Six on Saturday #52 (March 21, 2020)

For this week’s Six on Saturday, we are out of the garden and visiting the Eno River Confluence Natural Area.  The Eno River is one of the gems of this part of North Carolina.  A small river, little more than a large stream for much of its 40-mile course through Orange and Durham counties, it flows through the town of Hillsborough and city of Durham before merging with the Flat and Little Rivers to form the Neuse River.  The Eno is home to several rare species that are endemic to the Neuse River basin, and it has been aggressively protected since the late 1960s by the Eno River Association.  The Confluence Natural Area is a piece of protected land in Orange County that includes the spot where the East and West forks of the Eno flow together to form the Eno River proper.  It was opened to the public relatively recently, and this was our first visit.

When my family and I visited, we were the only people on the 200-acre preserve, so I guess that covered social distancing requirements.

1.  The Confluence


This is the point at which east fork (left) and west fork (right) merge to form the Eno (center).

2.  Plethodon cylindraceus (white-spotted slimy salamander)


The kids couldn’t resist lifting a cover board that had probably been laid down for some herpetology classes.  They found a handsome pair of slimy salamanders.  To avoid crushing the salamanders, we gently moved them, laid the board back down, and then allowed the salamanders to climb underneath again.

3. Claytonia virginica (Virginia springbeauty)


A variety of spring ephemeral wildflowers were in bloom on the wooded slopes and rich bottomland along the riverbanks.  In North Carolina, C. virginica is a true piedmont native.  It is absent from most of the coastal plain and from the mountains, where it is replaced by Claytonia caroliniana.

4. Cardamine concatenata (cutleaf toothwort; crow’s toes)


I just love the name “crow’s toes.”

5. Stellaria pubera (star chickweed)


In addition to these three wildflowers, we also saw Hepatica americana (round-lobed Hepatica), Anemonella thalictroides (rue anemone), Sanguinaria canadensis (bloodroot), and Lindera benzoin (spicebush)  in bloom.  Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) leaves were up, but the buds aren’t yet open.

6. Tree “footprint”

tree footprint

The heavy piedmont clay holds together so well, that the imprint of a large tree, including tunnels left by its roots, is still clearly visible after all the wood has rotted away.  The “footprint” is slowly being covered by invasive Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica).

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Costa Rican nightlife


Night in the tropics brings out a host of interesting animals that are rarely, if ever, seen during the day.  Hoping to see some of this nocturnal wildlife, I took a headlamp with me on our recent trip to Costa Rica and went out late at night to wander around an area of old secondary forest on the grounds of our resort.  With other family members, I also participated in two organized night walks, one at the resort, and a second offered by Manuel’s tours on a wooded lot near Quepos.

Here are some of the interesting creatures I saw.

Gladiator tree frog (Hypisboas rosenbergi).  Males of this species build a water-filled nest  which they defend against other males. In combat, they employ sharp “prepollex” spines on their forelegs as weapons.
While adults tend to be brown with a mottled appearance and a thin black stripe down the dorsal midline, juvenile gladiator tree frogs are green with black spots.
Common rain frog (Craugaster fitzingeri)
Another common rain frog
Savage’s thin-toed frog (Leptodactylus savagei).  This guy was enormous.  In addition to insects, L. savagei eats small vertebrates such as other frogs, snakes, and mice.
Glass frog posing on the lid of a tupperware container.  I think this is a granular glass frog (Cochranella granulosa)
Northern cat-eyed snake (Leptodeira septentrionalis)
Anolis species
Many house geckos (Hemidactylus frenatus) gathered around the lights.  This gecko was about twice their size.  I think it is a very pale turnip-tailed gecko (Thecadactylus rapicauda)
yellow-headed gecko
Male yellow-headed gecko (Gonatodes albogularis)
Tree-climbing crab.  I have no idea what species this is.
An amblypygid (tailless whip scorpion)
Amblypygid closeup.
bark scorpion (Centruroides species)
Stick insect
A conehead katydid, perhaps Copiphora rhinoceros (rhinoceros katydid)
A sadly blurred picture of a tent-making bat (Uroderma bilobatum) eating a fig

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, a sloth in a sea-almond tree.


