Wednesday, October 19, 2022

5 Ghostly Plants

Since plants are corporeal beings, there is nothing inherently ghostly about them in reality. These plants gain the ghostly title by virtue of their spectral foliage and/or reclusive growing habits.

- Ghost Orchid-

On the left, a Ghost Orchid in its habitat and on the right is a close-up of the same flower. Photos by John Hermans.

(Didymoplexis stella-silva)  

In 2021, scientists named 205 new plant and fungal species around the world. Correct scientific naming is essential to protecting environments and endangered species. Providing a name begins the process of research, extinction risk assessment, and protections. In Madagascar, scientists from the Kew Madagascar Conservation Center named 16 species of orchids, including the Ghost Orchid (Didymoplexis stella-silva). Its name means “star of the forest” as this little flower grows in the near-complete darkness of the jungle floor and has star-like flowers. The fact that they even found this orchid is amazing. It is just a small flower and stem. It is leafless (so it has no chlorophyll for photosynthesis) and lives entirely via a symbiotic relationship with underground fungi. The flower only shows it itself for a brief 24 hours after a rain during which it is believed the orchid is pollinated by ants. In order for us to have this knowledge, those dedicated scientists from Kews would have had to put many, many hours in patient observation in that inhospitable jungle. Kudos to them.

- Philodendron Florida Ghost –

(Philodendron pedatum cv ‘Florida Ghost’) aka White Ghost 

A Florida Ghost showing the different colors its leaves can be.
Philodendrons have long been a favorite for houseplants as they are relatively vigorous growers and are easy to care for. This gorgeous plant is a philodendron hybrid created by combining Philodendron pedatum with Philodendron squamiferum. There are naturally many similarities between the parent plants and the Florida Ghost, but there are also some desirous differences. For instance, the Florida Ghost is more compact with tight leaf clusters and will grow well vertically on a supporting structure just until it reaches about eight feet (this article contains more comparisons). The Florida Ghost requires ample sun to retain the white hue to its leaves; without sufficient light the leaves will be a normal green. If you aren't sure if you have ample light, the same effect can be achieved with a grow light. If you have four-legged pets this might not be the one for you as it is toxic to cats and dogs. 

- Ghost Plant (succulent version) -

A Ghost Plant succulent growing amongst masonry and cascading down from it.
(Graptopetalum paraguayense) aka Mother of Pearl

This cold-hardy succulent makes an eye-catching addition to any home or landscape. It grows up to 1 foot tall and about 2-3 feet wide. In full sun the foliage turns a pinkish-yellow, but in partial shade it will acquire the blue-grey hue that gives it its name. In time, the stems will begin to cascade or spread along the ground and it will display little star-shaped yellow flowers. This succulent was first introduced to the U.S. in 1904 and at that time it was thought that it came from Paraguay in South America (this is how the paraguayense became part of its name). Over time, scientists have grown to understand that it is most likely from a place 5,000 miles away from Paraguay - Chihuahua, Mexico. I state that it is “most likely” from Mexico because there is still a surprising lack of clarity as to its origins and what is known has been extrapolated from what is known of the plant itself. This article has more on this interesting botanical mystery. 

- Ghostly Manzanita -

A bee on the white flowers of the Ghostly Manzanita.
(Arctostaphylos silvicola ) aka Bonny Doon Manzanita, Santa Cruz Manzanita, Silverleaf Manzanita

This rare shrub is a native of California, where it lives in ancient sand dunes in the Santa Cruz mountains. This plant is quite beautiful with its silver-grey leaves, deep red bark and bell-shaped flowers that look like the Lily of the Valley. These sweet flowers can bloom in both winter and spring and are beloved by pollinators. In the right circumstances, the Ghostly Manzanita can grow up to 8-20 feet tall and spread out just as wide,  but it is struggling in its native environment. Due to the very limited geographic locations where it grows, and threats from sand mining, this Californian treasure is considered threatened and/or endangered. Any loss of naturally-growing plant life is tragic, but this plant should survive in the long-run as it has become a popular landscape choice.

- Ghost Plant (perennial version) –

Ghosts plants rising from a verdant forest floor nest to a moss-covered log.

(Monotropa uniflora) aka Indian Pipe, Corpse Plant, Death Flower, Ghost Flower

This is arguably the best-known of the five plants on this list. It is similar to the Ghost Orchid in that it lives deep in dark forests, has no chlorophyll and survives off the mycorrhizal fungi in the soil. However, it differs from the wisp that is the orchid by its much-longer and more complex life cycle (learn more on that here). Although this smallish plant (4-10 inches) is found in most of its native North America, it is largely unseen due to reclusive growing practices. But if you look down in a dark forest by an old log, you may stumble across one. Beginning in early summer and until early autumn, it produces hanging ghostly white, translucent blooms, each on a single stem. As it matures the white will fade into a non-descript brown, but it will retain its upright posture. There is something about this plant that has lent itself to folklore and artistic contemplation. Native Americans used it medicinally and the famous American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) wrote lovingly about it. 

