Tassel Flowers, Twin Species with Twin Hairs

Emilia fosbergii (usually red, with variations) and Emilia sonchifolia (lilac)

(Emilia is a personal name, but the identity of Emilie or Emile is lost history.  Raymond Fosberg was an American botanist.  Sonchifolia means “leaves like Sonchus,” a related genus.)



Twins!  One with red flowers, the other with lilac.   Every person within the ranges of these two beauty weeds has noticed their bright flowerheads somewhere.    Venus’s paintbrushes.  Native to the Old world,  they grow from the boondocks to Wal-Mart parking lots, often together.    Can’t miss em’.

Emilia fosbergii 3 (1)

Emilia fosbergii, flowers usually red.  By John Bradford.

Emilia fosbergii 4

Emilia sonchifolia, typically lilac.  By John Bradford.

Being so similar, ultra-closely related, and often mixed, I wondered if the two might form hybrids, especially because flower-color intermediates exist.   The tweeners look like obvious hybrids.   But watch out, “obvious” conclusions send innocent convicts to the chair.

There is hybridization afoot, but not what we were thinking.  It happened long ago:   Emilia fosbergii is  the result of an ancient cross between Emilia sonchifolia and another species.    Botanists who study these plants suspect the “other” species to be the red-flowered Emilia coccinea which occurs in the U.S. only as a garden flower.    So did you catch that, E. sonchifolia is a “parent” of E. fosbergii.

The hybrid origins of Emilia fosbergii help explain the color intermediates in a new refreshing light.   One parent species, E. coccinea has bright red to orange flowers, the other parent, E. sonchifolia has lilac blossoms.  Our hybrid species E. fosbergii usually (in Florida at least) tends to be red, and varies to pink or light violet.  In short, it can resemble variably either or its parent species.   It has a full set of chromosomes from each, thus the genetic blueprints for each.

Emilia fosbergii paired hairs

Twin hairs on the “seed.”

The Emilia fruits resemble dandelion “seeds” suspended from a parachute.   The tiny seedy paratrooper (technically an achene) has an unusual feature, twin hairs, side-by-side hotdog-shaped outgrowths.    Recent studies reveal paired functions for the paired hairs.  The first function is to serve as intake ports for water entry as the seed contacts wet soil.   Little “roots.”  The second function is a bit root-ish too:

To release mucilage…remember mucilage glue?…to fix the seed to the soil particles.  It still has a parachute attached and may otherwise blow around, disrupting germination and establishment.

Emilia fosbergii 6

E. fosbergii, so pretty. By John Bradford.

*To rephrase more precisely for those who care:  Emilia fosbergii appears to be an allotetraploid potentially of African origin with one subgenome from diploid E. sonchifolia (well substantiated) and the other subgenome (speculatively) from a diploid biotype of E. coccinea which has diploid and tetraploid biotypes.


Posted by on July 20, 2017 in Tassel Flowers, Uncategorized


Alligator-Lily, Palmer’s Spider-Lily

Hymenocallis palmeri


(Hymenocallis means beautiful membrane in reference to the white funnel at the flower center.   Edward Palmer was a Civil War doctor-turned botanist who discovered today’s species in 1874 at Miami.)

Hymenocallis etching

Etching of Hymenocallis palmeri from 1888. This is probably based on Edward Palmer’s collection.

Some species are born to be stars with celebrity good looks.  Alligator-lily is one.  Circumstances prevent a Friday field trip, so the replacement is a wet meadow down the road from my house, a rainbowland of violet meadowbeauties, white painted sedges, shocking pink Bartram’s rose-gentians, yellow xyris,  and much more, including alligator-lilies, so showy and so odd.   The spider-lily genus Hymenocallis is native to the Americas, and in gardens worldwide.  Several species occur naturally in Florida.

Hymenocallis latifolia 3

Hymenocallis latifolia, by John Bradford

Alligator-lilies beautify most of south Florida plus a satellite outpost a little to the north, preferring wet habitats, usually sunny, such as wet prairies or soggy meadows.   Sunny and wet will matter again in a moment, so hold the thought.

