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Velvetleaf

Here is a new plant to me, one I’ve never seen on our farm or anywhere else.  I discovered this foot-tall specimen growing in the turf near the gate to the horse paddock.

A search with Google images led to identification as Velvetleaf, Chinese jute or Indian mallow, a member of the mallow family native to China and possibly India.  It was brought to America in the early 1700s for use as a fiber source in rope manufacture.

Since then the plant has escaped into the wild and become a pest of various crops, particularly corn and soybeans.  It seems to have several scientific names, the most common being Abutilon theophrasti.  Velvetleaf is edible and in Asia the plant and seeds are part of native cuisine.  

The velvet name is due to the very soft texture of the heart-shaped leaves.  Feels almost like moleskin it is so fine.  The large, strange seed pods or fruit attracted my attention.  The plant also has yellow-orange flowers up to 1″ across.  All the flowers were closed on the specimen I found.

I suspect the seed for this plant either dropped off the tractor of the local farmer who helps me spread manure or possibly came in grain for the chickens or horses.  Velvetleaf is found in midwestern cornfields and a tough-coated seed could have sneaked into the processed grain then passed through an animal’s digestive system intact.

Following my policy of identifying any new plants found on the farm, I realized Velvetleaf would be an unwelcome addition.  It is a prolific seeder, highly competitive with other plants.  The last thing I need is another invasive weed.  I pulled little Velvetleaf and popped it in the garbage before the seeds could mature.

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Painted Lady Butterfly

It seems to be a good year at the farm for butterflies.  Little yellow Sulphurs are everywhere.  I have seen several Monarchs.  The past few years, Monarchs were becoming rare sightings.  Perhaps the nationwide attention and emphasis by private individuals on planting milkweed has helped this species.  Another butterfly that sometimes feeds on milkweed is the Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui.)  This insect has orange wings with black and white markings.  There are four eye spots on the outsides of the bottom wings.

We have a good supply of Painted Ladies this year.  Here at the farm the caterpillars feed on thistle, mallow, milkweed and aster, among other plants.  They are not such specialized feeders as the Monarch, perhaps helping their numbers to stay more plentiful.  The Painted Lady larva need to finish munching on the fall asters soon, turn into butterflies and head south.  The very mild weather we have been experiencing the past week, with near-record warmth, will not continue.  The butterflies migrate all the way to Mexico to over-winter.  They need to get started before the frosts come to Maine.

Already our tree leaves are turning color and beginning to drop.  There has been no frost yet, but the decreasing light has triggered the trees’ autumn show.  As long as the heat continues, the zinnas will bloom in abundance in my vegetable garden.  When frosts hits, they die immediately.  Painted Lady butterflies seem particularly fond of zinna nectar.  I often find several of these insects on the flowers at one time.

Sunday the temperatures soared to near 90F, yesterday we hit 86F at the farm and today promises more of the same.  This is idyllic weather for the two week period that comprises the life span of the adult Painted Lady butterfly.  As they begin their trip south, the insects will continue to feed, mate, lay eggs and die.  The progeny will progress toward warm Mexican winter homes, sustaining the Painted Lady population for another year.

Smooth Carrion Flower

I found this plant last year.  It grows on our land along a rock wall in partial shade beside an orchard and pasture.  The bunches of berries caught my attention.  Two days later I returned to photograph the plant and all the berries were gone!  This year when I spotted it, I took pictures immediately.  The plant is called Jacob’s Ladder or the Smooth Carrion Flower (Smilax herbacea.)  It is a member of the catbriar family although it has no thorns.  The large bunches of berries provide an attractive display in the early fall woodland.  This particular vine is at least eight feet long.

