Thursday, October 1, 2015

Programs Offered by Illinois Botanizer

Here is a list of programs offered by Illinois Botanizer.

 1.    Wild Native Ferns of Illinois
 2.    Wild Orchids of Illinois
 3.     Spring Ephemeral Wildflowers
 4.      Flora and Fauna of Southern Illinois
 5.      Rare Plants and Unique Natural Areas of Illinois
 6.      Natural Divisions of Illinois
 7.      Botany 101
 8.      Natural Communities of Illinois
 9.      Trees and Shrubs of Illinois
10.     Plant Monitoring 101
      Please contact me at to schedule a program for your group!


Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Floating Corn

I witnessed a small phenomenon today
something floating in the sky.
It was somehow fluttering
and gracefully falling.

A huge highway lined on both sides
by a thin strip of brown.
The chicory, mustards, the sweet clovers,
and those damned yellow composites,
brought to end by the mower blade
and left to bake in the sun.

Solidago in a bloom of yellow love
speaks of late September.
Puffy clouds dot the azure sky,
corn abounds, but not yet harvested,
singing along to Bob Seger on the radio.

The scene is set so that you may appreciate,
my glory and delight,
when I saw that strange sight,
half a cornstalk sheath,
then slowly descending,
behind the bridge.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Beech Blight Aphids

     On the most recent Wildflower Walk at Bell Smith Springs we stumbled upon a furry white insect on the twigs of a beech tree, with a few spilling over on the leaves.  I refer to them as boogie woogie bugs, but they are more commonly known as beech blight aphids (Grylloprociphilus imbricator). Whatever you call them, these aphids are a species of true bugs. belonging to the order Hemiptera and the family Aphididae.
Beech Blight Aphids (Grylloprociphilus imbricator)
     The white waxy filaments are secreted by the aphids and make them unappealing to prey.  They wave their bodies around, fanning the cotton-like tufts when they are disturbed, reminding predators not to bother them.  These fascinating insects feed on the sap of the beech trees, but do not cause any major lasting damage to them.  The aphids are particularly interested in the protein contained in the plant sap.  Yet most of the plant sap is water and carbohydrates, basically sugary water, As they pierce the branch with their specialized mouthparts, the high pressure of the liquid in the vascular tissue causes sap to shoot out of the tree and into the insect, in this case, the aphid.  This causes the previously ingested watery, sugary sap to shoot quickly through the digestive tract and out of the body of the aphid.  The resulting liquid is called honeydew, or one could think of it as aphid excrement.
     Nature has a way of letting nothing go to waste.  One organism's waste is another's treasure.  And such it is with the aphid poop.  It attracts a black mold called the beech blight sooty mold (Scolias spongiosa).  This mold is a specialist, as it only grows on the honeydew of the beech blight aphid.  This species of aphid likes to congregate, which concentrates the honeydew.  This is why the black sooty mold grows in large clumps, versus other black mold, which is restricted to just a light layer on the leaves because of solitary aphid species.   
     Yet another example of how nature is amazing.  Watch a short video here.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Chigger Poem

Oh why oh why do there have to be chiggers
for a reaction in me they sure do trigger
The many little red bites feel like Braille
And when they itch they make me want to wail!

If you like evolution, then you must love the chigger
For they would not be as bad if they happened to be bigger
But an invisible invertebrate has all the advantage
And leaves me with little else than to put on a bandage.

I guess I could prevent them by staying on the trail
Or if I took more time to scratch them with my nail
I could spray myself with nasty chemicals and deet
Or stay inside all together and beat the summer heat!

