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Archive for December, 2011

res·o·lu·tion/ˌrezəˈlooSHən

1. The state or quality of being resolute; firm determination.

2. A resolving to do something.

3. A course of action determined or decided on. 

My father always said “it’s a poor workman who blames his tools,” and I’d have to agree with that for the most part, but there are times when the tool at hand just isn’t right for the job-then it’s time for a new tool. I’ve reached a decision concerning this blog which has led to a resolution, and that is to get a new camera sometime during this New Year. 

Back in the days of film photography, before digital cameras were even imagined I would think, I had a fairly expensive SLR (single lens reflex) camera with a few different lenses, and I used to do a lot of nature photography. I was never that good but I sold some of my pictures in local gift shops and that paid for more film, developing, and matting, which was good enough. 

I know what a “good” photograph should look like. Or at least, I know what a good, sharp photograph should look like. Unfortunately, few if any of those have appeared in this blog unless they were taken by someone else, and this is because virtually every photo appearing here since this blog started has been taken with a cell phone camera. 

The cell phone camera I use has auto focus and some kind of gizmo on it that reduces motion blur, but the photos are still slightly fuzzy and I think it’s because of the low quality optics. It’s also hard to get any good quality landscape photos or close-ups with a cell phone camera, and that’s something I miss doing. 

I’m tired of inserting pictures that aren’t sharp and crisp into this blog, and am determined to do something about it. My problem is that I know next to nothing about digital cameras, so I’m hoping to get some input from readers. I’m looking for a camera that will take good sharp landscapes as well as crisp close-ups/macro, and everything in between. I’m not necessarily looking for an SLR with telephoto, zoom, macro and wide angle lenses because I don’t really want to carry it all. A real good point and shoot with a fixed lens and quality optics would probably do just fine. 

I’ve already heard that a Canon Power Shot is a good camera-any other suggestions? If you have time and don’t mind, I’d be interested in hearing what your favorite digital camera is and why.

 

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We’re having a relatively snowless season in my corner of New Hampshire so far, so I’ve been able to get out into the woods regularly. What follows is a sample of some of what I’ve seen.

 These colorful turkey tail (Trametes versicolor) fungi caught my eye because they seem paler than most and looked a little pink to me. A touch of color blindness keeps me from declaring that they definitely are pink, though-maybe readers could help me with that? I keep hoping to see a blue one, but haven’t found one yet. Occasionally I’ll find a website that says turkey tails grow only on stumps and cut logs and not on live trees, but that simply isn’t true. Turkey tail fungi can get into the sapwood of living trees and will also grow in tree wounds and can kill the cambium layer between the bark and wood quickly. Turkey tail can also bleach out living wood by causing white rot. This can lead to a mottling and discoloration of the wood, which is called spalting. Also known as sap stained wood, spalted wood is highly prized by woodworkers and musical instrument makers because of the coloring and highly figured grain patterns.

 It’s not hard to see how shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) got its name. The tree sheds the shaggy looking bark and some people collect it and then roast, boil, and make a syrup out of it that is in high demand at gourmet restaurants. The “hickory” part of the name is thought to be from the Algonquin “Pawcohiccora.” Shagbark hickory produces some of the best tasting nuts found in the forest but they are hard to get into. The small nuts have a tough outer husk and a very hard inner shell, but as the old saying goes; “the harder the nut, the sweeter the meat,” so it is worth the effort. Squirrels, chipmunks, mice, fox, bears, rabbits, turkeys, wood ducks, and other animals and birds love hickory nuts, so there is a lot of competition. Hickory wood is very hard and used for everything from barbequing to baseball bats. The bark becomes shaggy only on older trees, so young ones can be hard to identify.

