An Enrichment Post: Those Amazingly Awe- Inspiring Carnivorous Plants!

An Enrichment Post: Those Amazingly Awe- Inspiring Carnivorous Plants!

One of the best gifts I received this holiday season was a PBS documentary video called, “Plants Behaving Badly”, in which two types of amazing plants – orchids and carnivorous plants –  are described in detail. I am lucky that my husband indulged me with this item on my wish list.

Plants Behaving Badly

Home alone on Saturday afternoon, I sat mesmerized by this DVD. Well, I did not really sit; I was working on making some jewelry. But, the video kept pulling my attention to it!  Wow! I was thrilled with this gift!  The first part, carnivorous plants, offered a lot of material on this group of diverse plants that share the process of evolving in different ways in order to survive in poor, nutrient – lacking soil.  For the last 10 years, I have taught a carnivorous plant unit to my garden club students at the school my boys all attended as elementary students. This year, I am leading a new group of students in a new, larger school district, about 20 minutes from my home. This week, I will introduce them to the amazingly awesome world of carnivorous plants!  Although I knew much of the content in the video from my own research and reading over the years, it was still very informative, entertaining, and awe-inspiring! Although the school district is larger, my group is much smaller. So I have spend some time this week re-vamping my unit. I was pleased to find that the video offers a few clips via You Tube that I will share with the students later today.

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A Summary of Carnivorous Plant Types

There are four main types of carnivorous plants.  Snap traps like the Venus Fly Trap are active plants that actually have developed the ability to move to catch their prey.  Another group, Pitcher Plants, are passive traps. This means they do not move, but their prey is attracted by the scent of sweet nectar and gorgeous colors to come closer and closer to the rim of the “vessel” or pitcher part of the plant. There, the unsuspecting ant, fly, or even occasional frog or mouse, slips and falls into the bottom part of the pitcher. Big deal, you say, they could just climb out!  But, no!  Nature has designed this plant to have slippery insides, many with a fatal reservoir of acidic, digestive enzymes, and downward pointing hairs to prevent the insect’s crawl up to the opening where they fell from and into the plant, in the first place! They are trapped, drown, and are digested by the fluid in the plant’s vessel. The third type of carnivorous plant is the sundew. Sundews are also tricky, luring their prey in with  “beads” of fluid that appear AND smell like nectar globules glistening in the sun, inviting a hungry insect with the false promise of a tasty meal. Once the insect steps onto the globules, he is stuck! It is not nectar at all, but a sticky glue type substance! What is even more fascinating is that some of the sundew plants are active traps and move their tentacle-type structures to encircle the prey once it is stuck. From there forward – well, you know what happens! The insect dies and the nutrients are absorbed into the plant to sustain it. Respectively, the pitcher plant is a pit fall trap and sundew plants are sticky traps. The video did not really cover Bladderworts, which are an example of a fourth type of carnivorous plant that lives underwater, sucking into it like a vacuum any tiny, unsuspecting aquatic organism that happens by.  Most likely, footage of the gorgeous Nepenthes pitcher plants in Borneo, a variety of which is known to be the largest pitcher plant in the world, displaced coverage of the small, underwater carnivorous plant that literally sucks!

Using Awe as a Teacher

I am, and have been, awed by these plants for many years. And, my experience is that students are awed by them as well.   The sense of awe is a great teacher! I try to use it as often as possible when I am teaching students about our natural world.  Many students have heard of the Venus Fly Trap, but might not have seen one.  I always try to bring an actual plant to share during our lesson. Luckily, I found a local store on Saturday with some in stock. Unfortunately, the two plants I have currently do not have traps. I think they are in their period of dormancy induced by cooler weather and shorter days. Venus Fly Traps are indigenous to only one place in the world, and that is the sandy forests of North Carolina, near the coast.  It is here that I introduce students to an uglier side of human nature – the activity of poaching and those who poach. Unfortunately, since carnivorous plants are so cool, people do strange things, like steal and sell the stolen plants.  In the U.S., the Venus Fly Trap is protected, so I let my students know that if they ever visit North Carolina, they cannot just pick up a plant and bring it home to Wisconsin! There are more protected varieties of carnivorous plants in other parts of the world, too.

