Queen of The Night

Just under a year ago I started working as the Greenhouse Manager at Hope College in Holland Michigan. We have a varied collection of plants including one unruly, sprawling Orchid Cactus. This past spring it put out a significant new branch and leaves. I have had to tie it to pipes above to keep it out of the way of the door. In early July it had a large flower bud appear, but it bloomed while I was out of town, so when another bud appeared in early August, we began to keep close ritual watch on it. Coming in on the weekend and days of to check the progress and try to guess when it would bloom, it finally showed white in the end of the bud on Thursday around noon. I went back that evening and watched and photographed it for over three hours. The images here were taken between 10:45 and 11 pm. The video is a time laps compilation of about 300 images, one taken every 30 seconds for three hours. The video can be seen at this link: https://youtu.be/OJ3435tV5bw. Below is a little information about the plant.

Front View

The cactus Epiphyllum oxpetalum is known by several common names, the most often used are Night Blooming Cereus, Dutchman’s pipe cactus and Queen of The Night. If you see the lovely five inch or larger white flower, you would agree that Queen of The Night is a very fitting name as the magnificent blooms demands respect.

This member of the cactus family is a type of orchid cactus and is related to the Christmas or Easter Cactus that many of us are familiar with. The large sprawling plant grows perched high among the trees of the rain forest of Mexico and Guatemala where this plant is native. It is a tropical epiphyte to lithophyte, an organism that grows on the surface of another plant or on rocks. The plant derives its moisture and nutrients from rain, the air and debris collecting on its large flat leaves.

Rear View

The large white flowers open after dark, usually between 8 and 9 pm and is fully opened by midnight. At first the momentum is slow, but in the last hour the final unfurling of the flowers moves more quickly to reveal a gorgeous white flower. The flower releases a sweet fragrance that attracts bats for pollination in its native habitat. With the first light of dawn, the flower closes as each flower only last one night.

The plant has many medicinal uses such as to clear phlegm, to strengthen the lungs, for bladder infections, and rheumatism. The flowers are also edible and can be used in soups.

Was it worth setting there for over three hours and not getting a full night’s sleep? Absolutely!

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Early Spring Pollinators

There has been much focus on landscaping to help pollinators in recent years. While this is all good, most of the information deals with the later, larger, showier flowers of summer and fall. I do not see much about the earliest plants and pollinators. If you pay attention as you walk thru the woods in early spring, and I mean early like March and early to mid-April you will see small flies active around early bloomers like Skunk cabbage. These small flies are attracted to the heat produced by the plant during the fourteen days of actual bloom when the pollen is present. Harbinger-of-spring which blooms from early March through April is visited by both bees and flies. Other early bloomers like Bloodroot and Hepatica also need bees and provide pollen for them.

Many of our native bees emerge in conjunction with a particular species or group of plants’ blooming. These timed emergences occur throughout the growing season. In some cases, it is important for the bees to not only emerge at the correct time of year, but to also be able to find the appropriate species of flower as some are specialist and only visit one or a small number of species.

The queen bumble bee overwinters in the leaf litter in the woods. As the days warm and she becomes active, she can be seen visiting early blooming spring ephemerals for food while searching for a place to build a nest for the coming brood. Another early bee is the ground nesting miner bee in the genus Andrena. These bees are active in my lawn in late March to early April. When the adults hatch out, you will see small holes in the ground surrounded by piles of sand. If you sit quietly and wait, you will begin to see them coming and going. Just do not get to close or they will retreat into the ground for protection.


Early blooming trees and shrubs like soft maples and willows can provide both nectar and pollen for bees. Willows are a great and first pollen source of the spring for honey bees.

When thinking of pollinators and looking for plants to add to your landscape, keep in mind the needs of early bees. Add early spring blooming flowers, trees and shrubs then continue the progression throughout the growing season.

Even though there has not been much research done yet, keep in mind that with some of these solitary bees nesting in the ground that pesticides you apply to the soil could have a negative impact on the developing larvae. If you find you have ground nesting bees in your lawn, consider not treating those areas of the lawn with pesticides of any kind. Native bees are important to native plants!

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Plants for Winter Interest

Native plants can add texture, character and visual interest to the winter landscape. All of our native habitats contain plants that can add interesting features to the winter garden. The exact species you chose will depend on your conditions. When it is cold and white around us, I enjoy viewing and photographing our natives in their winter beauty. I have photographed well over 60 herbaceous plants plus grasses and more than 40 species of trees in winter. Many of the tree photographs are of buds and interesting bark patterns or textures. There trees and shrubs that provide interesting and colorful buds when viewed up close. They can also offer bark textures and patterns as well as berries, seed pods and in some cases the catkins for the early spring flowers.

