Spring is coming slowly this year, mostly because of a temperature roller coaster that can have near zero wind chills one day and 50 degree warmth the next. Still, spring is happening, as the ice free stream in the above photo shows. It’s a stream I know well and it looked so inviting that I decided to follow it one sunny day. There was a lot of snow still in the woods but luckily it had formed a good crust and I could walk along on top of it.
The stream wasn’t completely ice free though. In fact in shady places it still had a thin skim of ice bank to bank. Last fall I saw a brook trout here that was so big it made me gasp with surprise, but I didn’t see any this day.
I did see some green something on the bed of the stream. I think it might be filamentous algae, but I don’t know for sure.
Also growing on the stream bed was what I think is one-rowed watercress (Nasturtium microphyllum,) which is originally from Europe and Asia and which, as the all too familiar story goes, has escaped cultivation and found a home in the wild. The plant is called one-rowed because the seed pods have their seeds in one row instead of the usual two rows found in common watercress (Nasturtium officinale.) I’ve read that it is an aquatic plant but I can’t seem to find out if it will actually grow under water as these do. I think the yellow color of its leaves comes from being under the ice of the stream all winter, which would have cut off light and effectively blanched them.
It looked like someone had carved tiny wooden flowers and stuck them in the snow for me to find, but of course they were just the seed pods of Indian pipes. Personally I find them much more beautiful in this state than when they’re flowering. They are one of those things that I could lose myself in, and sit and look at for hours.
I went to see what horsetails (Equisetum hyemale) looked like in the winter and found that they looked much the same as they do in summer, except that the snow had broken a few. They grow to about knee high here on the stream bank.
Horsetails produce spores in their cone shaped tips, but the examples in this spot rarely grow them. Another name for this plant is scouring rush because of all the silica they contain in their tissues. They make great pot scrubbers in a pinch when you’re camping and in Japan they are boiled and dried and then used to smooth wood. They are said to produce a finish superior to any sandpaper. The green, black and tan stripes always remind me of socks.
Horsetail stems are hollow and this example was dripping water like a faucet.
You don’t realize how much stuff falls from evergreen trees until you walk through an evergreen forest in winter. There must be tons of it and I’m so glad that I don’t have to rake it all up.
Instead of being caused by an insect like many galls, alder (Alnus incana) tongue gall is caused by a fungus (Taphrina alni). The fungus chemically deforms parts of the ovarian tissue of the female cone-like catkins (strobiles) and causes long, tongue shaped galls known as languets to grow from them. These galls seem to like high humidity so are usually found on alders that grow near swamps, ponds and streams. These galls have a bright red phase in spring so I’ve got to remember to look for them this year. They blacken over time and the ones pictured are last year’s galls.
There are many wild grapes growing along this stream and most have reached considerable age. Few people ever come here so they are left to grow on their own. They produce an abundant crop almost every year and on warm days in the fall the woods smell just like grape jelly.
European barberry (Berberis vulgaris) and American barberry (Berberis canadensis) both have clusters of 3 or more thorns but since American barberry doesn’t grow in New England this one has to be European barberry. Its red berries were once used medicinally and are rich in vitamin C. They were also used in cooking in much the same way that lemon peel is used today, and the bright yellow inner bark was used to make yellow dye. With so many uses it’s no wonder that early settlers brought it from home, but of course it immediately escaped cultivation and was found growing wild in New England as early as 1671. It’s still here but is nowhere near as invasive as Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) and in fact can be hard to find. I know of only two plants.
There are a few dead trees along the stream and this might have something to do with it. Bootstrap fungus is caused by honey mushrooms (Armillaria mellea), which are parasitic on live wood and send out long root like structures called rhizomorphs between the wood of a tree and its bark. When fresh the rhizomorphs are cream colored but darken to brown or black as they age. The fungus is also called armillaria root rot or shoestring root rot. It causes a white pulpy rot in the wood and kills many species of both soft and hardwood trees.
Woodpeckers seem to like it here along the stream, because there was plenty of evidence that they had been here. This hole was quite deep into the tree and I wondered if it was a nesting hole. I saw a pileated woodpecker land on a tree right outside my window one day but I don’t see a lot of their rectangular holes, so he might have been just passing through.
Bark beetles sometimes create such beautiful patterns in wood that it looks as if a calligrapher has taken up a chisel instead of a pen. When I think of things like this, created under the bark of a limb and never meant for me to see, that’s when I feel an almost overwhelming sense of gratitude, just for being alive and able to see beauty like this every day.
Go out, go out I beg of you
And taste the beauty of the wild.
Behold the miracle of the earth
With all the wonder of a child.
Thanks for stopping in.