Spark Plant

I’m still backpacking with my students in the wilds of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, but some guest writers are stepping up in my absence. Today, blogger Erin Gettler shares the story of her “spark plant.” Read on to learn how she coined this phrase.

Growing up in a suburb of Northern Illinois, I somehow got the idea that plants only bloomed ecstatically in gardens. Tame plants, I reasoned, are coddled more than wild ones, so they flower in abundance. I only rarely ventured into the woods as a kid, so my theory wasn’t refuted until recently. Now I live on the east end of Long Island, where a wide variety of ecosystems are preserved and open for exploration. And what I’ve learned about woodland plants in the past few years has revised what I thought I knew.

There’s always a “first.” Birders call it a “spark bird,” and I guess we could also coin “spark plant,” to describe the initial instance that grabs your attention for life. In my case, it was a brittle, draggled evergreen shrub that resembled the rhododendron bush in a relative’s front yard. I first visited this wild mystery plant in March, and the narrow, leathery leaves were among the few green things relieving the dull landscape. The buds swelled noticeably from visit to visit, March to May, in tandem with the rhododendron buds in the yard. When the rhododendrons finally bloomed, I made a beeline to the woods to see if the mystery plant had bloomed as well.

It had, but it wasn’t a rhododendron.


My mystery plant turned out to be Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia), a tough shrub belonging to the same family (Ericaceae) as the rhododendron, as well as the blueberries that thrived in those woods. Mountain Laurel is easy to admire when it’s in bloom: blankets of rosy-white flowers transform the dingy green bushes into cloudy puffs floating in the woods. Dark pink anthers lodge in tiny pockets in the white petals. The stamens are spring loaded, and bounce up when you touch them, which I did over and over again for the fun of it. And then I stood back and breathed the whole thing in.

Since that first time, I’ve made a pilgrimage back to the park whenever late May swings around. With repeated trips into the woods, I’ve plotted other blooms on my annual calendar. The first week of April I go hunting for Trailing Arbutus. Mid-April is for blueberries, early May for Shadbush, then the Mountain Laurel. June brings back the Swamp Azaleas, and so on through the summer. It doesn’t get old, and each individual plant grows more familiar to me. It’s like I’m visiting friends.

What are the blooms that draw you out into the woods, fields and swamps where you live?

Erin Gettler takes pictures and writes about the natural world on the east end of Long Island, New York. She hopes to know something about everything someday, but she still has a long way to go. She blogs about these pursuits at The Familiar Wilderness.


The Poppies of Santa Cruz

Howdy! I’m leading a backpacking trip in the Porcupine Mountains today through next Wednesday, so I’m away from my computer, obviously. However, I have some great guest posts lined up for you while I’m gone, starting with this one from Kenyon Moon.

I lived for a number of years in California, near the coast in Santa Cruz, doing field trips for schools and, later, organizing a big invasive species/environmental restoration project. While I was there, I chanced upon a rather curious thing about which there is no current answer (or wasn’t the last time I looked a year or two ago).

Come on a walk with me in my old stomping grounds. We will start at Roaring Camp, an old-timey town complete with period buildings, costumes, and a working steam train.

California Poppies (Escholzia californica) can be seen below, growing next to discarded steam train parts. I like the contrast of the vibrant green and orange in contrast with the old discarded (but still sturdy) train parts. These bright orange poppies can be seen all over California in almost every type of soil and region. But these are not the oddity–this picture is here to give contrast. Keep reading for the twist.

poppies and steel

Hi guys, it’s me, Rebecca – here’s another picture that shows the orangey color better. Photo by Cliff Hutson.

Just a short hike up into the hills from Roaring Camp, close enough to still hear the train whistle, is this scene:


I like this picture because the poppies seem so wild, yet so caught–and yet so content. Sitting in the fence, looking over the quarry with the town beyond, they are growing as though there were not a care in the world. There is something curious about the whole thing, and it is beautiful. Despite the yellow color, these, too, are California Poppies.

Here is another picture:


Technically it is a California Poppy, the same as the orange ones we saw a few minutes ago. There are a couple possibilities here–it could be a genetic issue causing the yellow color, or it could be something in the environment. This batch is not the only yellow one, they are scattered broadly across the hills around Santa Cruz. They seem to prefer sandy, open areas, but are not strictly limited to these. They may also occur elsewhere in the state, but I have no concrete knowledge of that. (And no, not any “yellow” poppy counts, I know there are other yellow species! A species is determined by a host of factors that I skipped over here in the interest of time).

