Firebush has Burning Needles

Hamelia patens

(Hamelia honors naturalist Henri L. DuHamel du Monceau.  Patens means spreading.)

Rubiaceae (Coffee Family)


Firebush.  Not taken today.  In fruit now.   Although memory fails me in some cases, all or most of today’s non-microscope photos are by John Bradford.

Today John’s and my Kiplinger  activity centered on photo equipment rather than exploration,  making this a good occasion for Firebush.  This colorful, drug-bearing shrub or small tree will ring bells with gardeners beyond those dedicated to native species.


As with most species that slip into mainstream gardening, Firebush over many years has wandered at the hand of humans around and far beyond its broad range from South America to Florida, divvied up into cultivars in far-flung nurseries, and redistributed willy nilly.  Its garden history is as willy as South Africa and as nilly as China.

My first encounter with Firebush was in the Caribbean, not Florida.    This sort of mixed up globe-trotting pattern is obviously standard for any given garden species.   I’m going to leave its cultivation to the innumerable websites concerned with growing stuff.  To summarize the fine points of cultivating Firebush: plant it, go away.


Or let the birds plant it for you, dispersing seeds from the pea-sized berries.    As is true of many species, the fruits mature through a red phase, then black, the two colors often clustered close together.   The plant world is rife with red and black juxtaposed as an attractant color combo for birds.    If you think about it and watch, you find red and black together in seeds, fruits, and flowers.


Let’s go a little more obscure into the secret life of Hamelia.  Firebush belongs to the Coffee Family, and like its kin, the shrub has paired leaves (or leaves whorled in 3’s) with a triangular flap called a stipule on the stem between the leaf bases.   Many plants have stipules, but that triangle between the leaf bases is a Coffee Family specialty.   When the twig is young, those triangular flap stipules clasp the baby stem tip before the leaves grow.


Stipule, triangular flap between two leaf bases.  The bud has grown and the stem is elongating behind the stipule.


This will help.  Picture the boy’s head as the stem bud.  The triangular sides to his hat are stipules.  CLICK

In many Coffees, the stipules hide a palisade of brown micro-teeth called colleters.    The colleter secretions presumably feed protective ants,  and/or protectively varnish the young bud tip under the stipular hat.


This is Wild-Coffee with a stipule removed to  reveal the brown glandular colleters.


Oddly though, in Firebush the colleters are either missing or too inconspicuous for me to find.  Instead, the Firebush stipules have a wet-looking glossy inner surface sealed tightly against tender stem tip.   As the tip elongates, the stipules remain on the side of the lengthening stem awhile, eventually to wither and drop.


Firebush stipule.No colleters apparent.  Instead the inner face (exposed) is wet-looking and sealed tightly around the bud by the two lips you see along the edges.    The (removed) bud was in that glossy groove.  A tight fit.

The protective mechanisms get weirder.  Many unrelated plants develop microscopic needle-shaped crystals called raphides inside their cells.    Did you every carry an armload of prunings to the compost heap, only to suffer a burning sensation on your exposed forearm?   Might be those little needles doing their job.   For decades, I (and many others) assumed the raphides to work merely by pricking the flesh, and then maybe melting into irritating acid.    But no…wrong…here is yet another example of the newly emerging complexities of the green world.

Biologist Kataro Konno and collaborators in 2014  documented the ability of raphide crystals to inject protein-destroying enzymes when they penetrate.  They give the victim a toxic shot, or a thousand of them!  More  precisely, the tiny pricks punch holes in cell membranes, allowing the toxic enzyme associated with the raphides to enter the victim’s cells.    Punji sticks.


Raphides from Firebush.  They look lke pickup sticks.

Flip over a leaf and look at the corners where the side veins join the main vein.    With a magnifying glass you can spot kinky white hair tufts.   Those nests, called domatia, presumably house predatory mites on  duty defending the foliage from leaf-bothering mites.


