Flora and Fauna Identification Tips

By Amy Renfranz (dearnaturalist@gmail.com)

Article Published: Aug. 22, 2012 | Modified: Aug. 22, 2012
Flora and Fauna Identification Tips

Spotted knapweed is commonly seen along the parkway during this time of year.

Photo submitted

A few friends have recently asked me why I have not contributed any readers’ questions to the column during the past few weeks.

This is “Dear Naturalist” after all, and most of you expect weekly answers to the most pertinent inquiries.

The truth is so many emails are delivered to my inbox a day that I am unable to keep up. Sorting through all that junk mail for the (maybe) one reader question per week can be taxing.

Today’s inquirer used all capital letters in her subject line and thus drew my attention.

She has requested for me to identify an item in nature that piqued their interest.

Identification, when unable to see the object in person, can sometimes be difficult. There are a few things that you can do to help.

Try to take pictures of the whole object. Does it have leaves? Take pictures of those, both sides of them. If it is a mushroom, does it have gills? Take pictures of those.

Place a widely recognizable item in your picture, so that when you try to identify the item later, you can tell how big it is.

I always carry a quarter in my pocket for this very reason. I know that a quarter is about an inch in diameter. If I place my quarter in a picture with an unrecognizable mushroom, I can later use it to estimate the size of the mushroom.

Side note: Earlier this week, I found a slug in my garden that was five inches long. No one believed me until I showed them the slug and quarter picture.

It is also a good idea to write down information about the mystery item’s environment and location. Does it seem to appreciate the shade? Is the soil beneath it moist or rocky? This will get you examining the big picture, which is what I like most about being a naturalist.

I photographed this wildflower on the parkway just north of the Rough Ridge parking area. Please help me identify it. Was it planted there or is it a native in the area? — Kathy S.

The flower you photographed is spotted knapweed (Centaurea maculosa). It is in the aster family alongside the daisy and the sunflower.

Knapweed, originally from Eastern Europe, is an invasive plant in North America. It was planted when the road was built near the Linn Cove Viaduct area to help “control” erosion. Like kudzu, it has its own drawbacks.

The plant produces a toxin, cnicin, in its foliage and roots, which when released stunts the growth of surrounding plants. This allows spotted knapweed to spread more rapidly with less competition for sun, water and nutrients.

Furthermore, a single plant of this species can produce more than 1,000 seeds that are mostly wind dispersed. Birds will also eat the seeds, adding to their dispersal range.

To my knowledge, there is no NPS plan in effect to eradicate spotted knapweed from the roadsides.
If you have a question concerning flora and fauna, please email (dearnaturalist@gmail.com) All of your questions will be answered. One will be featured next week. See you on the trails.

Amy Renfranz is an interpretive park guide on the Blue Ridge Parkway. She is a certified naturalist through the Yellowstone Institute and a certified environmental educator in the state of North Carolina. Her comments are made independently and do not reflect the views of the National Park Service.

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