.  A lot of Hollys, as well as several species unrelated to Hollys, develop galls and growth deformities from a fungus known as Sphaeropsis tumefaciens.  Dahoon Holly is particularly susceptible to this pest. The fungus causes knots and swellings on the young branches, and more conspicuously, witch’s brooms, these being dense tufts of young branches rising from the same point.

Witch's broom and galls on infested Dahoon branch.

Witch’s broom and galls on infested Dahoon branch.

To sum it all up, some of us may give thanks for a chance to escape Florida cannibals, some may feel gratitude for teas, some may like Holly Berries, others may prefer Halle Berry, but we give thanks for the beauty, intricacy, and serenity of nature our gift from Providence to enjoy.

(Yes, JD went on to become Mayor of Philadelphia.)

Happy Thanksgiving!

No inhumane jaws around here!

No inhumane jaws around here!


Posted by on November 21, 2014 in Dahoon holly



C-Fern, Water Sprite, and Goodbye Age Spots!

Water Fern

Ceratopteris pteridoides


Riverbend Park,  Water Fern is on the shore here. All of today's photos, except the one by john Bradford, taken at the time of the class fieldtrip.

Riverbend Park, Water Fern is on the shore here. All of today’s photos, except the one by John Bradford, taken at the time of the class field trip.

John and I were unable to take a field trip today, Friday, due to the funeral of my wonderful plant-loving friend Arthur Leibovit.  Today’s blog is dedicated to Arthur, and perhaps somebody reading this could have known him.  He was the first agriculture graduate from the University of Florida and was a prominent local horticulturist.  Arthur returned to college in his late 70s a decade ago and graced every botany and horticulture class Palm Beach State College offered.  We’ve been friends in green ever since.  He was living proof that the prime of life can extend to age 89.

So we’ll focus instead on a Thursday excursion.  On that afternoon my Palm Beach State College field trip class enjoyed Riverbend Park in Jupiter, complete with a gator encounter.  We noticed a curious fern in the creekside mud. My shoes are still soggy to prove it.  Some of our oddest local ferns live in the water, although only one “full -sized” fern is amphibian, dubbed aptly “Water Fern” (or Horn Fern). (Our other aquatic ferns are diminutive and do not look “ferny.’)

We have two species of Water Ferns swimming in our waters.  One is native (Certatopteris pteridoides) and the other, called Watersprite, is Asian (C. thalictroides), and is a popular aquarium plant available in plastic.

It is seldom my interest in this blog to sort out species.  Even so, briefly, it is worth mentioning that these two species are enormously variable with the variations depending on whether they are floating or anchored in the mud and whether the fronds are sterile or spore-bearing.  In the native species the non-sporing leaves are simple (not compound) although they can be plenty lobed.  In the Asian species the non-sporing leaves are 2 to 3 times compound.  If you wanted to teach a lesson on the breadth of variation to be found within a single species you might choose humans, or dogs, or Water Ferns.  The difference between the spore-making vs. sterile leaves on the same individual is striking, almost like two different species rising from the same base.

Two species?   No, just one, with spore-bearing leaf on the left, and sterile leaf on the right.

Two species? No, just one, with spore-bearing leaf on the left, and sterile leaf on the right.

The genus Ceratopteris is small, interpreted by contemporary botanists as just four arguably distinct species around the warm-climate world.  Easy to cultivate, splintered into strains, and manipulated in the lab, these ferns have become standard guinea pigs for botanical genetic and developmental studies and for classroom projects, marketed as “C-Fern.”

But let’s get back to Riverbend Park, habitat for C-Fern.  Whoever heard of an annual fern?  Water Ferns have unusual features in their reproductive cycle, including going from spore to spore production in a scant three months. That’s warp speed in the Ferniverse.

Mass of sterile leaves by John Bradford.

Mass of sterile leaves by John Bradford.

Like many other aquatic plants, these ferns can live floating and unattached, or they can take root in the mud. They can populate an area in a jiffy because they clone themselves from tiny buds on the leafy fronds. Each bud produces a new copy of the parent plant.