Firebush domatium, guardhouse for predatory mites

And speaking of mites, Firebush is a key player in research concerned with flower mites catching an inter-blossom lift from pollinating hummingbirds.  (Firebush benefits from many pollinators, including butterflies, especially where hummingbirds are scarce.    In its truly  tropical range Firebush seemingly depends mostly on hummingbirds for “the birds and the bees.”)   Flower mites are parasites able to steal pollen and nectar from the blossoms they invade.    Bad news for Firebush!    In some studies, those microscopic arachno-rascals have reduced the pollen and nectar substantially.     They come, they raid, and then fortified on pilfered booty they reproduce, only then to hop into a hummingbird’s nostrils airborne to the next bush.

the end

Extra notes for inquiring minds…

For  taxonomy within the species,  written by  botanist, Dr. Thomas Elias,  who revised Hamelia back in the 70s and then revisted Hamelia patens as a cultivated complex far more recently.   CLICK

Persons interested in more depth on the hitch-hiking mites, CLICK

Penetrating article on the raphide needle effect:   CLICKITY CLICK


Posted by on January 13, 2017 in Firebush, Uncategorized


White Stopper

Eugenia axillaris

(Eugenia honors Prince Eugene of Savoy.  Axillaris no doubt refers to the axillary flowers and fruits. The axil is the place where leaf base meets stem.)

Myrtaceae, Eucalyptus Family

This week’s back-to-school frenetic frenzy prevented John’s and my usual leisurely Friday fieldtrip, but no problem,  my native plants class launched a new semester yesterday, and one of the species we learned is a species of mystery.    Today’s attempt may have more questions than answers.


Today’s photos by John Bradford, some taken in Kiplinger Preserve.

White Stopper is one of several stoppers native to Florida, representing one of the world’s largest plant genera, Eugenia, if  interpreted broadly.

White Stopper is a fine fixture in hammocks and native plant gardens around here, and is lovely with deep green leaves having purple petioles,  and potentially massive displays of white frilly flowers followed by red-then-black birdfood fruits.


Stop and look at those fruits a moment, they vary weirdly.   Most are smooth and “normal,” reasonable looking glossy berries.   CLICK for normal.   Some are lumpy, warty, and mis-shaped.   Compare the ones below with the “normal” photo.


Raisins?   Or under the influence of gall-makers?

That could be a matter of age or of growth conditions, but the deviations can be extreme.   Some of the fruits are  off-the-charts, grotesque, and sometimes hard and dry.


See what I mean?  The fruits can be seriously deviant.

Although I’m not sure where age and conditions end and gall-inducing pests start, Eugenias and relatives in general suffer from insect-induced fruit galls.   Anyone who habitually eats the related Surinam-Cherry may spit tiny larvae from between the teeth.

The abnormal WS fruits bothered Miami botanist Walter Buswell back in 1946, who said of today’s stopper: “often with few or many woody galls in place of the fruit.”  It will be interesting to slice open the berries from now on, especially the weird ones, and see if they are merely raisins, or if somebody’s home within.  There’s a poorly told story hiding here.

Another White-Stopper oddity is their fragrance.  Crush the leaves, and the smell isn’t powerful, despite membership in the Eucalyptus Family.  Stand next to one, and your sniff may disappoint.   But stroll on a hot day through a hammock where the species hangs out, and you may whiff a vague “skunky,” or “earthy” aroma, not unpleasant.  Reminds me of the fox cage at the zoo combined with freshly tilled soil.


Purple petioles

Why would a plant smell sort of musky, or earthy?  The perfume industry is grateful for plant musks.   Much easier to obtain than civets, and we want cruelty-free cosmetics!  What’s  musk anyhow?   There’s no single definition, sort of like pornography, it is vaguely defined but you know it when you smell it.   So alluring.   Put it in the perfume and stand back!  To over-simplify in the interest of you continuing to read,  plant musks are blends of volatile (easily evaporated) large organic molecules.  OK that is enough chemistry.

Cuban chemist Jorge Pino and collaborators in 2003 identified 42, count ‘em, named volatile molecules released from the leaves of Eugenia axillaris.   Repeat, 42.   Holy stinkpot!  And even more adrift after release when they meet the sun, air, and each other. Among the 42 are compounds used as fixative in perfume, as fragrance in marijuana, as medicines,  as giving beer its hoppy essence.  Some are described as smelling “musty” and “earthy.”  That smelly arsenal exists to counter infections, infestations, and miscellaneous pestilence.

