Tag Archives: Rhode Island

Roger Williams Park Botanical Center

On Saturday my family and I visited the Botanical Center at Providence’s Roger Williams Park.  Here are some of the more interesting plants we saw:

To begin, here’s the fluffy flower of Calliandra haematocephala, also called the powderpuff tree or stickpea:


Next up: the elephant cactus, Pachycereus pringlei, can apparently reach almost 20 meters tall! The Roger Williams Park cactus is so tall its top is tied to a ceiling rafter, but I was still more impressed by its spines:


Cactus spines deserve their own post someday, but until that day here’s some fun reading on what spines are, exactly.

Aha! Here we have some species of sundew (Drosera) cohabiting a lovely little bog with some species of bladderwort (Utricularia — perhaps U. livida)!  Sundews capture insects and other small prey that lands on their many sticky tentacles. Utricularia, you might recall, suck small animals into bladders and eat them.  Both are tremendously impressive:


For good measure, here’s a carnivorous pitcher plant too — I believe it’s a species of Sarracenia.


Now here’s something new — a Begonia rex of the “Escargot” variety.  I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a leaf take this form before.  It looks like it crawled out of the sea:


Before finishing up, let’s take a moment to marvel.  Cactus spines are likely modified leaves.  Sundews, bladderworts, and pitcher plants all developed traps — some active, some passive, all capable of capturing and digesting prey — that are highly modified leaves.  And the above Begonia rex “Escargot” sports leaf modifications of a different sort.  Perhaps that spiral shape is practical in some way I haven’t thought of, but regardless of utility it is quite beautiful.  All these structures are leaves, and wow! how different they are.

I started with a flower and I’ll end with a flower. This hibiscus stood out to me mainly because it made such a contrast to the cold, snowy outside visible through the greenhouse panes behind it.


Ah, the promise of summer.


Utricularia Suck Small Animals Into Bladders And Eat Them

On December 2, 1874, the remarkable Mary Treat wrote to Charles Darwin:

I have been studying the bladder-bearing species of Utricularia off and on the last year, and am now fully satisfied that they are the most wonderful carnivorous plants that I have yet seen. The so-called little bladders seem to be receptacles for digesting animal food. Not only small animalcules are lured into these receptacles, but animals large enough to be distinctly seen with the naked eye; and by holding the little bladders up to the light the movements of the animals can be seen with the unassisted eye.

We’ll get to Darwin’s response in a bit, but for now let’s ask: just what are these wonderful bladder-bearing botanical beasts to which Treat was referring?

Utricularia is a genus comprising several species of carnivorous plants called bladderworts.  Most (but not all) of these are aquatic and capture their prey by the use of so-called bladder traps or “utricles.”

Utricularia traps, courtesy of Michal Rubeš via wikimedia commons.

According to a review article by Elzbieta Krol and colleagues, Utricularia‘s “[s]uction-traps (bladders) are ranked among the most complex leaf structures ever to have been examined in plants.”  The traps work like this: A plant’s bladder forces water out, creating a sort of vacuum within the bladder and stored energy potential in the bladder walls.  At one end of the bladder is a tightly sealed valve rimmed by several hairs.  These hairs act as triggers for the bladder trap.  According to Krol, “each trigger hair acts as a lever, breaking the seal and releasing the energy whenever something (living creature or strong current) disturbs it.”  In other words, a light tap on one of these hairs causes the bladder to suck whatever happens to be outside the valve into the bladder.  Inside, the captured prey becomes plant food.

These bladders are quite impressive when you consider what they can trap, as listed by Krol (referencing Darwin): “aquatic species [of Utricularia] can hold … substantial prey, such as crustacean zooplankton (e.g. water fleas), nematodes, mosquito larvae, insects, tadpoles and even small fish.”  Apparently, Krol notes, they also end up eating a lot of algae.

An aquatic plant with complex bladder traps that allow it to eat fish?  Mary Treat called it wonderful, Elzbieta Krol calls it “truly outstanding,” and I say it’s tremendously impressive.

And speaking again of Mary Treat, what of her correspondence with Charles Darwin?

