Monday, February 27, 2012

Interesting Life Histories

There's a lot of white alder along the creeks at the FRC parking lot.  I've never lost my fascination with the male catkins and female cones of the alder which began when I used the cones to simulate pine trees on my model railroad.  I used dyed pipe cleaners for the branches.  An interesting feature of the alder is that the male catkins form in the fall, but the flower don't mature and release pollen until spring.  Meanwhile, the female cones from the previous season persist until a new crop emerges in spring.  So, on the branch pictured above, we have a dozen or so male flower clusters developing all around a cluster of five or six spent female cones from last season.  I'll photograph some fresh green cones as soon as they arrive.
The bottom photo is Mullein, a member of the snapdragon family, Scrophulariaceae. Each of its many flowers has both male and female parts, like most flowers.  A fascinating feature of this plant, besides its European origin and rapid spread across the USA, is that it's a biennial.  In the first season, it produces only a ground-level rosette of large, wooly leaves.  Their shade provides great hiding places during the heat of summer for many kinds of bugs and lizards. In the first fall, these leaves turn brown, and the plant appears dead.  However, it's still alive below ground.  During the second season, a new rosette of green leaves appears in spring, then a rapidly growing spike develops six or more feet in height.  I've seen a few exceed ten feet.  The top foot or more ends up covered with yellow flowers.  They produce thousands of tiny seeds, and often support many feeding birds. 
At the end of the second season, the plant dies, but the tall, brown stalk may stand through one or more winters.  The one pictured above dies last fall, and the current winter is taking a toll.  It is bent toward the ground and probably won't stand through the coming summer.  The early leaves of the next crop have already appeared in the immediate surroundings.


  1. Mullein leaves are also great for your feet if you are out hiking and get a blister. Just pad your shoes with some mullein leaves and your feet will thank you.

  2. Thanks for adding that. I was going to add their being pleasant alternative to toilet paper, but thought better of it. I'm thinking they might also make great emergency insulation since the fuzzy leaves tend to stay somewhat intact over the winter. I mentioned they attract birds - Bill Peters did a great painting of a bluebird on top of a mullein - but I should add they attract a great variety of colorful insects as well.