The reason some people smell the shrubs and others fail is probably in part a matter of when the foliage unleashes its  chemical warfare.   True enough when warm, but there may be more to it than heat.   In this connection, the leaves have tiny translucent dots underneath, reasonably guessed to be hotspots where the P.U. sequesters.


Posted by on January 7, 2017 in Uncategorized, White Stopper


Carolina Willow oozes goos

Salix caroliniana

(Salix is related to an ancient name for Willows.  Caroliniana is geographic.)


Premature post-plop this week due to attending the Orange Bowl in Miami tomorrow preempting usual blog composition time.    Go Blue. You can’t spend much time in Kiplinger Nature Preserve, or anywhere near water wordwide without Willows.    There are over 500 species just about everywhere.  This is the third Willow appearance in the blog.    In earlier episodes CLICK  and CLICK we looked at them as sources of salicylic acid.   Two remarkable facts reappear from hosts of blogs past.

  1. Salicylic acid (named for the Willow genus Salix) is essentially aspirin.  Ancient patients around the world chewed two Willow sticks and called in the morning.
  2. Salicylic acid exists in Willows and in all or most other plants as an airborne hormone functioning to “spread the word” of pathogenic attack, urging nearby plants into a defensive mode.   Paul Revere hormone:   the fungi are coming!    The signal travels on the breeze.  Now, a plant would have no “interest” in warning other separate inviduals.  Plants have no kindly intentions so far as I know.  BUT:  Perhaps Willows super-produce salicylic acid because some species spread into huge clones, in a genetic sense a single individual sprawled across the marsh.  When you “warn” the surrounding stems you are warning yourself.

Carolina Willow by John Bradford

Today a new chapter on Willows,  their sticky oozings.    To ease into the stickum, first a little evolution.   If botanists of an earlier era got it right,  the history of Willows seems to go like this:

Once upon a time, the ancestors of Willows depended on insects for pollination, possessing the trappings associated with buggy blossoms:   fragrance, colorful petals, nectar.   But somewhere along the line ancestral Willows ditched all that and switched to wind, as is true of many trees.



Modern Willow flowers look like standard wind-flowers, arranged into spikes (called catkins) with no petals to turn a passerby insect’s head.    Usually the male and female flowers are on separate trees—so often seen in insect-pollinated species.

That’s all good until we notice bees and wasps visiting the Willow flowers with gusto.   Buzz off. You guys aren’t supposed to be here!    Or could it be that Willows decided ixnay on the indway, and returned to insect-pollination?   That’s what botanists think.

What’s weird about resuming the insect habit is that Willows had already given up their advertising equipment, and  remade it “from scratch.”    Look closely, there is color, not in petals as in the distant past, but now in bright yellow anthers (pollen sacs) on the male flowers.   The female flowers do not have much color, however.    Scent?  The male flowers smell sweet.   If the females do, my sniffer has trouble detecting it.


Male flowers, fragrant and with yellow anthers.  Bees simply adore yellow.  JB

New bright color.  Scent.  Does it seem the male flowers have regained more bug-attractiveness than the females, at least as a human sees it?   The male flowers do appear to draw a lot more insects.   The male bush can be buzzing.   Not sure why this disparity is so, but it seems (repeat, seems) maybe the male flowers vastly outnumber the females, and thus load up hordes of insect pollen-carriers,  only a fraction of these required to visit the relatively sparse female flowers.

The interesting part of an insect dependence mulligan is renewed nectar.  Both the males and females have it, but oh oh, here is a problem, isn’t nectar usually made on petals or on the  ovary of most flowers?    Yes, but Willows have no petals, and the bee-loved males have no ovaries.    In both the males and females each flower has one or two nectar glands outside  flower’s base, oddly positioned.     The oddness is best explained as new, replacement nectar glands accommodating the late return to feeding insects.    They are substitutes.     Let’s say I throw away my stylish Macys hat, then move to the hills and get cold ears.   I  make a new hat from skinned skunk.


Male flower rising verticallyat the center of the photo.  Associated leaf tilted to the left.  Nectar gland, outside the flower, yellow, on the right.


Female flower.  Nectar gland on the left, yellow.  The flower tilted to the left above the gland.  The hairy item on the right is a stem.

