Thursday, April 27, 2006

Dead meat

Some of our simplest-looking wildflowers offer some of the most sophisticated tricks for survival. Take the Red Trillium, for instance.

A handsome plant found in our open woods, Red Trillium bears big, three-petaled purple flowers in spring. The flowers are pretty, but they don’t mean to be. In fact, they mimic dead meat. The petals wear the color of carrion and the flower itself reeks with an odor among the most foul in nature.

The fakery is the trillium’s way of drawing flies. Unlike the many bee-oriented flowers, trillium uses flies for pollination. These are the same flies that explore the recently thawed forest floor, feeding on the carcasses of creatures that died over the winter. To a fly, a trillium looks and smells just like another spring corpse.

Unfortunately for trillium, the burgeoning numbers of White-tailed Deer have significantly cut its numbers in many areas.

It takes more than bad breath to offend a hungry deer.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Deadly balloons

Just when you think you’ve heard all the ways we’re messing up nature comes news of yet another problem: balloons.

Yes, those symbols of childhood festivities are killing fish, birds, and even sea turtles. A full-page feature in the latest issue of Connecticut Wildlife points out that helium-filled balloons can travel miles, frequently ending up in the ocean. Fish and sea turtles see a popped balloon, think its food, and eat it. The result is a blocked digestive system and death.

Birds often grab the washed-ashore strings as nesting material, but these strings too often get wound around the birds – both parents and nestlings – resulting in strangulation or starvation. Swimming waterfowl can become entangled in the floating strings.

The problem is serious enough that Connecticut passed a law, making it illegal to launch 10 or more helium balloons in a 24-hour period.

So the next time you throw a birthday party, keep the balloons, as well as the kids, under control.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

A pink potato

Some wildflowers, like hepatica, anemone, and trillium, wear fancy Greek or Latin names. Others, like cohosh and poke, bear colorful American Indian labels. However, often the prettiest and most appropriate names are simple American English.

Such is Spring-beauty, whose name tells its story. In early spring groves of these small, pink flowers welcome the winter-weary, who head for the woods in search of the season of new life. The flowers seem so delicate – and in a sense, are, since they will quickly wilt if picked. Yet they are able to withstand freezing nights and raw days.

The Indians’ interest in Spring-beauty was more practical than esthetic. They knew that down below, the plant’s little round corm offered food, sweet and a bit nutlike, and wearing a skin like a potato. Indeed, they have been called wild potatoes. But an even better name, so typical of wonderful old English-language folk names for wildflowers, is fairy-spuds.