Friday, April 15, 2011

Wednesday Wildflower: Blazing Star, not Blazingstar

 Now that the partial thaw has been obliterated by the most recent blizzard and all is covered again in white, I think I need another Wednesday Wildflower (no matter that it is Friday) to brighten up the springless reality. A Blazing Star seems like a good counter to the grey and white.
 The purist may disagree that Liatris spicata (L.), also known as Dense Blazing Star or Gayfeather, is a wildflower here: its ‘natural’ range only extends across the eastern half of Canada and the United States, but that is close enough for me. The jackrabbit in the picture doesn’t seem to mind either, although I must say that only one or two stalks were snipped, so it probably doesn’t taste very good. I suspect that may be due to residual alkaloids in the stems and leaves. Much of the scientific literature that I found is devoted to bioprospecting members of the genus for novel chemical compounds.
 Blazing Star is a composite, so each of the ‘flowers’ is actually a composite head of small florets, in this case only disk florets and none of the ray florets that give daisies or sunflowers their bright ‘petals’. The plants are perennial and can be purchased as ‘bulbs’, actually a corm (but they look like tubers to me). I like the purple ones best, and so do the bumblebees. Several horticultural varieties have been developed for shorter stature and longer bloom times, but a white-flowered form Liatris spicata 'Alba' usually demands a premium. I’m not sure why. My only clump cocked it last summer, but I will miss it only in the way a collector dislikes not having an exemplar.
 Blazing Star make nice cut flowers, with the interesting habit of blooming from the top to the bottom of the spike, and they seem to tolerate Zone 3 just fine. If you find the thought of planting an ‘alien’ wildflower offensive, then you might look for one of the two species of Liatris that are ‘native’ to Alberta. Dotted Blazing Star (Liatris punctata Hook.) can be found in dry grasslands and hillsides in the southern third of Alberta especially where there is sandy soil. I suspect that very good drainage would be required to grow this successfully. This may also be true of Meadow (aka Rocky Mountain) Blazing Star (Liatris ligulistylis (A. Nels.) K. Scum.) which inhabits sandy woods in the aspen parklands. I am indebted to my friend Matthias Buck for a picture of Meadow Blazing Star from the Ukalta Dunes north east of Edmonton.
 The origin of the generic name Liatris seems to be shrouded in mystery (or just plain obscure), but that of its common name homonym, Mentzelia, is not. The latter was named for one Mentzel, a German botanist working in the 17th Century. As well as being called Blazingstar all run together, they are called Blazing Star, Evening Star (some are white and open in the evening, suggesting moth pollination), and Sand Lily. Only one species, Mentzelia decapetala, makes it into Alberta naturally at this point in time, and then only into the most southern parts of the Province. Ten-petal Blazing Star is one of those evening lilies and the flowers, at least, are spectacular (the plant is sticky and weedy-looking). I’ve only grown Lindley’s Blazing Star (Mentzelia lindleyi), a delightful yellow annual from California and Arizona, but one that does better in the greenhouse than in the yard. I think Edmonton has been far too cold and wet in recent years for this plant to thrive.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Australian of the Week: Net-casting Spider

 Winter has somewhat relaxed its grip these last two weeks, enough so that at least one blue-bottle fly. probably Protophormia terraenovae Robineau-Desvoidy, 1830, has been on the wing. After work I’ve been sitting in a lawn chair in a spot of sun in a puddle of snowmelt determined to generate the first Vitamin-D of 2011 and the bluebottle stops by to see if I’m winter kill or not. You’d think from the species name, that the fly (aka Northern Blowfly) would be restricted to the New World, but it is holarctic in distribution and relatively well known for its forensic uses and myiasis problems in livestock and wildlife.
 The fly is too wary for me to get close enough for a good shot with my point and shoot camera, but is familiar enough to induce daydreams about what might happen to the fly if it were in my former backyard in Brisbane, where a striking diversity of spiders were in residence year-round. One of my favourites was the Net-casting Spider, a species of Deinopis, probably Deinopis subrufa L. Koch, 1879. These are ambush predators that dangle from a scaffold web by their back two pairs of legs while holding a densely woven net in the front two pairs. Any insect that wanders or flies too close is snared and eaten. This behaviour has also earned them the name Retarius Spider from the Roman gladiators who fought with a net, trident, and dagger. Another name is Ogre-faced Spider – because of the very large median eyes that no doubt help coordinate the net-casting. We don’t seem to have a good frontal picture, but Robert Whyte has posted a striking portrait on flicker.
  April 5th marked the first observation of a Milbert’s Tortoiseshell Butterfly (Aglais milberti) in the backyard with its bright colours and intriguing white tips to its antennae. A lone Ring-billed Gull showed up on 31 March and a Robin yesterday (9 April), so in spite of the deep snow pack and cooler than normal temperatures, spring does seem to be in the air. In my records (which only go back to 2005), the Ring-billed Gulls always show up in the last week of March – and since they are large and loud, they are hard to miss. The tortoiseshell sightings are more variable (5-17 April), but these depend on the happy coincidence of a sunny day and time for me to enjoy it. The Robin, and a couple of Honkers that showed up on April Fool’s Day, are both within the two week window in my records, so at least the animals around here think spring is coming at more or less the normal time. Time to set up a couple of blue bird houses at the Moose Pasture and then start shoveling the snow away from the house foundations. The water level is already getting close to the top of the holes in the basement floor.