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Archive for the ‘General gardening’ Category

Leaves on the coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) means it’s time to say goodbye to this spring ephemeral. The flowers appear before the leaves, sometimes weeks before. Coltsfoot is said to be the earliest blooming wildflower in the northeast but there are many tree and shrub flowers that appear earlier, so I suppose “earliest” depends on what your definition of a wildflower is. In the past coltsfoot was thought to be good for the lungs and the dried leaves were often smoked as a remedy for asthma and coughs. It was also often used as a tobacco substitute, asthma or not. A native of Europe, it was brought over by early settlers who used it medicinally. This plant’s common name comes from the shape of the leaves, which are said to look like a colt’s hoof.

Seeing coltsfoot leaves means you should also see seed heads, and here they were. They look very different than a dandelion seed head; much more cottony. Coltsfoot plants have composite flowers, which is a larger flower head made up of many smaller flowers, in this case central disc florets and thin, radial, ray florets. If you turn clockwise at just about 11:30 you can see what a single tiny coltsfoot flower looks like.   

These hobblebush flowers had just opened and you can tell that from the yellow blush on each of the normally pure white flowers. Hobblebush flower heads are made up of small fertile flowers in the center and large infertile flowers around the perimeter. The infertile flowers are there to attract insects to the much less showy fertile ones and it’s a strategy that must work well because I see plenty of berries in the fall. They start out green and go to bright red before ripening to a deep purple color. The outer infertile flowers always seem to open before the fertile ones. Hobblebushes are one of our most beautiful native shrubs.

Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) is up and already budded. Often I’m just as surprised by what I’ve missed than what I’ve seen and, though I’ve seen this plant thousands of times, I never knew how quickly the flower buds appeared until I saw these. Each year the above ground stem leaves a scar, or “seal” on the underground stem, which is called a rhizome. Counting these scars will reveal the age of the plant.

Goldthread (Coptis trifolia) is a tiny flower that you often have to sprawl on the ground to get a photo of, but the shiny 3 lobed leaves make this one easy to spot. Goldthread gets its common name from its thread like, bright yellow roots. This plant usually grows in undisturbed soil that is on the moist side. I often find it near swamps.

I like the tiny styles curved like long necked birds and the even smaller white tipped stamens of goldthread. The white, petal like sepals last only a short time and will fall off, leaving the tiny golden yellow club like petals behind. The ends of the golden true petals are cup shaped and hold nectar, but it must be a very small insect that sips from that cup. 

Jack in the pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is a striking spring wildflower. It is also called bog onion or Indian turnip. The striped outer “pulpit” is a spathe, which is essentially a sheath that protects the flowers.  “Jack,” who lives under the pulpit just like an old time New England preacher, is a spadix, which is a fleshy stem that bears the flowers. Few actually see the small flowers of a Jack in the Pulpit because they form down inside the spathe. 

I usually open the pulpit for a moment just to see what Jack is up to. This early in the year Jack has just come up and is waiting for fungus flies who think they smell mushrooms to come and fertilize his flowers. If they do the spathe will die back and a cluster of green berry-like fruit will form where the flowers were. These will turn bright red after a time and a deer might come along and eat them, helping to spread the seeds.  The root, which is a corm, may be eaten if it is cooked thoroughly and prepared correctly but is toxic when uncooked. 

Pussytoes (Antennaria) are popping up everywhere. There are close to 45 species of pussytoes, which makes identifying them more difficult.  Pussytoes are a favorite of many butterfly species. Another common name for the plant is everlasting. They like to grow in dry, sandy or rocky soil.

The flowers of the pussytoes plant are said to look like cat’s paws but I’ve never thought so. Someone also thought the stamens on a pussytoes flower looked like butterfly antennae and that’s where the Antennaria part of the scientific name came from. Native Americans used the plant medicinally to treat coughs, fevers, bruises, and inflammations.

I’m seeing more bluets (Houstonia caerulea) this year than I ever have and, though I often show it here I realized that I’ve never mentioned how what looks like a four petaled flower is actually a single, tubular, four lobed “petal.” However you describe them they’re pretty little things.

Wood anemones (Anemone quinquefolia) have just started blooming and because of the cold, cloudy weather finding the flowers open has been a real treasure hunt. These low growing plants often grow in large colonies and the flowers can be pink or white. They have 5 (usually) white sepals and no petals. Because of the way they tremble in the slightest breeze anemones are also called wind flowers. From seed to flower takes about 4-5 years. An unusual habit is how the plants completely disappear in summer.

I gave up on showing most small yellow flowers on this blog long ago because many look so much alike that it can take quite a long time to identify them, but this one grew all alone in a big field  so I took its photo. I think it’s a common cinquefoil (Potentilla simplex) but it could also be the European cinquefoil (Potentilla reptans.) They’ve just opened this past week.

Though I’ve never seen it in a forest creeping phlox (Phlox subulata) is native to the forests of North America and has just started blooming. Another plant called creeping phlox is Phlox stolonifera, native to the Appalachians from Pennsylvania to Georgia. One way to tell the two plants apart is to look for the darker band of color around the center of each flower; only Phlox subulata has it. Creeping phlox is also called moss phlox or moss pinks. April’s “pink moon” got that name from the way the “moss pinks” bloom in that month. It’s a plant that loves growing in lawns as it is here and luckily it doesn’t seem to mind being mowed. Even so many people wait until it’s done blooming to do their first spring mowing.

That darker band around the center of the flower tells me this is Phlox subulata. Most people see the beauty in the mass display but not the individuals responsible for it in creeping phlox.

Dwarf ginseng (Panax trifolius) flowers are so small that even a cluster of them is hardly bigger than a nickel, and the entire plant could easily fit into a teacup. One interesting thing about this little plant is how some plants have only male flowers while others have perfect flowers with both male and female parts. Each plant can also change its gender from year to year. This photo also shows where the trifolius part of the scientific name comes from. Three to five leaflets each make up the whorl of three compound leaves. Dwarf ginseng doesn’t like disturbed ground and is usually found in old, untouched hardwood forests. It is on the rare side here and I only know of two places to find it. This is not the ginseng used in herbal medicine.