But that is not my style, I was born to explore
To see the nature and learn from it more
Plus if there were less chiggers there’d be more tourists
And it would be impossible to be a nature purist.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Cypripedium parviflorum var. pubescens

    Yesterday was a magical day for me.  I feel like a junkie who has to get his daily fix and my fix is photographing rare or showy wildflowers.  Or better yet, rare AND showy!  But like an addict, my tolerance is increasing, leading me to seek out more and more exhilarating finds.  However, I am a responsible botanist, so I know when to lay off and take a break from my plant excursions.  Which gives me a chance to write about them.
     I've encountered yellow lady slipper orchid plants (Cypripedium parviflorum var. pubescens) only 3 times in my extensive surveys across southern Illinois from 2008 to the present, and never in flower.  Renowned IDNR botanist John Schwegman told me he no longer knows where any yellow lady slipper orchids grow in the wild in southern Illinois.  Although these were once considered the most common orchid in North America, its distribution in Illinois seems to be decreasing, mostly due to habitat loss and poaching. On a survey in a remote area of Crab Orchard Wildlife Refuge in Williamson County in 2011, I encountered a patch of yellow lady slipper orchids, but since it was late summer, they were not in flower.  I have sought to photograph them in flower at this location ever since.  I’ve tried 3 times in the past 3 years and I’ve always been too early or too late.  This year was to be the year!
     I planned to stop and search for the orchids on my way north out of town.  Due to circumstances beyond my control, it was late in the afternoon before I made it to the Visitor’s Center at Crab Orchard Wildlife Refuge.  I asked for a gate key, but they had all been given out for the day.  Since I know the staff there, one offered up his key, but warned me that the shooting range at the nearby prison was active that day, and visitors were not recommended.  I mentioned that this was the only day I could go and check on the orchids, and that it was of upmost importance.  He said it was up to me so of course I went! 
     I headed into the woods to search for the orchids and although I knew where they were, it took me longer to get to the spot then I remembered.  The day was getting late and I had to return with the key before the office closed and I was dripping blood from my ear because I ripped it open on a multiflora rose bush in my haste to get to the orchid spot, but at last I came upon the wonderful sight of the incredible beauty of the flowering yellow lady slipper orchids!

Large Yellow Lady Slipper Orchids (Cypripedium parviflorum var. pubescens
     Other states can boast all they want about how easy it is to find this species, but in Illinois they are hard to find so I find immense joy in knowing this secret spot deep in the woods on a rich north-facing slope loaded with Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), Broad Beech Fern (Phegopteris hexagonoptera), Ginseng (Panax quinquefolia), Bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora), Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum pedatum), and Puttyroot Orchid (Aplectrum hyemale).  I made a genuine and thorough mediation of appreciation at the location and made my way back for the long drive up north.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Sanguinaria canadensis

     Spring is a splendid time of year for many reasons and one of those reasons is spring ephemeral wildflowers.  Southern Illinois is a tremendous place for spring ephemeral wildflowers and each year I check in on my buddies to see how they are doing.
     One of the earliest wildflowers is Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis).  The odd-looking leaves are usually just barely emerged when the wildflowers bloom and they curl around the stem like a baby clinging to their mother.  While the flowers do not last very long, the leaves persist well into the summer.

     This plant is called Bloodroot because the roots are a deep red color and the stem contains thick reddish colored sap that was used as a dye by indigenous people.  Indeed, when the stem is cut, the sap quickly coagulates like blood does, and the wound begins to heal.  "Sanguinaria" comes from the Latin word "sanguis" which means "blood" and "canadensis" refers to the plant being described in or near Canada.
     This plant is native to North America and it is the only species in the genus Sanguinaria. It is a surprising member of the Papaveraceae, the Poppy family, and like poppy plants, it contains alkaloids closely related to morphine.  In fact, the primary toxin is called sanguinarine.  Although indigenous people made a tea from the roots and even chewed them, they are poisonous and should not be consumed.
     Bloodroot seeds, like many other spring ephemerals, have seeds that are tough and covered with elaiosomes, which are fleshy appendages that ants love.  The ants carry the elaiosome-laden seeds back to their nest where they feed them to the maturing larvae. The seeds themselves are of little use to the ants, and the ants simply dispose of the seeds in the waste area, which includes dead ants and their feces.  The area might not sound pleasant, but it's rich in nutrients and makes a great place for the seeds to germinate.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Erigenia bulbosa

Harbinger-of-Spring (Erigenia bulbosa)