Now to stretch it all to the point of pain.  No evidence.  Just a hunch about how the trees managed to remake nectar glands at the flower bases.   Willows are glandular all over.   You want a gland, we have plenty.  There are so many glands on a Willow, providing the flower bases with new ones seems “only natural.”      Read on:

Most notably, every tooth on every sawtooth leaf has its own gland, a hundred glands per leaf, also on the stipules.  Botanists have pondered the purposes of these leaf-tooth secretions, and maybe they attract defensive insects to the foliage, or maybe they deter herbivory, and perhaps they coat the tender leaf margins in protective varnish, and ossibly they secrete excess water.    Perhaps combinations of these functions  differ in different species.   Who knows, maybe the leaf goo helps volaralize that salicylic acid.    In any case, Willows are oozing all over, so  if a part of the plant, flower bases for instance, needs nectar to get back into the insect game,   it may have been pre-ordained.   Repeat, this is a hunch and only a hunch.  (A good one though.)


Leaf sawtooth tip with yellow gland on the right.  Did the new flower-base glands come from something like this?

In one intensively studied species, the tooth-tip gland extrudes its product in a thin filament, like linguini out of a pasta machine.   CLICK HERE to see the spaghetti.

Why does it do a thing such as that?


The opned fruits (mature female flowers) releasing seeds in “cotton.” By JB


Posted by on December 29, 2016 in Uncategorized, Willow secretions



Lygodesmia aphylla

(Lygodesmia is Greek for “bundle of sticks.”  Aphylla means leafless)


Earlier this week  Hungryland Slough west of Palm Beach Gardens, FL,  I hear was aglow in balmy sunshine, and the birds were so pretty.   My son Evan went there and snapped this gorgeous hawk.


Then today John and I were aglow with our ongoing nature quest into unvisited parts of the Kiplinger Nature Preserve.    We each fell splat into the sulfurous ooze and went home mud-caked and undignified.

Rose-Rush, usually a citizen of dryish open sandy habitat, was along the way.   Lygodesmias in general are primarily grassland species in western North America.   Our Florida rep is an eastern outlier.   All bones and no meat, they are sometimes dubbed skeleton-plants.


Flower head on a wand (John Bradford)

Today’s species seems at a glance to amount to nothing more than a flower on a flexible wand. The name aphylla means leafless, and it nearly is, although basal foliage is evident part of the year.

Florida and Georgia are the entire homeland, except that in some classification interpretations Lygodesmia “texana” joins L. aphylla  a single widespread  species.    Florida-Texas species pairs happen.


Usually rose colored, sometimes almost white, by JB

We may need to dig down deep to find out what’s going on underground.   Western cousin Lygodesmia juncea has roots plunging  20 feet or deeper, quite a feat for a little skeleton plant.   (Really now, how did anybody see those roots?)  Lygodesmia juncea dribbles a white goo that when sun-dried served cowboys and cowgirls as chewing gum.    I’m not aware of that gross abuse of  the Florida species, although it bleeds white as a skeleton should.


That is a Rose-Rush pollen grain as seen using a scanning electron microscope, by botanist Spencer Tomb, 1980

Being in the Aster Family, each flower head is a cluster of numerous small separate flowers aggregated into one big false flower.  In the photo below behold approximately 10 flowers clustered into a head.  Now it gets more complex, so first a mini-botany-lesson.  Pay attention.  Stamens are the male pollen-producing organs.   In the Aster Family the stamens cling in a ring edge-to-edge to form a long narrow tube.   Pollen forms to the inside of the tube like cream in a cannoli. In the photo below the cannolis rise vertically from the base of each flower.

The stigma is the female pollen-receiving organ.  They are 2-branched bunny ears rising through the anther-tubes, plunging pollen out as they grow.   Being the first component of the sexual cycle to come forth, that pushed-out pollen renders the flower male for the moment.   In the photo below you can see the stigmas curving out of the tubes like snakes (even if you cannot tell they are branched).