This poppy has, under some basic tests, been shown to have a genetic basis for its color rather than a reason such as soil makeup, sun exposure, etc. With the potential of being a subspecies, this has been dubbed the “Sandhills Poppy.”

  • Is it a new species? This is unlikely, notice the mixed colors in the first picture.
  • Or (more likely) a sub-species that could some day become its own species?

With more testing and some careful investigation, we may find out. As to whether or not they will ever break off on their own, only time will tell. Speciation happens, or we would not have the diversity on Earth that we see today. And it happens frequently, all over the globe, but it is not so often that we can watch the process occur right in front of us!

All I can say definitively is that if you visit Santa Cruz someday, take a few miles to enjoy watching the process of speciation in action. :)

Kenyon Moon currently works for a wildlife clinic in Denver, CO, but has been intrigued by the world in all its natural forms for a long time. He grew up in Michigan and still has his extensive middle school leaf collection, boxes of animal track casts and rocks, and sketches of ferns. His parents encouraged him to go so far beyond the requirements of school assignments and scout projects that he could sometimes not find space to store my collections. It paid off, and after graduating from high school in 2001 he went on to earn a degree in Outdoor Education and then worked as a naturalist doing (primarily, but not solely) environmental education in California and Washington. He has also worked on a variety of projects, from a senior thesis studying a newly reopened cave that had been closed to humans for 20+ years to a major invasive species removal and restoration project dreamed up by himself and a few other naturalists in 2008. He is planning to start his own blog sometime soon.


Wonderful Water Scorpions

Howdy! I’ll be resuming regular posting next week, but the final guest post comes to you from Chris “Dragonfly Woman” Goforth. Having led plenty of stream and pond programs for kids, I know just enough about aquatic insects to know how much I DON’T know about them. Chris, on the other hand, is an expert. Check it out.

North Carolina is a great place to live if you love nature! I am an aquatic entomologist, so I particularly love the variety of aquatic habitats in the state. I work at a field station run by a natural history museum, so I am lucky: a 5 minute walk brings me to a beautiful clear stream or one of two ponds. It’s great!

My favorite aquatic insects are the water scorpions, and they are abundant in the pond near my office:

Water scorpions in the genus Rantra are long, skinny insects with a lot of great features. They’re called water scorpions due to the long tail that extends from the tip of the abdomen. That tail is a respiratory siphon and the water scorpions stick them up out of the water to breathe, using it like a snorkel. Water scorpions are predators and use their strong front legs, called raptorial forelegs, to grab small insects, fish, and tadpoles as they swim by:

Once they’ve captured something, the water scorpion injects chemicals into the prey with its pointy mouthpart to paralyze and dissolve its prey before sucking up the resulting juices through the same mouthpart like a straw. Water scorpions are important predators in the habitats in which they live and help maintain the balance of species in ponds and streams.
Water scorpions are only one of thousands of fascinating aquatic insects! I encourage you all to take a look in your local pond or stream to see what you can find. You won’t be disappointed!

Chris Goforth fell in love with aquatic insects and teaching when she taught her first aquatic entomology lab and tries to combine the two whenever possible.  Her research focuses on behaviors of the giant water bugs and dragonflies, but she enjoys working with any insect that lives in water.  She is a recent transplant to North Carolina and works at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences connecting the public with scientific research as the manager of citizen science. You can read more about aquatic insects at her blog, The Dragonfly Woman.


A Jekyll Island Adventure

Rebecca here! I’m still away on my backpacking trip, but today’s guest post comes from longtime reader Bob Plath, a.k.a. “Catskill Bob.” Reading about his adventures down south brought back some fun memories for me.

About twenty years ago, we spent a couple of days at Jekyll Island, Georgia, as part of a trip to take our then eight year old daughter to Disney World. We regretted that we had only allowed such a short time for a visit because the island clearly merited closer exploration and we promised ourselves we’d return someday.

Then I discovered Rebecca’s blog this past winter, when she was working at the 4-H Center on Jekyll [note from Rebecca: this would have been the winter of 2010-11]. Her enthusiasm and the valuable information she provided, as well as a three week window of opportunity in May to justify the long drive from our home in upstate New York, were all the provocation we needed to begin planning a trip. Our itinerary would include some other points of interest on our route.

We rarely get to the shore, so the morning we spent on the beach in the company of Black Skimmers, Redknots, Ruddy Turnstones, Sanderlings, Oystercatchers and others was probably the highlight of the Jekyll part of the trip. The pond at the old amphitheater yielded Anhingas, Black-crowned Night Herons and Roseate Spoonbills. We also added Painted Buntings, Parula Warblers and Wood Storks to our life lists, but the exotic (to our Yankee eyes) vegetation was also cause for wonder. Who knew that cabbage palmettos put out spikes of showy white flowers? We were like kids in a candy store. Less intriguing were the salt marsh mosquitoes, which put our northern mosquitoes to shame for their ability to land and bite before being detected, robbing the victim of the satisfaction of an occasional pre-emptive strike.

