Evergreen Christmas ferns (Polystichum acrostichoides) have just come up and this is one of the spring fiddleheads that I must have never paid attention to, because I was surprised to see it covered with silver hairs. I think its spiral shape is beautiful but it’s also common; spirals are used over and over in nature. Prehistoric people carved spirals into the walls of their caves and we have tiny spirals in our ears. Snail shells grow in spirals, millipedes curl into spirals, sunflower florets, grape tendrils and even entire galaxies are spirals. And no one knows why.
Spotted salamanders are burrowing creatures that spend much of their lives in burrows or under leaf litter, coming out only to eat and mate. I happened to be doing some digging at work and uncovered the salamander in the above photo. They like rainy weather in the spring, so they must be very pleased with this month so far. I left this one alone and it burrowed right back into the soil after a few moments.
It’s nice to see the chipmunks again. They’re very curious little creatures and will often follow along as you walk wooded trails. They live in stone walls when they can and when they hear you they’ll often come out of their burrows to see what you’re doing. That’s just what this one was doing when I took his photo. He sat there until I started walking and then hopped from rock to rock following me.
Fungi have started to make an appearance and the first I’ve seen is this brain fungus (Gyromitra esculenta) which is a false morel that often grows very near true morels. This is a problem because false morels can be toxic and true morels are not, so if you are a mushroom forager you’ll want to know each one well. An easy way to tell them apart is by the way the cap attaches to the stem. The brain fungus cap attaches only at the top of the stem, and a morel’s cap attaches to the stem over its full length. Cutting one in half lengthwise will tell the story. The brain fungus gets its common name from its reddish brown cap that resembles a brain.
White pines (Pinus strobus) seem to be doing well this year, showing plenty of new growth. The buds seen in this photo are called candles and will grow on to become new branches and needles. White pines are very common native trees here in New Hampshire. There are records of early colonial settlements being entirely wiped out by scurvy before Native Americans showed the settlers how to make tea from white pine needles. They are one of the richest sources of vitamin C found in nature. Native Americans used all parts of the tree and were said to value pines above any other plant.
Flowers usually appear just as leaf buds break but before the leaves fully develop on green ash trees (Fraxinus pennsylvanica.) I think the ones shown here are male, because they are typically shorter and less showy than the female flowers. They have a tubular calyx and 2 stamens and are often purple tipped as those in the photo. Ash trees are sensitive to pollution, so seeing them is a good sign of clean air.
I’ve already shown photos of female box elder (Acer negundo) flowers recently but I turned a corner and there they were, hanging at eye level. I didn’t mind because I think the sticky lime green pistils are beautiful. One of the biggest trees I’ve ever seen was a box elder growing on the banks of the Connecticut River and that was odd because they’re considered a relatively short lived tree.
As I become more familiar with sedges I’m seeing more and more of them. I found the one in the above photo near a local pond. The male flowers are the creamy yellow parts at the top and the female flowers are the wispy white filaments along the bottom. The female flowers bloom first to catch pollen from other plants and then a few days later the male flowers start to shed pollen so the wind can take it to another plant. This ensures cross pollination and guards against self-fertilization. Sedges look like course tufts of grass but the flower stalks are triangular instead of round, and this leads to the old saying “sedges have edges.” They are gaining popularity as garden plants and some even use them in place of a lawn. I haven’t been able to identify this one yet.
Tent caterpillars were just leaving their nest when I happened along. The moth that laid the eggs on this tree was a species of moth in the family Lasiocampidae, which lays its eggs almost always on plants in the rose family, like cherry and apple trees. The eggs hatch just as the new buds appear on the tree and the caterpillars feed three times each day, just before dawn, at midafternoon, and in the evening after sunset. Cherry leaves contain toxic compounds that the caterpillars absorb so most birds won’t touch them, and that’s the reason for their great success. They can defoliate a tree and this will weaken it, because without leaves it can’t make the food it needs. Most trees will recover, but they won’t look too good while they do. People often confuse tent caterpillars with fall webworms, but fall webworms don’t cause any real damage because the trees they appear on have usually stopped photosynthesizing and no longer needs the leaves that the caterpillars eat.
I noticed that this ladybug on a beech bud had a large black spot on the rear of its shell that looked like damage. I tried to find information on ladybug diseases but didn’t have much luck.
Here’s another look at the damaged ladybug. Not only did its shell have a black spot, it looked like it had been dented as well. Ladybugs eat many insects that can damage plants so I hope there aren’t any diseases spreading among them. Maybe a bird caused the damage. Whatever it was didn’t seem to hinder its movement; it crawled along the beech bud as if the wind were at its back. When it reached the very tip it turned and went back just as quickly, and I wondered if what was damaged was its sense of direction.
The reason I found the ladybug was because I was in the woods looking for one of the most beautiful signs of spring. Angel wings are what newly unfurled beech leaves (Fagus grandifolia) remind me of, with their fringe of soft silvery, downy hairs. Each spring I check the buds once or twice a week to see if the typically arrow straight buds are curling, because that’s the sign that they’ll open before long. After they’ve started to curl they’ll also start to swell up, and that’s when I start checking them every other day. This beauty happens quickly and is easily missed.
Beech (and other tree) bud curling is caused by the cells on the sunny side of the bud growing faster than those on the shaded side. This creates a tension that curls the bud and eventually causes the bud scales to pull apart so the leaves can emerge. At the bud’s location on the tree branch an entire year’s new leaves and stems will often grow from a single bud, as can be seen in the above photo. It’s incredible to think that all of that growth came from a single bud in just a matter of days.
Oak leaves are usually one of the last to appear, so I was surprised to see these new leaves. The weather is fooling us all I think, but it’s a great opportunity to see what in nature is triggered by warmth and what is triggered by day length.
The woods are full of beautiful things that you’ve never seen and won’t ever imagine and I hope you’ll have a chance to go and see them for yourself. As I’ve said here before; I can’t tell you what you’ll see but I can guarantee that you’ll never regret seeing it.
Some of the best advice you will ever hear will come from the forest. ~Dacha Avelin
Thanks for coming by.