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Volume 41 Issue 9 • July 8-13, 2011
now in our 41th season

Red, White and Blue - July on Nantucket

by Dr. Sarah D. Oktay
Managing Director UMass Boston Nantucket Field Station

For this week’s column I thought it might be fun to explore some quintessential red, white, and blue Nantucket flora and fauna in honor of the Fourth of July and to celebrate the things that make Nantucket special in the summer.


Rosa rugosa. I am pretty sure nothing is more “Nantuckety” than the fragrant cascades of rosa rugosa all over the island.  These plants have purplish, pink, or white flowers, the red rose hips that are ripening now are the real reason I put these in the red category.  These plants are members of the Rosacea family and are also known as salt spray roses and beach roses.  One of its common names, the “beach tomato” reflects the large tomato-like appearance of the rose hips.  From Wikipedia succinct entry:  “Rosa Rugosa is a suckering (see below) shrub which develops new plants from the roots and forms dense thickets 1–1.50 m tall with stems densely covered in numerous short, straight thorns 3–10 mm long. The leaves are 8–15 cm long, pinnate with 5–9 leaflets, most often 7, each leaflet 3–4 cm long, with a distinctly corrugated or wrinkled (“rugose” is from the Latin word “ruga” for wrinkle) surface. The flowers are pleasantly scented, dark pink to white, 6–9 cm across, with somewhat wrinkled petals; flowering is from summer to autumn (June to September in the northern hemisphere).  The hips are large, 2–3 cm diameter, and often shorter than their diameter, not elongated like most other rose hips; in late summer and early autumn the plants often bear fruit and flowers at the same time. The leaves typically turn bright yellow before falling in autumn.”

Most people would be shocked to know that rosa rugosa are not native to the island or to New England; this plant was brought to America as a beautiful ground cover that can grow in any soil (especially sandy acidic soil like we have) and is used to stabilize beach dunes.  It is native to eastern Asia, northeastern China, Japan, Korea and southeastern Siberia, where it grows on the coast, often on sand dunes.

Most of the information online regards the ability of this rose to adapt and spread and form fragrant and beautiful thickets of color in well drained soil and as a result, there are many cultivars of rosa rugosa.  As a non-native, it is on the “watch” list in New England states such as Connecticut and Massachusetts for folks on the look-out for invasive plants.  It is listed as an Invasive Plant Atlas of New England (IPANE) species but it can still be bought and is typically not regulated; although here on island, plant experts recommend not planting it anywhere it is not currently colonizing.  The ability of rosa rugosa to spread so easily comes from the fact that it is a “suckering” shrub.  If, like me, you had not heard of that term unless a little brother was involved, you might not know that suckering is (according to “the vegetative formation of a new stem and root system from an adventitious bud of a stem or root, either naturally or by human action.  Such asexual reproduction is based on the ability of plants to regenerate tissues and parts.  Examples of plants that spread by suckers include red raspberry, forsythia, and lilac.  Suckering allows horticulturists and agriculturists to reproduce a desired plant over and over without significant variation.”

From — the IPANE website—we find a bit about the history of how rosa rugosa came to our shores.  “Rosa rugosa was introduced into cultivation in Europe around 1770. It has been in the United States long enough that many feel that it is native to the shores of New England.  While the actual date of introduction is not known, it was reported from a Nantucket roadside away from cultivation in 1899.  By 1911 this plant was described as "straying rapidly."  In 1920, Rosa rugosa was quite well established on Nantucket as well as in Connecticut.  It was commonly planted as an ornamental along highways because of its high salt-tolerance, contributing additional points of introduction.” I must admit I like the term “straying rapidly,” I am pretty sure that was the entire theme of the movie “Thelma and Louise.”  So there you have it, although not a native, it is practically naturalized on Nantucket and straying rapidly all over the island.

The rose hip is not only tasty (avoid the hairs and seeds inside though and just eat the fruity outside tissue) but also an excellent source of Vitamin C.  Both rose hips and rose petals are edible.  Roses are in the same family as apples and crabapples, so it makes sense that they are edible.  Rose hips are used for tea, jellies and jams.  There are many useful recipes for rose hips online, so next time you are out and about, pick some of the ripened red colored rose hips (most sites recommend waiting for a frost, but on Nantucket I think that would be way after the hips are any good) and brew or gel something special.


