Archive for January, 2012

I’ve been walking these New Hampshire woods for a long time now-close to fifty years-without ever seeing a black fungus. This year it seems like I’m suddenly seeing them everywhere. The latest I found- growing on a dead limb-are in the photo below. This was before the recent snowfalls of an inch or two. 

These look brown in the picture, but when I found them they looked black.  I think the color shift must be because of the way the sunlight is hitting them. Now that I see them in the photo, they look like a fungus known as Jew’s Ear (Auricularia auricula-judae), so named, as the story goes, because Judas Iscariot hanged himself from an elder tree. “Judas’s ear” was later shortened to “Jew’s ear.” These were growing on oak, not elder, and I prefer brown jelly ear to Jew’s ear. It could also be brown witch’s butter (Tremella foliacea). Not being able to positively identify it is frustrating.

A further source of frustration is in the photo below-another jelly fungus that I’ve not been able to identify.

 I wrote about these in December when I found them but still haven’t been able to positively identify them. As I said then, I think these might be Black Bulgar (Bulgaria inquinans.) Common names for Black Bulgar include gum mushrooms, jelly drops, rubber buttons, or pope’s buttons. They could also be black witch’s butter ( Exidia glandulosa.)

Not being able to identify bits of nature gets me frustrated because it usually isn’t that difficult; I’ve been doing it since grade school. But, as anyone who studies nature knows, now and then a wild thing appears that can be almost impossible to identify. A good field guide helps, so I bought a better one than the one I already had for mushrooms.

 This is an excellent book for anyone who wants to learn more about mushroom identification, but the section on jelly fungus wasn’t much help in my quest. 

To be fair to the book though, the jelly fungi are one of the most complicated groups and often can’t be completely identified without a microscope. To make things even more complicated, many slime molds go through a jelly like phase.

So, to lessen my frustration over not being able to identify these unusual forest dwellers, I’ve decided that from now on I’ll just enjoy seeing and getting pictures of them and leave the identification to the experts.

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According to most books and articles, dandelions weren’t seen in the new world until colonists brought them over on the Mayflower. Then presumably, word somehow got out that they had this cool new plant and Native Americans from all over the country came to Plymouth Plantation to learn how to use it.

That may sound farfetched, but it is essentially the conclusion that has to be drawn; that the dandelion is an introduced species unknown in America before 1620 (or 1607) is widely accepted as fact. 

So how could the Ojibwe from Minnesota, the Cherokee from Georgia, the Iroquois from New York and many others from the Atlantic to the Pacific have such an extensive knowledge of plants they hadn’t seen until 1620? That they did is well documented and also widely accepted as fact, but how?

The short answer is that Native Americans were most likely using dandelions for thousands of years before anyone ever crossed the Atlantic.

Twice, in 1638 and 1663, John Josselyn traveled to New England from Essex, England to see his brother Henry of Scarborough, Maine. Mr. Josselyn fancied himself a naturalist and, after living in New England for a total of 15 months, published a book in 1672 titled New-England’s rarities discovered in birds, beasts, fishes, serpents, and plants of that country. In his book Mr. Josselyn writes of “such plants as have sprung up since the English planted and kept cattle in New-England,” and one of the plants he lists is the dandelion. Ever since Mr.Josselyn wrote his book, people seem to have assumed that the dandelion came to America either as seeds mixed in with livestock feed or in the manure of cattle. This same story of seed dispersal is also found in several different accounts of the 1607 Jamestown, Virginia settlement. It is worth noting that Mr. Josselyn also wrote of a “pineapple” which turned into a swarm of stinging wasps when picked.

Dandelions were used medicinally and as food in Europe for hundreds of years before the English ever settled New England, so it isn’t hard to imagine them bringing such important plants with them. In fact a compilation titled A List of over 100 Herbs Taken to and Grown in New England by Early Settlers by Roger Tabor lists the dandelion as one of those herbs. Just because certain plants were brought to America doesn’t mean those plants weren’t also native however; the European alder was also introduced, even though there were at least 15 species of alder already here. Obviously the settlers had no way of knowing which plants they would find here.

According to an article titled Drought tolerance in the alpine dandelion, Taraxacum ceratophorum (Asteraceae), its exotic congener T. officinale, and interspecific hybrids under natural and experimental conditions by Marcus T. Brock and Candace Galen, which appeared in the August 1, 2005 issue of The American Journal of Botany, “Fossil evidence indicates that Taraxacum ceratophorum, the alpine dandelion, is native to North America.” The dandelion fossils referred to are estimated to be 100,000 years old.

