Low Spearwort – Ranunculus pusillus – at the Mitchell Mill State Natural Area

Low Spearwort (Ranunculus pusillus) is a common inhabitant of wet and marshy lowlands and ditches in North Carolina, especially in the Central Piedmont and Coastal Plain.  It is a native plant, and a member of the large Buttercup family, the Ranunculaceae.  Its life cycle and adaptability have allowed it to colonize wet areas and depression pools on the granitic flatrocks of the Mitchell Mill State Natural Area.

The plants themselves are quite small and the flowers are inconspicuous, having only 1 to 3 small petals.  The basal leaves are round to oval and the stem leaves point upright and are spear-shaped, giving rise to the name Spearwort.  Below is a colony of Low Spearwort in full bloom in April of last year.

Ranunculus pusillus Low Spearwort Mature, Blooming Colony

Ranunculus pusillus
Low Spearwort
Mature, Blooming Colony

Below is the same colony as it appears now in January 2015.  Only round-leaved basal rosettes are present at this time.

Ranunculus pusillus Low Spearwort Colony in Winter

Ranunculus pusillus
Low Spearwort
Colony in Winter

Ranunculus pusillus  is separated from other  members of the Buttercup family by having unlobed leaves at all stages of development.    A closer view of the basal leaves follows.

Ranunculus pusillus Low Spearwort Basal Rosettes in Early Winter

Ranunculus pusillus
Low Spearwort
Basal Rosettes in Early Winter

A leaf of Ranunculus bulbosus, the Bulbous Buttercup, is pictured below, demonstrating the more typical appearance of a buttercup leaf with lobes.

Ranunculus bulbosus Bulbous Buttercup Lobed Leaves

Ranunculus
bulbosus
Bulbous Buttercup
Lobed Leaves

Low Spearwort can even colonize depression pools out on the granite flatrock surface.  Here, the lower leaves of two Spearworts are pointing down to a small, developing Elf Orpine (Diamorpha smallii).  Growing up through the Spearwort on the right is an early winter form of Appalachian Stitchwort (Minuartia glabra).  Another can be seen at the upper left corner of the photo.

Ranunculus pusillus Low Spearwort Basal Rosettes in a Solution Pool

Ranunculus pusillus
Low Spearwort
Basal Rosettes in a Solution Pool

Following is a view of a Low Spearwort colony at a greater distance, showing its location on the edge of a flatrock.  As summer approaches, and the Spearwort colony begins to wane, Portulaca smallii (Small’s Purslane) will become noticeable in the thin mud at the margins around the colony and also within the colony.

Ranunculus pusillus Low Spearwort Wider View of Colony

Ranunculus pusillus
Low Spearwort
Wider View of Colony

The Mitchell Mill State Natural Area offers the opportunity to observe the interactions between plants endemic to the flatrocks, and regional plants like Low Spearwort, that are able to exploit the wet environment and co-exist on the granite flatrocks.

Herb Amyx

 

 

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Black Vultures Are Thriving in North Carolina

For years, the densely forested areas of the B. W. Wells State Recreation Area have been home to nesting Black Vultures and Turkey Vultures.  Until the past few years, the vultures often nested in remnant buildings on abandoned homesites.  But most of these have now collapsed from age and falling trees, causing the vultures to use nesting sites like hollow trees and sheltered ground in dense thickets.  One such site near an abandoned road has been used by a pair of Black Vultures every winter for the past 4 years.  The hollow tree pictured below is completely open at the top.  The birds lay their eggs directly on the ground with fallen leaves serving as the only lining.  Black Vultures have been on the nest in this tree as early as January 29th, but eggs were probably not layed until weeks later.

Hollow Tree Used By Nesting Black Vultures

Hollow Tree Used By Nesting Black Vultures

Ground Nest Within Hollow Tree

Ground Nest Within Hollow Tree

When the nest is occupied by one of the Black Vulture pair, the other stays in the trees overhead and does not fly away when the nest is approached.  This area of the B. W. Wells S.R.A. is seldom used by hikers, so the nesting site is rarely disturbed.

