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Posts Tagged ‘American Beech Bud Break’

Last Sunday I decided to follow a rail trail in Swanzey that I knew had a trestle on it. History and botany are two of my favorite things and I knew I’d find a lot of both here. It was a beautiful warm, sunny day and hiking just about anywhere would have been pleasant.

Sometimes the sap of white pines will turn blue in very cold weather but it was warm on this day and the sap was still blue. I wonder if it stays blue once it changes.

I’ve never heard of bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) being evergreen but there were several plants along the trail, all wearing their winter purple / bronze color. If this plant looks familiar it’s probably because it is the smallest of our native dogwoods and the 4 leaves look like miniature versions of dogwood tree leaves. Bunchberry gets its common name from its bunches of bright red berries. It is also called creeping dogwood and bunchberry dogwood. Native Americans used the berries as food and made a tea from the ground root to treat colic in infants. The Cree tribe called the berry “kawiskowimin,” meaning “itchy chin berry” because rubbing the berries against your skin can cause a reaction that will make you itch.

Something unusual I saw this day was a Canada yew (Taxus canadensis.) It is native from Newfoundland west to Manitoba, south to Virginia, Tennessee, Illinois, and Iowa, but in this region I rarely see it. Though all parts of the yew plant are poisonous several Native American tribes made tea from the needles to ease everything from numbness to scurvy. A man in England died not too long ago from eating yew, so I wouldn’t advise trying to make tea from it. Natives knew how to treat poisonous plants in ways that made them beneficial to humans, but much of that knowledge has been lost.

A yew branch looks very flat and once you get to know what they look like you’ll never mistake it for any other evergreen.

Snowmobile clubs have built wooden guardrails along the sides of all of the train trestles in the area to make sure that nobody goes over the side and into the river. That wouldn’t be good, especially if there was ice on the river. Snowmobile clubs work very hard to maintain these trails and all of us who use them owe them a great debt of gratitude, because without their hard work the trails would most likely be overgrown and impassable. I hope you’ll consider making a small donation to your local club as a thank you.

Years ago before air brakes came along, brakemen had to climb to the top of moving boxcars to manually set each car’s brakes. The job of brakeman was considered one of the most dangerous in the railroad industry because many died from being knocked from the train when it entered a trestle or tunnel. This led to the invention seen in the above photo, called a “tell-tale.” Soft wires about the diameter of a pencil hung from a cross brace, so when the brakeman on top of the train was hit by the wires he knew that he had only seconds to duck down to avoid running into the top of a tunnel, trestle, or other obstruction. Getting hit by the wires at even 10 miles per hour must have hurt some, but I’m sure it was better than the alternative. Tell tales are rarely seen these days; the above photo shows the only example I know of.

The Ashuelot River was full in places.

And over full in others. This happens regularly throughout this area and the trees survive it just fine. Many are silver (Acer saccharinum) and red maples (Acer rubrum.)  Another name for them is swamp maple because they often grow in the lowlands along rivers that flood regularly.

The large crimson bud clusters make the maples easy to spot at this time of year but I couldn’t tell if these examples were flowering or not. Many are, now that we’ve had some warmth.

There isn’t a lot of ledge in this section of trail but there is some and it shows the marks of a steam drill.  The railroad workers cut through the solid rock by drilling deep holes into the stone using steam powered drills and then poring black powder into them. Packing these holes with black powder and lighting a fuse was a very dangerous business and many were killed doing it, but dynamite wasn’t invented until 1866 so it was either black powder or brute force. Trains first rolled through here in the mid-1850s.

Maple dust lichens (Lecanora thysanophora) are beautiful and are definitely worth looking for. I’ve found them growing on maple, oak, beech, and poplars. They are usually quite a different green but the camera didn’t seem to be seeing green very well this day.

You can tell that it’s a maple dust lichen by the tiny fringe around its outer edge.