Fireflies. Okay, although not necessarily “white,” the gentle glowing of fireflies that surround me at the Nantucket Field station is a whitish gold and is definitely a welcome summer visitor.  I was surprised when a group of students from Boston was so shocked and delighted to see these creatures.  Light pollution in the larger cities makes the subtle glow of fireflies hard to distinguish.  I wrote about fireflies back in 2009 ( and have learned a bit more about them since then.  Fireflies, or lightning bugs, are beetles (Order Coleoptera) from the family Lampyridae, which is a pretty straightforward name.  The larval form and larvae-like females (larviform) of some firefly species are sometimes called glowworms to distinguish them from the winged forms.  There are about 2,000 firefly species.  These insects live in a variety of warm environments, as well as in more temperate regions, and are a familiar sight on summer evenings.

Fireflies love moisture and often live in humid regions of Asia and the Americas.  In drier areas, they are found around wet or damp areas that retain moisture.  Some fireflies are strictly crepuscular (love this word; sounds both creepy and muscular, like an athletic zombie) creatures which means they are primarily active during twilight as opposed to nocturnal (true night-time loving) and diurnal (daytime) animals.  The life cycle of most firefly species takes two years.  A few days after mating, which occurs in the spring, a female lays her fertilized eggs on or just below the surface of the ground.  The eggs hatch 3-4 weeks later and the larva feed until the end of the summer. In the United States, fireflies may persist in the larvae stage for 1-3 years.  Fireflies overwinter (some species for several years) during the larval stage.  Some do this by burrowing underground, while others find places on or under the bark of trees.  They emerge as adults in the spring. After several weeks of feeding, they pupate for one to 2.5 weeks and emerge as adults. The adult firefly's life span lasts only a few weeks, during which reproduction is their main goal.  Fireflies can grow to a size of one inch (2.5 cm).  Not all adult firefly species glow, but most of the larval forms do. The ones on Nantucket appear to be the most active at twilight.

Fireflies get their name from the bioluminescence coming from a light-producing organ in the beetle's abdomen that contains a substance called luciferin (a substrate) which when combined with luciferase (an enzyme), ATP (adenosine triphosphate), and oxygen reacts chemically to release energy in the form of light.  This chemically-produced light, emitted from the lower abdomen, may be yellow, green, or pale red in color, and has a wavelength from 510 to 670 nanometers.  The eggs, larvae, and pupae of members of this family are often luminous as well as a way of signaling predators that they are not tasty, and can be mildly toxic.  A firefly's glow is an extremely efficient process, converting 90-100% of the energy to light instead of heat.  The average incandescent light bulb only converts 10% of its energy to light, wasting the rest as heat.

So why do the adults glow?  Well, just as one would think, to pick up a date (or a meal as we'll see below).  Around dusk, the male takes to the air and flies over and around vegetation, flashing its species-specific code.  The female, usually perched on vegetation, responds by mimicking the signal a few seconds later.  After five to ten signal exchanges, the male will have homed in, and mating takes place.  Aspects of male flash patterns are also thought to be affected by sexual selection.  Female fireflies have been shown to prefer certain characteristics of a male's photic signal (such as increased flash rate) and respond preferentially to males that possess these "sexy" signal components (Branham, M.A. and M.D. Greenfield 1996. Nature 381:745-746).  Where this light dance goes horribly awry for one of the pair is when it involves the female of the genus Photuris, a large eastern U.S. Species, who is the “femme fatale” of the firefly world.  She is capable of mimicking the flash code of other species and thus lures in many different males – not for mating but for eating!

Females deposit their eggs in the ground, which is where larvae develop to adulthood.  Underground larvae are predators and feed on worms and slugs by tracking them down via their slime trails and injecting them with a numbing fluid (a perfect B-Movie script).  Adults typically feed on nectar or pollen, though scientists believe that some adults might not eat at all.  For details, visit the Firefly Files at  This web site shows you everything you might want to know about how fireflies make their flash and how to induce that flashing behavior using nitrous oxide ( I found a lot of firefly research and videos at  Fireflies are a relatively unexplored topic for entomologists and in many areas of the world where fireflies were extremely abundant, like the Mae Klong River in Ban Lomtuan, Thailand there is some worry that firefly populations may be crashing. Pesticide use, habitat destruction, and light pollution from nearby cities which can confuse and distract fireflies trying to mate have been listed as some of the possible causes for the reduction in firefly numbers observed worldwide. How big of a problem is this? How many bugs have we lost? No one seems to know. Researchers have had difficulty finding enough scientists to study the short-lived 9as adults), delicate, and sometime elusive creatures.  Citizens to the rescue! This is an excellent example of a subject that citizen scientists can help illuminate (sorry, easy pun). The Museum of Science in Boston has started the Firefly Watch in conjunction with scientists from Tufts and Fitchburg State (info at By logging in, you can become an observer and add data to the national database. You can even determine the species of Photinus fireflies by the timing of the flashes, which vary between males and females ( The relatively limited amount of light pollution and pesticide use on island means Nantucket should be an ideal place to study them. To attract fireflies (and wildlife and other beneficial bugs) to your yard, cut back on pesticides and outside light. One of the reasons why summer, although chilly, can be enchanting on Nantucket is our limited light pollution which makes it easy to pick out these glowing beauties which have been around for a couple of weeks. 