What is most unusual about this particular plant is how the flower head is misshapen. Usually the flower heads form a near perfect globe but I saw several plants on this day with out-of-round flower heads. Each flower is about 1/8 inch across, with five white petals. The three stamens on these flowers tell me they were perfect, with both male and female parts. Nothing is known about the insects that pollinate them but since I have found seed capsules on these plants something does.

We have a peach tree at work that has just come into bloom, quite early I think. This tree grows peaches but they’re more seed than fruit and they fall from the tree uneaten. Peach trees and their buds are very tender and do not like cold but peaches are grown in southern New Hampshire where there are a few pick your own peach orchards.

For years I’ve heard that flies are drawn to red trilliums (Trillium erectum) because of the carrion scented flowers and finally, here was a small fly on one.  It’s there on the left side of the bottom petal. This plant is also called stinking Benjamin and is said to be pollinated by flies as well.

I went back to the ledges in Westmoreland on a windy, snowy day to see the wild columbines (Aquilegia canadensis) blooming and thankfully they were. I was afraid they might have all died from frost bite but they were all unharmed, so I think maybe they aren’t quite as delicate as they appear.

I always gently bend a stem down onto the soft moss so I can get a shot looking into a blossom for those who have never seen what they look like. Columbines are all about the number 5. Each blossom has 5 petals and 5 sepals. Each petal is yellow with a rounded tip and forms a long funnel shaped nectar spur that shades to red. Long tongued insects and hummingbirds probe the holes for nectar. The oval sepals are also red and the anthers are bright yellow. All together it makes for a very beautiful flower and I was happy to see them again.

Almost every person, from childhood, has been touched by the untamed beauty of wildflowers. ~Lady Bird Johnson

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In my last post I said I had never seen a dandelion blooming in February but never mind; this one was blooming on Leap Day. Now I’ve seen them bloom in all of the coldest months of December, January and February. They’re a hardy plant, and pretty too.

The morning sunlight caught in the trees always makes me slow down on my way to work but on this day it was so beautiful I had to stop. There is little else like a spring morning; cool but with a hint of the warmth that the day will bring. Even as a young boy a morning like this one made me so happy I felt like I could become part of it; maybe I could float up into the trees with the birds and sing their praises along with them. I know just how they feel on such beautiful mornings, and I’ve known for a very long time. It’s about what a joy it is to be alive.

I was splitting wood at work and picked up a log and found these winter oysterling mushrooms (Panellus ringens) growing on it. At least I think that’s what they are after comparing them to photos and descriptions I’ve found online. I can’t find them in any of my mushroom books but I did see some examples found in Connecticut online. They’re small and said to be reddish brown but my color finding software sees more orange than red. They are a true winter mushroom that doesn’t mind the cold and they were as limber as my ear lobe. They’re said to be bioluminescent, but I have no way of confirming that.

Winter oysterlings have an off center stem. It seems odd how they grow with their gills up but in my experience mushrooms want their spore bearing surfaces pointed toward the ground and what I saw as up might have been down while they grew on the log. I didn’t see them until their log reached the wood splitter so it was hard to know how they grew. This photo does show how they’ve erupted out of a flattish mass.

When I split open another log I saw future fungi in the form of mycelium. For those who don’t know, mycelium can be compared to roots in the way that they reach out from the fruiting body of a fungus to search for moisture and nutrients. Botanically it is the vegetative structure of a fungus and the mushrooms we see above ground grow from it. They can be tiny or as large as a forest. The largest one known covers 2,385 acres in the Malheur National Forest in Oregon. Unfortunately it is from the Armillaria ostoyae fungus, which is parasitic on tree roots and will kill trees.

If you strip the inner bark (phloem) of an oak log you can find fibers that are useful in the making of lashings and cordage. Once the fibers are twisted together to make cordage they are quite strong and can be used for anything we would normally use string or rope for. The outer bark had fallen off this oak log naturally due to weather, exposing the fibers underneath. The phloem carries food to the rest of the tree so normally these fibers would run parallel to the length of the log but the weather must have had its way with these because they were all in a jumble as you see here. Native Americans turned tree fibers into threads and cords and made ropes, fishing lines, nets, mats, baskets and even shoes out of them.

Another red oak log just happened to split just right to reveal an insect’s egg chamber deep inside. When you see a woodpecker pecking at a tree this is what it’s looking for. I’m not sure what the insect was but before I split the log open there were about 30 larvae in this one chamber. Lots of protein for a hungry bird.

This is what a pileated woodpecker can do to a tree when it looks for those larvae in the previous photo. It had almost cut this dead beech right in half and wood chips littered the snow.

A beech log when cut revealed spalting. Spalted wood is evidence of fungal damage. Sometimes woods affected by fungi can become very desirable to woodworkers, and spalted wood is one of them. Spalting is essentially any form of wood coloration caused by fungi but there are 3 major types; pigmentation, white rot and zone lines. Sometimes all 3 can be present as they are on the end grain of the beech in the above photo. Pigmentation is the blue gray color, which is probably caused by bluestain or sapstain. White rot is in any areas that look soft or pulpy, and the zone lines are the dark, narrow lines found radiating randomly throughout the log.

This is what a spalted log looks like when it has been split. They can be very beautiful and when sawed into planks can be worth quite a lot of money.  

I’m seeing lots of orange crust fungi on the logs I’m splitting. I think they’re one called Stereum complicatum. It’s color is so bright it’s like a beacon in the woods and it can be seen from quite far away on fallen branches. The complicatum part of its scientific name means “folded back on itself” and that is often just what it does.

