Tag Archives: botany

Tracking Down Milkweeds

Asclepiadaceae flowers are unique. As are those of orchids, they are complex and took years to understand. Perhaps that is what set Dr. Rintz on the task of tracking down milkweeds.

Dr. Rintz first met these complex flowers in Malaysia through the genus Hoya. He spent time trekking through the jungle looking for these plants and found a few new species.

Hoya is a tropical genus. Since Missouri is definitely temperate, Dr. Rintz started looking at the native genus Asclepias.

Asclepias syriaca, the common milkweed, is easily spotted when tracking down milkweeds
Tracking down milkweeds like Asclepias syriaca, the common milkweed, is easy when the plants are several feet tall and lined with flower umbels. Note the typical milkweed flower arrangement: five wells around a central disc.

Dr. Woodson explored this genus back in the 1948 and wrote a monograph about it. These 200 some pages were the last full treatment of the genus until Dr. Rintz began tracking down milkweeds and studying them.

Over the course of ten years and traveling thousands of miles, Dr. Rintz found all seventy-six members of Asclepias known to occur in the United States. Some of these are very rare requiring him to get special permission to go on private lands to see and photograph them.

tracking down milkweeds is made easier by color in Asclepias tuberosa, butterfly weed
The bright orange of butterfly weed is what many people recognize. They often don’t realize this plant is a milkweed, Asclepias tuberosa, and can range from yellow to red, even bicolor. Note that this flower has the typical milkweed arrangement: five wells around a central disc. The wells may be longer than in the common milkweed, but the arrangement is similar.

As part of this study Dr. Rintz brought back preserved flowers to dissect, acquired seeds to plant and looked up many of the papers written about the quest to understand these complex flowers and how they worked.

Many botanists now confine their work to perusing herbarium sheets, studying dried and pressed plants. This process can distort the plants.

In tracking down milkweeds and studying them as living plants, Dr. Rintz found several instances when the living plants were very different from their herbarium representations. One milkweed has recumbent umbels, ones that hang down, but has the umbels pointed upward on the sheet. Two others look almost identical on their sheets, but are very different as living plants.

tracking down milkweeds is harder when the plants and flowers are much smaller as in Asclepias verticillata, whorled milkweed
Asclepias verticilata, whorled milkweed, is easy to overlook. The stem is thin, barely a quarter inch diameter and only two feet tall at most. The leaves are thin, an eighth of an inch wide. The flowers are dull in color. Still, the flowers have the five wells around a central disc.

The three volume book “Asclepias: A Study of the Living Plants” by Dr. Richard Rintz should be the new standard study of this remarkable genus. It discusses the genus in general including growing information about many of the species. It examines each species from the historical aspect and its growth. Each species is illustrated both in photographs and in dissection drawings.

Written in plain language, it is easy to follow for anyone familiar with this genus. If you are considering tracking down milkweeds or just want to seriously study them, this set is your best guide. The set is available through this website. Please request your copy through the Contact Page.

Looking At Seeds

When was the last time you thought about seeds? Not buying them, but what they are. Looking at seeds shows several things. They are truly wonderful things.

A seed is a special package designed to survive in harsh conditions. Inside is a precious cargo: a new plant.

Those who split open persimmon seeds to forecast the winter weather talk about spoons, forks and knives. What they are really talking about is a plant embryo lying in different positions inside a package of provisions to nourish it when it germinates.

giant ragweed seed
Nestled against the stem giant ragweed seeds are protected until the birds come by. Finches and sparrows hang on the stems picking the seeds out and eating them. The birds never seem to eat them all judging from the numbers of new plants showing up in the spring.

Splitting open a peanut lets you see the plant embryo too. It’s that little nubbin at one end.

Looking at seeds shows their great diversity. Lots of familiar seeds are small. A giant ragweed seed is a quarter of an inch long. That seed packs a big plant into a tiny package.

Birds love seeds for the same reason plant embryos do. That little package is packed with nutrition. It has lots of fats, carbohydrates and proteins, perfect for keeping animals warm during cold weather.

Before anyone starts feeling guilty about eating those seeds, plants make more than enough. Picture a dandelion clock. Looking at seeds in the ball will show couple dozen seeds.

looking at seeds and counting them
Dandelions are common plants usually considered weeds, but are edible. The clock or ball of seeds is easily recognized. How many seeds are in one? Each white dot is over one seed.