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Plants are amazing living entities! I know my former group of students could see how passionate I was about plants and our earth during my lessons, I hope the same for this new group! Only, time will tell! But, a large slice of my life is spent on lessons like today  – those Amazingly Awe-Inspiring Carnivorous Plants!

Post written for Slice of Life Tuesday sponsored by TwoWritingTeacher.org blog.

Thank you!

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Monarch Count

Monarch Count

During the last week, I have resumed care of my monarchs in very stages of their life cycle. Right now, I have the following:

  • 8 Chyrsalises
  • 4 Larvae in J hooks
  • 4 Larvae in the earliest instar stages
  • 2 eggs
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© Carol Labuzzetta, Can you see them? Two Eggs (upper right corner & right mid-page)                and two tiny larvae, Summer 2017.
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© Carol Labuzzetta, Two tiny larva, up close, 2017.

What is unusual about this year, besides getting a very late start to finding monarch caterpillars on my milkweed is that all but three of those that are being raised have been done so from finding eggs! I have never had so much success with finding and raising monarch butterflies from the egg stage. Usually, I find fairly large caterpillars (instars 2-4) on my milkweed.  All of the eggs have been found on my common milkweed plants and all but two have been on the underside of the leaves. Two eggs were laid right on the top of the leaves.

I do not know if, after many years of raising monarchs, I am just better at recognizing the eggs, or it has just been luck. I do think I have been more patient this year when I have looked in my garden patch for caterpillars.  Since I was not finding any, until about a month ago, I really started inspecting the leaves throughly just hoping to find a sign monarchs had visited the habitat we have made for them in our yard.

Apprehensive would be the best way to describe finding all these eggs! You might recall from an earlier blog post that I left on vacation just days after finding ten monarch eggs. The caterpillars started to emerge when I was gone and I came home to ten, fast growing, healthy larvae.

Since I want to tag the monarchs I raised, I ordered tracking tags from Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas. This will be the third year that I have tagged the butterflies before their migration.  You can purchase 25 tags for $15.00 plus shipping/handling, right off their website.  The tags are on their way, having been shipped a couple of days ago.

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© Carol Labuzzetta, Darkening Stripes, Monarch Caterpillar, 2017. 

From experience, I know that it takes 10-14 days for the butterflies to emerge from their chrysali. Hopefully, the tags will be here by then. I have continued to observe and collect more monarch eggs and caterpillars. With the exception of the three larger caterpillars I found on my swamp milkweed, I am finding only eggs or very tiny, just emerged, caterpillars.  Daily, fresh milkweed has been provided, a count has been made, and the containers (3) cleaned.

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© Carol Labuzzetta – Two  Monarch Caterpillars, Two Monarch Chrysalises, Summer 2017.

Always a satisfying experience, I often think about my garden club students when I am tending the monarchs during the summer. The Monarch Life Cycle was a student favorite, being requested year after year as one of our unit topics. At the beginning of each school year,  I had the luxury of surveying students about what they wanted to study during our meetings. The three topics with the most votes were added to my theme/unit plans for the year. I strongly feel, when possible,  we need to give students a voice. I can attest that this increases student engagement and depth of learning. Situations that are ideal for this are project based learning, such as National History Day selections, Science Fair projects, or Place Based Learning on local culture, customs, flora, and fauna. Talented and gifted (TAG)  students also greatly benefit from being asked what they want to learn more about. Forcing subject matter down the throat of any student, but especially the gifted, can have immediate and lasting negative effects.

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No, studying the monarch life cycle, their current habitat plight, and miraculous metamorphosis was not everyone’s preference. However, since the students could select more than one topic of study, hopefully most students eventually got to learn about something that mattered to them, be it earthworms, cacti, succulents, corn, carnivorous plants, pumpkins, or something else. We explored many different topics over 13 years, but none were as requested, enriching, or satisfying as our experience with monarchs, the butterfly garden, and citizen science projects having to do with this incredible creature.

 

Today’s Garden Club Lesson: Inspiring Youth with Monarch Conservation Activities

Today’s Garden Club Lesson: Inspiring Youth with Monarch Conservation Activities

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School Butterfly Garden, established 2006. Certified as Monarch WayStation by Monarch Watch 2008. We’ve been at this a long time!