To celebrate my parents’ golden wedding anniversary, the entire family (my parents, my sister, our spouses and children) all went to Costa Rica for a few days between Christmas and New Year.   It was my first trip to that beautiful country, and I was totally blown away by…well, everything:  the friendly people, the great food, the beautiful scenery, the tropical flora, and the amazing wildlife.

We stayed at Arenas del Mar, a small resort in the lowland rain forest between Manuel Antonio National Park and the Pacific coast town of Quepos.  Several people told me that the dry season came early this year, so I didn’t see many orchids in bloom (sad face).  However, the wildlife exceeded all my expectations.  I expected sloths and frogs, but not crocodiles…

American crocodiles (Crocodylus acutus) on the banks of the Tárcoles River

After flying into San José, we rode down to Manuel Antonio (about 170 kilometers) in a van provided by Arenas del Mar.  Just before we reached the Pacific coast, our driver stopped beside a bridge over the Tárcoles River so that we could stretch our legs and ogle the monsters on the banks of the river below.  Somehow they seemed much more menacing than American alligators, and I was glad that we were viewing them from the bridge.



Arriving at the resort after dark, we got our first real look at the area the next morning, when we took a guided tour of Villa Vanilla, a spice plantation located a few kilometers inland from Quepos.  At Villa Vanilla, they grow vanilla (of course), cacao, true cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum), black pepper, allspice, and turmeric.  The tour was fascinating and delicious–we tasted the spices in their raw forms and incorporated into various treats–and the location of the plantation in the foothills is unutterably beautiful.

Vanilla planifolia vines
Vanilla seed capsules drying in the sun
Flowers of a Theobroma cacao tree
The flowers and fruit of Theobroma cacao can sprout anywhere on the tree, including the trunk.
Cacao pods ready for processing.

The Vanilla orchid is a heavy epiphytic vine which requires support.  Although some of the plants were growing on rough posts, many were trained onto shrubby trees whose flowers added to the beauty of the plantation.

Flowers of an Erythrina species that was used as a support for the Vanilla vines.  This species was used a lot, perhaps because Erythrina grows rapidly and has a fairly open form, allowing lots of light to reach the vanilla.

The paths were also lined with Heliconia plants, ornamental gingers, and wooden frames supporting native epiphytes.

Heliconia sp.
Etlingera elatior (torch ginger)
Zingiber species, perhaps Z. zerumbet
Epidendrum stamfordianum, a native orchid species

While wandering the grounds of Villa Vanilla, we saw our first toucan…

Chestnut-mandibled toucan (Ramphastos ambiguus swainsonii)

…and a troop of squirrel monkeys

Grey-crowned Central American squirrel monkey (Saimiri oerstedii citrinellus).  This endangered subspecies is restricted to the Pacific coast of central Costa Rica, around Manuel Antonio National Park

We also saw squirrel monkeys on the grounds of the resort and at Manuel Antonio National Park, which we visited the next day.  If you plan to visit Manuel Antonio, you will probably see recommendations to hire a guide.  I concur.  If we had wandered around by ourselves, we certainly would have seen monkeys and perhaps a few sloths, but we would have missed many of the smaller animals.  Our guide (from Manuel’s Tours) was enthusiastic and knowledgeable–he was happy to discuss taxonomy of sloths or cannibalistic behavior of basilisks–and he carried a large spotting scope with excellent depth of field which served equally well to enlarge a howler monkey fifty feet up a tree or a tiny bat tucked into a Heliconia just off the path.

In addition to squirrel and howler monkeys, Manuel Antonio is home to white-faced capuchin monkeys (Cebus imitator) who hang out at the beach and are always ready to steal your lunch.

After a day or two, we got better at spotting animals, and it became clear that many of the species in the national park also lived on the grounds of our resort.  Here’s a small sampling of what I saw and photographed:

Troops of white-faced and squirrel monkeys visited us every day.


