Pollinia: How Milkweeds Do It

It seemed simple enough. On the Blue Ridge Parkway on the way back from an oil change yesterday, and in no particular hurry. I pulled off to the shoulder of the road and grabbed my camera (which you can also use as a phone! Really!) and walked back a hundred yards to a nicely-lit display of surrealistically-orange Butterfly milkweed. I grabbed a couple of shots and brought them home.

But as so often happens, looking and thinking back to this ordinary moment with this common roadside wildflower, I considered the story contained in this and every living creature’s “natural history.”

How does this plant make a living in ways it shares with other milkweeds? And in what ways is this plant or group of plants different in structure or “behavior”, and what role does it play in the larger ecology of this place?

Well, these considerations are complicated, and to me, incredibly interesting and intriguing, posing at least as many questions as answers.

If you care to see deeper into the living world, dig into its stories, one insect, salamander or fern at a time. What you’ll learn will make you a more engaged and committed resident of your neighborhood, community and planet.

We are in desperate need of nature and science literacy that exceeds the eroding average in America in our precarious times.

Trust me: watch this video, and then find the nearest milkweed (probably the pink, sweet-smelling common milkweed) and dissect a single flower and find the pollinia.

What are pollinia, you ask? Honk if you watched this short video.

Friday Nature Unknown

Monkshood-related Vine
Click to see the larger image on Flickr

…and the answer to yesterday’s Puzzler, below.

But the flower you see here is one I don’t know to species. It looks like Monkshood (see the cowl?) but is a weak climbing vine. It was growing supported by various wet-meadow annuals like cinnamon fern and such in partial shade.

If I don’t figure it out, I’ll ask an expert at the “bioblitz” in Rock Castle Gorge next weekend. Somebody will know it and I’ll have added another one to my life-list.

YESTERDAY’S PUZZLER: We’ve had an alarmingly dry late summer and so this sight is not so common if we get regular rains. But the white spores of this mushroom wafted out from the gills and have been undisturbed by rains for a couple of weeks.

So “natural spore-print” explains the white powder, as a couple of you knew. Not anthrax. Not cocaine. Not powdery mildew. And now you know!

UPDATE: ID now thought to be Aconitum uncinatum, blue Wolf’s Bane, and with the following lore from Wikipedia:

“Aconitum (/ˌækəˈnaɪtÉ™m/),[2] also known as aconite, monkshood, wolf’s bane, leopard’s bane, mousebane, women’s bane, devil’s helmet, Queen of all Poisons, or blue rocket, is a genus of over 250 species of flowering plants belonging to the family Ranunculaceae.

These herbaceous perennial plants are chiefly native to the mountainous parts of the northern hemisphere,[3] growing in the moisture-retentive but well-draining soils of mountain meadows. Most species are extremely poisonous[4] and must be dealt with carefully.

The name comes from the Greek ἀκόνιτον, which may derive from the Greek akon for dart or javelin, the tips of which were poisoned with the substance, or from akonae, because of the rocky ground on which the plant was thought to grow.[5] The name may reflect that toxins extracted from the plant were historically used to kill wolves, hence the name wolf’s bane.”

And apparently the plant appears in Harry Potter’s tales.

Traveling Hopefully

So I had this notion a month or so back that my experience as teacher, speaker, field trip leader and engaged citizen would mesh nicely before small groups of folks who come to Floyd County lacking any depth to our natural or human communities here.

Well, you know about plans. Mr Murphy is always ready to give us a ground in The Way Things Are.

If you plan something so well that nothing can go wrong, something will. Before you can do what it is you want to do, you have to do something else first. Everything you want to do takes longer than you think, and costs more than you have. And finally, if you do something so carefully and thoughtfully that nobody could object, somebody will.

So here’s how things are.

First, the unintended has become the only actual boots on the ground from my original intention. I had not even considered being a guide for tour buses.

Floyd has until this summer lacked adequate lodging in town for busloads of out-of-town guests. Hotel Floyd now offers 40 rooms, in addition to other nearby lodging. And the Jacksonville Center is now a bus destination since its parking lot is paved for the first time ever.

So having gained a bit of visibility for my touring intentions, I was contacted by USTours, and as things turn out, this Friday I will have the opportunity to tell the story of Floyd and Carroll County landforms from Saddle Gap to the Blue Ridge Music Center at milepost 213 south of Galax.

We’ll talk about the history of the Blue Ridge Mountains and of the Parkway. There will be things in bloom and the Eastern Deciduous Forest in general to explore through the windows. The Bluemont rock church, Buffalo Mountain, Bob Childress and Olean Puckett will offer interesting characters and features to explore.

Pilot Mountain, Mt Airy and the Andy Griffith era also fair game at about milepost 189–the mountain barely visible at the overlook due to the “sequester” that has choked off funding for parkway maintenance.

Stops at Mabry Mill, Nancy’s Candies, Poor Farmer’s Market (for lunch at the deli there), for music at the Blue Ridge Music Center, and at the Jacksonville Center on the return trip will make for a full day. I’m looking forward to it.

Meanwhile, with regard to the MAIN service I hoped to provide and closest to my heart: the nature walks along the Parkway are off the ticket. I learned at the last possible moment before press releases went out last Thursday that the fees and other expenses ($600 or more the first year) and other restrictions and burdens were more red tape and bureaucratic crap than I cared to wade through.

There may be private forest and ridge that will serve, but it seems a crying shame to me that the fantastic resource of the parkway should be so difficult to use for education for those like me whose returns from any commercial use would be so small. Fishing guides in western National Parks could pay in one day what it would take me a season to bring in.

And so it goes.

Black and White: Mt Laurel

If you drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway in late May and early June, you’ll be missing the forest for the trees if you don’t stop your car, get out, and walk along the forest edge.

You’ll see, hear, smell or otherwise learn something just about anywhere you do this. Walking speed allows our senses to work for us. Even the parkway’s slower-than-usual 45 mph is nowhere near slow enough for full comprehension of the full nature of any place along its 450 mile length.

But especially stop if you see Mountain Laurel in bloom. What looks like featureless pink-white masses from your car windshield will reveal intricate details when you stop and look closely.

This webpage gives some of the details of laurel’s intricately-crafted pollination trickery: ten spring-loaded pollen triggers in each flower are designed to catapult sperm-packets (the content of a pollen grain) onto a bee back on one flower and then transfer to the female sticky parts (stigma) of another. And a seed is born!

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Blue Ridge Parkway in Bloom

native pink azalea on the blue ridge parkway, Floyd County Virginia

I’m hoping I’ll have a reason to travel to Chateau Morrisette this week (to leave note cards for sale in the Winery Tasting Room store.)

The native pink azaleas (Pinxter Flower, or Rhododendron nudiflorum as I learned it, now R. periclymenoides) was just beginning to bloom when I was over that way last week, but should be at peak in some places in Floyd County’s high-country parts of the Parkway. Click for larger view.

Ferns are springing up everywhere in the wetlands where the skunk cabbage began to appear in early April. You’ll miss almost all the interesting wildflowers at 45 miles an hour  –the legal Parkway speed limit.

So stop pretty much anywhere you can find to safely pull off the road. Wander around slowly within the National Park’s narrow confines, and I can say with some certainty you’ll find something blooming (or lichens, mosses or other non-flowering plants) worth your time.