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Posts Tagged ‘American Elderberry’

Last Saturday it rained most of the day but Sunday had hit or miss showers so I hoped for the best and went for one of my favorite walks along the Ashuelot River in Keene. It was a damp, humid day.

I’ve known this section of river all my life. I used to fish here at the dam when I was a boy and they still fish for trout, pickerel and sunfish here today. All I ever caught were perch and dace but the river was a lot dirtier in those days. This dam is known as the Faulkner and Colony dam because it was built around 1777 by that company to power their mill. A few years ago there was talk about removing it to open up the river and another idea would refurbish it to generate power but I haven’t heard anything lately about either idea. I like the thought of restoring the river to what it once was without any dams on it. Two other dams have been removed in the past 20 years; one in Swanzey and one in Hinsdale.

Twelve Native American sites have been found along this section of river so far. At least one site dates back 10, 500 years, and I wouldn’t be surprised if many of these trails were originally made by the Natives, because they hug the river closely and have many good fishing spots along them.  The word Ashuelot means “collection of many waters” in Native American language and many small tributaries pour into it throughout the area. The Ashuelot in turn, empties into the Connecticut River before it finally finds its way to the Atlantic.

Arrowwood viburnum berries (Viburnum dentatum) were ripe along the shore but hadn’t been touched by the birds.

Elderberries on the other hand, were being eaten the minute they ripened. There were green berries and half ripe red berries, but no fully ripe purple-black berries on this bush. I don’t suppose I’ll ever understand why birds choose to eat what they do. We still have staghorn sumacs full of last year’s fruit, and what’s wrong with viburnum berries?

Meadowsweet (Spirea alba) still blooms alongside rivers and ponds but its cousin steeple bush (Spirea tomentose) has finished. Native Americans used both plants medicinally.

Tall meadow rue (Thalictrum pubescens) was ready to call it a summer. The leaves on this plant sometimes turn a beautiful purple color at the end of summer. Some Native American tribes used this plant to treat nosebleeds and others used it as a spice. It likes to grow in disturbed soil near water.

The most popular spot for turtles in this part of the river is the end of this old log. You can almost always see a turtle or two on it at any time of day so it’s a good place for children to walk. When I was a boy it seemed like this place had everything a boy could want, and I spent many happy days here.

In places the trail widens enough so that 4 people could walk side by side, but this width doesn’t last. On most of the trail 2 people side by side is more like it.

The prize for the most unusual thing I saw on this day has to go to what I think is a bleeding tooth fungus (Hydnellum peckii.) This large fungus gets its common name from the many droplets of blood red liquid it exudes when young. Though some of the droplets on this example were red most were more amber colored. The “tooth” part of the common name comes from the spines on its underside. The liquid the fungus oozes contains a chemical called atromentin, which has anti-bacterial and anticoagulant properties.

Here is a look at the mushroom under LED light, which shows that most of the droplets are not red. Because of the color of the liquid and the fact that I found it growing on a tree rather than on the ground I question my identification, but I can’t find another mushroom that “bleeds” and grows on trees. If you know of another species that does this and grows on trees I’d love for you to tell me about it.

A large tree had fallen into the river on the far side. This is a fairly regular occurrence and it always reminds me that, however slowly, the river is always getting wider. It was also quite high due to all of the rain. I think we’re up to about 10 inches in three weeks, according to the rain gauge where I work. This is after a moderate drought in the first half of summer and the dry land has been sponging it up fairly well until lately. Now there aren’t many places for more water to go. Even the forest floor has standing water on it in many places, so we need a dry spell. As I write this it’s pouring rain yet again.

Something had been munching on the starflowers (Trientalis borealis.) The Trientalis part of the plant’s scientific name means “one third of a foot” in Latin, and that’s just about how tall this pretty little plant gets. The spring woods wouldn’t be the same without its white star shaped flowers. This one had a seed pod; you can just see the tiny white dot between the leaf at 12 o’clock and the one at 1 o’clock.