A flower head with about 10 flowers.  The anther tubes are vertical and striped.  The stigmas pass through the tubes and emerge long, snaky, curved, and light violet, by JB

Look closer now: In the close-up below the pollen-filled tubes are on the right, and the stigmas, obviously forked, have poked through the tubes and emerged toward the left.   As the stigmas come forth and their forked lobes separate to snag pollen, the flower enters a female phase.  And now the interesting part.   The  stigmas below the fork have a brush resembling a bottlebrush.  You can see how the bristles have scoured the residual pollen out of the tubes.   The loaded brushes keep pollen available to any visiting insect after the stigmas have done thier job.


Striped anther tubes on the right.  Forked stigmas to the left.  Look below the forks—bottlebrushes carrying pollen scoured out of the tubes.

Ya see,  the flower transforms from male to female, and then back to male.

Confusing?  Let’s review that.

  1. As the stigma roter-rooters through the anther tube it pushes sperm-making pollen out of the end of the tube, rendering  the flower male, for starters.
  2. Then the forked stigma rises from the anther tube, the bunny ears spread into the female phase and receive insect-borne pollen.
  3. After that (or overlapping in time), the forked stigma keeps elongating, exposing its pollen brush to re-establish male pollen-giving capability.




Posted by on December 23, 2016 in Rose-Rush, Uncategorized


Red Maples, Shallow and Sweet

Acer rubrum (Acer is an old name of unclear origin.  Rubrum means red.)

Sapindaceaeae (Aceraceae)

Today John and I achieved an unwitnessed triumph.    In the Kiplinger Nature Preserve we crossed a swamp sufficiently forbidding to hide my retirement-plan meth lab.    Upon achieving the distant shore  we entered a vast yet hidden scrubby flatwoods “island” surrounded by swamp and river, about as remote and inaccessible as it gets in Martin County, Florida.    Lost in the swamp an explorer becomes friendly with Red Maples, the obvious species choice for today.


Fall color on the Palm Beach State College campus

Ranging down to us from northern Canada, Red Maple gives Florida a little nostalgic fall color.    Right now the Maples are nearly leafless with their mid winter flowers nearly due.

Red Maples are about as adaptable as can be, and grow anywhere from high and dry to soggy.  They are predominantly swamp dwellers, especially here in South Florida.  Weirdly, the leaves on those from uplands differ from the lowland foliage.

Whenever you get around trees in a suffocating swampy morass the question must arise:  how do the roots breathe?   Every swamp-tree has its gimmick, and in today’s species the root system is exceptionally widespread,  shallow, and responsive to changing conditions.   According to one study, most of the woody roots snake 40 feet from the trunk within 10 inches of the surface.  From those radiating woody roots millions of clustered non-woody feeder roots rise to 3 inches below the surface able to exchange gases and compete for falling nutrients.  If the soil dries, the tree can “suspend operations” and drop leaves until wetness returns, and then produce a new flush of leaves.


Looks like Michigan in Florida, by John Bradford

Any tree so shallowly rooted is tippy, and they topple plenty, with interesting consequences.  Falling maples leave craters for water-loving swamp life, and the up-tipped muddy root masses becomes decorated by ferns, mosses, liverworts, and pretty green things.  The diehard fallen trunk sprouts several new vertical “trunks” turning one fallen tree into a clonal population all in a neat row.  The more you knock down the more you get!



The tree’s flexibility extends to the tiny red flowers.  Some individual Red Maples are strictly male.  Others are strictly female.   Some have a mix of male and female flowers.   We’ll let somebody else figure out that pattern.

The biwinged whirligig fruits known as samaras flutter in the breeze, and you can accessorize them as a nasal extension.   As is true with some other trees, up north the fruits are smaller and heavier than in warm climates.   Here is a guess:   Where the growing season is short perhaps the tree has to provision each fruit with more baby food to establish robust seedlings before Jack Frost returns.


The fruits by JB

We environmentalists frown on Global Warming.    But Red Maples feel otherwise.  A study at Duke University showed them to benefit from elevated carbon dioxide.    The foliage suffers from a fungal infection.   The fungus enters via the tiny pores (stomates) on the leaves.   Leaves exposed to elevated carbon dioxide constrict the portals and block fungal incursions.    As a degrading environment has bred eastern forest decline, Red Maples have the ecological plasticity to fill the void vacated by oaks, ash, and other besieged trees, and are increasing in prevalence across eastern North America.



