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.

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Away Dog! Apocynaceae, the Dogbane family

Near my house, next to the road the ground is sandy with a scattering of pebbles in the mix.  Like much of Vermont what is not bedrock is ground up glacial debris deposited when the vast continental glaciers melted away.  The ground is sandier than most places at my house because I am perched on the southern slope of a small rock outcrop, a place where the downward pressure of the glacier was lighter, water flowed under the ice, and fine sediment was deposited.

In that sandy ground there are wild strawberries, mosses, dandelions, fleabane, hay scented ferns, a few coneflowers, some potentillas, Allegheny blackberry, a little bracken fern, and a small stand of dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum) with delicate pink flowers.

Hemp Dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum)

Before moving to Vermont my only experience with this plant was via books.  I always wondered why it was called Dogbane.  Was it like negative catnip for dogs?  Or was it simply toxic to dogs?  Apparently it is a toxin, and not just to dogs.  Ingestion of any portion can induce cardiac arrest and both the family and genus name literally translate to, “Away Dog!”  Apocynum cannabinum has, thick, milky sap, much like a milkweed, indeed Milkweeds (Asclepiadoideae) are now considered to be a subfamily of the Dogbanes (Apocynaceae).  Other members of the Dogbane family include two of my least favorite plants, Oleander and Vinca, both from the Mediterranean and common in California where they were introduced as ornamentals.  Oleander can be seen in any urban environment in Southern California, most often as a highway divider plant.  The sap is extremely toxic, raising painful rashes, and the smoke can be lethal if inhaled.  Vinca, more commonly known as periwinkle, is  common in Northern California where it invades riparian areas, covering both ground and small trees in a dense, vining mat of glossy green leaves studded with pretty blue flowers.  It is nearly impossibly to eradicate once in place.

In the past some Apocynaceae species were used to make a poor quality rubber, others for toxin to apply to arrows.  Some species produce edible fruit and others edible flowers.  We extract heart drugs from a few of them as well.

The dogbane in my yard, Apocynum cannabinum, is a traditional North American source for extremely strong fiber, hence the “cannabinum ” species name, referring to the hemp-like characteristic of the plant.  Common names run from simply Dogbane, to Indian Hemp, Wild Cotton, and Hemp Dogbane.  The fibers are stripped from the stalk in late fall and can be twisted into a fine, strong cord.  Cords made from dogbane were prized for their great strength and used for sewing, fishing lines, and other work requiring fine cordage.

The Hemp Dogbane ranges from calf high to chest high.  The ones in my yard top out at waist high.  The have an odd branching structure, perhaps best described as irregular opposite.  The main stalk continually divides in a binary fashion, with one side acting as a dominate leader, this pattern is often repeated on the side branches, but in some cases buds on both side of the stem will form side branches instead.  The result is a roughly Y shaped plant that rapidly spreads as it grows.

Apocynum cannabinum whole plant.

The leaves are opposite and the undersides are covered with a fine pubescence.  I expect that the hairy leaves are an adaptation to help cope with moisture stress.  Plants often evolve this trait to create a boundary layer of trapped, still air that aids in preventing moisture from being blown away.  The upper leaf surfaces have a matte waxy texture, a little like nasturtium leaves.  Water beads and runs off of them rapidly.

Apocynum cannabinum leaf hairs

The seeds are held in long, horn-like pods.  This time of year few of the seed pods have developed, but a couple of plants are a little further along in the cycle than others.

Apocynum cannabinum seed pods, not fully developed

Few of the leaves have any insect damage, but the flowers are popular with a number of insect species.  I’ve seen ants, flies, bees, and moths going to them.  Hidden amongst the flowers are predators as well.  The Goldenrod Crab Spider (Misumena vatia) seems fond of my dogbane.

Goldenrod Crab Spider (Misumena vatia) playing parlor games with a fly

Goldenrod Crab Spiders are so called because they often hide amongst the bright yellow flowers of goldenrod, a common meadow plant in New England.  The spiders change color from white to yellow and back again based on input from their eyes.  The yellow color seeps up to stain their carapace, providing camouflage.  When they move to a pale flower the production of this pigment stops and the spiders slowly turn white once more.  Experiments show that the spider will not change color if it cannot see what color plant it is on.

These are not web building spiders, they are ambush hunters, grabbing unsuspecting prey in their wide arms.

