Botanical Buoys


American featherfoil (Hottonia inflata) is a fascinating aquatic plant. It can be found in wetlands ranging from the coastal plains of Texas all the way up into Maine. Though widespread, American featherfoil is by no means common. Today I would like to introduce you to this gorgeous member of the primrose family (Primulaceae).

American featherfoil may look like a floating plant but it is not. It roots itself firmly into the soil and spends much of its early days as a vegetative stem covered in wonderful feathery leaves. It may be hard to find during this period as no part of it sticks above the water. To find it, one must look in shallow waters of ponds, ditches, and swamps that have not experienced too much disturbance. More on this in a bit.

American featherfoil lives life in the fast lane. It is what we call a winter annual. Seeds germinate in the fall and by late October, juveniles can be seen sporting a few leaves. There it will remains throughout the winter months until early spring when warming waters signal the growth phase. Such growth is rapid. So rapid, in fact, that by mid to late April, plants are beginning to flower. To successfully reproduce, however, American featherfoil must get its flowers above water.

The need to flower out of water is exactly why this plant looks like it is free floating. The flower stalks certainly do float and they do so via specialized stems, hence the specific epithet “inflata.” Each plant grows a series of large, spongy flowering stalks that are filled with air. This helps buoy the stems up above the water line. It does not float about very much as its stem and roots still anchor it firmly into place. Each inflorescence consists of a series of whorled umbels that vary in color from white to yellow, and even violet. Following pollination, seeds are released into the water where they settle into the mud and await the coming fall.


As I mentioned above, American featherfoil appreciates wetland habitats that haven’t experienced too much disturbance. Thanks to our wanton disregard for wetlands over the last century or so, American featherfoil (along with countless other species) has seen a decline in numbers. One of the biggest hits to this species came from the trapping of beavers. It turns out, beaver ponds offer some of the most ideal conditions for American featherfoil growth. Beaver ponds are relatively shallow and the water level does not change drastically from month to month.

Historically unsustainable levels of beaver trapping coupled with dam destruction, wetland draining, and agricultural runoff has removed so much suitable habitat and with it American featherfoil as well as numerous wetland constituents. Without habitat, species cannot persist. Because of this, American featherfoil has been placed on state threatened and endangered lists throughout the entirety of its range. With the return of the beaver to much of its former range, there is hope that at least some of the habitat will again be ready for American featherfoil. Still, our relationship with wetlands remains tenuous at best and until we do more to protect and restore such important ecosystems, species like American featherfoil will continue to suffer. This is why you must support wetland protection and restoration in your region!

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3]

Further Reading: [1] [2]


Shooting Star Goals

When the move to Illinois was finalized I set a goal for this spring. It is always good to have goals and mine was to see a large population of shooting stars. I am, of course, not talking about the ones from outer space but rather plants of the genus Dodecatheon. Various nature centers in this region boast lovely photos of hillsides covered in them. Except for my time in Wyoming where Dodecatheon conjugens often kept me preoccupied on hikes, I have only seen Dodecatheon as a spattering of individuals. This past weekend I met my goal. 

We were hiking up a wooded hillside when I noticed a few rosettes of fleshy, light green leaves. This is where having a search image comes in handy. There was no mistaking these plants. At first it seemed as if we were meeting a bit too early. I could just make out some flower buds poking up from the middle of the rosette. However, further up on the ridge, a warmer microclimate rewarded us with quite the display. All along the sun-streaked hillside were hundreds of shooting stars just starting to bloom. What's more, these were a unique species of shooting star I had never seen before. 

Dodecatheon frenchii is as Midwestern as it gets for this genus. This particular species is known from only six states. It prefers to grow in shallow sandy soils along the southern edge of the glacial boundary. Often times it can be found at the base of sandstone cliffs and ledges. Taxonomically speaking, this species is quite interesting. It is very similar to D. meadia. In fact, some authors lump them together. The greatest difference between these plants, however, lies in their chromosomes as well as their habitat preferences. D. frenchii is diploid and is a sandstone endemic, whereas D. meadia is tetraploid and much more widespread. 

Despite their limited range, D. frenchii are quite hardy. Growing in sandy soil has its challenges. The biggest issue plants face is drought. When summer really heats up, these plants go dormant. Their thick roots store water and nutrients to fuel their growth the following year. Due to the nature of their preferred habitat, few other plants can be found growing with D. frenchii. That's not to say nothing can, however, competition is minimal. As such, D. frenchii does not compete well with other plants, which certainly sets limits on its preferred habitat. Like all members of this genus, D. frenchii flowers are adapted for buzz pollination. Certain bees, when landing on the downward pointing stamens, vibrate their bodies at a special frequency that causes pollen to be released.

Seeing these plants in person lived up to all of the hype. It was one of those botanizing moments I will never forget. Although I often go outside with the simple goal of just being in nature, sometimes having a specific mindset makes for a fun adventure. If anything, it makes for some great bonfire stories. So here's to spring and to Dodecatheon and to just getting outside. 

Further Reading: