Virtual Wildflowers #3

Bays Mountain Park & Planetarium is bringing you a series of blog posts and videos to make sure you can still learn about and appreciate nature, even as you’re spending more time at home. Hope you enjoy!


Virtual Wildflowers | April 7
by Ranger Bob Culler
All photographs copyright Bob Culler, 2020


Spring is in full swing this week! Flowers are blooming and birds are singing. Evenings are bringing out the calls of frogs and toads. It’s a beautiful time of the year. 

This week, I want to highlight a couple of odd flowers. Nature is full of strange and wonderful sights. Not everything fits our notion of what a flower is “supposed” to look like. Most of our favorites are the big showy flowers pollinated by insects. Wind spreads the pollen of many plants, though. 

Male flower from Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua)

There are several trees starting to bloom now. We mostly notice the redbuds and dogwoods, the crabapples and the saucer magnolias. Their big showy flowers and sweet scents have evolved to attract insects to spread relatively large, heavy pollen grains from one tree to another. Most conifers, and many flowering plants and grasses, depend on wind to carry pollen from one plant to another. Scarlet oak and sweetgum are two wind-pollinated trees currently blooming at the park. These plants don’t “waste” energy on creating attractive flowers and nectar; they create huge loads of pollen that get randomly carried to other trees of their own species. This pollen has to be light enough for the wind to carry it and there has to be enough produced to have a good chance of reaching its destination. The flowers are usually very high in the tree canopy, as well. This allows the wind to catch as much pollen as possible. The massive quantity of pollen needed to do the job is the reason our cars turn green and our nasal passages close up in the spring. Allergies sometimes are blamed on the flowers we see, but it’s usually the flowers we don’t see that cause the most problems.

Bear Corn (Conopholis americana)

This strange-looking organism is sometimes mistaken for a pinecone or a mushroom. It is, however, the flower stalk of a common wildflower here at Bays Mountain Park. Each of the cream-colored flowers will produce a small cluster of seeds later in summer. The weird part of this flower’s story is that this is the only part of the plant you can see! Do you notice the lack of green leaves? Bear Corn is actually a parasite on oak tree roots; it does not produce its own food as most plants do. Instead, this plant steals its nourishment from a tree that does produce its own food through photosynthesis.

Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)

Almost everyone in this area is familiar with the flowering dogwood. This is a common spring sight in the woods and in our yards. What many don’t realize is that we are looking at a cluster of flowers rather than a single flower. The four large white “petals” are actually bracts, or modified leaves. The flowers are the spiky greenish cluster in the center. In this photo, only the center flower has opened. Clusters of berries form from these flowers; the bright red fruits ripen fall. Dogwood berries are a favorite food of gray squirrels and many birds.

Here is the complete list of today’s wildflower sightings for 4/7/2020: Redbud, Dogwood, Wood Vetch, Marsh Violet, Halberd-leaved Violet, Common Blue Violet, Spring Beauty, Mouse-eared Chickweed, Bluets, Garlic Mustard, Wild Geranium, Trailing Arbutus, Bugle, Dandelion, Celandine Poppy, Wood Anemone, and Carolina Silverbell.

Until next time, stay safe and enjoy nature responsibly!