Portulaca smallii (Small’s Purslane) at the Mitchell Mill State Natural Area

Portulaca smallii (Small’s Purslane) is a rare, protected plant, endemic to the thin soils of granite flatrocks and outcrops in the Piedmont regions of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina (a single site) and Georgia.  The Mitchell Mill State Natural Area contains the largest granitic flatrock community in North Carolina, and Portulaca smallii is present there, scattered through much of the flatrocks.   At Mitchell Mill, P. smallii  is found only in a restricted zone, in thin soil between the open rock and the deeper soils and background vegetation behind it.   In other sites, it has been reported to colonize nearby fields and disturbed areas, but this has not been seen at Mitchell Mill.

P. smallii is a succulent summer annual, a member of the large Purslane family, the Portulacaceae.  The photo below is of an aggregation of plants as they would appear to a passer by.  Notice the close proximity to the exposed rock and the thinness of the soil.

Portulaca smallii Small's Purslane Collection of Plants

Portulaca smallii
Small’s Purslane
Collection of Plants

Closer views of individual plants are illustrated below.

Portulaca smallii Small's Purslane Plant Form

Portulaca smallii
Small’s Purslane
Plant Form

Portulaca smallii Small's Purslane Closer View

Portulaca smallii
Small’s Purslane
Closer View

The seeds of P. smallii primarily germinate in spring and early summer, and flowering often follows closely in a month or so.  The flowers are usually a pale pink, and can be so pale as to appear white at times.  The flowers open for only a short period around noon, and may remain closed all day when the skies are dark with clouds.  The flowers can self-pollinate, which is useful when the period for pollinators to enter the flower is so narrow.  A typical flower blooming in July follows.

Portulaca smallii Small's Purslane Flower

Portulaca smallii
Small’s Purslane
Flower

A wider view shows the leaf shape, which is generally lance-like in outline, and rounded and cylindrical in shape.

Portulaca smallii Small's Purslane Leaves

Portulaca smallii
Small’s Purslane
Leaves

There is another, closely related portulaca at Mitchell Mill – Portulaca pilosa (Pink Purslane, or Rose-flowered Purslane).  This plant is common and widespread in the area, and also grows on the flatrock soils, sometimes directly beside P. smallii.

Portulaca pilosa can be distinguished from Portulaca smallii by its larger, dark pink flowers, and its flatter, wider leaves that often appear like the blades of a fan.

Portulaca pilosa Pink Purslane Flower

Portulaca pilosa
Pink Purslane
Flower

Although the preponderance of germination takes place in spring and summer, P. smallii seeds are capable of germinating throughout the growing period.  Below are photos of seedlings estimated to have germinated in late August or  September.  The scrolling vein patterns stand out clearly in these tiny plants.

Portulaca smallii Small's Purslane Seedling

Portulaca smallii
Small’s Purslane
Seedling

Portulaca smallii Small's Purslane Seedling

Portulaca smallii
Small’s Purslane
Seedling

Both portulaca species at Mitchell Mill begin to decline in October and by Thanksgiving, most plants have disappeared completely or there is only a remnant stem or dead leaves.   Pictured below are several plants that have expired but are still relatively well preserved in late November.  Portulaca smallii is directly below, followed by Portulaca pilosa.

Portulaca smallii Small's Purslane Dead Plant

Portulaca smallii
Small’s Purslane
Expired Plant

 

Portulaca pilosa Pink Purslane Dead Plant

Portulaca pilosa
Pink Purslane
Expired Plant

Portulaca smallii is a protected plant in North Carolina: Status – Threatened (T); Rank -Imperiled (S2); Global Rank – Vulnerable (G3).  Although most plants are found on granite outcrops and flatrocks, they have also been reported on diabase flatrock.

Herb Amyx

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Resilient Carpetweed – Mollugo verticillata

“Why write about weeds?” I am sometimes asked.  Although there are many reasons, here is an interesting one: Weeds are the future.  That is one thesis in Peter Del Tredici’s excellent book Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast – A Field Guide.  “Weeds are the symptoms of environmental degradation, not its cause, and as such they are poised to become increasingly abundant within our lifetime.”

The Carpetweed, Mollugo verticillata, is one of the plants featured in the book, a tough survivor often living in cracks in urban and suburban sidewalks and roads.  The Carpetweed and its allies tolerate dry soils, cycles of extreme heat, elevated levels of CO2 and other contaminants, and even being walked upon.

