Caterpillars Eat Dogwood Leaves While White Wood Asters and False Solomon Seal Berries Brighten the Woods

Nearing the end of summer we can always find some neat-looking critters somewhere on the vegetation that surrounds us. Many times the bugs and insects are making a meal out of a carefully planted and nursed garden flower or plant. Sometimes we see cool-looking insects perched on the house or vehicles. If they’re different than ones we normally see, somebody runs to get the camera.

Today, looking out in the back yard I noticed from a distance that my small White Flowering Dogwood trees, Cornus florida, were really taking a beating. The leaves were obviously being eaten as the little trees looked almost stripped bare from where I stood on the porch. But what or who was eating the leaves?

Closer inspection revealed two small visitors to the dogwood trees and they were still munching away as I snapped these pics.

Brown caterpillar with white dashes on its head.

This brown caterpillar with four white head spots — dashes really — seemed very busy munching on a dogwood leaf.

I didn’t touch it with my bare hands because I saw long hairs, or setae, projecting from its body. Some of the caterpillars have what are called urticating spines which can really pack a wallop and sting ya’ good! I wasn’t taking any chances with getting stung so I carefully removed this critter from the tree before it ate the last leaf.

Brown caterpillar with white dashes on its head and a lighter brown streak down its back.

Brown caterpillar with white dashes on its head and a lighter brown streak down its back.

This little green fellow was on the underside of a dogwood leaf. Its back was rather dome-shaped and its belly did not have distinct feet or legs. The head end was definitely more rounded than the pointy tail end, but as it sat on the plant I couldn’t really see a head per se. As close as I can tell its the Yellow-shoulder Slug caterpillar, Lithacodes fasciola .

Undulating its Slug caterpillar with head on the right.

Undulating its “belly” allowed this little yellow-green fellow to move fairly quickly.

Lying on its side you can see the shadow of a wave of motion traveling down the length of its body.

Lying on its side — notice the shadow of a wave of motion that traveled down the length of its body as the slug caterpillar tried to upright itself.

This is the time of year that the asters and goldenrods are blooming profusely in open, fallow fields. At the edge of our woods, where the tree line meets what we call a backyard, a small group of White Wood Asters, Aster divaricatus, blooms every year.

A small patch of low-growing White Wood Asters lies in complete shade.

A small patch of low-growing White Wood Asters lies in the shade except for some filtered sunlight that reaches them in the early part of the day.

The white flower heads lose their short petals easily, so these flowers are not for picking. We just appreciate them being there.

The False Solomon Seal berries are now crimson red with white speckles.

The False Solomon Seal berries are now crimson red with white speckles. Their collective weight draws the tall stems almost down to the ground. Eventually, the berries will either be eaten or lay upon the ground to start the growing cycle all over again.

False Solomon Seal plants lend color to the area with their bright red berries that appear every autumn.

Underneath the shade of a White Oak several native False Solomon Seal plants lend color to the area with their bright red berries that appear every autumn.

False Solomon Seal berries form at the terminal ends of the two to three feet tall plants and mature to a bright red color with speckles of white.

False Solomon Seal berries form at the terminal ends of the two to three feet tall plants and mature to a bright red color with speckles of white.

Rudbeckia Dies by the Stylets of a Million Aphids

Extremely hot and dry weather produces visible changes in the landscape. Trees drop leaves too early for the autumn leaf drop. Hues of yellow and red can be seen among the dull greens of the forest.

Grass stops growing and sounds like crinkley paper when walked upon. Mushrooms hide in the sweet syrup of their fungal thread-like mats, waiting for a wet opportunity to assemble themselves and appear above ground.

Insects flourish in huge numbers as they drink the sap of their favorite plants. My Rudbeckia that I carefully transplanted this Spring all but withered to a crisp. Over the last week I saw the stems and blooms drying up, and counted the early death as another victim of this year’s drought and extreme heat.

A beautiful Rudbeckia plant sporting its bright yellow flowers in the middle of July.

A beautiful Rudbeckia plant sporting its bright yellow flowers in the middle of July.

I took my pruners and a bucket out to the once beautiful rudbeckia to clip off the dead stems. At once I saw hundreds upon hundreds of red aphids!

The same Rudbeckia plant a month later after attack by aphids.

The same Rudbeckia plant a month later after attack by aphids.

Aphids come in many colors and will attack many plants. Some aphid species are very particular about their host plant, others not so much. With literally thousands of species of aphid around the world, it would be surprising to not come across them at some point.