Hymenocallis palmeri at Botanica July


The flowers are huge, white, fragrant,  nectar-filled,  and fancy in silhouette.   Vaguely funnel-shaped, they have a narrow tube as long as your hand.     In other words, textbook moth-pollinated, almost exclusive to hawk moths sporting proboscises like flexible knitting needles uncoiling to probe the tube.

Pollinate here:  CLICK

All that is well documented on the internet, so with that low-hanging fruit plucked we shall plod  onward to  the actual low-hanging fruits.  As low as snake spit.  Spider-lilies have a fruit-seed system rare in the green world.   The fruits start out normally as pods atop the flower stalk.    As the seedpod enlarges and gains weight the stalk flops to the ground like that aforementioned snake.

Hymenocallis palmeri on ground 2nd day

Green snakes

The flimsy pivot point is at the stalk base, and the seedpod is the snake’s head.

The grounded pod splits open and reveals the enlarging succulent green seeds.   The embryo is a mere undeveloped speck at this point.   And here begins the seed weirdness Louisiana botanists Muriel Whitehead and Clair Brown studied painstakingly in the 1940s using a different Hymenocallis species.

Hymenocallis seeds

The seeds look like green grapes.

Instead of forming hard dry seed coats and going dormant like a proper seed, the spider-lily seeds behave more like independent plants.  They simply remain green and grow on their own before germination.   They photosynthesize on the ground apart from the mother plant,  feeding that little nub of an embryo  until it gets big and sprouts forth in about a month.   The thick green soft living seed coats have a unique system of  veins, resembling those in a leaf, adequate for the job of distributing the products of photosynthesis.   They even have stomates, which are the microscopic  gas exchange valves typical of photosynthesizing leaves, not normally on seeds.

Hymencallis palmeri cut seed with embryo

Seed cut open like a quartered melon.  The immature embryo top left.  The seed coat is soft, succulent, green, and photosynthetic.

To summarize,  most plants pack their seeds pre-release with a developed embryo, nutrition for it, and hard layers of protection to go dormant and then reawaken in the right place at the right time under the right conditions.    This plant, by contrast, drops an independent living soft green seed onto the moist mud to handle its own nutrient production to bring an unformed embryo to mature germination.

And now pesky ones may say, “well you covered the base of feeding the embryo, but what about protecting it?  These seeds have no seedcoats to block pests.”    True,  but these are wickedly toxic  plants.    The seeds in the photo above are glossy green and unbothered.

Hymenocallis grasshopper lighter

Unauthorized personnel.   Is the grasshopper (Aptenopedes sphenarioides probably):  rendering itself poisonous borrowing toxins from the plant?  And/or eating the petals as the least toxic parts?




Posted by on July 14, 2017 in Spider-Lilies, Uncategorized



Mikania scandens, and related species

(Josef Mikan was a botanist in Prague.  Scandens means climbing.)

Asteraceae (The Aster Family)


What did Charles Darwin do after rocking the world with evolution?    The aftermath was a little anticlimactic, like a retired CEO heading the homeowners association.    One thing Darwin did was study climbing vines, and one of his climbers was Mikania scandens.   He queried through international correspondence if Mikania scandens always twines in the same direction as it climbs.  Darwin sent letters on sailing ships.    I used Google Images, and every Mikania I see there cranks counter-clockwise.   (Would they go clockwise below the equator? (Just kidding.) ((I think.))

Mikania scandens 4

Mikania scandens wrapping counter-clockwise.  By John Bradford.

John and I rocked the world today working on insects and frogs in Savannas State Park near Jensen Beach, FL, a perfect place to trip over Mikania scandens.

