Friday, August 31, 2007

Eastern Tailed Blue

The eastern tailed blue, Everes (Cupido) comyntas is one of those tiny butterflies I call 'kickers', for they live their lives skimming just over the ground, feeding on clover, and as you walk through the fields they kick up around your feet. Off they go, fluttering ahead of you through the grass, and every ten feet, another little tailed blue flies up and the two butterflies spiral rapidly around each other, like two tiny shards of glowing, ice-blue glass... in a dance, obviously important to the butterflies but mysterious to me.
It is probably our commonest butterfly, but its tiny size and low-flying habits just don't make much of an impression, until you get your nose down in the clover and look at these little jewels closely. The male, seen at the top, on the outside of its wings is grey-blue with a couple of orange spots, and on the inside (or dorsal surface) it has prominent orange/black spots at the rear of the wings and is bright lavender-blue in the sun, with tiny spurs at the rear. The second picture above is probably also a male, but I'm a little less certain, because of the size of the spurs, which are larger in the female. The females are less blue, showing blue at the base of the dorsal wings in spring, fading to dusky in late summer. Below is a more bluish female, and at bottom a real dark female (which unfortunately has lost her spurs). The males and females are more alike on the underside of their wings.
So, look closely (if you can get one to sit still long enough) at the glowing little blue butterflies flying in the grasses; look for a couple of orange spots at the rear of both wing surfaces, and look for the little spurs at the rear. There is a very similar western tailed blue, found mainly in the western half of the country and the far northern reaches of the upper midwest.
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Thursday, August 30, 2007

Silver Spotted Skipper

The silver spotted skipper is a common sight in Iowa's open areas and at the edges of woods. With its dark brown or even black color, and the characteristic skipper habit of keeping the wings closed when sitting, it is easily passed by, but the spotting is very rich; gold spots on the forewings, and a silver white band on the hindwings, that look as though metallic paint was dripped from above onto this dusky little vagabond. Butterfly experts (or skipperologists) say that the silver spotted skipper almost never lands on yellow flowers, which I can affirm after observing them in a meadow full of goldenrod.
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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Cloudless Sulfur

Sulfurs are quite common in the fields and meadows in late summer. This is the cloudless sulfur; probably a female, due to its whitish yellow coloration and dark edge on the rear of the wings... cloudless sulfurs range from almost white to rich yellow to greenish yellow... all as cheerful as little sunbeams floating across our prairie landscape.
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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Pearl Crescent

The pearl crescent butterfly is one of our commoner midwest meadow butterflies. I believe this is a male; the females are yellower, especially with a yellow spot at the leading edge of the forewing, and the knobs on the ends of the antennae of the male are black. The lovely feature of this species is the pearly marking, which is on the outside of the wings and, alas, not shown in my picture... you'll have to go out and find your own pearl crescent to look at.
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Monday, August 27, 2007

Butterflies Of Big Grove

There is a meadow in the middle of the nature preserve I work on, and this time of year it's filled with butterflies softly flitting through the warm sunshine, with the buzz of cicadas in the surrounding trees adding to this timeless, dreamy scene in late August in Iowa.
This is the great spangled fritillary, one of the loveliest of our native butterflies.
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Sunday, August 26, 2007

Nice Kitty...

Upon exiting the greenhouse last evening, I almost ended up with this critter dangling from my nose... it's a barn spider (Araneus cavaticus), the size of a peanut M & M. Barn spiders are orb weavers; that is, they spin concentrically circular webs, spinning a new web every evening. This isn't the best picture, as barn spiders are very wary, so it scuttled up to the greenhouse every time I'd stick my head around the corner, playing cat and mouse to get a picture. Speaking of cats, you can see the interesting marks on its abdomen, which cause it to be called the "cat-faced spider". I don't know what, if any, purpose the markings serve but it's interesting to speculate that the "face" might attract predator wasps to attack from the wrong side so that they become ensnared in the web, and the predator becomes prey. Maybe that's assigning too much deviousness to this little arachnid, but I've always thought spiders are more cunning than they would appear; in a fair fight I'd not bet against a spider.
As I've been removing multiflora rose from the woodland nature preserve, I've been spitting out a lot of spiders as I keep running into their webs; fortunately they're mostly smaller cousins of this barn spider. However I do have a suggestion, backed by experience: for your peace of mind if you happen to be working in the woods, and something lands on top of your cap with a 'plop'' that makes you think of a soft acorn, just shake off your cap and keep moving... don't, out of curiosity, stop and stick your cap under your nose to see what's on it.
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Saturday, August 25, 2007