I picked up a log and put it on the wood splitter and saw what I thought was a leaf fluttering in the wind, and then I saw the legs and realized it was a butterfly. A butterfly in February? Apparently, and the closest I can come with an identification is the question mark butterfly (Polygonia interrogationis.) According to what I’ve read September laid eggs develop into the winter form of the butterfly, which appear in late fall and spend the winter in various shelters. This one had no shelter and hung onto this log for dear life in a strong wind. When I took  photos the log it was on was vibrating on the log splitter so this is the best of a bad lot. Its long white legs reminded me of the Rockette dancers.

Whenever I see spruce gum on a tree I always wonder who the first person was to peel it off the tree and chew it. When I see it I don’t think of chewing it, but someone did. If you gently heat the resin, which is called spruce gum, of the black spruce tree (Picea mariana,) it will melt down into a liquid which can then be strained and poured into a shallow pan or other container to cool. After about half an hour it will be hardened and very brittle, and when broken into bite sized pieces it can be chewed like any other gum. Spruce gum is antiseptic and good for the teeth. It has been chewed by Native Americans for centuries and was the first chewing gum sold in the United States.

Sweet gale (Myrica gale) is also called bog rosemary. It likes to grow on the banks of acidic lakes, bogs and streams. Touching the foliage releases a sweet, pleasant scent from its resinous leaves which have been used for centuries as a natural insect repellent. Though it is a native plant here it also grows native in Europe, where it is used as an ingredient in beer making in some countries. It is also used in an ointment used to treat sensitive skin and acne. Its buds are very pretty, but also very small.  They will open and flower in spring.

Two or three years the white pines (Pinus strobus) in this area had a mast year and tens of thousands of pine cones fell. This year strong winds have stripped branches from the trees and every one I look at is loaded with tiny undeveloped cones like the one in this photo, so it looks like we’re headed for another mast year for white pines. Mast are the fruits, seeds and nuts of trees and shrubs, which are eaten by wildlife. Hard mast is made up of nuts, seeds and cones and soft mast are berries, apples and such. A mast year means lots of food for wildlife like the white footed mouse, which carries Lyme disease, so they do have an impact on humans as well. This cone was about an inch long.

Here is something I’d bet most people never see; the open spore cases of the sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis.) This fern is a good wetland indicator and they grow all alongside streams and rivers in the almost always wet soil. Their shin high, spore bearing fronds full of round black spore cases make them very easy to see in winter but I rarely see them opened as these were.

This is what sensitive fern spore cases usually look like. Early colonists noticed that this fern was very sensitive to frost and they gave it its common name. It has toxic properties and animals rarely eat it, but some Native American tribes used its root medicinally.

A mud puddle had evaporated but it left these long ice crystals behind. Puddle ice is an endless source of fascination and beauty.

In my experience I’ve only seen ice needles in spring or fall before the ground freezes or after it has thawed, so these examples that I saw recently were a good sign of spring. When the air temperature is below 32 degrees Fahrenheit right at the soil surface and the soil and groundwater remains thawed, hydrostatic pressure can force the groundwater, sometimes super cooled, out of the soil where it freezes instantly into a “needle.” As more water is forced out of the soil the process is repeated over and over, and each needle grows in length because of more water freezing at its base. From what I’ve seen the needles almost always freeze together and form ribbons, but few of these did.

Though this photo of Mount Monadnock may not look very spring like, down here in the lowlands most of the snow is gone and what’s left is melting quickly. The record keepers at the state capital say that February was 3.5 degrees above average, and that makes for a short winter. Flowers are starting to bloom and the red winged blackbirds have returned. The furnace runs less each day and grass is greening up in places, so though the calendar might not say spring yet all signs are certainly pointing to it.

The earth is rude, silent, incomprehensible at first; be not discouraged – keep on – there are divine things, well envelop’d; I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell.  ~Walt Whitman

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April is being as changeable as March was and we’ve seen more April showers than April sun. I was driving home from work one day and saw this strange sky that was half cloudy and half blue and sunny, as if it couldn’t make up its mind. The clouds finally won out that day and it rained.

Deep in the woods where the sun doesn’t reach, you can still find ice and snow.

But the ice and snow is melting fast now in most areas and that coupled with rain has prompted the usual spring flood warnings. The flooding seems to worsen every year; this stream appeared out of nowhere and ran where I’ve never seen a stream run before.

Moles told me that the ground had thawed.

And thawed ground gets the earth growing again, as these American white ash (Fraxinus americana) buds show. They appear before the leaves and can sometimes be colorful and sometimes black as blackberries. The Wabanaki Indian tribes made their baskets from ash. Some tribes believed ash was poisonous to rattlesnakes and used ash canes to chase them away.

Some of the most beautiful things that happen in a northeastern forest are starting to happen now, and I hope everyone living in the area will have a chance to witness them. Bud break, when a plant’s bud scales open to reveal the new leaves or flowers within, can be a very beautiful thing, as we see here in the velvety buds of striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum.) The larger center bud’s scales have just opened and leaves will appear shortly. Bud break can go on for quite some time among various species; striped and sugar maples follow cherry, and birch and beech will follow them, and shagbark hickory will follow birch and beech. Oaks are usually one of the last to show leaves. That’s just a small sampling that doesn’t include shrubs like lilac and forest floor plants that also have beautiful buds breaking.

American beech (Fagus grandifolia) bud break begins when the normally straight buds start to curl, as in the above photo. The 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. Beech bud break doesn’t usually start until mid-May, so I think the example in this photo is a fluke caused by early warmth. Many others haven’t curled yet but I’ll be watching this tree closely.

The buds on many trees haven’t opened but here was a young maple seedling that jumped the gun. I was very surprised to see it already wearing leaves.

Red elderberry buds (Sambucus racemosa) are also opening, but they’re at different stages in different places and that reminds me what a large part sunlight and warmth play in bud break. The little fingers on each side of the flower bud are leaves and it doesn’t take them long to unfurl. In a day or two this bud will look completely different.

