Last week we had about two inches of rain fall in one day so I went to the Ashuelot River to see how it was coping. It had taken on a lot of water and was rolling itself into some beautiful waves, but thankfully there was no flooding that I saw. It was also roaring loudly and you could hear the strange booming sounds that the stones tumbling along its bottom make. It’s one of those sounds that can be felt as well as heard, and it goes through you.
The stones on the river’s shoreline were covered in clear ice that caught the sunlight like prisms.
Splashing water formed beads on the rocks that the sun turned into beautiful polished jewels. These spherical beads form when drops of water splash onto the rock and freeze over and over again in the same spot, building up each sphere with successive hair thin layers of ice. And it can all happen in one cold night.
Ice baubles hung from every twig. This teardrop shaped one was as big as a baseball, or about 2.5 inches across. I watched this for a while and saw that it had formed from the bottom up. The river waves washed over the twig again and again where the lower larger part of the teardrop is and hardly at all where the upper smaller diameter is.
Most ice is beautiful but some is not. Our trails have been plagued with a thick coating of ice for a while now. It makes getting through the woods difficult even with Yaktrax on but since it formed after we walked on the snow and packed it down, we have only ourselves to blame. I haven’t climbed any hills fora while now because of it, but I think I’ll try soon.
There were no hills here to climb. This forest is unusual for its lack of undergrowth. It is so shaded in places only mosses and fungi will grow on its floor.
In places that get a little more sun orchids also grow on the forest floor. This evergreen downy rattlesnake plantain came through winter slightly flattened but otherwise fine. I love it for its netted silvery leaves and if I could grow it in my garden I’d choose it more for its unusual foliage than its spike of tiny white flowers. Native Americans used the plant to treat snakebites, burns and many other ailments.
The downy rattlesnake plantain’s seed pods hadn’t released their dust like seeds and looked to be filled to bursting.
Striped wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) has a symbiotic relationship with the mycelium of certain fungi in the soil and is partially parasitic on them through a process called myco-heterotrophy. This means that, even though they photosynthesize, they supplement their diet with nutrients taken from fungi. That explains why they will only grow in certain places, much like our native orchids. It also explains their rarity. I read recently that the plant is considered rare in both New England and Canada. I keep finding more places where it grows but there are usually only a very few plants in any location.
Pipsissewa (Chimaphila umbellata) is another of our native wintergreens and is a plant that never seems to change. It looks the same in winter or summer and the only time it really changes is when it is blooming. It is said that the plant’s common name comes from the Native American word pipsiskeweu which means “it breaks into small pieces.” This refers to the belief that pipsissewa would break up kidney stones. The Cherokee people would nibble on leaves for food and they also made an infusion of the leaves for fevers, and a poultice of the roots for pain. It is said to make a marvelous spring tonic, even for horses. I’ve read that when a horse became listless and didn’t want to work farmers would add pipsissewa plants to their hay and before long the horse would be kicking up its heels and ready for work again. Pipsissewa was also once used as a flavoring in candy and soft drinks, including root beer.
I thought I’d see if our native American hazelnut catkins (Corylus americana) were showing any signs of opening and releasing pollen. They weren’t but they were still beautiful to see. The catkins are the shrub’s male flowers and are a winter food for turkey and ruffed grouse.
If you aren’t sure if what you’re looking at is a hazelnut just look at the young twigs; they’re covered with reddish brown hairs which you can feel when you run your fingers over a twig. This photo also shows a female bud which will bloom in April. Female flowers appear on two year old branches and are tiny, with only their crimson stigmata showing. They are fertilized when the wind blows the pollen from the male catkins to them. From then on they will grow into hazelnuts, which are also called filberts.
Hazelnuts were used by Native Americans to flavor soups and were also ground into flour. The sweet meat can also be eaten raw and has a higher nutritional value than that of acorns or beechnuts. They are high in protein and many animals and birds eat them, including squirrels, foxes, deer, northern bobwhite, ruffed grouse, turkey, woodpeckers, and pheasants. Finding these examples still on the bush in February was a real surprise.
Not only do skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) raise their own temperature through a process called thermogenesis, but the dark color of their blotchy spathes attracts sunlight and that means they are also heated by the sun. This makes a nice cozy warming room inside the spathe where early insects can come and hang out and warm up. While they’re inside if they happen to bump into the spadix full of flowers and get pollen all over themselves, so much the better. There’s always a tradeoff and in this case both sides win.
I’ve seen more blue and purple turkey tails (Trametes versicolor) this year than I ever have, but these examples were shades of brown as they most often are. Wood decayed by the turkey tail fungus often has black zone lines or borders between where different variants of the species meet. These zone lines produce beautiful patterns in the wood, which is known as spalted wood. It is highly prized by woodworkers and a log full of spalted wood can be worth many times what one without any figuring is worth.
If you’re a mushroom it’s all about spore production, and you increase spore production by growing as much spore bearing surface as you can. Some do this with gills and others like turkey tails and boletes do it with pores, which are long round tubes. Others like the thick-maze oak polypore (Daedalea quercina) pictured do it by creating a labyrinth. It was a beautiful little thing about an inch across growing on an oak log. The beauty in and of nature is always present no matter what time of year, and if we don’t see it it’s because we just don’t take the time to look.
Except for where it has been piled our snow is gone, even in the deep woods, but the ice remains. With all the sunshine and warmth it’s easy to lull yourself into thinking that spring is here, but we average about a foot of snow in March in this part of the state, so we could still see some. Since I work outside a lot I’m hoping not. I’m ready for spring.
When you reach the heart of life you shall find beauty in all things, even in the eyes that are blind to beauty. ~Kahlil Gibran
Thanks for coming by.