The trail goes on for many miles and it is wide, flat, and sometimes busy as it was on this day. I saw several people while I was here and I was happy to see them out enjoying nature. I hope they saw as many interesting things as I did.

There was snow for anyone who might want it. I didn’t.

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. Others I saw had not curled yet.

Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) 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.

Partridgeberry flowers 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. Other names for this plant include twinberry and two-eyed berry. Native Americans ate the berries and made them into a jelly, which was eaten in case of fevers. Partridgeberry is still used in folk medicine today to treat muscle spasms and as a nerve tonic.

Apple moss (Bartramia pomiformis) grows along the sides of the trail and its thousands of tiny spore capsules were shining in the sun. Reproduction begins in the late fall for this moss and immature spore capsules (sporophytes) appear by late winter. In the spring the straight, toothpick like sporophytes swell at their tips and form tiny globes that always look like pearls to me, but someone thought they looked like apples and the name stuck.  Sometimes the capsules do turn red as they age, so I suppose the name makes sense.

Most of these spore capsules were not quite spherical and that means that they were still immature. When they become spherical the spores will begin to ripen and prepare for the wind to disperse them.

Human history and natural history are visible from rail trails. The old railroad routes through a town can show a lot about how the town developed, what it was like long ago. When you go through a town by bicycle on an old railroad route, the place looks very different than from the customary perspective of the car and the highway. ~Peter Harnick

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There are spring haters out there. I know there are because I’ve talked to some of them. They complain of dirty snowbanks, brown grass, bare trees, wind and cold, and just the blah-ness of it all. No color, they say. Well, this post is designed to show them how wrong they are. Spring shouldn’t be about seeing tulips and daffodils out of the car window as you drive past. It should be about walking slowly, looking closely, and marveling at what is in my opinion the most beautiful season of all. It should be about seeing the incredible beauty of nature, and witnessing the miracles that happen each and every day. It’s hard to deny the beauty of red maple blossoms (Acer rubrum) for instance, as we see in this photo. Though this shot is from last year they have started blooming now. The blooming period doesn’t last long, so now is the time to look for them. You won’t have to look hard though, because these trees are everywhere.

Silver maple flowers (Acer saccharinum) look a lot like those of red maples, but the fruits (samaras) of silver maple are far more beautiful, in my opinion. You can find these in mid-May here and no, you don’t need to be able to tell a silver maple from a red maple; all you need to do is look closely, regularly.  These samaras look like this for only a day or two.

American hazelnut flowers (Corylus americana) have also just started to bloom. These beautiful, rarely seen things are very small, so if your eyes are as old as mine you might want to carry a loupe or macro lens. Or, there are also free magnifying glass apps that you can get for a cell phone. I have one and it works well. I took this photo at just about this time last year. Hazelnut shrubs grow along rail trails, roadways, and in waste places.

Other tiny flowers are those of the speckled alder (Alnus incana.) The cylindrical flower clusters are long and thin and often appear in groups at the ends of branches. They are called catkins or aments. Each flower cluster has many crimson, thread-like female stigmas just poking out. Don’t be afraid to grab a branch of a tree or shrub and pull it toward you so you can see better; you won’t hurt the plant at all. This photo was taken on March 26th of last year and I’ve already seen hints of them this year, so the time to look is now in this area. Alders get little hard black cones called strobiles on their branch ends and usually grow near water.

If you can’t find anything to marvel at on shrubs or trees check the stones. They’re often covered with lichens like the beautiful smoky eye boulder lichen (Porpidia albocaerulescens) shown here. Unless the stones are covered with snow there are always lichens to see and they can be very beautiful.

If there aren’t any stones look in the bushes. You might be astonished by what you find. These robin eggs hatched in May two years ago.

The leaves of the red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) look like tiny fingers as they pull themselves away from their protective covering of the flower bud and straighten up. Bud break comes very early on this native shrub; this photo was taken in mid-April of 20105. The purplish green flower buds will become greenish white flowers, followed by bright red berries. One of life’s simple pleasures is watching buds like these open and it costs nothing but a few minutes of time each day.