In the months following Treat’s letter to Darwin, he published his book Insectivorous Plants and she published an article in Harpers Magazine titled “Is the valve of Utricularia sensitive?”  Darwin had apparently suggested in his book that Utricularia were passive feeders, while Treat very respectfully disagreed:

Mr. Darwin says the valve does not appear to be in the least irritable, and continues (Insectivorous Plants, page 408): “We may therefore conclude that the animals enter merely by forcing their way through the slit-like orifice, their heads serving as a wedge.” But we have seen in the instances of the mosquito and chironomus larvae [each of which was trapped tail-first] that this is not the case; the head does not serve as a wedge. But what is the force that impels them into the utricle? It seems too bad to try to overthrow a plausible theory and offer nothing better in its stead. But what can I do? The play is enacted before me, and I have tried in vain to get behind the scenes to learn what the power is that impels the larva into the utricle. No doubt if Mr. Darwin had had the excellent material that I had to work with, with his keener insight he would have ferreted out the cause.

If within the utricle was a partial vacuum, the sudden opening of the valve would create sufficient force to carry whatever happened to be in close proximity into the utricle; and this illustrates the movement we see executed. But how could a vacuum be formed?

Treat attempted to send Darwin some Utricularia specimens and her article; Darwin at first received the former but not the latter.  He responded colorfully:

The specimens which you have sent of Utricularia are most beautiful & excellently preserved. I shall feel great interest in reading your account of them when published.

I am sorry to say that I never received the article in Harpers on the sensitivity of the valve in Utricularia,— a subject which drives me half mad.— If you have been able to prove either side of the case, I beg you tell me exact title & date of the number, which I can then easily pursue.

About a month later, after another letter from Treat, Darwin read the article and wrote to her:

My dear Madam

I have received your kind letter & the article which I have read with the greatest interest. It certainly appears from your excellent observations that the valve was sensitive … but I cannot understand why I could never with all my pains excite any movement. It is pretty clear I am quite wrong about the head acting like a wedge.— The indraught of the living larvæ is astonishing. …

I am not well & am staying away from my home for rest, so pray excuse brevity. Wishing you success of every kind in your admirable work

I remain | Dear Madam | Yours very faithfully | Ch. Darwin

So there you have it.

P.S.  In the course of researching this post, I learned that there are native Utricularia — as well as Drosera (sundews) and Sarracenia (pitcher plants) — residing in Rhode Island’s wetlands.  I am excited to have new things to look for when tromping around outside this summer!


Krol, E.; Plancho, B.J.; Adamec, L.; Stolarz, M.; Dziubinska, H.; Trebacz, K.  2011.  Quite a few reasons for calling carnivores ‘the most wonderful plants in the world. Annals of Botany 109 (1): 47–64.doi:10.1093/aob/mcr249

Snowy Owls Everywhere!

Everyone loves snowy owls, right?

A snowy owl in Canada, courtesy of David Syzdek via wikimedia commons.

A bright white, two-foot-tall, diurnal owl possessing piercing yellow eyes and a 4.5 foot wingspan, Bubo scandiacus is the very definition of a charismatic megafauna.  The Cornell Lab of Ornithology says that “[t]he regal Snowy Owl is one of the few birds that can get even non-birders to come out for a look.”  And, in fact, a snowy owl sighting at Aquidneck Island’s Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge drew me, my wife, our then-11-month-old, and my parents out to peer through binoculars on a frigid January day about two years ago, where, yes, we saw one of these impressive birds.

Two years ago, a single snowy owl in Rhode Island was a rarity.  This year, though, there have apparently been 15 sightings here.  And some down in Delaware, where “they’re just excited the owls are there.”  And some “already reaching North Carolina and Bermuda!”  In New York, airport officials even shot three of them (big bird plus planes equals potential disaster — I guess not everyone loves snowy owls after all) before deciding to trap them instead.

Why are there so many snowy owls along the east coast of the United States this year?  Some say a banner year for Arctic lemmings (a favorite snowy-owl snack) has led to lots of breeding success for the owls — and now lots of offspring dispersing across great distances as a result of competition for food.

But, as reported in USA Today, New Jersey Audubon’s Pete Dunne says the answer might be more complicated.  Maybe there were so few Arctic lemmings this year that famished owls are flying farther afield for food (though this seems less likely given that apparently most southward-migrating owls are young).  Or maybe melting polar ice is displacing female owls’ breeding grounds, forcing the entire snowy-owl operation further south, beginning even before birth.