Spore bearing leaf, but you'll never see the spores; they are hidden under the rolled leaf margin.

Spore bearing leaf, but you’ll never see the spores; they are hidden under the rolled leaf margin.

Any plant easy to propagate, happy to grow, and big, soft, and succulent sounds like food.  Ceratopteris even looks like salad. The ferns do grow in rice patties and are on the vegi-menu in some places especially Asia and Madagascar. But don’t get out the Paul Newman’s Creamy Ranch Dressing quite yet.  Water Ferns contain a compound called arbutin.  This is an odd drug found to crop up sporadically in the plant kingdom among completely unrelated species. Cosmetologists know arbutin as a skin bleach.  Toxicologists know it as a probable carcinogen.


Posted by on November 15, 2014 in Ceratopteris



Who Put the Sand Mat in the Sidewalk Crack?

Sand Mats

Chamaesyce species


Whose little footprints are these, in the Seabranch sand?   Photo by John Bradford.

Whose little footprints are these, in the Seabranch sand? Photo by John Bradford.

As a teaching-botanist since the 70s, something that’s always bugged me is a commonplace sense that ”the” interesting plants are the far-flung exotic species, or are the rare species with their paparazzi.  Why?  Why do early students have to be flown to Costa Rica?  Why do the books get glossier and more loaded with photos of plants from other lands?  Wouldn’t learning botany be more meaningful and engaging if the examples were handy?  Maybe right here in front of us?  Don’t the same principles and mechanisms apply in Palm Beach County?

My teaching career sprouted in the Michigan State Penitentiary.  Ha, ha, I know, you are already speculating on my misdeed.  No, it wasn’t Murder-One, Sedition, or removing the mattress tag.  It was just being a poverty-stricken grad-student who accepted a PT job at a local Community College where they send the newbie to the prison outreach program.  And I’m glad of it—in the Big House I realized you can learn as much about plants in your own back yard (or wearing orange in the exercise yard, as the case may be) as on an eco-tourism trip wearing khakis.  Didn’t the Bird Man of Alcatraz discover the same?

It seems to me the most important plants to comprehend are the ones that cross our daily paths.   So today it’s one directly in our path, sidewalk-crack-dwellers, the Sand Mats, species of Chamaesyce (kam-eh-SIGH-see).

Sand Mat. I forget who shot this.

Sand Mat.
I forget who shot this.

These modest weeds tie in with John’s and my visit to Seabranch State Park today. Upon arriving there a little late, escaping gleefully from the oral surgeon who today yanked my molar, I encountered John filming a busy ant nest. We watched the insects bearing seeds “the wrong way”:  outbound from their tunnel.  How and why were the seeds in there to begin with?  To eat?  Then why did the house-cleaning anties lug them out apparently intact?

Like little miners, the ants were marching one by one hauling seeds to a refuse heap with hundreds of seeds at the edge of their mound.  We think we know the species of seeds but being unsure, mum’s the word. Not important.  The thing is, the activity got us interested in ants moving seeds around, and we do in fact know of one documented case where ants remove intact seeds from the nest to the trash pile.   You guessed it:  Chamaesyce, which by elegant coincidence our blog friend Katie MacMillen suggested as this week’s plant to feature.

Sand Mat cyathia. I forget who took this photo.

Sand Mat cyathia.
I forget who took this photo.

We’ve all stepped on Sand Mats.  Next time you park at a supermarket if there is a plant coming up out of a crack in the pavement it may be one of the approximate dozen mostly native Chamaesyce species in our area.  Too many to sort out here.  They are sometimes called Sand Mats, and are among the most abundant and conspicuous urban weeds, and occur in scrubs, beaches and additional usually sunny sandy disturbed habitats.  Several creep, while others are small sub-sub-shrubs.  The leaves are opposite, and the stems drip milk when broken.  The flowers are a small fraction of an inch across, usually white or greenish.  Technically each “flower” is a unit called a cyathium beyond  your attention span today, but here’s a handy link to CLICK for the curious.