Of course, ecologically speaking that transition is bad, but let’s end sweetly.   Red Maples make good maple syrup, so maybe as we destroy the environment we can live on Brazilian Pepper berry bars sweetened with Red Maple syrup. But don’t jump on GoFundMe to launch the Florida syrup industry.   Freezing nights are necessary.


Posted by on December 16, 2016 in Uncategorized



Piloblephis rigida

(Piloblephis = eye-lash hair.  Ridida means rigid, describing perhaps the leaves? )

Lamiaceae (Mint Family)

Rain prevented today’s usual Friday fieldtrip.  Unable to abide a botany-deprived day, optimistically  between rainshowers I scooted to a nearby patch of False-Pennyroyal to savor a fuzzy  stinky mint of open sandy places, such as the pine flatwoods savanna near my home.  Got there and it poured.


It forms big patches. Photo by John Bradford.

Mints smell like mints, right?  When this species is putting out, walking through its habitat you sniff it before you spot  it.    There’s an aroma of things that end in -ol, such as pine-sol, menth-ol, and eucalypt-ol.    (For sticklers, I’d say it smells like monoterpenoids, common aromatic oils in mints and many additional aromatic plants.)    The nice essences are probably protection from herbivory, although additional functions are conceivable,  perhaps  light-protection or suppressing surrounding vegetation.   And the security is not absolute, as today’s furry friend hosts at least one species of mealybug.  There are some old uses for the False-Pennyroyal fragrance such as guarding pooches from fleas and as tea and flavoring.  I just like to pick it for a whiff.


Polka dotted blossoms, by JB

How many plant genera are limited to Florida?    Piloblephis almost is.  Interestingly, it turned up also in the Bahamas in the 80s.  Native there or not, who knows?   People have shuttled between Florida and the Bahamas for a heckofa long time, and the plant is easy and pleasing to cultivate (and allegedly improves disgusting turtle stew).  Birds could carry it to offshore islands.  Not to mention hurricanes.   Even maybe floating. The “seeds” are well designed to get around.


Flowers in “cones” by JB

Like a normal mint, the fruit divides into four “nutlets.”  These separate into what look like four tiny  blackish “seeds” small enough to stick in the mud on a bird, on a shoe, on a floating log, or on a pineapple crate.  The nutlets come packaged in a fuzzy “bag” made from the flower sepals.  The bag could fly on the wind, resembling the parachute-fruits from many members of the Aster Family.


These feathery bags each hold four itsy bitsy seedlike nutlets.

The polka-dot flowers peek out of leafy spikes resembling soft conifer cones.  The bracts covering the cones can turn bright pink mixed with green at fruiting time.  Is the raspberry sherbet pigment a sunscreen guarding the embryos within?


Pink cones, the mature nutlets inside.

Or…and this is an irresponsible baseless speculation …wouldn’t it be fun if that eye-grabbing pink helps draw birds or other wildlife to peck, nibble, and disperse the nutlets?


Wasp believed to be  Agapostemon splendens (do not trust me, my wasp expertise is Google) .


The drought-resistant leaves look like conifer needles covered with the hairs responsible for the plant’s eyelash name.   The furry fuzz gives the plants a grayish sheen, probably reflecting away excess Florida  sun.  The hairs come in varied lengths.   Most end in a point, and some  end in a globe, looking like a tootsie roll pop.   The pops  seem to be the (or a) source of the oily essence.

The multi-length pointy hairs probably enforce a “don’t eat me” policy, and also might cut down on sun and wind.


Ammophila procera, if my wasp-Googling is correct. Same species as last week on Hyptis.

There’s no single OMG! thing about False-Pennyroyal, yet it is overall an intriguing and assertive eccentric,  spreading into round patches several feet in diameter,  having  flowers in cone  wasp perches, bearing needle-shaped leaves having silver-gray coloration, emitting an aroma like kitchen bug spray, producing fruitlets in fringed bags behind bright pink bracts,  and  skipping to the Bahamas.


Some of the coolest species are right under our noses,  and our nose knows.


Eyelashes.  Pointy, long and short, and oh look, a tootsie roll pop full of stink oil.