Tiny starflower seedpods always remind me of soccer balls. They’re just about the same size as an air gun BB. The few brown seeds inside need a cold period to germinate and will not do so until the fall of the second year. Ants and other insects “plant” the seeds.

I saw some colorful turkey tail fungi (Trametes versicolor,) the first fresh ones I’ve seen this season. I’m hoping to see lots of blue and purple ones this year.

Woodland agrimony (Agrimonia striata) looks almost like goldenrod from a distance. The small yellow flowers grow on long spikes (racemes) on a short, knee high plant.

Woodland agrimony is said to be rare in New England and I believe it because this is one of only two places I’ve ever seen it. It grows in the shade near a tangle of many other plant species. It has been used medicinally for thousands of years dating back to at least ancient Egypt. Though the plant is said to be native to the U.S. and Canada I can find no information on how it was used by Native Americans, and that’s unusual. It is also called roadside agrimony.

Blue vervain (Verbena hastata) is one of my summer favorites, mostly because it dresses in my favorite color. This is another plant that loves water and it grows near ponds and rivers, and even wet roadside ditches. The bitter roots of this plant were used by native Americans to relieve gastric irritation, as an expectorant, and to induce sweating. The seeds were roasted and ground into flour by some tribes, and others dried the flowers and used them as snuff to treat nosebleeds. Natives introduced the plant to the Europeans and they used it in much the same ways.

One of the reasons I wanted to visit this place was because I had seen narrow leaved gentians (Gentiana andrewsii) blooming in Nelson the previous week and I wanted to see if the closed or bottle gentians (Gentiana linearis) were blooming. Not only were they not blooming, they were barely budded. Narrow leaf and closed gentian flowers look identical, so you have to look at the leaves carefully to tell the difference. These leaves are wider and have a different overall shape than those of narrow leaf gentian.

The trail narrowed and got muddy after a time, but I was too busy enjoying all the wildflowers to care.

One of the wildflowers I saw was spotted jewelweed (Impatiens capensis,) which gets its name not from its orange flowers but from the way raindrops sparkle like jewels on its wax coated leaves.

I turn around at this little bridge because not too far beyond it you come to one of the main roads through Keene, and I didn’t need to see it again. Though this was a wet walk I made it all the way back and never did get rained on. It always does me good to be close to the river. I always come away feeling recharged, as if the 12 year old me has joined the me of today. I think that must be mainly due to the memories, because there isn’t a bad one to be found here.

The song of the river ends not at her banks, but in the hearts of those who have loved her. ~ Buffalo Joe

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 1. Rail Trail

Last weekend really felt like spring with warm sunshine and warm southwesterly breezes blowing, so I decided to walk an old rail trail that runs right behind the house I grew up in. When I was a boy there were railroad tracks here and I spent many hours walking along them. Now snowmobiles get the most use out of the area. I appreciate them packing the snow down so you don’t need snowshoes, but it means that there is far less solitude here than there used to be.

 2. Wild Cucumber

There are many things along this old rail bed that take me back to my childhood, including the wild cucumbers (Echinocystis lobata) that we all used to throw at each other. This is one of the plants that made me want to know more about why and how plants grew the way they did. I had lots of questions and since nobody I knew could answer them, when I got a little older I turned to books like Asa Gray’s Manual of Botany.

 3. Black Raspberry First Year Cane 

By reading Gray’s Manual and other botany books I was able to answer many questions, like why do some plants have this bluish white coating on them? I learned that, in botanical terms, a plant part that looks like this is said to be glaucous, which describes the color. The coating is called bloom and is a wax which can protect the plant from sunburn, prevent moisture loss, or help shed excess water from the leaves.  I see it mostly on plums and blueberries.

In the case of the plant in the above photo the bloom on the cane (along with the prickles) taught me that it was a black raspberry, rather than a red raspberry or a blackberry. I also learned that bloom on canes means that they are first year vegetative canes (primocanes) that would bear no fruit until their second year. There were plenty of others that did bear fruit though, and I used to eat bellyfuls of them.