A gif of the four original Ghostbusters.
Plants are spectacular in general, but I love a plant that is unique. If it has a bit of mystery, even better. These five provide some of all that.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Submitted by Pam 


Monday, October 10, 2022

5 Ghostly Insects


A cartoon of 5 ghosts against a black surface. The one in the middle is saying "Boo!".

I think it’s safe to say that insects are pretty high up on the creepiness scale for most people. And if you delve into their behaviors, the measurement goes even higher. But some are downright ghostly as well. Here are five prime examples:

- PHASMIDS –

A close-up of a phasmid insect's face.
Phasmid Face
Three Phyllium Westwoodii phasmid insects that look like leaves.These insects are from the order Phasmatodea and are commonly known as ghost insects. The Latin root of their name is “phantasma”, meaning an apparition or specter, and is the same root as phantom or phantasm. There are more than 3,000 species of phasmids and they include stick insects, walking sticks, stick-bugs and others of that ilk. So why have these insects been given a name that is so closely aligned with ghosts? It’s due to their incredible camouflage abilities, which phasmids rely on as their primary defense mechanism. At some point, an imaginative scientist decided that their ability to be nearly invisible creates a ghostly presence in the forest. This article has more on these fascinating insects.

- BLUE GHOST FIREFLIES – 

These trails of blue light in a dark forest are blue ghost fireflies.
Every year in late May and early June, in dark and moist forests thick with undergrowth of large rhododendron and mountain laurel, the blue ghost fireflies (Phausis reticulata) make their appearance. Found only in southern Appalachia, and mostly in western North Carolina, these small (about the size of a grain of rice) insects are revealed by their mating ritual in early summer. The males float a foot or two off the ground while emitting a ghostly blue light, which by all accounts is quite the eerie sight. As the males float around, the wingless and larvae-like females settle on a leaf and glow to show their presence while evaluating the passing male light parade. The blue-white color of their glow is unique among fireflies (which usually glow yellowish-green), as is their type of glow. Blue ghost fireflies can emit a bright and steady glow for 30 seconds to a minute, whereas other fireflies blink on and off continuously. The beauty and uniqueness of these creatures have spawned a specialized tourist industry, where locals take the curious to see beautiful and fleeting insects. Read more about these wonderful little wisps of nature here.

- GHOST SPIDERS –

Another view of a ghost spider on a leaf.

Looking down on a garden ghost spider, Hibana gracilis, on a multi-segmented leaf.
Garden Ghost Spider
These small (about ½ inch or so) spiders, from the
Anyphaenidae family, are common in North America. They get their name from their ghostly white coloring and mostly nocturnal activities. To some people they look like little bitty albino wolf spiders, and it’s hard to argue with that observation. Ghost spiders don’t make webs, instead they use their silk to build shelters in out-of-the-way places like between rocks or in woodpiles. From there they rush out (they are very fast) and hunt down prey, which is mostly other insects. As ruthless as these little guys can be with other insects, they are harmless to humans. Due to their illusive nature, ghost spiders have not been extensively studied, so there are still unknown interesting facts to learn about them. One thing, however, is abundantly clear – their eyes form a cute little smiley face on their heads. For more details on these spiders, check out this article.  

- GHOST ANTS –

Close-up of a ghost ant
Ghost Ant Face
Ghost Ants changing colors as they drink colored liqid.Ghost ants (Tapinoma melanocephalum), sometimes called sugar ants, are an invasive species that has made its way  around the world from their probable-source in Africa or Asia. They are currently enjoying life in Florida and have become one the most common, and most hated, ants there. These tiny ants are less than a quarter-inch in size. They have dark heads, but their legs and abdomen are translucent. So much so, that you can actually see into their bodies and see what they’ve eaten. Scientists and others have had fun feeding these ants differently colored objects and watching how they change color. For instance, here’s a video of them drinking glow in the dark liquid candy. There are even classroom experiments geared to elementary school kids that show how the ants change color (here’s one).  These ants multiply rapidly and are small enough to enter a house or other structure through even the most miniscule of openings. And, because they are so hard to see, they can quickly and easily swarm over something before one is even aware of them. But while ghost ants may be harder to see than other ants, they are not any harder to get rid of.

- WHITE PLUME MOTH –

Looking down on a white plume moth as it rests on a leaf.
The white plume moth (Pterophorus pentadactyla) has a wingspan of 1-1/2 inches and is found in many parts of the world, but mostly Europe and North America. These moths have an ethereal quality to them that seems ghostly, which is reinforced by their nocturnal habits. But they could also be on a list of angel-like or fairy-like insects. Their delicate way of flying only reinforces this impression (see one fly here). Plume moths have a unique T-shape and wings that end in feather-like fingers. The stark whiteness of the white plume moth stands out amongst other plume moths, which are generally a brownish color. As pretty as these moths are, they can be plant-damaging in their caterpillar stage. According to this article, they threaten sweet potato crops in Nigeria. 

Buster Keaton being surrounded by colorful ghosts.
Everything is a little extra-ghostly at this time of year, but these insects are this cool all year round.

