A flower, a bee, and an ant lived in a moist, upland woods. Some might not notice them. Others might view them and pass on by. They would not know the relationship that they have. More informed individuals would marvel at them. They would look a little closer and want to know more. What are their names, and how do they spend their lives? It only takes a moment to spot something like this. Whether we see them or not, they are there, awaiting detection. If you look closer, you will find them too.
While fairy spuds rest under the ground for most of the year, they wait for their time to shine. Looking like tiny taters, corms are the vertical portion of the underground stem that is thick and fleshy. They supply food to a stem, sepals, leaf buds, and a flower containing nectar and pollen. Each plant has one, no bigger than a peanut. Corms are similar to bulbs (tulip and iris) and tubers (potatoes). They store nutrients and help with vegetative growth of many plants even when conditions are stressful. Iroquois and Algonquin tribes ate them. Preparation involved boiling or roasting them.
One of our most common spring wildflowers, the first one I saw this year, is this flower. Spring Beauty can bloom from March to May. What we see above ground lasts about one month. This perennial plant reaches a height of six inches. Two sepals, the outer part of flowers, surround a developing flower bud. They are often green and leaf-like. Leaves are long and narrow. Leaf arrangement is opposite. That means leaves connect to the stem in pairs. In this case, they attach to the stem above the ground or cauline. This smooth stem is glabrous or free from hairs. Striking pink lines the flower’s five white petals. These are veins, “bee guides”, showing pollinators the way to where the nectar is. Pollinators’ compound eyes can see them better than we do.
Speaking of bees, this plant has a visitor that specializes in pollinating it. The spring beauty mining bee collects pink pollen and feeds only it to its larvae. Did I say pink pollen? Yes, I did. Pollen does not only come in the shade of yellow. On top of this, the flower opens its petals by the middle of the morning. Normally, this takes place between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Then it proceeds to close them again by late afternoon. On cloudy days and at night, flowers may not even open at all. This safeguards the pollen and increases the bee’s chance of coming on a sunny day and cross-pollinating (pollinating one flower or plant with pollen from another flower or plant).
Going back to the bee, mining bees are solitary, not social. They live underground. Many are so selective that they only gather nectar and pollen from a single family of flowers. Sometimes they narrow it down even further to one genus or species. These bees are most active in early spring. Andrena bee species, such as this, get their mining name from their method of nesting. Furthermore, honey bees, bumblebees, carpenter bees, mason bees, cuckoo bees, sweat bees, and other mining bees sometimes visit this lovely flower.
For a flower to become fruit, four events must take place in a certain order. Pollination or the transfer of pollen to a stigma, ovule, flower or plant allows fertilization. Fertilization is the combining of pollen with the ovum. Growth and development takes place next. Growth indicates an increase in size and mass over time. Development is the process by which a certain organism changes from one cell into a more complex organism with many cells. Ripening is the last event in this cycle. It is how fruit gets its flavor, quality, color, and other properties. It is a change in composition making it more appetizing.
Fruit contains seeds. Some fruits have elaiosomes, fleshy structures on seeds containing lipids and proteins. Ants seek them because their larva will eat them and grow. It is part of their healthy diet. After the young consume the elaiosome, ants have no more use for the seed. They put it in a kitchen middens, an ant toilet located outside their nests. Before that happens, studies show that adult ants apply antimicrobials while handling the seeds, reducing the amount of plant pathogens that they have. Ants are seed dispersers. Myrmecochory is the term for seed dispersal by ants.
Each spring beauty flower has three seeds. The small flowers are the size of a dime. They bloom before the leafy canopy blocks the sunlight from the forest floor. Erect flowers stand tall, and these fall into that category when open. They droop downward when closed. One plant can have multiple blooms. Other than woodlands, look for these along sunny streambanks and thickets east of the Mississippi River.
Spring beauty has a few other known pollinators. They are flies. Hover Flies, often the Giant Bee Fly, flesh flies, and blow flies are all documented pollinators of this woodland jewel. Flies are important pollinators of many plants. When our buttonbush is in full bloom, a fly species is abundant on those flowers at night. In my last article, I mentioned the firefly that might have been pollinating a spicebush flower.
Claytonia virginica’s name makes sense. John Clayton, an Englishman who came to Virginia in the early 1700’s, begets this eponym. He was one of early America’s top naturalists. Clayton undertook an early effort to list all native Virginia plants. Spring beauty would have been among them. Benjamin Franklin allowed him to mail his plants and letters for free. Specimens and written descriptions went to Mark Catesby back in England. Catesby sent them to Jan Frederik Gronovius, a Dutch botanist. Because of the large amount of material, Gronovius asked Carl Linnaeus for help.
When it came to American botany, Gronovius’s work, Flora Virginica, using much of Clatyon’s work, became the main reference for at least fifty years. Naming and classification used the Linnaean system. Dutch botanist George Clifford also studied Clatyon’s work. Linnaeus was the one who named the spring beauty after John Clayton.
Transient wildflowers are fleeting moments in the cycle of life. They bring beauty to our world but also serve a larger purpose. Species depend on their existence. A microcosmic world may be small in size. Its importance is not diminished by that. Flowers do matter. So do bees, ants, and flies. Erase them all, and what remains? A barren place becomes our unappealing habitat.
Take note. Each animal and plant has a purpose. Just because you do not know it does not mean that it does not occur. Respect life. Educating yourself is a choice. Destroying or eliminating it also is. In Massachusetts, spring beauty is an endangered species. Let us hope that its common status will remain static in the Buckeye State.
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