Bluefish (Pomatomus saltatrix). The pursuit of this Nantucket icon has helped many a person wile away a summer day.  I was recently watching an episode of “Chopped” a cooking reality show on TV in which the contestants were cooking bluefish (poorly) and I thought, wow, on Nantucket we know how to cook bluefish: throw some mayonnaise on it and bake it! Actually, there are as many ways to cook a bluefish as there are beautiful beaches on Nantucket, and every competent island chef has learned to cook the toothsome (and toothy) fighter so abundant in our local waters. Bleeding them out and gutting them immediately after catching them and/or brining them before pan-frying or grilling also help tame that oily, “fishy” taste. I am cheating a bit here by talking about bluefish in my “blue” topic category because they tend to be more green than blue on the dorsal (top) side with a silvery underbody that makes it look predominantly silver.  Bluefish (the sole member of the Family Pomatomidae) are beautiful fish with a lower jaw that juts out noticeably (like a pouty teenager). The adult bluefish has a stout body and large mouth. Both the upper and lower jaws are fully armed with large conically shaped and razor sharp teeth. These fish have two dorsal fins, the first being much lower and rounder than the second which, in turn, is similar in size to the anal fin. Bluefish have a large forked tall fin that pushes them swiftly through water. Bluefish commonly range in size from seven inch (18 cm) "snappers" to much larger; sometimes weighing as much as forty pounds (18 kg), though fish heavier than twenty pounds (9 kg) are exceptional (

Bluefish, like many fish, are migratory, they are found off Florida in the winter months. By April, they have disappeared, heading north. By June, they are in the waters off Massachusetts and showing up on local hooks; in years of high abundance, stragglers may be found as far north as Nova Scotia. By October, they leave New England waters, heading south. They are also present in the Gulf of Mexico throughout the year.

At the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries (Mass DMF) species webpage ( is a ton of information on bluefish. Their populations have fluctuated greatly over the past hundred years with decades of abundance followed by years of shortages. Fishery managers believe that current harvesting totals (both commercial and recreational) are at or just slightly above the replenishment levels. You can fish for bluefish all year (even when they are not there) and there is no size limit although you are limited to a possession of 10 fish per angler.

According to the Mass DMF site “Bluefish inhabit both inshore and offshore areas of coastal regions, with young of the year fish (those in the first year of life), called "snappers," often frequenting estuaries and river mouths. This species normally travels in large schools, which may contain up to several thousand individuals. One unusually large school sighted in Narragansett Bay in 1901 was estimated to be spread over a 4-5 mile distance! Bluefish occurring between Cape Hatteras, North Carolina and New England spawn between June and August. Spawning occurs primarily offshore over the continental shelf when water temperatures warm to between 64 and 74 degrees F. After hatching, larvae inhabit surface waters and are swept along the continental shelf by prevailing currents. The number of offspring surviving to enter the population in a given year is influenced by the circulation patterns of currents on the continental shelf. If larvae move shoreward to suitable habitats, many survive; if they are moved further away from shore off the continental shelf, high mortality caused by starvation results. Snappers eat a variety of small-bodied animals such as copepods, shrimp, small lobsters and crabs, larval fish and larval mollusks. Adult bluefish are opportunistic feeders, commonly focusing upon schooling species such as menhaden, squid, sand eels, herring, mackerel, and alewives, as well as scup, butterfish, and cunners.”  That last sentence disguises the fact that bluefish are infamously voracious and will feed in a frenzy that make piranha look sedate  as they chase schools of bait fish.

The Division of Marine Fisheries site has a lot of good information on the type of tackle to use (as does the Wikipedia entry) and many articles have been written by local writers about the best places, times, and methods to snag a bunch of bluefish for dinner, so I won’t go through them here; but it is well known that fishing for bluefish around Nantucket is a world class fishing experience. Many fishing sites warn anglers to have a tool or a stout glove for removing a hook from a bluefish mouth if you value your hands.

Believe it or not, I only got half way through my red white and blue inventory. We were able to learn more about a plant, a bug, and a fish. Next week we’ll do part 2 of this topic as we discuss blueberries in depth, admire our native arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum L.), whose white showy flowers  are abundant all over the island this week, and talk about how the red berries of the bush honeysuckle are like Twinkies for birds.


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