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Loose ends: Early fall observations

Posted: September 23, 2011 - 12:00am
On the right is a front view of a monkshood flower, showing the cluster of sexual parts near the opening. In the back, part of one of the nectar-bearing petals is visible (along with a tiny insect on the side!). On the left is a side view of a flower.
On the right is a front view of a monkshood flower, showing the cluster of sexual parts near the opening. In the back, part of one of the nectar-bearing petals is visible (along with a tiny insect on the side!). On the left is a side view of a flower.

A ll around town, the maple trees are flaunting their famous reds and golds, at least on certain branches. In the forest, devil’s club leaves are turning yellow, setting off the clusters of red fruits and brightening the understory. Highbush cranberry shrubs sport variegated sprays of red and pink and yellow and everything in between, with the occasional bonus of bright red berries. High on the mountain slopes the deer cabbage offers another colorful palette, of orange and russet and gold. In the valleys, cottonwoods and willows are spangled with gold and yellow amidst the bronzy green—visual treats against the backdrop of somber green conifers.

The sockeye run in Steep Creek is finishing, so the bears are roaming around in search of alternate foods, while they wait for the coho to arrive. Bear scats show evidence of much consumption of northern ground cone, with some devil’s club seeds, currants and highbush cranberries. The fish are few, but one day I watched a familiar female bear run down a sockeye, pin it to the bottom of the stream and then pick up the flapping fish and tote it into the woods near the observation platform. There she ate the whole thing except the gills, starting with the eggs; one by one, she also lapped up all the eggs that got scattered around in the grass.

Someone once told me, in no uncertain terms, that red squirrels cannot swim — if you throw one into the water, it will just sink. Aside from the fact that most folks wouldn’t do that in the first place, the statement is simply not true (at least if the animal is unhurt). I once watched a red squirrel swimming between two islands in Glacier Bay. And recently I watched one deliberately cross a creek, jumping right in and paddling across. Its tail didn’t even get very wet and its back stayed dry. A very competent swimmer, across the current of the stream.

On a walk up the ‘new’ road at Eaglecrest, we found a few late monkshood flowers. No bees seemed to be flying to pollinate them, but we were curious about how the flower ‘works.’ That is, how are the male and female parts arranged, and how would a bee transfer pollen? So we opened up a few flowers. Just inside the natural opening, where a bee would enter, is a tuft of stamens, which would place pollen on a bee as it crawled in. Mixed in among the stamens are the female parts, which would receive pollen. But if male and female parts are in the same place, does this plant pollinate itself or is there some way to avoid self-pollination?

A little bit of research revealed that monkshood species are generally protandrous (first male), meaning that the stamens shed mature pollen before the female part of the same flower is receptive. Bees commonly work from the bottom of the array of flowers, with older flowers, toward the top of the plant, where flowers are younger, so they encounter mature female-stage flowers before they reach the mature male-stage flowers. Before they leave the plant, they pick up pollen from the last-visited flowers. Then, when they fly to the next monkshood plant, they start again at the bottom, where they can deposit pollen from the first plant on receptive female parts of the next plant. In addition, monkshoods are largely self-incompatible: mostly unable to fertilize themselves.

Still to be determined, however, is why the entire flower is so complicated in structure.

Why have that ‘hood’ on top? Those purple petal-like pieces that make the flower are not really petals, they are sepals (parts that are structurally external to the petals; they are green in many other kinds of plants). In the back of the flower, under the hood, are two arching structures that are the true petals, and the nectary is located in a spur at the upper end. But why put the nectary way in back, when the working parts are up front? Bees are said to enter the flower, find the nectar, and then back out the way they came in, passing over the sexual parts as they do so. But the flower does not need to be so complex if that’s all the bees do. Next summer we should try to observe bees as they visit monkshood flowers, to see if we can solve these little mysteries.

By dissecting a few monkshood flowers, we found out that the nectar spurs are quite short, so short-tongued bees should be able to reach the nectar easily without resorting to nectar theft (chewing through the hood and spur to get nectar without touching the sexual parts of the flower).

But flower handlers beware! Monkshood is very poisonous, and very little of it is needed to produce a nasty effect. Even touching it with your hands and then eating something with your hands, or smoking a cigarette, can apparently have undesirable consequences.

Large doses are generally lethal.

One day we walked out toward Herbert Glacier but were thwarted in the last stretch by high water. Along the trail we noted a large white slime mold artistically draped over a low stump. At several points on the side of the trail were stands of the prosaically named purple coral fungus. It grows in damp soils, sending up finger-like fruiting bodies of a distinctive purple color. It is not to be confused with the unrelated but catchily named deadman’s fingers, which is generally blackish (with a white core) and usually grows on decaying wood. I also found a small specimen of what I think was a white coral fungus. Elsewhere I’ve noted fist- to head-sized clumps of a highly branched yellow coral fungus.

• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology.

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