We haven’t seen a rattlesnake of the reptilian kind here at the Quarry Gardens site in 20 years. (…unfortunately—since their presence indicates a healthy forest environment). We do have other forms of rattlesnakes, however—three plants whose common names associate them with rattlesnakes. Among them is the Rattlesnake fern, depicted in the featured photo.
Rattlesnake fern, Botrychium virginianum, is a charming small fern, so named perhaps because the fertile spike is said to resemble the tail of a rattlesnake. Such resemblance may have led Cherokee and Chippewa peoples to use the plant as a topical treatment for snakebite (treat likes with likes). Each plant consists of a single sterile leaf directly attached (no stem) to an erect basel stalk; the roots are shallow, fibrous and fleshy. These unusual features tell us that rattlesnake ferns arose early on the planet, before the fern world evolved to arrange spore-producing sporangia as neat little fruit-dots or sori on frond undersurfaces, or to have the hairy, efficiently absorbent roots typical of modern ferns.
Another of our rattlesnakes is Downy rattlesnake plantain, Goodyera pubescens (not named for young tires), blooming now along the streamside trail, where it may be found at any time. One of the eastern U. S.’s most common native orchids, it was the Virginia Native Plant Society’s Wildflower of the Year 2016—http://vnps.org/wildflowers-of-the-year/wildflower-of-the-year-goodyera-pubescens-downy-rattlesnake-plantain/. Its bloom stalk rises in summer from a whorl of evergreen, ground-hugging, dark green leaves with a delicate pattern of light veins. Native Americans used the plant to treat snakebite and other conditions. Here is a composite of it and its flower.
Yet another is Rattlesnake weed, Hieracium venosum, in the aster family. It sends up yellow ray dandelion-like flowers in May on slender leafless stalks. Its ground-hugging basel leaves are marked by a network of purple veins. It is said to grow in high, dry woodlands preferred by rattlesnakes. We see it here on the thin soil above the South Quarry’s south wall, where little else but reindeer lichen thrives. It also has been used to treat snakebites. Although there is no reliable information about its effectiveness against poison (nor of the other two), the plant is rare enough that one is cautioned not to harvest it in any event.
Hikers at the QGs on a recent Saturday morning saw the remains of an enormous spider web stretched across the North Quarry wall trail, with what appeared to be a piece of lichen stuck in one corner. The featured photo of the spider en camouflage was taken (and shared) by QGs hiker Gerry Bishop. Closer inspection revealed the “lichen” to be a Giant lichen orbweaver spider, araneus bicenetenarius—an insect-trapper by night that employs camouflage to hide by day, reflecting what our consulting naturalist Devin Floyd calls “deep evolutionary time, and a ton of predation from reptiles, amphibians, and birds.” Harmless to humans, this one, about 2.5 inches long, was a female—males are much smaller. Here she is in a wider view.
Orbweavers build a new wheel-shaped web each day, using trees or shrubs for support. After the night’s trapping/dining, they consume the web, rest awhile, then start a new one. Part of a large family of orbweaver spiders with many colorful variations, Giant lichen orbweavers are more common in the South, especially in Texas. This one was a first for the Quarry Gardens biota, which now includes some 600 species of plants and animals.
In deep camouflage—photo by Lynne Billman:
Bernice gets the credit for adding this one to our biota list, and I have to admit it’s classier than my last addition, the lowly worm snake.
Doing our bit to add to the Web’s vast store of misinformation, we incorrectly identified the tiny creature in yesterday’s post as a cricket frog (which we also have at QGs). This one is not a different colored cricket frog—it’s a half-inch-long baby toad (that comes from an even smaller tadpole): either an American toad, Anaxyrus americanus, or Fowler’s toad, Anaxyrus fowleri—too young to have warts. Its call is a long “waaaaah” —like most toads. Thanks go to Devin Floyd, of the Center for Urban Habitats, for setting us straight.
Here is CUH’s photo of one of our cricket frogs from last summer—and Devin says they do vary wildly in pattern and color. Curiously, the frog has warts, whereas our toad does not.