 Pear Shaped Puffballs (Lycoperdon pyriforme) dance around the wound on a birch log. The common name comes from these fungi resembling an upside down pear.  In Greek Lyco means wolf and perdon means “to break wind,” so another common name for these mushrooms is the “wolf fart fungus.” (Apparently the person who named them had a strange sense of humor.) If you ever find yourself in the forest surrounded by kids, that fact might come in handy when trying to lift their spirits and get them giggling. But don’t let them inhale the spores-Tom Yolk of the biology department at the University of Wisconsin tells a story of these being sold as hallucinogenic mushrooms to a group of students. The students inhaled the spores and later ended up in emergency rooms because the spores germinated in their lungs and actually began to grow. They were treated with anti-fungal drugs and survived-with quite a story to tell.

 We’ve had some cold temperatures but our lakes, ponds, and streams haven’t frozen over yet. As the picture shows, beavers are taking advantage of the open water. Since beavers don’t hibernate they stock up on twigs to get through them the winter, which is why they are always most active in the fall. The back of a beaver’s gnawing teeth are softer and wear faster than the front of the teeth, so their teeth sharpen themselves to a chisel edge as they use them. I didn’t see any beavers but I saw plenty of stumps.

 I’m still wondering what this black fungus I found growing on a dead oak branch is. I think it might be Black Bulgar (Bulgaria inquinans.) Common names for Black Bulgar include gum mushrooms, jelly drops, rubber buttons, or pope’s buttons. In the photos I’ve seen they do indeed look like buttons when young, but as they age they look more like what is shown above and are described as “quite flabby and gelatinous.” I couldn’t tell what these normally felt like because it was cold and they were frozen solid. Black Bulgar is widely distributed in the U.S., Canada, and many other countries. Another likely candidate is black witch’s butter ( Exidia glandulosa.) If anyone has any idea what this might be, I’d be grateful if you let me know.

 

 

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So, if you had to get a gift for the Son of God, who literally has everything, what would you choose? The wise men chose gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gold is easy to understand but many people wonder what the big deal was about the tree resins?? One answer is, because by weight they were more precious than gold.

If that is hard to comprehend, just think of the Dutch tulip craze of the 17th century, when people willingly gave their entire fortune for a tulip bulb. In early 1637, a single tulip bulb could sell for more than 10 times the annual income of some of the highest paid trades. Today many plant compounds (though illegal for the most part) are still worth more than gold.

But no longer frankincense and myrrh; today frankincense costs $5.25 for one and one half ounces and myrrh costs $4.95 for the same amount. Demand and rarity set the price, and though they are both still relatively rare, there isn’t a large demand seen for either today. When the wise men walked the earth however, frankincense and myrrh were in high demand and far outside the financial reach of most people. Their use was associated with kings and holy men.  Myrrh, a resin collected from Commiphora trees that grow in Arabia and parts of Africa, was used as an embalming agent, as consecrated incense in funerals and cremations, and in cosmetics and medicines. Frankincense, a resin collected from a tree of the family Burseraceae and the genus Boswellia that grows in Oman, Somalia and Ethiopia, was used in much the same way as myrrh; as ritual incense, in cosmetics, medicinally, and as a wine additive. The Catholic Church still uses frankincense imported from Somalia today. Anyone who has been to a Catholic funeral has probably smelled it.

“On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”

One of my favorite Christmas stories was told to me by a stranger recently while we waited in a checkout line. He told me that he was a professional musician, and that one year he had to pawn his guitar to get money to buy gifts for his children. It took him six years to get the guitar back, he said. He willingly gave up that which was the most valuable to him out of love for others, and I think that’s a story worthy of being re-told.  

Merry Christmas, everyone. 

The photo is of a carving of The Adoration of the Magi, from the cathedral of St Lazare in Autun, France, circa 1120.

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If you look at the seasons astronomically tomorrow (or today, depending on how you look at it) is the winter solstice. Personally, I prefer looking at the seasons the way meteorologists do. Meteorologically, seasons go by temperature, with the hottest three months in the northern hemisphere being summer and the coldest three months winter. This way, winter starts on December first, spring on March first, summer on June first, and autumn on September first. By looking at winter this way, when New Year’s Day rolls around, winter is one third over and there are only 58 days left until spring. (59 if it is a leap year)

Most choose to view the seasons astronomically, so they begin on solstices and equinoxes.  The equinoxes are when day and night are closest to equal length-spring around March 21st and autumn around September 22nd. The solstices are days with the longest and shortest amounts of sunlight-summer around June 21st and winter around December 22nd.  The dates of the solstices and equinoxes can vary from year to year. Meteorologists like to know exactly when a season starts ahead of time and they also like to work with whole rather than partial months, so those are the main reasons they don’t like to use solstices and equinoxes.

