Sometimes You Get a Little Lucky

Walking along the C&O Canal Towpath with a new lens on the camera (70-200mm), I spotted a nice wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) along the bank. Camera was at f/8, ISO 100 (my default settings). I adjusted the focal length to frame the picture, set the shutter speed at 1/125s, focused, et voila! A hummingbird decided to check out the flower.

Less then one second later it was in flight again. It’s the blur on the upper right.

If it had stayed any longer I would have tried again with different settings. Oh well.

I’m so behind. I have lots of pictures to post but just not a lot of time to write. Hopefully there will be more content here in the coming weeks.

Rosemallows

Of the four species of Hibiscus (Malvaceae) that grow in the Maryland Piedmont, two are alien (rose of Sharon and flower of an hour), and two are native. Starting in mid-July every year, I spend hours scouring the banks of the Potomac looking for these big, showy flowers.

Not that they’re hard to find. Despite being listed S3 (“At moderate risk of extinction or extirpation due to a fairly restricted range, relatively few populations…”), I see Hibiscus laevis (halberd-leaved rosemallow) by the hundreds.

The tricky thing is getting a good angle to shoot them. Halberd-leaved rosemallow is a wetland obligate, and with the flowers usually facing the river, the water level has to be low for me to get close enough to take decent pictures.

 

Hibiscus moscheutos (swamp rosemallow, crimson-eye rosemallow) is also a wetland obligate. It should be more common than H. laevis, but before this summer I had only seen them in the C&O Canal. This year I found several along the river banks.

The flowers of both species are about the same size. H laevis generally sports pink flowers, but they can be very pale, almost white, while H. moscheutos flowers are generally pure white. Both have a crimson throat. Color isn’t a reliable way to distinguish between them, though. Instead look at the leaves.

 

 

<—Hibiscus laevis leaf

 

 

 

 

Hibiscus moscheutos leaf—>

 

Even though I’m particularly attracted to small, subtle, hidden things, there’s something compelling about the rosemallows.

Love ’em or Hate ’em: the Milkweeds

True to their name, milkweeds are both milky and weedy. “Milk” refers to the white latex found within, a chemical defense against herbivory. And the plants are weedy: some species are on US state and Canadian province weed lists. Farmers hate them because many species are tall plants with massive root systems that can out-compete crops.  But most of the rest of us love them for attracting bees and butterflies.

I love them because the flowers themselves are fantastically complex.

The inflorescence is an umbel. Each individual flower consists of five sepals and five petals, and in most species five hoods and five horns. The hoods enclose the gynostegium, a complex structure consisting of fused stamens and styles that is unique to the genus Asclepias. It gets even more complicated than that; if you’re interested in the topic, there’s a detailed but not too technical explanation at the Orbis Environmental Consulting website.

The genus Asclepias was once placed in its own family, Asclepiadaceae, which is what you’ll find in older texts. Currently it’s place in the Apocynaceae (dogbane family), subfamily Asclepiadoideae. A dozen species of Asclepias can be found in Maryland, all native and all but one occurring in the Piedmont.

Asclepias incarnata (swamp milkweed) is found in most of the US except Alabama, Arizona, and the Pacific coast states, and in the eastern half of Canada. It prefers wet soils, and can grow two to six feet tall. The leaves are narrower than those of most other milkweed species. In the Potomac Gorge I’ve seen it blooming from late June to late August.

Asclepias quadrifolia (four-leaved milkweed) has a more limited range: it’s found in Ontario and the eastern half of the US, excepting some of the northernmost and southernmost states, and seems to be concentrated in the Appalachians and the Ozarks. It’s endangered in New Hampshire, threatened in Rhode Island, and uncommon in Vermont (per the New England Wild Flower Society). The species prefers drier soils in woodlands. The whorl of four leaves makes it easy to identify.

Asclepias syriaca (common milkweed) is found in the eastern US and Canada and a few western states, generally in full sun on dry or poor soils. In the Potomac Gorge I find it in soil pockets on the bedrock near the river, blooming in mid June to mid July. It’s on several authorities’ weedy plants lists. The flowers are a dusky pink as opposed to the bright pink of swamp milkweed, and the leaves are much broader.