The alpine dandelion is also known as the horned dandelion, and the U.S.D.A. lists it as native to North America. It grows in parts of New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, along the west coast, in the southwest, Alaska, and nearly all of Canada. Another species native to North America and now endangered is the California dandelion (Taraxacum californicum.) Both of these native species have cross bred with the introduced common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale ) and have produced numerous hybrids.

In the end the question of why nearly everything we read about the history of dandelions in America is based on one sentence written by an amateur naturalist who never left New England and who didn’t bother to mention maple trees or maple syrup can’t be answered. Though it is true that the common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale ) was introduced, fossil evidence clearly shows that native dandelions have been here for a very long time, which explains how Native Americans from all over the country could have had such vast knowledge of them.

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 The water in the streams here in New Hampshire is so clear you can easily see the bottom. I wonder if it is like that in other places too. This is the stream I found one of the deadliest plants known-water hemlock- growing in.  I wonder-if you were downstream from such a toxic plant and drank the water, would you be poisoned?

 I understand what lenticels are and what they do and that all trees have them, but I wonder why only some trees, like this speckled alder, have large lenticels and some have only tiny dots almost too small to see. I suppose I might as well wonder why some of us have blue eyes and some brown.


It’s easy to see why the sensitive fern is also called the bead fern-the modified leaflets that hold the fern’s spores look like black beads in winter, but I wonder what happens to them later in the year. I’m always so busy gardening in the spring that I’ve never taken the time to find out.

 Years ago I earned part of my living building dry stone walls and for pleasure I used to hunt minerals. In both cases I had to break large stones with sledge hammers. I know that most stones are very hard, and that leads me to wonder who went to all the trouble of drilling this hole into this granite stone, which is out in the middle of nowhere. If it was done by hand with a 10 lb sledge and a star drill, it took someone many hours. I wonder who, how, and most of all, why?

 This-what would you call it-a crypt? A root cellar? Whatever it is it is built to last, with cinder block walls and concrete slab roof. The dwarfish door–too small to stand and walk through-looks as if it has been painted recently and is locked, even though the debris built up in front of it would probably make it impossible to open. Someone has even put sheet metal over it to keep the rain off. What really has me wondering is that it is far enough from any houses so as not to belong to any house in the area. Who built it? Why? What is inside it?

If I find the answers to any of these mysteries, I’ll let you know.

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Before written history, before the Roman Empire; when Babylon was in decline and Moses walked the earth, a seed fell to earth in a town that would be called Longwood in a state to be named Florida. The seed grew into a fine, strong, bald cypress tree destined to last for millennia and become one of the world’s oldest trees. Then, after more than 3500 years, something terrible happened.

At roughly 5:30 am on last Monday, January 17th 2012 firefighters rushed to save the ancient tree, which had somehow caught fire. At about 7:45 a.m., a 20-foot section of the top of the tree fell off. By 8:15 a.m. more of the tree had collapsed. Eight hundred feet of hose was strung and a helicopter dumped water from above, but the poor old relic was finished. They say because the tree was hollow it burned like a chimney, and burned from the inside out. “It’s a nightmare,” said one fire fighter.

According to the Orlando Sentinel, the tree was called the “The Senator” and was named after the man who donated what is now Big Tree Park to the county, Moses Oscar Overstreet, a state senator from 1920 to 1925.

The tree was estimated to be 165 feet tall before a hurricane took off the top in 1925, according to research conducted by county historians.The American Forestry Association bored a small hole in The Senator in 1946 for a core sample that gave the tree an estimated age of 3500 years.

Initially, everyone suspected arson but that has since been ruled out. According to Steven Wright, a spokesman for the Seminole County Fire Rescue who spoke with ABC news, “The thought now is that the fire was due to a lighting strike about two weeks ago. We think it was smoldering inside the tree and we only saw the blaze today, when it reached the top.”“No one knew until it came up at the top,” Wright said. “It’s hard to reach the inside of a 118-foot tree.”

The tree was the largest bald cypress in the country and was a national landmark listed with the United States Department of Interior. It was one of the oldest examples of its species and the fifth oldest tree on earth.





 What was happening in the world when this tree was a seedling?