Now picture a lawn say 30 feet square. That gives it 900 square feet. If a dandelion plant needs a quarter of a square foot of space, that lawn can accommodate 3,600 dandelion plants.

If one dandelion plant grows in that lawn and produces seeds at the rate of 20 per ball and five balls on the plant (You do know this is a very low estimate, if you’ve ever watched a dandelion.), that one plant will quickly become one of 101 plants.

These will be large enough to bloom in a month. If each produces the same number of seeds and the original plant produces another batch, there will be 10,100 plants vying for those 3,600 spots.

We need more birds eating more dandelion seeds. And that goes for most plants. Enjoy eating some seeds today.

Pursuing Plants

March in the Ozarks was cold. Wild plants tried to grow. Pursuing plants was simple as so few were blooming.

April hinted at spring then sprang into summer. Trees leafed out overnight. Spring wildflowers were buried under rampant summer growth. Pursuing plants became a hopeless task.

pursuing plants found yellow bedstraw

I’ve seen this Gallium or bedstraw before but dismissed it as an old weed. This year I took a closer look and found a new plant. There are ten members of the Gallium group in Dent county. I have now completed two and started two more. And there is another I think I have overlooked. This six inch tall, multi-stemmed plant called Yellow Bedstraw grows in sunny pasture or other grassy places.

Still, the botany project continues. That elusive goal of 2000 plants could be on the moon. This year the goal is to make 400.

Over 200 plant picture arrays were completed last year. Many others are missing one or two pictures. Some of the ones for this year will be trees.

Pursuing plants takes more time than I can spare. The secret is to carry the camera whenever I go out for any reason.

pursuing plants found a last picture

So many plants have one or two pictures missing. This Monarda often called Horsemint was missing a picture of the plant. this can be difficult to get as it prefers shady areas and is hidden by other plants.

A goat kid gets lost? Take the camera. Find the goat and take a couple of dozen plant pictures.

Fences need checking or fixing? Take the camera. There are plenty of wild plants on the trek out, around the fence and on the trek in. Taking a slightly different route helps too.

pursuing plants found a green violet

Violets are blue, or so the saying goes. Violets come in several colors including green. This is a green violet. The plant is easy to spot. the flowers are small and hang from the stalk like little green earrings. One more picture of the fruit will complete this plant’s picture array.

This year’s plan is to take one day a week to go out pursuing plants. There are two conservation areas and a state park close enough to make day trips.

To date those plans are on hold. I’m ready. The weather isn’t. It keeps raining on the day I want to go hiking. Digital cameras hate the rain.

The weather has been frustrating. I find a plant, take pictures of it in bloom and estimate when to come back to get a seed pod picture. It rains. Next year’s list now has three plants and two trees on it.

pursuing plants can lead to mix ups

As a child I learned about plants with leaves in threes: poison ivy and poison oak. The leaves of fragrant sumac look a lot like poison oak, but don’t leave you wishing you’d never met. The yellow flowers are followed by red berries.

There is one other ploy I must add to my plans. Next year I will have stakes to mark where smaller plants are. Wild pinks are so bright, so vivid, they can’t be missed. The plants are small and easily overwhelmed by taller ones. I missed the seed pods.

Another challenge is coming: the brush cutter. My road is too overgrown and must be cut. This is the worst possible time, but it will come anyway. I have at least two plants to mark so the brush cutter will leave them.

Pursuing plants may be a bigger project than I can ever complete. The pursuit is the true goal.

Many plants are included in Exploring the Ozark Hills. Check out the sample pages.

Learning Botanical Families

Like animals are sorted into animal families, plants are sorted into botanical families. These are based on the flowers.

As I struggle to identify the wildflowers I come across, I’ve tried to learn the different botanical families. A few are fairly easy.

botanical families include Asteraceae

A common Asteraceae flower head has a disk of tiny flowers surrounded by ray flowers that look like petals. Not all Asteraceae flower heads have ray flowers. They all do have the tiny disk flowers.

The Asteraceae includes flowers like daisies, dandelions, sunflowers and pussy toes. All have masses of tiny flowers squashed into a single head on a disk.