False-rue Anemone

With the weather we have been having so far this year in southern Michigan, there are plants in the woodland and wetlands that are green. These are usually green under the snow, but with the lack of snow we can enjoy finding them. The False-rue Anemone will even bloom in the winter if conditions are right. The accompanying photo was taken on December 3, 2015. I have also seen it bloom in November and January.

A few woodland wildflowers remain visible in some form in winter if the snow is not to deep or heavy. Blue cohosh with its deep blue colored fruit on a straw-colored stem can often be found as can the seed umbel of the Leek. A native Euonymus, the Running Strawberry-bush’s stems remain bright green all winter.

Hackberry bark

Trees can add character to the winter landscape, whether by the stately forms, interesting and eye-catching bark, buds or sometimes fruit left over from the fall. Conifers always add color to the white and often otherwise dead looking landscape. Some trees such as sprawling beeches or clumping birches add mood and character. Others haver exfoliating bark that peels in plates like the Shagbark hickory or Sycamore. Corky ridged bark of the Hackberry adds some texture interest when walking past them. Flowering dogwood not only gives us beautiful flowers in spring, but the larger onion bulb shaped buds are clearly visible from fall through the winter months. The smooth and lighter colored bark of both the American beech and Muscle wood also then to stand out from their surrounding companions.

Michigan Holly

There are many shrubs that can add color and interest as well. The first on most will think of is likely to be the Red-osier dogwood with it bright red stems. The color seems to be more intense when growing where it gets plenty of sun. The Silky or Pale dogwood can also have red stems. Speaking of red, we must mention the bright red berries on the Michigan holly. Although they can remain throughout the winter, they are at their best before mid to late winter. The female holly loaded with red berries stands out from the other shrubs and trees at the wetland edges and is easy to spot, even while driving. Witch-hazel also offers some winter interest as it has both cones from the previous year and flower remnants at the same time in winter. They bloom in the fall and occasionally into the early winter and leave behind the bracts looking like winter flowers. The brown papery “bladders” that contain the seeds of the Bladdernut are also showy in winter as the last until the following year. If you shake them, you can hear the seed rattle inside. The round buds of the early blooming Spicebush and the brown hairy buds of the Pawpaw are also attractive in winter. A healthy tea can also be made from the Spicebush buds and bark. American hazel forms male catkins in the fall and they hang all winter waiting for the small red female flowers in early spring adding winter and early spring interest.

Rattlesnake master

The prairies and fields also offer many plants of interest in the winter as many are sturdy enough to stay upright in the snow. Goldenrods and asters hold their form all winter. The rounded head of Bergamot which smells similar to oregano when crushed also holds it form as does the spikey heads and leaves of the Rattlesnake master. The minty smelling Mountain mint also holds its form all winter. The cream-colored cottony seed on the Thimbleweed stands out from the white snow. The texture reminds me of the old cotton stuffed mattresses of years gone by. The black seed pods of the White false indigo remain upright and beautifully contrast against the white snow all winter. Common and Swamp milkweeds are also very visible, reminding us of warmer days to come.

Wild Yam

Vines can also add form and interest to the landscape. The three-winged seed pods of the Wild yam and the wispy seed heads Virgin’s bower are very attractive if you have a place suitable to grown them.

Not only do these plants add winter interest to the landscape, but they also provide food and shelter for wildlife. There are many birds that will eat the left-over fruits and seeds.

There so many more I could mention in all these groups that we could fill volumes if I listed them all. This is just a sampling to help you see the possibilities for your landscape and maybe encourage you to get out and look for some interesting plants in winter.

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Giant Red Pines

On the final day of a recent trip to the Upper Peninsula, rain was in the forecast for much of the day. Not wanting to get our cameras too wet, I found a place just east of Roscommon that looked interesting to check out on the way back south. As we neared the Roscommon Red Pine Natural Area Preserve, the rains subsided and as long as you didn’t bump a tree, you stayed dry.

