Nature Notes: Worth the Pain

This week’s botany tale is not as sweet as last week’s
The cardinal flower, a member of the Lobelia genus Victoria Bustamante

Botany again, but before we begin, I should single out an axiom that often goes unnoticed. Someone somewhere somehow knows something that most of us don’t know. Last week I told you about a Mrs. Pychowska who botanized locally in the late 1800s at a time when almost every biologist, botanist, or naturalist was male. A reader, Julie Sakellariadis, emailed me the day after the column came out. She knew about Mrs. P., who was both the wife of Count Pychowska and Eugene B. Cook. Julie found out about her in reading the minutes of the Randolph Mountain Club, members of which were naturalist-mountaineers of a sort.

This week’s botany tale is not as sweet as last week’s. It takes place at Trout Pond, a Southampton Town park in Noyac that long ago used to be a hotel site for vacationing city dwellers who arrived by ferry. The pond actually gets stocked with trout. On Friday there was a young man fishing in it. He caught seven largemouth bass and a yellow perch, all of which he returned to the water.

Vicki Bustamante and I went back to look for the Dutchman’s pipe vine, perhaps the only one on Long Island in the wild that we had found last year growing on a hillside near where the hotel once stood. We couldn’t find it, but we did find a bunch of Asiatic bittersweet vines newly cut off a foot or so above the ground. Perhaps, the root itself will resprout.

We found a bunch of plants that we had not previously identified there, among them, mapleleaf viburnum, white vervain, and purple avens, a wetland species closely resembling white avens, an upland forest floor plant not uncommon on the South Fork. Avens have fruit that are burr-like with little hooks that attach them to the pelt of a passing mammal or the clothes of a passing human, a common method several plants employ to distribute their seed and extend their ranges.

Perhaps the most fascinating plant of the day was the purple bladderwort, which was carpeting part of the pond, mixing it up with the very aggressive invasive aquatic species, Cabomba, an immigre from tropical America that is running wild in much of the eastern United States at this time. The bladderwort is completely waterbound except for the pretty purple flower, which reaches a few inches into the air so that it can be cross-pollinated.

There are 14 bladderwort species, but the purple one is rather rare on Long Island. While bladderworts allow bees and other insect to land on their airborne flowers, beneath the surface they do dirty deeds as far as insects and other swimming aquatic invertebrates are concerned. As their name implies, they have little sacs that open and close. They stay open until a curious little mosquito larvae or other aquatic invertebrate enters, then they shut tight. The trapped prey is slowly digested just as prey caught in the Venus flytrap or pitcher plant are. The bladderwort is as carnivorous as it is photosynthetic.

Perhaps the most beautiful plant of the day was the cardinal flower, a member of the Lobelia genus, which grows on the edges of streams in sediments accumulated in the stream’s oxbows. I had first seen these tall-stalked plants at Trout Pond 30 years ago, but had not seen them since. They come and go depending upon the year. I have never found them locally far from a meandering freshwater stream.

In a way they can be as treacherous as the bladderworts. They beg you to take a closer look. In order to reach them you have to get your feet wet by walking through a mat of hydrophilic plants — sedges, reeds, stick-tights, and different mints. Therein lies the rub. A tiny arachnid larvae less than a half millimeter in size — the harvest mite, Trombicula autumnalis — lives in this damp soggy turf. Such a pretty scientific name for one of man’s greatest tormentors, the chigger.

Vicki had her anti-tick rubber knee boots on. I was attired in short, white socks and slip-ons, as I wanted to test a hypothesis. Vicki had come down with chigger bites from an outing on Big Reed Pond in Montauk the day before. I wanted to see if they were out in my neighborhood as well. They were, big time.

At 4 a.m. Saturday morning, 10 hours after the Trout Pond foray, I couldn’t sleep, the urge to itch and scratch was overpowering. Yes, I had my first case of chiggers this year. Turning on the light over my bed I could just make out the little pimples where a larval chigger had formed its stylostome tube into my flesh and feasted on it before leaving. By the time the itching starts they’re gone.

I applied the treatment I have used for the last 20 years. It also works for lone star tick bites, which raise similar pustules. I took a very sharp needle and pierced each of 30 or so pustules, then applied rubbing alcohol to each. The itching subsided somewhat, but persisted throughout Saturday. When I couldn’t sleep Saturday night, I took two Benadryls. They did the trick. On Sunday morning I was almost itch-free except for a couple of new bites. I had run the gamut and paid for it dearly. The only saving grace was that as far as we know thus far, chigger larvae don’t carry diseases.

I relearned (or did I?) a painful lesson that I have relearned every year since my first bout with chiggers picked up at Culloden Point in 1985. Obviously, I am a slow learner. Vicki’s boots didn’t save her from the same excruciating itching bout that beset me, only hers didn’t start until 20 hours after our nature walk. This is the season for chiggers; they’re out there in big numbers, you can bet on it. Stay away from moist vegetation and don’t touch it with your hands or brush against it with your arms.

While I was recuperating and feeling miserable for much of Saturday, Vicki was out picking elderberries with which to make jam. On Sunday her arms and hands were covered with chigger bites. Her son Nick went out on Sunday and picked black raspberries. On Monday he was dealing with 10 chigger bites.

Was it all worth it? You tell me.

Larry Penny can be reached via email at

Purple bladderwort carpets part of Trout Pond in Noyac.Victoria Bustamante