Black Vulture Keeping Watch on Nesting Tree

Black Vulture Keeping Watch on Nesting Tree

Black Vulture numbers are rising in North Carolina.  An article published in 2007 in the Journal of Wildlife Management (Demographics of Black Vultures in North Carolina by Blackwell and Avery) presented a 14 year study in which Black Vultures experienced an annual rate of increase of 10.6% per year.  The authors concluded “The North Carolina Black Vulture population is experiencing high rates of survival and fertility, potentially breeding at an age younger than previously assumed, and growing rapidly.”

More recently, the Annual Breeding Bird Count sponsored by the Patuxent (Md) Wildlife Research Center showed that Black Vultures in North Carolina increased by 150% from 2000 to 2010.  Turkey Vulture populations increased as well, but not quite as dramatically.  Although gradual climatic warming trends are often mentioned, historically high deer populations and the adaptability of Black Vultures to humans and suburban habitats are very  important factors in the population increases.

Black Vultures are not migratory, but populations shift regionally, resulting in high concentrations of birds at various times.  This is particularly evident in the eastern portions of the Falls Lake area.

Vultures are the winners in the inevitable clash between dense deer concentrations and heavy suburban traffic.  Seen below are concentrations of Black Vultures at a roadside deer kill near a suburban business park in Wake Forest, NC.  The vultures ignored the pedestrian traffic under the trees and directly adjacent to where they were feeding.  Notice the white wing tips on the birds at the top of the tree.

Black Vultures in a Tree Near a Deer Kill

Black Vultures in a Tree Near a Deer Kill

Black Vultures at a Suburban Office Park

Black Vultures at a Suburban Office Park

In a scene reminiscent of the African veldt, a large concentration (approx. 55) of Black Vultures gather at a deer carcass just off of Capital Blvd, one of the heaviest traveled roads in the Raleigh, NC area.

Black Vultures at a Deer Carcass Near Heavy Traffic

Black Vultures at a Deer Carcass Near Heavy Traffic

Closer telephoto views confirmed that all the birds were Black Vultures; no Turkey Vultures seen.

Large Concentration of Black Vultures at a Deer Carcass

Large Concentration of Black Vultures at a Deer Carcass

In the town of Wake Forest, N.C., large concentrations of vultures roost overnight in stands of dense pines, and then fly to the town water tower to catch the early morning sun.  Telephoto shots of  each level of the tower, front and back, help to get an accurate count and to identify the species of vulture.  Over 100 have been seen on the tower in several past counts beginning in 2011, with a ratio of approximately 3 Black Vultures for every 1 Turkey Vulture.  In a grim bit of irony, the water tower overlooks the Senior Center.

Town of Wake Forest Water Tower  with Vultures

Town of Wake Forest Water Tower with Vultures

There are a number of ways the Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus) can be distinguished from its relative the Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura).  The Turkey Vulture has a red head and the Black Vulture has a black head.  The Black Vulture is a heavier bodied bird than the Turkey, with a shorter wingspan and a shorter tail, as seen below.  It also has a black bill with a bone-colored tip.

Black Vulture

Black Vulture

Soaring Black Vultures have distinctive white patches on the tips of their wings.

Soaring Black Vulture Seen From Below

Soaring Black Vulture Seen From Below

The entire trailing edge of the Turkey Vulture’s wing is white, as shown by the bird below drying its wings in the morning sun.

Turkey Vulture Drying Wings

Turkey Vulture Drying Wings

Additional field identification tips are:

Black Vultures flap their wings much more when soaring than Turkey Vultures.

Black Vultures tend to soar higher, with wings held flat and slightly forward.  Turkey Vulture wings are held at a dihedral angle (forming a V shape, with the wing angles slightly above the horizontal).

Turkey Vultures teeter slightly from side to side when soaring, while Black Vultures tend to remain stable.

The vulture counts referenced in the article are part of the Falls Lake Bird Count, held three times a year – spring, fall and winter (Christmas Bird Count) throughout the Falls Lake area.  These counts are affiliated with the Citizen Science initiatives of the National Audubon Society and the Carolina Bird Club.  This winter marks the 115th consecutive year for the Christmas Bird Count.

Herb Amyx

 

 

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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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