Here is another red elderberry, with the purple flower buds in the center and leaves to either side. It’s hard to believe that those tiny fingers open to such big, beautiful leaves but they do. The purple buds will quickly become white flowers, and the flowers will be followed by bright red berries which birds love.

I saw the red elderberry in the previous photo leafing out on the trail in Westmoreland that I follow to see wild columbines, blue cohosh, and other plants. I was going to see if the blue cohosh shoots had come up when I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye. It was a huge black bear coming down the hillside off to the right of the trail, right toward me. Our paths would have crossed in less than a minute but it finally turned and walked back up up the hill a bit before turning again and watching me, as if sizing me up. I threw my arms in the air and yelled “Hey bear!” a couple of times. This might sound silly but they say you should “make yourself big and make noise” when you encounter a bear. In theory it’s supposed to scare them away, but this one didn’t scare at all; instead it just kept staring and probably wondered if I had lost my marbles. After taking a couple of shaky photos I turned and left the forest to the bear, walking slowly so it didn’t think I was running away. Thankfully it didn’t come after me because it could have covered the distance in seconds and since you can’t outrun, out swim, or out climb a bear the contest would have been over quickly. This is a known bear area and ironically this was the first time I had come out here without bear spray. I don’t know if this one would have even blinked at bear spray anyway, but I hope I never have to find out. A bear that has lost its fear of man can be a very dangerous animal and I didn’t sense much fear in this one. I won’t be going out there without bear spray again, that I’m sure of.

Since I live in a forest and work in a forest and spend most of my free time in forests, I see a lot of trees. But I don’t see many like these two. If two trees or parts of trees like limbs or roots of the same species grow close enough together the wind can make them rub against each other, wearing the outer bark away. Once the outer bark wears away and the cambium or inner bark touches, the trees can become naturally grafted together. The process is called inosculation and isn’t as rare as we might think. I see at least a couple of self or naturally grafted trees each year. From what I can tell these two maples had limbs that rubbed together and finally grew together.

For years I’ve noticed that a soapy foam forms at the base of certain white pine trees (Pinus strobus) when it rains. Sometimes it is in just a spot or two and at other times it nearly circles the entire tree. This happens because when there is a drought or dry spell salts, acids and other particles from the air can coat the bark. Soap is essentially made from salts and acids and when it rains, these natural salts and acids mix with the water and begin to froth. The froth (foam) is from the natural agitation of the mixture when it finds its way around bark plates as it flows toward the ground.

I saw a strange looking branch on the river bank. I can’t remember ever seeing one like it.

I don’t know if these marks are leaf scars or lenticels (breathing pores.) It reminds me of a palm, but how a palm stem would have gotten into the Ashuelot River, I don’t know. If you can identify it I’d love to hear from you. Actually I’d love to hear from you anyway, but I think you know what I mean.

I saw a tiny bird’s nest that wasn’t even as big as a tennis ball. I don’t know if it was a hummingbird’s nest or a slightly larger bird. It was built in a young oak tree. I’ve seen lots of eastern phoebes in this area but I think the nest was too small even for those small birds.

I finally saw a winter dark firefly (Ellychnia corrusca.) According to Bugguide.net, these fireflies can be a pest in sap buckets in the spring because they like maple sap, and they will also drink from wounds in maple trees. They like to sun themselves on the sunny side of trees or buildings, but this one seemed happy on a door window. Most fireflies live as larvae in rotting wood and forest litter near water and stay in the area they were born in, even as adults. They like it warm and humid, and this recent April day was both. They don’t seem to be afraid of people at all; I’ve gotten quite close to them several times.

On one snowy day I found a fallen limb which was covered by what I think was orange crust fungus (Stereum complicatum,) which is very common here. I see large fallen limbs almost completely covered by it. Its color is so bright sometimes it shines like a beacon, especially in a snowy landscape on a cloudy day. The complicatum part of its scientific name means “folded back on itself” and that is often just what it does.

They’re beautiful things but crust fungi like a lot of water so they’re at their peak on a damp day or when they’re covered by snow. They look quite different when dry.

Blue is my favorite color and someone must know that because all of the sudden I seem to be seeing blue wherever I go. Just a shot time ago I found a small block of an unknown material that looked like plastic or dry play dough and crumbled easily. It was colored the same beautiful shade of blue as this strange material was. This time this whatever it was covered a limb of a young tree. When I felt it I thought of bubblegum and when I looked at my fingers they were stained blue as if I had touched paint. I haven’t been able to answer the questions of what it was or why it was on a tree branch.

When you gaze out on a quiet, peaceful meadow, next to a still pond, under a motionless blue sky, you wonder how the noisy, busy cacophony of life could have arisen from such a silent, motionless beginning.~Anonymous

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I had given up on finding any coltsfoot flowers (Tussilago farfara) last week and then there they were, blooming in a roadside ditch. I was thinking that I was just too early but a 70 degree day must have triggered their bloom. But not only them; many flowers appeared literally overnight.

From a distance a coltsfoot blossom might look like a dandelion but the flowers are often smaller than dandelions and they are usually flat, rather than the mounded shape of a dandelion. But the real clincher is the stem, which is scaly like that seen here. Dandelion stems are smooth.

They’re very pretty little flowers but they aren’t with us long. Depending on the weather and how hot it gets I’ve seen them disappear in two weeks. Coltsfoot is native to Europe and Asia and was brought here by early settlers. It has been used medicinally for centuries and another name for it is coughwort.

I went to the place where spring beauties grow last Saturday afternoon and though I saw a plant or two I didn’t see a single blossom. Then on Sunday, less than 24 hours later, there were 5 or 6 blossoms so it has started, and soon there will be thousands of them carpeting the forest floor. They’re such small flowers; each one is only slightly bigger than an aspirin, but there is a lot of beauty packed into a small package. For me spring isn’t really here until I hear the sad fee-bee mating call of the black capped chickadee and see these beautiful little flowers. Now I’ve seen and heard both and there’s no turning back; spring is in my bones.

Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) gets its common name from the way chickens peck at it. The plant is in the mint family and apparently chickens like it. The amplexicaule part of the scientific name means clasping and describes the way the hairy leaves clasp the stem. The plant is a very early bloomer and blooms throughout winter in warmer areas. Henbit is from Europe and Asia, but I can’t say that it’s invasive because I rarely see it. I’ve read that the leaves, stem, and flowers are edible and have a slightly sweet and peppery flavor. It can be eaten raw or cooked.

Fly honeysuckle (Lonicera canadensis) is one of our earliest blooming shrubs and one that not many people see unless they walk in early spring. This example that I saw recently had pink tipped buds but no flowers yet. I’d guess it would be blooming today, but as always that depends on the weather. It’s unusual flowers are joined in pairs and if pollinated they become small, red orange, oval, pointed end berries that are also joined in pairs. The flowers form on branch ends of small shrubs and many songbirds love the berries, so it would be a great addition to a wildlife garden. Look for the flowers at the end of April on the shaded edges of woods.

Red maples (Acer rubrum) are still blooming heavily and their bloom is staggered over thousands of trees, so some years it seems to go on and on. This photo is of the thread like female stigmas that catch the pollen from male trees. Soon they will become seeds; millions of them.

I found a red maple with many thousands of male flowers all blooming at once and for the first time I smelled their sweet fragrance. I had to actually put my nose right into a bud cluster to make sure the fragrance was coming from them, and it was. This tree was amazing, and just look at all that pollen.

I wish everyone could see and smell a red maple in bloom. It’s something they wouldn’t soon forget.

This box elder, another member of the maple family, was just opening its buds. Box elders (Acer negundo) have beautiful lime green female flowers and I can’t wait to show them to you.

American elm trees (Ulmus americana) are also flowering, as this shot of the male flowers shows. Though both male and female flowers appear in the same cluster on elms I didn’t see any female flowers on this example, which was one of only a handful that I could reach. Female flowers are white and wispy like feathers and male flowers have 7 to 9 stamens with dark reddish anthers. Each male flower is about 1/8 of an inch across and dangles at the end of a long flower stalk (Pedicel.)

Willows (Salix) are another plant that decided to bloom overnight. Last week these buds were still gray and fuzzy and showed no color at all. Now both male and female flowers are everywhere. These are the male blossoms seen here. They’re the showiest.

The female willow blossoms were just showing color last week and here they are on the same plant already becoming seed pods. Once it starts it happens fast, so if you want to see spring in all its wondrous forms you really have to be outside each day.

Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) was trying but still wasn’t looking much like cabbage to me. I hope I can find some of the fruit this year. I’ve never seen one and I’m guessing that their rarity must be due to most of the flowers not being pollinated.

I recently said that I thought an in-ground sprinkler system installed last fall at a local park must have destroyed the only striped squill (Puschkinia scilloides, var. libanotica) that I know of, but last weekend they were all up and blooming beautifully. Since blue is my favorite color I’m very happy to see them. But I don’t see many; they border on rare here and I hardly ever see them. Though catalogs will tell you that the blue stripes are found only on the inside of the blossom they actually go through each petal and show on the outside as well as the inside, as the unopened buds will show. The flowers on this spring flowering bulb are about the same size as the scilla (Scilla siberica) flowers I think most of us are familiar with. They’re beautiful little things.

These are the first Forsythia blossoms I’ve seen this spring but they certainly won’t be the last. Soon they’ll be blooming on every street in the region. Overused? Yes, but try to imagine spring without them.

The Cornelian cherries (Cornus mas) are hedging their bets and waiting just a little longer before opening their small, waxy yellow flowers. I’d guess another week before we see them.

Bees have suddenly appeared and though this one wouldn’t pose for the camera I think it was a honeybee. I haven’t seen a bumblebee yet but I have seen hoverflies and many other insects.

Magnolias have also started to bloom, with only a handful of blossoms on each tree. This one had beautiful deep pink buds which opened to paler pink flowers.

The pretty white crocuses with purple on the outsides of their petals are still blooming but this will probably be the last time we’ll see them this year. Last week I saw a bed with hundreds of crocuses blossoming in it and by this week they had almost all gone by.

Daffodils of all color combinations have just started blooming.

As I said earlier I’m afraid it might be time to say goodbye to crocuses already so I’ll end this post with this little beauty. For a flower that is with us for such a short time their impact seems huge. They’re another flower that it’s hard to imagine going without in spring.

The spring came suddenly, bursting upon the world as a child bursts into a room, with a laugh and a shout and hands full of flowers. ~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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Last Saturday morning it was cold at about 3 degrees F. so I had to wait for it to warm up a bit before going out. My camera doesn’t perform well at anything below 10 degrees and neither do I, so I waited until the thermometer read 20 degrees before visiting a local swamp. I was hoping to show you the flock of mallards that swam here seconds before I clicked the shutter but apparently they thought my collapsible monopod was a gun, because as soon as I went to extend it off they flew. I was at the crest of the hill shown here and they were far below, but they still saw my every move.

So instead of the wildlife I concentrated on the plants that grow here, like these winterberries. Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is a native plant in the holly family and is toxic, but birds snap up the berries fairly quickly so I only saw a handful of rather puckered fruit. This plant loves wet feet so if you find it you can almost always be sure there is water nearby. Native Americans used many parts of it medicinally but they knew how to prepare it so it would cure and not make them sick.

I come to this swamp specifically because it is the only place I know of to find skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus,) which is usually our first flower to appear in spring. But as the above photo of its shoots shows the plants are there all winter, just waiting for the sign that it is warm enough to begin growing again. That date is usually in early March and the plant, through a process called thermogenesis, will grow through any amount of ice and snow to bloom. It can do that because it produces heat and can raise its temperature as much as 60 degrees F. above the surrounding air temperature. The splotchy maroon and yellow spathes are always a treat to see because they mean that spring is here, no matter what the calendar says.

