Broad-leaved Helleborine’s Look-a-likes

Coeloglossum viride

Long-bracted Orchid L & C                                                       Yellow Lady-slipper R (Note hairs)

Many people have posted comments on an earlier blog post about Broad-leaved Helleborine (Epipactis helleborine). There is a lot of confusion regarding the identification of this species. I recently saw a photograph of this orchid identified as Spotted Coral-root  (Corallorhiza maculata). Broad-leaved Helleborine has several color forms and some of the field guides do not account for the variations.

Epipactis helleborine

Close-up of Epipactis flower showing distinctive orchid flower structures

If you have a plant in flower you can recognize it as an orchid because it has three sepals and three petals with one of the petals modified into a lip. The reproductive  organs are fused into a column. The leaves are parallel veined. (Note: Sepals are the outer covering of a flower bud. Petals are inside of the bud.)

Broad-leaved Helleborine’s flowers are about 15mm (5/8 inches) across and the lip is turned in at the tip.

Epipactis helleborine

Smooth leaves and stems of Broad-leaved Helleborine

When not flowering Broad-leaved Helleborine is commonly mistaken for one of the lady-slippers but its leaves and stem are smooth. Lady-slippers (Cypripedium spp.) have hairy leaves and stems. Helleborine normally has more leaves than a lady-slipper.

Long-bracted Orchid (Coeloglossum viride) has smaller flowers with notched lips and is not as coarse a plant as hellebore. It grows in natural areas and I have never seen it invading a garden.

Epipactis helleborine

Root of Broad-leaved Helleborine showing growth bud and side view of flower

While this is not a gardening blog many people ask about controlling this species. The only way I know is to try to dig out the plant. If you leave any of the fleshy root behind it will come back.  Note the growth bud for next year’s plant in the photo. Most orchid species have fleshy roots so please make sure you have the plant correctly identified before you dig. My earlier blog post showed this species growing with domestic Viburnum and, in spite of repeated digging, that colony is still growing. Plants appeared in my wildflower garden, but died out without any interference from me.

Broad-leaved Helleborine is probably growing in every county in the state. Learn the plant when it is flowering so you can identify it later in the year.
Copyright 2016 by Donald Drife

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I Listen to the Trees

Populus tremuloides

The author and his niece listening to an Aspen

The January-June, 2015 issue of The Michigan Botanist is a tribute to Burt Barnes who died in 2014. Dr. Barnes co-authored Michigan Trees with the late Herb Wagner. This is my go to book for information on Michigan trees. Dr. Barnes was a forest ecologist and an expert on Aspens and Birches. One photograph caught my eye. It shows Dr. Barnes with his ear pressed against a small Aspen. Its caption reads, “Burt Barnes listens for ‘the sound of bells’ along the trunk of a young aspen tree as the wind blows its leaves” (page 77). The article does not state if they heard anything. It even says, “someone had jokingly told him” this. I needed to find out what they heard.

A few days later, my niece and I spent an evening listening to tree trunks. Pressing one ear against a Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides) trunk and blocking the other ear so I would not hear the wind through the leaves I listened. Whenever the wind rustled the leaves, the trunk sounded similar to a light gentle rain. We listened to Quaking Aspens of different sizes from 2 inches [5cm] to 18 inches [45cm] hearing the sound from every tree. We heard the same sound from Bigtooth Aspen (Populus grandidentata) and their hybrid (Populus xsmithii).

Populus grandidentataPopulus tremuloides

Bigtooth Aspen leaves (L) and Quaking Aspen leaves (R)

We then wondered what sounds other trees made. We listened to Black Cherry (Prunus serotina), Red Oak (Quercus rubra), and Red Maple (Acer rubrum) and heard no sounds. We visited a stand of Balsam Poplar (Populus balsamifera) and heard no sounds from the trunk of this Aspen relative.

Why is the rain sound heard only in Aspens? Does the density and structure of the wood transmit sound better? Do Aspen leaves vibrate at a unique frequency? The sound was produced regardless of the wind speed so perhaps frequency is irrelevant. Or perhaps, as my mentor tells me, this is one of those things we do not understand and we need to embrace the mystery.

