Astery Things #7: Two Sunflowers

Last week when I drove to Lock 6 in search of the two Verbesina species, I was pleasantly surprised to find two Helianthus species growing in the same area. Sunflower species can be tricky to differentiate, but I’m fairly confident that these are H. decapetalus and H. tuberosus. Here’s a closer look at both.

First thing to note is that these were likely planted here, and are growing in rather rough conditions (lots of foot traffic, dogs, invasive alien plants, lawn mowers), so neither stand is showing the plants at their best. Depending on what source you consult, both thin-leaved sunflower (H. decapetalus) and Jerusalem artichoke (H. tuberosus) stand anywhere from half a meter to two meters tall. Many sources seem to agree that generally, the former is not as tall as the latter.

The leaves of each species look very similar. The largest leaves of H. tuberosus are usually somewhat larger than the largest leaves of H. decapetalus, but keep in mind that there is a lot of morphological variation in Helianthus species. Note that in this picture, the H. decapetalus leaf has more pronounced teeth, which is another general characteristic. Serrated margins like this are best observed on lower stem leaves. Also, note that both leaves are winged to some extent. Both leaf margins and presence of petioles are characteristics that can vary widely, even on the same plant.

Here’s another look at the leaves. Can you see that there’s a textural difference? Although not entirely smooth, H. decapetalus leaves are much smoother than H. tuberosus leaves, which feel like sandpaper. (In the above left photo, H. tuberosus is on top and H. decapetalus is on bottom. In the above right photo, H. tuberosus is on the right and H. decapetalus is on the left.)

Another, more obvious difference is seen in the stems.  H. decapetalus stems are mostly smooth, maybe with a few short hairs. H. tuberosus stems are covered in short hairs that stick straight out.

About the flowers… Clearly they look a bit different. Don’t let the specific epithet decapetalus fool you, because this species does not always have ten ray florets (“petals”). It will usually have about ten rays, though. H. tuberosus has about ten to twenty, though some sources say as few as six and as many as twenty-five. In these two populations, the ray florets look a little different, a little wider and rounder on H. decapetalus, and a little longer and narrower on H. tuberosus.

As with the verbesinas in my last post, I caution you against using any one characteristic, or any one flower head or leaf, or any one section of stem, to determine the identification. You really need to look at the entire plant – several leaves, several flower heads, several stem sections – to be sure.

Helianthus identification is fraught with peril. It’s highly likely that I have H. tuberosus here, but there is one other Helianthus in this area that has hairy stems: H. hirsutus. These two look similar at the stem, but the latter species has much longer and narrower leaves, which are either sessile or with very short petioles. H. hirsutus is listed S1/highly state rare in Maryland. I’ve never found it, so I can’t share any pictures to illustrate the point.

Another tricky ID involves H. strumosus (pale-leaved sunflower), which is hard to distinguish from H. decapetalus. The major difference is seen in the phyllaries (aka involucral bracts) on the underside of the flower head. In H. strumosus, they don’t usually spread out past the width of the disk of the flower head, while in H. decapetalus, they do spread beyond the disk. I’ve never seen H. strumosus. The picture above shows the involucral bracts of H. decapetalus.

Here’s one more Helianthus, just for fun: H. divaricatus (woodland sunflower). The differences should be obvious.

Astery Things #6: Verbesinas

Lining the highways this time of year are lots of tall white-flowering and yellow-flowering forbs. Various species of goldenrod are among the latter, and so are two other members of the Asteraceae: wingstem and yellow crownbeard, the only species of Verbesina present in Maryland (probably).

At first glance (or at 60 miles per hour), the two look a lot alike. Each can get quite tall, up to two meters, and each has large leaves, thick-looking stems, and dense arrays of composite flowers.

But it’s easy to distinguish between them. Have a look at the similarities and differences. [In the following pairs of photos, V. alternifolia (wingstem) is on the left, and V. occidentalis (yellow crownbeard) is on the right.]

