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Do Mosquitoes Help Pollinate Golden Asters?


Pityopsis graminifolia

Asteraceae

Today John and I worked inside on our upcoming wildflower atlas.  I proudly say “our,” but I’m just the assistant, while John’s wildflower photos are the value.   Of these, one of my alltime faves is Grassleaf Golden Aster, aka Silkgrass, with big bright yellow flower heads and its silvery silky leaves.

Pityopsis graminifolia by John Bradford.

Some of  its points of interest are:

1. It likes fires, recovering quickly after a burn, and suffering from competition in the absence of fire to clear the ground.  Its presence in open sandy scrub no doubt comes from the minimal competition there.

By JB

2. The leaves have long silky hairs that fuse into a network.  The silk is no doubt protective…from sun, from wind, from herbivores, and the silk has an extra surprise role in the environment:  “Wool Carder Bees” (Anthidium maculifrons in the present case) harvest the “wool” and use it to “feather” their nest.

3.  Today’s flower belongs to a complicated complex of intergrading variants where lines separating distinct species are tough to discern.   The different members of the complex have different appearances, different habitats, and even different chromosome numbers.

Green metallic bee

That is all well and good, but the reason it deserves attention tonight is its surprising floral visitors, mosquitoes.

Here is  a very short video clip of one “going at it” today: CLICK

Not much is known about the topic of mosquitoes and flowers, but it is known that some are “nectar robbers,” borrowing floral nectar without effecting pollination, and others do transfer pollen in exchange for the sip.   Biologists have suggested that the mosquito apparatus and ability to suck blood perhaps evolved from the apparatus and ability to suck nectar.

Mosquito

Photos taken today show a little pollen on the flower-visiting skeeter, so, well, maybe he/she helps the plant.

Look closely…pollen in circle
 
1 Comment

Posted by on December 3, 2021 in Uncategorized

 

Caesarweed is a One-Species Ecosystem

Urena lobata

Malvaceae

Some time ago the featured pantropical invasive plant in this blog was Caesarweed, Urena lobata

Caesarweed grows around the tropical world, sharing multiple interfaces with humanity:

1. It is a source of fibers, perhaps how it came to Florida.

2. It is a one-plant chemistry lab, and is all over the world of plant-based traditional medicines.

3. Its burrs stick like VELCRO all over your cuffs.

Flower by John Bradford

4. It is a pesky weed.

Time now to revisit from a different angle…the back sides of the leaves have a nectar gland where the leaf stalk joins the blade.  

Nectar gland on underside of leaf….very popular with arthropods!

In the plant world such “extrafloral nectaries” are not rate, and they are generally interpreted to be primarily there to feed ants who clear the plants of pests.    Caeserweed does have ants, but that is just the beginning.   On a warm sunny day if you hang out around Caeserweed you find it to be an insect social center.   They come like Black Friday shoppers to the Treasure Coast Mall, interacting with each other, and systematically visiting the leaf glands, over and over.

By the way, it is not just ants and wasps,  even spiders are known to drink the sweet nectar.  But back to the wasps.   Here is a gallery of visitors today, plus a short movie of one walking from gland to gland.

Click for very short wasp action flick

Bees like it…they come to partially open flowers.
And bees come to the leaf glands.
We like it too.
Face in the gland.
Ahhhhh, gimme some sugar.
Leaf-footed bug, ant, and reddish leaf gland.
Social hour on Caesarweed. These Cotton Stainer Bugs know Caesarweed is kin to cotton.
Darth Vadar. This parasitoid Ichneumon Wasp probably consumes nectar. It visited the glands too. Oddly, it had several unfriendly encounters with the other wasps. Ichneumons are hard to identify, there being hundreds of species with look alikes. I don’t think this wasp could sting, but that might be an example of just knowing enough to be dangerous. You pick it up first!
 
2 Comments

Posted by on November 26, 2021 in Uncategorized

 

Sand Live Oak and Its Throwback Leaves

Quercus geminata

(Quercus is an ancient name for oaks.  Geminata, referring to the acorns, means twinned, as in Gemini.)

