Hibiscus seed beetles and Cenchrus for days!

This past week was hugely productive for our team! All in all we made 36 collections between three groups. That means Fall has definitely arrived. We also managed to make a wide array of collections, as opposed to earlier in the season when we were making many collections of the same species.

I started off my week at Patuxent Research Refuge, a collection of contiguous tracts owned by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (as is the case with many of our sites), around Washington D.C. I was really excited to see that a rather large population of Asclepias syriaca or common milkweed along a power line corridor – right where we had noted it was the last time we were there. As I was alone, the collection took a bit longer than I was used to. Many of the pods had already opened and shed their wind-dispersed seeds. The rest were either still green and closed or partly green and partly moldy. The most tedious part was picking through the pods to find ones that were both mold-free and fully mature. One trick we learned from last year’s collections is that the pods can be picked when they’re still green and the seeds are fully matured, but before they fluff out and float away. Nothing is more frustrating than trying to stuff more milkweed seeds into a bag that keeps spitting out the ones you’ve already put in it. One really cool thing I saw a few times was that a few seeds here and there had already germinated. For those not familiar with A. syriaca, it requires stratification to germinate (or a thorough soaking in Gibberelic Acid), so spontaneous germination before any bit of cold weather is a bit strange.


Monarch caterpillars on Asclepias syriaca

My next stop after an awesome stay in the always pleasant Chestertown, MD was Tuckahoe State Park. I met up with my mentor, Amanda, there to take a leisurely paddle up the Tuckahoe Creek while furiously collecting Hibiscus moscheutos (Crimsoneyed Rosemallow) seeds. As is typical of the Malvaceae family, the capsules were insanely mucilaginous with all the rain we were having that week and in the preceding days. Our cloth bags were practically dripping with a snot-like substance. They were so wet, in fact, that our collection didn’t dry even after being spread out on newspaper every night, until 4 days later. And the bugs! There are these little bugs that lay their eggs in the fertilized ovaries of the Hibiscus capsule. When the seeds are mature, the little jerks eat their way out of the seeds, leaving empty seeds with a single large gaping hole in the side. They then crawl out and fly away to continue their life cycle. Unfortunately for me, the majority of the bugs in our collection decided to eat their way out and fly around in my car for the rest of my trip. I can’t describe how many bugs I had crawling all over me, all over the windows, all over my luggage – it was insane! Amanda and I also collected some Decodon verticillatus, or Swamp Loosestrife. That ended up being a partial collection, since most were not ready yet.


Decodon verticillatus capsules


Mucilaginous Hibiscus moscheutos capsules


Those ugly Hibiscus moscheutos capsules started off as flowers much like this pretty one

Next for me was Myrtle Point Park in St. Mary’s County, MD. There I made quite possibly the worst collection to make by yourself – Cenchrus tribuloides, or Sanddune Sandbur. I had forgotten my gloves back in my car, and was already pressed for time, so I ended up having to make that collection bare-handed. Even though the mature fruits come off the panicle quite easily and with little resistance, those things hurt like you wouldn’t believe. The spine tips on the lemmas are armed with retrorse barbs, and let me tell you, when those things stick into your skin, good luck getting them out. I only ended up bleeding in two spots, but both times I bled enough to drip blood off my finger tips. The rest of the injuries I sustained were from the very tips of the lemma awns, and for the next few days, even just driving hurt. But I was really excited to say that I had made that collection. If I could do it alone and without gloves, there’s no excuse for anyone else!


Menacing Cenchrus tribuloides plant


Cenchrus tribuloides raceme – even more menacing

My last stop for the day was Mason Neck State Park in Virginia. It’s one of the sites we had a permit for last year, but that I hadn’t ever visited, so it was definitely a treat for me. I wasn’t able to make any collections there since I arrived too late to visit the one part of the park I intended to visit, but I did get to survey some new areas. It was pretty fruitful though – I found a really large population of Sagittaria latifolia (Broadleaf Arrowhead) and in the same spot, a population of Leersia oryzoides (Rice Cutgrass).


Sagittaria latifolia leaves and inflorescence

I may not have ended that day until around 9 PM, making it a 14 hour day, but as I tell everyone that asks how I like my job, I wouldn’t rather be doing anything else!


Sunset from Mason Neck State Park

The following day I started at Occoquan Bay NWR and made collections of Panicum virgatum (Switchgrass), Typha angustifolia (Narrowleaf Cattail), and Rhus copallinum (Winged Sumac). The Typha and Rhus were awesome collections to make. Both were ready to be collected, and it doesn’t take much to make a full collection. And true to form, most grasses aren’t very straightforward or quick collections.


Rhus copallinum with characteristic winged rachis


Typha angustifolia collection underway – no, they’re not swamp corndogs, they taste terrible


Hibiscus moscheutos and Rhus copallinum drying in my hotel room

After Occoquan I went to Caledon State Park where I met face-to-face with one of our contacts working with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation. I also was able to make another collection of Typha angustifolia.


Viburnum prunifolium blushing

I then took to the road again and headed for one of the many units of the Rappahannock River Valley NWR Complex. I did loads of scouting since I had never visited that particular unit. I was a little disconcerted to learn that a lot of “warm-season grasses” there were planted, but in the coming weeks I hope to find out which particular species that includes, and maybe I’ll be able to return to make a collection or two.

I ended the day at my new favorite burger joint – NN Burger in Tappahannock, VA. They make the best burgers I’ve had anywhere, with such toppings as Brie, Apple Onion Relish, Red Wine Reduction, Field Greens, and Balsamic Vinaigrette on their Porch Burger. If that doesn’t sound good, you simply don’t know good food. I finished off my meal with a Nutella milkshake! They sure don’t skimp – I could taste the hazelnuts, which I can’t say for any other Nutella flavored food I’ve had. It was a great ending to a long day!


Worth every last penny and then some

My last day was spent at Belle Isle State park where I collected the highly requested Distichlis spicata (Saltgrass), as well as Fimbristylis castanea (Marsh Fimbry) and Typha angustifolia again. I was especially excited to collect the Distichlis, since it’s been extremely difficult to A) find a population large enough consisting of female plants (Distichlis is dioecious), and B) they are terrible at producing seed, so making a collection of 20,000+ seeds tends up being very difficult.


Fimbristylis castanea in a collection bag


Distichlis spicata spike


Distichlis spicata and other saltmarsh grasses made for a gorgeous view

My final stop for the week was New Point Comfort Preserve, a Virginia TNC property. There’s a really great salt marsh there with tons of great species like Limonium carolinianum (Sea Lavender), Salicornia depressa (Virginia Glasswort), and Symphyotrichum tenuifolium (Perennial Saltmarsh Aster).

When I finally got back to our home base at the North Carolina Botanical Garden, I was able to see the fruits of my labor. It was quite impressive! Maybe less so still packed into brown paper bags, but in the end I made 14 collections. Not too shabby for a solo week!


A week’s worth of seeds

Can’t wait to see what next week has in store for us.

Jake Dakar

SOS East – North Carolina Botanical Garden

2 thoughts on “Hibiscus seed beetles and Cenchrus for days!

  1. I grew up one town over from Tappahannock, VA and actually worked at the Rappahannock River Valley NWR Complex, Wilna Pond unit the summer after I graduated high school. Small world!

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