Get out and listen to the trees. Enjoy the mystery. And you will probably find something else fascinating in Nature.
Copyright 2016 by Donald Drife

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National Pollinator Week

Mason Wasp (Symmorphus cristatus) nest

“Buzz Inn” bee hotel mounted in my yard, and some occupied “rooms”

June 20-26, 2016 has been designated National Pollinator Week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of the Interior. Our yard is pollinator friendly. We use no insecticides. We provide plants that produce pollen and attract pollinators to our vegetable garden.

This year, we put up a bee hotel now called the “Buzz Inn.”  Our plans came from a helpful guide, Managing Alternative Pollinators: A Handbook for Beekeepers, Growers and Conservationists, SARE Handbook 11, NRAES-186 by Eric Mader, Marla Spivak, and Elaine Evans.

SARE is Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education.

Symmorphus cristatus

Mason Wasp at nest holes

Symmorphus cristatus

Mason Wasp

Eleven cells are currently occupied—meaning capped with mud. Five others have already hatched. A Mason Wasp (Symmorphus cristatus) has moved in. They are in the 3/16 inch [4.8mm] diameter holes. We hope other pollinators will move in and use other sizes. The inn’s largest holes are 3/8 inch [10.0mm] diameter. I installed the inn four weeks ago. We may need to add more rooms.
Copyright 2016 by Donald Drife

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Robert Gasiorowski: Naturalist

Robert Gasiorowski

Bob Gasiorowski leading Nature Walks 1975

Royal Oak’s nature community lost a good friend last month with the passing of Robert (Bob) Gasiorowski. I met Bob in the summer of 1972 when a notice appeared in the Royal Oak Daily Tribune announcing a series of morning hikes in Quickstad Park. Bob served as the city naturalist and led the hikes. Each session began with a lecture by Bob in his classroom in Kimball High School and then we would head to Quickstad for a nature walk. Topics included: pond life, insects, birds, trees, wildflowers, mammals, and more. Bob shared his infectious passion for all facets of the natural world. The nature program ran for several years, adding summer evening walks and an evening lecture program. I made my first public speaking presentation, with much encouragement and coaching from Bob, to this group.

Tenhave Woods in Quickstad Park still exists because Bob fought for its preservation. The city was under pressure to remove the undergrowth and thin the trees so the park would become “safer”. Bob and John Lindell, the director of Royal Oak Parks and Recreation, protected these marvelous woods from destruction. As a compromise Tenhave Woods was fenced.

Blue-headed Vireo, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Magnolia Warbler

Blue-headed Vireo, Red-bellied Woodpecker, and Magnolia Warbler in hand during bird banding work in the 1970s.

Bob’s data from the 1970s provides a baseline for us to measure the health of the woodlot. We have several decades of his bird banding records. These form the base of our bird list. As part of a 1971 NSF Summer Institute for teachers at U of M Dearborn, he identified and measured hundreds of trees in Tenhave Woods. This quantitative analysis allows us to measure the changes in tree species composition. Under Bob’s direction, the first vascular plant list for the park was compiled.

Naturalists of Bob’s caliber are rare.  Most people specialize in one facet of natural history. They study birds, or plants, or insects. Bob studied everything.  I’m lucky to have had many people who instructed me about the natural world. Bob taught me to diligently observe nature. To measure and record the world around me. Get out a stopwatch and time how many calls a minute a Robin makes. Measure the size of that tree or flower. Use a thermometer and discover the difference in temperatures between the sunny and shady sides of a rock. Quantify Nature but never lose the wonder of Nature. Do not overlook the beauty of a spring woods in full bloom or the music of a wren’s song. He taught me to put Nature into the hands of children. Share with them the wonder. Bob was happiest when he was teaching and especially loved to teach young children. He told me, “If a child sees a bird through binoculars then they probably will not look at one through a B-B gun sight.”

Bob Gasiorowski receiving the first “Robert Gasiorowski Lifetime Achievement Award” in 2007, presented by Don Drife and Bob Muller

Bob Gasiorowski receiving the first “Robert Gasiorowski Lifetime Achievement Award” in 2007, presented by Don Drife and Bob Muller, and watching in 2008 as the award is given to another recipient.

The Royal Oak Nature Society would not exist without Bob’s program as an example. It is fitting that their highest honor is named the “Robert Gasiorowski Lifetime Achievement Award” and that he was the first recipient. Bob spent a lifetime learning and then teaching about Nature. I will miss him.