  • 3500 years ago one of the earliest civilizations was born in China.
  • Iron manufacturing originated about 3500 years ago in the Near East when iron ore was accidentally heated in the presence of charcoal. The Iron Age wouldn’t begin until 1200 B.C.
  • Pottery pieces found in Fiji suggest the islands were settled in the west from Melanesia at least 3500 years ago.
  • The Greek volcano Thera erupted 3500 years ago in what geologists believe was the single-most powerful explosive event ever witnessed.
  • The world’s first “horse farms,” discovered in Kasakhstan’s ancient Botai settlements date back to 3500 BC.
  • 3500 years ago the Sumerians began to use bronze tools and entered the Bronze Age.
  • In 3500 B.C. animal-drawn wheeled carts were in use in Sumeria.
  • In Ireland, burial sites have been dated to at least 3500 B.C.
  • 3500 years ago the Plow was invented in the Near East.
  • 3500 years ago the earliest attested documents in cuneiform were written in Sumerian, the language of the inhabitants of southern Mesopotamia and Chaldea from the 4th until the 2nd millennium B.C. According to popular belief, the original Sumerian script consisted of pictographs. It later became linear and then evolved into the cuneiform script.
  • In 3500 B.C. the Roman Empire wouldn’t exist for about another 1000 years.

 Photos are from the Central Florida News and the Florida State Archives.


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One of the easiest deciduous (non evergreen) plants to identify in winter is the alder (Alnus). This is because the alders, of which there are about 15 species native to the U.S., bear seed pods that resemble miniature pine cones.  These cone shaped seed pods are the fruit of the female flowers and are called strobiles. The slightly blurry photo below shows how they grow in clusters.

 Alders like moist soil and can often be found leaning out over lakes, ponds and streams. The seed pods that mature in August and September finally open early in the following spring to release small, light brown, triangular seeds. These seeds are rather flat and have little wings on them which help them float on the wind. The wings have small air sacs so the seeds will also float on water, and this is one reason that alders are so often found near water. Many birds eat alder seeds, including ducks, grouse, widgeons, kinglets, vireos, warblers, goldfinches and, as the photo below by fellow blogger Jerry from quietsolopursuits blog shows, Black Capped Chickadees.

 Alders are wind pollinated and bear both male and female flowers on the same plant. The male flowers open from the longer, drooping catkins seen in the above photo. A catkin is a cluster of flowers, usually without petals. The Chickadee is feeding on the seeds in the female strobile. Alders are in the Birch family and though the male catkins on both plants are very similar, alders usually grow as tall shrubs rather than trees; often in thickets that many animals and birds like to hide in.

Alders form a symbiotic relationship with nitrogen fixing bacteria that absorb nitrogen from the air to make it available to the plant. This bacterium is actinobacteria Frankia, and plants that form such a relationship with it are called Actinorhizal plants and are not legumes like peas and beans. The bacteria are found in large root nodules and the nitrogen they produce improves soil fertility for many other plants. Alders create large amounts of nitrogen and are often planted in tree groves so trees have more of it. Alders also help the ecosystem by quickly colonizing burned or disturbed areas and improving the soil so other plants can move in.

Moose and rabbits feed on alder and beavers eat the bark and use the stems to build with. Native Americans used alder as an anti inflammatory and to help heal wounds. They also made a tea from it that helped cure toothaches. Those allergic to aspirin should not use alder medicinally because the bark contains salicin, which is similar to a compound d found in aspirin.

Though there are tree forms of alder, most species grow as shrubs and have little commercial value. One unusual fact about alder wood however, is that it has a more resonant tone than other types of wood. It is also less dense, very light weight, and is said to produce a “brighter” sound. For these reasons it is used by the Fender Guitar Company for electric guitar bodies like that on the Stratocaster.


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Tree Wounds

I don’t know why I’m drawn to tree wounds, but they have always fascinated me. Maybe it’s because they tell a story.

Tree wounds don’t heal the same way ours do, but instead are covered over by callus tissue that develops at the edge of the wound and gradually grows inward toward the center. This wound was callusing over well, only to have the callus tissue re-wounded. What causes these wounds on trees that stand out in the middle of nowhere, I wonder?

Sometimes a wound is so big that it seems it would be impossible for the tree to cover over with callus tissue, but this one is making a mighty attempt.

Is this tree recovering, or is it too late? I have a feeling it’s too late-it looks like the callus tissue stopped growing long ago and rot seems to be infecting it.

If callus tissue stops growing disease can move in and lead to this. 

Or this.

But a tree can still stand even when it has been reduced to this.

Or this.

