Cercis canadensis (eastern redbud)

As spring rolls in, the north east is filled with colorful flowering trees. Most of which aren’t native. But one small tree stands out, the redbuds. A native large shrub/small tree, the redbuds are covered in magenta pink flowers that occur in clumps right on the tree branch, or sometimes on the trunk itself. It is pollinated by long-tongued bees.

As the flower shape suggests, the redbuds belong to the Fabaceae family, also known as the pea/legume family.

The showy and long lasting flowers are why this plant is common in cultivation and is used in gardens and homes to add color to their spring gardens. Because its native, it also helps native bee population in the early months of spring and summer.

Epidendrum nocturnum (night scented orchid)

Epidendrum nocturnum, the night-scented Epidendrum, is the largest species of Epidendrum found in Florida. It is more common in Central America and the west indies. 

This orchid is very rare in Florida but is globally secure. In Florida, if you know where to find it, it is locally common, but due to habitat destruction, it is endangered in Florida. The flowering period is July-January, but it can flower all year long. Most of the flowers never even open. As the name suggests, when they do open, they are very fragrant after the sun goes down. Unlike most orchids, the night-scented Epidendrum can self-pollinate and does not require insect pollinators. It is also common in the orchid trade.

A young Epidendrum.

‘Ohi’a lehua (Metrosideros polymorpha)

Search for native Hawaii plants to look for, and undoubtedly the name of ‘Ohi’a lehua will show up on the list. This charismatic plant is the most common native tree found in Hawaii. It is an evergreen, highly variable tree found on the six major islands. Its flowers are showy and come in various colors ranging from yellow to red, red being the most common variation. Flowers are produced as inflorescence made up of a mass of long stamens. Ohia lehua forests are essential habitats for various native birds as it is one of the few Hawaiian plants capable of producing nectar. They host both native and introduced birds. To the right is a ʻApapane (top) and a Japanese white-eye bird move around a vast ‘Ohi’a tree.

The Ohia lehua is a crucial early colonizing species that grows straight out of basalt. It is among the first trees that are growing on recent lava flows. It is even tolerant of extreme sulfur content found along sulfur banks on the big island. A sign along the trail mentions the severe conditions on the banks and the possibility of the ‘Ohi’a colony evolving into a distinct subspecies over generations.

Its tolerance to various growing media leads to extreme tree size variations. In favorable soil, in rainforests, it can grow to be more than 80 feet tall, while when growing in boggy ground or on freshly cooled igneous rocks, it grows as a small prostrate shrub. In wetter conditions, Ohia branches drop down aerial roots that stay suspended and absorb moisture from the air. Shown here is an enormous specimen of Ohia lehua.

Current preservation efforts for the ‘Ohi’a have faced various issues, including the curse of introduced species like ornamental/livestock feed grasses that quickly take over ‘Ohi’a forests, climate change, and the latest fungal pandemic afflicting these plants, the rapid ‘Ohi’a death. First reported in the big island of Hawaii, mitigations efforts have been taken to help stop the spread of the fungus, including closing down of forests to visitors. Humans can carry these pathogens on their shoes as they walk through the forest floor. To avoid spreading the disease, visitors should use the shoe cleaners placed along trails. Please be mindful of your presence as an outsider when you visit these unique habitats.

‘Ama’uma’u fern (Sadleria cyatheoides)

Five Amaumau fern grow on lava flows created in the early 20th century with other pioneer species like ‘Ohi’a lehua.

Driving through the big island of Hawaii on the saddle road, the scenery changes drastically from vegetation introduced by ranches to hard lava rocks with little to no soil. Growing on it are some of the most versatile and hardy species of plants. These pioneer species are the first to inhabit rocky lava beds after the erupted magma cools down. Among those species is the Amaumau fern. The first time I saw this fern, I assumed it belonged to the more common fern order of tree ferns. I was pleasantly surprised to learn more about this fantastic fern. For now, it has taken the spot of my favorite species of ferns!

Amaumau fern belongs to the endemic genus Sadleria. It is found in all major islands of Hawaii and grows on lava flows, open spaces, and wet forests. The fern can tolerate extreme heat and direct sunlight, which gives its leaves a red tinge. The plant can grow vertically, like a small tree fern, or horizontally with its rhizomes covered with silver-colored dead leaves. 

The crater Halemaʻumaʻu, home to the goddess of fire and volcanoes, Pele, derives its name from this fern. Halemaʻumaʻu means “house of the ʻāmaʻu fern.”

Pua Kala (Hawaiian prickly poppy)

Preferring to grow on the leeward side of islands, these beautiful native poppies of Hawaii grow in dry, sunny coastal areas and high elevations dry mountainous climate. It is the only native poppy found across the Hawaiian islands. It also is endemic to the state.

The prickly poppy lives up to its name. The plant is covered with thorns, including on its leaves and buds. The plant is toxic, oozing yellow sap if disturbed. Native Hawaiians used the poppy for medicinal purposes.

The plants I was able to photograph were growing on the rocky coast of Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park. One of them had what I think was a stripped lynx spider ambushing possible pollinators from inside the flower!

