Tag Archives: Wildflowers

The Birds and the Bees–Or, How to Get Pollinated

By Barbara Walvoord

First published in the Lathrop Lamp Post for June 29-July 5, 2019

Foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis), blooming now at Lathrop, has some very clever devices for getting itself pollinated.

First, produce an enticing white flower that advertises to bees—“Nectar and pollen here!  Get yours today!”

Then make that flower tubular so the bees have to crawl inside to get the pollen and nectar.  Put purple lines inside the tube to guide the bees to your goodies.

Then practice gender fluidity:  first you’re a male flower, then you’re a female flower.

When you’re a male, you have 4 stamens sticking up at the top of the tube, each loaded with pollen.  When the bee comes in to get the nectar and pollen, the pollen brushes onto the top parts of its body—parts that are not easily groomed off.  So now the bee has eaten some of your pollen and carried some to its nest, but there’s probably some left on its body.

In its male phase, the foxglove beardtongue’s purple stripes, protruding stamens, and long yellow hairy “tongue” cleverly help it get pollinated by bees. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?search=foxglove+beardtongue&title=Special%3ASearch&go=Go&ns0=1&ns6=1&ns12=1&ns14=1&ns100=1&ns106=1#/media/File:Penstemon_digitalis_-_Foxglove_Beardtongue.jpg

As a backup, a fifth male stigma sticks out at the bottom.  It’s shaped like a tongue and covered with hairs like a beard (hence, “beard tongue”).  It’s sterile, but its hairs are ready to catch any pollen that falls on it, and deposit that pollen on the body of any bee crawling around inside the blossom.  (Your scientific name, Penstemon, reflects your five stamens.)

Now–oh so clever–you become a female.  The stamens dry up and in their place you put your female organs, nice and sticky, to catch the pollen.  Then when a not-so-cleaned-up bee, with pollen still on its body from some male plant, comes to get some of your nectar, the pollen brushes off onto your female organs, and voila!  Pollinated!

You have ensured that more foxglove beardtongues will delight us humans with their beauty, feed  pollen and nectar to bees, and offer their leaves to eight species of butterfly and moth caterpillars, which our birds need to raise their babies.  That’s only a tiny part of the wonderful story of the birds and the bees at Lathrop.



Late Blooming Flower Seeks Strong, Hungry Bumblebee

by Barbara Walvoord

First published in the Lathrop Lamp Post Oct. 14-20, 2017

On Oct. 6, believe it or not, I found these native closed  bottle gentians (Gentiana andrewsii) blooming along the eastern edge of the wide woods meadow on the east campus.  They look like buds, but they are in full flower; they won’t open more than this.

Gentians are pollinated almost exclusively by bumblebees, because those are the only pollinators strong enough to pry open the petals and get inside for the nectar.  Our meadows now are full of bumblebees, busy getting ready for winter.  “Aha!  A beautiful blue flower.  Hmm.  It’s petals are closed.  Well, there aren’t very many Continue reading Late Blooming Flower Seeks Strong, Hungry Bumblebee

Indian Pipes: Visible Signs of Invisible Connections

by Barbara Walvoord

Originally published in Lathrop Lamp Post Sept. 9-15, 2017

Indian pipes (sometimes called ghost plants) bloom on both campuses–on the north campus along the path in the forest, and on the east campus not only in the forest but also along Bassett Brook Drive, across from the Inn, under a group of large white pine trees.  You can see them from the sidewalk.

Indian pipe is white, so people sometimes think it’s a fungus, but it’s actually a plant related to the blueberry family.  Unlike most plants, Indian pipes (Monotropa uniflora)  don’t use sunlight to produce their own chlorophyll–hence they’re not green,  and they can grow in a sunless forest understory.

But they still need the sugar from chlorophyll.  They get that sugar from the trees under which they grow.  The relationship is a Continue reading Indian Pipes: Visible Signs of Invisible Connections

A Banquet of Goldenrod at Lathrop

by Barbara Walvoord

Originally publish in Lathrop Lamp Post August 10, 2017

We have banquets for humans at Lathrop–the 4th of July picnic, the lobster feast, the Thanksgiving day meal.  But we also have banquets for our non-human residents.  Right now, goldenrod is on the menu.  The most numerous native wild flower in Lathrop east campus meadows, goldenrod is turning our land into a rich yellow banquet for our wild residents.

ACHOO! you may be saying.  However, goldenrod is not the culprit; instead, it’s ragweed, which blooms at the same time. Resident Alice Richardson, a landscape architect who knows a TON about native plants, explained the general rule to me in an e-mail: “As a general rule, most pollen allergens are produced by visually insignificant flowers which are typically wind pollinated – e.g. some trees, most grasses, ragweed.  Showy flowers have evolved to attract pollinators Continue reading A Banquet of Goldenrod at Lathrop

Lathrop’s Asters–Summer’s Last Feast

by Barbara Walvoord

(First published in Lathrop Lamp Post Sept. 29, 2016)

As most plants go brown in our gardens, patios, and by the meeting house or inn,  residents (including Sharon and me)  and staff  are putting out pots of brilliant mums–yellow, bronze, purple–one last feast for the eyes.

In our meadows and forests, Mother Nature is also providing a feast for our eyes, as brilliant native asters bloom in purple and white.  But unlike the alien mums, which nourish few insects, Mother Nature’s last summer blooms provide nectar and pollen for many insects, including the monarch butterfly and many types of bees.  Asters also serve as host plants for the larvae of 105 species of native butterflies and moths (Lepidoptera).  This is important because butterfly and moth larvae are such picky eaters.  Most of them have developed the body chemistry and mouth parts to eat only one or a few native plants with which they have co-evolved. Continue reading Lathrop’s Asters–Summer’s Last Feast

Hurry!! Spring Wildflowers at Lathrop

By Barbara Walvoord

Spring woodland wildflowers face two problems:

  1. They can’t bloom before the soil is thawed
  2. They can’t bloom after the tree canopy cuts off their sunlight.

Between these two events, nature provides a window, because forest ground, under its leaf litter, freezes more shallowly and thaws more quickly than ground in open fields, and because forest trees Continue reading Hurry!! Spring Wildflowers at Lathrop

Witch Hazel: Blooming for Halloween at Lathrop

By Barbara Walvoord

Isn’t the blooming season past? Nope. One native shrub (or small tree) is just now blooming–witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana).

On the east campus, walk along the woods edge next to Basset Brook road, between the Inn and Mulberry Lane. Among the trees, you’ll see a beautiful yellow haze of delicate blossoms, each with multiple thin, ribbon-like petals.

“Witch hazel” is a recycled name, given long ago to a different species of tree in England, and reused by colonists for the tree they found here.

“Witch hazel” is also an ancient name, probably from the Old English wice, meaning weak or pliant, as indeed these branches are.

It’s a magical name, too, intimating witch-like powers, both as a medicine and as a divining rod for locating water. Blooming at Halloween, after several hard frosts, is magical by itself.

Both colonists and Native Americans used witch hazel as a medicine, and CVS still sells it. The factual, decidedly non-magical website Continue reading Witch Hazel: Blooming for Halloween at Lathrop