Now at long last on to the real reason for today’s blog:

Species of Chamaesyce are emerging in ongoing research, mostly in Japan, as having unprecedented seed distribution relationships with ants.  Fancy symbiosis is always a tale to tell.

Three different means of seed dispersal occur among the Sand Mats.  First of all, the tiny fruits explode to pop the seeds away from the mother plant.  They are Mini-Mes to thier cousins, big forest-dwelling rubber trees, with their own exploding fruits launching the rubber seeds as far as 150 feet.  (Do they bounce when they hit the ground?)

Seed dispersal device #2 in Chamaesyce requires birds.  Famous botanist Sherwin Carlquist back in the 60s explained the broad distribution patterns as Sand Mat seeds sticking onto migrating birds. The seeds of many Chamaesyce species have little pustules of mucilage that release sticky goo upon wetting.  So far, ho-hum.  Patience:  Next comes the noteworthy…

Japanese ecologists studying Chamaesyce maculata, a species we too have here in Florida, discovered the plant adjusts its seed dispersal system to the season, an ability possibly unknown elsewhere in the plant world.  In summer in Japan Chamaesyce detonates its pods as we just discussed.  But in the autumn, the same species entrusts its seeds to ants who carry them home, dispersing the species.  Don’t they eat and destroy the seeds though?  Read on…

The plot thickens.  Only two species of Japanese ants like Chamaecyse seeds. Of these, one ant species is probably not very useful. It takes the seeds to its nest and eats them.  The second ant species is far more useful to the plant.  Recall the mucilage in the seed coats.   It’s utility apparently goes beyond sticking to plumage. The second ant species drags the seeds into the nest and nibbles the mucilage-laden seed coat off, leaving the rest of the seed intact.  I’m not 100% sure the coating the ants eat is the same mucilage coating that Dr. Carlquist talked about years ago, but it sure seems to be.  You can see its bubble packets on the seeds.

Chamaesyce seeds with presumed mucilage-bumps.  Photo from USDA, by Carole Ritchie.

Chamaesyce seeds with presumed mucilage-bumps. Photo from USDA, by Carole Ritchie.

And there’s more.  Removal of the seed coat turned out to make the Sand Mat seed comparatively resistant to fungal infection. That is fortunate because the ants toss the lightly nibbled seeds onto their dumpster of decay.  But it is all a matter of standpoint.  The seeds see the ant dump as a tilled, composted, garden bed with 24/7 security.

It just goes to show you that even a lowly weed sprawling across the gravel is potentially as complex and intriguing as that rare Orchid in Bali you’ll never see again.  And no Land Rover required.


Posted by on November 7, 2014 in Chamaecyse, Sand Mat



Bones in the Shadows, Werewolf Spiders, Flesh Eating Plants: Lost Spirits Adrift in the Moors on Halloween


Drosera capillaris and other species


We don’t actually have any moors in town.  That’s for our U.K. blog correspondent blog friend Mary.   But John and I today were lost spirits adrift in Seabranch State Park.  But don’t think all’s hunky dory just because there is a restroom and a Ranger. Deep and dark where the Rangers dare not go lurk magic mushrooms, witch grass, devil’s potato, poison ivy, and gargantuan mutant plants drooling for fresh meat on Halloween.

We were bewitched by the bloodthirsty Sundews, species of Drosera, almost 200 carnivorous species worldwide, five in Florida, and two in our usual enchanted forest.

Our locally common Drosera capillaris is not closely related to the other Florida species; rather, its two closest relatives are South American.  Sundews get around as if they had broomsticks.

Sundew.  All photography today by John Bradford.

Sundew. All photography today by John Bradford.

Why would a nice little rosette turn to the carnivorous side? Plants, after all, make their own food by photosynthesis, so who needs butchery?   Flesh-eating plants indulge in cannibalism not for energy, but for what we might refer to as fertilizer elements. When a plant harvests an insect—or a human—we’re talkin’ nitrogen and phosphorus in habitats where N and P don’t come easily.