Dunne says this last point is speculation.  But still, one wonders — lemmings or no lemmings, things certainly are changing in the Arctic.  And now here snowy owls are in Rhode Island.

Delaware to Connecticut to Rhode Island: Tuliptree, Beech, Chestnut & Cattail

Walking in the woods in Delaware, my daughter found these …

tulip and beech

… and was curious.  What are they?

On the left is a seed cone of the tuliptree, Liriodendron tulipifera (you might also know it as tulip poplar).  Tuliptree cones are made up of a single point — like a knight’s lance — surrounded by many samaras (seed structures perhaps typified by maple “helicopters,” and a great word to know).  These seed cones enchanted me as a child, but I seldom find them here in Rhode Island.  It turns out that Liriodendrons just don’t live around here much — zoom in to the county level for Massachusetts and Rhode Island on this NRCS map, and you’ll see that they don’t seem to exist in southeastern New England’s coastal areas.  This is too bad.  With tuliptrees scarce in Rhode Island, here’s what we’re missing out on according to Donald Culross Peattie in A Natural History of North American Trees:

The flowers, which give it this name, are yellow or orange at base, a light greenish shade above. Almost as brilliant are the leaves when they first appear, a glossy, sunshiny pale green; they deepen in tint in summer and, in autumn, turn a rich, rejoicing gold.  Even in winter the tree is still not unadorned, for the axis of the cone remains, candelabrum fashion, erect on the bare twig when all the seeds have fallen.  No wonder that in the gardens of France and England this is one of the most popular of all American species.

Impressive indeed.

On the right is the shell of a nut from an American beech tree, Fagus grandifolia.  These shells were my bane when I was a child; a large beech tree would deposit these small, spiky monstrosities all over our backyard, significantly hampering barefoot play.  Now, though, I miss them — as it turns out, “Fagus grandifolia (American Beech) is uncommon along the coast of southern New England.”  Rhode Island’s climate and ecology so often feel like the Delaware woods where I grew up that these little differences always surprise me.

On our drive back from Delaware to Rhode Island at the end of the holiday weekend, we stopped by Connecticut’s New Canaan Nature Center. My daughter, while playing in the children’s garden, found lots of these …


… and was intrigued.  Talk about monstrosities!

The spiny husk was unfamiliar to me, but when I opened it up I recognized the chestnut inside.  It turns out that the American chestnut tree, Castanea dentata, was all but wiped out by blight in the early 20th century and has only gradually been returning to the east coast of the United States (with some help).

Interestingly, beeches and chestnuts are both members of the family Fagacea, which comes from the Greek for “to eat.”  Yes, friends, the contents of those spiky husks are very edible (no surprise with the chestnut, but perhaps for the beech).  Let’s check in again with Lee Peterson’s A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants, where American beech and chestnut appear one after another on the same page:

The thin-shelled nuts [of American beech] have sweet kernels that are delicious roasted and eaten whole, or ground into flour. … Gather them after they drop from the trees during the first frosty nights in October.

Because of Chestnut blight, this species [American chestnut] now occurs mostly as sprouts from old stumps. … Nowadays few trees reach sufficient maturity to produce more than a few nuts.  If you do find enough to make collection worthwhile, gather the nuts after the first frost splits the husks open.  Once the husks and bitter pith are removed, the kernels are sweet and delicious.

Looks like we missed out on some good eating.

Finally, New Canaan Nature Center also features a “cattail marsh.”  In light of my previous hand-wringing over phragmites potentially poisoning cattails, it was nice to see some cattails thriving.



Peattie’s description of the American beech in A Natural History of North American Trees is too poetic not to include here, even though the nuts aren’t mentioned:

In very early spring, an unearthly pale pure green clothes the tree in a misty nimbus of light. As the foliage matures, it becomes a translucent blue green through which the light, but not the heat, of the summer day comes clearly. And in autumn these delicate leaves, borne chiefly on the ends of the branchlets and largely in one plane, in broad flat sprays, turn a soft clear yellow. Then is the Beech translated. As the sun of Indian summer bathes the great tree, it stands in a profound autumnal calm, enveloped in a golden light that hallows all about it.