Aphids line up along plant stems with their heads pointed toward the stem so that their needle-like mouth parts, called stylets, can pierce into the plant. Here, they drink the plant’s juices to the demise of the plant.

Red aphids all along the stems of a rudbeckia plant.

Red aphids all along the stems of a rudbeckia plant.

When conditions are right for it, aphids breed without sex so many, many young can be produced in a short amount of time.

When conditions are right for it, aphids breed without sex so many, many young can be produced in a short amount of time. Note the small aphids next to the adults.

Aphids will drink the plant’s juices from stems and flowers. An identifying characteristic of aphids is the presence of two short projections, or cornicles, that extend from the posterior of the abdomen. A sweet honeydew liquid is released from the cornicles which is sometimes farmed by ants. Indeed, the presence of ants is sometimes a clue that aphids are nearby.

Note the abdominal cornicles on the shadow of an aphid.

Note the abdominal cornicles projecting out from the shadow of an aphid.

I filled a bucket with the stems that I pruned and dumped that in a compost heap. The remaining stems are about 10-12 inches tall. I’ll be watching to see if there will be more plant growth into the fall or if the aphids continue to consume this once beautiful plant.

Wilde Perseid Meteors Showered the August Night Sky in 2007

Quite a few years ago I had the pleasure of observing a fantastic display of meteors. As I came in late one night in August I saw one, then two shooting stars. I waited and looked for more and was totally shocked when I saw them.

Cranking my head up to see the night sky for more than a minute or three was not too comfortable, so I climbed up on my vehicle and reclined back on the windshield. A perfect viewing position! Ever since that meteor show I have looked forward to the 10-11-12 of August to see the Perseids again.

I couldn’t say how many times the viewing conditions were less than ideal. Either clouds obstructed the view, or moonlight filled the nighttime sky with too much light, or I couldn’t get to a dark enough area away from the light pollution of the city to see much of anything.

This week promised to change my meteoric luck. Three days ago we saw two shooting stars as a prelude to last night’s performance. Two days prior we lucked out and had rain, so the chance of more clouds in this season of drought was hopefully slim. And on top of that the 12th of August was slated for a New Moon!

Our house in the country is surrounded by mature oak trees but they don’t ruin the view of the starlit sky overhead. After midnight we assembled ourselves on the back deck with blankets and sat down facing Cassiopeia – the lazy W constellation – in the northeastern sky.

After our eyes adjusted to the darkness the light display began. First, we saw the Milky Way stretch across the sky and many, many brighter stars everywhere. Then we saw a streak of light zip across the sky. Wow! We kept watching and more of the Perseid meteors showered the deep night sky with trails of white, yellow and amber streaks.

The brightest meteors sped across a long path overhead. Others were short, faint streaks that left you questioning whether you had seen a meteor or not. We convinced each other that we did!

The oohs and aahs we let out paid tribute to Mother Nature’s wonderfully natural fireworks display. Laying back on the picnic table we got the whole sky in view and every few minutes exclaimed “yeah!” or “beauty!” upon seeing another one.

It’s not so much the little flashes of light across the night sky that draws me to meteor watching, it’s the whole experience that I enjoy. The sights and the sounds and the peace.

If you are still and listen to the night, you can learn a lot about your surroundings. Last night we were serenaded by hundreds of cicadas high in the trees. Their monotonous “zzeeep-zzzeep” only quieted when the dog barked back. Their sound was not as loud of a droning sound as the 17-year locusts we had a couple years ago, but they were still quite loud.

The dog barked to his neighbors in the north and southwest. I wondered what they had to say to each other. After the dogs quieted down we wondered if we heard some coyotes a little further to the north. Their calls seemed like they were yapping or yowling to each other, not like the barking and coon hound howling we heard earlier.

The most impressive sounds came from the foxes all around us. We counted five different voices at one time, but I suspect there were more foxes near to us than that. In the middle of the night their haunting calls sound like a wailing child. Once the dog started barking the eerie fox cries fell silent. Since I’ve only seen wild foxes in a field here and there, or running along a road or crossing one, I never contemplated that they might actually live in the forests.

In between seeing the shooting stars we listened to the sounds of the night and had a fabulously wilde time enjoying nature. Maybe next year you’ll join us!

Update on Downy Rattlesnake Plantain – It’s Starting to Bloom!

Nearly four weeks ago I snapped a picture of Downy Rattlesnake Plantain with a flower spike and flower head present, but not yet open. See earlier post on orchids – July 15th.

By now the blooms had started opening up to show the very small individual blossoms.