The 160 acre preserve is a National Natural Landmark which includes a 34-acre grove of virgin Red pine. There are also some sizeable White pines in the grove as well, the largest White pine that we measured was 44.8 inches in diameter. The grove once hosted a national champion Red pine which is said to have been about 15 feet in circumference, twice the size of the largest tree remaining today. The largest red pine that we measured near the trail was 29 inches in diameter or 7.5 feet in circumference. That is still a very large Red pine as most that we see or are harvested for timber today are only a fraction of the size. There are large Red pine trees that show the scars of past fires from 1798, 1888 or 1928. As fire has not been in the grove for almost 100 years, you will notice that Red maples and oaks beginning to come in as part of the natural succession towards a climax forest. In the openings where trees have fallen you will notice thick patches of young White pines which can germinate and grow slowly, waiting for sunlight to reach the forest floor. When the canopy opens and light is available, they grow fast, reaching for the light and out competing other trees.

As we entered the 34 acre grove area on the loop of the 1.4 mile trail, a sense of calm, peace and serenity were evident that I had never sensed in any natural area before. The closest was when I visited the Estivant Pines Nature Sanctuary area near Copper Harbor, which also has never been cut. There was a feeling of awe and wonderment at the old, large trees standing out in the open lower reaches of the forest. These old growth and virgin forest have an open lower forest layer as the thick canopy limits the amount of sunlight that reaches the forest floor, restricting what grows there. Even in these restricted growing conditions, I noted over 30 species of trees and other plants growing there.

If you are traveling in the vicinity of Roscommon, this is definitely a worth while place to stop, walk and spend some time in awe of these giant beauties.

Bark of large Red pine
Old burn scar
White pine filling the gap

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Milkweed for Monarch Butterflies

Have you been watching a nice patch of milkweed along a public road, only to have it cut down in June by the local road commission? It happens every year near where I live. While cutting the milkweed can be beneficial for Monarchs, they always cut it at the worst possible time. Usually, this large-scale mowing happens when the first new brood of larvae for the summer are nearing their final instar, thus destroying a whole generation. On a smaller scale such as your garden, cutting of some milkweed plants can be beneficial. When you cut off the milkweed early enough in the season, it will regrow with nice tender succulent leaves that are perfect for young larvae to consume. The milkweeds in the accompanying photo were cut with the usual brush hog down to about 3 or 4 inches. It is recommended in the garden to only remove two thirds of the plant when cutting back to encourage new growth. By not cutting all the plants you have, you will be allowing some to bloom, providing nectar for many insects and especially for the Monarch butterflies. The uncut plants will also produce seed to continue propagating more plants in the coming years. Don’t cut to late in the summer, as having young tender leaves could trigger females to develop sexually and contribute to late egg laying rather than preparing to migrate. Aging milkweed is one of the triggers leading to the fall migration, other fall triggers are: length of daylight, decreasing temperatures and lessening nectar sources. Also, by allowing milkweeds to bloom late in the season, could affect the migration due to unusually late nectar sources.

With Michigan having 11 species of native milkweeds, which ones should you plant? First of all, plant only those native to your area. Planting non-natives such as Tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) can cause problems for Monarchs. There are reports of Monarchs continuing to lay eggs through the winter and not migrating where Tropical milkweed can be grown year around in the south. It is also good to source your seed or plants as close to where you will be growing them. While any milkweed species is a possible larval host, some seem to be more widely used than outers. Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) and Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) seem to be favorites here in Michigan with the orange Butterfly-weed (Asclepias tuberosa) coming in third in my many years of observations. I have only seen larvae on other species a few times over the years. Keep in mind that Common milkweed moves and may come up anywhere near where you planted it. I have two stands in my yard that I didn’t plant. Most importantly, make sure it is native and of a local source.

With all the push for planting milkweed for the Monarchs, let’s not overlook the need for other native plants as nectar sources. Monarchs use many other plants besides milkweed to feed on the nectar. Provide native plants that bloom throughout the season with different plants blooming at different times from late May into later September. Liatris, milkweeds, Goldenrods, Mountain mints, many composites including Rudbeckias, asters, and Silphiums work really well to attract many species of butterflies including Monarchs. The last generation of Monarchs in the fall need these plants to build fat to fuel the coming migration and those migrating need to re-fuel along the way.

Feed the larvae and adult butterflies and enjoy watching them in your garden!

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Benefits of Graminoids

Northern Eyed Brown

I am sure that most of us are aware that grasses and sedges or graminoids are a natural part of native plant communities. But, do we stop to consider why they may be important and even useful to restorations or our native plant gardens. I have told people for years to make wildflower or native gardens as natural as possible. This includes adding grasses and sedges to the pallet of plants. Besides the added beauty, there are many useful benefits of incorporating this group of plants to the landscape.