Below is a typical Carpetweed in late September growing in a crack between a paved parking lot and a concrete wall at the Falls Lake Dam.

Mollugo verticillata Carpetweed

Mollugo verticillata
Carpetweed

Carpetweeds can sometimes form a dense mass when several plants grow together.  In tangled form, they can be easily confused with Bedstraws, which have a similar  form but are in a completely different plant family.

Mollugo verticillata Carpetweed Dense Tangle

Mollugo verticillata
Carpetweed
Dense Tangle

Carpetweeds are summer annuals.  Relatively slow to germinate in the spring, they grow very quickly thereafter. Blooms begin to appear on young plants in June, and blooming continues into late fall.  The photos below were taken in June when the younger plants have a more compact form.

Mollugo verticillata Carpetweed Young Plants

Mollugo verticillata
Carpetweed
Young Plants

Carpetweed flowers have 5 petals, which helps to differentiate them from Bedstraws, whose flowers have 4 petals.  The two are compared below.

Mollugo verticillata Carpetweed Five-petaled Flower

Mollugo verticillata
Carpetweed
Five-petaled Flower

Galium sp. Bedstraw Four-petaled Flower

Galium sp.
Bedstraw
Four-petaled Flower

Carpetweeds are highly variable in size, growth form and leaf shape, which can make them more difficult to identify and separate from Bedstraws.  Bedstraws are in the coffee family, Rubiaceae, while Carpetweeds are in the Molluginaceae family.

Here are a couple of  ways to differentiate the two:

Carpetweeds grow and bloom in the summer and fall (with 5 petals), while Bedstraws are winter annuals that bloom in the spring (with 4 petals).

Both are sprawling plants with whorled leaves.  But Carpetweeds have relatively smooth stems, while most Bedstraws have rough, hairy stems that help them climb and cling for stability.

Herb Amyx

 

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A Variety of Autumn Colors at Falls Lake

As a shade loving, understory tree, Carpinus caroliniana, known as American Hornbeam or Ironwood, is rarely seen as a colorful autumn tree.  But given the right circumstances, particularly enough sun, the normal pale yellow leaves can be replaced by bright red.  The tree below grows right at the forest edge where it gets a long exposure to morning sun.

Carpinus caroliniana American Hornbeam Autumn Color

Carpinus caroliniana
American Hornbeam
Autumn Color

Hawthorn trees are well known for bright fall colors.  The Parsley Hawthorn (Crataegus marshallii) shown below also has a large crop of  berries to go along with the changing leaf colors.  The second photo also illustrates the unique, deeply cleft leaves that are characteristic of this species.

Crataegus marshallii Parsley Hawthorn Heavy Crop of Berries

Crataegus marshallii
Parsley Hawthorn
Heavy Crop of Berries

Crataegus marshallii Parsley Hawthorn Berries and  Unique Leaves

Crataegus marshallii
Parsley Hawthorn
Berries and Unique Leaves

During the autumn when large asters and goldenrods are flowering in the fields, it is easy to miss the blooms of the very small plants that live only a few inches above the soil.  Storksbill, a close relative of our common Carolina Cranesbill, normally blooms in the summer, but individual plants, like this one, may bloom much later.   Storksbill (Erodium cicutarium) is a naturalized, non-native plant with considerable invasive potential.  It is uncommon in the Falls Lake area.  It can be separated  from Carolina Cranesbill (Geranium carolinianum) by its unusual leaves and very long seed pods.  The leaves of Storksbill are compound and resemble a fern or feather.  Cranesbill leaves are deeply cut and palmate in form.

Erodium cicutarium Storksbill Flowers and Fruit

Erodium cicutarium
Storksbill
Flowers and Fruit

Erodium cicutarium Cranesbill Compound Leaves

Erodium cicutarium
Storksbill
Compound Leaves

Porcelainberry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata) has recently joined the army of invasives laying siege to the Falls Lake Dam.  The colorful pink and blue berries provide an atypical fall color in early November.  It is a member of the grape family (Vitaceae) and its leaves closely resemble wild grape leaves.

Ampelopsis brevipedunculata Porcelainberry Leaves and Berries

Ampelopsis brevipedunculata
Porcelainberry
Leaves and Berries

Ampelopsis brevipedunculata Porcelainberry Berries

Ampelopsis brevipedunculata
Porcelainberry
Berries

The Frost Aster, Symphyotrichum pilosum, is one of the most common, widespread, and familiar autumn plants in Eastern North America.  It is so widespread that it has been given many colorful regional names: Hairy White Oldfield Aster, Hairy Aster, Heath Aster, and Frost Aster.   Plants can range greatly in size, and large clusters are often seen along rural roadsides and fields, as illustrated below.