 4. Winter Woods

At one time there were large fields of corn growing along the rail bed but now some of the land has started reverting back to forest.  Most of the trees seen here can’t be more than 40-45 years old. Knowing that I’m older than the trees brings on kind of an odd feeling.

I learned how badly corn plants can make you itch can be by running through the cornfields that were once here. Each corn leaf has tiny, saw tooth serrations on its edges that can cause quite a rash on exposed skin. Of course I could have prevented it by wearing a long sleeved shirt, but you would have had to have hog tied me to get long sleeves on me in the summer.

 5. Virgin's Bower Seeds

My grandmother taught me about the wind blowing pollen from one corn plant to another, but here on the tracks is where I learned how other plants use the wind. Virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana) for instance, grows long feathery filaments called styles on its seeds (fruits) so the wind can carry them long distances. Botanically speaking these “seeds” are achenes, which are fruits with one seed. This is a common plant seen draped over shrubs and climbing into trees all along these tracks.

 6. Feathers-2

Every time I see a feather stuck in a bush I wonder what bird left it there. I usually come away scratching my head and this time was no different.  It’s odd that the wind can send clematis seeds flying, but feathers seem to stay stuck fast to whatever they land on.

 7. Ash Swamp Brook in Winter

Ash Swamp brook meanders lazily through Keene before finally meeting the Ashuelot River here.  I spent many happy hours exploring this place as a boy. Coming this far south down the tracks was quite an excursion but it was always worth it. Very near here the banks of the river are high and sandy and bank swallows used to nest there. Watching them come and go was always good for an afternoon’s entertainment.

 8. Willow Branches

Spring never came by the calendar here. I learned early on that plants could tell you more than the calendar ever could. Willows for example, take on a golden hue when they feel spring coming on.

 9. Pinecone Gall on Willow 

The coming of spring wasn’t the only thing willows taught me to see.  Willows often have pine cone galls on them, caused by a gall midge (Rhabdophaga strobiloides). The midge lays an egg in the terminal leaf bud of a willow in early spring and the larva releases a chemical that tricks the willow into creating this gall instead of leaves. The midge spends winter inside the gall and emerges in the following spring, so the entire cycle takes a full year. It is fascinating things like this, found all along these railroad tracks, which let nature get its hooks into me early on.

10. American Hazelnut Catkins

This is where I also started paying attention to things like catkins; though half a century later I still struggle with the identity of some of the shrubs and trees I find them on. American hazelnut (Corylus Americana) catkins are easy because of the hairy young twigs they often hang from. These hairs are called stipitate glands. Botanically speaking a stipitate gland is a gland on the end of a stalk (stipe).  If you find a hazelnut that doesn’t have hairy young twigs and leaf petioles, it is a beaked hazelnut (Corylus cornuta).

11. Elderberry Buds

We used to make small “pipes” by hollowing out an acorn, putting a hole through the side of it, and then inserting a pipe stem. The choice for the pipe stem was always elderberry because it has soft pith that is easily pushed out of the stem with a hardwood twig.  American elderberry (Sambucus Canadensis) pith is white and spongy, so when you pinch its twigs between your thumb and forefinger they will deform. If it doesn’t deform it isn’t elderberry.  It’s a good thing that we kids never smoked anything in these pipes because elderberry is toxic, especially to kids who make whistles and pipe stems from its parts.

12. Puddle Ice 3

Nothing takes me back to my boyhood at this time of year like the white ice on mud puddles. I remember, once the snow melted off the roads, riding my bike to school through the ice covered puddles that froze at night and melted during the day. I can remember how my spirit soared knowing that once the white ice appeared on the puddles it wouldn’t be long until summer because these were special puddles, not caused by rain but by snow melt. Soon the red sox would once again play at Fenway Park, school would be over until fall, and everything would be right with the world. There was as much joy in the anticipation of the event as there was in the event itself. Lately I’ve been feeling that same joy anticipating the arrival of spring.

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in tune once more.  ~ John Burroughs

Thanks for coming by.

 

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