Flora and fauna of the Athens County area, and occasionally habitats outside Ohio. Subject matter will consist of both interpretive material and taxonomic issues in plant and animal identification.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Roadside Plants, that translates to MORE EXOTICS!

Weeds man, plain and simple, WEEDS! Well that's a matter of opinion. You know what they say, "One man's weed is another man's wildflower." Traveling along roadsides, walkways, or any disturbed ground will produce a variety of plant species. Unfortunately many are non native invasives. In fact I'd say the vast majority of roadside plants are alien, like this one above, the Canada Thistle, Cirsium arvense.

Canada Thistle spreads in large stands by underground rhizomes. It has a light purple flower, smaller than any of the other thistles, native or exotic. The stem has no spines, but watch out for the leaves, they certainly do. Each head can produce up to 80 seeds, adding to the spread. The species is dioecious, meaning there are separate male and female plants, but bees help with cross pollination. Introduced biological controls have proven ineffective. The Painted Lady butterfly caterpillar will feed on the leaves and provide a small amount of control.

Who hasn't seen the Sweet Clovers, both White and this Yellow, Melilotus officinalis. Sweet Clover has been in this country for hundreds of years. It's been used as a soil enricher, forage crop, and a wildlife cover plant. Today solid fields may still be planted for Honeybees. Of course it easily escapes and can dominate roadsides and open fields.

Oh nice, a Buttercup. While most buttercups grow in woodland situations, this one, the Tall Buttercup, Ranunculus acris, tends to prefer open areas. As the name implies, it grows taller than most species, up to 3 feet. Like other buttercups, the leaves are very serrate, and this species is divided into 5-7 major lobes, almost palmate in shape. Unlike most of our other buttercups, this species is alien. While they don't spread with rhizomes, a solid field of this can prevent native plants from getting a foot hold.

Another clover that has been around for a long time is Red Clover, Trifolium pratense. Used as a nitrogen fixer for soil and an important plant for honey production, it even has some medicinal value. Most people tend to weed it out of their vegetable and flower gardens. With the exception of the Buffalo Clovers, all of the Trifolium clovers in Ohio (red, white, crimson, alsike, etc.) are introduced species.

Here are three more very common plants found in any disturbed soils. The yellow one is Birds-foot Trefoil, Lotus corniculatus. The purple one is Cow Vetch, Vicia cracca, and the pink and white species is Crown Vetch, Coronilla varia. All three are introduced legumes that, because of their creeping ability, have been used in landscaping for greening bare ground, soil enrichers, hay production, and erosion control.

Birds-foot Trefoil is often mistaken for Pencil Flower, Stylosanthes. You have to look at the leaf arrangement to be sure. Cow Vetch is often mistaken for Alfalfa. Cow Vetch flowers grow in long, one sided racemes, and the flowers are elongated and hang down. Alfalfa flowers are shorter and occur in round heads at the top of the plant.

Now that's a funny looking weed right there, I don't care where you're from. Yep, can't argue that. It's called Lambsquarter, Chenopodium album. A European weedy species common in agricultural fields and pastures. It's often called Goosefoot because of the leaf shape. The flowers are greenish white and not showy at all. Lambsquarter is edible, the leaves are often prepared like turnip greens or spinach. But if you are in a rich nitrogen soil, or a field that has been fertilized, I suggest you don't eat it. A high nitrate content will cause severe headaches.

English Plantain Plantago lanceolata, is, you guessed it, from England. Another overlooked weed of lawns, they actually have an interesting bloom when you really look at them. The green heads produce little stalked white flowers. The heads turn brown as they get old. The stems are leafless. Leaves are more basal, long and thin. It does provide a nectar source for some butterflies, and is eaten by several small mammals.

Abandoned railroad tracks, growing up that's where I always found this plant. Of course now I know it will grow in any fallowed field. It's Common Mullen, Verbascum thapsus, another Eurasian introduction. The broad leaves are velvety soft to the touch. A basal rosette of leaves grow the first year, and a flower stalk in the second year. It will reach 4-6 feet in height, and the central taproot will grow down almost as far. Smoking parts of this plant will cure coughing. Funny, I always thought it was the other way around.

An oversized Ragwort? Pretty much so. This is Butterweed, Packera (Senecio) glabella. Considered native to parts of the country, in recent years it has spread through our state like wildfire. It has a preference for moist to wet soil, and farm fields are particularly susceptible. It is only an annual, but produces so many seeds, it's been highly successful. 25 years ago it was hardly seen anywhere in Ohio, now it's everywhere.

Oh ya, now there's a native plant I recognize. Sorry, this is also introduced. The Ox-eye Daisy was brought in as a flower garden plant, and varieties of it are still sold for such purposes. It easily escaped into our landscape, but many people still consider it okay because it's showy. Some folks prefer to call it "naturalized" rather than alien. The latin name is Leucanthemum vulgare. It was formerly known as Chrysanthemum leucanthemum.

Why cattails here? We have two species, one considered native, the other we are not too sure about. Plus the two now hybridize. The Common or Broad-leaved Cattail, Typha latifolia, is native. The Narrow-leaved Cattail, Typha angustifolia, is native according to some books, but others believe it was introduced from Europe. Native or not, the concern is that the Narrow-leaved species has become quite invasive. Cattails actually decrease diversity in wetlands when they form solid stands, and need to be controlled.

If you peel back the green leaves, you can eat the white center. Just remember that cattails are natural filters and absorb any pollutants in the water. Think about the water quality before eating. Cattails are used to filter out heavy minerals in reclamation sites.

How do you tell them apart? Broad-leaved and Narrow-leaved refers to leaf width, but that's a matter of perspective. Look at the fruit. Broad-leaved has very fat fruit, more like a Bratwurst. Narrow-leaved fruit is more like a Cigar. There's still a better way. Broad-leaved species have the male and female flower parts touching each other. Narrow-leaved has a distinct space between them. The above plant has very fat fruit, but yet has a small space between the top and bottom. Click on the photo. Perhaps this is Typha x glauca, the hybrid between both. I've never had anyone point it out, so I can't be sure.

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