On every stone, on every branch and in every puddle, the beauty of spring can be found. Tiny new eastern larch flowers (Larix laricina) are beautiful and always worth looking for. They appear in mid-May and are quite small. Their color helps me see them and a macro lens shows why I bother looking for them in this photo from May 17th of 2014. They’re very beautiful so I hope you’ll take a look at any larch trees you might know of.

Leaves can also be beautiful, as this photo of the deeply pleated leaves of false hellebores (Veratrum viride) from mid-May of 2015 shows. False hellebore is one of the most toxic plants we have here, so you’re probably better off just admiring rather than touching this one. They like low, moist areas along streams and rivers.

The point of all this is to learn to see rather than to simply look. There is a difference; one day I met two college age girls on a woodland trail. They complained that they hadn’t seen a single wildflower, though the area was known for them. When I walked the same trail I saw flowers everywhere. They were small yes, but they were there. So how can this be? I’m guessing that they probably walked too fast and thought more about the end of the trail than what they might see along it. A toddler’s pace and a willingness to look a little closer would have let them see beautiful things that they probably hadn’t even imagined were there. Beautiful little Pennsylvania sedge flowers like those shown here are barely 4 inches tall, so you have to look the ground over carefully for them. They’ll appear along woodland edges and roadsides in mid-April, coming up out of what look like little tufts of course grass.

Orangey pink striped maple buds (Acer pensylvanicum) are a good example of why, when a bud or flower catches your eye in the spring, you should watch it every day because changes come quickly. In a day or two your beautifully colored bud might have become leaves. The tree or shrub you happen to be looking at wants food, and food means leaves that can photosynthesize. There is no benefit to keeping its leaves tightly wrapped in the bud unless it is to protect the tender new growth from cold. If it is warm they’ll open quickly.

Box elder (Acer negundo) is in the maple family but it’s a “soft maple” and in this area is considered a weed tree because of how they come up everywhere. A box elder was the first tree I ever planted when I was a boy though, so they’re special to me. I think they’re at their most beautiful in April when they flower. The lime green, sticky pistils of female box elder flowers seen in this photo appear along with the tree’s leaves, just a few days after the male flowers have fully opened, I’ve noticed. Box elders have male flowers on one tree and female flowers on another, unlike a lot of other maples. The earliest known example of a Native American flute, dating from 620-670 AD, was made from its wood.

Fern fiddleheads just out of the ground are some of the most beautiful things to see in spring. One of my favorites is the lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina.) Lady fern is the only one I know of with brown / black scales on its stalks. This fern likes to grow in moist, loamy areas along streams.

If you’re in a moist, loamy area looking for lady ferns you might as well look for some horsetails too. The fertile spore bearing stem of a common horsetail (Equisetum arvense) ends in a light brown, cone shaped structure called a strobilus, and it’s a beautiful thing to see. Since it doesn’t photosynthesize at this point in its development the plant has no need for chlorophyll, so most of it is a pale, whitish color. When it’s ready to release its spores the cone opens to reveal tiny, mushroom shaped sporangiophores. The whitish “ruffles” at the base of each brown sporangiophore are the spore producing sporangia. When the horsetail looks like the one in the photo it has released its spores and will soon die and be replaced by an infertile stem. I find these at around the end of April.

I know what the big buds of shagbark hickory look like when they open but even so, they’re so beautiful they always stop me in my tracks and make me stand there with my mouth hanging open. They are easily one of the most beautiful things in the spring forest and I start watching for them in mid-May. I usually find them growing near water; along river banks or near lakes and ponds.