A brief Hawaiian detour, Hawaiian Silversword (‘ahinahina)

Winter months in New Jersey can get hard, with limited sunlight and all the beautiful flora hibernating for the winter. I am lucky enough to have a sister who lives in Hawaii! While in Hawaii, I couldn’t help but botanize the local native flora. On the island of Oahu, it is sad to see that most of the landscape is covered with invasive plants and birds from across the world. The island’s native forests are at risk of being wiped out thanks to escaped plants from people’s gardens. Even so, one can find the surviving remnants of a once-thriving ecosystem and efforts made to preserve it. For the next few weeks, I will try to unload my photographs from the big island of Hawaii and the island of Oahu.

First off is possibly the most famous native plant in the botanical world, the Hawaiian silverswords! Silverswords are massive showy plants that grow on the sides of volcanoes on two of Hawaii’s islands, Maui and Hawaii. The plants are large silvery rosettes forming hardy plants that can survive climate extremities. Once common across the landscape, these large, showy plants suffered dramatic decline due to cattle farms and visitors ripping them out to keep as souvenirs. These plants are now federally protected, and restoration efforts are underway to try and save the various subspecies of the plant.

As is true for most island species, the two islands inhabited by the silverswords have produced two closely related subspecies. The Haleakala silversword grows around the volcano Haleakala in Maui. The Mauna Kea silversword is found around the peak of Mauna Kea on the big island. Efforts to save the Haleakala silversword have resulted in a resurgence of the plant under management, but the Mauna Kea has yet to see the same fate. Less than 50 of these plants continue to grow naturally in an inaccessible part of the Mauna Kea, saved from the cattle that have decimated its population. 750+ now grow under protection, many fenced off from livestock.

I was lucky enough to find these plants in a protected trail in Mauna Kea, kept under watch but left to the elements. Seeing them was a delight. At 9000 ft, the climate is not what you would expect from a place advertised relentlessly as a tropical paradise. The weather is much colder and harsher at that altitude, allowing the unique plants to survive. I visited them after they had done flowering for the year. Still, their giant flower stalks were left looking impressive, with a fresh batch of seeds! Hopefully, I can revisit them in the coming years and witness their magnificent blooms.

Silverswords are further empiriled thanks to climate change. They grow in a narrow band of altitude and depend on their delicate ecosystem for survival, with climate change, the habitable altitudes could change, further narrowing its natural range.

Minuartia carolinana (Pine-barren sandwort)

Minuartia carolinanana, or the Pine-barren sandwort is a small plant in the Pink family (Caryophyllaceae) native to the eastern coast of the US. They are found growing on white sands of pine barrens. They usually grow alone or with some grasses. The leaves are small and grow along the stem, resembling some moss species in both size and shape. The flowers grow out of these stems in long branches with five-petaled flowers that can grow longer than the stems supporting them.

To the left you can see the stem which shoots the flowering branch.

Monotropa hypopitys (Pinesap)

Monotropa hypopitys, or the pinesap, is a cousin of the more common ghost pipe. Both plants are parasitic depending on mycorrhizal fungi found in the forest floor. Unlike its cousin, Monotropa uniflora, pinesap flowers with multiple blooms on a single flowering stem. Like the ghost pipe, it can be found growing near oaks and pines.

The flower colors are varid, from yellow to purple/red. This is a rare plant in New Jersey with few populations recorded. I was lucky enough to find at least three distinct populations growing in a hilly portion of Jersey. One was flowering, while ther other was past its prime and beginning to fruit.

Melampyrum lineare (Narrowleaf cow-wheat)

Narrowleaf cow-wheat is a native herbaceous hemiparasitic annual. Its root structure invades the roots of other plants and allows it to extract nutrients from them. Cow-wheat can be found in common well-draining parts of New Jersey. These were near a cranberry bog along a roadside.

The flowers are interesting to look at, mainly because of their drawbridge-like bud opening! They are easy to miss if you don’t look for small flowers around you.

Platanthera clavellata (Small Green Wood Orchid)

A less showy cousin of the much larger and showier white-fringed orchid (they were growing near each other in pinelands of New Jersey.) The plant has but one large leaves with others being reduced to bracts along its stems. This particular plant was a youngling that was probably flowering for the first time.

There is some controversy regarding its inclusion into the Platanthera genus. I do not know enough about the morphology of the genus to elaborate further.

The spot I found this orchid seemed to have a healthy population of orchids that were reproducing. One thing that concerned me was the thickness of the understory. As this location was used by people and was near a park for human picnicking, the area hasn’t burnt enough. Pinelands is a fire ecology, and I worry about what thick understory would do to the local orchid population.

The flowers of these orchids are not as showy as some others in the Platanthera genus, but that allows us to have a clear look at the twist that results in the resupinate nature of orchid flowers. Most orchids go through this, with certain exceptions like CalopogonResupinate flowers are those that twist and turn upside down. As an orchid bud develops, the lip of the orchid is towards the flowering stem (as can be seen below), but as the bud begins to open, the flower twists till the tip point down. In this orchid, you can see the twist that each flower went through.