Asclepias verticillata (whorled milkweed) is found in most of the eastern and central US and Canada, in open areas with full sun and poor soils. It’s on several weedy plants lists, but is also threatened in Massachusetts and special concern in Rhode Island. In Maryland it’s S3/watchlist. I’ve never seen it in the wild; the plant pictured here survived the rabbit onslaught in my garden. Note how narrow the whorled leaves are.

Asclepias viridiflora (green comet milkweed) is widespread across the US and Canada, though missing from the West and most of New England. It’s endangered in Florida, threatened in New York, special concern in Connecticut. It’s uncommon in Maryland; look for it blooming from mid June to mid August in dry open areas, especially serpentine barrens.

This last one is not technically a milkweed, but it’s close. Cynanchum laeve (honeyvine) is a sprawling vine that’ll grow up and around everything, so it is weedy. And it does exude latex. And monarch caterpillars (and other milkweed butterfly caterpillars) do feed on it, so you may as well think of it as a milkweed. In Maryland it’s found in the coastal plain, and also in the Piedmont part of Montgomery County. I’ve been seeing it along the banks of the Potomac, twining ’round late-flowering thoroughwort, rosemallows, and anything else it can get to.

Great Things About August

It’s 6:44 am as I put the finishing touches on this post, 77°F already and 94% humidity, and yet I love August. It isn’t quite as hot as July; fresh, local peaches and tomatoes are everywhere; and half the DC area population is on vacation, so traffic is better and restaurants are easier to get into.

And it’s the time for big, showy wildflowers along the Potomac River.

The river has been running unusually high for this time of year, but last Monday it had finally dropped enough that I was able to explore the banks. Worth it in this weather? You bet. Here’s what I saw blooming.

Asclepias incarnata (swamp milkweed), one of the latest-blooming milkweed species. More on milkweeds in an upcoming post. This particular stand had several monarch butterflies feeding on it.

 

 

Conoclinium coelestinum (mistflower)

 

 

 

 

Eutrochium species (joe-pye weed)

I’m cheating a little. Out on the trail I found E. purpureum, but they were kind of ratty looking. Pictured here is E. fistulosum in my garden, with a spicebush swallowtail.

 

Helianthus decapetalus (thin-leaved sunflower)

 

 

 

Hibiscus laevis (halberd-leaved rosemallow)

 

 

 

 

Hibiscus moscheutos (swamp rosemallow)

Look for more about rosemallows in an upcoming post.

 

 

Lobelia cardinalis (cardinal flower). I can never get over that lurid red.

 

 

 

 

Here’s a closeup of one in my garden. This is a true wetland plant that can’t survive in dry soils. I had to give this one plant about 2 gallons of water each day during our July dry spell, and that was barely enough.

 

Oenothera biennis (common evening primrose)

 

 

 

Persicaria coccineum (scarlet smartweed)

…maybe.

 I had a lively discussion going about this one on-line recently. The Polygonaceae is a difficult family. I’ll save the details for a future post.

 

Senna hebecarpa (wild senna)

 

 

Smallanthus uvedalia (large-flowered leafcup) [below]

Solidago simplex var. racemosa (racemose goldenrod) [left]

Verbesina alternifolia (wingstem)

 

Also seen (no pictures):
Commelina virginica (Virginia dayflower)
Cynanchum laeve (honeyvine, a type of milkweed)
Eupatorium serotinum (late-flowering thoroughwort)
Ipomoea pandurata (wild potato vine)
Mimulus alatus (winged monkeyflower)
Persicaria virginiana (jumpseed)
Phyla lanceolata (fogfruit)
Rudbeckia laciniata (cut-leaved coneflower)
Veronicastrum virginicum (Culver’s root)

Sod Roofs

Tórshavn, with the island of Nólsoy in the background

Ordinarily when I photograph plants, they’re in natural settings. Sometimes they’re in gardens. Once in awhile I’ll do a still life.