Graminoids have many benefits for the environment and even our quality of life. Many of our native grasses are deep rooted with two thirds of the plant’s biomass below the soil as roots. These deep, thick roots help hold loose soil in place, thus working to prevent soil erosion. Over the years of growing, dying and the decomposition of each year’s growth, these grasses improve the quality and richness of the soils. By absorbing and filtering water, they improve water quality and lessen water runoff. I have seen this at work in my own yard with heavy rain events. While my vegetable garden had standing water, the immediately adjacent prairie planting had zero standing water. When allowed to grow in thick densities as they would in natural areas, they can shade and out compete many weeds. Also, the older the planting, there should be less disturbance which is needed for many weeds to grow as many annual weeds need disturbance to germinate and thrive. Several of our native prairie grasses are also drought tolerant and thrive in dry conditions. This ability to grow in course droughty soils also means less water is needed and once established you should never need to supplement with artificial watering.

Native grasses sequester and store vast amounts of carbon rather than releasing it into the atmosphere. Larrabee and Altman noted in their book on prairies that “the simple act of plowing the grass under in such large quantities created the first appreciable increase in carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. This historic increase seems to have begun at about the same time the prairies began disappearing around 1850.”

Grasses and sedges are also important to insects including some pollinators and predatory insects. There are 42 species of butterflies and skippers which the larvae feed on grasses in Michigan. This number does not include the many moths and other insects that also seek food, shelter and protection in the tall thick grasses. Years ago, I had thought that Satyrs and Wood Nymphs were butterflies of woodland edges as this is where I normally saw them. The truth is, that is where the grasses were along the edges of fields. When open areas are allowed to go back to grasses or are planted with native grasses, these butterflies move out into the open areas. They are laying eggs in the grasses and hiding from predators there as well. It only takes a few passes through these grassy areas with an insect net to see the high diversity of insects using and living on these plants.

If you are interested in adding native grasses to your property or garden, Little bluestem is a great species to start with. While many species of grasses and sedges are used by these insects, Little bluestem seems to be very popular with many species. Oh, don’t forget to add flowering forbes as nectar sources for the adults. By adding native grasses, sedges and flowering plants to the landscape, you may be amazed at the diversity of life you will be providing for.

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Two New Posters

After traveling many miles, the past few years and taking lots of photos and retaking some to get the desired images, I have two new posters hot off the press. Asclepias – Milkweed photos were finished in 2020 and the Maples were finished in June of 2021. Both posters have joined the Michigan Winter Tree Bud and two Trillium posters in my collection of educational posters that I am developing. Posters are 12×18 inches and unframed. All five can be purchased on my Etsy store at https://www.etsy.com/shop/CDENature or for if you are local you can contact me if you are interested. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have in making them.

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Effects of Trees in Oak Savanna

During a visit to the Newaygo Prairies in early June, I noticed several native prairie species that showed significant frost/freeze damage form a May freeze. Young oak leaves were brown and shriveled as were the flower stems on Goat’s-rue (Tephrosia virginiana). Porcupine grass (Hesperostipa spartea) had deformed bloom stems and others showed similar damage. In the Karner Blue Preserve, the Lupines (Lupinus perennis) had very few seed on the plants that are out in the open, but those that were under the protection of the oaks had many seed pods and even a few blooms still going. The frost damage stopped at the tree canopy edge. The trees not only sheltered plants from the frost, but also provide micro climates in the savanna.

Savanna is thought by some to be a continuum from prairie to woodland while others put it in a camp of its own. While savanna seems to be the transition between the two environments, it is also a system by its’ self. Based on normal definitions of savanna and prairie, much of the Newaygo and Allegan prairies are more likely true savanna.

Various processes including fire keep the understory clear of woodland plants and keep the tree density low. This allows for many herbaceous forbs to thrive in the cooler shade of the oaks as opposed to the hotter openness of the open prairie. Simple observation shows a higher plant diversity in the oak savanna than the open prairie or adjacent oak woodland. When you visit some of these prairie remnants in Michigan, you will find the greater number of species under and near the trees. The oaks play a significant role in these areas. Insects, birds and other wildlife are more abundant than in the open.

