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Hermit Thrush. Photo by Kellen McCluskey.

Thursday, February 3

2022 Botanical Art Programs

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The greatest flower artists have been those who have found beauty in truth; who have understood plants scientifically, but who have yet seen and described them with the eye and hand of the artist.

The Art of Botanical Illustration

A full year's worth of botanical art programs is open for registration! Participation is limited to ensure individual attention for each student; click on the links below for more information and to reserve your spot.

Phenology wheel illustration by Kelly Sverduk

Join Us March 11 for the Virtual Premiere of Rooted Wisdom

Explore the Arboretum landscape with historian Anthony Cohen to understand how the natural environment aided self-liberators on their path to freedom when Rooted Wisdom: Nature's Role in the Underground Railroad premieres on Friday, March 11. Read more about the project here, then register for the virtual viewing!

Nature Notes

As winter wears on, I become a well-wrapped mummy encumbered by many layers. Movement slows as I battle with long johns, undershirts, mittens, hats, wool socks, and recalcitrant offspring who don't see the need for any of these. Spring is far away, and summer farther still. In this dark and frozen season, I remind myself that summer's poster child lies just beneath my feet.

No, this is not the lead-up to a murder mystery. I'm talking fireflies, those luminescent, magical Lampyridae whose larvae are right now slumbering in the soil. Most adult fireflies flash light; all larval fireflies glow. Their steady, dull light increases with agitation and serves as a warning sign to would-be predators. The light is produced via special organs located in the abdomen and a chemical reaction known as bioluminescence.

Left: Larval firefly. Photo by Katja Schulz/Flickr. Right: Adult firefly/Wikimedia Commons.

"Bioluminescence" sounds suitably magical, but the life cycle of a firefly is less so. After hatching in the spring, the armored, tear-shaped "glow worms" feed voraciously, injecting snails, worms, and various other insects (including fireflies) with digestive enzymes that immobilize and liquefy. The feeding frenzy continues until winter, when full bellies and cold temperatures lure the larvae to tunnel underground or in the crevices of bark, where they will glow in hibernation.

Some fireflies continue in their larval form another year, molting repeatedly as they outgrow their exoskeleton. After a second hibernation, they'll emerge for several weeks of feeding, then pupate in an underground mud chamber or attached to tree bark. Groups of cells in the firefly's body called histoblasts trigger a process that transforms the larva into an adult over a period of about ten days.

The life of an adult firefly is short—in the range of two months—and dedicated to mating and laying eggs. Many species don't eat during this time; others are predatory, and still others dine on nectar and plant pollen. Flashing lights are the courtship calls of most, although some species of fireflies rely on chemical signals in the form of pheromones to attract a mate. Eggs are laid, the adults die, larvae hatch, and the cycle begins again.

If you have done your math while reading this, you will come to an astonishing conclusion: in a life that lasts approximately 24 months, fireflies spend only two as adults. This is comparable to an 80-year-old human having spent nearly 73 years in childhood. The life cycles of insects and humans differ vastly, but real and metaphorical winters challenge both. Fortunately, Nature specializes in circles, and there is light at the end of every (firefly) tunnel.

Additional note: More than 2,000 species of fireflies exist worldwide, and their life cycles vary somewhat depending on climate, habitat, and other factors. For example, one North American species is active in winter. There are many excellent online resources for those who would like a deeper dive into firefly facts, including this one.

By Jenny Houghton

Assistant Director

Nature Sketchers

As you walk the Arboretum grounds in February, you will find an abundance of flora and fauna that are inspiring subjects for sketching. The native trees, grasses, and perennials are quietly taking in nutrients, gathering their forces, and fattening their buds.

It's an exciting time in the winter woods as the first ephemeral wildflower of the year emerges. Let's go find it. Standing at the back door of the Visitor's Center, face the South Meadow and turn right on South Meadow Loop. Veer right at the Native Bee House and walk to the first bridge over Blockston Branch to look down at the floodplain.

Eastern skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), Maryland's earliest spring wildflower, is coming to life. Its sensuous form is reminiscent of a Georgia O'Keefe painting. Look for a pointing green-and-purple mottled hood (spathe) about six inches tall, with an opening on one side revealing a mass of tiny petal-less true flowers on a knob (spadix). This plant has the ability to produce heat even if the ground is frozen, which allows it to melt surrounding snow as it emerges and blooms. The flowers emit a fetid odor that attracts pollinators—flies and carrion beetles. As the flower fades in March and April, large bright green leaves unfurl and this plant takes on a lush tropical look. By early summer, the spadix has become a two-inch round fruit head with compartments that contain pea-sized seeds. As the leaves fade in August, the fruit head falls apart and the seeds germinate to start new plants or are eaten. This plant is named after the skunk-like odor emitted when a leaf is crushed.

Also observe here the low-growing evergreen heart-shaped leaves of golden groundsel (Packera aurea). This groundcover spreads by rhizomes and will form rosettes of leaves around the single leaves you see now. In April and May, foot-and-a-half-tall flower stalks emerge from the rosettes and bloom with rayed flowers that, en masse, create breathtaking clouds of yellow floating above the moist woodland floor.

Continuing straight on the Upland Walk, you will see that in the forest, as in life, there are endings and beginnings. The young leaves still bearing last year's leaves are American beech (Fagus grandifolia). They create a lacy pale tan pattern in the wooded understory and whisper in the winter wind with a lovely rattle. When new leaves emerge from the long, slender pointed buds, the old leaves will finally fall.

As you walk, keep looking and observing. What else can you find to sketch?

Words and drawing of skunk cabbage by Diane DuBois Mullaly

Fine artist/Maryland Master Naturalist

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First Saturday Guided Walk

February 5

Yarning at the Arboretum

Wednesday, February 9

Open Botanical Art Studio

Friday, February 11

Build a Wave Hill Chair

Saturday, February 12

The Climate Challenge

Wednesday, February 16

Reception for artist John Moran

Saturday, February 19

Acorn Academy Nature Preschool

Tuesdays, March 22–May 10.

Hooray for Herps! Homeschool Series

Tuesdays, March 22–May 10

Weather Chasers Homeschool Series

Tuesdays, March 22–May 10

Click here to explore the program and events calendar.

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