Overall form: tall plants, multi-branched, with thick stems, topped with yellow flowers.

Both have leaf-like tissue running along the stems (hence “wingstem”).

Here’s the most obvious difference: V. alternifolia leaves are mostly alternate along the stems, while the leaves of V. occidentalis are mostly in pairs along the stems.

Note my frequent use of the word “mostly”. There is a lot of morphological variation in these species. In general – and this applies to Symphyotrichum, Helianthus and many other aster family species as well – the leaves tend to get smaller as they ascend the stem, and they start to alternate at the top. You need to consider the entire plant – observe the leaf arrangement at every node, especially lower on the plant – in order to decide what the overall arrangement is.

Speaking of morphological variation, have a look at this. The flowers say wingstem, but how about those whorled leaves? I’m not sure what to think. This one plant was found in an area where both species were growing. Could it be a hybrid?

Now look at the flowers. V. alternifolia often has fewer heads per array than V. occidentalis. However, this should not be considered an identifying characteristic, especially since it’s hard to define exactly what constitutes an array. And, V. alternifolia might have a larger number of arrays (instead of the single one pictured here).

Look at the individual heads. V. alternifolia has more ray florets, generally about six; V. occidentalis has one to three. Also, it seems to me that the rays of V. alternifolia are straight and often reflexed, but the rays of V. occidentalis are somewhat twisted and stick straight out.

These two species grow in the same habitats. I find them on moist soils at the margins of the woods, the river, the canal, and roadways. If you want to get a really good look at them side by side, take a trip to the C&O Canal Lock 6 parking lot on the Clara Barton Parkway. Right between the lawn and the trees, you can find both. You can also find two other closely related astery things, but that’s the subject of my next post.

Now, about my claim that these are the only two Verbesina species present in Maryland… BONAP and USDA PLANTS both show two other species present, but neither source gives county-level data. Look at the BONAP map for V. virginica.  It doesn’t look like this species would be present here in Maryland, does it? If it is, it’s on the lower Eastern Shore. The Maryland Biodiversity Project has no records for it, though, and classifies the other species (V. encelioides) a waif, with only four records, all in Baltimore city. 

 

ps the top photo shows wingstem blooming above the Potomac River near Great Falls.

Astery Things #5: Carolina Elephant’s-Foot

When an unknown plant appears in my garden, I’ll watch it grow for a season before deciding if it’s a weed.

What is a weed, anyway? My favorite definition is “a plant growing where it isn’t wanted”.

Despite this practical concept, I’ve had a hard time deciding if the Elephantopus carolinianus that appeared as a volunteer in my garden deserves weed status. It’s an interesting plant that stands about a foot and a half tall, with thick but sparse leaves that result in an open, somewhat coarse texture, and it has appealingly unusual flowers. However, it’s deep-rooted and seeds itself freely, which means high weed potential.

Unlike the other species in this series of posts, whose flower heads contain only disk florets, Carolina elephant’s-foot consists only of ray florets. You have to look very closely to see it, but each flower head contains from one to five individual flowers (usually four); each one of those flowers has a single petal that’s so deeply lobed, it appears to be five separate petals.

Look for E. carolinianus in dry soils in sunny or partly sunny areas, for example near rock outcroppings in a woodland, or in disturbed, open areas. It ranges from southern Pennsylvania (where it’s endangered) to eastern Texas. Three other species of Elephantopus are native to the US, all with smaller ranges centered on the southern states.

Astery Things #4: Blue Mistflower

Next in the series of posts on composite flowers lacking ray florets is blue mistflower. Like the joe-pye weeds, blue mistflower was once placed in the genus Eupatorium, but nowadays it’s known as Conoclinium coelestinum. The flowers are somewhat similar in appearance to joe-pyes, the heads of tightly clustered disk florets with long protruding styles giving the inflorescences a fine, feathery, misty look.

click on this one to zoom in and see the minute flowers opening on the outside of the heads

Also like joe-pye weeds, blue mistflower likes wet soils; along the banks of the Potomac River, if I see joe-pyes, I’m almost certain to find blue mistflower nearby. Unlike joe-pyes, the plants are short, getting to about two feet tall in ideal conditions.