Thanks to Robert Muller for providing photos from the 1970s.
Copyright 2016 by Donald Drife

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That’s not a Duckweed

Ricciocarpos natans

Purple-fringed Riccia

Purple-fringed Riccia (Ricciocarpus natans) is not a flowering plant. It is an aquatic liverwort. It is found worldwide except where there is permanent ice. Floating on a pond it resembles a Duckweed and often grows with them. It differs in its butterfly shape and the fringe of purplish scales on the underside of the plants.

Ricciocarpos natans

Purple-fringed Riccia upper and lower surfaces

Duckweeds are flowering plants, capable of producing seeds. Purple-fringed Riccia reproduces via spores or plant division. Spores are produced inside the thallus. A thallus is a flat plant body not separated into stems and leaves. The plants are buoyant because they have many air chambers. A nice colony is found in Dragonfly Pond, Tenhave Woods, Royal Oak, Michigan. This is an interesting plant which should be sought in ponds throughout Michigan.

Ricciocarpos natans

Purple-fringed Riccia section showing air chambers and developing spores

Copyright 2016 by Donald Drife

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Michigan’s Mistletoe

Arceuthobium pusillum

Dwarf Mistletoe witch’s brooms 

Dwarf Mistletoe (Arceuthobium pusillum) is a parasitic flowering plant found on Black Spruce (Picea mariana) and rarely on other evergreens. It is related to southern Christmas Mistletoe (Phoradendron leucarpum). I learned about Dwarf Mistletoe from Billington’s Shrubs of Michigan when I was a boy. He writes, “To include such a little, inconspicuous plant among the shrubs may be stretching things too far. But it is a shrub, and to discover it may provide the discoverer with a greater thrill than locating many of the larger and more conspicuous plants.” I have looked for this species for decades, never being certain that I found it. It often forms distorted branches termed “witch’s brooms.” Fungi and insects also cause these growths. I looked at the witch’s brooms in this colony before and I was never sure what the cause of their abnormal growth was. When I saw the flowers for the first time last weekend, I knew exactly what they were. I have never walked into Diane’s Bog this early in the growing season.

Arceuthobium pusillum

Male Dwarf Mistletoe flowers

Dwarf Mistletoe is one of our first species to flower. It flowers at the same time as Red Maple (Acer rubrum). I found 16 Black Spruce hosts. Male and female Mistletoe grew on separate hosts. The flowers are 10mm (3/8 inch) high but each host had many blooms. The species is insect pollinated; however, I observed no pollinators at work. Mistletoe does damage or kill host trees.

Arceuthobium pusillum

Female Dwarf Mistletoe flowers

Billington was right, it was thrilling. I seldom find native plant species that I have not seem before. My pulse quickened. I stood and stared at the plant for several minutes, forgetting my cold feet. My sense of wonder renewed. I found the male (staminate) plants first and then looked for the more inconspicuous female (pistillate) plants. I returned an hour later and the sunlight was reaching the plants. I spent several hours just photographing and studying the plants. What a memorable day. You never know what you will find when you go out into nature and look.

May 7, 2016
Copyright 2016 by Donald Drife

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Soft Maple Flowers

Acer rubrum flowers

Red Maple male flowers

Many people are surprised to learn that trees have flowers. They apparently have not thought through how seeds can develop if there are no flowers. I have been interested in tree flowers since I was given a copy of Norman Fassett’s Spring Flora of Wisconsin when I was a boy. It is a handy little guide to plants that flower in Wisconsin before June 15th and useful throughout Michigan. From it I learned that Red Maple (Acer rubrum) flowers have petals and Silver Maple (A. saccharinum) flowers do not. I began to look for tree flowers.

Acer rubrum perfect flowers

Red Maple perfect flowers

There are additional characters used to distinguish flowers of the two species. Red Maples have separate  sepals and on Silver Maples they are connected. The ovary on Red Maples is hairless and on Silver Maples it is hairy. The soft maples flower before their leaves develop and often I find flowers on the forest floor so it is nice to be able to identify the trees from only their blossoms.

Acer saccharinum flowers

Silver Maple L – male flowers R – perfect flowers

Soft Maples normally have separate male and female flowers. They can be on the same tree. Perfect flowers are known but are rare.

