S’more

The tall seed-topped stems swaying in a summer breeze are a pleasant scene.  And the colorful autumn shades of blue, orange, purple, red, and, of course, green leaves on these clumping plants are nice.  But of the multitude of flowering plants, Big Bluestem, Freshwater Cordgrass, and Switchgrass aren’t much of a draw.  No self-respecting bloom addict is going out of their way to have a gander at any grass that hasn’t been subjugated and tamed by a hideous set of spinning steel blades.  Grass flowers…are you kidding?

Big Bluestem in flower in the Riverine Grasslands at Conewago Falls.

O.K., so you need something more.  Here’s more.

Meet the Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata).  It’s an annual plant growing in the Riverine Grasslands at Conewago Falls as a companion to Big Bluestem.  It has a special niche growing in the sandy and, in summertime, dry soils left behind by earlier flooding and ice scour.  The divided leaves close upon contact and also at nightfall.  Bees and other pollinators are drawn to the abundance of butter-yellow blossoms.  Like the familiar pea of the vegetable garden, the flowers are followed by flat seed pods.

The Partridge Pea can tolerate dry sandy soils.

But wait, here’s more.

In addition to its abundance in Conewago Falls, the Halberd-leaved Rose Mallow (Hibiscus laevis) is the ubiquitous water’s edge plant along the free-flowing Susquehanna River for miles downstream.  It grows in large clumps, often defining the border between the emergent zone and shore-rooted plants.  It is particularly successful in accumulations of alluvium interspersed with heavier pebbles and stone into which the roots will anchor to endure flooding and scour.  Such substrate buildup around the falls, along mid-river islands, and along the shores of the low-lying Riparian Woodlands immediately below the falls are often quite hospitable to the species.

Halberd-leaved Rose Mallow is a durable inhabitant of the falls.  Regular flooding keeps competing species at bay.  A taproot helps to safeguard against dislocation, allowing plants to grow in places subjected to turbulent currents.
Halberd-leaved Rose Mallow in bloom.  The similarity to cultivated members of the Hibiscus genus can readily be seen.  It is one of the showiest of perennial wildflowers in the floodplain.  Note the lobed, halberd-shaped leaves, source of its former species name militaris.
The seeds of Halberd-leaved Rose Mallow are contained in bladders which can float to assist in their distribution.  Some of these bladders cling to the dead leafless stems in winter, making it an easy plant to identify in nearly any season.

A second native wildflower species in the genus Hibiscus is found in the Conewago Falls floodplain, this one in wetlands.  The Swamp Rose Mallow (H. moscheutos) is similar to Halberd-leaved Rose Mallow, but sports more variable and colorful blooms.  The leaves are toothed without the deep halberd-style lobes and, like the stems, are downy.  As the common name implies, it requires swampy habitat with ample water and sunlight.

Swamp Rose Mallow in a sunny wetland.  This variety with solid-colored flowers (without dark centers) and pale green leaves and stems was formerly known as a separate species of  Swamp Rose Mallow, H. palustris.  Note that the flowers are terminal on the stems.
A few scattered specimens of a more typical variety of Swamp Rose Mallow are found on the shoreline and in the Riverine Grasslands of Conewago Falls.  The blooms are bright pink with darker centers and the leaf stems are robust and reddish.  This one is seen growing among Halberd-leaved Rose Mallow, with which it shares the characteristic of having flower stems growing from some of the upper leaf axils.  A variety with red-centered white flowers is often found throughout the plant’s range.

In summary, we find Partridge Pea in the Riverine Grasslands growing in sandy deposits left by flood and ice scour.  We find Halberd-leaved Rose Mallow rooted at the border between shore and the emergent zone.  We find Swamp Rose Mallow as an emergent in the wetlands of the floodplain.  And finally, we find marshmallows in only one location in the area of Conewago Falls.  Bon ap’.

Here’s S’more

SOURCES

Newcomb, Lawrence.  1977.  Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide.  Little, Brown and Company.  Boston, Massachusetts.

