SJF in Bloom

by Carl Strang

Spring is advancing in fits and starts, with alternating warm and cool periods, but through it all the plants of St. James Farm Forest Preserve are growing, and many have been blooming. Some of them are familiar, some new to me, but together they are demonstrating an impressive botanical diversity, especially in the forest.

White trout lilies are abundant, but they began to bloom later at SJF than in other area forests.

White trout lilies are abundant, but they began to bloom later at SJF than in other area forests.

Swamp buttercups are common throughout.

Swamp buttercups are common throughout.

Virginia bluebells always are a welcome sight this time of year. The ones at St. James Farm probably originated in the estate’s gardens, but have made themselves at home in scattered places well away from there.

Virginia bluebells always are a welcome sight this time of year. The ones at St. James Farm probably originated in the estate’s gardens, but have made themselves at home in scattered places well away from there.

Yellow violets, as well as the common blue ones, brighten the forest floor.

Yellow violets, as well as the common blue ones, brighten the forest floor.

Patches of wood anemones are frequent in shady spots.

Patches of wood anemones are frequent in shady spots.

The botanical connoisseur will want to know about the sedges. Four early ones are blooming now, the common wood sedge, Wood’s stiff sedge, and two more:

There are large patches of common oak sedge in many places.

There are large patches of common oak sedge in many places.

Long-beaked sedge was a new one for me, as was Wood’s stiff sedge.

Long-beaked sedge was a new one for me, as was Wood’s stiff sedge.

More mundane, but adding to the preserve’s diversity, are others worthy of mention.

Common chickweed is an introduced species, at home in the lawns.

Common chickweed is an introduced species, at home in the lawns.

Not flowers, or even plants, bracket fungi visually enhance the forest as they grow to produce their spores.

Not flowers, or even plants, bracket fungi visually enhance the forest as they grow to produce their spores.

 

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Winter Botany Update

by Carl Strang

Every species we see in summer persists through the winter. In the case of plants, which cannot migrate, they are present in the landscape, though in some cases they are not readily visible outside the growing season. Nevertheless, most can be seen. Some are little changed.

Austrian pines, among the many exotic conifers planted at Mayslake Forest Preserve, are equally easy to identify in all seasons.

Some herbaceous plants remain green in winter. While the rosette form, with leaves held close to the ground where they can gain some protection from sheltering snows, is more common among forbs, one of Mayslake’s sedges, the common wood sedge, has a rosette-like habit.

The tips of the leaves have browned, but otherwise this sedge looks ready to go when spring arrives.

Some plants, though brown, are unmistakable. I was not pleased to find three small patches of common reed at the south edge of the preserve.

This plant, once established, spreads to push out all other wetland plants.

These will need to be attended to, and I was happy to learn that Mayslake’s restoration team has reported them to the Forest Preserve District’s natural resources staff.

My greatest botanical delight in recent weeks was encountering this tall, odd looking plant.

The pods place it in the legume family, but it was totally new to me.

Thanks to a heads up from Scott Namestnik I can correct my initial identification to wild senna. This is Mayslake’s second species of Cassia (some botanists separate it into genus Senna), and I look forward to seeing its bright yellow blooms next summer. (Initially I had identified it as indigo bush, another tall streamside legume, but the pods of indigo bush are proportionately much wider in comparison to their length).

Resolving the Green Mass

by Carl Strang

How do you perceive the wild landscape around you? There’s no correct answer to this question. Even professional ecologists wear blinders or, at least, view the world through the filters of their experience and biases. Speaking for myself, as a terrestrial vertebrate ecologist I am ignorant of much of what is going on beneath the surface of the water. I can sympathize with those who view vegetation as an undifferentiated green mass.

However, I have spent some time studying insect-plant interactions. I have seen how plant-eating insects are dietary specialists to various degrees, and the literature has enlightened me on how plant chemical defenses force this specialization. Insects that eat forbs typically are limited to a single species or group of closely related species. Because woody plants commonly defend themselves with tannins, insects that go after woody plants often have broader diets. Such patterns enrich my understanding of ecosystems, and inform my understanding of vertebrate ecology. Animals which eat plants or insects are influenced by what is going on between plants and insects. Plant diversity leads to insect diversity leads to terrestrial vertebrate diversity. A consequence of all of this is that I have learned to identify woody plants and forbs, and so no longer view those many kinds of plants as a green mass.

Now I am trying to go farther, by studying the non-forb herbs. I want to improve my understanding of grasses, sedges and other plants of that ilk. It begins with learning to identify them and grasping their local biodiversity. The process particularizes the remaining green mass. Lately I’ve been focusing on sedges at Mayslake Forest Preserve. I found a species with an amazing ecological range, from partly shaded woodlands to open prairies and marsh edges.

This I have identified as the common wood sedge, Carex blanda. If I am correct in assigning all these plants to this same species, the ones growing in more open environments are a little larger, and the clusters of male flowers at the ends of the stalks are on slightly longer stems. Note that the female flowers are segregated onto separate clusters below the male flowers.

Another sedge is somewhat more restricted ecologically, and so is less common.

This one keys to Carex pellita, the broad-leaved woolly sedge. Again the male and female flowers are segregated, but the scale is larger, so that the plant is taller, the flower clusters longer. The plant also is more erect in its stance. This species is limited to edges of marshes and wet prairies at Mayslake.

Another marsh edge species remains unidentified.

Here each flower cluster contains both male and female flowers, the females at the tips and the males below them.

This one would key strongly to Carex sartwellii, the running marsh sedge, except that it appears to grow in tufts rather than from runners. I hope to get some resolution as the seeds mature. The point is that I am gaining enlightenment about the diversity and habitat specificity of this group of plants. Bit by bit, the green mass is resolving to a mosaic of separate species, allowing me to build an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the Mayslake landscape.

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