The Asclepiadaceae have complex flowers with five petals, five hoods and pollinaria (packets of pollen). Common milkweeds are butterfly weed, swamp milkweed, purple milkweed and green milkweed.

botanical families include Asclepiadaceae like butterfly weed milkweed

Butterfly weed milkweed, like most milkweeds, attracts lots of butterflies, beetles, bees and wasps. The flowers have five backswept petals, five wells of nectar and five horns pointing into the wells. The sizes and colors can vary, but all the flowers have this basic pattern putting them into the same botanical family called Asclepiadaceae.

Other families were more difficult for me to recognize. Then a friend loaned me a book “Botany In a Day” by Thomas J. Elpel that goes through most of the families and explains how the flowers are arranged in each family.

Family by botanical family I am plowing my way through this book. It is easy to read and understand, just filled with information that takes time to absorb.

Then I found Elpel includes edibility and medicinal information for plants within each family. It is mostly the medicinal uses and many are ones I would never want to try after reading the descriptions.

Botanical families found in Botany In a Day

The book “Botany In a Day” includes keys to the various botanical families and pages about each family along with edibility and medicinal information. It’s written for Montana but many families occur in the Ozarks too.

The edibility is what I am interested in. I do pick and eat a number of wild greens. Lamb’s quarters is a favorite. Pokeweed, chicory, plantains and chickweed are other tasty treats.

The problem with these plants is where they grow: disturbed ground such as gardens and roadsides. I need to know about edible ravine plants as the Carduans in The Carduan Chronicles will be sampling and eating some of these.

This book is a step to finding plants for the Carduans. The first step is identifying the plants out in the ravines.

Back to poring over “Botany In a Day” and learning the botanical families. Then I can identify the plants and find which ones are not only edible, but tasty.

Botany Season Begins

Officially the season is winter. Officially the pastures are paved with dry, yellow grass and the hills with bare limbs. Botany season has begun anyway.

No wildflowers are blooming yet. Even tiny corn speedwell is waiting this year. There has been warmer weather, but no moisture.

botany season begins with river birch

One of the special sights over the winter is the tree bare of leaves so the trunk and branches show. This river birch has so many fine twigs giving it a brushy look.

Storms are forecast and touted as bringing rain, sleet, snow and mixtures. They track north of the Ozarks. We stay in the severe drought belt.

This week we have hopes. This week the rain, even a scattering of snow has moved through here. There is mud in low places.

Green leaves line the road. Dead nettle and chickweed are shaking off their winter survival settings. Pasture grasses are stirring and sending up a few new green shoots.

botany season willow tree

This willow is a small tree. It’s twigs and buds are yellow and hairless. Which willow is it? There are eight to choose from. I will wait to see flowers and leaves.

This doesn’t sound like good botany season timing. Nothing is blooming. Things are barely growing.

I walked out to look at the willows and plants nearby. River birch catkins are swelling as are black alder catkins. If the weather stays warm enough, the catkins will bloom within two weeks.

The willows are a mixed bag. They are shrubs to small trees that like water such as the nearby cold water spring fen. Each year I go out to try to identify the different ones growing there. Each year they defeat me. I know there are four or five of the eight species found in Dent County growing there.

willow buds

Willow buds are long and narrow, alternate. This willow has hairy twigs and buds in off white. Other buds are red or yellow or brown. Most have no hairs.

This year I am going to identify these willows.

A willow has male plants producing catkins and female plants producing seeds. The plants usually appear similar except for the flowers.

Some willows bloom before leafing out. Other willows bloom as they leaf out. A few bloom after leafing out. All the leaves are similar, long and narrow with a single strong vein down the center.

botany season willow shrubs

These willows are only shrubs. They grow thickly in one area making it look red with their twigs and buds. Which willow are these shrubs? Eight possibilities. I will wait.

The key to identifying these willows is visiting them several times over the spring. I need to see the flowers and the seeds. I need to see the leaves, bark and twigs. Most importantly I need to keep my records of which willow is which straight.

I now have bark, twig and bud pictures of each different willow, I think. Each has its little folder. The first one should bloom about the time the river birch blooms.

My botany season has begun.