I wondered during our recent severe cold snap how the birds and animals were getting on. There still seems to be plenty of food for them but they use it up fast in weather that is so cold. A group of bull thistles (Cirsium vulgare) had been picked over but still had seeds in the seed heads. This European native is considered invasive here but many birds eat its seeds and a group of plants is a good place to see goldfinches and juncos. When in flower hummingbirds and bees do a lot to pollinate the plant and ensure there will be another seed crop.
The leaves of the bull thistle might have passed but the many sharp spines live on. Prickles on the leaf surface are a good identifying feature of this thistle. It is also called spear thistle, for good reason.
What I think were aster seed heads had been picked clean of seeds but the bracts remained. We call them dead at this stage, but to me they are as beautiful now as they are when they’re blossoming. Goldfinches, cardinals, chickadees, evening grosbeaks, finches, titmice and other birds and small animals eat aster seeds. Native American tribes burned the flowers and leaves and used the smoke in sweat lodge ceremonies. They also had many medicinal uses for the plant and included parts of it in a smoking mixture they called kinnickkinnick.
I’ve known about the woody seed cones on the northern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis) for a long time but I didn’t know which birds ate them until recently. Robins, common redpolls, pine siskins, and dark-eyed juncos eat the seeds and many small birds use the tree to hide in. The Native American Ojibwe tribe thought it was sacred because of its many uses, and maybe it was. They showed 16th century French explorer Jacques Cartier how to cure scurvy with the leaves of this tree and he was so impressed that he named it Arborvitae, which is Latin for Tree of Life. He had trees with him when he returned to Europe, and Thuja occidentalis became the first North American tree to be introduced there.
Each individual seed cone on the northern white cedar looks as if it was carved out of wood and then polished to a satiny shine. Of course to have fruit on a plant, which is what a cone is, you first have to have a flower. This tree flowers in late May to Early June and the small green, egg shaped female flowers have blue tips on their overlapping scales. They grow in clusters and are easy to find.
I solved a year old mystery when I pulled a small tuft of cattail seeds from a seed head and took a photo of it against the black of my glove. I first noticed a long white angle hair like filament with a seed on the end last year. The wind had blown it onto a lichen that grew on tree bark and at the time I thought it was a dandelion seed. Now I know it was a cattail seed. In spring after the male red winged blackbird finds a mate he will line the nest he builds from dried cattail leaves with the plant’s soft seed down. Man must have learned something by watching the bird because the fluffy seed down was used to stuff mattresses for centuries.
I thought I’d go and visit a couple of lichen friends recently. This poplar sunburst lichen (Xanthomendoza hasseana) grows on a tree at a local shopping mall and is a favorite of mine. I’ve never seen it growing anywhere else. The odd thing about it this year is how few spore bearing apothecia it had. The apothecia are the little cup shaped objects that look like the suckers on an octopus arm and they are usually much bigger and more numerous than what are seen in this photo. Even so it’s still a very beautiful lichen.
Scattered rock posy is another beautiful lichen that I can thank for showing me how fast lichens can grow. When I met this example it could have sat on a dime (.70 inches) but now, about 5 years later, it would take up most of the real estate of a quarter (.95 inches.) Following what I’ve seen in this example I’m guessing that it gains about an inch in diameter every 20 years, so if you found one that was five inches in diameter it would be about 100 years old. Its frilly orange pads are its apothecia, where its spores are produced. The body (thallus) of this lichen is grayish and brain like. It tends to grow in a mound.
The two orange lichens I showed previously aren’t the only orange things I’m seeing this winter; I’m even seeing orange wood. I’m guessing this might be birch, which can sometimes have yellowish wood and reddish heartwood. What made the wood pictured so orange is a mystery. Brazilian satinwood, also called yellow heart, is orange colored but I doubt very much that pieces of it would be lying around in a New Hampshire forest.
And then there are orange oak leaves, but I think that they’re caused by the sun shining brightly on their normally brownish surface. I’ve also seen pink oak leaves, but I don’t think that their color has anything to do with light. I think pink is a normal for certain oaks.
While I was admiring oak leaves I saw this gouty oak gall. I wish I’d gotten a better photo of it but at least this one shows the structure fairly well. Gouty oak gall is caused by a wasp called, not surprisingly, the gouty oak gall wasp (Callirhytis quercuspunctata). In spring the wasp lays its eggs in expanding plant tissue and secretes chemicals that will cause the abnormal growth seen in the photo. The gall grows quickly and once the eggs hatch the larvae feed on its tissue. It can take two years or more for the gall wasps to reach adulthood. One adult exits the gall through each hole.
The parts of the willow that would have once been leaves were converted into a gall when a fly called a gall gnat midge (Rabdophaga strobiloides) laid an egg on its stem. The resulting larva released a chemical that convinced the willow to produce this gall rather than the leaves that it normally would have. The little pink larva rests inside all winter and emerges as an adult when the air temperature warms up in the spring.
This close-up of the willow pine cone gall shows its overlapping scales, which remind me of shingles. Even original ideas come from somewhere and I wonder if mankind didn’t come up with the idea for shingles by studying something like this.
I saw a crab apple tree that was loaded with crab apples that were about an inch in diameter. I think they were probably too big for a bird to eat but I was surprised that deer and other animals hadn’t eaten them. They had hung on the tree for so long they were turning purple. Though we think the apples we’re eating are native, crab apples are really the only apples native to North America. The apples we know originated in Central Asia, where its wild ancestor, Malus sieversii, is still found today. Apples are thought to be the first cultivated tree and have been grown for thousands of years in Asia and Europe. North American apple cultivation began 1607 in Jamestown, Virginia. Settlers had come prepared with seeds, cuttings, and small plants from the best European stock and the trees grew well here; by the end of the 19th century 14,000 apple varieties were being grown. Many were inferior varieties and for one reason or another fell out of favor and have been lost to the ages. Today 2,500 varieties of apples are grown in the U.S. and 7,500 varieties of apples are grown worldwide.
Thank you to Tim Hensley and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden for the article A Curious Tale: The Apple in North America, for some of the information used here.
It is the light that makes frost crystals appear so three dimensional even though they grow flat on glass, so if I were to try to paint them I’d have to start with a dark canvas. Artists know that there can be no light without darkness, and wise artists know that the same is true in life.
Seeing, in the finest and broadest sense, means using your senses, your intellect, and your emotions. It means encountering your subject matter with your whole being. It means looking beyond the labels of things and discovering the remarkable world around you. ~Freeman Patterson
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