August 27, 2014

Colorado Gentians and Much More!

For the past few summers we have visited Colorado, where our daughter is in grad school at the University of Colorado-Boulder.  In the past we have gone in June but this year late August worked best for us. We always try to fit in some hiking during our visit and although we figured that many of the wildflowers would be gone by then, we hoped that we might see some that were new to us during our long weekend trip.

So in addition to enjoying good meals and helping our daughter with her wedding plans, we headed for the mountains each day. Before we left I checked the Twitter feed for Rocky Mountain National Park and saw a photo of a flower we had never seen but was immediately on our "must see" list: arctic gentian.

Ohio has several gentian species and they are among our favorites. The majority bloom in late summer/early fall and range in color from white to the deepest blue. The arctic gentian, true to its name, grows only at high elevations.

After flying in to Denver we usually drive at least part way up the amazing road to Mt. Evans, a 14,000 foot peak that has extensive alpine habitat and which seemed like a good spot to look for the arctic gentian. The road up the mountain is an amazing engineering feat, and as it rises higher and higher the air gets thinner and the plants get smaller. Speaking of thin air, on the way up the mountains we heard a strange loud noise, and immediately thought that one of the rear tires on the rental car had deflated. Finally we figured out that a bag of pretzels had popped open in the back seat--what a mess!

Anyway, our first stop was the Walter Pesman Alpine Garden, which features an outstanding variety of alpine plants. One of the first that we noticed upon getting out of our car was the arctic gentian! What a beauty, with its purple-streaked buds, icy background color, and inside, purple lines of dots that serve as guides to lead pollinating insects into the base of the flowers. It was fairly common in certain areas along the higher elevation trails that we hiked.

Here are a few more of the late summer wildflowers we saw at this stop:

Northern gentian

Pinnate-leaved daisy 

Queen's crown
The area also features 1,700 year old bristlecone pines, which are able to withstand and even thrive in the cold and windy conditions:

We drove up the mountain as far as Summit Lake at 13,000 ft. The short trail led past great views and more flowers than we expected to see this late in the year. On the way back to our car we glimpsed this magnificent mountain goat:

The next day we headed for the Cow Creek Trailhead just north of Estes Park. Despite chilly temperatures, overcast skies and a few drops of rain we had a really good hike. It wasn't good butterfly weather but we did see a few that were new to us; here is the arctic blue:

and the common branded skipper, which is really pretty fancy for a skipper!

A small purple flower that we think is pleated gentian caught our eye. The day was cloudy; we never saw the flower open so it seems similar in form to our bottle gentian from Ohio but it is much smaller. Some gentian flowers only open during sunny conditions.

Saturday our daughter and her fiance were able to join us and we headed for the Long Lake trailhead which is a bit south of the national park. The last time we did this loop trail the wildflower display was fantastic, but that was in June and we figured that most everything would be gone by late August.  Fortunately we were wrong about that! The meadows were full of color

and we took way too many photos of the flowers!


One-flower wintergreen (wood nymph)

Elephant heads!

Rosy paintbrush
Our adventures were curtailed in the afternoon by steady rain, but the following day was gorgeous.  We all headed to the Lumpy Ridge trailhead and did a wonderful hike to Black Canyon. To the right of the trail were views of stunning rock formations

The large formation is known as Twin Owls
and to the left were incredible views of major Rocky Mountain peaks. Our daughter and her fiance have hiked to the top of most of them!

The highest mountain on the left is Twin Sisters, the adjacent cone is Estes Cone,
and the tallest mountain is Long's Peak, at over 14,000 feet!
Here are a couple of the wildflower highlights:

Punctate blazing star

We got a look at one dragonfly along the trail, this immature variegated meadowhawk:

After a picnic lunch we walked around Lily Lake, a popular short hike in Rocky Mountain National Park. Once again the flowers were stunning, including the spectacular mountain gentian (also known as Parry's gentian):

We also came across this unusual plant:

Its form resembles American beautyberry but it is called strawberry blite and apparently it occurs locally in Ohio. What an amazing color!

I think we managed to spark in the kids a bit of interest in dragonflies! At one point on the Lily Lake trail four or five huge mosaic darners put on quite a show, chasing back and forth and frequently hovering right in front of us, as if checking us out. They are almost impossible to photograph in flight with our cameras and they were never still--here is our best effort:

I think this was a variable darner, but a couple of other local species are quite similar. Our future son-in-law is an aeronautical engineer and he was impressed with the dragonflies' agility!

