Category Archives: flower


End of Summer updates

Marvellous stretch of weather, eh?  After such a long lush wet growing season, we’re finally having a true Southern Ontario summer that’s straddling the astronomical boundary between Summer and Fall.

Highlights of my natural history this summer include the amazing diversity and beauty of fungi produced on one old poplar stump right in by backyard! On a twenty-year-old stump that’s only ever had Dryad’s Saddle, Polyporus squamosus, suddenly beginning in the middle of July and continuing to the present, I’ve had a succession of amazing finds, only one of which I’ve ever seen before! The surprises began with the brilliant yellow Creeping Dog-vomit Slime Mold, Fuligo septica — which is the one find I’ve actually had before in my yard. (It’s actually a slime mold, not even related to fungi, but I hope you’ll excuse my sloppy phylogeny …) Then came a large brownish brown-spored gilled fungus that I’ve not been able to identify, along with a small ephemeral pale brown gilled fungus, also unidentified.

Elegant Stinkhorn, Mutinus elegans, with Greenbottle Fly

One morning in late July I noticed something scarlet red appearing around the base of the stump. I was able to immediately recognize it as a Stinkhorn, and then more precisely identify it as Mutinus elegans, Elegant Stinkhorn, on the basis of the crimson tip and the brownish-green slime at the tip. At first, one Stinkhorn would come up, and within two days would collapse, only to be followed by another. Then, as many as six would erupt at once. Two months later, I’m still getting days with three or four fruiting at the same time. The fungus appears first in a white ‘egg’ at the surface of the ground, sometimes taking weeks to slowly break free of the white covering which forms a volva cup at the base of the stalk. In due time, the actual stalk and the crimson tip appear literally overnight — within 10 hours! The stalk is beautifully lacy and reticulate, clearly the result of a quick uptake of water to expand the cells that preform in the ‘egg’. The top of the stack appears with the stinky foetid browny-green slime that smells of a combination of rotting salmon and faeces! In the morning, various flies cover the slime, eating it off within several hours, exposing the brilliant crimson tip. The spores of this basidiomycete fungus are in the slime. Thus the flies spread the spores around as they clamber across other rotting wood. I’ve seen at least six species of flies, ranging from Greenbottles, and Bluebottles, and Cluster flies, to various smallish muscid flies like small House Flies, and even Fruit Flies on the slime. Yet another interesting fact is that Stinkhorns seem to be the first fungi described by Europeans in North America, by the British missionary John Bannister in 1679. (I wonder what he made of the striking phallic shape. Perhaps that’s where one of the alternate names of Devil’s Dipstick comes from …)

There have since been at least two other species of mushroom appeared on this stump, including another small unidentified brown-spored basidiomycete. The largest of the summer’s mushrooms has been the striking large cinnamon-coloured Laughing Cap mushroom, Gymnopilus spectabilis. It’s a beauty in its own right, but is definitely eclipsed by the Elegant Stinkhorn in photographic beauty. I’ve no idea where the ‘laughing’ comes from, other than that to most people, the mushroom is poisonous and perhaps hallucingenic, since some strains contain psylocybin. The Korean name translates to bronze clown mushroom.

It seems to me that all of these mushrooms must specialize in the late-stage decay of dead wood. The most difficult of the lignin components of wood are what remains after the 20 years of decay of this poplar stump. Combined with the extreme wetness of this summer, this particular stump has crumbled to the point where I can crush the remaining wood with my bare hands, sometimes squeezing water out of pieces of it.

Ichneumonid Megarhyssa wasp parasitic on horntail wasps in sugar maple tree

Perhaps the other most exciting observation of the summer is also associated with late stages of rotting wood. Just a week ago, I noticed an ichneumonid wasp laying eggs on a dying maple tree on our neighbour’s property along our fence line. These fascinating beauties are often portrayed in introductory entomology books, but I’ve never seen one alive. I’ve since seen at least five on this one tree! (I will show several videos at our upcoming Members’ Night on Tuesday October 25th.) Briefly, this wasp is almost 15 cm long, from the tip of its slender antennae, to the end of the almost 10 cm long ovipositor and sheath. The body alone of this wasp is 5 cm! Various Megarhyssa species live in our area, all of specializing as parasitoids of another wasp, the Horntail Pigeon Wasp, Tremex columba — which I have seen in years past on our property! The female pictured here took over 30 minutes to probe around with her ovipositor, repeatedly pushing it into the softened white-rotted wood inside the sugar maple to search out the Horntail larvae on which to lay her eggs. The Horntail wasp lays her eggs on dead wood and includes spores from a specific fungus which lives on dead wood. The developing Horntail larvae feed on the fungus. Along comes the ichneumon wasps and lays her eggs on the Horntail. The ichneumon larvae live externally on the parasitized larvae, eating them from the outside but leaving the most critical components of the Horntail alive until the the ichneumon is ready to pupate!