     The aptly named Harbinger-of-spring (Erigenia bulbosa) is one of the earliest spring wildflowers to bloom in Illinois.  “Erigenia” is Greek and means “born in the spring” while “bulbosa” means “bearing bulbs,” in this case referring not to true bulbs but to the tubers of the plant.
     This plant is in the carrot family (Apiaceae), which is a family also called umbellifers because the flowers of species in this family are arranged in an umbel.  An umbel is a type of inflorescence that is either flat or convex in its overall shape and the stalks of the groups of flowers all arise from a common point.  The word “umbel” comes from Latin and means “shadow” and it is from this the word “umbrella” is also derived.
     Harbinger-of-spring is a spring ephemeral wildflower.  Spring ephemerals need lots of energy for growth and reproduction, yet they grow in rich woods underneath a mostly full canopy of mature trees.  In order to obtain the light needed for photosynthesis, these plants grow in the early spring, when unobstructed light reaches the forest floor and temperatures are above freezing.  This allows the spring ephemerals to emerge and produce flowers before the canopy trees grow their leaves and shade out the ground.

     This plant is also referred to as pepper-and-salt, referring to the speckled appearance of the purplish anthers and the white petals.  It is the only species in the genus Erigenia.

Harbinger-of-Spring (Erigenia bulbosa)

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Heron Pond in Winter

     It has long been a dream of mine to visit Heron Pond Nature Preserve in the winter.  However, whenever there is a large snow event in southern Illinois, there is a strong incentive to stay indoors.  But I've always wondered how difficult it would be to get into the swamps of the Cache River wetlands in the winter.  This week I finally got my chance.

     After receiving 8-12 inches of snow in southern Illinois on February 16 in the year of 2015, I made it out to explore Heron Pond.  The minor road leading to the preserve from Belknap road was not plowed at all, but other vehicles had traveled the road and compacted the snow.  I was able to make it up the hill to Max Hutchison's house with relative ease in my all-wheel drive Subaru, but the road beyond this point was untrammeled by vehicle or by human foot.

My car at Max's house and the untouched snow on the road to Heron Pond
     I was surprised by this since I was not able to make it out there until the day after the snowstorm.  I guess I figured others had the same foolish endeavor to walk out to see winter work its magic on Heron Pond.  Clearly the locals and other nature lovers were far more sensible than I.  I parked my vehicle in Max’s driveway, checked in with the Hutchison family, and geared up for the hike through the snow.

     Unfortunately, I did not have my cross country skis or snowshoes with me, because the conditions were perfect for their use.  How amazing would it have been to ski out to see a Cypress swamp!  But instead I was left to lift foot after foot into the deep powder and it seemed like forever just to reach the parking lot.

Bridge over the Cache River and the trailhead
     I walked down the hill and over the bridge.  The Cache River was frozen except the spots just after the rock weirs.  These are structures created to slow down the flow of the river, to reduce stream downcutting in the upper reaches of river and to reduce sediment transfer to the lower reaches of the river. 

Rock weirs on the Cache River
     The snow made it easy to see the movements of animals.  I noticed abundant deer and squirrel tracks, and even some mink or otter activity along the river.  I spotted a red-headed woodpecker, brown thrush, some mallards, and an owl that flew off as I approached the boardwalk.  It was marvelous to see such a prized and highly visited spot in such unadulterated beauty.  The solitude made me think I was in a vast wilderness, yet I was just a couple miles from my car.

My tracks on the boardwalk and the virgin powder on the trails and stepping stones
     Max advised me to not go out on the ice, although he admitted that the best time to explore the swamp was when it was frozen.  Since the boardwalk extends into the swamp, I did not feel the need to walk out on the ice, although it did look plenty thick.  Just as I was leaving, the sun poked through the Cypress trees and I got the shot I was looking for. 

Cypress Swamp at Heron Pond Nature Preserve
     On the way back to my vehicle, I reveled in the fact that the only human tracks in the snow were mine.  This is truly a magical place and I was truly elated to experience it in a whole new element.  Once I returned to Max’s house, I had to stop in and what do you know, of course they insisted I stay for chili and cornbread.  Who could turn down such a request?

