Audio Guide to Spring: Poisonous plants and venomous snakes
IPR's Red Pine Radio brings you nature spotting tips and wildlife news from northern Michigan.
As spring advances, bloodroot is popping up and snakes are coming out of their hibernacula, where they over-wintered. Today, we’ll tell you where bloodroot gets its name — and about a harmless snake that wants you to think it’s dangerous.
BLOODROOT: HELPFUL OR HARMFUL?
Bloodroot’s name might make you think it's somehow spooky or frightening (or blood-red), but the plant actually has white petals and golden-orange center.
So why blood root? The name comes from the plant's red sap, says Cheryl Gross, president of Plant It Wild, a non-profit that promotes native plant species.
The Algonquian word for bloodroot is "puccoon," which means "blood-red." Historically, many Native Americans have used the plant to make clothing dye, baskets and face paint.
During the early years of America's colonization, the French even started importing bloodroot to dye wool.
Bloodroot has also been used as a medicine — and a poison.
The plant is extremely toxic in large doses, but in small doses, it was used as an herbal medicine to treat inflammation, infections and bronchial problems. Some homeopathic medical practices still use it today.
Bloodroot is a spring ephemeral, a category of plants marked by their short life cycles. They only bloom for five to seven days, their green leaves circling a single white stalk.
"They come up — emerge — from the ground like a cigar. And the blossom comes on top. And once they're done, then they open up," Gross says.
While it may be tempting to get a look at its red sap, it’s best to leave bloodroot alone. In 2010, the USDA listed bloodroot as “exploitatively vulnerable” in New York and of “special concern” in Rhode Island.
SNAKES (VENOMOUS AND OTHERWISE):
Let’s be honest, not everyone greets the spring emergence of snakes with joy.
But only one of Michigan's 18 species is venomous: the massasauga rattler. The rest are harmless.
And your odds of meeting that venomous one? Very slim.
But if you do, “… just turn around and walk away. It’s not going to chase you. It just wants to be left alone,” says Jim Harding, author of the book "Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region."
He says all snakes prefer to escape rather than interact with humans, but that you might see a snake that acts dangerous: the hog-nosed snake.
These snakes have a few methods of scaring people away: they rear up, flatten their heads into a hood, hiss with their large tongues, give off a musky odor or even regurgitate their last meal. But if all else fails, they'll play dead.
“I can see why people might initially be afraid of them," Harding says.
The hog-nosed is the only snake in Michigan that puts on this fascinating show. Their coloring varies, so their behavior is key to distinguishing them from other species.
“They can range anywhere from a solid black, solid brown, solid olive green to any manner of blotchiness … they can have reds and yellow on them,” Harding says.
If you want to see a hog-nosed snake this spring, look in sandy woodlands, especially where the woods and grass meet the dunes along Lake Michigan.
WATCH FOR ...
Morels have been spotted near Cadillac and in the Grand Traverse Area. Local foragers say so far, the morels are too small and scarce to sell, but that they're picking them up for their own kitchens. It’s still early, so keep your eyes peeled.
Watch for warblers this weekend. Doug Cook, one of our local birding experts, spotted early yellow-rumped and palm warblers in the Manistee National Forest. Of course, we’ll see many more warblers in May.
To maximize your odds of seeing lots of birds, check out the Birdcast. This site uses weather radars to generate real-time maps of how many birds are in the air and where they are over North America. It also gives you a look at forecasts for the next night’s migration.
Let us know what you’re seeing! Send your photos of northern Michigan flora and fauna to firstname.lastname@example.org. Put "Audio Guide to Spring" in the subject line.
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