Here’s another sighting from our backyard this summer. Can you guess how these particular shapes were formed?

More Spring goodness!

Despite the early April snow, our native plants are showing courage and beginning to grow.  Yesterday, I visited the colony of Skunk Cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus, Aracacae, that grows south-west of Orangeville right alongside a well-travelled road. (You can see the road gravel thrown off the roadside by the snow ploughs in one of the photos.)

Skunk Cabbage mottled red spathe surrounding the developing spadix inside (photo by Mark Whitcombe) .

Skunk Cabbage is a fascinating plant with several quite unusual adaptations to getting an early start in Spring. Its upper parts are capable of generating a significant amount of heat:  15+ Celsius degrees above ambient air temperature! This added heat seems to accomplish several functions simultaneously. It means that Skink Cabbage can literally melt its way through snow. It means that the warmth inside the flower helps keep the early pollinators basking in the extra heat, hanging around and maximizing the chance that they will transfer pollen to the benefit of the plant. It also means that the rising warm air spreads the pungent smell that comes from broken leaves and from the   spadix as it flowers. The rising warm air may also enable a small amount of wind pollination!

Skunk Cabbages are related to Jack-in-the-Pulpit, and share several general features. The cut or bruised vegetation releases a pungent smell. Plants have important underground storage organs, a corm for Jack-in-the-Pulpit, and a huge rhizome (an extended corm, I suppose — or perhaps the other way round:  a corm is a shortened underground stem or rhizome) for Skunk Cabbage. Supposedly, the rhizomes of the Skunk Cabbage can reach 30 cm in diameter! While Jack-in-the-Pulpit corms are poisonous, and Skunk Cabbage is not, both species were important Spring or Fall food sources for indigenous peoples, who learned how to prepare the edible portions by drying or baking before consumption.

The other major feature shared between the plants of the Aracaceae is that the flower is wrapped by a spadix or surrounding leaf-like structure, and has as its central core a spathe, a spike-like structure that holds either the male or the female parts.  In the first picture of the Skunk Cabbages, the lovely red-mottled spathe surrounds a thick paler yellowy-brown spadix down inside.

By the way, I knelt down in the marsh beside the road to smell these Skunk Cabbages — and they didn’t yet smell.  Not quite ready for action!

Skunk Cabbage mottled red spathe surrounding the developing yellowy spadix protected inside  (photo by Mark Whitcombe) .

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An update after our early Spring snowstorm!

I went out mid-day on Friday April 7th as the sun was beginning to warm up the air and melt the snow that had blown in on top of the sprouting Skunk Cabbages.  They seemed to be having no trouble with the weather — it had only gotten just below the freezing point, after all.  But they were certainly not melting any snow yet.  I suspect that’s because the air temperature is still too cool for any insects to be flying.  Somehow the plants seem to understand to get ready, but not to actually push forward on actual flower development.

Surviving under the snows of our our early April blizzard


Spring is here — finally!

March 2017 was colder in this area than February 2017, by a minor fraction of a degree.  More significantly, March was almost 5 Celsius degrees colder than the climatological normal for Southern Ontario.

But it looks like it’s finally here!

One of the harbingers of Spring for me is the opening of the Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) flowers. In my backyard on the edge of Orangeville, the female flowers opened yesterday on 2017 April 01, and then safely enough to remove any doubts about an April Fool’s joke, the male flowers on the adjacent tree began opening today!  Only just opening and beginning to shed pollen, but I’ll still count this as Spring!

I’ve also had a Fox Sparrow at my bird feeder. I count that as another harbinger of Spring.

Female Silver Maple flowers are finally open!

Male Silver Maple flowers from an adjacent tree are also gingerly opening up and beginning to shed pollen into the air.

John Muir in our Headwaters area!

Our Southern Ontario area plays a special role in the development of what we now call the environmental movement.  Few of us know much about this pivotal role.

Starting in the Spring of 1864, the young Scotsman turned American, John Muir, spent several months botanizing through Southern Ontario. This was his first real exploratory trip beyond his adopted home farm in Wisconsin.