Speaking of the Potomac, I went back out to check on the spot I reported on last week, a place where in other years I would definitely find mistflower. It was all underwater again. Lots of rain upstream.

Blue mistflower ranges mostly along the Mississippi River basin and its tributaries, from southern Illinois south, and also in the eastern mid-Atlantic and the Carolinas. It’s found in most of Maryland except for the westernmost and easternmost parts of the state.

eastern tailed-blue butterfly (Cupido comyntas) sipping from mistflower

Apparently these flowers are a great nectar source for a variety of butterflies, but I haven’t seen many on it. Three years ago I wrote that I was worried that the blue mistflowers in my garden would become weedy*. “Weedy” is, of course, in the eye of the gardener. They certainly have spread, somewhat aggressively, and I’ve had to pull some out, but they haven’t reached weed status yet.

 

*Lepidopterans Photobomb My Mistflower Shoot

Astery Things #3: New York Ironweed

Growing along the fence with the joe-pye weeds in my garden is another oddball asteraceous species: Vernonia noveboracensis, or New York iron weed.

Like the joe-pye species, the inflorescence of NY ironweed consists only of disk florets; there are no rays at all. And what a great example of this kind of flower it is: look closely and you can see how five narrow petals, fused at the base, form a corolla, from which a split style pops way out.

There are two native species in MD; the other one, broad-leaved ironweed (V. glauca), is found in a few locations in the eastern Piedmont and in the Coastal Plain, while New York ironweed is found throughout the state. There’s also an alien, Arkansas ironweed (V. arkansana) reported in one location in the Coastal Plain.

New York ironweed’s native range is from southern New England into northern Florida and west into central Kentucky and Tennessee (and in one county way out in northern New Mexico). It’s listed “special concern” in Kentucky and “presumed extirpated” in Ohio.

Often described as “coarse” in texture, this is a tall forb – over six feet in ideal conditions – with an open habit. It likes moist to wet soils; in the wild you’ll find it growing along river banks, in the full sun or dappled shade.

In the garden site it where it will get enough sun and water, in the back since it gets so tall, or along a fence. It doesn’t attract butterflies as well as the joe-pye weeds do, but bees go crazy for it. And it blooms for a long time.

I was trying to get good, clear close-up shots of the flowers, with the camera mounted on a tripod, but something large and white kept moving around in the upper reaches of the plants. As soon as I realized what it was I took the camera in hand and tried to get pictures of yet another type of butterfly. It never stayed still, so all the shots were lousy and I was pretty bummed… until the next day. More about that in my next post.

Astery Things #2: The Joe-Pye Weeds

Eutrochium fistulosum

Once upon a time there was a genus of plants called Eupatorium. It was a large genus, lumping together plants commonly known as thoroughworts, bonesets, mistflowers, snakeroots, and joe-pye weeds. Roughly twenty years ago, the genus was split into twelve or more genera. Thoroughworts and bonesets are still Eupatoriums; mistflowers are now Conoclinium, and snakeroots Ageratina. Joe-pye weeds, those plants with large arrays of pink-purple flowers and whorled leaves, were placed in the new genus Eutrochium.

Eutrochium maculatum

Historically, four of North America’s five Eutrochium species were found in Maryland, but one of them, E. maculatum (spotted joe-pye weed), has been extirpated. The other three are

  • E. dubium (eastern or coastal plain joe-pye weed)
  • E. fistulosum (hollow joe-pye weed, trumpetweed)
  • E. purpureum (sweet, sweet-scented, or purple node joe-pye weed)

Distinguishing these four species from one another is fairly straightforward, provided you can look at mature, flowering specimens. Here is a much abbreviated chart of some identifying characteristics, taken from the Flora of North America, with the most useful ones in bold purple:

  E. dubium E. fistulosum E. maculatum E. purpureum
stems
purple-spotted purple purple spotted dark purple at nodes
  sometimes solid purple sometimes spotted sometimes solid purple greenish to purple-green
  solid hollow solid; may be hollow at base solid; may be hollow at base
leaves
arrangement in whorls of 3-4 in whorls of 4-6(-7) in whorls of (3-)4-5(-6) in whorls of 3-4(-5)
venation 3-nerved pinnately veined pinnately veined pinnately veined
shapes deltate-ovate narrowly lanceolate lance-elliptic lance-ovate
  ovate broadly lanceolate lanceolate ovate
  lance-ovate lance-ovate deltate-ovate
margins coarsely serrate finely serrate sharply or doubly serrate coarsely serrate
bases abruptly contracted gradually tapered gradually tapered gradually tapered
or abruptly tapered or abruptly tapered
florets
number (4-)5-9(-10) (4-)5-7 (8-)9-20(-22) (4-)5-7(-8)
notes
found only in coastal plain over 6 feet tall wide distribution known to hybridize
  and inland along major rivers morphologically variable morphologically variable

When trying to identify plants in the field, remember to look at the totality of characteristics rather than focusing on one or two, because there can be so much variation from plant to plant. And also because you really shouldn’t be cutting into plant stems in the field, at least not in areas where plants are protected.

E. fistulosum: hollow stem

Here are a few pictures to illustrate. Keep in mind that these are garden plants; wild-growing specimens rarely look so lush and full. Also, the E. maculatum pictured in this post is not the species, but rather a cultivar (‘Gateway’). Still, it’s not too far off what a wild plant looks like.

E. fistulosum: a whorl of 4 broadly lanceolate leaves

E. fistulosum: a loose corymb of flower heads

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

E. maculatum: whorl of three leaves, purple-spotted stems

 

And here are a few of E. maculatum. It’s worth noting that further up on the stems, the leaves were in whorls of four (but I couldn’t get a good picture up there).

E. maculatum: lanceolate-ovate leaf

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eutrochium species with purple node

This picture from four years ago is probably of E. purpureum, though I was never able to get close enough for a confident ID. At any rate, it shows what a purple node looks like.

 

Of course none of this is what makes joe-pye so interesting. It’s those flowers. Unlike the aster I wrote about in the last post, joe-pyes have no ray florets – only disc florets. Each floret consists of five pointed petals, fused at the base, from which a single long style emerges. The cumulative effect of all those tiny flowers, from 4-24 per head, dozens of heads in each corymbiform inflorescence, up to a dozen inflorescences on each stem, often multiple stems from one plant… it’s just breathtaking.

And then there’s the icing on the cake: joe-pye weeds attract bees and butterflies like crazy.

More about this next time.

 

Astery Things #1: New England Aster

Symphyotrichum novae-angliae is a typical aster, with flower heads consisting of roughly 50 to 75 dark rose to deep purple ray florets ringing a button of 50 to 110 disc florets that are initially yellow but become purple with age.

upper stem leaves

There are quite a few other blue-purple flowering aster species in Maryland, but distinguishing them is a topic for an upcoming post.

flower heads forming

This species is found mostly in New England, of course, and in the upper mid-west and mid-Atlantic, but also ranges south through the Appalachians and into the Great Plains. In scattered areas of the West it’s found as a garden escapee. In Maryland, New England aster is found almost entirely from the Piedmont west, with just a few occurrences in the Coastal Plain.

pruned by rabbits!

The flowers pictured here are typical, but this particular plant is not. Usually New England aster sports one stem (or just a few) standing up to four feel tall; there may be some branching near the top. The plant shown here was pruned several times by rabbits before I got ’round to spraying repellent on it, hence the short, bushy appearance. New England aster grows in a variety of habitats, sunny to partly shady, almost always in moist to wet soils.

 

Clearly it makes a lovely garden plant if you can protect it from herbivory while it’s still small.