Indian Pipe

It's that time of year when the Indian pipes (Monotropa uniflora) start popping up everywhere in the woods, raising their ghostly little stems through the leaf litter. This clump is just unfurling its small hanging flowers... yes, it is a true flowering plant, not a fungus; in fact it is classified in the same family as rhododendrons and blueberries (I think taxonomists do have a sense of humor after all). Indian pipe is a saprophyte, relying for its nutrients on soil fungi that in turn grow on tree roots.
There are many odd little things that grow in Iowa's forests, but this is surely one of the oddest.
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Friday, August 24, 2007

New To The Neighborhood

This fawn showed up at our back door yesterday; it's awfully young to be on its own, and I don't know what happened to its mom. With nobody to protect him, he's getting pushed around some by the other deer, who kick out at him. An ear of sweet corn, and getting called 'Sweetheart' made it better.
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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Still Lucky

Lucky the bunny, released in the deep ravine by the pond, showed up in our backyard looking fat and content. Luck is way under-rated in life... one of my Mom's favorite sayings was "You can either be good or lucky, and lucky's better." I seem to remember she was always looking right at me when she said that. Anyway, it's nice to see the bunny out and about and looking fine... he's kind of a member of the family, you know.
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Tuesday, August 21, 2007


As I walk through our garden, it's somewhat like visiting old friends; so many of the plants there have been given to us over the years, and each of these plants reminds me of the giver. I'm not sure just when I first started noticing that an awful lot of the givers are now gone from this earth.
Take the acidanthera; it's now been classified as Gladiolus callianthus, but I'll stick with calling it by the lovely name acidanthera, thank you very much. When I stop and view what's now a memorial plant, it usually brings back a lot of warm memories, but every year when the peacock lily (as the acidanthera is also called) blooms, it is a bittersweet thing. The original bulbs were a gift many years ago from one of my medical patients; a gentle and intelligent man who for no accountable reason other than chance, was dealt a devastating hand in life. I do not have enough fingers on my hands to tick off the major illnesses that he was afflicted with. Life was just a struggle for him, and caring for him as a doctor was not much easier, and when he died and I was filling out his death certificate, I thought of listing the cause of death as "tired of living". The river flows on, but ten years has not been enough time to wash away the sorrow I feel for him. With the popular characterization of medicine and medical doctors as being impersonal, it would probably surprise most people to know how much most physicians care about their patients, and how long they remember and grieve their passing.
So the acidanthera is blooming now; lovely in its somber maroon and white, with a sweet perfume. I wish my old friend was here to enjoy it with me.
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Saturday, August 18, 2007

Return Of The Toad

An American Toad (Bufo americanus) has set up its night-time spot on our front stoop, hiding under the walkway during the day; a fine place to catch bugs, but the entryway is shortly to be ripped up and replaced. I don't want Mr. Toad to be squished by the workmen, so I took him across the driveway and popped him down in the woods... the next night he was back in his old spot. I then took him around the house to the back yard... the next night he was back on the front walk.
I've given up for now, but if you see a toad out in the country hitchiking, do NOT bring him to our house.
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Friday, August 17, 2007

Letting Lucky Go...