Eventually though, trees left uncut by man will fall and one day become nutrient rich humus that young seedlings will use to grow strong and tall.

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I was complaining recently to my fellow New Hampshire blogger Jomegat that I wanted to write about partridgeberry but couldn’t find any plants with berries on them.  Not long after that I decided to look at the plants in my own yard and sure enough, they had berries.  Here I’d been, tramping through the forests looking for something that was 10 steps from my back door. 

The reason I wanted to write about Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) is because of the curious way the berries form. If you look at the picture of the partridgeberry flowers above, you can see that they are fused at the base. Once pollinated, the ovaries of these flowers will join and form one berry with 8 seeds. Partridgeberry plants can always be easily identified by the two indentations on the berries that show where the flowers were. These can be seen in the photo below.  

 The plants are easy to identify even without flowers or berries because each roundish, dark green, shiny leaf has a white to off white/pale yellow rib running down the center of it.

Partridgeberry is one of the lowest growing evergreen plants on the forest floor, hardly growing more than 3 or 4 inches high. Plants have a vining habit but do not climb. Instead they form dense mats by spreading their trailing stems out to about a foot from the crown. Roots will often form at leaf nodes along the stems and start new plants. The 4 petaled, pinkish, fringed, fragrant, half inch long flowers appear in June and July. The berries remain on the plant for long periods unless eaten, and can often still be found the following spring. Other names for this plant include twinberry and two-eyed berry. The berries are edible, but fairly tasteless and eaten mostly by birds. If I was going to spend my time in the forest looking for small red berries to feed on I’d be looking for American wintergreen, (teaberry) which are delicious.

Partridgeberry is very easy to grow from stem cuttings, but it’s even easier to simply plant one bought from a nursery. They make an excellent groundcover in the garden and are a great source of winter interest. Partridgeberry is considered endangered in many areas however due to its habit of growing only in mature forests, so please do not collect plants from the wild. These plants like it cool and shaded; in my yard native plants grow under some large old hemlock trees and get only morning sun for about 2 hours. For the rest of the day they are in shade. They like a soil rich in humus like that found in most temperate forests. They also like to be on the moist side until they become established, but after that are nearly indestructible. 

Photo of Partridgeberry Flowers by Dave Otto of The Carrborro Citizen, Carrborro, NC

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Since we’ve had the fourth least snowiest December of all time, I’ve had an easy time getting into the woods. It’s amazing how much variety and color can be found in winter.

 American winterberry, or native holly, (Ilex verticillata) is one of a handful of shrubs that will survive growing in standing water for part of the year. This one was in deep and I couldn’t get any closer to it without getting wet feet. I found it growing in a local cemetery where they have quite extensive wetlands that are being taken over by the invasive purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria.) Local college students have been digging out the loosestrife and encouraging natives like winterberry. This one attracted me from quite far off because it was ablaze with red berries. Since it takes both a male and female to produce berries I know that there is a male lurking somewhere nearby, but until he grows leaves he’ll be hard to find.


 In the early spring red wing blackbirds will return and perch on cattails (Typha) like this one. Females will use cattail leaves to weave their nests among the stalks. Once the cup shaped nest has been plastered with mud inside she will line it with soft, cottony cattail seeds and grasses. Red wing blackbirds eat a lot of harmful insects, so having plenty of marshland to attract them is a good thing. Muskrats use cattails to build their lodges, which look similar to a beaver’s, and other animals like deer and raccoons use them for cover. The inside of a cattail stalk contains a sticky juice that is an excellent emergency antiseptic, and the boiled roots can be dried, ground, and used as very nutritious flour. 

This dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) growing in a sunny spot didn’t seem to know or care that it was December 22nd. Is it any wonder they appear so early in spring? All parts of the dandelion are edible, and it is one of the most nutritious plants known. It is being grown in gardens more and more, and can now be found for sale in farmer’s markets and health food stores. Native Americans used dandelion to treat kidney disease, skin problems, heartburn, and upset stomach, and many herbalists still use it medicinally today.

  This mossy log also made this day seem more like spring than winter. I don’t have much experience identifying mosses, but I like the colors of these. It’s interesting to me that such delicate looking plants can stand up to the ravages of winter snow and cold. They are really much tougher than they look; moss can grow in temperatures just above zero degrees. Reindeer eat them because they contain a chemical that keeps their blood warm-much like the anti-freeze we use in our cars.


Winter can be found if one looks closely. See-there it is in the ice on this pond.

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