Symphyotrichum pilosum Frost Aster Clump of Plants

Symphyotrichum pilosum
Frost Aster
Clump of Plants

A close look at an individual Frost Aster reveals the extremely pilose ( long, soft hairs ) nature of the plants.  Fine hairs can be seen covering the stem and the margins of the leaves.   Plants can be so hairy that in the early morning dew they appear to be covered in frost – hence the common name Frost Aster.

Symphyotrichum pilosum Frost Aster Leaves and Stem

Symphyotrichum pilosum
Frost Aster
Leaves and Stem

Solidago altissima, the Tall Goldenrod, is one of the most dominant and familiar fall perennials in Eastern North America.  The tall masses of these flowers in open fields, roadsides and powerlines add a bright golden hue to the autumn landscape throughout North Carolina.

Solidago altissima Tall Goldenrod Plant Form

Solidago altissima
Tall Goldenrod
Plant Form

Rhus aromatica, Fragrant Sumac, is generally found in full or partial shade, but needs only a few hours of sun to express  bright red fall colors.   Cultivated varieties are popular in horticultural landscape plantings because they are less invasive than most sumacs, retain a compact shape, and can be bred for spectacular deep red foliage that persists for weeks.

Rhus aromatica Fragrant Sumac

Rhus aromatica
Fragrant Sumac

Herb Amyx

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The First Week of November

“When you go outside to enjoy the crispness of this first week of
November see if you find:

Witch Hazel blooming
http://www.ncwildflower.org/index.php/plants/details/hamamelis-virginiana/

Some Water Striders, Orb Weavers (spiders) and Crickets around. Some
cricket call heard mid-morning
http://ifasgallery.ifas.ufl.edu/entnem/walker/buzz/529sl.wav
I’ve seen some Marbled Orbweavers still hanging on.
http://173.254.8.192/photos/fromNRID.php?pid=1181&size=640&source=

Orb Weaver Spider

Orbweaver Spider

Some Box Turtle and salamander sightings
http://www.herpsofnc.org/herps_of_NC/salamanders/Eurcir/Eur_cir.html

Great Horned Owls calling in late afternoon and on cloudy days
http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Great_Horned_Owl/id

Mammals preparing for winter

The above list is from The Piedmont Almanac – The Central Region: A
Guide to the Natural World by Dave Cook.

Some of the persimmons are tasting good. Might be a good time to find
your stand.

Get outside! The leaf color around here right now is stunning!

Have fun outside!”

Dana Fitz-Simons

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The Unusual Symmetry of Facelis retusa (Trampweed)

In some respects Facelis retusa, known as Trampweed, is a typical weed: a non-native, broadleaf winter annual that came to us from South America.  The term “weed” typically carries with it the connotation of a sprawling, undisciplined, rank and irregular plant.  But Facelis retusa is an exception to the majority, having a highly organized and regular growth form and pattern.

As seen in the photo below, seedling Trampweeds are about an inch across and have the regular,  pinwheel or pinecone shape that they retain until they bloom.  The leaves are short and blunt,  are wider at the tip than at the base, and end in a sharp point.  Trampweeds are also floccose, a botanical term meaning covered with tufts of white, wooly hairs – illustrated below.

Facelis retusa Trampweed Seedling Plant

Facelis retusa
Trampweed
Seedling Plant

Trampweeds often grow in clusters and tend to form colonies that merge into each other.

Facelis retusa Trampweed Multiple Plants

Facelis retusa
Trampweed
Multiple Plants

Below is a larger plant formed by the growth and branching  of at least two individual plants.

Facelis retusa Trampweed Continued Growth and Branching

Facelis retusa
Trampweed
Continued Growth and Branching

Colonies continue to grow and branch, and will eventually merge together into mats 3 or 4 feet across if left undisturbed.

Facelis retusa Trampweed Spreading Growth

Facelis retusa
Trampweed
Spreading Growth

Horticultural sedums sometimes have a similar form, making it difficult to recognize that invading Trampweeds are present.   A garden sedum is shown below.

Horticultural Sedum

Horticultural Sedum

Facelis retusa is a member of the aster family, the Asteraceae, and has flowers typical of many members of  that family.   The flower petals (the ray flowers) are absent, so the plants have only the disk flowers, which are small and delicate and resemble miniature paint brushes.  After the bloom the tiny seeds (achenes), attached to fine hairs, blow away in the breeze.  Tufts of fine, cottony hair can be seen on the ground around plants that are discharging seeds.

