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My house is filled with seedlings. Five more days and the real work begins. Welcome to The Nature of Phenology where we share the cycles and seasons of the outdoors. I’m your host, Hazel Stark.
You take advantage of one of our increasingly warm spring days by heading to a nearby mountain for a hike. Just as the trail starts bringing you slowly uphill, you fumble your dog’s leash and your canine friend goes tearing through the underbrush. Without thinking, you sprint off the trail in pursuit. Not three paces later, a branch hooks around your shoe and you trip, finding yourself sprawled flat on the forest floor, inspecting the leaf litter that is now gracing the tip of your nose. Rolling carefully onto your back, senses heightened to detect injury, you see the culprit in the form of a jaunty round cluster of white flowers staring down at you, laughing. The mischievous shrub adorned with those rude flowers right now is the topic of today’s episode: hobblebush.
The leaves and flowers of hobblebush seem to overcompensate for the somewhat spindly branches of this shrub that grows no higher than ten feet tall. Each white flower head can be up to six inches wide and features showy sterile flowers surrounding tiny, greenish flowers in the center. The function of those bigger, showier flowers is simply to attract more pollinators to the copious little flowers that actually contain the reproductive parts.
Hobblebush leaves, which along with moose maple leaves are also often referred to as “Boy Scout’s toilet paper,” are shaped like cartoon hearts up to eight inches wide with obvious veins. These leaves are arranged opposite each other, a characteristic shared by all its closest plant relatives in both its genus, Viburnum, and its family, Adoxaceae. In the fall, these leaves turn an earthy shade of purple. It is one of few species that I have seen whose leaves sometimes change color one half at a time, adding to its surprisingly nonconformist personality.
Not only do hobblebush flowers trick pollinators into landing on them (and laugh at clumsy people), but the plants really do trip walking animals and careless hikers more than your average shrub—hence the name hobblebush. This is because hobblebush has pendulous branches, meaning they droop down to the ground, and to further complicate matters, these branches can root where they touch the ground. So they create perfect arches of branches, rooted on either side, that can easily trap a foot or hoof. But our native hooved mammals get back at this mischievous native plant as its leaves and twigs are a favorite food for moose and deer to browse. We can also browse its fruits later in the year, raw or cooked. Though as always, be sure you know what you’re looking at.
So the next time you head outside and are considering going off trail, be sure to look for the conspicuous flower heads or large leaves of hobblebush to alert you to the many potential tripping hazards camouflaged along the forest floor.
You can download this episode and find a link to the transcript, photos, information about podcasting and more by visiting archives.weru.org. Have a nature question that you want us to answer in our show? Simply reach out to us! Theme music was by a pileated woodpecker, made available by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Thanks for listening and please join us next week for another dive into The Nature of Phenology.
Shrubs of the Adirondacks: Hobblebush (Viburnum lantanoides). (n.d.). Retrieved April 24, 2020, from https://wildadirondacks.org/adirondack-shrubs-hobblebush-viburnum-lantanoides.html
Viburnum lantanoides. (2014, August 22). Retrieved April 24, 2020, from https://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=vila11