Here today gone tomorrow

Becky Emerson Carlberg
Contributing writer
Blackjack Oak Catkins

Lynn Michaels talked about spring ephemerals at an Oklahoma Native Plant Society meeting in Tulsa. The ephemerals are the early spring pop-ups often found in woodland settings. They bloom, set seed and quickly wither away. Timing is everything when on the hunt for spring ephemerals.

You may be more familiar with the non-native spring ephemerals: hyacinths originally from the eastern Mediterranean region, tulips from Southern Europe to Central Asia, and daffodils from Europe and North Africa.

We have many native spring ephemerals in Oklahoma. Eastern shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia) produce a dazzling display each spring at Nature Conservancy’s Pontotoc Ridge Preserve south of Ada. End of May into June, the flowers cover steep hillsides. They look like meteors plummeting to earth, each glowing head with a tail of petals folded back. The versatile shooting star can grow in moist to semi-arid areas, which is why they have become popular in wildflower gardens. After the spectacular presentation, the plants disappear into summer dormancy.

Mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) grow as colonies in shady areas. The plants produce glossy deep lobed green leaves on ten inch stems. Bloom period is 2 to 3 weeks. The musky scented white flowers, hidden below the leaves, lack nectar but are rich in pollen coveted by Queen bumblebees.

The backyard at my parent’s house had been regularly mowed. The past few years not so much, which has resulted in some interesting volunteer plants. Tiny Lazy Daisies (Chaetopappa asteroids), also known as Arkansas Leastdaisies, took center stage early April. The natives to south central U.S. and northern Mexico blanketed the backyard. So much activity. A surprising number of buzzing bees and pollinators were hitting the flowers. Interspersed were Missouri Violets (Viola missouriensis).

The pale blue-violet flowers also attract bees. Their foliage is relished by caterpillars of several Fritillary butterfly species. Mourning doves, wild turkeys and white-footed mice eat the seeds. Each Missouri violet seed has a small attached pudgy structure full of fat and protein called an elaiosome. Ants cart the seeds to their nest where their larvae are fed the elaiosomes. The remaining stripped-down seeds are then taken to the ant toilet area where they are deposited along with ant excrement. With all the necessary ingredients in place, the seeds happily germinate.

Ant seed dispersal is called myrmecochory. Myrmex is Greek for ant and khoreia means circular dance. The violet and the ant have developed a symbiotic relationship. The ant larvae get food and the violet seeds are dispersed and planted underground. Now that’s something to dance about. But not too long, as the small violets vanish as the temps warm and the soils dry.

Another example of an ephemeral often considered a nuisance, is the catkin. Catkins are floral tubes of petal-less male or female flowers on short stalks that dangle from tree branches. Mulberry, poplar, birch, oak, and willow catkins appear early spring. Pecan catkins wait until mid-spring.

Male catkins release their stores of pollen and drop off. Female catkins either grab the pollen and form seeds to be released weeks later (female cottonwoods), or remain on the tree to form tasty fruits (female mulberry and persimmon trees). All these species are dioecious with male and female trees.

The wind-pollinated pecans and oaks are monoecious, with male and female flowers on the same tree. The pecan male pollen release is 5-6 days, while male oaks last 4 days. Receptive pecan female flowers wait at the tips of shoots. Oak female flowers hide on branches about where a bud would be. After fertilization, pecans or acorns begin to develop. It takes a lot of male catkins to get the job done properly.

The catkins wound up in practically every room of my house. The guys rode in on shoes or blew through the door. Catkins piled up on the sidewalk, the steps and the driveway. The catkins were swept into piles as yellow pollen dust swirled in the air.

Catkin comes from Middle Dutch ‘katteken,’ which means kitten, in reference to kitten tails or their soft fur. Instead of cursing the kitty tails and their pollen, put them to use in your garden. Mix them with organic material to make a protein-rich mulch that feeds plants, cuts water loss and controls weeds.

Earth Day is tomorrow. Take a walk or ride a bike and enjoy nature. Plant a tree, an herb garden or flower bed.

Becky Emerson Carlberg