Summer Grasses

It has not been a good summer if you happen to be a submerged plant species in the lower Susquehanna River.  Regularly occurring showers and thunderstorms have produced torrents of rain and higher than usual river stages.  The high water alone wouldn’t prevent you from growing, colonizing a wider area, and floating several small flowers on the surface, however, the turbidity, the suspended sediment, would.  The muddy current casts a dirty shadow on the benthic zone preventing bottom-rooted plants from getting much headway.  There will be smaller floating mats of the uppermost leaves of these species.  Fish and invertebrates which rely upon this habitat for food and shelter will find sparse accommodation…better luck next year.

Due to the dirty water, fish-eating birds are having a challenging season as they try to catch sufficient quantities of prey to feed themselves and their offspring.  A family of Ospreys (Pandion haliaetus) at Conewago Falls, including recently fledged young, were observed throughout this morning and had no successful catches.  Of the hundred or more individual piscivores of various species present, none were seen retrieving fish from the river.  The visibility in the water column needs to improve before fishing is a viable enterprise again.

Ospreys competing for a suitable fishing perch.  Improving water conditions in the coming week should increase their success as predators.
Versatile at finding food, adult Bald Eagles are experienced and know to be on the lookout for Ospreys with fish, a meal they can steal through intimidation.

While the submerged plant communities may be stunted by 2017’s extraordinary water levels, there is a very unique habitat in Conewago Falls which endures summer flooding and, in addition, requires the scouring effects of river ice to maintain its mosaic of unique plants.  It is known as a Riverine Grassland or scour grassland.

The predominant plants of the Riverine Grasslands are perennial warm-season grasses.  The deep root systems of these hardy species have evolved to survive events which prevent the grassland from reverting to woodland through succession.  Fire, intense grazing by wild herd animals, poor soils, drought, and other hardships, including flooding and ice scour, will eliminate intolerant plant species and prevent an area from reforesting.  In winter and early spring, scraping and grinding by flood-driven chunk ice mechanically removes large woody and poorly rooted herbaceous growth from susceptible portions of the falls.  These adverse conditions clear the way for populations of species more often associated with North America’s tall grass prairies to take root.  Let’s have a look at some of the common species found in the “Conewago Falls Pothole Rocks Prairie”.

Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardi), seen here growing in the cracks of a pothole rock. High water nourishes the plant by filling the crevices with nutrient-loaded sediment. This species evolved with roots over three feet deep to survive fires, trampling by bison, and drought.
Freshwater Cordgrass (Spartina pectinata) does well with its roots in water.  It creates exceptional bird habitat and grows in the falls and on ice-scoured small islands in free-flowing segments of the Susquehanna River downstream.
Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), like Big Bluestem, is one of the tall grass prairie species and, like Freshwater Cordgrass, grows in near pure stands on ice-scoured islands.  It takes flooding well and its extensive root system prevents erosion.
Though not a grass, Water Willow (Justicia americana) is familiar as a flood-enduring emergent plant of river islands, gravel bars, and shorelines where its creeping rhizome root system spreads the plant into large masses.  These stands are often known locally as “grass beds”.  This member of the acanthus family provides habitat for fish and invertebrates among its flooded leaves and stems.  Its presence is critical to aquatic life in a year such as this.

The Conewago Falls Riverine Grassland is home to numerous other very interesting plants.  We’ll look at more of them next time.

SOURCES

Brown, Lauren.  1979.  Grasses, An Identification Guide.  Houghton Mifflin Company.  New York, NY.

Fussy Eaters

She ate only toaster pastries…that’s it…nothing else.  Every now and then, on special occasions, when a big dinner was served, she’d have a small helping of mashed potatoes, no gravy, just plain, thank you.  She received all her nutrition from several meals a week of macaroni and cheese assembled from processed ingredients found in a cardboard box.  It contains eight essential vitamins and minerals, don’t you know?  You remember her, don’t you?