Another sign of spring I watch for is when the catkins of American hazelnuts (Corylus americana) start to turn golden yellow. This is a sign that they are producing pollen and that means that the tiny scarlet threads that are the female flowers must also be showing. The bud on the right is a female bud and the tiny female flowers will grow from it in early to mid-April. A good way to tell that you have an American hazelnut and not its cousin the beaked hazelnut is by the very hairy stem seen here. Only American hazelnut has hairy stems.

The forest was nearly free of snow but the trail through it had a light coating. That’s probably because it was well packed and icy.

It hasn’t been easy to find much snow in this part of the state this year and I’m not complaining about that at all. The weather people are hinting that a stormier pattern will crop up towards the end of the week.

There was one spot in the forest that had a measurable amount of snow and I wondered why only this spot had so much.

That was because there weren’t many evergreens overhead. Evergreen trees keep an amazing amount of snow from reaching the ground.

The shiny evergreen leaves of pipsissewa (Chimaphila umbellata) poked up out of the snow. This plant is one of our native wintergreens and it likes to grow in undisturbed, sandy woodland soil that is on the dry side. It was once used as a flavoring in candy and soft drinks, including root beer. Its common name comes from the Native American Cree tribe, who used it medicinally to treat kidney stones. It was thought to break them up into pieces. Even though pipsissewa photosynthesizes it supplements its diet by taking certain nutrients from fungi, and for that reason it is considered partially parasitic.

The pretty little seedpods of pipsissewa persist through the winter and poke up out of the snow. They are woody and split open into 5 parts to release the tiny seeds. Each capsule is about a quarter inch across. They remind me of the seedpods of the Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora,) in some ways.

When I finally got my driver’s license at 16 I would give my grandmother rides to the cemetery to visit the family graves. Near there was a wooded area and we would walk through the woods looking for checkerberries, which we had done since I was just a small boy. I can remember her always hoping we’d find some mayflowers so she could show me what they looked like, but we never did see any. That’s because their very fragrant flowers were collected for nosegays to such an extent the plant became almost impossible to find. Another name for mayflowers is trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens,) and my grandmother would be happy to know that I’ve found several large colonies. Many plants come with memories attached and for me this one comes with some strong ones.

I saw a very large witches’ broom on a blueberry bush. This deformation is caused by a fungus and causes a very dense cluster of branches to form. Though they might look unsightly they don’t seem to harm the plant. I picked berries for many years from a bush that had a large witches’ broom on it.

One part of the swamp had frozen into a pebbled, textured pattern.

We had a small ice storm that coated the trees with ice. The sun came out but the temperature dropped so as the sun melted the ice on the trees it fell into water that was freezing below, and that’s what made these patterns in the ice. I know that because the same thing happened where I work and, since I spend a lot of time outside, I watched (and felt) it happen. Millions of pieces of ice fell from the trees, rattling and tinkling as they fell. If they hit you in the face, they hurt.

Clubmosses grew up out of the ice. These little evergreen plants are vascular so they aren’t mosses at all, but someone must have thought so at one time. They are also called princess pine, ground pine and ground cedar but they have no relationship to those trees either. Clubmosses are considered fern allies, which are vascular plants that produce spores. Horsetails and Spikemosses are also in the same family. Clubmosses were used in a medicinal tea by Native Americans and the dried spores were once used to produce the flash in photography. They are very flammable when dry.

Goldthread (Coptis trifolia) gets its common name from its bright yellow, thread like roots. Native Americans showed early colonists how to chew the roots to relieve the pain of canker sores and that led to the plant being called canker root. It became such a popular medicine that the Shakers were paying 37 cents per pound for dried roots in 1785 and people dug up all they could find. At one time more goldthread was sold in Boston than any other plant, and of course that meant the plant came close to being lost. Two centuries of being left alone have brought healing to Goldthread though, and today I see the tiny but beautiful white flowers quite regularly in April.

I finally saw some more blue / purple turkey tail fungi (Trametes versicolor.) They can be beautiful at times; like little painted fans.

The small stream that brings water from the upper part of the swamp to the lower was strangely colored orangey brown on this day. I wondered if it was some type of algae that colored it this way; I’ve never seen this here before.

Maybe it was all of the leaves in the stream that gave it its odd color, I don’t know.

A spruce tree had quite a large wound on it and a lot of resin around it. If you gently heat the resin, which is called spruce gum, of the black spruce tree (Picea mariana,) it will melt down into a liquid which can then be strained and poured into a shallow pan or other container to cool. After about half an hour it will be hardened and very brittle, and when broken into bite sized pieces it can be chewed like any other gum. Spruce gum is antiseptic and good for the teeth. It has been chewed by Native Americans for centuries and was the first chewing gum sold in the United States.

Go to the winter woods: listen there; look, watch, and ‘the dead months’ will give you a subtler secret than any you have yet found in the forest. ~ Fiona Macleod

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Last weekend I thought I’d visit a few places along the Ashuelot River in Keene and Swanzey to see if there were any fall colors showing yet. I saw a few, though I really hoped it was still too early for fall.

I even saw signs of fall up in the trees already. As I’ve said here many times, spring and fall start on the forest floor and work their way through the shrubby understory to the trees. To see it already in some of the trees was a bit disconcerting.

Here was a beautiful wild sarsaparilla plant (Aralia nudicaulis) on the forest floor that was sticking to the plan. This is where I expect to see fall first, and sarsaparilla is always one of the first forest floor plants to change. Most turn yellow but this one felt like purple would do best.

Native dogwoods of the shrubby understory are also starting to change. They’re often one of the first shrubs to turn and will often turn purple.