Florida has three species of Mikania:   Mikania scandens, the similar M. cordata, and the reason I’m mentioning the trio:  The exotic invasive Mikania micrantha is called Mile-a-Minute Vine growing 60 MPH and blanketing acres in the wink of an eye.   Good thing it is, I hope, sprawling only across the Miami-Dade Area.   But all things do have their good points, and a smothering rampant vine is just what you need if you have something to hide   Camouflage is how it served during WWII, the military helping to spread it around the tropical world.   War has odd ramifications, such as that (dud) hand grenade a bicyclist stumbled upon, almost literally, recently trailside in Jonathan Dickinson State Park, aka WWII Camp Murphy.

Mikania cordifolia 2

Mikania cordifolia in fruit. By JB

Our bio-peek today is about hand grenades, tiny ones, if the story that follows bears scrutiny.   Please know that the tale resembles the prosecutor’s case…made-up to account for the facts as we know them.  Innocents have gone to the chair on occasion.

First a little background.   In the Aster Family, where Mikania belongs, the flowers are crowded into dense clusters called heads.   The flower bases are packed together side-by-side vertically like stems in a vase.    Each base matures into a fruit similar to a seed, so let’s just wink and call it a seed (if you prefer, call it an achene).    Packed with sugars and starch, seeds are good to eat.


Diagram of an Aster Family flower head.  The flower bases (ovaries in the caption, blue) are packed together vertically and become the “seeds.”   In real life they are jammed together, not separated as in the diagram.

Seed pests are a pervasive torment for members of the Aster Family.  Little troublemakers, often tiny maggots, nestle down among the maturing “seeds” and damage them by nibbling.

Bidens alba with larva circled

Maggot enjoying the “seeds” in a related species, Bidens alba.   The plant needs defense.

The crowd calls out DE-FENSE, DE-FENSE.   Here come those micro hand grenades…packed in among the seeds.    Under a microscope little hard grainy translucent spheres cover the seeds.  The little death bombs (if my speculative interpretion of their purpose is correct) are a handbook recognition feature for Mikania scandens.  (M. micrantha can have some as well.)

Mikania scandens achene with gems

“Seed” (achene) removed from the flower head covered with what I think are anti-maggot death bombs.  The white material to the lower right is a parachute…think of a dandelion for familiar related species with parachute seeds.

A loathsome larva has to nibble and wriggle past the tiny spheres to get to the tasty seedflesh.  They break loose easily and perhaps even stick to the pest infusing it transdermally with toxins like “the patch.”

Defensive weapons need some zip, and our species has plenty to give although I don’t really know if the seed-covering gems contain the secret sauce.   That sauce is beyond toxic.  Its diverse ingredients include a wicked compound named for the plant, mikanolide.  It (and maybe its associates) block the enzyme DNA polymerase.  That may sound harmless without a reminder of its necessity in forming DNA, the genes, the info center for every living cell.   Nuking the DNA would be the same as yanking the motherboard from my laptop on my lap.   Poisons don’t get much more direct or universal than that.

So clearly Mikania has the right stuff  to destroy ANY living cell,  whether it be a seed-munching larva or a malignant human tumor.   (Please do not eat the weeds.)  Tilted more toward that tumor,  mikanolide-based therapy has made it to the U.S. Patent Office.


Posted by on July 7, 2017 in Hempvine, Uncategorized



Kiss Me Quick Puts All Its Eggs in One Basket

Portulaca pilosa

(Portulaca comes from Latin for little door,  which is the pop-open lid on the fruit revealed below.  Pilosa refers to the wool woven into today’s story.)

Portulacaceae, Purslane Family

The Haney Creek Natural Area by Jensen Beach, Florida, was today’s warm trudge.   Ninety four degrees?    John’s and I focused more on arthropods than on flowers, but natural areas never disappoint botanically.    Loving the carcinogenic sun and being all pretty was Kiss Me Quick, a native Portulaca, a genus familiar to most gardeners for vibrant colorful flowers.  KMQ fits the bill with shocking purplish dayglo blossoms on succulent foliage.    It looks like a desert plant,  all showy-blossomed and succulent,  and it sort of is, at least around here, on the blazing bare sand where little else dares to root.

Portulaca pilosa 4

Kiss Me Quick.  See  whiskers on it?  Pilose means woolly.   By John Bradford.

