Spring comes to Madrid

Spring is lurching its way through the Northern Hemisphere.  In Madrid this year this means more rain than has fallen since the 1940s, usually in a soft drizzle, occasionally spiced with small hail, bouts of hard rain, and periods of epic cloudscapes accompanied by bright sun.  It is familiar weather, reminding me of the part of California I grew up in.

In the countryside the effects of all this water are obvious, the land turns green.  This is likely to be a good year for farmers and wildflowers, though the former have a globally recognized habit of finding something to complain about no matter the weather.  For the wild plants this may mean bountiful seeds next year and the possibility of mast fruiting for woody plants that do that sort of thing (oak trees, I’m looking at you).

Within the boundaries of Madrid, where I have been living recently, the setting is considerably more urban.

The early evening view from a Madrid apartment

The early evening view from a Madrid apartment

In this landscape of stone, cement, and brick the effects of spring are more subtle and easy to overlook; they are most clearly seen in the length and material of coats worn by pedestrians.  Long black wool overcoats are being replaced by short black wool overcoats, leather jackets are replacing down, and on the few warmer days some of the women wear skirts with tights and accompanied by peculiar choices in footwear.

Nature-wise the heralds of spring are the street trees which are beginning to leaf out (especially the elms); ornamental cherries, plums, and almonds have been blooming, and, most interestingly to me, the little plants that have adapted to city life are beginning to show signs of life.

Leaves of an elm seedling

Leaves of an elm seedling

On the patio there is a planter box that has been left to what wild nature resides in the city.  A small elm has taken root and shows nice bonsai potential.  Accompanying the elm are, moss, English Ivy (planted), a few tender oxalis plants, and a small climbing vine with miniscule, but lovely, flowers; purple and white, kissed with egg-yolk yellow.

Leaves and flowers of our mystery plant - the flowers are perhaps half a centimeter across and at most a centimeter long

Leaves and flowers of our mystery plant – the flowers are perhaps half a centimeter across and at most a centimeter long

This plant starts out in a tight cluster and flowers prolifically when conditions are right.

A tangled clump of Ivy-leaved Toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis)

A tangled clump of Ivy-leaved Toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis)

This little plant, Ivy-leaved Toadfax (Cymbalaria muralis) is evergreen and originally native to the Mediterranean region, now found nearly globally, having been introduced both intentionally and inadvertently. The flowers betray the family association; snapdragons or Scrophulariaceae.

Cymbalaria muralis does not suffer from a lack of names, Coliseum-Ivy , Kenilworth-Ivy, Wandering-Sailor, Mother-Of-Thousands, Oxford-Ivy, Pennywort, and Ivy-leaved Toadflax being just a few of its common names.

Ivy-leaved Toadflax prefers calcareous soils and often grows directly from cliffs and older walls.  Here in Spain it is a native plant and is as much in balance with its environment as any other plant is in a land so heavily used by humans for so long as the Iberian Peninsula has been.  Elsewhere this small plant becomes aggressively invasive and can rapidly form a dense blanket of vegetation over trees, cliffs, and buildings.  It is a popular plant for rock gardens.

If a plant could be described as being clever, this plant might qualify for the compliment.  It sends runners out in all directions, with most of the ones I have seen pointing upwards.

Ivy-Leaved Toadflax climbing a trellis

Ivy-Leaved Toadflax climbing a trellis

On a healthy plant these runners can be nearly a meter long and have a fleshy, almost succulent aspect.  The leaves and the vines are slightly waxy and smooth to the touch, helping to limit water loss.  As it grows, Ivy-leaved Toadflax builds up a dense, nearly light impenetrable, layer of overlapping leaves.  Like a forest, this little clump of shade helps to trap both moisture and organic matter.  This little reservoir of nutrients feeds the ever growing plant.

The most interesting aspect of this plant is its behavior when it flowers and sets seed.  The flowers are pollinated primarily by bees and must be placed where the bees can find and land on them.  To ensure this the young flowerbuds are positively phototrophic; they actively seek out the brightest light.

Cymbalaria muralis flowers growing towards the light

Cymbalaria muralis flowers growing towards the light

Bees can see into the ultraviolet and to them flowers look very different than to us.  I am very curious how these flowers look to the bees.

Once the flower has been pollinated a change takes place and the forming seedpods become negatively phototrophic actively avoiding light.  The change can be quite dramatic and rapid

A fertilized bud running from the light

A fertilized bud moving away from the light

Avoidance of light sends the forming seeds into the darkest places within reach, places where it is more likely to find a safe, damp spot for the small seeds to be deposited.

Light and dark seeking stems

Light and dark seeking stems

This clever approach to seed distribution combined with rooting from runners and re-rooting from broken clumps serve the Ivy-leaved Toadflax well.  This change in light preference is not unique to Ivy-leaved Toadflax, the common houseplant Monstera deliciosa (aka Swiss Cheese Plant, Window Leaf, Mexican Breafdruit, and many more names) begins life avoiding light, then, when it finds a tree trunk its preference turns towards light as it climbs to the near canopy.

