Solstice and More

a satisfying flower show

A trip to Cowee Meadows is always worth dealing with some broken or missing boards and a few flooded (sometimes ankle deep) sections of trail—a common occurrence after rains. Around the time of the summer solstice, the wild iris take over, with shades from pale lavender to deep, rich purple covering much of the meadow but leaving some room for buttercups, lupines, and the last shooting stars.

On the slightly higher ground, some stands of the wild rose were just starting to flower while others were almost finished. The big white inflorescences of cow parsnip made a good framework on the meadow edges. They were often occupied by dozens of tiny, slender flies, presumably sipping up nectar from the little flowers that comprised each inflorescence. Fireweed had yet to come, but the buds were promising.

A common flower, dotted in among all the others, is the chocolate lily or rice-root. The typical brownish flower smells fetid (unlike most flowers) and is pollinated by flies. The shades of brown vary: some are very dark, even reddish, some are mottled with green or yellow, and a very few are mostly yellow. Do the pollinators care?

June-19-Chocolate-lilies-kerry-howard
Photo by Kerry Howard

The sprawling shore plant called oysterleaf is widespread in northern latitudes. Its flowers are normally blue, but rarely white, according to two field guides, but we found white-flowered individuals to be quite common. The flower is insect-pollinated in some regions but is said to self-pollinate in others.

Few bees were flying on this day, but they are probably the principal pollinators of iris (as well as visiting many other flowers). A small insect might enter the flower but would not be big enough to contact the sexual parts. A bee crawls into the iris flower over a drooping petal-like sepal (the true petals are smaller and upright), passing under a narrow arm that bears the stigmatic surface where pollen is received, and then under a rod-shaped, pollen-producing stamen on its way to the nectar deep inside the flower. Cross-pollination would happen if the bee visited more than one flower, but the flowers are reported to be self-compatible, so if a bee happens to pick up some pollen on its way out of the flower and deposit some on the stigmatic surface, a seed might be produced that way.

Wild-Iris-with-bumblebee-entering-by-Bob-Armstrong
Photo by Bob Armstrong

An aquatic plant long known as Potentilla palustris (marsh cinquefoil) was always a bit of a puzzle to me, because most potentillas have yellow flowers and five petals but this one seemed so different, with its red- or purplish-flowers with six or seven petals. I’ve just learned that botanists have now recognized these and other differences by assigning this species to a different genus; it’s now Comarum palustre. The flowers are reported to have valuable pollen with lots of essential amino acids and lots of concentrated nectar, and they are visited by many kinds of insects.

In the muskeg at the start of the trail, we inspected the bog laurel flowers. When an insect (not too small) visits the flower and walks around on the petals of the open flower, the stamens usually spring up from their niches on the surface of the petals, potentially placing pollen on the insect. So we could tell which flowers had been visited. A visiting insect might also bring in some pollen from another flower, effecting pollination. Our inspection revealed that some aging flowers had no sprung stamens and presumably would not set fruit, but some fresher flowers had clearly been visited and might set fruit.

On the way through the woods down to the big meadow, the dainty little wintergreen called single delight or shy maiden presents its one little white flower to insect visitors, typically a bumblebee. A visiting bee rapidly shakes the anthers, which releases pollen for the bee to eat and collect. The flower is demurely held face-down as it awaits a bee, but if pollination occurs, the flower raises its head–no longer shy– as the fruit matures. We joke that it is now a brazen hussy. Here’s a link to that process.

All told, we found over sixty kinds of flowers, but we didn’t beat our record from a previous year of over seventy-five species. Still, not bad!

Solstice in the sun

spotlighting a wild flower show

It had rained, just a little, during the night, so the wet grass soaked our britches as we waded through it. But for once, these Juneau-ites didn’t whine about the wet—it felt really good! The outdoor temperatures the day before had reached into the seventies and the little cabin in Cowee Meadows was a heat collector. There was no cross-ventilation in the cabin unless we admitted hordes of hungry mosquitoes through the unscreened windows—a choice we were unwilling to accept. For real Juneau folks, this was a heat wave! The Down-Southers may laugh, but it was enough to make us a bit wilted.

So we waded happily through the wet grass, in search of nothing in particular and anything in general, and we found lots of things of interest. We brought to bear a diversity of eyes and mind’s eyes, which made our explorations very productive and more fun; one person could never have seen quite so many things. Here is a sampling:

We stood surrounded by acres of purple and blue iris and lupine, with patches of yellow buttercups. A few tall white cow parsnips and tufts of lady fern added contrast and texture. But if we looked more closely, there were dozens of other flowering species in bloom: roses on the raised berms, shooting stars fading, yellow pond lilies, silverweed, and on and on; the list grew very long. Out along the beach were arrowgrass, beach greens, milkwort, and goosetongue. In fact, when we tallied up all the kinds of flowers we saw (excluding grasses and sedges) from the trailhead out to the rocky beach, we had found a grand total of seventy five species of flowers. That’s pretty remarkable, and it indicates just how very rich this area is.

iris-hocker.jpg
Wild iris. Photo by Katherine Hocker

Irises came in many shades, ranging from pale blue through royal purple to a gorgeous reddish purple. Beach peas also varied, some with more white, or a deeper pink, or more purple. A big surprise was chocolate lilies that weren’t the usual brownish color (or brown with a few yellow speckles) but rather were entirely yellow (or yellow with a few brown spots). I have to wonder if the color variations affect the behavior of the pollinating insects.

Some species were going to seed, and their ripe fruits or seed pods were diverse in structure and function. Shooting star capsules looked like little red and green easter eggs, sitting in cups. When the capsule dries and splits open, the tiny seeds will be dispersed by the wind. Lupines had been quite well pollinated, but their seed pods were not yet ready to pop open explosively, sending seeds in all directions. Marsh marigold seed heads were like crowns of attractive spikes, each with a little hook, as is common in the buttercup family. Apparently the hook does not contribute to seed dispersal; the seed drops out of the enclosing tissue and floats on the water. We decided that a field guide to fruits and seeds and means of seed dispersal for local plants would be both useful and fun.

Sweetgale shrubs are usually either male or female, although occasionally they are both. Next year’s ‘cones’ were already formed and very small. We noticed that twiglets bearing last year’s female cones were invariably dead, so there seems to be a cost to producing seeds.

The hot weather meant that the insect pollinators were busily visiting flowers. Bumblebees foraged on iris and lupine and beach pea, and their behavior would be worth some detailed attention. The broad, white inflorescences of cow parsnip were covered with foraging flies. Many insects scrobbled over the pollen-rich rose flowers.

It’s the flowers that make these meadows so rich and spectacular, but vertebrate life is also abundant. It was so hot (and rather late into the season for some species) that bird song was at a low level, but I heard a northern yellowthroat singing in the big marsh and warbling vireos in the forest edge. Three kinds of sparrow sang, each in its own habitat.

We visited the colony of beach marmots, who were all down in the cool earth for the day. From the beach berm, we watched a sea otter diving and feeding. A mama seal was accompanied by a small, dark, young one. Whales spouted in the distance, out in Lynn Canal.

Of bears, we saw none. But there was plenty of sign of their presence. Bear-sized trails ran through the thick meadow vegetation. Bear scat decorated the human trails. And one morning we found numerous fresh digs along the upper beach: turned-up moss and soil that hadn’t been there the previous afternoon. Most of the digs were at the bases of rocks, and all seemed to be focused on the roots of species in the carrot family (possibly sea coast angelica and hemlock parsley).