Another Tuesday, Another Mystery

If you are not busy on a Tuesday morning, and you are looking for something interesting to do, think about joining us at 9:00 for a walk on the trails.  You never know what you might find, and at the very least, you’ll meet some delightful people.

So, yesterday was Tuesday, and I had some time, so I decided to tag along with the Tuesday Morning Nature Group.  Just about everyone was armed with binoculars, and Gary told us that the fall migration was just getting going, so we might see some interesting birds.  One of our volunteers had seen a yellow-bellied flycatcher over the weekend, which is a rarish bird in the U.P., so it is even more rare down here.  We had hopes of catching sight of it, but it apparently had other plans.

Our walk started out along the boardwalk.  Wetlands are great this time of year – lots of color, plenty of fruits starting, and always a good place to find birds.  I, of course, was immediately distracted by the plants.  This viburnum was already sporting its small blue berries.

Orange spaghetti was draped everywhere.  This is actually a parasitic plant called dodder.  As you can see, it doesn’t have a single spot of green anywhere – it can’t make its own food.  So, it parasitizes other plants.  It has recently been placed in the same family as morning glories (ah – explains the strangling vine-like behavior), and it goes by some rather interesting other names, including devil’s gut, angel hair, love vine and pull-down.  I’ve seen this plant quite a bit over the years, but this is the first time I have ever seen it in bloom.


We had a very heavy dew this morning, so everything was quite wet.  Here we have a Joe Pye weed sporting some tiny dewdrops.

Spotted jewelweed, aka touch-me-not, is in its prime now.  It turns out that this prolific plant is a major food source for hummingbirds in the late summer and early fall.  In fact, hummers are one of the most important pollinators of this plant.  As you can guess, the tongues of these small birds are ideal for reaching deep into the flowers for nectar, leaving pollen on the birds’ heads for easy transfer to the next flower.

Soon a small group of us had fallen behind the main group.  We were too easily distracted by the small things, like these itty bitty mushrooms.  They looked like wee quiches.

Upon further investigation, I’m pretty sure they are the earlier stage of the white bird’s nest fungi below, which were right near by.  These are some of my favorite mushrooms – I just love how they really do look like a nest with eggs inside.  Those “eggs” are little spore packets, which will eventually burst to help spread the mushroom along the forest floor.

This last weekend was our Birds, Blooms and Butterflies Festival, and part of the festival included nature hikes.  The first group that went out discovered a catalpa tree covered with caterpillars, so I made sure the group detoured by the tree this morning to see what we could see.  Sure enough, the catalpa sphinx moths were still there feeding away…

…and we were able to see several that were parasitized, just like the tomato hornworms in my garden.  Since the tomato hornworms are also sphinx moths, I wonder if it is the same brachonid wasps parasitizing these caterpillars – it sure looks the same!  The white things you see on this ‘pillar’s back are the pupal cases of the wasps.  The female layed her eggs inside the caterpillar, the larvae hatched and ate away at the ‘pillar’s innards, and then chewed their way to the outside and made cocoons on its back.  Now they wait to emerge as adults, and in the meantime, the caterpillar, which is still alive, slowly dies.  Not a pleasant way to go, I wouldn’t think.

It turned out to be a caterpillary kind of morning.  We saw quite a few of these beautiful black and white ‘pillars – they are hickory tussock moths.

And, of course, there were lots of tiger swallowtails sipping nectar from the thistles.  This one gave me a merry chase until I finally was able to take its photo.

And here we have the mystery.  These tiny yellow flowers, while pretty inconspicuous, caught my eye.  What could they be?  I had no idea.  I sent the photo to a friend, who is a great botanist, and she had no idea, although she agreed with me that it might be a kind of St. Johnswort.  It wasn’t in my Newcomb’s Field Guide.  We were stumped.

Right next to the mystery flower was this beautiful moth mullein, in the white phase.  What a lovely flower.  Pity it’s rather invasive.

Indian pipes are coming up in the woods now.  These ghostly plants are epiparasites.  It used to be believed that they were strictly parasitic, and then it was thought they were saprophytic, but now we know they are epiparasites, meaning they depend on a go-between to get food for them, in this case a michorrizal fungi that attaches to the roots of a plant (usually a tree), collects the food, and then passes it along to the Indian pipe via attachments to its roots.  Talk about lazy!  Indian pipes typically hang their heads to the ground, but at the end of their lives, they look up – here’s a view of the interior of the flower before it perishes.

As we neared the end of our walk, we found another group of birds nest fungi – this time with black “eggs.”  This species is striated birds nest fungi, and here we have a lovely grouping of the very new right up to the almost fully mature and ready to burst.

As the program was wrapping up back at the building, Paul brought over this beautiful moth.  It is an ilia underwing, the latter part of its name indicating that the hind, or under-, wing is the part we should note.  It is usually hidden, but that’s where the colors are.  Underwings are beautiful moths…if you know where to look!

Okay…so back to the mystery flower.  I was obsessed.  Jackie didn’t know what it was, Mark didn’t know what it was, but we all suspected it was an St. Johnwort of some kind.  When I got home last night, I looked up St. Johnsworts in my Missouri Wildflowers book.  Ah-ha!  Might it be spotted St. Johnswort?  I turned next to the three-volumn set of The New Britton and Brown Illustrated Flora (1963).  This set of books is really designed for true botanists – I mostly thumb through in hopes of finding a clue.  Under the St. Johnsworts I found two possibilities:  Hypericum punctatum (spotted) and H. pseudomaculatum (false spotted).  Back at work this morning, I braved the ridiculously high humidity and mosquitoes to relocate the plant and acquire more photos and measurements.

(that’s centimeters, not inches)

(hm…are those spots?)


I then went to the USDA Plant Database to find maps – where are these plants located.  Voila!  It turns out that this is spotted St. Johnswort, a native of Michigan, and found, mostly, across the southern part of the state.  Nothing rare, but it’s a new plant for me, and a new ID for the Dahlem property.  Mystery solved.  Huzzah!


About Dahlem Center

The Dahlem Center is a non-profit nature center/environmental education center located on almost 300 acres just south of the city of Jackson, Michigan. The Center is one arm of the Dahlem Conservancy, which includes land conservancy and stewardship in its mission.
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2 Responses to Another Tuesday, Another Mystery

  1. Great detective work! Lots of interesting things there. I’ve never heard of dodder. Or any of its other names. Cool.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    We saw lots of dodder in Fallon, NV.

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