After he'd finished his breakfast of romaine lettuce, muskmelon (his fave), and a carrot, we let Lucky go.
Lucky first appeared in a dark and dusty corner of our garage, the tiniest of bunnies. Our little tabby and white cat P.J., an inoffensive cat whose not normally a hunter, except for the occasional June bug, had brought the bunny in, probably having snatched it right out of its nest, then plopped the helpless creature down in our garage. The rabbit was frozen with fear, and we assumed it was probably injured from being carried in a cat's mouth. We put it in a warm box full of shredded tissue, figuring it would die during the night, but the next morning it was hopping about, so I put a piece of lettuce in the box, and to my delight the lettuce was gone when I checked back. Therefore it was off to town to lay in some produce and to buy a ridiculously large bag of wood shavings, which were used to cover the bottom of a plastic stock tank that we put our fancy goldfish in during the winter when they are brought in from their pond. This would be the new home for the bunny, who for obvious reasons was given the name 'Lucky', and he began to eat everything in sight, growing fat and strong.
Lucky was now safe, and warm, and well fed, but the outside world beckoned, and today we let Lucky go, taking him to the deep, leafy back ravine. He at first didn't want to leave his box, but then he was out, and in a few seconds was off into the woods and gone.
Considering Lucky never made a sound the whole time he was with us, it's odd that the house seems a little empty and quiet now. It's a scary and dangerous place out there for little bunnies, with hawks, owls, and coyotes. Where Lucky will go, how long he will survive, and whether he'll ever meet his mother... I will never know... but he's free.
He's just one tiny bunny in a very big world, but should you happen to be driving through our neighborhood, perhaps on your way to the store or to a movie, please brake for Lucky...
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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

This Is More Like It...

If I seemed a little sniffy over the naming of the hibiscus 'Old Yella', let me make amends by praising the naming of Hibiscus Fantasia. The flowers are pretty special too.
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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Alarm Clock

While normally a moderately early riser, I certainly don't need an alarm clock to be up shortly after dawn these days; we're having our kitchen and dining room shelled out and remodeled, with walls coming down and floor tile smashed up with a sledge hammer. Therefore, it was off to Big Grove Nature Reserve for some peace and quiet and to do some ripping out of my own... in this case to remove multiflora rose, Oriental bittersweet, bush honeysuckle, and autumn olive from the woods.
It was 90 degrees today, with high humidity, so it was stiflingly hot working my way through dense trees and brush in my thick clothing that partially protects me from the rose thorns, lopping off multiflora rose that grew in large tangles, up to seven feet high. As I worked my way down the steep ridge, I was soon dripping with sweat, and the brush was rife with spider webs this time of year, which I kept running into since I was looking down all the time. The webs would break across my face with an audible pop, leaving me spitting out pieces of web and the odd dead bug. I had to be careful in trying to brush the webs off my face not to touch my face with my gloves, which were liberally coated by this time with poison ivy sap. By the time I reached the south end of the ridge I was practically steaming, soaked and covered with sticky webbing... a discouraging proposition. However, the trees now thinned out, and an enjoyable breeze came up the valley. I took off my gloves, and in looking down the steep slope, noticed dozens and dozens of tiny stalks of coralroot orchids blooming. This tiny plant (Corallorhiza odontorhiza) is one of the saprophytic orchids, its flowers no larger than a grain of rice, but each one a little jewel.
Knowing that we're helping to preserve things like the coralroot orchid lifted my spirits, and I hiked over to the next ridge and worked my way north. Back at the truck, while changing into dry clothing, an indigo bunting sat on a limb nearby and enthusiastically serenaded me with his buzzy call of fire-fire, where-where, here-here, see-it, see-it ... it was a great day.
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Monday, August 13, 2007

Old Pinky???

This is hardy Hibiscus 'Old Yella'. It is supposedly named such because it has pale yellow flowers. I grant you, its buds are slightly creamy, but for me the flowers open white with a pink wash... Old Pinky? Regardless, it is a lovely thing, with what seems to be rather heavy substance for a hibiscus almost a foot across. I have it blooming right next to Hibiscus 'Fireball'... I guess subtlety is not my strong suit.
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Sunday, August 12, 2007


When cyclamen coum starts blooming in the late summer, it's a bittersweet thing; it's nice to have new foliage, and fresh, dainty flowers popping up in a garden that is long in the tooth for this year, but it's also an unmistakable, inescapable sign of impending fall. I will say, after the heat wave we've been suffering through, fall will not be unwelcome this year... it's what follows that I don't like.
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Saturday, August 11, 2007

The "G" Gene

My sister's house... is gardening a hereditary thing?
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Friday, August 10, 2007

Messing With Nature...

