Dear Naturalist,

Every October, I notice small plants with purple buds growing in the shaded part of my yard. What are they? — TM, Linville

Dear TM,

Your mystery plant is bottle gentian (Gentiana andrewsii). What look like buds are actually flowers — flowers with a hidden agenda.

Some plants, like daisies, are generalists. They accept any pollinator that comes their way. Flowers that are red or orange, like flame azalea and Oswego tea, typically depend on butterflies and hummingbirds. Your bottle gentians, however, prefer to work with only bumblebees.

Bumblebees are one of the few insects strong enough to force themselves through the closed petals. Inside the bloom, the bumblebee finds an abundance of nectar and pollen.

The bumblebee, covered in pollen, then squeezes its way through the next flower — guaranteeing pollination and seed production for your bottle gentians.

Dear Naturalist,

You wrote last week about wooly worms. What are the white wooly worms called?

— Avery, Boone

Other than both being moths, the traditional wooly worm (Pyrrharctia isabella) and Hickory tussock moth (Lophocampa caryae), your “white wooly worm,” have very little in common.

Wooly worms are completely benign. However, the white-and-black Hickory tussock moth packs a painful irritant. The hollow bristles along its back contain toxins. When touched, they break and release poison. This can cause an itchy, throbbing rash.

To top it off, the bristles are barbed — they lodge themselves into your skin.

If you mistakenly race a Hickory tussock moth caterpillar, you can use scotch tape to remove the bristles and take an antihistamine to reduce inflammation.

If you have a question concerning flora and fauna, please email All of your questions will be answered. One or two will be featured next week. See you on the trails!

Amy Renfranz is a certified naturalist through the Yellowstone Association Institute and a Certified Environmental Educator in the state of North Carolina.

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