Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Lunch, and a Rattlesnake, Too: Matthaei-Nichols Volunteers Learn about Our Native Massasauga

Nearly 20 volunteers along with several student summer interns gathered in the auditorium at Matthaei Botanical Gardens June 20 to learn about the eastern massasauga rattlesnake. The meeting was part of the “Lunch & Learn” educational sessions for our volunteers. These quarterly sessions help build a sense of community outside of the volunteers’ regular work days and show appreciation for the amazing service they provide.

Volunteers settle in for a presentation on the eastern massasauga trattlesnake .
Matthaei-Nichols natural areas specialist and massasauga expert Steve Parrish introduced the native massasauga to the audience. The word “rattlesnake” invariably gets a few worried looks and lots of questions. Fortunately, the massasauga is a smallish, placid, shy snake that would rather be left alone. Approach the massasauga, and it turns rattle and heads for the underbrush.

A massasauga at Matthaei Botanical Gardens
The massasauga, explained Parrish, is a pit viper, meaning it has two heat-sensing pits on its head that help the snake detect prey. You can also identify a pit viper by its vertical, slit-shaped pupils.

Meadow voles make the lion’s share of the massasauga’s diet, although the snake has been known to eat frogs, insects, and even other snakes. The massasauga gives birth to live young after a gestation period of about three to four months. The snake is born with just one rattle, or “button,” as they’re called, growing additional buttons with each molting. Unlike the full-on rattle of its more aggressive cousin the western rattlesnake, the massasauga’s rattle is more of a cicada-like, intermittent buzz.

The massasauga often overwinters in crayfish burrows. If a crayfish or two are present, they usually get along and the massasauga doesn’t eat the crayfish. In fact, Parrish attended one survey where naturalists used scopes to sight down the burrows. One burrow was being shared by the snake, crayfish, and frogs.
The massasauga often makes its winter home in a crayfish burrow.

The massasauga’s historic range includes nine states plus Ontario. A healthy population of massasaugas inhabits Matthaei Botanical Gardens, and a survey from 2010-11 uncovered 27 snakes on the property. “Massasauga” is Ojibwe for “great river mouth,” Parrish said, possibly because of the wetland areas it lives in. Massasauga lookalikes include the eastern fox snake, eastern hog-nosed snake, and the northern water snake.

If you see a massasauga, keep a safe distance of at least several feet. Though it’s a timid snake, like many wild animals the massasauga prefers to be left alone. Don’t try to pick up the snake or play with it. And please report your sighting to the front desk at Matthaei Botanical Gardens. Staff here as well as the DNR like to know when and where one’s been spotted.

Why do we protect a venomous snake, you may ask? The massasauga is a keystone species, that is, it fits into the ecosystem like a puzzle piece. It helps control the population of meadow voles and the massasauga itself is food for other predators.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Conservatory Chronicles: Sausage Tree Update

The north sausage tree (Kegelia africana) has begun to flower and is overlapping with the south sausage tree's blossoming. We've begun to pollinate them by hand back and forth using a paintbrush. Pictured is the first tiny fruit. The second picture shows our paintbrush pollination method, in which the The hairy paintbrush fibers act like the hairs of a bat that would pick up the pollen when visiting one flower. The pollen is moved by the bat to the next flower of another tree, thus cross-pollinating two flowers of different trees.

A new sausage forming

Hand-pollinating with a paintbrush

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Hogweed vs. Cow Parsnip: Which Botanical Animal Is It?

A note from Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum natural areas manager Jeff Plakke on the difference between hogweed and cow parsnip---

A lot of people have been asking lately and the answer is: No, we do not have the exotic giant hogweed growing on our properties. What some people are reporting is the native cow parsnip, which looks similar. The obvious distinction is that giant hogweed grows much much larger. Cow parsnip can get up to 7 feet tall, giant hogweed up to 14 feet tall. Leaves of cow parsnip can get almost 3 feet wide, giant hogweed leaves up to 5 feet wide. Giant hogweed has been in the news a lot recently and is intriguing because it is so big and the sap is very toxic. So far it is not widely spread in Michigan. It's just in Ingham County (Lansing) and Gogebic County (borders Wisconsin in the upper peninsula). 

Here's a good website with pictures for comparison, and a good, short video on both hogweed and cow parsnip that shows/explains a lot about both species.

You can find cow parsnip growing in a number spots at MAtthaei Botanical Gardens including along the trails in the Fleming Creek floodplain, and along the edge of Willow Pond. At the Arb there are colonies of cow parsnip growing along the River Rd. (Nichols Dr.) and in the wetland boardwalk area. A large patch near School Girl's Glen bridge has been reported to us numerous times over the past few years. It's good that people are paying attention to the plants.

Spread the word and help to educate!

Friday, June 7, 2013

Conservatory Chronicles: The Sausage Tree

Update June 11: a reader asks if the fruits of the sausage tree are edible. No - it would be "like eating a doormat" - all fiber - according to our curator.

Matthaei-Nichols horticulture manager Mike Palmer reports on the progress of the sausage trees (Kigelia africana) in the conservatory at Matthaei Botanical Gardens. Palmer notes that there are two flower stalks on what he calls the “north” sausage tree. The compass point refers to the fact that there are two sausage trees, one on the north end of the tropical house and one on the south end. The presence of flowers on the north sausage tree indicates that we will eventually have new fruits on a plant whose gigantic, sausage-shaped fruits are perennially popular with visitors.

The Sausage Tree Back Story
What’s up with the flowers, and why does it matter that the north tree has flower stalks? A sausage tree (Kigelia africana) is self-incompatible, which means that the pollen of any flower from the same tree cannot successfully pollinate its own female flowers. Two trees that are not genetically identical are needed for cross-pollination to occur and for the plant to set fruit. Fortunately the north and south sausage trees are genetically different plants.

Above: Two sausage tree flowers, one with all its parts (A stigma and four anthers) and the other minus the anthers that contain the pollen that Matthaei-Nichols staff preserved in the freezer.

Adding another layer of complexity, the species of sausage trees in the Matthaei Botanical Gardens conservatory are bat-pollinated. Since we have no bats in the conservatory, mere humans—Matthaei-Nichols staff—must hand-pollinate the flowers, bringing pollen from one plant to the other to get fruits to form on each tree.

Above: The fruit of the sausage tree.
Finally, in order to fruit, two different sausage trees must also be flowering at the same time. Last year the north sausage tree didn’t flower at all, hence no new fruits. This year the two trees are a bit out of sync. Hedging his bets, Palmer collected and froze pollen from the south sausage tree when it was in bloom. When the north sausage tree finally blooms we can use the preserved pollen to pollinate it. “It works!” says Palmer, who has used the technique before.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

What's Happening in the Great Lakes Gardens at Matthaei Botanical Gardens

Matthaei-Nichols horticulturist Connie Crancer reports that things are stirring in the Great Lakes Garden.

According to Connie, several of the Cirsium pitcheri (Pitchers Thistle) made it through growing in 24-inch PVC tubes for two years and being planted last fall. Even better, she notes, is that there will be one in bloom this year. One is in bud. C. pitcheri is a threatened endemic species in our dunes. We don't have the beautiful magenta form as pictured below but perhaps someday we will.

Also, enjoy the show of Cypripedium parviflorum var. makasin (small yellow lady slipper) at the end of the boardwalk in the newly developing orchid area. The cages with burlap are protecting newly planted orchids.

Pictured is the magenta form of Cirsium pitcheri. Photo from University of Michigan Herbarium by E. G. Voss.