Sunday, March 16, 2014

Bladdernut trees along the Little Miami River...

Just steps off the Little Miami bike trail near the Peter's Cartridge Factory, a small colony of Bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia) trees grows along the river on the north-facing slope. In winter when walking along the trail, you might mistake the fruit that still clings to the trees as dried leaves, but on closer inspection, you'll find not leaves but unique three-lobbed bladder-like pods! In the spring, festive bell-shaped blossoms droop in large panicles from the branches, but in winter, the dry and brittle pods look more like faded and brown Japanese lanterns from a long-forgotten party...

Bladdernut pods are brown and brittle in winter, but they still hang on to the trees.
Brittle and papery bladdernut pods still cling to the tree in the dead of winter. 
...aglow in the late afternoon sun, this bladdernut pod stands out in the winter landscape.
Bladdernut pods are interesting. They are not truly pods; instead, they are air-filled seed cases or capsules that float! Since Bladdernut shrubs grow along rivers, being able to float seems like a logical means of dispersal. In late spring, bladdernut capsules start to form after the blossoms have been pollinated. At first the capsules are green and the seeds are attached to an inner lining. As summer progresses, the pods start to turn brown, and by autumn the seeds have broken away from the lining and rattle when you (or the wind) shake the pods. The rattle sound is very pretty, so be sure to pick one up and give it a shake!

Bladdernut pods rattled in the winter wind as I walked past them on the trail. The small seeds inside the papery pods create the pretty rattle sound when the pods are shaken.
In "Ethnobotany of the Meskwaki Indians," by H. H. Smith (published 1928), Smith writes that the Meskwaki tribe used bladdernut seeds in their rattles. Bladdernut seeds were sacred to them, so they were put in gourd rattles used for dream and medicine dances. the Meskwaki also used the twigs from this tree to make pipe stems. (Click here (p 248) and here (p 274) for online links to the bulletin.)

A fallen bladdernut pod in fresh snow.

Growing along the Little Miami River, Bladdernut pods are easy to spot in winter when the trees are bare.
Bladdernut trees are actually large shrubs. They rarely get more than 15-20 feet high. Here you see one of the "trees" in the colony. The rest are further down the slope, closer to the river.

...if the pod falls off into the water, it will float away for a new destination.
Bladdernut seed cases in winter.

Small holes form in the bottom of the bladdernut pods where the seeds fall through.
As winter moves into spring, the brown papery cases start to break down, and eventually, the seeds fall out and onto the ground.  

Warmer temperatures are right around the corner, so I'll keep watch on the bladdernut trees and get photos of the flowers this spring and the light green seed cases this summer. Hummingbirds are attracted to the flower, and maybe I'll get lucky this spring...I'd love to watch a hummingbird sipping nectar from the tiny bells!


Montanagirl said...

This is another interesting post, Kelly. I had never heard of a Bladdernut tree before.

Steve Borichevsky said...

This is a plant that I've never seen in New England. I look forward to the flower pictures if you get them this Spring.

Charlotte Wilson said...

This is a very interesting tree...never heard of Bladdernut before. Thanks, Kelly.

Have a wonderful Sunday!


Bobby Harrison said...

Really interesting.

Elaine said...

A new one for me too. Lovely photos!

Banjo52 said...

Add me to the group that's never heard of Bladdernut trees. Is it rare in Ohio or Michigan? I do think I've seen those pods.

Kelly said...

John...I only see it in one place along the Little Miami on my regular walk, but where the conditions are right, it can be abundant. The shrubs are often hidden. Bladdernut is an understory plant and usually grows on steeper banks leading down to a river or stream, so it's not always on the "beaten path." I'm going to look for more colonies this year along the Little Miami. Let me know if you find it up your way. (Range extends to southern Michigan.)

...the seeds are small, about 1/4 inch. Euell Gibbons wrote that they taste like hickory nuts, and he used them as a walnut sub in chocolate chip cookies! (others report they taste like pistachios...I haven't tried any.)

KaHolly said...

Quite interesting! Mother Nature never ceases to amaze me.

Kelly said...

...thanks, everyone! This is the coolest tree. I can't wait to get photographs of the blooms this spring. (If spring every comes!!) :-)