I also like to base my first day of spring on March 1st because of the behavior of plants. Anyone who grows houseplants knows that between the last 2 weeks of February and March 1st, plants suddenly wake up and, if watering is increased, begin to grow like mad. This happens because they sense that the days are getting longer, and since there is more sunlight available they can support more leaf surface, so they grow more leaves and get taller and bushier. This is why this period is also an excellent time to start vegetable plants from seed. Outdoors, this is also the time that spring bulbs start to awaken, sap begins to flow and buds begin to swell, geese fly north instead of south, and the earliest perennials (and weeds) start to show signs of life.

So, if you are one of those people who think that winter goes on forever and spring will never come, make spring happen on March 1st like meteorologists (and plants) do. By the time the holidays are over, you’ll have less than 2 months until spring!

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I wasn’t surprised the other day when I walked into my local grocery store and saw a table full of cyclamen, poinsettia, and Christmas cactus. But wait-what in the name of Asa Gray was that!? It looks harmless, doesn’t it?

 

The sign said it was a “Frosty Fern,” but I knew it wasn’t a fern, so what was it? It looked familiar but… And why had it been dipped in whatever it had been dipped in? I ran my hand over it-it felt like a cedar leaf. Then it finally hit me-clubmoss, of course-I had just done a blog entry on clubmoss! But that still left the nagging question of the “frosting.” Was it natural?

As it turns out, according to several websites, the coloring of the leaf tips is natural; similar to variegation on other leaves but concentrated in one area, apparently. This club moss (Selaginella kraussiana ) seems so unfamiliar because, though it has become naturalized in parts of Portugal, Spain and New Zealand,  it is originally from Africa.

Here in the northern United States it is grown as a houseplant and, by the sounds of it, a rather fussy one. Though several websites say it is easy to grow, they go on to say that it likes temperatures in the eighties, constantly moist soil, and very high humidity. It doesn’t like temperatures below fifty degrees and anything below ten degrees will kill it. “Easy to grow” is a relative term; I’ve grown so many houseplants in the past that it used to be wise to bring a machete if you came to visit, but I’ve always stayed away from those that need high humidity because it is almost impossible to provide it adequately. Many growers recommend putting the frosty fern in a terrarium which, in our dry winter houses, is probably a good idea.

In southern and western states frosty fern and its commercially available siblings “Aurea,” which is plain green, “Brownii”, which appears to be a dwarf variety and “Gold Tips,” which is frosted with gold instead of white are being planted outdoors in gardens and are escaping. They have become naturalized in Georgia, northern Virginia and central California and have escaped gardens in Alabama and North and South Carolina. They are being found on riverbanks, lake edges, lawns, and other moist, shady places, but the U.S.D.A. doesn’t list them as invasive. Yet.

In New Zealand Selaginella kraussiana, introduced as a groundcover, has been listed on the National Plant Pest Accord and is considered an invasive species. It spreads quickly by rhizomes (underground stems), forms dense mats in shaded areas and chokes out native orchids and ferns. Biological control has been unsuccessful and it takes several applications of herbicides to kill it, so repeated deep hand weeding is recommended.

It has also escaped and become naturalized in parts of Australia, Europe, and Northern, Central, and South America. Invasive plants “adversely affect the habitats they invade economically, environmentally, and/or ecologically.”  Many would never become invasive without a lot of help from us-the gardening public.

 

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The last entry in this trio of forest dwelling, evergreen ground huggers is the Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides.) It seems odd to be walking through the late fall forest litter of brown leaves, or maybe several inches of snow, and suddenly come upon a green fern, but this fern stays green right through winter. Only when the new fronds, or fiddleheads, appear in spring do the previous season’s fronds turn yellow and then finally brown. The dead fronds then form a mat around the living fern that helps prevent soil erosion. 