We don’t often talk about the behavior of plants, we usually use more neutral terms such as survival strategy.  To us plants are fixed in the landscape with their changes slow.  Plants lack of a brain makes discussion of behavior problematic.  We often fail to have an appreciation for the senses plants posses and they way their response to stimulus drives their growth and adaptability.  We have a prejudice for organisms with a central nervous system, or at least some form of mobility, because they are more similar to ourselves and we find them easier to empathize with.

The little Cymbalaria muralis is far from the only plant in flower right now in Madrid.  In the parks Common Fumitory (aka. Earth Smoke), Fumaria officinalis, is blooming.

Common Fumitory, Earth Smoke (Fumaria officinalis) flowers

Common Fumitory, Earth Smoke (Fumaria officinalis) flowers

Common Fumitory is in the Bleeding Heart family, related to Corydalis, Bleeding Hearts, and Squirrel Corn.  Often this pretty little plant is lumped into a sub-family of the Poppy family (Papaveraceae).

In some places small fields of Red Campion (Silene dioica) dance in the breeze, making rippling patches of purple-tinged pink.

Red Campion (Silene dioica)

Red Campion (Silene dioica)

In the countryside ground dwelling orchids are beginning to bloom, but I have not seen those yet.

Perhaps soon.

Rock Harlequin – what is a fire adapted species doing in Vermont?

A few days ago I bumped into a plant I rarely see in Vermont.  It goes by a number of names, The USDA plant database lists it as Rock Harlequin, various other sources call it Tall, Pink, or Pale Corydalis, and the scientific community has settled on Corydalis sempervirens, although it used to be called Capnoides sempervirens.  Rock Harlequin ranges from Alaska to the northern Pacific Northwest, across Canada, and down most of the East Coast.

I don’t see Rock Harlequin in Vermont very often, so it’s a bit exciting when I do find it.   Here it grows on well drained, dry, rocky, south or west facing slopes, often in the company of Shad Bush, Red Maple, Hop Hornbeam, and/or Red, White, and Chestnut Oak.  It is a pretty little plant with yellow-tipped pink flowers of a peculiar shape and long, green bean-like seed pods.

Corydalis sempervirens with aphids and spiders

The Corydalis genus is wide spread, with most of its members living in China.  It is in the poppy family (Papaveraceae) via the intermediary of the bleeding heart sub-family (Fumariaceae).  When I first saw this plant I was really confused.  I grew up in California where the California Poppy and the Pacific Bleeding Heart are common.  The Rock Harlequin looked like some strange cross between these plants, with oddly asymmetrical flowers.  I wasn’t sure exactly what to make of it.

The other branch of the Fumariaceae is the Dicentra genus, most commonly represented in Vermont by Squirrel Corn and Dutchman’s Breeches.  These plants have extremely symmetrical flowers.

Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)

The leaves are similar and, if you squint, you can see a bit of similarity between the flowers.  Dutchman’s Breeches tends to grow in rocky, but damp places, producing lush vegetation.  Like Dutchman’s Breeches the Rock Harlequin initially grows all it’s leaves from a basal rosette, but, unlike Dutchman’s Breeches, when it produces a flower stalk there are little leaflets on the stalk as well.

Rock Harlequin is spare, lean, and tough.  Its blue-tinged leaves have a leathery feel to them and the flower stalks are wiry, resistant to wind and sun.  It is a fire adapted species, which may be why it is unusual to find it in Vermont.  The land here is damp, like a sponge left in the sink, fires do not take easily and burns remain small when they do ignite.  The patch of flowers I found was growing directly from cracks in the exposed bedrock near small trees that had lived a hard life.  All the trees nearby were chest-height or shorter, broken by wind and ice, lightning struck, and starved of water and nutrients.  A perfect place for Ericaceae plants, the family that contains blueberries and huckleberries.

Rock Harlequin against dwarf blue-berries

Sure enough, the larger Rock Harlequin were growing right on the edge of patches of dwarf blueberries.  I tried to get a back-lit photo showing a little of the internal structure of the flower.  There is a darker line running through the pink of the flower body which terminates in a spiky yellow rosette.  The flower begins growing as a tiny yellow nub which expands, turning pink as it does so.  Once the flowers are pollinated, by wind and by ants (how cool is that, ant pollination), long bean-like seedpods grow, containing tough, easily germinated seeds.  The seeds need either heat or scarification to germinate, but have extremely high success rates.

In the past Native People managed the land with fire, burning frequently with small, low temperature fires that kept the forest understory clear and promoted the growth of a number of plants.  I can’t help but wonder if this plant was more common in the past.

Rock Harlequin with seed pods