Today, my garden club for third,  forth, and fifth graders will meet after school. We have two meetings in the month of May, instead of our usual single monthly meeting. On this first meeting, we typically weed the garden, turn over the soil to aerate it and loosen it up.  If you read my post last week,  you know a pesticide was sprayed (in error) on our twelve-year-old school butterfly habitat that also serves as a Certified Monarch Habitat or WayStation. Since the spraying was so close to our meeting and really, really should not happened in the first place, I decided to let the weeding go and keep the students out of the garden until our planting session at the end of the month. The planting is the culmination of the school year’s work for garden club students.

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Rose Milkweed erupting behind our barn. Seeds were started by Garden Club Students.

Today, we will discuss the monarch life cycle, the importance of milkweed, and where the migration stands with this dwindling population of butterflies.  Each student will plant common milkweed seeds (saved from my own garden beds) that will serve as the host plant for the monarch life cycle, starting with the egg being laid by an adult, female monarch, followed by the caterpillar stage during which milkweed is the only source of feeding, and during which the caterpillar sheds its skin five times. The chrysalis is formed after the skin is shed for the last time, after the caterpillar has attached itself to a branch or stem, house shingle, sunflower, or any number of existing environmental assistives. The chrysalis must hang off the ground for the metamorphosis to take place.  It is an awe-inspiring event to watch, but most often goes unnoticed and camouflaged in nature. After about 10-14 days, a beautiful monarch emerges and the process starts again.

The whole process and life of the monarch is dependant on habitat and the availability of milkweed. This is why the students will take the milkweed seeds they plant today home to start a habitat in their own yards.

Zinna seeds will also be planted for each student to take home. Zinna’s provide many species of butterflies with nectar. They color and hardiness attract the fluttering insects throughout the summer, well into fall. Zinna’s are also easy to grow.

Since learning the garden that we made into a Monarch Habitat so many years ago and well before it was needed and a “popular” thing to do, I decided that I must change course. Today, starts the path down a different road. I will try to instill the awe of a metamorphic and migrational life of a tiny, seemingly fragile creature in the minds of my students. The future is theirs. The future is ours. I will help them plant the seeds of our future in their own lives.

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Milkweed Seeds Planted 2015.
A Penchant for Plants

A Penchant for Plants

Virtually every time I am at one of our local elementary schools, I am asked, “Mrs. L., Do we have Garden Club today?” or “When is the next garden club?” They are valid questions and I am continually inspired by the student excitement. I have led a garden club for students at Evergreen Elementary School for the last 12 years! We’ve covered many topics,  some only once or twice, such as fungi, and others like butterflies get covered yearly. I am always on the hunt for a new, engaging, awe inspiring topic. Usually, I don’t have to look far to find one.

A couple of years ago, I came across a group of plants called epiphytes. These plants, which grow on top of other living entities such as trees, are native to the subtropical areas of North America and the tropical rainforests of the world.  Not exactly a local plant. But, the way these plants have adapted to their surroundings make them fascinating to me, as well as the students. We have probably studied epiphytes five or six times in the last twelve years. What plants does this group include, you might ask? It includes plants such as the Spanish Moss you’ll see hanging from the trees in the South at Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina. Or, the group includes the orchids you’ll see if you visit The Animal Kingdom at Disney World in Florida. WDW also uses sphagnum moss in their topiaries. These are places I have actually visited, but did not realize the role they would later play in my life as I try to enrich our youth with opportunities like Evergreen Garden Club.

Back to the Orchids. So, despite being a person with a penchant for plants, I stayed away from orchids until just over a  year ago. I guess I bought into the premise that they were too expensive and too complicated to successfully grow. At least that was what I was always told. Almost if on cue, our local Home Depot store had orchids for sale in December of 2015. They were beautiful and only $10.00 each. I bought two. One to give to a friend and one to keep for myself. I was going to try this orchid growing activity. And, whether I was successful or not,  I could share the plant with the garden club students as another example of an epiphyte. After all, the real thing was better than a photograph, right?

Flash forward to March 2017 – The orchid that was blooming when I bought it 15 months ago is now ready to bloom again! After the first bloom, I read about how to incite the development of more flowers. I carefully followed the instructions from the Orchid Society and waited patiently – for many months. All of a sudden a shoot appeared and began to grow really fast. I was very excited! You can be sure I was taking extra special care of “my orchid!” As it has grown, the orchid has exhibited another really cool characteristic of plant growth, phototropism (or leaning towards the light). Just another thing I can’t wait to show my students! I am hooked!