So why  should you bother looking for all this stuff in spring? Well, why should you bother going to an art gallery, or listen to music, or read a book? We do these things to enrich our lives, to help renew and rejuvenate our minds and spirits; to make ourselves more comfortable with the unknown; more at peace, and more creative. Nature will do all of this for us and more. Nature, from my own experience, is very healing. If you face a rough spot in life try just walking alone on a favorite woodland path each day. In no time at all your problems will seem to have been solved with very little effort. I would never tell you this if it wasn’t true; it has happened in my own life again and again. I think it’s because nature study makes us meditate quite naturally, so we don’t even realize we’re doing so. It’s hard to worry and fret when something captivates your attention so just look at all that’s happening in the white baneberry (Actaea pachypoda) shoot above. Just up out of the soil and it’s already amazing. When I see it I want to draw it, and I think I could sit and look at it all day.

A large part of why I spend every free minute in nature is because of the incredible beauty I see. It’s amazing to think that so much beauty has been in plain sight all along. For a large part of my life I never took the time to see it and I hope you won’t make the same mistake. Everyone knows where there is a beech tree. Just start watching the branch tips around the first week in May. You’ll see the long, pointed buds begin to curl quite severely and then a day or so later miracles will happen; it will look like a host of angles has swooped down and shed their downy wings. Even the gloomiest among us will feel their pulse quicken and magically, a smile will appear on their face. If they spend time with nature it will be there for a while, so they’d better get used to it.

So here we are at the end of this post and until now we haven’t seen a flower with petals on it, so if you’re one of those people who think the beauty of spring means tulips and daffodils I hope I’ve changed your mind. But, if it is still flowers you want try a woodland walk in mid-April. If you’re lucky you might just find some spring beauties (Claytonia virginica) like those in this photo. All of what you’ve seen here and so very much more is just starting to happen, so I hope very much that you’ll get out there and see it for yourself.

Go out, go out I beg of you
And taste the beauty of the wild.
Behold the miracle of the earth
With all the wonder of a child.
~Edna Jaques

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1. Silver Maple Seeds

The beautiful fruits (samaras) of the silver maple (Acer saccharinum) start out their lives deep red with a white furry coat. When you see them beginning to form you have to check them frequently to catch them in this stage because it happens quickly and ends just as quickly. The mature seeds are the largest of any native maple and are a favorite food of the eastern chipmunk. Silver maples get their common name from the downy surface of the leaf underside, which flashes silver in the slightest breeze.

2. Ostrich Fern Fiddleheads

I joined a professional ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) fiddlehead forager earlier to see where the ferns grow along the Connecticut River. There were many thousands of ferns there-so many that I don’t think a busload of people could have picked them all. I also saw some of the biggest trees that I’ve ever seen that day. Ostrich fern fiddleheads are considered a great delicacy by many and many restaurants are happy to pay premium prices for them at this time of year. I’ve always heard that ostrich fern is the only one of our native ferns that is safe to eat. They like to grow in shady places where the soil is consistently damp. They really are beautiful things at this stage in life.

3. Lady Fern Fiddleheads

Though I’ve heard that ostrich fern is the only fern safe to eat many people eat lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina) fiddleheads as well, and gourmet restaurants in Quebec will pay as much as $10.00 per pound for them. Both ostrich and lady fern fiddleheads are considered toxic when raw and should be boiled for at least 10 minutes, according to one chef. After they are boiled they are sautéed in butter and are said to hold their crispness. They are also said to have the flavor of asparagus, but more intense. Lady fern is the only one I know of with brown / black scales on its stalks.

 4. Cinnamon Fern Fiddleheads

Both cinnamon (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum) and interrupted ferns (Osmunda claytoniana) have wooly fiddleheads that taste very bitter and are mildly toxic. Some fern fiddleheads, like those of the sensitive fern, are carcinogenic so you should know your fern fiddleheads well before picking and eating them or you could get very sick. I’ve known the fern in the photo for a few years now and know that it is a cinnamon fern, but if I hadn’t seen its fertile fronds in the past I wouldn’t know for sure. The fertile fronds that will appear a little later on once reminded someone of a stick of cinnamon, and that’s how it comes by its common name.