Gardening is man's feeble, and in the end futile, attempt to manage nature; to bring order to a wayward natural world that we really barely understand. It doesn't help when the garden sheperd also has an obsessive personality... take garden paths. The front entry path to our garden had been built with quite a bit of effort and time, and it was a perfectly fine path, but then the moles came. In making flower beds in the woods, I dug out the clay soil and replaced it with loose compost; wonderful for little plants, but I hadn't realized it was like building swimming pools for every mole in the neighborhood... they can plow around in the loose soil like little motorboats, eating the fat worms that proliferate in the rich soil, popping small plants out of the ground like so many corks out of bottles. This damaging intrusion into my perfect garden world is, of course, totally unacceptable, requiring a response; the more complicated and time consuming the plan is, the better... I am the Wile E. Coyote of gardening. Therefore, as I've related before, I've been digging a two foot deep trench around the whole garden, and placing a thick plastic mole barrier in the trench, then filling it back in... I just ran one of these trenches up this path, ripped off the old ground cloth, replaced all the bark on the path, and reset the limestone edging.
Peace has again returned to our garden, but it's an illusion... an uneasy and transient truce with a world of weeds and critters that I'm quite convinced have meetings at night planning their next foray into our little Eden on the hill.
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Wednesday, August 08, 2007

A Lesser Stink

Late summer is host to many delightful floral displays in our garden, and a few stinkers... this is Mutinus caninus, the dog stinkhorn. We normally have lots of Ravenel's stinkhorns coming up, which are larger and much more impressively stinky. This year, for some inexplicable reason related to weather or something more obscure, we have dog stinkhorns; more colorful but more modest and distinctly less stinky... I still won't be cutting them for a bouquet.
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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Love-Hate In The Garden

Being an easy-going guy, I may have opinions about things in the garden, but seldom get emotional enough to have strong feelings about anything. The black cherry trees (Prunus serotina) may be an exception. We lost all the elm trees in our woods due to Dutch elm disease, leaving us with a limited selection of large canopy trees; a few nice oaks, a couple of ashes, and lots of black cherry trees... the cherries are 60-70 feet tall now. As trees, the black cherries certainly have enough striking pluses and minuses to evoke an emotional response in a gardener that haves to live with them. They are fairly attractive, with tall, straight trunks with dark, layered bark that has been compared with burnt potato chips. The broad, high canopies are favorites of many canopy birds like orioles and vireos, and they are covered in the spring with flower clusters that perfume the whole garden, then rain their tiny flowers down like confetti. If you scratch a new twig, it smells of almonds. The wood of these trees is a lovely red; most cherry cabinet wood in fact comes from the black cherry.
However... black cherries are fairly short-lived for large hardwoods, apparently because their limbs are prone to break off (not an ideal quality when a hopeful gardener has planted hundreds of dollars worth of azaleas underneath). The broken limbs allow fungus to invade the tree, and they begin to die, dropping even more missile-limbs in the process. I can begin to see the handwriting on the wall, that just as the garden matures, I am going to start losing the canopy trees, which will wreak havoc with my bank account and my garden. Perhaps the least endearing trait of Prunus serotina is the annual barrage of fruit that it drops; on sidewalks, cars... and on hapless gardens. On a windy day, walking about the garden is somewhat like being in a large popcorn popper, as these somewhat hard little fruits drop by the hundreds, each with a little popping sound when they hit the ground. They form almost a solid, sticky ground covering; the whole garden on a hot day smells like a winery, as the cherries ferment in a gooey carpet that sticks to your shoes and can cause you even to slip and fall if you move suddenly. It seems as if every last one of these little cherries then germinates, leaving you with drifts of thousands of little cherry trees in every flower bed.
But then... today as I was walking about the garden, admittedly redolent of rotting fruit, I looked up and saw all the black cherry trees literally alive with vireos, gorging on the cherries, flitting (as vireos do) constantly from limb to limb. Every vireo from miles about must have been in our garden; especially red-eyed vireos that delight me in the spring and early summer with their constant refrain... Look up-see me-here I am-over here! They are called the preacher bird because of the persistence of their call, and our woodland garden would be much poorer if the vireos left. The black cherries can stay, but it's a sticky relationship.
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Monday, August 06, 2007

Rockin' Robin Rose

My propensity to plant every tree and shrub I can lay my hands on, in a woodland garden that was already shady, has not been a blessing for the roses... or what's left of the poor things.
However, that old saw about how a single rose can make a garden is actually true... here is Rockin' Robin.
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