Fagaceae, the Oak Family


Talking with John and Dee Staley today got us all thinking about the Florida scrubby Oaks, given that Dee cultivates the acorns to replant to restore Scrub Jay habitat.  A single Scrub Jay can cache more acorns than the best overachiever squirrel, and the Jays “like” Sand Live Oak for nesting.   Around South Florida there are several small Oaks associated with dry sandy habitats.   The main three locally are Myrtle Oak, Chapman’s Oak, and Sand Live Oak.   Although they occupy similar sun-cooked, nutrient-poor, white sugar sand scrub, they are not closely related, and have conspicuous differences.  Today’s featured species is the Sand Live Oak.

Sand Live Oak by John Bradford. Long, narrow semi-tubular leaf blades. Twin acorns.

Sand Live Oak is kin to the big old venerable Live Oaks emblematic of the South.    The two species are so similar that some botanists have classified them as variants of a single species.   However, DNA, flowering-times, and different soil-water preferences suggest regarding them as distinct species. even if they do hybridize sometimes.  The important thing is that they are more closely related to each other than either is to anyone else.  Sister species, with Sand Live Oak probably having “branched off” of Live Oak long ago on the evolutionary tree of Oaks.

Sand Live Oak by JB

Sand Live Oak reveals its common ancestry with Live Oak, in my humble opinion, by occasionally forming “Live Oak” leaves.   Generally the two have different leaves, those in Live Oak being flat, minimally hairy underneath, and elliptic to somewhat toothy and lobed.  (Keep that elliptic, toothy, and lobed part in mind.)

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is quercus-virginiana-2.png
Live Oak, the leaf blads broad, not curled, sometimes lobed or with teeth

Sand Live Oak differs by having its leaf blades long and narrow with the edges curled down strongly and a dense mass of felty hairs beneath.   But, wait a moment, an occasional Sand Live Oak branch has “Live Oak” leaves: flat and lobed/toothy. 

Mixed “Live Oak” and “Sand Live Oak” leaves on the same (Sand Live Oak) tree.

How weird.   A throwback to its ancestral species? Sand Live Oak must have “Live Oak” genes, suppressed most of the time yet able once in awhile to break through.  Who needs a DNA test to see the close relationship? Both species on the same tree.

I have some throwbacks to my ancestral species too.  You know, useless fur, pointy canine teeth, tail(bones) aka my coccyx, you might say a suppressed carryovers from my own primate ancestors who had all that stuff for real.

The tail bone(s)
Great great great great great great great great Grandpa looking for some acorns.


To turn to a different species (see comments), here are two different Myrtle Oaks:

Myrtle Oak with “abnormal” toothed leaves (that is, with protruding vein tips), at Jonathan Dickinson Park, Martin Co., FL
Myrtle Oak with “normal” leaves.
 
4 Comments

Posted by on November 19, 2021 in Uncategorized

 

Key Deer,  Spanish Stopper, and Leaf Miners


Critters don’t get much cuter than Key Deer.   Some folks who have never motored through the Keys may be unfamiliar with the pint-sized deer who pitter-patter around Big Pine Key and associated islands.  With sprawl and habitat modification, where they get fresh water during the dry months and what plants they eat are important questions.

Key Deer fertilizer machines have strong dietary preferences, and the bottom of the list is today’s shrub, Spanish Stopper.  Deer spit it out in disgust.

Note the Spanish Stopper (Eugenia foetida) way on the right side of the chart (by Barrett & Stiling). Its presence increases when deer are present, as the deer eat its competitors (and fertilize the soil).

Now before we go on, a vocabulary lesson may help.   Life miners are tiny larvae from varied insects that feed inside leaves, mining tunnels in the leaf flesh.   Gardeners do not like them.  

By JB

Now back to the thread of the story: 

Being shunned by Key Deer is not 100% good news for Spanish Stopper.   As ecologists Mark Barrett and Peter Stiling determined,  leaf miner damage to Spanish Stopper increases markedly with increasing deer populations, that is, more deer = more mines.  

There are two non-mutually exclusive explanations:  1.  When the deer eat its competitors, the Spanish Stopper’s increased crowding facilitates the life miner’s reproductive cycle and dispersal.  2. The second explanation is that lots of deer generate lots of “fertilizer.” The Spanish Stopper stockpiles nitrogen from the deer waste into its leaves, “Eureka” for the leaf miners.