Another shrub that’s beginning to change is the invasive burning bush (Euonymus alatus.) These understory shrubs can take a lot of shade and can form monocultures in the forest. They in turn cast enough shade so natives can’t get a start.  Burning bushes often turn unbelievable shades of pink and a forest full of them is truly an amazing sight. Their sale and cultivation is banned in New Hampshire but there are so many of them in the wild they’ll always be with us now.

Last time I saw this butterfly I had a very hard time identifying it and finally settled on silvery checkerspot, but several of you knew it as a pearly crescent. Then someone wrote in and said they were fairly sure it was indeed a silvery checkerspot, so I’ll leave it up to you to decide. To be honest I just enjoy seeing butterflies and don’t really need to know their names to love them.

This one I did know; a cabbage white butterfly rested on a Virginia creeper leaf. This species is originally from Europe along with quite a few of the cabbage family of plants that their caterpillars feed on.

Of course there were turtles. There are almost always turtles to be seen along the Ashuelot. In the fall this turtle would be looking out upon a blaze of flaming red maples in this spot but on this day all we saw was green.

I saw plenty of flowers along the river, including this aster that I’ve been too lazy to try to identify.

I hate to say it but when I was a boy this river was so polluted you could hardly stand the smell in high summer. I’ve seen it run orange and purple and green, and any other color the woolen mills happened to be dyeing with on any particular day. I’ve seen people dump their trash on its banks and I’ve seen it close to dead, with only frogs, turtles and muskrats daring to get near it. But after years of effort it is clean once again and eagles fish for trout and other freshwater fish along its length. It no longer smells and though you can still find an occasional rusty can or broken bottle it is far cleaner than it was when I was growing up. Or so I thought; when I was a boy you could step in the mud at the river’s edge and see oil accumulating in your footstep, just like it did in the photo above. How long will it take to clean that up, I wonder? It’s a hard thing to see, after all these years.

But the plants don’t seem to mind. Blue vervain (Verbena hastata) is just about done this year but I still loved seeing the few pretty little flowers that were left. This plant can get quite tall under the right conditions but it’s fussy about where it grows. It likes wet soil and full sun, which means I almost always find it near water. Its bitter roots were used by Native Americans to treat gastric irritation and some tribes roasted them and ground them into flour. Others dried the flowers and used them as snuff to stop nosebleeds. This is one of the plants they introduced to the Europeans and they used it in much the same way.

Ducks and many other birds feed on the seeds of buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) and the ones on this plant were almost gone. This native shrub grows all along the river and I see it fairly often. Each puffy bit that looks like a bladder is what a fertilized flower turns into and each should hold two black seeds.

Hairy galls on buttonbush leaves are caused by the buttonbush mite (Aceria cephalanthi.) There are over 900 species of the nearly microscopic Aceria insects that are identified by the host plants they feed on.

Nodding bur marigolds (Bidens tripartita) grew along the shore with smartweeds like tearthumb. I just featured this plant in my last post so I won’t go on about it, other than to say that the way to tell how old the flowers are is by their position. As they age they nod and point toward the ground, so it’s safe to assume that these flowers were relatively freshly opened.

Mad dog skullcaps (Scutellaria laterifolia) are still blooming, I was surprised to see. This plant was unusual because of its one flower. They always bloom in pairs and I must have gotten there just after one of this pair had fallen. They love to grow on grassy hummocks near rivers and ponds and that’s where I always find them. The skullcap part of the common name comes from the calyx at the base of the flower, which is said to look like a medieval skull cap. The plant was once thought to cure rabies, and that is where the mad dog part of the common name comes from. This plant contains powerful medicine so it should never be eaten. When Native Americans wanted to go on a vision quest or a spirit walk, this was one of the plants they chose to get them there.

Giant foxtail grass (Setaria faberi) is a large annual grass that can form large colonies. Its nodding, bristly, spike like flower heads and wide leaves make it easy to identify. The flower heads go from light green to straw colored as they age.

I think pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) goes from flower to fruit quicker than any plant I know of. These berries were overripe and stained my fingers purple when I touched them. The birds usually eat them right up and I was surprised to find so many on this plant. Science says that humans should never eat the berries or any other part of the plant because it’s considered toxic, but people do eat the new shoots in spring. Native Americans used the plant medicinally and also used the juice from the berries to decorate their horses.

My favorite part of the pokeweed plant is the tiny purple “flower” on the back of each berry. The flower is actually what’s left of the flower’s five lobed calyx, but it mimics the flower perfectly. I just noticed that this calyx has six lobes rather than five. That’s the first time I’ve ever seen more than five.

A hedge bindweed (Calystegia sepium) found its way to the top of a pokeweed plant to get more sunlight. Pokeweeds can get 5 or 6 feet tall so the bindweed got a lot closer to the sun than it would have normally been able to.

And here was something new; at least, it was new to me. I can’t believe I’ve walked the banks of this river for over 50 years and have never seen native swamp smartweed (Persicaria hydropiperoides.) This plant is also called false water pepper or mild water pepper and is the only smartweed I’ve ever seen that had most of its flowers open at once. You’re usually lucky to find one or two open on a smartweed.

From what I’ve read even botanists have a hard time with this one because the plant is so variable, probably because of cross breeding. The pretty pinkish white flowers are quite small; less than an eighth of an inch across.  They remind me of the sand jointweed flowers that I featured in the last post, right down to the plum colored anthers.

No, I haven’t put the same shot of the Ashuelot River in this post twice. This one looks upriver from a bridge and the one at the start of the post looks downriver. I couldn’t decide which one I liked best so you get to see both of them. I hope you like one or the other. They show how the green is starting to lighten and fade from a lot of the leaves.