But I never photographed plants as roofing material before going to the Faroe Islands.

the Faroese Parliament buildings (the red ones in the center), with sod roofs

Not every building in the Faroes has a sod roof, but a lot do, and they aren’t limited to farm outbuildings. Houses have them, too. Sometimes very large houses.

Even the Faroese Parliament buildings have sod roofs.

close-up of sod roof on a house in Mykines

I asked a tour guide in Mykines about them. From what I recall, there’s a base layer of tarred plywood that’s topped with layers of felt, bubble wrap, and plastic mesh; pipes on the edges keep the sod from sliding off. The pipes are often covered in strips of birch bark (the traditional base layer). Once the sod is established it makes an excellent insulator. It lasts a long time, and is inexpensive (though labor-intensive) to replace.

I was really quite taken with the combination of practicality and aesthetics.

 

sod roof in Saksun

 

 

 

 

sod roof on a house in Kirkjubøur, with sod-roofed dog house

 

 

 

 

sod roof in Gjogv

 

 

 

 

sod roofs in Saksun

the village of Funningur: a typical setting, with some sod roofs

Why Føroyar?

first glimpse: approach to Vágar

Føroyar (literally, “sheep islands”) is a group of small islands, about 18 depending on how you count them, and not including islets and sea stacks, lying northeast of the Shetland Islands, roughly halfway between Norway and Iceland. This self-governing region within the kingdom of Denmark has been continuously inhabited since about AD 800.

Steve and I spent a few days there last month. We keep getting asked, “why?”

the sod-roofed church at Saksun, Streymoy

Lots of reasons. I’m aesthetically drawn to sparseness and desolation. I love the flora of the subarctic regions. I like visiting places that are off the beaten path, especially places that don’t suffer from American cultural imperialism. I don’t like crowds of people and I don’t like areas that are developed for tourists. And of course I love spectacular natural areas.

the sheep are just about everywhere

 

It had been on my mind for awhile, but I made the decision to actually go when I found out about Sheep View 360, one woman’s response to Google Maps’ refusal to provide street views for the Faroes.

I love a wacky sense of humor.

no, really, they are everywhere

The islands were formed by several sets of volcanic eruptions, and later carved by glaciers. They are rugged and sparsely vegetated (thanks to the sheep), with no trees except where people have planted and fenced them in. The weather is stormy, with rain and wind, and lots of it, but it never gets hot or too cold. The resulting landscapes are dramatically beautiful. Read about the geology here.

traversing Slættaratindur, the tallest mountain at 880 meters, on the island of Eysturoy

It’s a hiker’s paradise, so long as you don’t mind elevation changes: pretty much everything is either up or down. It’s a birder’s paradise, too. As for botanizing, well, that proved tricky. More on that, and other things Faroese, in posts to come.

sunset near Kirkjubøur, Streymoy, looking toward the island Koltur

I’ll Be There

Saturday morning: Steve and I are hiking on Sugarloaf Mountain, and I’ve just shown him some downy rattlesnake plantain, almost finished blooming. As we continue walking along, I tell him to watch for something that looks like thin twigs sticking up out of the ground, with little purple-brown flowers all over.

Not three seconds pass before he says “you mean like this?”

I try not to write about the same plants every year, but when it comes to cranefly orchid (Tipularia discolor), I just can’t help myself. Nor can I put into words what makes this plant stand out for me.

 

Maybe it’s the crazy nectar tubes, sometimes almost twice as long as the pedicels.

 

 

Maybe it’s that pearlescent lower lip. Or the purple stripes on the green sepals and petals.

Maybe it’s the overall effect of those twisted, delicate flowers dancing above the ground.

Cranefly is hibernal: the plant’s single leaf emerges from the ground in autumn, grows through the winter and spring, and dies back in early summer. A leafless peduncle emerges a few weeks later (around early July in the Maryland Piedmont), and the flowers open roughly three weeks later.

Early morning is a good time to shoot them.