The plant is an herbaceous vine that dies to the ground in fall.  It is a perennial native to Maine and the eastern half of the US and Canada.  The Smooth Carrion Flower is distinguished from other species of Smilax by the lack of hairs on the underside of the leaf and by the very long stem that holds the berry bunch on the vine.  The vine grows up to eight feet long, supporting itself by curling tendrils around the stems and branches of woody neighbors.  The plants are dioecious, meaning they are either male or female.  One of each sex is required to produce fruit on the female plant.The leaves are somewhat shiny and heart-shaped.  The plant’s name is derived from the smell of the globular bunches of greenish-yellow flowers.  They stink like rotten meat.  The scent attracts carrion flies, the main pollinator.  The round berries average 3/8″ in diameter and are a deep purple-blue color.  All the parts of this plant are edible.  It is browsed by deer.  The berries are eaten by birds and small mammals.  The shoots and tendrils can be consumed raw or cooked like asparagus.  The berries are edible.  They may be made into jam or jelly.  A gelling agent can be extracted from the root.  

It is too late in the year to find shoots or young tendrils on the plant.  I tasted a raw young leaf and found its flavor very leaf-like (haha!)  The berries I tried were dry and pulpy inside, not juicy.  They tasted bland and vaguely sweet.  The berry skin has a mild grape-like flavor to me.  I don’t know if the berries may be juicy earlier when they first ripen, I suspect not.  There are six seeds in each berry that resemble grape seeds.  The berries stained my saliva deep purple.  I suppose if I were starving in the woods, I would welcome a belly full of the berries, otherwise, they aren’t very exciting to eat.  They are nice to look at.

The native Americans used the plant as food and medicine.  Root extract is said to analgesic and the leaves were used as poultices for burns and boils.  Early American settlers used the root as an ingredient in root beer along with some parched corn, molasses and sassafras.  I prefer not to devour the plant.  It’s better to let it grow to provide seasonal interest and food for wildlife.

Little Things on a Walk

I set out on a walk to check milkweeds for monarch butterflies.  Sadly, I found no evidence of monarchs on that walk, but there were many small and interesting things to see.  Milkweed is home to more than just monarchs.

The back side of the dam for our farm pond is filled with milkweed.  There is not much evidence of the leaves being eaten, so there are not too many caterpillars munching milkweed.  I did see a Milkweed Tiger Moth caterpillar. I have spotted several monarch butterflies here at the farm this year.  A much better tally than just a few years ago when  I saw none.  Yesterday I watched a monarch flitting around the milkweed so will hunt today for any eggs that may have been laid.

Our farm is overrun by little orange snails.  These first showed up here about ten years ago.  They were brought into the pond by wild ducks and other waterfowl, I assume.  Since then they have spread and become a veritable pestilence.  There were many snails eating milkweed.

I interrupted a wasp couple in the middle of insect lovemaking.  So I guess this photo is x rated?  The wasps demonstrate sexual dimorphism, a difference in size based on gender.  The miniature male is carried around by the female as he does his fertilizing job.

A tiny tree frog, half the length of my thumb, hid in the leaves of a milkweed.  These tree frogs are abundant this year.  Perhaps that is due to the large amount of rain we have received.  Several times I’ve seen baby tree frogs clinging to the outside of our house windows in the evening.  They stare in at us as we stare at them.

There was a most unusual black and white ladybug-type beetle on the milkweed.  I have tried to identify this beetle.  There are so many varieties of ladybugs that I haven’t found this particular one.  I think it is rather striking.

Also found several Reticulated Netwinged beetles.  They look almost like butterflies, but their antennas give away their identity.  These beetles are unusual in that their larvae will band together in huge masses.  The adults are able to excrete defensive chemicals that discourage predators.

Wild honeybee on thistle bloom

Milkweed, golden rod and thistle grow well together, maybe because they are about the same height.  The golden rod were in full bloom and attracting an army of insects.  I saw wild honeybees, bumble bees, wasps and tiny beetles feeding on the golden nectar.  In some places the wild bee population is threatened by whatever is killing the domestic honeybees.  It appears there are no problems with the wild bees here at the farm.  Perhaps having an organic operation is the secret to healthy bees (and other insects!)

