A Northwoods Almanac for July 24 – August 6, 2015
A few weeks back, Rod Sharka invited me along on a paddle to see orchids in a pristine northern Vilas County bog lake. Rod knows his wetland plants and regularly scouts area sites for orchids, so I knew I was in for a treat. And the bog delivered! We spent several hours slowly paddling the convoluted shoreline, and I’d conservatively estimate that we saw many, many hundreds of orchids, particularly rose pogonia (Pogonia ophioglossoides). If we’d paddled a few days earlier, we’d have likely seen equal numbers of grass-pink (Calopogon tuberosis), but most of those were past flowering.
The “lip” of the rose pogonia is “bearded” with a crest of white to rosy-purple short bristles that rise from the lip. Four or five pink-to-rose petals with purple veins frame the lip like wings. These orchids were sprinkled nearly everywhere throughout the bog, averaging perhaps eight inches tall. We found one pure white rose pogonia, a rare form called Pogonia albiflora, which I’d never seen before.
The grass-pink orchid varies from nearly all other orchids in that its lip is located at the top of the flower rather than at its base. The lip is tipped with yellow bristles, which apparently mimics pollen-filled male anthers found in other flowers, and thus attracts pollinating bees. The lip is hinged, so that when the bee lands on the lip, it suddenly bends downward, throwing the bee onto the flower column. The bee then inadvertently contacts the female stigma, depositing any pollen it may have picked up on other flowers. Plus, it then picks up additional new pollen to haul away to the next flower it lands on, a remarkably clever co-evolution between the bee and the flower.
When we pulled out, another orchid awaited us – spotted coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata). We frequently see this orchid in older woodlands, and, indeed, two weeks later we saw numerous ones on a short hike into the Sylvania wilderness area. But next to the bog lake, there were several growing in a moss mat a few yards up from the water.
The lips of the tiny white flowers are spotted with purple dots, and grow along a reddish-purple stem. The plant lacks chlorophyll, so it appears to some more like a fungus than a flower. But indeed it’s simply a nonphotosynthetic saprophyte, extracting its nutrients from decomposing organic matter.
On our paddle, we also encountered remarkable numbers of sundews, both round-leaved and narrow-leaved, perhaps more than I’ve ever seen on a bog lake. Nearly all of them were budded out, but not flowering, though Rod had seen some in flower a few days earlier.
Sundew's leaf stems grow in a circular rosette about the size of a quarter to a half dollar, each leaf blade expanding at its tip into an oval "sun" that is covered with thick hairs. The hairs project like the rays of the sun, each with a glistening drop of sticky fluid at its end, like dew. The minute flowers bloom white or pink in July all on one side of a long (4-9") slender stalk.
The carnivorous sundew attracts diminutive insects like mosquitoes (such a shame!) with its attractive rosy coloration, sweet smell, and sparkling fluid-tipped tentacles, and then traps them in its viscous droplets. The leaf gradually folds over the captive, and then secretes an enzyme to digest the insect, though digestion may not be complete for several weeks. While not as dramatic as a Venus flytrap, which closes instantaneously, the sundew can take larger prey. A botanist in Michigan watched a monarch butterfly fail to free itself from the syrupy “dew,” while a late 19th century naturalist referred to the sundew as a “bloodthirsty little miscreant.”
Sundews have had a surprising amount of historical utility including use as a red ink, a wart and corn remover, an antispasmodic, and as a natural flypaper to be hung indoors.
Darwin experimented at length on the insectivorous plants, attempting in one set of experiments to feed inedible substances to the sundew, whereupon the sundew, after a brief embrace, would drop the false hope and patiently wait for its next opportunity.
One last uncommon plant we encountered on our paddle was horned bladderwort, like sundew, an insectivorous plant. Bladderworts typically capture minute insects underwater in a hollow bladder-like trap enclosing a partial vacuum that is triggered by hairs near its opening. The bladders work a bit like squeezing all the air out of a ball and then letting go, resulting in a sucking inrush of air. Insects swim by brushing against the bladderworts hairs, the compressed bladder releases and sucks in the insect, and an elastic trap door mechanism snaps shut preventing escape. Slick and quick, the whole process takes 1/460 of a second, though the insect must decay for several weeks before its fluids may be absorbed.