Tiny Northern cricket frogs, Acris crepitans, are plentiful and active now along Quarry Gardens trails. America’s smallest vertebrate, this cricket frog may leap up to three feet in a single jump. The featured photo shows one, about half an inch long, posing on the palm of a Quarry Gardens trail hiker. Their patterns vary; many have a green Y-shape on the back and a triangle on the head; this one has black-bordered red-orange spots—cute as a spotted frog. It’s tempting to think of them as “babies” but, of course, baby frogs are tadpoles. If you hear calls that sound like marbles clicking together, you’re hearing cricket frogs.
Tiny and elusive is the Quill fame flower, Phemeranthus teretifolius, pictured above at about twice life size. Related to portulaca, whose leaves it resembles, it grows in thin, dry soils—at the Quarry Gardens, through a patch of asphalt near the Visitor Center, and in a half-inch of gravel on a rock at the overlook platform. Sporadically, a 6-8-inch flower spike produces brilliant half-inch fuchsia blossoms that bloom for about two hours in the afternoon—after which each new flower fades away. So ephemeral are they that not much is known about them. And so elusive of pollinators are they that, lacking them, they self-pollinate.
Tiny and charming are the slender leafless flower wands of Naked flowered tick trefoil, Hylodesmum nudiflorum, along QGs trails this week. Scattered through the dry woods, they are a native in the pea family. More familiar may be their seeds: those flat little green triangles that stick like Velcro to socks and pants legs in late summer. Come and let us send some home with you.
Among the many plants that invite a closer look here in late June is Striped wintergreen, Chimaphila maculata, or pipsissewa. The featured photo is of this diminutive and charming plant in bud, and here is a photo of it in bloom.
It can be found in dry (usually acidic) woods, the leaves visible even through winter. On a bloom stalk about 6 inches tall, the white buds hold for a month or more before opening to a downward-facing flower. Creek Indians called it “pipsisikwau,” meaning “breaks into small pieces,” and used it as a medicine to break down gallstones and kidney stones. Indigenous to the site, we’re seeing it along the stream trail and above the North Quarry.
By the roadside vernal pool across from the North Quarry, is a small group of native Winterberry hollies, Ilex verticillata, added last fall. Their tiny pale green blossoms nestle into the leaf axels on new growth in June, where they elude all but the most observant passer-by. By fall, the female plants will dazzle with brilliant red berries, a treat for birds throughout the winter. This is a plant that usually prefers acidic soil. The Quarry Gardens’ soil pH ranges from 7.2 to 8 in most places (7 being neutral and anything higher being alkaline). Devin Floyd, of the Center for Urban Habitats, collected soil samples this week for a detailed lab analysis to help us understand how such plants are getting the nutrients they need. We’ve noted several instances of apparently healthy dwarfism in acid-loving plants. For example, inspired by our legacy hollies, we’re using the acid-loving American holly, Ilex opaca, which normally can reach a height of 30 feet, as a screening shrub, hoping it will stay a healthy dwarf.
The gardens are young, and much of what is emerging is new to us. New Jersey tea, Ceanothus americanus, is one example. A dense, compact, shrub, it produces small rounded clusters of tiny fragrant white flowers in late spring. During the American Revolution, the dried leaves served as a (caffeine-free) tea substitute, hence the name. It will grow in dry, rocky soil—like much of ours—reaching 2-3 feet tall (if we can get the deer to leave it alone).
Another revelation this month—for one whose home garden includes cultivars of false wild yellow indigo whose blooming spires reach up to 4 feet—was Wild Indigo, Baptisia tinctoria. This perennial shrubby member of the pea family with small yellow blossoms, grows well in dry, sunny spots—like atop the south-facing wall across from the Visitor Center exit. The low mounds may eventually reach 2-3 feet in height. Later this summer, the seed pods will turn black with seeds that rattle inside, accounting for the sometime-name “rattleweed.” It was once used as a substitute for true indigo dye, despite it’s yellow flower.
More than 600 visitors have toured the Quarry Gardens so far this year. Here is Armand last weekend with some of them at the overlook platform.