The name Kiss Me Quick comes from the activist flowers open early in the day and withering as the shadows lengthen.    Another name is Chisme, Spanish for gossip presumably because the species spreads like salacious secrets in the garden club.  Or it seems to.

Spreading is certainly facilitated by tiny seeds that get around and the ability to grow anew from busted stem fragments.    But when you see the species scattered around hither and yon, is recent dispersal the full truth?   Probably not.   If you denude an area and expose bare sand, our species may rise from the grit spontaneously.  The light-activated seeds reportedly can lie dormant in the dirt awaiting their moment in the sun. Sometimes the habitat comes to the plant that waits.

Portulaca pilosa 6

By JB.

Did I say native?   Probably accurate, but “native” is hard to define with intercontinental weeds.   This species is widespread globally, and graces many U.S. states.  It is variable and looks different at different ages, in different habitats, and in different regions.   Hints in botanical writings suggest drier habitats may spawn more wool.

Long woolly hairs occur up and down the plant, forming a dense nest immediately under and around the delicate fruits.  The dry hollow fruits can nestle in the nest like Easter eggs set in that shredded green grassy cellophane confetti in Easter baskets.   And probably for essentially the same protective reason:  the plants “puts all its eggs in one basket,” that is, its delicate fruits held aloft in the terrible places this species tolerates.  Heat!  Sun!   UV!  Wind!   Bugs!    The wool seems to protect the fruit from some combo of those scary perils.

capsule closed 2

The egg-shaped fruit in its woolly nest on the top of the plant.


Let’s extend the basket of eggs analogy further.   What if your basket contained  pop-open plastic eggs?   The ones where the top half comes off to expose yummy candies within.    That’s is exactly how the Kiss Me Quick fruit works,  like a plastic egg.     Its top dome pops off to reveal the “candies,” which are the seeds inside.

portulaca open cap

The fruit, with the top half popped off and the black seeds exposed.

egg open


The End


Posted by on June 30, 2017 in Kiss Me Quick, Uncategorized


You Can’t Keep a Good Fern Down

Small Leaf Climbing Fern

Lygodium microphyllum

(Lygodium means flexible. Microphyllum means small leaf)



This morning John and I pursued minor projects in Kiplinger Wildlife Preserve, in awe of the imperialistic Small Leaf Climbing Fern,  a gift that keeps on giving from the Old World, first recorded in Florida during Elvis, escaped during the Beatles.

Lygodium microphyllum 1

Going up!   By John Bradford.

Its massive growth is matched by  massive attention to its peskiness on the Internet. No need to be the millionth post on that.  For those unfamiliar with the problem, probably not Florida residents, this fern can smother a tree in the wink of an eye, climb high into the canopy, spread fires, and even reportedly snare a deer.

Lygodium microphyllum 5

Spore-bearing leaflets. By JB

Rather than rant on about invasiveness, it might be more interesting to explore the biology of this super-weed.  Two invasive Lygodiums compete to own Florida:  Lygodium microphyllum is  common around Palm Beach County.  Lygodium japonicum is more prevalent northward.   Farther north still across the Florida state line comes the native Lygodium palmatum.  The invasive species grow like lightning, L japonicum as much as three inches a day.

Lygodium frond segment

Leaflets along a small stretch of one long rising leaf.

These clambering vines are not really vines.  The entire aboveground  climber is a leaf, a frond, although division into leaflets along a stringy center gives the false appearance of a leafy stem.    But no.  The true stem is at or below ground level,  launching the immortal ever-lengthening leaves skyward to go forth and multiply.    The individual leaves climb 30 feet or more.

