Kansas

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Winter Orchids

winter orchid

When the cold winds of November tug the last leaves from the maples, basswoods, and elms, orchids probably are the farthest thing from most Kansans’ minds.  However, fall, winter, and early spring are the best seasons to search for one of the state’s more secretive plants – the puttyroot orchid or Adam-and-Eve [Aplectrum hyemale (Muhl. ex Willd.) Nutt.].  The plant’s specific epithet “hyemale”, referring to winter, alludes to the plant’s habit of producing a winter leaf.  The name puttyroot is a reference to sticky substance released from the crushed tubers, which usually occur in pairs (hence the name Adam-and-Eve).

Puttyroot has evolved a fascinating strategy to survive in the low-light environments of rich, deciduous forests.  As forest canopies develop in the spring, light limits the ability of understory plants to photosynthesize.  Consequently, many herbaceous species flower and fruit in the spring, before the canopy fills in, or in the fall, when the canopy begins to thin.  Puttyroot takes this strategy to an extreme.  Each plant produces a single, elliptic, dark green, pleated, 3-6 inch-long leaf in the fall.  The ground-hugging leaf remains green and photosythetic from fall through winter and into spring, producing sugars needed by the plant to grow.  From late May into mid June, some plants will produce a single, 10-20 inch-tall flowering, each bearing a dozen whitish purple or brownish white flowers near the tip.  Ribbed, pendent fruits – each about 1 inch long – mature through the summer and persist into the fall, leaving another clue to the plant’s presence.  

Populations of puttyroot are documented in 10 eastern Kansas counties (Anderson, Coffey, Crawford, Douglas, Franklin, Johnson, Leavenworth, Linn, Miami, and Wyandotte).  Most occur in moist, maple-basswood forests or cottonwood-dominated floodplain forests along rivers and streams.  Populations generally comprise a few, closely-spaced individuals, but large populations can contain several hundred plants.

The next time you head out to your favorite forest trail for a fall or winter walk, keep an eye to the ground.  If you are lucky, you may spy the distinctive leaves of this forest gem.  If you do find this rare Kansas orchid, plan a return visit to marvel at its amazing flowers and fruits in the dim light of the forest floor.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Watch for Snowy Owls in Kansas, Missouri this winter

Snowy owls — known to Harry Potter fans and birders alike - are making an appearance in Kansas and Missouri this fall and winter.

The owls, which reside most of the year in Canadian tundra and arctic environments, periodically move south in search of food. Their main food source, lemmings, is more scarce this year. At least 8 of the two-foot-tall iconic birds have been spotted in Kansas so far.

The public is encouraged to let the KU Natural History Museum know if a snowy owl is noticed in their area. The museum has provided a gallery of images of snowy owls for reference.

Typically, adult male snowy owls are all white, and adult females have feathers that are "barred" with brown tips. Immature males and females both start out with the barred feathers, but the males become more white as they age. Another way to tell determine sex is to look for white feathers at the back of the head, which can indicate that the bird is male.

If you spot such a bird and have the opportunity to take photos of it, please fill in this contact form to let ornithologists know about the sighting. Thank you!