After five great days at Jekyll we headed for Florida’s gulf coast and visited the Lower Suwanee Wildlife Refuge, where we hoped to see a gopher tortoise. Despite getting down on my hands and knees to peer into the maw of a few burrows I found, I didn’t spot any.

Our next stop was at the Okefenokee, where we had a very close encounter with a five foot Diamondback Rattlesnake. If it hadn’t rattled, we might have stepped on it. We retreated to a safe distance and took some pictures. My wife suggested that I move in closer so that my presence in the photo would give a sense of scale, but I demurred. We were much more impressed with the snake’s girth than its length.

Later we read that this, the most venomous snake in North America, is fond of escaping the midday heat by sheltering in gopher tortoise burrows. I recalled with horror my up close and personal inspection of these burrows a few days before.

We wrapped up our trip at Grayson Highlands State Park in southwestern Virginia, where the conjunction of southern and northern hardwood forests produce astounding diversity.

It was a great adventure, and it sprouted from a seed planted by Rebecca in the Woods.
Thank you!

Bob Plath is a 60-something cabinetmaker living on an old dairy farm in the western Catskills in upstate New York.  When he’s not breathing sawdust, he and his wife Annette enjoy hiking and nature photography locally and also in the Adirondacks, and nature-themed trips further afield when we can. They’re both impatient for retirement when they’ll have more time to pursue our outdoor interests.

Newer readers who weren’t around when I lived on Jekyll Island might be interested in checking out the archives. Fun places to start include my encounter with a cottonmouth, my description of the massive live oak we called the Grandfather Tree, my explanation of spring tide, and my photos of sea turtle tracks on the beach.


Lizards in Europe

Hello! Rebecca here. I’m backpacking in the Porcupine Mountains right now, but before I left I scheduled some awesome guest posts for you. The first one is from one of my best friends, Scarlett Rebman. When we were in eighth grade we wrote a bad fantasy novel together, and it boggles the mind a bit that we’re now both legit published writers.

I am not a biologist. Nor am I an environmental educator or much of a naturalist. I am a curious person who finds being in nature rewarding. Pausing for a few minutes to look at a banana slug in Oregon or pulling off the side of the road to rescue a turtle in Michigan are moments that give me perspective. All the stresses of living in a fast-paced, technology driven, globalized world melt away when I meet an amazing creature in nature.

For the 2011-2012 school year, my husband and I had the opportunity to live and teach English in Hungary. We traveled during every school holiday. I am a landmark and museum junkie, yet one of my favorite parts of traveling was taking nature hikes and seeing interesting animals. To my surprise, we had encounters with lizards in at least three countries: Hungary, neighboring Slovakia, and exotic Sicily (which, yes, belongs to Italy, but often seems like a different country altogether). Only a few agreed to pose for pictures.

I came across this little lizard in October 2011 at Devín Castle, a castle outside of Bratislava, Slovakia. Its ruins sits perched on a hill overlooking the Danube.

Aren’t you jealous that it gets to call the castle home?

We went hiking at the Reserva Naturale della Zingaro in Sicily in early April 2012. The Zingaro is a stunning nature reserve along the northern coast of the island. We were excited the first few times we caught a glimpse of a lizard. When we realized that they were sunning themselves on almost every rock, we kept snapping pictures anyways. I believe they are Sicilian wall lizards.

In June 2012, my ninth grade students and I were rewarded for climbing a steep hill in northern Hungary by encountering this lizard with a stunning blue face:

He is (I think) a male European Green Lizard (Lacerta viridis). He was more impressive than the pile of rubble at the top of the hill. What used to be a bustling castle had been destroyed by man, reclaimed by nature, and now the greatest attraction is the wildlife.

When most people think of Europe, they picture the Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, or the Coliseum. I am thrilled that I got to see all of those places, but my lizard encounters will stand out just as much in my travel memories.

Back in the States after her school year in Hungary, Scarlett Rebman is currently a canvasser for an environmental nonprofit organization. When she isn’t trying to save the world from the evils of hydrofracking, she is usually hanging out with her husband, playing with her cat, reading, cooking, or taking a walk. People tell her she thinks too much. You can read more about her year in Europe at Hungary for Adventure, or for current posts, visit her new blog at Scribbling Scarlett.