Facelis retusa Trampweed Flowering

Facelis retusa
Trampweed
Flowering

Trampweeds are very common in the Falls Lake area. All of the photographs were taken at the Falls Lake Dam, overlooking Falls Lake, or in the nearby area.     In an odd anomaly, distribution maps do not list Facelis retusa  in any of the Falls Lake counties or the counties surrounding them.  The best explanation for this may simply be a lack of interest;  no impetus to trigger the documentation of a new county plant.

Herb Amyx

 

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North Carolina’s Leaf-flowers: Phyllanthus caroliniensis and Phyllanthus urinaria

Phyllanthus caroliniensis , whose common name is Carolina Leaf-flower, is a native plant, a warm season annual that spreads rapidly and is considered a broadleaf weed.  It  characteristically likes wet areas like roadside ditches and low areas of lawn.  Carolina Leaf-flower has a traditional, uniform leaf and branching form, as shown in the photo below of a mature plant.  The leaves are widely spaced on the stems, so the plants never have a dense appearance.

Phyllanthus caroliniensis Carolina Leaf-flower Plant Form

Phyllanthus caroliniensis
Carolina Leaf-flower
Plant Form

This plant is often hard to recognize, because it rarely stands alone, as in the above shot.  More often it is part of a cluster of weeds and grasses and is difficult to separate visually from the foliage, as seen below.

Phyllanthus caroliniensis Carolina Leaf-flower Nestled Among Other Plants

Phyllanthus caroliniensis
Carolina Leaf-flower
Nestled Among Other Plants

The following is a closer view of the stem and leaf patterns.

Phyllanthus caroliniensis Carolina Leaf-flower Stems and Leaves

Phyllanthus caroliniensis
Carolina Leaf-flower
Stems and Leaves

Both of North Carolina’s Leaf-flowers are incredibly persistent.  This is partly due to the fact that they flower and produce fruit continuously from May into November.  The flowers are located at the leaf axils and are very tiny, as illustrated below.

Phyllanthus caroliniensis Carolina Leaf-flower Flower

Phyllanthus caroliniensis
Carolina Leaf-flower
Flower

Phyllanthus urinaria , a species introduced from Asia, is the second North Carolina Leaf-flower.  Its common name is Chamberbitter or Stonebreaker, due to its use as an herbal medication for urinary tract stones.  Its effectiveness as an herbal medication could be debated, but its classification as an extremely difficult WEED is unquestioned among gardeners.  It is a fast grower, is very drought tolerant, and it flowers and produces large quantities of fruit in just 2 weeks.  It is a warm season weed and does not usually germinate until May, which at least gives gardeners a break in the early spring.  The stems are tough, so the plant is relatively easy to pull out of the soil intact, but the root system hangs onto a large clot of soil when it is pulled.

The typical plant form is shown below.  It is commonly confused with Wild Sensitive Plant (Chamaecrista nictitans) and seedling Mimosa Trees (Albizzia julibrissin)

Phyllanthus urinaria Chamberbitter Plant Form

Phyllanthus urinaria
Chamberbitter
Plant Form

Its feathery, fine-leaved appearance makes it easier to see on the ground.  Also, it prefers the rich soils of gardens and greenway shoulders, where competition with weeds is reduced.

Phyllanthus urinaria  Chamberbitter Plant in Litter

Phyllanthus urinaria
Chamberbitter
Plant in Litter

A comparison of the plant form of both species is shown below.  On the left is Phyllanthus urinaria and on the right is Phyllanthus caroliniensis.  The leaves of P. urinaria are longer and more densely arrayed on the stems; the leaves of P. caroliniensis are ovoid and loosely arrayed on the stems.

L: Phyllanthus urinaria R: Phyllanthus caroliniensis

L: Phyllanthus urinaria
R: Phyllanthus caroliniensis

A closer comparison of the leaves follows:

L: Phyllanthus urinaria R: Phyllanthus caroliniensis Leaves

L: Phyllanthus urinaria
R: Phyllanthus caroliniensis
Leaves

Leaf-flowers were formerly placed in the Spurge Family (Euphorbiaceae) but now have been given their own family – Phyllanthaceae.  In spite of the appearance, the stem and leaves are not compound leaves with leaflets; what appear to be small leaflets are actually true leaves.   As a general rule, compound leaflets will not have flowers at the base.  Thus the common name “Leaf-flower” refers to the flowers at the base of true leaves.  Also, after the flower blooms, the retained calyx of the fruit looks a lot like a leaf, which contributes to the Leaf-flower name.