I absolutely loved this trip and all the hikes we did. I'm already looking forward to another Colorado visit!

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August 13, 2014

Lurking in the Lotus

We have visited quite a few ponds in Ohio this summer, and many are full of an interesting aquatic plant called American lotus (Nelumbo lutea). 

In fact, some are so full of this plant that the entire surface of the water is covered, which can sometimes be a problem for park personnel who try to manage lakes for a variety of uses:

Although it looks quite exotic, American lotus is native to North America, as well as Mexico, Honduras and the Caribbean. There is speculation that it really is a southern plant, and because it was so useful Native Americans brought it north where it readily spread in ponds in temperate areas. The roots, shoots, leaves and seeds of the plant are all edible and the Native Americans may have relied on the starchy root to get them through the winter. The roots are banana shaped, thick and are up to a foot long.

The plant is easily distinguished from other aquatic plants because of its size and the fact that its leaves are not split like those of water lilies. 

The empty seed pods are often used in flower arrangements and the flower is absolutely stunning:

Recently we were at Adams Lake State Park, poking along the edge looking for dragonflies and other critters. Every now and then a green heron rose up out of the vegetation and flew off, squawking loudly till it found another perch. Looking around for other wildlife, we spotted some lotus leaves that had been absolutely skeletonized. We knew that there must be some caterpillars taking advantage of this abundant vegetation. 

Indeed, we spotted many larvae of the Henry's Marsh Moth, which is very plain as an adult but which has a fairly showy caterpillar:

These caterpillars can be voracious and eat a wide variety of aquatic plants. Clearly, there is plenty of lotus in this pond for lots of caterpillars!

Looking a bit more, we spotted this wasp consuming a smaller insect on the underside of a leaf:

Nearby we found this common true katydid hanging out on a lotus leaf:

These large insects typically sing from the treetops, so it was a bit unusual to see one on a pond. Common true katydids are probably the loudest of our nocturnal singing insects; here is a link to their "song" (scroll down and click on the wave form images to hear them).

Here is a final photo of a pond full of lotus. Not visible are legions of dragonflies, damselflies and many other insects going about their business of feeding, reproducing, and evading predators. The lovely red flowers in the background are swamp rose mallow, a plant that is often common in Ohio wetlands.

August 6, 2014

A fun weekend at the Midwest Native Plant Conference

Last year we had such a good time at the Midwest Native Plant Conference in Dayton that we decided to go again this year. Held at the Bergamo Center, a Marianist retreat center in Beavercreek, it features excellent speakers on a wide variety of topics, outstanding field trips and leaders, and a chance to socialize with new and old friends who enjoy learning about the natural world as much as we do. To top it all off, the grounds are lovely and there are a variety of vendors, including many who have lots of native plants for sale.

At a talk by Rick Darke, author of the new book The Living Landscape, we learned about designing our gardens with layers of native groundcovers, perennials, shrubs and trees to maximize their attractiveness to wildlife. Jim McCormac from Ohio's Division of Wildlife gave an excellent talk featuring Ohio's 13 native milkweed species, pollination of milkweeds, and the importance of milkweeds to wildlife, especially monarchs. The featured plant of the conference was white oak, and David Brandenburg gave an outstanding presentation on wood and winter botany, featuring meticulously labeled specimens for study.  Other excellent talks that we went to centered on orchids of the eastern United States, native plant conservation and singing insects. That is a lot of variety indeed!

Saturday night we did a night walk to hear some of those singing insects that we learned about earlier in the day. While I don't think I'll ever be particularly good at identifying all the sounds of the night, I now know a lot more about field crickets, ground crickets, tree crickets, coneheads and katydids! Here is a sword-bearing conehead (what a great name!) captured by our leaders:

And here is a view of it after it was released from the jar:

Sunday was the field trip day and we went to Huffman Prairie, which I described in a previous post. Our leader was Five Rivers Metro Parks' Dave Nolin, who for the past 29 years has been involved in restoring and managing this wonderful resource on the Wright Patterson Air Force Base property. The flowers were still amazing:

Here is one that we didn't see on our previous visit, a drought-tolerant perennial called biennial gaura:

Enjoying all the seeds produced by the multitude of plants in the prairie was this gorgeous indigo bunting:

What a fun weekend! We might have slightly overdone it at the plant sale booths

but we are definitely looking forward to next year's Midwest Native Plant Conference!