Many prairie plants are well suited to thrive in both savanna or prairie conditions. Others do much better in the cooler shelter of the oaks than in the hot open prairie. Soils can also be affected as the decaying oak leaves add to the soil below them, providing a bit more organic matter. The soils in these areas tend to be courser sand and consequently not high in organic matter, nutrients or moisture. Because of the shade, moisture may also be slightly higher under the trees. Grasses, especially the taller ones however do not seem to thrive in these conditions. Comparatively, the soils of the tall grass region in southern Michigan are darker and richer and today grow much corn.

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Nine Years Later

In May of 2012 one of the largest forest fires ever in Michigan began to burn. It lasted about three weeks, burning approximately 21,000 acres between Newberry and Paradise. I visited the area as soon as the DNR opened it again. This began a photographic and observational journey that has lasted for nine years so far. The first year I visited and photographed the area a couple of times and then for every year for the next four years. Since many photos and areas seemed to look the same, I decided to do the next intense photo documenting visit at ten years from the fire which would be next year. I have however visited some of the areas every year as you might say my interest may almost be an obsession. On a recent trip to the area, I took time to visit a portion of the area that I affectionately refer to as the “burn area.”

Except for black burn marks on some of the standing pine trees, you might not know the area had burned. The ground vegetation covers the whole area nicely and trees have come back. Birches, oaks and maples have resprouted from stumps and pines, especially Jack pine has reseeded in previously forested areas. The areas that had recently been logged prior to the fire have few trees returning. Jack pine seed released as a result of the intense heat are now young trees reaching ten feet or more in height. In some cases, the Jack pines that were taller and survived the fire, now tower over the younger ones growing in their shadows. In some areas the only reminder of the fire is the blackened ghosts of dead trees still standing.


I visited Barclay Lake, where the forest had burned all the way around it. The bog edge to the lake is a beautiful floating mat of sphagnum moss, leatherleaf and other bog plants including the Grass-pink Orchid. Also, in the nearby woods the forest floor is covered with blueberries, wintergreen, and bracken ferns growing form the charred remains of pine branches.

We often here of the devastation of wild fires as the media likes to focus on what was lost but never seems to come back in five years to see the regeneration. Yes, it seems like all is lost after one of these events, but fire/death brings new vibrant life to the northern forest ecosystem. These 21,000 acres are alive and thriving as plants recover and wildlife habitat is created or enhanced.

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Delicate but Tough Spring Ephemerals

Even though skunk cabbage and harbinger-of-spring bloom in March here in west Michigan, most of the spring ephemerals bloom in April to early May. Spring ephemerals bloom early before the leaves are fully on the trees, allowing them to take advantage of the sunlight reaching the forest floor in early spring. Most spend much of the year underground, unnoticeable to those walking in the woods in the summer and fall. Growth begins in the fall and continues through the winter underground, as the “hypogeous” phase. Throughout the winter months, root growth and bud development in the bulbs and rhizomes is taking place at a time when we think that nothing is growing in these cold months. From these buds will come the delicate blooms of early spring.

The short lived above ground phase known as “epigeous,“ lasts for only a few weeks to a couple of months. This is the time when the plant blooms, sets seed, produces and stores energy in the roots or bulbs. This above ground activity happens while they can take advantage of the available light in the spring woods. With cold nights possible, these lovely native plants can tolerate freezing temperatures for a time without damage to the plant. Some trap warmth with the hairs on the stems and leaves, while others like bloodroot trap warmer air in the leaves curled around the flower stem. Many of these are pollinated by native solitary bees that emerge in synchronization with the bloom time. Some of these bees are also “specialist,” visiting only one species of flower. Some flowers, like spring beauty only bloom in the sun, closing in the shade and every evening.

Photosynthesis is best at 68° F or above, so much food production needs to done in a short time. Nutrient uptake can also be difficult in cool weather. These plants need to be efficient as energy needs to be allocated to producing and storing food as well as seed production without any wasted resources. While most of the spring ephemerals in Michigan are found in rich deciduous woods or forests, those without bulbs or thick rhizomes may more often be found in thick leaf litter. Two good examples of plants with more and smaller roots found in these less rich soil areas are dutchman’s breeches and squirrel corn. Both have very small bulbs or corms near the surface, but put out many roots for nutrient intake.

Early spring is a magical time in the woods. Temperatures are comfortable, mosquitoes are minimal to non-existent and the forest floor is peppered with the delicate sprig ephemerals. Visit a woods near you in the next few weeks and enjoy these visual treats.

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