See Part 1.
Here’s what the meadow looks like from the first loop of Butterfly Loop Trail. I want to jump ahead and start with this photo today to make the simple point that, while scenic views are nice, and have a lot to do with why people like visiting or even living in the country, they don’t tell you all that much. Stand back and squint and this could be almost any field. A farmer would recognize that this hastn’t been planted or used for pasture recently, and would probably recognize the dominant “weed” as goldenrod, interspersed with non-native perennial grasses (mostly brome). But even a farmer would have to get quite close to see that it hasn’t been cultivated in a very long time, as indicated by the presence of things such as moss, polypody fern and ground pine (lycopodium).
And needless to say, many if not most of the wildflowers and insects I’ve been showing you in these photos would pass unnoticed if you took this trail on an all-terrain vehicle, or even if you ran or bicycled it. Deptford pinks (Dianthus armeria), for example, would appear only as brightly colored dots atop plants nearly indistinguishable from grass. An immigrant species named for a part of England where they were once common, they prefer drier, rocky, less fertile fields like ours because they tend to get out-competed by other plants in richer sites. They remind me of some of our human immigrants, such as the Scots, who sought out the more mountainous areas in part so they wouldn’t be so crowded — and in part because it fit their idea of home.
The first dip in the trail reveals a spot of orange — butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa). All species of milkweed are attractive to butterflies and other insects, but this one most of all, or so they say. It’s certainly the showiest. They grow in much smaller clumps than common milkweed and are a third their height, so perhaps the bright color is needed to alert passing pollinators to their presence.
And just as with common milkweed, insect activity can vary tremendously from one clump to another. This one had but a single visitor, a metallic green halictid bee.
A dozen paces farther, some spots of pink catch my eye on the other side of the trail. I go to look, and am surprised to find what appears to be a different species of bindweed from the one I usually find in my garden. The flowers look identical to morning glory, but the leaves aren’t right. I finally decide it’s the pink form of hedge bindweed, Calystegia sepium, also known as larger bindweed, Rutland beauty, bugle vine, or heavenly trumpets, according to the Wikipedia.
Unlike field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis), hedge bindweed is not an alien, but is very widespread, with “a subcosmopolitan distribution throughout temperate Northern Hemisphere in Europe, Asia, northwestern Africa, and North America, and in the temperate Southern Hemisphere in Australia, and Argentina in South America,” represented by a number of subspecies. Despite its “heavenly trumpets,” it’s classed as a noxious weed for its pernicious habit of growing where it is not wanted.
This weed is our fault: it’s oregano, descended from plants Mom put in an herb garden beside the house 35 years ago. She gave some to our then-neighbor Margaret, it spread aggressively through Margaret’s yard, and the birds have spread it from there. This is actually how most non-native Eurasian plants got established in North America: they escaped from gardens.
Note the gob of spittle on the stem, the work of an insect called a froghopper, intended to protect it from predation, insulate it from extremes of temperature (such as the present heat wave), and keep it from drying out. We called froghoppers spit bugs when I was a kid. They’re so numerous this time of year that we often got wet legs as we ran through the field. The other amazing thing about froghoppers is their jumping ability, in which they surpass even fleas. Some species can jump 100 times their length.
I stop for a closer look at a particularly bedraggled daisy, and there in the center of the flower head sits the likely cause of its bedragglement — some kind of caterpillar in its first or second instar.
“Flower head,” by the way, isn’t an attempt to be poetic; it’s what this is: a pseudanthium, and more specifically, as a member of the Asteraceae, a capitulum: a compound flower that has evolved to look like a single flower through the modification of individual florets.
Right where Butterfly Loop branches off from the main trial into the woods is a nice little patch of common milkweed in its expansionist stage. I’ve noticed over the years that milkweed patches only get so large before they start to shrink again, I’m not sure why. A great-spangled fritillary seemed to have no problem flitting from blossom to blossom despite the loss of half a wing (more visible in another photo).
Also at that first bend: the only common mullein (Verbascum thapsus) along the trail. That’s kind of a shame, because it’s one of my favorite flowers. But it tends to need open ground to germinate, in addition to which, as the Wikipedia says, “it is not a very competitive species, being intolerant of shade from other plants and unable to survive tilling.” Each flower is only open for part of a day, but there are enough of them on the flower spike to keep it in bloom for a couple of months.
With an attribute like that, I wonder why mullein never became a popular garden plant? I cheer whenever I find a volunteer in my herb bed. “Flowers are self-fecundating and protogynous (with female parts maturing first), and will self-pollinate if they have not been pollinated by insects during the day.” And the Wikipedia article goes on to say that mullein was once linked to witches (though confusingly was also considered to ward off curses and evil spirits). On second thought, maybe this isn’t something we want in our front gardens. Think of the children!
Continue to Butterfly Loop 3.