Allegheny Monkey Flower

This pretty purple flower is a recently established plant on the banks of the farm pond.  The seeds were probably carried there by wild birds.  Following my new policy of identifying any unknown plants in case they are invasive pests, I looked this little beauty up.  It is the Allegheny Monkey Flower, (Mimulus ringens) also written monkeyflower or monkey-flower.  Presumably someone sees a monkey face when they look at the bloom.  I actually don’t.  But, I do see a very pretty and bright flower in an otherwise green landscape.

The monkey flower has a square stem.  It grows in wetland habitats, just above the water line where it is moist, but not inundated.  I found three plants.  Next year there will doubtless be more if they fruit successfully.  The plant is native to New England.  Where wetland has been disturbed and invasive purple loosestrife have taken hold, the monkey flower is out competed by loosestrife because pollinators tend to favor the invasive flowers.  Happily for the monkey flower, there is no purple loosestrife allowed at our pond.

Monkey flower blooms June-September.  It forms seed pods that split open when ripe.  The plant is a perennial of the Lopseed family.  It acts as a host to larvae of the Baltimore Checkerspot and Common Buckeye butterflies.  Overall, this wildflower seems innocuous, even beneficial.  It surely adds beauty as the flowers are my favorite color.  It may stay on our farm.

A Pretty Weed

Every late spring a shady corner of the hayfield is bright blue with the flowers of a pretty weed.  The area is about 5 feet square and has not increased noticeably in size over the years.  Having learned my lesson from the yellow rattle about allowing pretty weeds in the hayfield, I decided to research this lovely blue flower.  Turns out it is Germander speedwell, Veronica chamaedrys, a member of the Plantain family.

Germander speedwell was introduced to New England and is native to Britain and Europe.  A perennial herb with rhizomes, it is termed a turf weed due to its tenacious ability to survive with grass.  The name Germander has nothing to do with Germany.  It is a corruption of the pronunciation of chamaedrys.  The herb has a long association with healing and was well known and widely used over 500 years ago.  The high tannin content of the leaves and stems makes an astringent tea that was favored for respiratory tract and nervous system ailments and as a treatment for stomach ulcers.  It was also used as a poultice on the skin, especially for itching.

The flowers are large for a turf weed, measuring a half-inch across.  Each flower lasts only one day and wilts quickly on picking.  This trait earned the plant the sobriquet Mannertreu or Men’s Faithfulness in Germany.  Apparently German men had a reputation for short-lived faithfulness.  During extended rainy spells, the flowers do not open.  They are able to self-pollinate.  In France the plant was often used as a substitute for Asian tea, due to a similar smell and flavor, and went by the name Europe Tea.  The seeds are said to be favored by birds.

Because this weed can out-compete grass, I will be keeping a close eye on it.  Should the size of the patch increase, I will mercilessly eradicate the little speedwell.  So far the plant has restricted itself to one shady spot under an ancient maple and causes no problem in the field.

 

Bloodroot

During a recent walk on our farm I found this patch of white flowers.  The single leaf has a distinctive growth habit of wrapping around the flower stem.  The early blooming spring plant is called bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis.  It is native to northeastern North America.  Bloodroot grows in moist to dry conditions, from woods to floodplains, in full sun to shade.  I did not detect any fragrance in the flowers.
Bloodroot has a rhizome that grows close to the surface. It sends out shoots in early spring and is pollinated by bees and flies.  The flowers produce pollen, but no nectar. The plant is spread by ants who carry the seeds away to their colonies to eat the attached elaoisomes.  After the flower is pollinated and the petals drop, the leaf enlarges and unfurls.  By the time the seeds develop, the leaves begin to yellow and die away.  The plant then goes dormant until next spring.

Bloodroot earned its name from the bright red juice in the rhizome.  When the root is damaged, it appears to bleed.  Bloodroot is poisonous.  The chemicals in the sap can burn the skin.  In times of old, people used the juice to burn away warts and even cancer.  It was a dangerous and somewhat ineffective treatment that often resulted in severe skin damage.  The plant extract was also touted as a cure all and sometimes ingested.  Its use has been linked to cancerous growth in the mouth due to skin damage.

So it is best to enjoy the fleeting beauty of bloodroot flowers from a distance.  Do not pick or otherwise disturb this wild spring beauty.