The smell of the flowers is odd and difficult to describe, incorporating many scents including a dusty sweetness and a faint rankness like dried meat on the edge of going bad, but they are pretty.

Blue-Eyed Grass, diminuitive irises

From California to New England, from Alaska to Texas there is a small, easily overlooked wildflower that is blooming now and will continue to do so for several more months, depending on where you are of course.  The flowers of this plant are small, only a little more than a centimeter across have six petals, a yellow center, and are often blue in color, hence one of the common generic names, Blue-Eyed Grass, although there are yellow and white variations.  To see them clearly you have to get close, crouching or laying on the ground.

Common Blue-Eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium montanum)

You can see from the photo that the leaves of this diminutive plant are broad and flat, much like the leaves of the grass it grows amongst.  In Vermont there are several variations of this plant, Sisyrinchium montanum being the most common, hence the name, Common Blue-Eyed Grass, which is, unfortunately, not tremendously imaginative.  When it is not flowering it’s easy to see why it might be mistaken for a grass, it has a similar leaf shape and is of a similar height to the grass it grows amongst.  The flowers clearly set it apart though.  Petals are little flags to attract insects, birds, and in some cases lizards or mammals to the flower for pollination for which they are rewarded with nectar.  Grasses have no such need, like willows, poplars, and pines they rely on wind to distribute their pollen and petals are a hindrance and a waste of energy for a plant that uses wind rather than animals for pollination.

Wind pollinated grass flowers with Blue-Eyed Grass flowers in the background

Sisyrinchium, the Blue Eyed-Grasses are tiny irises.  The Iridaceae family is widespread and often used as ornamental plants in gardens or in bouquets.  The larger irises have showy, ornate, soft flowers that fold and flow in complicated shapes, looking little like the small, robust Sisyrinchium flowers.  In the wild, the larger irises tend to grow in places that are either damp, shady, or both.  The Blue-Eyed Grasses live in harsher regions, open meadows, occasionally on rocky ledges, the edges of open areas, in short, places that can get hot and dry.  This may partially explain their small, robust stature.

Like other irises Sisyrinchium has inferior ovaries, this is not a commentary on the quality of the ovaries, it is a botanical term meaning that the ovaries are below the flower rather than the flower surrounding the ovaries.  These little plants produce globular three-part capsules about the size of a BB filled with numerous little seeds.

Blue-Eyed Grass with immature seed capsules

I grew up looking at these little flowers on the wildflower rich coastal prairie of Northern California, but just a few days ago I discovered something new (to me) about them.  They are active, they open their flowers for the day and close them for the night.  I tried my hand at a time-lapse of a flower opening.  It’s a bit rough, but you get the picture.

Blue-Eyed Grass flower opening animation

I love finding out things, being surprised by life, experiencing the unexpected, and encountering things I do not know.  I’m glad that these little irises reminded me that such a small, seemingly mundane thing can be interesting and exciting.

Quaker Ladies in the field

We rarely ever take the time to look at the smallest things.  We, very understandably, ooh and ah over vast landscapes, priding ourselves on climbing a mountain for the view that extends to the increased horizon.  All too often we overlook the smaller horizons, those under our feet, those that the vast majority of life with eyes sees.  The nearby, the up close, the things easily flattened under our feet in our quest for the big, the far, the distant.

Right now the Houstonia caerulea are blooming.

Field of Houstonia caerulea

They are known to most of us as Bluets and to some as Quaker Ladies. They grow in small cluster on the edge of meadows and in rich woods on well drained soils that get filtered light or short periods of direct sun. The flowers are often less than a centimeter across.  Most of the time we briefly admire them from where we stand, glancing down at these delicate flowers barely standing above the moss, leaf-litter, or short grass.  From our height the blue can be a mere suggestion of color, dominated by white.  The bright yellow star-like centers are barely visible.

From a little closer more details become apparent, but this invloves lying on the ground, thus most of us rarely see these little gems up close.

Small clump of Houstonia caerulea

It’s worth doing so, they are very pretty.

With a hand lens more detail becomes evident.

Houstonia caerulea iPhone with hand-lens

The vast majority of life with eyes on earth is tiny.  Their view of the world is more like the last photo than the first.  What we barely notice is a deep, dense forest to other living things.  When I can, I like to explore the world from this perspective, it reminds me of where we stand in the wider cosmos.