And here is how:    The tip of most any fern leaf (frond) is a curl called a crozier.   Normally the crozier uncurls, and that’s that.  But this is no normal fern.  In Lygodium the crozier never uncurls.  It just keeps on lengthening the leaf.    The leaf portion behind the crozier stays bare like a thin twig and forms a hook.  The hook rotates on its own, and also blows in the wind.   All this twistin’, and hookin’; and blowin’ is an effort to hook onto something to climb.   When that happens, let the rise ensue until the leaf snakes to the top of the host, then the hooky business resumes seeking a taller host.  Upsie daisy!  Below the hooky region the older regions broaden out into the characteristic leaflets,  hundreds of them like lights bulbs strung on a wire around a used car lot.

Lygodium microphyllum crozier

Climbing Fern crozier

If a leaf extends high up into the tree and then breaks off, oh my, what a disaster.  But no, wait, there is a safety mechanism.  Along the leaf are fuzzy rust-colored buds ready to grow forth and save the day.

That the leaves rise directly from the “roots” allows direct immediate nutrient interchange between leaf and “root.”   Such efficient root-leaf commerce has turned out, it seems, to allow for especially enriched roots to cope with bad soil, not to mention fuel that magical leaf growth.

Lygodium microphyllum stem tip region

Hooked leaf tip, crozier at the very end.

Botanists have shown…at least under some circumstances…the plants to grow equally well in bright sun and deep shade.  They do not care.   Wet places are favorite habitats, pine woods will do, and even sometimes dry scrub.    It’s all good!   Flooding seems to boost spore production, and that is a deliberate segue:

Ferns reproduce by dust-sized spores blowing in the wind.  One individual Climbing Fern can produce astronomical numbers of spores.  There has been concern that workers exterminating the fern get their clothes contaminated with spores, spreading the pest unwittingly, helping it rather than wiping it out.

Lygodium microphyllum bud

Fuzzy bud on leaf.

Watch the hook helped by wind seek a new host to climb:   CLICK

When the baby Climbing Fern  grows from the spore it matures as female with a trick. She releases hormones to make the  nearby babies mature male as automatic mates.

If that fails, the female develops its own sperm-producing organs and fertilizers itself.

There’s no stopping Climbing Fern.

Lygodium microphyllum being sprayed by John Lampkin with permission

Photo courtesy of John Lampkin.


Posted by on June 23, 2017 in Uncategorized


Ornithocoprophily, A Bacterial Surprise, and Hungry Bunnies

Silvilagus palustris



After serial thwarts the last couple Fridays, John and George finally hit the muddy road today, mostly to think big— to shoot broad-perspective video of a marsh in the Kiplinger Nature Preserve for a project evolving under John’s  video genius.    (We’ll return to that in due course.)  Thinking big shifts the focus from wildflowers to the forest.

In a Florida marsh, an obvious fact from a distance is that our feathered friends prefer certain trees for roosting and more.    And if birds occupy an individual tree or clump much of the time,  guano showers below.    Fertilizer!  On Florida’s otherwise awful, nutrient-poor, sandy soil.  That’s gotta matter!

To go to the extreme case, consider “tree islands” with rookeries.   Biologist Paul Wetzel and collaborators in 2005 reviewed the relationship between rookeries and Florida tree islands, with points to ponder.   Although bird manure is not the only source of phosphorus enrichment in a “tree island,”  it can account for 20 times that from other sources, and 3000 times that from atmospheric fallout.  Such super-fertilization can generate “luxuriant” growth persisting up to 50 years thereafter, although the overall effects on species composition need attention.  In smaller venues with lower levels of deposition the floristic effects need study.  What I really want to know if the main broadleaf tree of the Everglades and a beloved roosting tree,  Pond-Apple, which is prominent in Kiplinger,  practices ornithocoprophily (love for bird dung).

tree island

What bird dung does.  (From Wetzel et al.  Front. Ecol. Enviro. 2005.)


Tree fertilization technicians at work:  PECK HERE

While still up in those well fed trees, look at one of the commonest pants there, Ball-Moss.    Not really a moss, this species is Tillandsia recurvata, an epiphytic Bromeliad and relative of similar Spanish-Moss.