Herb Amyx

 

 

 

 

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Flowering Now in Central North Carolina: Verbesina occidentalis (Crownbeard) and Its Relatives

Verbesina occidentalis (Crownbeard) is arguably one of the most visible flowering plants in North Carolina.  The tall stems and yellow blooms of this native perennial are hard to miss due to the sheer numbers of plants blooming.  Crownbeard seems to be everywhere: in urban lots, suburban parks, and rural fields, ditches and roadsides.

Crownbeard is a tall plant, often over 6 feet, and has a very distinct, disheveled, almost ragged bloom.  The bright ray flowers are sparse and are not uniformly placed around the disk, making the bloom look uneven and out of balance.  Crownbeard has a distinctively winged stem and opposite leaves.  See the photographs below of the flowers and the opposite leaves and winged stem.

Verbesina occidentalis Crownbeard Flowers

Verbesina occidentalis
Crownbeard
Flowers

Verbesina occidentalis Crownbeard Leaf

Verbesina occidentalis
Crownbeard
Leaf

Verbesina occidentalis Crownbeard Opposite Leaves and Winged Stem

Verbesina occidentalis
Crownbeard
Opposite Leaves and Winged Stem

Verbesina alternifolia (Wingstem) is a close relative of Crownbeard and also has a distinctive winged stem, but its leaves are alternate.  It too is found in large numbers in central North Carolina, but it prefers wetter soils and tends to occur near rivers and streams.  However, Crownbeard and Wingstem sometimes appear together in powerlines and ditches.  From a distance, they look very much alike – tall stems and bright, yellow flowers.   But they are relatively easy to tell apart.  In addition to having alternate leaves, Wingstem also has a distinctive flower that looks a lot like the Green Headed Coneflower – Rudbeckia laciniata.   The center of Wingstem’s flower becomes prominent, while the ray petals gradually droop, giving it a coneflower-like appearance.  See below.

Verbesina alternifolia Wingstem Flowers

Verbesina alternifolia
Wingstem
Flowers

The disk flowers have fascinating curled, bifurcated stigmas, as shown below.

Verbesina alternifolia Wingstem Bifurcated, Curled Stigmas

Verbesina alternifolia
Wingstem
Bifurcated, Curled Stigmas

In older flowers, the rays droop even more and gradually hang straight down.

Verbesina alternifolia Wingstem Drooping Flower Rays

Verbesina alternifolia
Wingstem
Drooping Flower Rays

The alternate leaves and winged stems are shown below.

Verbesina alternifolia Wingstem Alternate Leaves and Winged Stem

Verbesina alternifolia
Wingstem
Alternate Leaves and Winged Stem

 

Verbesina alternifolia Wingstem Winged Stem

Verbesina alternifolia
Wingstem
Winged Stem

A third close relative, Verbesina virginica (Frostweed), is very similar to Wingstem, as both have a winged stem and alternate leaves.  It is  much less common than Wingstem and Crownbeard  in central North Carolina.  Frostweed is easiest to differentiate when it blooms, since its flowers are white rather than yellow.

Verbesina virginica Frostweed Flowers

Verbesina virginica
Frostweed
Flowers

Verbesina virginica Frostweed Closer View of Flowers

Verbesina virginica
Frostweed
Closer View of Flowers

Pictured below are the alternate leaves and the winged stem of Frostweed.  The wings of all three plants are formed by the continuation of the leaf petioles down the stem.  Petioles are the stalks that attach the leaf blade to the stem.  The petioles can be seen forming the wings in the photo below.

Verbesina virginica Frostweed Alternate Leaves and Winged Stem

Verbesina virginica
Frostweed
Alternate Leaves and Winged Stem

Frostweed has another fascinating property, one that is very rare.  In winter, under the right conditions of an overnight freeze, the protruding stems of Frostweed form ice sculptures as freezing water is extruded through the fibers of the stem.  This phenomenon has been popularly called crystallofolia.   These natural ice sculptures are amazingly beautiful and can be seen in the links below.

http://w3.biosci.utexas.edu/prc/VEVI3/crystallofolia.html

http://www.kuriositas.com/2012/12/frost-flowers-natures-exquisite-ice.html

Herb Amyx

 

 

 

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