5. Interrupted Fern

The interrupted fern gets its common name from the way its green infertile leaflets are “interrupted” about half way up the stem by the brown, fertile leaflets. The fertile leaflets are much smaller and their color makes them stand out even at a distance. This fern doesn’t seem to mind dry, sunny spots because that’s usually where I find them.

6. Interrupted Fern Fertile Frond

Though usually brown the fertile leaflets on this interrupted fern were bright green and I wonder if they change color as they age; I’ve never paid close enough attention to know for sure. In any event, the fertile leaflets are covered with tiny, round spore producing sporangia. They will release their spores through tiny openings and then the fertile leaflets will fall off, leaving a piece of naked (interrupted) stem between the upper and lower infertile leaflets.

7. Algae

Last year at about this time I found this greenish stuff seeping out of the rocks on a rail trail and, not knowing what it was, called it rock slime. It looked slimy but if you put your finger in it, it felt like cool water and wasn’t slimy at all. Now this year I seem to be seeing it everywhere, but still seeping out of rocks. Luckily last year our friends Zyriacus, Jerry, Laura, and others identified it as a green algae of the genus Spyrogyra.  Zyriacus said that some 400 species of this genus are known, and they thrive in freshwater. It’s great having knowledgeable friends-just look at the things we learn from each other!

 8. Beaver Tree

Beavers started cutting this tree, but they don’t seem to be in any hurry to see it fall because it has been this way for a while. The only part of the tree’s trunk they eat for food is the inner bark, called the cambium layer, so maybe they were just snacking.

9. Beaver Tree Closeup

A beaver’s teeth really do make it look like someone has been chiseling the tree. If they have a choice they’d rather tackle trees less than six inches in diameter but they can fell trees up to three feet in diameter. The Native American Cherokee tribe has a story that says that the beaver collects the baby teeth of the tribe’s children, and will give a child good luck in return for a song.

10. White Baneberry

White baneberry (Actaea pachypoda) has so much movement and interest in its spring shoots. They remind me of tiny bird claw-like hands and always make me wish that I had brought a pencil and a sketch pad so I could draw them. Later on this plant will produce bright white berries, each with a single black spot, and that is how it got the common name doll’s eyes.

11. Striped Maple Bud Opening

We’re having some unusual spring warmth and it seems to be speeding up events that normally take a few weeks. I took this photo of a striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum) bud breaking on April 30th. On May 10th I was taking photos of striped maple flowers. From no leaves to flowering in just 10 days seems quite remarkable to me.

 12. Shagbark Hickory Bud Break

As you walk the trails along the Ashuelot River you might see what look like large pinkish orange flowers on the trees and think gosh, what beautiful things. If you get closer you will see that the colors are on the insides of the bud scales of the shagbark hickory tree, and aren’t flowers at all. And then you might wonder why such beautiful colors would be on the inside of a bud where nobody could ever see them, and as you walk on you might find yourself lost in gratitude, so very thankful that you were able to see such a thing. And later on, you might wonder if this chance meeting might have been an invitation.

 13 Beech Bud

In the spring as the sun gets brighter and the days grow longer light sensitive tree buds can tell when there is enough daylight for the leaves to begin photosynthesizing, so the buds begin to break. Bud break is defined as “when the green tip of a leaf can be seen emerging from the bud” and this can be a very beautiful thing, as we just saw with the shagbark hickory. American beech bud (Fagus grandifolia) break is every bit as beautiful and 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.

 14. Beech Bud Break

Now we know how beech buds open, but who can explain why they’re so beautiful when they do? Maybe it’s just another invitation. These invitations come so unexpectedly. Art, music, the beauty of a leaf or flower; all can invite us to step outside of ourselves; to lose ourselves and walk a higher path, at least for a time. It’s an invitation which if accepted, can be life changing.

One who not merely beholds the outward shows of things, but catches a glimpse of the soul that looks out of them, whose garment and revelation they are–if he be such, I say he will stand for more than a moment, speechless with something akin to that which made the morning stars sing together. ~George MacDonald

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