September 2013, High Rock and Sharrotts Beach

High Rock and Sharrott’s Beach
By Don Recklies,  Naturalist

Forest Restoration Report – September 29,  2013

Saturday began quite cloudy, but weather reports during the week had altered and rain was not expected until the evening, so I had hopes that our numbers might improve, even though Elaine was away and Chuck was committed to the ICC beach cleanup at Sharrott’s pier. Dom appeared promptly at 10:00, but there no others, so we decided to go to Sharrott’s beach in case Chuck was short handed there (My wife. Adele, informed me that she got a phone call after I had left from a late volunteer who wanted to join us if she could find us, but Adele was unable to tell her how to locate us).

Before the time appointed for the workshop I and Judy T., who had given me a ride from the ferry, took a moment to check whether the Turtleheads I had found blooming last September in the vicinity of High Rock were still there. We went a few hundred feet counterclockwise around Loosestrife Swamp looking uphill for signs of ”bloom in the gloom,” and were disappointed not the see the flowers low in the herb layer. I supposed that we had missed their blooming season, or that they had not survived. Since we were expected at the shed in the parking lot at 10:00 we couldn’t spend much time nosing about the swamp, but we did spot a few small touches of pale yellow on the adjacent hillside. One of these spot of yellow was close to the trail, and turned out to be Horsebalm (Collinsonia canadensis) in bloom.

Horsebalm is one of the mints, or at least is in the family in which botanists lump the mints, but perhaps not as aromatic (all the guides say the blossom – indeed the whole plant – is lemony fragrant, but I find the odor faint – then again my nose seems to require very strong odors). Horsebalm favors fertile soils and semi-shady places, and as at High Rock, I have found it mostly growing on hillsides that are well-drained but never completely dry. Some of the fieldguides call it Richweed, a name I haven’t heard used locally, but that emphasizes its preference in soils. Its flower head is what they call a panicle, a spike of smaller branching “spikelets,” and each spikelet bears a series of oppositely arranged yellow blossoms of which only a few are open at the same time.

These flowers are insect pollinated, and this sequential method of blossoming insures that over a long blooming period there will always be some nectar or pollen available for fertilization and as a reward for an insect pollinator should one come by. The lower lips of the flower make a peculiarly fringed landing pad for these pollinators, and hanging way out over the landing pad is a pair of stamens waiting to dust a new arrival with pollen. Since a pollinator would encounter these stamens before the smaller sigma (the female part) I suppose that, like many flowering plants, there is some internal arrangement that prevents self fertilization, either by chemical means or by sequential maturation of its sexual parts,. These plants are perennial and would have no need to self-fertilize to insure that seeds develop every year.

I don’t know what function the fringes of the lower lips of the flower have, but they certainly make the flower look interesting, especially under a hand lens, and if we could see in the ultraviolet range that is visible to many insects we would probably see lines or patterns that guide an insect toward the nectaries deep within the blossom. These one to three foot tall plants should display the typical family characteristics of the mints; indeed they have irregular flowers that are bi-laterally symmetrical (i.e., side to side each half is a mirror image of the opposite side, their large toothed leaves are arranged in pairs on the stem), and the stem should have been square as is typical of the mints. I couldn’t detect any angularity on the stem of the one plant closest to the path, although it was indisputably a Horsebalm, so I started uphill to look at the stems of the others when…. Turtleheads! Suddenly we had to be very careful where we placed our feet.

Turtleheads (Chelone glabra)! There they were, more than a handful scattered about, many in full bloom low and hidden in the surrounding green where they awaited insects large and strong enough to force their way to the caches of pollen in the hooded flowers. Usually the plants stand somewhat tall in damp areas, but these for the most part these lay low and concealed except for one or two that had grown in the shelter of a fallen tree and a tangle of fallen shrubs. These were richly colored flowers, a more strongly tinted purple than the usual pink-tinged, white variety, and I suspect that because of their color and the fact that I had not noticed them before last year, that they had been re-introduced here by the Department of Parks. If so, that re-introduction seem to be succeeding since they were scattered over a slightly larger area than I had seen last year. I have some vague recollection of having seen more single, slender-stemmed sprouts of Turtlehead last year, but this would be consistent with the mortality expected as each generation matures, and many of the current plants seemed to be well established with stout stems.

Turtleheads have handsome flowers indeed, very suitable for moist, shaded wildflower gardens (although I hope no-one has any idea that they might be taken from the park), and I was very happy to see that they had survived. The common name, Turtlehead, reflects the heavy, hooded blossom’s perceived similarity to the head of a turtle; their genus name, Chelone, in Greek mythology refers to a mortal (or in some accounts a nymph) who was changed by the gods to a turtle for a perceived insult to Zeus. The flowers are similar to Snapdragon blossoms, but more slender and smooth about the mouth, and like them can be opened by gently squeezing their sides. It takes a strong insect to penetrate the blossom, so the usual pollinators are large bumblebees. Like the Horsebalm, they are perennial plants and not needing to be fertilized every year so can afford the liberty of playing “hard to get.”