The trees around our room were home to at least half a dozen brown-throated three-toed sloths (Bradypus variegatus)
The Hoffman’s two-toed sloths (Choloepus hoffmanni) seemed to prefer the sea almond trees (Terminalia catappa) beside the beach.
Great kiskadee (Pitangus sulphuratus) in the branches of a gumbo limbo tree (Bursera simaruba)
A green iguana (Iguana iguana) that I spotted before breakfast on our first morning
Common basilisk (Basiliscus basilicus).  At a mangrove lagoon adjacent to Playa Espadilla we watched juvenile basilisks running on water, just like they do in nature documentaries.
Black spinytail iguanas (Ctenosaura similis) seemed to love the beach.

Perhaps the most unexpected and exciting wildlife sighting occurred while we were eating lunch at the beach on our third day.  A clutch of olive ridley sea turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea) emerged from the sand and began to make their way down to the sea.  It was something I never expected to see outside of books and television programs.


After four days in paradise, we piled back into the van for the drive back to San José, but Costa Rica had one more treat in store.  When we stopped again near the Tárcoles River, I finally got a photograph of a wild scarlet macaw.


Up next: Costa Rican nightlife.

San Diego (Six on Saturday #37, November 10, 2018)

The Botanical Building in Balboa Park

This week, I traveled to San Diego, California for a scientific conference.  It was my first trip to San Diego–my first trip to anywhere in California, actually–so it was exciting to see a new part of the country.  Even the flower beds around my hotel and the convention center were full of new and interesting things.

The meeting didn’t leave much time for sightseeing, but I managed to slip away one morning and take a bus up to Balboa Park, which houses the San Diego Zoo and a variety of gardens.  I considered just wandering around the free areas of the park but eventually decided that I couldn’t miss the world famous zoo.  That turned out to be the correct choice.  In addition to being an amazing collection of endangered species (the zoo is famous for its captive breeding successes), the grounds are also a very fine botanical garden.  The weather was cool, so the animals were active, and there were hardly any visitors.  I had a good long visit with the pandas (red and giant), koalas, Tasmanian devils, komodo dragon, giant tortoises, okapis, elephants, jaguars, and many other animals, but I took more pictures of the plants.

Today being Saturday, here are six things that caught my eye in San Diego–garden related, of course.

1.  Flowering trees.

November is clearly not the best time of year for blooming trees, but nevertheless, I saw some beautiful tropical and subtropical flowers.

Ceiba speciosa (silk floss tree) in Balboa Park
Ceiba speciosa flower
Spathodea campanulata (African tulip tree) in Balboa Park
Bauhinia x blakeana (Hong Kong orchid tree) at the San Diego Zoo

2. Bird of Paradise flowers

Roadside Strelitzia reginae

Strelitzia reginae (bird of paradise) and Strelitzia nicolai (white bird of paradise) were growing (and blooming) all over town.  S. reginae is my wife’s favorite flower, so when we were first married I tried growing some from seed.  After fifteen years, I managed to get a only single flower from an enormous clump that took up a lot of real estate in the greenhouse, so I gave up.  Clearly, flowering is not a problem when they are grown outside in San Diego.

Strelitzia nicolae on the patio of the convention center

3.  The Botanical Building


The Botanical Building is a Balboa Park landmark that was originally built for the 1915-1916 Panama-California Exposition.  Before seeing it, I had assumed it was some sort of greenhouse or conservatory, but there is no glass involved.  Instead, the Botanical Building is a giant lathe house, built of wooden strips that provide the perfect amount of shade and wind protection for palms, tree ferns, and other tropical/subtropical understory plants.

Inside the Botanical Building
Deppea splendens flowering in the Botanical Building.  Oh, how I wish this species would survive a North Carolina summer
An enormous Ficus sycomorus growing behind the Botanical House.  A photo can’t do justice to the scale of its massive buttress roots.  According to the Gospel of Luke, Zacchaeus the tax collector climbed one of these trees so that he could see Jesus.