In any self-respecting narrative where Stoppers are mentioned,  it is required to speculate on the origin of the name “stopper.”  One standard speculation is that stem segments served as “stoppers in bottles.”  Yea, sure. The other standard speculation is that, taken medicinally, the plants stop diarrhea.  As cute as that may be, I shout, “baloney.”  A simple straightforward guess is that the dense tangles these shrubs grow into (nourished by Key Deer manure) stop your forward progress.  That’s why we use them as thick “keep out” hedges.  Just sayin’.

 
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Posted by on November 12, 2021 in Uncategorized

 

Hurricane-Grass is Dyn-o-Mite!


Fimbristylis cymosa

(Fimbristylis means fringed style. A cyme is a type of flower cluster.)

Cyperaceae, the Sedge Family


It’s not much to look at, but Hurricane-Grass is a marvel in other ways.   Few plants are tougher, cyclones cause no worries. It may worry a bit, however, about being misnamed, being a sedge not a grass. 

Hurricane-Grass flowering head

The species lives all around the hot-climate world, including remote islands from exotic South Sea adventures, usually but not always by the ocean, that is, RIGHT by the ocean, such as on wave-washed rocks, beaches, or on sand immediately interior to mangroves.   Oddly,  the populations in the New World generally have flowers with two styles, in contrast with those in the Old World having three styles.

Being a world traveler, nobody can say exactly where it is “native.” Opinions on that for Florida are mixed, with some observers regarding the plant as an invasive exotic threatening to outcompete rare native beach species in the Keys. Other highly regarded botanists perceive it to be a Florida native sharing the habitat with other indigenous species.

What’s odd is its ability to grow with no soil,  such as directly on lava in Hawaii, or on neglected old pavement such as WWII airstrips in the South Pacific, or old neglected roads in Florida.

On lava in Hawaii, by Forrest & Kim Starr

On asphalt in Florida. Who needs soil?

 How can that be? No soil! No nutrients!!  No water!!!  Oh the unfathomable mystery of it all!  Trying to fathom it, biologists J.  White and Q. Chen at Rutgers University examined the roots microscopically, and made a discovery:  the roots are covered with a bacterial “biofilm,” and from that film bacteria enter the root tissues.    The bacteria must have something to do with sustaining the Hurricane-Grass.  Are they nitrogen fixing?  Do they capture and process scarce nutrients?   Do they process debris captured by the plant base? Do they eat lava and asphalt?  Sadly, White & Chen did not have the sophisticated equipment required to delve into the nitty gritty.  So now they, you, I all know as much as each other.   Wouldn’t it be fun to learn the rest of the story?

Bacteria in the root, photo by White & Chen

Part of the answer may relate to the fact that, growing on nothing, the plant builds up its own little “island” hummock of materials captured around the base.  The hummock can rise an inch above the surrounding substrate.

Related to all this, the tussock turns into a wreath with time, the center dying, maybe because the Hurricane-Grass uses up the resources at the middle. Or maybe that dead center is a natural compost bin feeding the wreath. It obviously contains goodies, because other species can tresspass in the natural “flower pot” at the wreath center, and even overwhelm and kill the Hurricane-Grass.

Becoming a donut with a compost bin in the hole.

And now to end with a bang…consider the following article title, then tread softly across the lava!

ka-boom

 
5 Comments

Posted by on November 5, 2021 in Uncategorized

 

Wild Poinsettias, Wasps, and Faux Wasps


Euphorbia cyathophora

Euphorbiaceae


Been hobbled by back trouble this week, but with the help of Wild Poinsettia growing alongside a parking lot (minimal hobbling required), John’s photography, and Wikipedia we are off and running.

Wild Poinsettia is not really Poinsettia that is wild, although they are related.  Around South Florida the species is so variable some botanists have divided it into more than one species. For example, the leaves range in shape from grasslike to broad and lobed. 

All photos today by John Bradford.

The flowers are not really flowers exactly.  Without sweating the boring details, the red parts are markings on leaves.  The individual flowers are tiny, separate male and female.  The yellow nectar glands, such as where the wasp in the photo is drinking, are technically on leaves, not flowers.

Mexican Paper Wasp…compare with Papaya Fruit fly linked below.

A flower fancier must wonder what pollinates such a system.   Either noodling around on the internet or wandering the hills and dales, you can spot a variety of occasional visitors from hummingbirds to butterflies,  but I believe paper wasps do the heavy lifting.

The wasps can come and go from the Wild Poinsettia “flower” like an assembly line, each stopping for a few seconds, then off it goes, with the next wasp buzzing in on its heels.

VERY SHORT WASP VISIT MOVIE: CLICK

 If two arrive at the same “flower” at once, there can be sort of a “scram” head-butt move, and mating behavior is reported at the flowers too. Clearly a good place to meet other wasps.

The wasp in the photo above is the Mexican Paper Wasp, and here’s a cool tidbit from Wikipedia. The harmless poser Papaya Fruit Fly mimics the wasp.  The Fruit Fly poser does not merely look like the MPW, it also threatens to zing you with stinging motions (but has no zing). CLICK to reveal the imposter.

 
3 Comments

Posted by on October 29, 2021 in Uncategorized

 

Red Mangrove and its Hitchhiker Oysters

Rhizophora mangle and Crossostrea rhizophorae


They have an exhibit at the Smithsonian Marine Ecosystems Exhibit in Ft. Pierce where Red Mangroves thrive in a big indoor tank.   John and I have a lot of time invested in Red Mangroves, so we’re naturally interested in the captive individuals.  An odd and fascinating aspect of the indoor specimens is that Oysters grow on their prop roots, just as wild mangroves accumulate Oysters in the sea.

Photos today by John Bradford

Oyster classification appears to be complex, with several different types sometimes mixed together.  Along the Southeast Coast of Florida there are mixed species, even on a Mangrove.    That said, one is a Red Mangrove specialist, the Mangrove being Rhizophora, and the Mangrove Oyster being Crossostrea rhizophorae, hanging out from Florida to South America.   It clusters on Red Mangrove roots below the high tide line, exposed when the tide is out.

Oysters with barnacles on the roots

Obviously the Mangrove helps the oysters, but how about the reverse?   A study in the Philippines on a different Oyster species on a different Mangrove species found the shellfish guilty of an unexplained mild detrimental effect on Mangrove growth.  

High tide, happy Oysters

If the study was accurate, ya gottta wonder how some clinging seafood hurts the tree, but anything is possible.   The Mangrove roots “breathe” through big white valves (specialized lenticels) exposed to fresh air at low tide, so maybe a committee of oysters can cover the ventilation system.   A hypothesis to test, after first confirming oyster-impaired growth.

Could Oysters block those air valves?

Harmless or pesky to the tree, the oysters are beneficial for hungry humans.   Some shell middens (ancient refuse piles) are almost entirely remains from the Mangrove Oyster, still showing tool marks from shucking a few thousand years ago. 

All Mangrove Oysters

And speaking of tool marks, Bearded Capuchin Monkeys in Brazil bang the Mangrove Oysters open using clumps of other Oysters. (Although I have no image for that specifically, here is a link to Asian monkeys doing the same with other shellfish).  In Cuba historically Oyster harvesters cut off the mangrove roots and hauled them away in floating rectangular boxes.   In Puerto Rico as well, Mangrove Oysters were once an important harvest, sometimes approaching 100,000 pounds per year.

Wonder how much seafood sauce that required.

 
4 Comments

Posted by on October 22, 2021 in Uncategorized

 

Why is the Muhly Grass Pink?

Muhlenbergia capillaris

Poaceae


Driving home from working with John on our wildflower atlas project, I noticed something easy to notice…delicate drifts of pink waving in the breezes.  Who says South Florida has no fall color?  The poison ivy turns red, and we have Muhly Grass, mostly planted.  We’ve all seen it, sometimes covering entire moist meadows with fine feathery pinky-purply flower stalks quivering in the breeze.

Today’s pictures all by John Bradford.

No point here in going on about it as a garden species…try Google to be fertilized with horticultural redundancy.  I like, instead, to delve into why the botanical pulchritude.   Not that I know.   But being an ex-teacher, I do know how to write a multiple choice question.