Adult female butterflies must lay their eggs where the hatched larvae will promptly find the precise food needed to fuel their growth.  These caterpillars are fussy eaters, with some able to feed upon only one particular species or genus of plant to grow through the five stages, the instars, of larval life.  The energy for their fifth molt into a pupa, known as a chrysalis, and metamorphosis into an adult butterfly requires mass consumption of the required plant matter.  Their life cycle causes most butterflies to be very habitat specific.  These splendid insects may visit the urban or suburban garden as adults to feed on nectar plants, however, successful reproduction relies upon environs which include suitable, thriving, pesticide-free host plants for the caterpillars.  Their survival depends upon more than the vegetation surrounding the typical lawn will provide.

The Monarch (Danaus plexippus), a butterfly familiar in North America for its conspicuous autumn migrations to forests in Mexico, uses the milkweeds (Asclepias) almost exclusively as a host plant.  Here at  Conewago Falls, wetlands with Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and unsprayed clearings with Common Milkweed (A. syriaca) are essential to the successful reproduction of the species.  Human disturbance, including liberal use of herbicides, and invasive plant species can diminish the biomass of the Monarch’s favored nourishment, thus reducing significantly the abundance of the migratory late-season generation.

Monarch caterpillar after a fourth molt.  The fifth instar feeding on Swamp Milkweed.
A fifth molt begets the Monarch pupa, the chrysalis, from which the showy adult butterfly will emerge.
Adult Monarch feeding on Goldenrod (Solidago) nectar.

Butterflies are good indicators of the ecological health of a given environment.  A diversity of butterfly species in a given area requires a wide array of mostly indigenous plants to provide food for reproduction.  Let’s have a look at some of the species seen around Conewago Falls this week…

An adult Silvery Checkerspot (Chlosyne nycteis) visiting a nectar plant, Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata).  Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia), a plant of the Riparian Woodlands, is among the probable hosts for the caterpillars.
A Gray Hairstreak (Strymon melinus) visits Crown Vetch, a possible host plant.  Other potential larval food in the area includes Partridge Pea, Halberd-leaved Rose Mallow (Hibiscus laevis) of the river shoreline, and Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos), a plant of wetlands.
The Eastern Tailed Blue (Cupido comyntas) may use Partridge Pea , a native wildflower species, and the introduced Crown Vetch (Securigera/Coronilla varia) as host and nectar plants at Conewago Falls.
The Least Skipper (Ancyloxypha numitor) is at home among tall grasses in woodland openings, at riverside, and in the scoured grassland habitat of the Pothole Rocks in the falls.  Host plants available include Switchgrass (Panicum vigatum), Freshwater Cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), and Foxtails (Setaria).
The Zabulon Skipper (Poanes zabulon) is an inhabitant of moist clearings where the caterpillars may feed upon Lovegrasses (Eragrostis) and Purpletop (Tridens flavus).
The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus), a female seen here gathering nectar from Joe-Pye Weed (Eutrochium), relies upon several forest trees as hosts. Black Cherry (Prunus serotina), Willow (Salix), Yellow Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), also known as Tuliptree, and Green Ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica) are among the local species known to be used.  The future of the latter food species at Conewago Falls is doubtful.  Fortunately for the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, the “generalist” feeding requirements of this butterfly’s larvae enable the species to survive the loss of a host plant.
A female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, black morph, gathering nectar from Joe-Pye Weed.
The Zebra Swallowtail (Protographium marcellus), seen here on Joe-Pye Weed, feeds exclusively upon Pawpaw (Asimina) trees as a caterpillar.  This butterfly species may wander, but its breeding range is limited to the moist Riparian Woodlands where colonial groves of Pawpaw may be found.  The Common Pawpaw (Asimina triloba), our native species in Pennsylvania, and the Zebra Swallowtail occur at the northern edge of their geographic ranges in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.  Planting Pawpaw trees as an element of streamside reforestation projects certainly benefits this marvelous butterfly.

The spectacularly colorful butterflies are a real treat on a hot summer day.  Their affinity for showy plants doubles the pleasure.

By the way, I’m certain by now you’ve recalled that fussy eater…and how beautiful she grew up to be.

SOURCES

Brock, Jim P., and Kaufman, Kenn.  2003.  Butterflies of North America.  Houghton Mifflin Company.  New York, NY.