One odd thing about the Christmas fern is the shape of its fronds, which start off narrow at the base, widen in the middle, and then get narrow again at the tip. Most ferns have fronds that taper gradually; widest at the base and narrower towards the tip. 

Throughout most of the year the Christmas fern looks much like any other fern; an upright  clump of shiny, deep green, one to three foot, rather thick, leathery fronds, but after a good freeze the fronds all bend at the base and lie flat on the ground. If it snows heavily they can be hard to spot and since few animals eat this fern, once it gets completely buried under snow it usually stays that way until spring. 

From June to October spore bearing “fruit dots,” called sporangia develop on the undersides of the leaflets nearest the tip of the frond. Christmas ferns reproduce by releasing spores or by underground stems, (rhizomes) and can form large colonies under optimum conditions. I recently saw a sunny embankment along an old dirt road that had hundreds of them on it. Usually though, it’s more likely to see only one or two in any one place. 

Native Americans used the Christmas fern to treat chest ailments like pneumonia and to relieve flu symptoms. One story says that the name “Christmas fern” is thought to come from the early settler’s habit of using its fronds as Christmas decorations. Just as plausible to me is that a fern that was still green at Christmas might be called Christmas fern, but this trait isn’t unique; there are at least 15 evergreen ferns known throughout the world. 

Christmas ferns do well in moist, well drained soil that is rich in organic matter and will do well in shaded garden beds. Once it becomes established it can take quite a lot of dryness. Christmas ferns are easily found for sale commercially and should never be taken from the wild.

 

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When I was a boy my grandmother often took me walking through the woods to teach me what she knew about wild plants. One of the first plants I remember getting to know is the Eastern teaberry (Gaultheria procumbens,) also known as checkerberry or American wintergreen. My grandmother and I would pick the small red berries from the plant she always called checkerberry until we each had a handful, and then we would have a refreshing, spicy feast in the forest. Chewing the leaves can also be refreshing when hiking on a hot day. In the past, the leaves were also chewed to relieve pain.

A while ago I noticed a familiar looking plant at the edge of the forest. When I picked a leaf and crushed it between my fingers I smelled that unmistakable wintergreen fragrance and knew it was teaberry. Teaberry won’t be found in deep shade where clubmosses grow; they usually grow at the edge of forests, and only those plants getting the most sun will have berries.

 

Teaberry is a ground hugger that will usually form large colonies using long underground stems (rhizomes). The plant also reproduces by seeds that birds help scatter. Though it seems to have a groundcover habit it is actually classified as a small shrub. The leaves are deep green, oval, very shiny, leathery and relatively thick. The red berries appear after small white, bell shaped flowers in summer but may often still be found on the plant the following spring. They are quite small so you have to have good eyesight to find them. The plant is a true evergreen, which is why it is called wintergreen. Many animals, from foxes to chipmunks and birds including grouse and pheasant rely on the berries to help them get through the winter. Wintergreen oil has been used medicinally for centuries, and the leaves make an excellent, soothing tea. Plants are usually found at the edge of evergreen forests growing in acidic, well drained, moist soil. There is a variety available commercially called Gaultheria procumbens “Very Berry” that can be successfully grown in a pot and brought indoors in winter.

 

If you find what you think might be teaberry plants, do not eat the berries unless the crushed leaves smell heavily of oil of wintergreen. The fragrance of the oil is unmistakable and you should recognize it immediately because it is used in toothpaste, mouthwash, pain relievers, etc. If you search for plants but don’t find any, a good substitute until you do is Clark’s Teaberry Gum, which tastes just like wild tea berry, and is something I chewed a lot of as a boy. 

One final note: Oil of wintergreen is astringent and can be irritating to some. If you are allergic to aspirin you should not eat the berries, leaves or any teas or other preparations made from this plant because it contains compounds very similar to those found in aspirin.