Take Care 
Submitted by Pam










Tuesday, October 4, 2022

The Hidden World of Adelgids

Fluffy white cotton ball-like coverings of the larch adelgid.
For many people, there is some confusion regarding adelgids. It is commonly believed that they are simply wooly aphids. The fact that most people have no idea what they look like adds to this misidentification. The appearance of the invasive Hemlock Wooly Adelgid (HMA) has muddled the conversation even more. Luckily, there are explanations for all this confusion. 

Eggs of the larch adelgid on a larch branch. A single black adult without its wooly coating can be seen above the egg cluster.
Egg cluster of the larch adelgid
Adelgids are small, sap-sucking true bugs that belong to the Adelgidae family within the insect order Hemiptera. Although they have their own family, they are closely related to aphids. At one time they were even included in the aphid family, but taxonomists have since cleared this up. For all their similarities to aphids, they have their own unique characteristics: 

Adelgids only feed on conifers, which includes spruce, hemlock, Douglas fir, larch, pine, redwood and spruce. Although aphids may appear on conifers, adelgids will not appear elsewhere. 

Adult balsam wooly adelgid without its wooly covering. The long, thread-like object is used to penetrate the tree and take up sap.
Adult balsam adelgid
Adelgids only lay eggs, unlike aphids which give birth to live nymphs.

There may be other differences that scientists are still debating, but these are the two undisputed differences.

Studying and understanding adelgids has been hampered by their very nature. It is extremely hard to see and identify adelgids when they first hatch because are very small and dark and can easily hide in the conifer’s bark and foliage. As they mature, they form a fuzzy white protective coating that completely covers their bodies and can easily be
misidentified as wooly aphids or even fungi.

Galls formed from the pineapple gall aphid (Adelges abietis).
Pineapple galls
The damage done by adelgids to their hosts is usually minor and skews more to the aesthetic than the life-threatening. In other words, healthy adult trees can handle most adelgid activity (a serious infestation would be another matter). The  big exception to this statement is the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid (more on that below). It’s advisable to look at adelgids as part of a healthy and diverse ecosystem as opposed to looking at them as something to control for several reasons:

Gall from Pineapple gall adelgid opened to show insects.
An opened pineapple gall
1) The waxy coating adorning adults effectively protects them from most insecticides – particularly the less-toxic and vastly-preferable varieties.

2) Control is virtually impossible on large trees in thickly forested areas as any kind of control would require inspecting, isolating and treating the whole tree. Additionally, any sprays would need to cover all parts of the foliage and tree. These tactics would naturally require a great deal of hands-on work and the possibility of cross- and re-contamination is great. These labor-intensive types of control can only be successful on small numbers in a yard or landscape.

Infestation of pine bark adelgids on an Eastern Pine.
Pine bark adelgid infestation

3) Some adelgid species use different host plants for specific life stages. Locating and eliminating all their hiding places is challenging at best, and unlikely to be effective.

4) There are no recommended treatments for adelgids in their gall stage.

5) Any large-scale attempts at control would probably have little effect on a thriving adelgid population while causing a great deal of harm to the beneficial insects that prey on adelgids and the surrounding ecosystem they all live in.

Should you choose to tackle an adelgid infestation in your yard or garden, this article recommends a holistic approach with an emphasis on cultural controls and provides some excellent guidelines. 

Dying hemlocks near Asheville, North Carolina.
Dying hemlocks in North Carolina
It’s understandable if most people don’t know what adelgids are. With the rise of the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid (HWA), however, many others have become all too familiar with what an adelgid can do. This insect is an invasive species from Asia that arrived on our shore sometime in the 1950s. Since that time, it has slowly been working its way through the eastern and Appalachian forests of the United States and can now be found in 18 states and the District of Columbia. 

Native hemlock species have no defenses against this insect and will slowly succumb deep in forests. HWA will stay on the same tree all their lives, feeding constantly on the nutrition that a tree needs for its branches and needles. In time, the tree’s canopy will deteriorate, the tree will begin failing and eventually die. This process can take from 4-10 years, and it is this slow and inconspicuous decline that has allowed the situation to become a crisis before most people were even aware that there is a problem. For more on just how the HWA takes down a tree, this article offers a concise explanation.

Hand holding a hemlock branch with hemlock wooly adelgids on it. Note how small and difficult to see they are.
Hemlock wooly adelgids

Hemlocks are a vital part of the ancient forests of the US. They grow on millions and millions of acres and are predominant in many of them. They are an essential component to the forest ecosystem, but they are also highly valued for landscaping and in the timber business. Not to mention that the sheer beauty of these trees draws visitors to the national parks and surrounding areas they grow in. Hemlocks are bound to their communities in nearly innumerable ways and losing any of them, much less large swaths of them, is tragic on many levels.

A cartoon of a skeleton with pink wings sitting on a wooly cloud and chasing people through a pine forest . As he strikes them with a ray from his magic wand they turn into skeletons.
All is not lost for the hemlocks, however. Scientists have developed management protocols for HWA. There is hope that an adelgid-eating beetle from the Pacific Northwest can turn the tide. To get an understanding of what a successful integrated approach to an invasive species entails, read this from the state of Maine – it includes action to take right now in the fall. 

Take Care

Submitted by Pam


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