Posted by on December 9, 2016 in False-Pennyroyal, Uncategorized


Clustered Bushmint  Pops the Pollinators


Wasp visiting Hyptis alata, courtesy of John Lampkin

Hyptis alata

(Hyptis comes from Greek for “turned back,” maybe in reference to the way the lower petal lobe repositions after pollination.  Alata means “winged,” apparently describing the broadened leaf stalk.)

Lamiaceae (Mint Family)


Today was as heavenly  as weather gets, deep blue sky, breeze, perfect temperature for penetrating the Kiplinger Nature Preserve swamp.


Swamp creature

Not on a boardwalk, nor on a trail, I mean climbing over dead trees tangled in vines.  We explored  deeper into the vast Kiplinger jungles than any mortal human, into the belly of the beast.     Not unrewarded though, along the way seeing Dahoon Hollies more laden with red berries than with green leaves, Royal Ferns a dozen feet tall,  trees festive with hundreds of big pink climbing Carolina Asters,  a pair of Hooded Mergansers on the marshy pond,  15-foot gators drooling for human flesh, vipers in every shadow, and today’s mint, deep in the shade, although vastly happier in a sunny marsh.


Hyptis alata by John Bradford

Hyptis alata populates two different homelands with a massive gap between, one subpopulation in the southern U.S. and associated Caribbean,  and another subpopulation in S. Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina.  The two existed as separate species until joyous unification in 1983.

The flowers are odd in this and related species.  The crowded blossoms are in tight clustered head.  A visiting pollinator can service multiple flowers in the same head, although only a fraction of the blossoms are open at once, compelling pollinators to move from plant to plant.    The recorded visitors include bees, butterflies, wasps (see shots by John Lampkin), and hummingbirds.  And I’ll bet certain types of flies come along too.



The pollination mechanism is explosive and weird.   The flower is tube-shaped with five lobes at the rim of the tube. Four of the lobes are “normal,” the fifth lobe lies at the doormat entrance to the tube on the path to nectar within.    This odd shoe-shaped lobe houses the four stamens (pollen-producing organs).


The 5th lobe yellowish and hairy, jutting to the right, not yet popped.


Fifth lobed unpopped closeup

As the stamens grow they build up tension pushing against the lobe surrounding them, like toes in a tight shoe.    When a landing pollinator touches the loaded lobe, the stamens pop up and impact the visitor from below, depositing pollen on its underside.    Surprise!  The now-empty lobe soon dangles down dejected.  The stamens likewise, their pop-up job done, bend aside to let the style (pollen-receiving organ) take over, converting the flower from functionally male to functionally female.


The empty shoe hanging down, the freed stamens and style above it.


The hairy empty shoe lobe below the stamens, closeup

Normally biochemistry is too boring for a hopefully fun wildflower blog, but in Hyptis the biochemical story is so related to real-people experience  let’s go there.   We’re talking about modern chemotherapy drugs.

As prelude,  a quick lesson from my “Concepts of Biology” class.   The DNA double helix, our genetic material ya-know, is such a complex twisted stringy molecule it doesn’t take much imagination to wonder how it functions without tangling.   Answer: DNA does tangle in ways that would be fatal if not for enzymes that unsnarl the snarls.   Enzymes known as topoisomerases snip, untangle, and then repair the tangled DNA.    If you have a snarled chain you could fix it if you cut links out, then separate and straighten the segments, and then reattach the fixed segments by forging new links.    The ability to untangle and fix DNA is especially critical at the time of cell division.

Prevent the untangling and you have a lethal poisons called topoisomerase inhibitors, with pharmaceutical examples being etopside (Toposar), teniposide (Vumon), and etopofos (Etophos).   They suppress cancer because a growing tumor needs rapid cell divisions more than the rest of our body does, where of course we do experience limited toxic side-effects.

All three of the drugs listed above are based on the natural botanical toxin podophyllotoxin, originally from the genus Podophyllum (May Apples).    In addition to cancer drugs, podophyllotoxin under various brand names kills warts more effectively than spunkwater.   This cytotoxin is scattered in the plant world, with only a few producer species  known so far, including a species of Hyptis.   If discovered in one Hyptis, then probably awaiting discovery in others, including plausibly our own poorly studied Clustered Bushmint.


By John Lampkin.   The traps are sprung.


Posted by on December 2, 2016 in Clustered Bushmint, Uncategorized

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