After looking at the Turtlehead and Horsebalm, Dom and I went to Sharrott’s beach where we found Chuck and Lisa finishing the tally of the cleanup. You may recall that the International Coastal Cleanup Day has 3 objectives: to help clean up the coasts, to itemize the debris found, and by doing so to raise awareness of polluted condition of our oceans and coastal areas and to gain an idea of how the nature of that pollution is changing. Dom and I feared that since by accident we had not put the annual cleanup on our printed calendar – no one noticed the omission until the calendar had been published and too late to change – that Chuck might be alone on the beach. The pile of bags and trash adjacent to the dolphin that we passed on our way to the beach proved that was not so, and Chuck told us some 15 volunteers had shown that morning, thanks to the cleanup also being on NRPA’s list, and that the beach was now clean. Indeed, the beach has appeared progressively cleaner every year that we have participated in the cleanup, and this year it again appeared cleaner than last. In fact, it appeared especially clean today, and I wondered if its good condition was in part due to do the extensive beach cleanups that followed Sandy.

Dom and I decided that since we had made the journey to participate in the cleanup, we would take a few collection bags and go to an area that hadn’t been reached by the cleaners. It had been my habit to go west to the radar reflector adjacent to the former Monsignor’s house on the bluff, now the Ranger’s residence, and then to clean the beach coming east. Today that was impossible: Sandy had changed the beach, and at high tide there was no way to cross the brackish water streaming out of the marsh at the east end of Mt. Loretto without taking off boots and wading. Since the depth of the water was far over our boot tops and neither of us had towels or wanted to put socks back on over wet feet, we decided instead to work in the brush at the very top of the beach where no-one usually attempts to clean, not wanting to fight the interlaced poison ivy to pull out fragments of bags and bottles that have been jammed down into clumps of stems along the high beach. We found the expected debris and were able to collect almost two bags of cans, bottles and ubiquitous lids as well as other pieces of trash that were too large or bulky to bag. These Judy and I tallied and were able to add to the pile by the Dolphin just in time for pickup by a Park’s Department truck.

While we were picking trash I noticed that today’s theme for the beach seemed to be “spiky things”; clumps of Sandspur were tipped with maturing packets of seeds covered with rather nasty needle-sharp spikes, and all along the shore Beach Clotbur (Xanthium strumarium) had developed spiny seed pods tipped with a pair of green horns. Jimson weed also had developed strikingly spiny pods, some of which had already matured to a golden-brown and split open at the top to reveal four columnar chambers of shiny black seeds waiting to be shaken out by the wind. It was interesting to note that a thin line of Jimson Weed had recently grown along the lowest wrack line on the beach, not far from the surf, and some of these still bore elegant, long, white, trumpet-shaped flowers. High on the beach they had already gone to seed, but close to the water flowers still bloomed. I was surprised to see them, not so much because they were still blooming but that they could grow so close to the salt. Their fresh pods looked like tiny, spiky cucumbers, but no cucumber comes so well armed: just a touch drew blood.

The clotbur was interesting because many were inhabited by large colonies of orange and brown Harlequin Bugs (Murgantia histrionica), containing both nymphs and adults. These bugs are native to Central America, but have moved steadily northward until now they appear well into our latitudes. The Harlequin Bugs are what we used to call “true” bugs, beetle-like insects that gradually metamorphose from less developed stages to adults, getting larger and changing slightly toward the adult sexual form at each shed of their skins. They hatch out of clusters of tiny, barrel-shaped eggs on the host plant, and proceed to suck out the plant’s juices with a long stylet-like beak. It is reported that the saliva they produce helps liquify the tissue of the plants they feed upon, and creates greater damage than merely tapping the sap of the host plant. The spiky mouthparts they use to extract the plants’ juices is another characteristic of the “true” bugs (some of which are insectivores and use their pointed proboscis to “tap” other insects instead of plants), and they often become agricultural pests. In more southern states Harlequin Bugs are known to be a serious pest of cruciferous vegetables but completely willing to turn their attention to other plants when cabbage and mustard and broccoli aren’t available.

One of the tools historically used by farmers and a key strategy used by contemporary organic gardeners is rotation of crops. Alternating crops every year so that there are periodic disappearances of a host plant helps insure that a large population of host specific pests will not build up. The Harlequin Bugs, however, are versatile eaters, and it is unlikely that their numbers can be reduced by restricting access to any particular plant. They are happy to feed on most of the mustard family, so the ubiquitous Shepherd’s Purse and Poor Man’s Pepper of our roadsides and other wild mustards will see them through any shortage of more preferred foods. On the beach it seems that Clotbur, which is in the Aster family, serves them quite well.

Their striking orange patterns are not good camouflage at all, so one might assume that these bugs are protected by harboring some distasteful or poisonous chemical compounds, but the literature says that this is not so. While many of the stink bugs, to which the Harlequin Bugs are closely related, are distasteful – to put it mildly – and have a repellant odor, these bugs have none. Perhaps they mimic distasteful insects from their homeland further south, otherwise it would seems that congregating in bright colored numbers would just be an invitation for insectivores to feast. While looking at some of the larger colonies, I noticed that the nymphs often seemed careless of my presence, but that when approached the adults moved themselves to place the stem of the plant between us. Since I was trying to photograph them this was a most frustrating survival characteristic, but I guess that not being toxic, this is the best they could do to save themselves.

DfR 9-29-13