Get out and look at the maples while they are flowering. Watch what is pollinating them. Enjoy one of the first flowers of the year.

Copyright 2016 by Donald Drife

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Crocus blooming in lawn in March

Spring is beginning to explode in Southeastern Michigan. I saw the first Woodchuck (Marmota monax) of the year in our yard. It is a healthy looking female. I watch her burrow entrance every spring. This morning it was filled with winter debris but is now cleaned out. A thousand crocus bloom in our front yard. However, there are no pollinators on this early nectar source. Turkey Vultures are heading north in their spiraling kettles.

I decide to visit Seven Ponds Nature Center to look for Skunk-cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). I hear Red-winged Blackbirds trilling when I pull into the parking lot. This is one of the best signs of spring. I can hear Sandhill Cranes calling, another first for the year. A small V of seven cranes flies over, heading toward the calling cranes. They fly with their necks out-stretched and they quickly upbeat their wings and slowly downbeat. I can see the red on the tops of their heads.

I charge down the trail, scarcely aware of my surroundings, heading to the boardwalk where I observed Skunk-cabbage last fall. I need to slowdown. I need to take in Nature. I need to decompress and enter fully into her world. I force myself not to hurry.

Symplocarpus foetidus

Skunk Cabbage flowering in standing water

Along the trail to the boardwalk I see Skunk-cabbage blooming. This Jack-in-the pulpit relative is one of the first plants to bloom. Its flowers consist of a center ball (spadex) which is a cluster of individual perfect flowers. It is surrounded by a spathe with an opening to allow pollinators to enter. The flowers are foul smelling and remind me of rotting meat. This smell attracts their main pollinators, flies.

Symplocarpus foetidus flowers

Skunk Cabbage flowers

As I lie on the trail photographing the plants I can hear buzzing insects. Honey Bees (Apis mellifera) are visiting the flowers. I have never observed Honey Bees on Skunk-cabbage before. I could not get close enough to see if the bees were gathering pollen or just visiting the flowers. I later check Frank Pellett’s book American Honey Plants. He quotes G[ilbert]. M. Doolittle who  states that he values Skunk-cabbage, “more highly than any other pollen-yielding plant or tree, and that there was nothing with which he was familiar so eagerly sought by the bees, nor any source of pollen which so greatly stimulated brood rearing.”

Symplocarpus foetidus

Variation in Skunk Cabbage spathe colors

The spathe color varies from dark maroon to a yellow-green with reddish speckles. I do not know if the color is related to the age of the plants or is simply a variation.  Farther along the trail I smell a few damaged plants. Their odor is unpleasant, reminding me of a skunk’s scent but without the faint sweet smell.

Alnus incana

Speckled Alder flowers developing

Speckled Alder (Alnus incana subsp. rugosa) is not quite in flower along the boardwalk. The yellow male catkins are expanding but not yet producing pollen. The small, red, female flowers are developing.

Castor canadensis

Beaver cut tree stump and lodge

Beavers (Castor canadensis) have a lodge along the shore of one of the lakes. This colony does not need a dam because the lake is naturally deep enough for their needs. They are cutting Speckled Alder for food. Branches from one of the Soft Maples, stripped of bark, are placed on the top of the lodge.

As I walk back to my car my pace is slow. When I surround myself in Nature I unwind.  I never know what I will see, even walking in a familiar area. I just get out and look. On this walk I have seen only familiar old friends that I know at a glance; however, it is still rewarding to renew these old friendships.

March 13, 2016
Copyright 2016 by Donald Drife

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A Few Michigan Galls

Gall are formed by insects laying eggs or feeding on a plant. In response to this damage the plants produces growth hormones resulting in abnormal cell development. Galls normally occur during the plant’s most active growth time. Other parts of the plant remain unaffected.

Liposthenes glechomae

Creeping Charlie Gall on Ground Ivy

Creeping Charlie Gall (Liposthenes glechomae) is a grape-size gall that develops on Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea) which is also called Creeping Charlie or Gill-over-the-ground. The gall is formed when a cynipid wasp lays an egg in the leaf or stem of the plant. If you cut one of these galls open you will find a small white larvae. Cynipid refers to all members in the insect family Cynipidae. The wasp does no real harm to the plant so it cannot be used to control Creeping Charlie. Both the wasp and the weed are imported from Europe.