Tillandsia recurvata 2

Ball-Moss in a tree, by John Bradford

To see Ball-Moss go peek up any oak tree, or even a telephone wire.   This little airplant thrives up high clinging to twigs where soil nutrients are not.   The species captures rainwater under beautiful microscopic leaf scales.  All good, but is that enough for “fertilizer”?

Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) 4

Scale from Spanish-Moss, close relative of Ball-Moss. (Courtesy of Dr. Robert Wise, UW Oshkosh)

Back in 1994 ecologists M.E. Puente and Y. Bashan didn’t think so, and uncovered a surprise:  nitrogen-fixing bacteria haunting the tissues of Ball-Moss.  Nitrogen fixation is the process of converting inert nitrogen gas from the air into ammonium a plant can use.    This is most famously the domain of legumes with their own bacteria, but more and more non-legumes with nitrogen-fixing powers are turning up.   The bacterium in the Ball-Moss is Pseudomonas stutzeri, which would be nothing but anther boring Latin name except for two things:

Thing 1. The same bacterium has surfaced as a nitrogen fixer in a grass.

Thing 2. The same germ is a minor human pathogen. CLICK FOR DETAILS

Oh no, does that mean handling Ball-Moss exposes a person to potentially deadly bacteria?    Technically, yes.  In practice, I have no idea.  But in any case it underscores the little hobgoblins lurking in the weeds around us.

The bacteria feed the Ball-Moss, and the Ball-Moss helps this rascal with dietary fiber. ONE FINAL CLICK




Posted by on June 16, 2017 in Uncategorized


Carolina Ash, Pop Ash

Fraxinus caroliniana

(Fraxinus is an ancient name for ash trees.  Caroliniana is self-explanatory.)

Oleaceae (Olive Family)


If you live in Florida and become nostalgic for woods with a “northern feel,” go to the shore of a river and get among species of ash, hickory, jack in the pulpit,  maples, and more.  Feels like Ohio.  Even a little fall color from all the poison ivy.   I always take special pleasure in coming upon Carolina Ash, so much so I invited  one into my yard where it has become a pretty shade tree.

Fraxinus caroliniana 2

Carolina Ash leaves and samaras.   Photos by John Bradford.

Any ash-fancier must dread the exotic Emerald Ash Borer beetle destroying thousands of ashes in northern states.   The pest is expanding southward, and Carolina Ash is likely susceptible along with our other species.  So far so good in Florida.

Fraxinus caroliniana 1

The trees are separately male and female with tiny non-showy wind-pollinated flowers.   As with most wind-pollinated trees, the species is deciduous.  They do not seem at first glance to fit in the Olive Family, as olives have pretty white insect-pollinated flowers and big fleshy fruits.     But if you had a magic transformer wand you could morph an olive into an ash.  All the fundamentals remain the same, just with different points of emphasis.     In fact, there are missing links, including a species of “Flowering Ash” with showy white flowers, and several species where the two sexes have not split into separate individuals.     The most interesting link is olive oil.    Everybody knows olive oil, but I’ll bet Rachel Ray never tried extra virgin ash oil.    In some places edible oil is squeezed from ash seeds, which otherwise have little resemblance to an olive beyond the oil and a single seed.

FRaxinus caeoiniana samaras

Ash fruits look like an olive run over by a steamroller.   The fruits are smashed flat into an elongate green wing with a seed embedded at one end.     Such winged fruits are properly termed samaras, a great name for a sailboat.     The party line in every botany textbook is that “the” function of a samara is to flutter away on the wind  to scater the seeds.    OK, we can stipulate to that, but could there be more to it?

Various botanists over the years have suggested that the big flat green wing helps feed the embryo embedded in it.   Samara wings have been shown to photosynthesize, and thus serve as a solar baby-food makers intimately attached to the baby.  As a subjective observation, the samara veins look like feeding network leading straight to the seed.  Although sporadically discussed and obviously plausible,  the Gerber Hypothesis could use a measure of  hard-data research.  Then the question must be addressed,  and if sustained, does the samara feed the baby even after dropping from the parent tree?


Posted by on June 9, 2017 in Uncategorized

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