Chili and cornbread at the Hutchison's

Friday, February 13, 2015


If you are out in the woods this time of year you may have noticed that while most trees have shed their leaves for the season, there are a few trees that have not. These trees have leaves that turn brown, but do not fall off, and instead dangle in the breeze and stand out among the many tree branches that have lost their leaves for the season.
Trees and shrubs in the Beech family (Fagaceae), the Hazelnut family (Corylaceae), and the Witchhazel family (Hamamelidaceae) retain their leaves in the dormant season through a phenomenon called marcescence. Marcescence means “withering but not falling off” and it refers to plants that retain their leaves through the winter. Normally, plants develop an abscission layer, where the connection to the vascular tissue is cut, and this is what causes flower petals, leaves, and fruits to be released from an individual plant. But plants that exhibit marcescence do not develop an abscission layer. This allows the plant to sequester the nutrients trapped in the leaves, instead of allowing them to fall to the forest floor to decay. It is also thought that marcescence evolved to deter herbivory. This makes sense since marcescence tends to only occur on young trees. Larger trees shed their leaves since herbivores cannot reach them.
Regardless of the reason, marscesence makes it easy to identify young beech trees in the forest, as demonstrated by the photo.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Winter Tree ID basics

Woody plants for the most part refers to trees and shrubs, and even though woody plants are dormant this time of year, they can still be identified. While most people find winter tree ID to be difficult, there are several characteristics that make it possible.
The first thing to notice is the leaf arrangement along the stem, which can be alternate, opposite, or whorled. “But it’s winter and there are no leaves!” you might exclaim. Well, there are clues you can look at to determine this. The process by which a tree sheds its leaves is termed abscission, which is a word that comes from Latin and means “to cut away.” When a leaf detaches from the branch, a scar remains visible at the point of attachment.
Observe the leaf scars on the twig in the photo. They are arranged in pairs or “opposite” from each other. This makes identification easy because there are not many woody plants that have opposite leaves and you can remember them with this simple mnemonic device: MAD Cap Buck Horse.
“MAD” stands for maple, ash, and dogwood. All species of maples (Acer spp.), ashes (Fraxinus spp.), and dogwoods (Cornus spp.) have opposite leaves, except for the appropriately named alternate-leaved dogwood (Cornus alternifolia). “Cap” stand for Caprifoliaceae, which is the honeysuckle family. All species in this family have opposite leaves and in Illinois the woody species include honeysuckle (Diervilla spp. and Lonicera spp.), elderberry (Sambucus spp.), coralberry (Symphoricarpos spp.), and different species in the genus Viburnum. “Buck” stands for buckeye (Aesculus spp.) and “Horse” stands for Horse Chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum). There are very few possible exceptions, and most of these only look opposite (but are really whorled). Despite the exceptions, the vast majority of the time a woody plant with opposite leaves will be one of these options. The twig in this photo is Horse Chestnut, a non-native species that has been commonly planted in the US.
Also present in this photo, on the surface of the leaf scars, are bundle scars. This marks the severed connection of the vascular bundles that transport food and water between the twig and the leaf. This species has seven distinct bundle scars arranged in a U-shaped pattern. In fact, the bundle scar is shaped like a horseshoe, which may be where it gets its name.
Other features visible along the twig are dots called lenticels. Lenticels are present on some species and they are small openings that allow for gas exchange between the twig and the atmosphere. Near the left end of the twig in the photo is a group of rings that are called bud scale scars. This indicates the end of the previous season’s growth. You can actually determine the age of young trees by looking at the bud scale scars.
Lastly are the buds. Horse Chestnut has very large and resinous buds. Buds at the end of the branch are called terminal buds and buds that emerge from the side of the twig are called lateral buds. This marks the end of the current season’s growth and is where new twig growth will start from during the next growing season.
Opposite leaves, seven bundle scars, broad leaf scars at least ¼ inch across, with large (up to one inch) sticky buds keys out to Horse Chestnut.
Now that wasn’t that hard was it?