That’s remarkable enough, but what I like to do when I encounter a horned bladderwort is immediately pick one flower, hold it to my nose, and inhale as deeply as I can. Famous American naturalist John Burroughs wrote that it is “perhaps the most fragrant flower we have . . . Its perfume is sweet and spicy in an eminent degree.” I think it smells a bit like the old style Grape Nehi soda we drank as kids, but though I’ve searched, I have no idea what that flavoring came from. Whatever the smell may be compared to, it is one of the most pleasantly aromatic flowers I know.
Roadside Weeds: Common Mullein
Well, let’s leave the undisturbed, pristine bog and walk a roadside where plants that are adapted to poor soils and full sunlight thrive. One of these “weeds” is common mullein, a Eurasian native. Mullein is a biennial, growing in its first year only into a small rosette of leaves an inch or two across. But in its second year, the plant takes off, sometimes growing up to seven feet. Mary and I regularly bike the Manitowish Waters bike trail to Boulder Junction, and there’s a sandy area along the trail that is rife with mullein, looking to me akin to a stand of desert cacti.
The stem and leaves are covered with velvety hairs, like a super-thick flannel shirt, while the central stem terminates in a small spike of unremarkable yellow flowers. One writer says of the dried-out stems that remain standing in the third year that they look like “burned out sparklers,” an apt description. They’re great perches for birds, and they produce many thousands of seeds, but whether the birds utilize the seeds is unknown to me.
Mullein, like so many plants that grow on disturbed soils, is considered invasive, so cut it off wherever and whenever you can. Other roadside “weeds” now proliferating include natives like fireweed, common milkweed, and spreading dogbane, along with non-natives like purple vetch, bird’s-foot trefoil, butter-and-eggs, spotted knapweed, and bladder-campion.
Look for Saturn about two degrees above the waxing moon on 7/25. The Delta Aquarid meteor shower peaks in the predawn on 7/29, but unfortunately, the nearly full moon will wash out most of the show. Speaking of the full moon, the second full moon of the month, the blue moon, occurs on 7/31.
Longtime Loon Researcher Mike Meyer Retires
Just a quick note to recognize recently retired DNR research scientist Mike Meyer for his scientific contributions to our area. Mike dedicated much of his research to loon monitoring, including citizen science and public outreach. Meyer also did cutting edge research on contaminants such as mercury and other bioaccumulating toxins in a variety of bird species, including loons and eagles.
During his time with the WDNR, Mike, along with loon researcher, Walter Piper, directed the banding of over 3,600 common loons in our area. His research projects included: developing an Ashland/Chequamegon Bay shoreland restoration project from 2010-2012; assessing the potential population effects of Botulism E toxin and Gulf oil exposure on migrating Wisconsin waterbirds; developing a Wisconsin wildlife mercury monitoring plan and promoting Wisconsin as a National Mercury Monitoring site; evaluating the impact of legacy polychlorinated bioaccumulating toxic substances (PCBs, DDE, PBDE, PFOS, PFOA) on Wisconsin's Great Lakes bald eagle population – the “Wisconsin Bald Eagle Biosentinel Project”; evaluating the risk to native fisheries of the use of liquid herbicides (2,4-D) to control Eurasian Watermilfoil in Wisconsin lakes; examining the potential effects of climate change on inland glacial lakes and the implications for lake-dependent biota in Wisconsin; assessing the vulnerability and adaptation strategies of Wisconsin's wildlife to climate change; measuring the value of wildlife habitat restoration on northern Wisconsin Lakes: “The Wisconsin Shoreland Restoration Project”; assessing the impact of mercury exposure on Wisconsin's Common Loon population; and assessing the population effects of lead fishing tackle on fish-eating wildlife in Wisconsin.
Mike’s position was one of the 18 DNR science positions cut in the state’s recently passed budget – one-third of the scientific services staff – a stunningly misguided inclusion that had virtually no impact on our state’s economy. I’d like to simply thank Mike for his exceptional scientific contributions to our area. We understand one heck of a lot more about loons, eagles, mercury, shoreland restoration, and a host of other things because of his dedication. He’ll be missed.