Knowing that, some thinkers might now wonder, if N and P come from the beef, how does the Sundew acquire additional micronutrients.  With preliminary research, so far it seems the minor nutrients arrive by root in the usual fashion, but the weird thing is, the Sundew roots require pre-activation by a blood meal up top.

Gotcha!  (Before the spider did)

Gotcha! (Before the spider did)

It might be a good idea here to mention what the Dews do.  Their paddle-shaped leaf blades have on the upper surface fearsome tentacles tipped with glistening sticky glue. Birdlime for bugs. The reddish foliage no doubt attracts victims to the plant.  When a tiny buggie touches the sticky hairs the creature naturally gets agitated and starts kicking and cursing, only to become  mired like Brer Rabbit whupping the tar baby.

When an insect is entrapped in some of the hairs, separate previously uninvolved hairs on the same leaf reportedly bend toward the atrocity.   How do they know to do that?  It’s a mystery of nature.  The hairy entanglement pushes the twitching corpse onto the surface of the leaf blade where enzymes suck the last spark of life from the foul remains.

In some Sundews, although probably not our local species, spring-loaded hairs around the leaf margin fling incoming insects onto the lethal sticky hairs toward the center of the blade.

A single Sundew doesn’t snuff many insects.  But an entire Sundew meadow can decimate the ranks of those embarrassing creepie-crawlies worse than an angry ORKIN man might.  This puts the plant into competition with predatory beasts, possibly the only documented case of animal vs. plant competition for food.   The cheated beastie is the Wolf Spider who in a huff builds a supersized web when Sundews force the extra effort. And to balance the scales of justice, the Sundew too suffers diminished performance in the company of the ungracious arachnids. (Based on recent Florida research by ecologist David Jennings and collaborators.)

Sundews live not by nutrition alone.  They too need love, or at least love’s outcome: pollination.  If I were a pollinator on the wing, I’d shun those gooey botanical bastards with their deadly flypaper just under my six feet!  No thanks, I’ll go trick or treating in safer neighborhoods.  USF Professor Frederick Essig has observed the flowers to host surprisingly few visitors.  He observed further that as the day progresses the flowers close up, pushing the male stamens with their pollen against the female stigmas of the same flower, effecting a pollination “selfie.”   As he speculated credibly, the automatic self-pollination may allow Sundews to multiply in a jiffy to populate the entire mud bank.  Don’t wait for pollinators, gobble them, then go pollinate yourself.

Our day in the park started out fine, but we did experience an unfortunate incident upon wandering a bit off the beaten path trying to photograph a bird.  There is a remote swampy corner where the plants are so vastly oversized you have to wonder if something has caused mutations.  The deeper you push into the swamp, which is tough to penetrate, the plants and spiders become increasingly massive and bizarre until you lose sight of the sky in the gloom, with animal “voices” whispering and grunting from the shadows.  We wondered if maybe the mutations dated from a radiation leak at the nearby Hutchinson Island nuclear plant.  I was concerned about going into that ominous place, fearing mutation myself, but John couldn’t pass up a hot photo op. (He has a new lens.) So in he charged while I waited safely on the trail eating fruit and nut granola bars.  After hearing some strange sounds, maybe toads,  in the distance, and after waiting an hour, I reckoned John must have found an easier trail out and returned to his hearse to skulk back to his unholy lair in time to feed his bats.  Or perhaps chickened out and skedaddled when the raven spoke.  So, unconcerned,  I departed too. But later, the office called because a worker found a camera along the trail and was canvassing the park volunteer roster to find the owner.   Yes, John’s camera was easy to identify by the new lens. You may view footage recovered from it.  CLICK  if you dare.  If you’ll join the search mob, we’ll meet at the graveyard at the stroke of Midnight.  Bring your own torch,  and I”ll pick up some eye of newt.    Happy Halloween.


Posted by on October 31, 2014 in Drosera, Sundew




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