Downy rattlesnake plantain starting to open its blossoms held high on the flower stalk.

Downy rattlesnake plantain starting to open its blossoms held high on the flower stalk.

The flowers still compact in the head are not fully open so that they can be recognized as small orchids.

Close-up view of downy rattlesnake plantain orchids before the blooms fully open.

Close-up view of downy rattlesnake plantain orchids before the blooms fully open.

Catnip Flowering to the Bumblebees’ Delight in PA

Wildflower walks will take you to interesting and new places once you’re grabbed by the adventurous spirit of finding new plants and flowers. Sometimes that feeling of awe comes in the form of seeing a favorite flower blooming or an alien-looking insect.

Walking down the lane to pick a few blackberries after breakfast, I spotted this cool damselfly. His thin body appeared bright metallic green and his wings looked of black lace.

A neon green damselfly called the Ebony Jewelwing, Calopteryx maculata, briefly rests on a touch-me-not leaf along the lane.

A neon green damselfly called the Ebony Jewelwing, Calopteryx maculata, briefly rests on a touch-me-not leaf along the lane.

Lots of garden flowers are blooming now…marigolds, purple coneflowers, daisies, dahlias, rudbeckias, spiderflowers…the list goes on and on.

Native flowers blooming now include the tiger lilies or day lilies along the roadsides, butter-n-eggs, enchanter’s nightshade, touch-me-nots, thistles, milkweed, and lots of other “weeds”, including catnip.

A volunteer catnip plant, Nepeta cataria, grew between some slate and gravel rocks in the driveway last year. We didn’t cut it down as we wanted to collect some seeds and spread the feline love. This year the plant looks like a flowering bush. Small volunteers from last year’s seeds were transplanted to various sunny locations during late spring.

A large catnip plant releases its skunky scent every time the car brushes past it in the driveway.

A large catnip plant releases its skunky scent every time the car brushes past it in the driveway.

Catnip flowers in several colors, so you may hear that catnip blossoms are white, pink or purple. Inspect the blooms close up and you will see why.

Unopened flower buds look softly pink and the opened catnip flowers are white with a few spots of purple.

Unopened flower buds look softly pink and the opened catnip flowers are white with a few spots of purple.

Buzzing bumblebees busy themselves all around the catnip blooms. It’s time to harvest some of that catnip for the kitties before it all goes to seed. I’ve spied a few places in the country where it grows wild and that’s where I’ll collect seeds for next year’s crop.

Miss Laverne guarding her catnip.

Miss Laverne guarding her catnip bush!

By the way the blackberries I had collected this morning were delicious! I look forward to making a cobbler or something yummy with blackberries in a few days.

Downy Rattlesnake Plantain in the Woods of Pennsylvania

July is a quiet time in the mixed hardwoods forest of Northeastern United States, at least with respect to wildflowers. The hungry bears wander around this time of year seeking berries and other goodies, so I can’t say it’s completely still out there. We’ve been seeing a few deer wandering around during the day and near the house somebody had an encounter with a skunk. P U!

My walking stick gave me a sense of courage on my flower walk this morning and would come in handy if I had to get around some brambles. I was searching for three things and was very glad to find them all.

First, I was curious about the foliage of the Round-Lobed Hepatica. Having spotted a set of new leaves this Spring on one plant (see April archives), I wondered if they were now much larger and at ground level with the other older leaves. To my disappointment I found that some critter had eaten them.

Leaves of two hepatica plants spread out in a circle and rest on the forest floor.
Leaves of two hepatica plants spread out in a circle and rest on the forest floor.

Second, I sought the colony of Small Whorled Pogonia, Isotria medeoloides, on the north side of the ridge. For three years now I have been watching and waiting to see if these plants will bloom. Field guides state that the plant doesn’t come up for years at a time, perhaps even resting for ten years between appearances. Each year I have seen the plants, but no blossoms – yet. Maybe next year these members of the Orchis family will have gained enough energy to treat us to their fleeting display.

The summer heat and lack of rainfall seems to have wilted the small whorled pogonia.
The summer heat and lack of rainfall seems to have wilted the small whorled pogonia.
Small whorled pogonia typically holds its parallel-veined leaves horizontally.
Small whorled pogonia typically holds its parallel-veined leaves horizontally.

At first glance one might confuse gaywing’s, Polygala paucifolia, leaves with pogonia’s leaves. However, the pogonia leaves are on a taller stem, have parallel veins, and are larger than those of fringed polygala.