 

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Here in the northeast if you walk through the woods at this time of year-after a hard freeze but before snow covers the ground-you will find many evergreen plants growing on the forest floor that are very hard to see at other times of the year. One of these low growing plants might appear to be a small evergreen tree, but if it looks like the plant in the photo it is in the clubmoss family (Lycopodiaceae.) Though some club mosses look enough like evergreen seedlings to be called princess pine, ground pine, and ground cedar they bear no relation to pines or cedars.

Clubmosses don’t flower like pines and cedars but instead produce spores like a fern. Spores form in spike-like structures called sporophylls, which are the 2 yellowish “clubs” seen at the top of the plant in the photo. They reproduce by their spores, which can take 20 years to germinate, and by horizontal underground stems. If you look closely you can see that the leaves, called microphylls, resemble scales more than actual leaves. Clubmosses can be hard to identify-there are over 400 species-but I think the one I took the photo of is Lycopodium obscurum, or ground pine. Clubmosses will not grow where the temperature is too warm, so if a large colony is found in the forest that spot is very likely to be shaded and very cool. This is good to know when hiking on a hot August day.

Clubmosses have been around for awhile; fossil records show that they were here 200 million years ago and that some now extinct species reached 100 feet tall. They are thought to be the source of the coal that we burn today. More recently, the spores were used to control bleeding and the plants used in a medicinal tea by Native Americans. The spores contain a wax like substance that repels water and have also been used to soothe diaper rash and other skin ailments. Dried spores are extremely flammable and will explode in a blinding flash when lit. They are the source of the flash powder used in some stage pyrotechnics and were used in photography as an early form of what later became the flash bulb. The long and quite strong underground stems can be used in place of string or twine in emergencies. They become even stronger if allowed to dry.

I remember, not too far in the past, people collecting club mosses to make Christmas wreaths and earn extra money. Unfortunately that led to over collecting and club mosses are now on the endangered species list in many states. Two species of clubmoss, Sitka Clubmoss (Diphasiastrum sitchense) and Slender Bog Clubmoss (Lycopodiella appressa) are listed as “critically imperiled” in New Hampshire. Since it can take up to 20 years for spores to germinate-and they will only germinate under ideal conditions-clubmosses are plants that are better left alone.

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My favorite choice for a Christmas tree is a balsam fir, which is the tree I remember my family always decorating when I was a boy. Back then we didn’t have all of the choices in Christmas trees that we do today. In fact, I can’t remember anyone having anything but balsam fir which, until about 20 years ago, was the most popular cut tree.

Memories aren’t the only reason I like balsam fir though; fragrance is big on my list as well and balsam fir is the most fragrant of all trees. Fraser fir, which is kind of a southern cousin of balsam fir, runs a close second. Needle retention is another biggie, and balsam fir will retain its needles for weeks provided it has plenty of water and is fresh when bought. I check that by bending the branches, which should bend easily without breaking. The same goes for the needles; on a fir they should feel soft and bend easily without breaking. They should also stay on the branch when you run your hand along it or bang the butt end of the trunk on a hard surface.  If more than a few needles drop off I pass it by.

Cutting a half inch of trunk off when I get the tree home means that it will absorb more water than if it isn’t cut, and letting it sit in a bucket of warm water for an hour or so before I bring it in will get the water flowing.  Having to cut off 2 or 3 inches of trunk is a myth, as is adding aspirin or fertilizer to the water. Adding anything to the water just gums up the works and can actually inhibit water absorption.  It might make the tree owner feel better, but it does nothing for the tree.

Once I get it set up in a cool spot out of full sun I’ll make sure it has plenty of water by filling the stand every day.  A tree can drink up to a gallon and a half of water per day when it is freshly cut, and if it runs out of water it’s almost impossible to get it absorbing it again. Hot water in the stand might get the tree drinking again, but most likely it will just dry out and start dropping needles.  Once that happens, it’s all done.

I think I’m going to be lazy again this year and get a pre cut tree rather than cut it myself and drag it for what seems like 5 miles to my truck. That was fun when the kids were small but now, no so much.

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