Acraspis erinacei

Hedgehog Gall on White Oak

Another Cynipid wasp gall is caused by the Hedgehog Gall Wasp ( Acraspis erinacei ). It was on a White Oak (Quercus alba) leaf. This is the agamic generation (they reproduce without males). The female generation emerges from this gall and lays her eggs in the leaf buds where they over winter. It is an interesting looking dime-sized gall.

Macrodiplosis quercusoruca

Vein Pocket Gall on Red Oak

The Vein Pocket Gall (Macrodiplosis quercusoruca) is caused by a larval stage of a gall midge in the family Cecidomyiidae. This gall was on Red Oak (Quercus rubra).

Melaphis rhois

Sumac Gall on Staghorn Sumac

Sumac Gall Aphid (Melaphis rhois) is one of the few aphids that cause galls to form. This one was on Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina). Staghorn Sumac Aphid is one of the woolly aphids. The galls are hollow and occur along the leaves.
Copyright 2016 by Donald Drife

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Monarch Resources

Milkweed Talk Title Slide

Milkweed Community Title Slide showing clockwise from upper left–Great Spangled Fritillary, Black-sided Pygmy Grasshopper, Monarch, Red-Blue Checkered Beetle


The Milkweed plant community is a fascinating place to just stand around in and watch what comes by. I have a talk “The Milkweed Community: More Than Monarchs (but Monarchs are cool!) on the many members of this community and the following are resources mentioned in that talk.

Websites about Monarch Butterflies

Monarch Watch has a helpful guide for identifying, and growing milkweeds. They also have information on Monarch conservation, biology, and different research projects including their Monarch tagging project.

The National Wildlife Federation’s Monarch Butterfly page is a good source of general Monarch information.

The University of Minnesota hosts Monarch Lab which has general information including great life-cycle information.

“Monarchs (Danaus plexippus) and milkweeds (Asclepias species): The current situation and methods for propagating milkweeds” by Tara Luna and R. Kasten Dumroese. This publication explains the international program underway to conserve populations of Monarchs. It describes the migration of the butterfly and also has information on propagating Milkweed.

Monarch Butterfly Journey North has general information but also tracks the population size and migration of Monarchs

Watch for tagged Monarchs

Watch for tagged Monarchs

Websites for Identifying Members of the Milkweed Community

Bug Guide is a site for “Identification, Images, & Information For Insects, Spiders & Their Kin For the United States & Canada.” The Iowa State University Department of Entomology provides this great resource. This is the first site I look at when I identify an insect.

The Herbarium of the University of Michigan provides the Michigan Flora Homepage with keys, range maps and photos of all flowering plants and ferns known in the wild in Michigan.

This site is dedicated to the conservation and identification of Bumble Bees. They have helpful drawings of the color patterns of different Bumble Bee species.

Author in a stand of Common Milkweed

Author in a stand of Common Milkweed

Books for Identifying Members of the Milkweed Community

Jason Gibbs, Ahsley Bennett, Rufus Isaacs and Joy Landis. 2015. Bees of the Great Lakes Region and Wildflowers to Support Them: A guide for farmers, gardeners and landscapers. Michigan State University Extension Bulletin E3282. (An excellent and inexpensive guide to Michigan’s bees. My review can be found here.)

Jeffrey Hahn. 2009. Insects of the North Woods. Kollath+Stensaas. The entire North Woods series is excellent and useful for the entire state of Michigan. (see Larry Weber’s book cited below)

Mogens C. Nielsen. 1999. Michigan Butterflies & Skippers. Michigan State University Extension Bulletin E-2675.

Ba Rea, Karen  Oberhauser and Michael A. Quinn. 2010. Milkweeds, Monarchs and More: A Field Guide to the Invertebrate Community in the Milkweed Patch (Second Edition). Bas Relief, LLC. This 80 page book is a great guide for the beginner and it would make a good student field guide for classroom use.

Larry Weber. 2013. Spiders of the North Woods. (Second Edition). Kollath+Stensaas.

Paul Williams, Robin Thorp, Leif Richardson and Sheila Colla. 2014. An Identification Guide: Bumble Bees of North America. Princeton University Press.

Copyright 2016 by Donald Drife

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