Fringed polygala leaves look similar to pogonia leaves, but are smaller, lay closer to the ground, and have branched veins.
Fringed polygala leaves look similar to pogonia leaves, but are smaller, lay closer to the ground, and have branched veins.

Number three on my list, Downy Rattlesnake Plantain, flowers in mid-summer, so I searched for a blooming plant on my wildflower walk this morning. A dozen or so small colonies of this member of the Orchis family, Goodyera pubescens, were spotted. Only two individuals sent up their flower stalk and are almost ready to bloom.

The dark, distinctive foliage of Downy Rattlesnake Plantain contrasts nicely with the tan and brown leaves on the forest floor.
The dark, distinctive foliage of Downy Rattlesnake Plantain contrasts nicely with the tan and brown leaves on the forest floor.
The taller flower stalk measures about six inches now and will double in height as the young orchids mature.
The taller flower stalk measures about six inches now and will double in height as the young orchids mature.

Somehow it is so satisfying knowing that three wild orchid species presently share our piece of the woods with us. The three Orchis family members include the Downy Rattlesnake Plantain, the Small Whorled Pogonia and the Pink Lady’s Slipper. None are flowering at this moment, but stay tuned for more news from the woods of Pennsylvania. Later this month I hope to catch the flowers of Downy Rattlesnake Plantain.

Tall Anemone, a.k.a Thimbleweed, Blooming in Pennsylvania

A couple weeks have passed since we first saw this family of ducks. So far, only one of the ducklings has disappeared, but we’re hoping the rest will make it through the summer.

Family of ducks taking a rest in a field of clover.

Family of ducks taking a rest in a field of clover.

Reading about the varieties of wood sorrel in my field guides I came across a picture of a tall yellow-flowering kind that I had not seen before, so I made a mental note of it. That’s why I was pleasantly surprised to see a Great Wood Sorrel plant on my berry walk this morning down the lane. Growing in the shade next to the lane, this Oxalis grandis specimen is about 16 inches tall.

Small clusters of flowers arise from the leaf axils and the leaves are held out quite straight and horizontally.

Small clusters of flowers arise from the leaf axils and the leaves are held out quite straight and horizontally.

With the number of times we’ve walked up and down the lane we don’t expect to find any new plants. We were quite surprised to see this pretty flower – a weed, really, hiding in the shade of the oak trees.

The light green to cream colored flower of thimbleweed has five sepals and numerous stamens.

The light green to cream colored flower of thimbleweed has five sepals and numerous stamens.

The central leaflet is wedge-shaped and has curved sides, a feature that distinguishes the plant from other anemone species.

The central leaflet is wedge-shaped and has curved sides, a feature that distinguishes the plant from other anemone species.

Thimbleweed flowerbuds, blossoms and fruit rise above the three- or five-parted leaves.

Thimbleweed flowerbuds, blossoms and fruit rise above the three- or five-parted leaves.

This member of the buttercup family, Anemone virginiana, has an interesting fruit which obviously lent the plant its name – Thimbleweed, also known as Tall Anemone.

Is This a Black Raspberry or a Blackberry?

Up and down the lane and along the edges of the farmer’s field there are lots of berries. Most are not quite ripe for picking yet, but it won’t be long before we have stained hands from collecting them.

There appears to be two varieties growing here and in several areas they are adjacent to each other. Looking up Rubus spp. in Gleason and Cronquist’s Manual of Vascular Plants, I see there are well over 200 species and hybrids. No wonder the wildflower field guides state that identification is best left to experts!

At the risk of being labeled an amateur I won’t be identifying the berry plants to species. What I do think we have are blackberry and black raspberry plants.

One of the berry plants has lighter foliage with elongated leaves. The berries are more rounded than those on the other type of berry plant – I think these are the black raspberry plants. The berries held in a cluster at the end of the stems are ripening one at a time. Delicious, they are!

Blackberry fruit ripening on the vine.
Black raspberry fruit ripening on the vine.
Get in my belly!
Get in my belly!

The second type of berry plant is more plentiful and has more berries which are of an elongated shape. These are blackberry plants. The green fruit will get bigger before ripening.

Some of the black raspberries arise singly in the leaf axils.
Some of the blackberries arise singly in the leaf axils.
Black raspberries more often occur in clusters along the main stem.
Blackberries more often occur in clusters along the main stem.
Clusters of the black raspberries are plentiful this year.
Clusters of the blackberries are plentiful this year.

It’s like a dream come true to have wild raspberries and blackberries growing on our property. I have fond memories of collecting them at camp as a child. Knowing that berries are a great health food makes me enjoy them even more as an adult.