Muhly Grass is pretty in pink, because:

  1. The pink attracts pollinators to the needy flowers.
  2. The pink is sunscreen protecting the delicate flowers.
  3. The pink is advertising:—hey, I taste good, come eat me and spread my seeds.
  4. The pink is a warning:—hey, I taste terrible,  go eat somebody else’s flowers.
  1. Attract pollinators.  Naw, grasses are almost never pollinated by insects.  They go for wind. The Muhly is at peak pink now, but not many flowers are open.  The flowers offer no reward. And I’ve sat and watched for insects,  only to be skunked.
  2. Sunscreen for delicate blossoms.  A more-compelling idea, but not convincing.   The pink coloration extends strongly into non-flowering parts probably not that sensitive to sun.   Also, a few other grasses have pink up top but, again, it is not distributed to offer PF50.  Moreover, why would sunscreen be vivid eye-grabbing pink?   Seems to be a flag, so read on.
  3. Grasses get around in part inside the animals that graze on them,  although wind is clearly more important by far.  No data on internal grass seed transport handy (it is after 1 AM), but the idea that the pink color serves this purpose is contradicted by one of Muhly’s commercial selling points, that deer hate it.   Wondering why, I did something characteristically stupid.  Shhhh. Don’t tell my wife.  I popped some in my mouth and chewed my cud.   BAD IDEA!   It tastes awful, but the real punishment was a “physiological reaction” in my mouth lining for over an hour, maybe even a wee bit now.  (Or is that the wine I’m drinking as I type?)   What it would do upon being swallowed is worrisome.   Nasty. 
  4. The unpalatability points to choice 4, deterrent.    What is the worst thing in the world for a grass, except maybe a lawnmower or brush fire?   Having its precious flowers grazed off.   Who knows what herbivores Muhly Grass evolved with, no doubt buffalo, mastodons, and other hungry beasts now extinct.  In 2021 deer will have to represent the Herbivore Guild.  So then,  I suspect with no proof the pink tops are “warning coloration.”   How many clear examples of that are apparent in the plant world?
 
4 Comments

Posted by on October 16, 2021 in Uncategorized

 

Longfruit Primrose-Willow, Did Ponce de Leon Stomp Over the Fountain of Youth?

Longfruit Primrose-Willow, Did Ponce de Leon Stomp Over the Fountain of Youth?

Ludwigia octovalvis

Onagraceae, Evening-Primrose Family


Today John, John’s wife Dee, and I visited the Smithsonian Marine Ecosystems exhibit in Ft. Pierce, complete with a Pipefish with a bent snout, Barnacles on video monitor, pregnant male Seahorses, and tons more.  So much fun, so much to learn.  I wanna be a marine biologist!

How does a salty jaunt tie in with a native plant blog?   Easy…immortality.  We learned about how certain jellyfish are sort of immortal, which is no BFD in the green world if you like cloning.

But humans aren’t green and we don’t clone yet, and I’ve heard we get old, but maybe Longfruit Primrose-Willow will help add some quality time shooting hoops with the great-great-grandchildren.   A bit of a stretch,  but read on anyhow.  Let’s get to know the plant before visiting the botanical fountain of youth.

Longfruit Evening Primrose by John Bradford

We see a lot of Longfruit Primrose-Willow around town, usually as a semi-woody shrub typically 4-5 feet tall along muddy shores and in wet ditches. Blooming as we speak.   Its bright yellow flowers have four ephemeral petals, and long cigarette-shaped seedpods.    The name “octovalvis,” refers to the eight segments (valves) left behind after the fruit splits apart to release a whole lot of micro-seeds.   Native to Florida, it is found all over the tropical world, with its natural vs. “introduced” ranges long lost in history.   In Asia, Africa, and elsewhere the plant is a ricefield pest yet at the same time valued as a source of food and medicines.

Zillions of plants around the world have been used forever to address every medical need in the human conditions.   This over-stuffed topic gets boringly and redundantly unrealistic, even when there are modern claims of anti-bacterial, anti-diabetic, or anti-tumor activities. Some actually do work of course, but the many false promises funnel down painfully to precious few viable outcomes. (Sort of like, as we learned today by the sea, one mother lobster generates a few hundred thousand babies, only to have a handful grow into big proud lobsters.)