It was over in the Pottageville Swamp area (what was then part of the much larger Holland Marsh) that he had one of his most significant events of his lifetime, seeing a rare northern orchid, Calypso borealis. This epiphany started him on his way to dedicate the rest of his life to the preservation of the natural world.

“The rarest and most beautiful of the flowering plants I discovered on this first grand excursion was Calypso borealis (the Hider of the North). I had been fording streams more and more difficult to cross and wading bogs and swamps that seemed more and more extensive and more difficult to force one’s way through. Entering one of these great tamarac and arbor-vitae swamps one morning,holding a general though very crooked course by compass, struggling through tangled drooping branches and over and under broad heaps of fallen trees, I began to fear that I would not be able to reach dry ground before dark, and therefore would have to pass the night in the swamp and began, faint and hungry, to plan a nest of branches on one of the largest trees or windfalls like a monkey’s nest, or eagle’s, or Indian’s in the flooded forests of the Orinoco described by Humboldt.

“But when the sun was getting low and everything seemed most bewildering and discouraging, I found beautiful Calypso on the mossy bank of a stream, growing not in the ground but on a bed of yellow mosses in which its small white bulb had found a soft nest and from which its one leaf and one flower sprung. The flower was white and made the impression of the utmost simple purity like a snowflower. No other bloom was near it, for the bog a short distance below the surface was still frozen, and the water was ice cold. It seemed the most spiritual of all the flower people I had ever met. I sat down beside it and fairly cried for joy.

“It seems wonderful that so frail and lovely a plant has such power over human hearts. This Calypso meeting happened some forty-five years ago, and it was more memorable and impressive than any of my meetings with human beings excepting, perhaps, Emerson and one or two others.” (John Muir, re-published in The Life and Letters of John Muir,1924 (After his death))

Calypso orchid (photo by Robert Burcher)

Calypso orchid (photo by Robert Burcher)

Sometime during June of that year, he passed through our Headwaters area, walking westwards along the Hockley Valley from the Holland Marsh to the Luther Marsh. Later that year, he ended up outside of Meaford working in a rake-making factory. When the mill burnt down in the winter of 1866, Muir returned to the United States.

Muir ended up in California where he started the Sierra Club, still one of the leading environmental action organizations.  He is regarded as one of the fathers of the American National Parks system.

John Muir

John Muir

Robert Burcher is a member of the now-defunct Canadian Friends of John Muir.  Burcher is a photographer, a journalist, an author, and an experienced speaker. He is currently doing field work for his latest book on the experiences that John Muir had in Ontario.

Credit Valley BioBlitz Registration is now open!

Guided Blitz Registration is now open!

Join us for the 2016 Ontario BioBlitz in the Credit River Watershed on June 11-12!

The Guided BioBlitz is an opportunity for less-experienced nature enthusiasts to learn a bit more about their favourite species through field surveying and identification techniques – important skills for understanding the world around us. Our 2015 flagship event in the Don Watershed was a big success. Thanks to the 700+ registered participants and volunteers – we couldn’t do it without you!

The Guided BioBlitz is open to all ages and all experience levels, but be aware that sessions can require a lot of walking. Please also note that there can be a 40 minute drive between Guided BioBlitz sites.

Visit to register for sessions, look at the map of the Guided Blitz sites, and download a copy of the schedule.

Most sessions are limited to 30 people per group, and will fill up quickly – so make sure to register early! Participants will be contacted with more information about their particular session shortly after registration closes, on May 20th, 2016.

As always, if you have any questions, comments, or concerns, we would be happy to answer them – just send us an e-mail at, or for more info.

Interesting sessions with the Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust

Whether you’d like to participate in this spring’s Bio Blitz or learn more about the wildflowers or dragonflies, butterflies and moths in your backyard, you might be interested in these events organized by neighbours to the east — the Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust. 

Wildflowers of York Region – April 11th

Spring is almost here. What is sprouting in the forests and meadows around Aurora? Learn about native wildflowers, how to grow them, and where you can expect to see them.

Location:  Aurora Public Library, Magna Room Monday April 11th from 7pm  9pm.  Space is limited so please pre-register with the Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust at 905-853-3171 ext 30 or at

Dragonflies, Butterflies and Moths – Oh My! – May 16th

So many things are buzzing in the neighbourhood. Come and learn about some of the most beautiful things with wings in York Region.

Location:  Aurora Public Library, Magna Room Monday May 16th from 7pm  9pm.  Space is limited so please pre-register with the Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust at 905-853-3171 ext 30 or at