Saturday, August 21, 2010

Limey Soils and Ladies' Nests

It's amazing how plants can differ from one side of the river to the other. Today I crossed over from my familiar tromping grounds in Moreau to explore the Warren County banks of the Hudson River, where a calcareous substrate creates a limey habitat for flowers I've yet to find in Saratoga County. In past explorations over there I've found American Pennyroyal, Purple Milkwort, Slender Three-seeded Mercury, and Macoun's Everlasting, and I'm happy to report that I found them all again today. And I also found lots of flowers that grow everywhere, including gorgeous clusters of goldenrods, now coming into their late-summer glory.

I still consider it some kind of miracle that I ever saw the pennyroyal, because it's really, really tiny and grows on a rocky outcropping well away from the path. I had to search especially hard for it today, since Low Blueberries have overwhelmed most of its site, and only a few plants remained. The flowers were already beginning to fade, and as soon as I touched them, they dropped off, so I'm lucky to have come away with even one photo.

Purple Milkwort was easier to spot, since it grows in an open area near where I parked my car. I did think, however, that this year's flowers were paler than the ones I found last year. This hot dry summer has caused many flowers to wither and fade already.

The Slender Three-seeded Mercury was thriving, since it seems to like it hot and dry. This is hardly a showy plant, but it is kind of unusual. Its more common cousin grows in every city vacant lot and sidewalk crack this time of year, but I've never found the slender species (Acalypha gracilens) any place but here.

Macoun's Everlasting looks pretty much like its cousin, Sweet Everlasting, if all you are looking at are the scaly flowers and the white-wooly stems. However, the leaf shapes are quite different. With the Sweet Everlasting, the lance-shaped leaves are narrowed at the base and do not clasp the stem.

With the Macoun's Everlasting, the leaves broaden at the base and do clasp the stem.

Last year I found only a few of the Macoun's species, but this year I came upon an open area where they grew in masses.

Among that mass of plants, I noticed many fluffy clumps hanging amid the flower stalks. The clumps seemed to be made up of parts of the flower heads.

When I saw a dark shape wriggling within one of those clumps, I peeled it open and here's what I found within: the spiky, yellow-striped caterpillar of the American Lady Butterfly.

Exposed, the caterpillar immediately dropped to the ground, where it curled up tight. I then could take a good close look, and I noticed tiny blue spots among all that black and yellow.

Here's a stretched-out version of the caterpillar, munching away on a leaf of the everlasting.

Searching about among the plants, I found this caterpillar in the early stages of making its shelter, as it draws several flower heads together with strands of silk.

Here's a later version, with the caterpillar nestled within. I see there's a wee little bug of some kind sharing the space.

At first, I thought those dark blobs stuck to the nests were other bugs, but a closer look revealed that they are probably the caterpillar's poop. I'm guessing that the caterpillar will stay in this shelter, eating the gathered-in flowers and leaves, in preparation for pupating.

Sure enough, I found several pupae in some of the fluffy shelters. It looks like the caterpillar shed its prickles before settling in for its metamorphizing sleep. And who wouldn't?

What a sight it will be when all these American Lady Butterflies emerge and take to the air!

Here's another kind of Lady also inhabiting this stand of Macoun's Everlasting. What a cutie!


Louise said...

Well, you've given me another fascinating plant, and insect, to keep my eye out for.

Ellen Rathbone said...

What terrific finds!