Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Late Summer Wildflower Adaptations

 I was riding my bike up the big hill rather slowly, so I had time to notice little flashes of color. What? Not trash, but little flowers blooming in the disturbed area on the road shoulder. What could they be? I'm not so good at unclipping my bike shoes (which can make for some spectacular falls), so I came back a little while later and revisited the area to take a closer look.

Here's what I found: little pink flowers, less than an inch across called small wirelettuce (Stephanomeria exigua), and they grow primarily in the western U.S., but for some reason they are also present in New York state. They are part of the Sunflower family (Asteraceae).

 Seeing these flowers made me think hard about the later-blooming flowers. They are providing food for insects after many other flowers have finished blooming. In order to flower, they have to save enough energy and withstand the harsh summer conditions of extreme heat and sometimes extreme dryness. These late bloomers are the endurance flowers of the wild.

 Small wirelettuce can take different forms, and I sure found that the case where I searched. The specimen above was dense in the middle with longer shoots out to the sides.

 Then I found a little ball clump only about four inches high. What a cool name for a plant!

Then I noticed a more subtle flower, a white one on a plant that stood a foot or two high. It looked vaguely familiar, but it took me two days to finally figure it out: coyote tobacco (Nicotina attenuata). It's part of the Solanaceae Family, the same family that tomatoes belong to.

This plant has lots of interesting characteristics. It likes to grow in disturbed areas, but since invasive plants also like disturbed areas, it may be declining.
Coyote tobacco has white flowers about 1/2 inch wide, extending over an inch from the sepals. But you might not see it like this if you look in the middle of the day, because it blooms from dusk to dawn. That happens to be when its main pollinator, hawkmoths, are active.

Christopher Columbus took tobacco back to the Old World from his trips to the New World, and it soon grew in popularity as an ornamental. But tobacco took on a whole new significance when in 1560 Jean Nicot from Portugal took some powdered tobacco to France for the Queen's son to help relieve his migraine headaches. It worked, and soon became known as a cure-all. Its popularity spread, until studies hundreds of years later showed that it's not quite the cure-all it was once thought. (Hmm, that might be the understatement of the month.) The scientific name, Nicotina is based on Nicot's name and attenuata refers to the thin, or narrow, leaves. (From Southwest Wildflowers)

Native Americans have long used the plant.

And one more late summer plant today, one that is hard not to miss:
 Curlycup gumweed (Grindelia squarrosa). This bright yellow flower grows along roadsides and other disturbed places. It's a biennial, flowering in its second year and then dying (but I've also read it can be an annual or perennial--what an adaptive plant!). It's called gumweed because it's a rather sticky plant. I've never really liked it, but after reading up on it a little more, I have some grudging respect for it now. Something cool about it is that the leaves turn at right angles to the sun, making it a compass plant.
That icky gummy part? Some people have used it as chewing gum!

Curlycup gumweed also has a long list of medicinal properties used by Native Americans: it's been used to help with asthma and bronchitis (and is still an ingredient in homeopathic cough remedies) and can be used to treat poison oak and ivy rashes. It's also been used as both a sedative and stimulant

So this is what happens when I slow down (even if it takes a steep hill to make me do it!)--I see and appreciate some beautiful sights. I just read about the Slow Down Challenge, which is about taking your time in life and enjoying the journey, not rushing from one thing to the next. For the next week, I'm going to try to slow down for at least fifteen minutes a day notice more of the amazing world around us, and how so many life strategies are in place. Will you join me?

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