Lots of plants claim to ease childbirth, relieve a crummy in the tummy, restore male mojo, or salve a rash,  but who ever heard of anti-aging plants,  having, no less, modern scientifically tested and explained effects?   The Evening-Primrose Family would be a good place to look, as is members bestow beneficial compounds found in human milk (a path to farmable bovineless “milk”?) and agents that suppress human digestive enzymes (control of dietary-digestive disorders?).

Okay, but what about that anti-aging?  In 2013 biochemist W. Lin and colleagues found Ludwigia octovalvis to extend the lives of fruitflies, and get this,  on a high calorie diet.  Even better, it prevented fruit fly senile cognitive decline.  My only question is, how do you measure a fruit fly’s cognitive ability?  Maybe its ability to tell a breadfruit from a jackfruit.   Extending to our murine kin, Ludwigia octovalvis did the same for elderly mice.

 
2 Comments

Posted by on October 8, 2021 in Uncategorized

 

Blue Mistflower, Hyperparasitoids, and the Toxic Queen

Blue Mistflower, Hyperparasitoids, and the Toxic Queen

Conoclinium coelestinum

Asteraceae


Today John and I resumed work on our upcoming wildflower photo atlas shelved a year ago during Covid.   We’re starting over at the top of the alphabet, which brought up a curious member of the Asteraceae in full autumn bloom now, Blue Mistflower.    Saw a lot of it flowering today.

Now a small disclaimer: some of today’s blog is generalized from closely related species of Conoclinium.  When one species is not well studied, turn to the rest of the genus.  Mistflowers attract a broad array of pollinators, including Monarch and Queen butterflies.   To dig in on that, we’re going to learn a bit from Texas biologist Monika Maekle summarizing earlier research largely by the late insect-chemical ecologist Thomas Eisner.   If today’s story seems spotty, it is. It is cobbled together from different studies and has swiss cheese gaps. Call it food for thought.

Blue Mistflowers. Pollinator AND parasite magnet. All Mistflower photos by John Bradford.

Mistflower plants stink.   Not in a bad way, I kind of like it.  They have a strong sharp biting odor I associate with the alkaloid family of plant chemicals, including such familiar plant compounds as nicotine, caffeine, and ephedrine.    Mistflowers, among many interesting compounds produce an alkaloid called intermedine, which is known from additional plants, and which is involved in insect-to-insect signaling.   Its reported role among Queen Butterflies is remarkable.

Male Queen Butterflies draw nectar from Mistflowers, which no doubt protects the male Butterflies from predators, and more intricately, serves upon some chemical alteration as a sex attractant to draw the female and her eggs poisonous to pests.   It may be, but not proven(!), that the toxin makes the female less attractive to subsequently encountered males.

Queen Butterfly. Photo by my butterfly-loving wife Donna Rogers

It gets even more complicated.  Remember how Mistflower draws a lot of pollinators?  Remember how it reeks with chemicals known to function as insect signals?    The alkaloids attract Butterflies. Seems that parasitic wasps have “learned” to follow the scent to dinner. Around 2010 UF entomologist John Sivinski and colleagues conducted a survey of numerous plants in terms of their widely varied tendencies to attract parasitoid wasps.  Guess what species was #1 for Chalcid Wasps.  Yep, Blue Mistflower by a whole heck of a lot.  Chalcid Wasps parasitize butterfly larvae, among other vics.  Some Chalcids are hyperparasitoids, parasitizing other parasitoids.

Chalcid Wasp, photo by Jean and Fred. Much magnified—they are tiny

Let’s now wrap this up with some speculation:  Male Queen Butterfly takes in intermedine with nectar.  He uses its chemical derivative to attract a female. Upon mating, intermedine transfers to the female, with an advantage to the male of protecting the eggs the male fertilized.  And maybe repelling other males?  Intermedine or some other alkaloid(s) probably draw Chalcid wasps to the Mistflower which is rich in Butterflies to victimize.  Wasp attacks on Queen Butterflies may (speculatively!) be mitigated by the alkaloid in the male, female, and eggs, although the eggs are deposited for larval development ordinarily on plants of the Milkweed Family.

 
8 Comments

Posted by on October 1, 2021 in Uncategorized

 
 
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