This was one of those perfect New England days in late summer where the spirit of autumn takes a first stealing flight, like a spy, through the ripening country-side, and, with feigned sympathy for those who droop with August heat, puts her cool cloak of bracing air about leaf and flower and human shoulders. ~Sarah Orne Jewett

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Seeing the purple trilliums bloom told me that it was time to walk down an old rail trail in Westmoreland to see the wild columbines bloom. But purple trilliums aren’t the only sign and I almost turned back when I saw that the red elderberry at the start of the trail wasn’t blooming yet. So far every time I’ve seen the columbines in bloom the red elderberry was blooming as well.

There has been a lot of logging going on up here over the past few years and you can now see deep into the forest, which is or was mostly beech, maple and oak. I was glad I could see so far because this is known bear country up here. I had a can of bear spray with me but I’m hoping I never have to use it. If I saw a bear way off in the distance I’d sooner leave the woods to it rather than spray it.

It was a little disorienting to see the plants so far along here. Here were ferns in leaf while in Keene they were barely out of the ground.

I was just taking photos of striped maple buds (Acer pennsylvanicum) breaking the day before and here they were in leaf.

I hadn’t seen any sign of wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis) in Keene but here it was in its strange, clasping pose. This is how it looks just before its leaves unfurl.

Some plants had even leafed out already. At this stage many people confuse wild sarsaparilla with poison ivy, which also comes up at the same time and has glossy green leaves.

What looks like a dark tunnel is where we’re going. Once you get there you find that it isn’t dark and it isn’t a tunnel.

But what was that up ahead?

Beech bud break; one of my favorite things to see in the spring forest. They are this beautiful for a very short time; less than a day before leafing out completely. It usually starts when the buds begin to curl in mid-May, so these were early. At this point I hadn’t seen any sign of bud break in Keene.

I don’t know how long I stood there admiring the new leaves and taking photos but it was a good while. This only happens on one or two days each year and I usually lose myself in the beauty of it for a while. In what seems like no time at all the new leaves will lose their silver fringe and become completely green for the summer. If I’d seen no more of nature for the rest of the day I still would have been very happy. I do hope readers of this blog will look for new leaves in spring. They can be astoundingly beautiful and they’re so easy to find.

Here we are already. These ledges were made when the railroad cut its way through in the mid-1800s. It is part of the same rail trail that the Westmoreland deep cut is on, which I’ve posted about regularly over the years. The major difference in the two cuts is how this wall of this cut is bathed in sunshine for much of the day. It means that a lot of different species of wildflowers can grow here. I have a feeling that this ledge is lime rich because wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) prefers a slightly alkaline soil.

There they were and I was surprised, because though every other plant I had seen here was ahead of its cousins to the south the columbines were not. They were heavily budded though and I won’t mind another walk out here to see the blossoms. Most of the columbines grow over my head on the ledges so getting good photos of them can be difficult. I tried climbing up to them once and slipped on the oak leaves, landing in a very undignified heap at the foot of the ledge.

This bud was within reach and had a few stamens poking out. It also had what looks like a tiny insect egg on it, there on the left. I’m guessing that it would have been about the size of a single letter in any word of this sentence as they appear here; so very small I didn’t even see it until I looked at the photo.

The flower buds on this Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) were clearly visible but I haven’t seen this plant anywhere near this far along in Keene. It must be the bright sunshine up here, or the fact that cold air runs downhill like water and pools in the valleys like the one Keene is in. This must be some type of microclimate.

Jack in the pulpit plants (Arisaema triphyllum) were blooming on the ledges. I always lift the hood of the spathe to see “Jack,” which is the spadix, and to see the beautiful dark stripes. Another name for this plant is tcika-tape, which translates to “bad sick” in certain Native American tribal language. But they didn’t get sick on the poisonous roots because they knew how to cook them to remove the calcium oxalate crystals that make them toxic. That leads to another common name: Indian turnip.

I’ve always thought of the spadix in a Jack in the pulpit as being black, but the bright sunshine shows it to actually be more plum colored. If you’re looking for Jack in the pulpit yet another name for it is bog onion, and that should tell you that it likes low, damp places. But it will also grow on stone as it does here, as long as there is dripping groundwater to keep it good and moist.

There is a large clump of purple trillium (Trillium erectum) here as well.

I know I just showed a purple trillium in my last post but who can resist something as beautiful as this? They’ll be gone before we know it.

In my last post I told about finding marsh marigold, which is a plant I’d never seen, and here was another one I’d never seen: blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides.) Cohosh is believed to be an Algonquin name used for several different plants with different color fruit and in this case the blue refers to the berries. The stems and leaves also have a blueish cast. I think this must have been this plant’s first year here. It stood knee high right next to the trail and was quite bushy, so I surely would have seen it last year. It is said to be long lived when it grows in a place that it likes.

Each of the 6 yellow green petal-like sepals of the blue cohosh flower contains a nectar gland to attract spring insects. The flowers are small at about 1/2 inch across. 6 yellow stamens form a ring around the green center ovary. The true petals are the shiny green parts that ring the center between the sepals and the stamens. Though both Native Americans and early settlers used the plant medicinally to treat a variety of ailments including childbirth, it contains alkaloids and all parts of it should be considered toxic.

Though the flower buds showed some blue the name blue cohosh actually comes from the blue fruit, which looks much like a blueberry but isn’t really a berry at all. They are actually brown seeds with a dark blue fleshy seed coat that protects them. The naked seeds are considered the plant’s fruit but are poisonous. I’m looking forward to coming back and seeing the “berries” when they ripen in summer. It also has beautiful dark blue shoots as it comes out of the ground in spring, so of course I’ll have to be here next year to see that as well. I certainly haven’t seen every plant there is to see but I’ve seen many, so finding two plants I’ve never seen before in one day really amazed me. I think I had a great week. Tomorrow I’ll go back to see those columbines in bloom.

My relationship to plants becomes closer and closer. They make me quiet; I like to be in their company. ~Peter Zumthor

Thanks for stopping in. Happy Mother’s Day to all of the moms out there!

 

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