4.  Australian plants

Callistemon ‘Woodlanders Hardy’ and one or two eucalyptus are the only Australian plants I know of that can be grown in North Carolina, and even those are marginal outside of the coastal plain.  The climate of southern California is more similar to parts of Australia, so I wasn’t surprised to see a wider variety of plants from Down Under.

Anigozanthos (Kangaroo paw) in a flower bed at the convention center.  I wonder if one of these could be grown in a pot in North Carolina, if protected from rain?
A little grove of Brachychiton rupestris (Queensland bottle trees) at the zoo

I assume this is Australian, because it was growing in the koala habitat at the zoo.  Australian readers, help me out. Is this some sort of Grevillea?  It was growing as a tall shrub, or small tree. [Update:  This appears to be Alloxylon flammeum.  Thanks to Jim Stephens for the suggested identification.]
5. African and Malagasy plants

The zoo has a really impressive collection of succulents from Madagascar and southern Africa.

Alluadia procera (Madagascar) outside the Elephant Care Center
Cyphostemma juttae (southern Africa)
Pachypodium lamerei and Moringa drouhardii (bottle tree, smooth trunk on left), both from Madagascar
Euphorbia spectabilis
Euphorbia spectabilis (Tanzania)
Uncarina sp. (Madagascar)

6. Hawaiian plants

I suppose the climate of Hawaii, particularly on the drier leeward side of the islands, must be not entirely unlike that of coastal San Diego County.

Brighamia insignis (Ōlulu, Cabbage-on-a-stick) growing among other Hawaiian plants at the zoo.  Despite the whimsical common name, this is a member of the Campanulaceae, not a cabbage relative.
Pritchardia hillebrandii (loulu lelo palm) in the Botanical Building

For more Six on Saturday, click over to The Propagator, where you will find his Six and links to other participants.

Holiday snapshots, botanical and otherwise

View from the Raven’s Nest, Schoodic Peninsula

One of the reasons why posting has been sparse here recently is that we took our annual beat-the-heat trip to Maine a couple of weeks early this year.  For the most part, not much was different between late July and early August.  The friendly snowshoe hare who lives in the garden of the little house we rent was still there…


…and the local eagle stopped by to say hello again:


As in previous years, we spent our time fishing for mackerel, jigging for squid, cooking the mackerel and squid, and hiking along the intensely picturesque eastern Maine shoreline.

Quoddy Head State Park.  Lubec, Maine is in the background and Campobello Island, New Brunswick is at far right.  This is as far east as you can go in the United States.

What was different, if only subtly so, was the array of flowering plants.

In August, I have seen a few Campanula rotundifolia (harebells) flowering on cliffs and headlands.  In July, there were many more plants in bloom.

Campanula rotundifolia

At Quoddy Head State Park, I saw a single white specimen:

C. rotundifolia, white form

Also at Quoddy Head, the last flowers of Kalmia angustifolia (sheep laurel) could be seen in the bog.  In previous years, there have been only seed capsules.

Kalmia angustifolia

In the woods, I found another member of the Ericaceae. Monotropa uniflora (Indian pipes) lacks both leaves and chlorophyll and is parasitic on the mycorrhizal fungi of various tree species.

Monotropa uniflora

Like the sheep laurel, I have seen Silene vulgaris (bladder campion) in previous years, but always in seed.  This year, plants were still blooming.

Silene vulgaris

I finally was able to identify some of the Iris plants that grow near the sea.  On the headlands near the splash zone, I find very small irises that I assume are Iris hookeri (beach head iris).  A little further back, at the edge of the trees, I often find much taller irises growing where little streamlets are blocked by rocks or sand and form miniature bogs.  I wasn’t sure if the taller plants were the same species, growing larger due to the local environment, or a completely different species.  This year a few of the larger plants were still in bloom, and I could see that they are Iris versicolor (northern blue flag).

Iris versicolor

And I never get tired of photographing Chamaenerion angustifolium (fireweed), one of my favorite wildflowers.

Chameanerion angustifolium, Rosa rugosa, and Spiraea alba growing beside the Quoddy Narrows.