Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Common Buttonbush along the Little Miami River...

A few weeks ago Matty and I went up to Spring Valley Wildlife Area along the Little Miami River with our sketchbooks. We spent the afternoon rambling about, sketching whatever we saw. When we came across a stand of Common Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), we stopped and studied the tree and its blossoms, noting that the leaves occurred in whorls of three, and the "honey bell" was made of hundreds of tiny blossoms...

A Buttonbush inflorescence is a grouping of small flowers. The projecting needle-like styles create the starburst.
Common Buttonbush flower ball, also called a honey bell, dangles from a stem and looks a lot like a firework display, a starburst...or in a less romantic view, a pin cushion! 

Common Buttonbush is native to Ohio. It loves water and swampy areas, and true to form, we found a large colony hugging the edge of the lake and another in a low boggy area beside the lake, just steps from the Little Miami River. The flower balls were intensely fragrant, which is where it gets its nickname "honey bell" or "honey-ball," and butterflies were everywhere...

A female dark morph Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) nectars on a Buttonbush flower-ball (inflorescence). The butterfly uses its proboscis to sip nectar from each tiny perfect flower and pollinates the florets in the process. 

Silver-spotted Skippers and Tiger Swallowtails were all over these flowers.
Two Silver-spotted Skippers (Epargyreus clarus) cling to the pin cushion for a sip of nectar as well. The long, projecting styles of each perfect flower in the inflorescence create the pin-like, starburst look.

The cranberry red stems of a Common Buttonbush shrub are almost as striking as its flowers. Its leaves have both a three-stemmed whorled arrangement (often near the flower) and an opposite arrangement elsewhere on the shrub.

Before the inflorescence bursts open, the tiny flowers (florets) are encased in tight mint-green buds (sepals). Here the flowers are just starting to open, but you can still see remnants of some of the buds and the light-green color.

After the flower petals have fallen away, little ball-shaped seed heads remain. Some will hold on through the autumn and winter. Each tiny flower in the inflorescence produces two seeds called nutlets. Often buttonbush trees grow at the edge of ponds, lakes, streams and rivers (or even in the water), so when the nutlets ripen and tumble out, they float and are dispersed by the currents. Wood Ducks, Mallards, teal, and other waterfowl like to eat the nutlets.  

For more information on the Common Buttonbush, including its historical use as a quinine substitute for malaria, look in "The Book of Swamp and Bog; Trees, Shrubs, and Wildflowers of Eastern Freshwater Wetlands," by John Eastman, pgs 34-37. For an online resource, click here for a link to The Hilton Pond Center's website, or here for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry website.

What is an inflorescence?
When you look closely at a Buttonbush flower you'll notice it's a collection of hundreds of tiny flowers, called florets. Each one of the florets in the collection is a "perfect flower," which means it has a pistil (stigma, style and ovary) and stamens (anther and filament). The collection or grouping of florets is called an inflorescence. Common flowers with inflorescences are sunflowers and all the flowers in the daisy family. Click here for a past post called "Hummingbirds and sunflowers" that describes an inflorescence in more detail.


Tammie Lee said...

such lovely images of this flower and the gorgeous butterfly.
i could feel my heart responding as i enjoyed each one.
thank you for your lovely messages.

Roy Norris said...

Such a beautiful butterfly Kelly.

Mary Ann Gieszelmann said...

Thanks, Kelly. I always learn something new from your posts!

Kelly said...

@ Tammie - Thanks, Tammie! You are so in touch with nature. You appreciate everything you see! :-)

@ Roy - Thanks, Roy. She is gorgeous. The black with metallic blow highlights is incredibly striking!

@ Mary Ann - Thank you, Mary Ann! :-) Every time I go out in nature I learn something it seems too! :-)