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Posts Tagged ‘American Hazelnut Catkins’

For a few years now I’ve thought that if anyone came to my door wanting to see a plant that I’ve shown on this blog I’d be able to lead them right to it. I don’t think my memory is any better than anyone else’s but I do believe that I remember where most of the special or unusual things I feature here grow because I visit them as often as I can. But I don’t know that for sure, and I sometimes wonder if I really could lead you to a sweet gum tree, (which isn’t even supposed to grow here) so last Sunday I decided to test myself. Somewhere along this rail trail is a red maple tree with a beautiful lichen on it. It’s grayish white and has blue fruiting bodies (Ascomata) and after my last post about lichens I wanted to see it again, so off I went.

This was a blue day because everywhere I looked I saw blue, like the beautiful blue of the sky’s reflection in the flooded area beside the trail.

There are lots of American hazelnuts (Corylus americana) growing along this trail and their catkins had me longing for spring, when the tiny scarlet threads of the female flowers will appear. They’re a sure sign that spring is upon us, but I won’t be seeing them for a while.

Here was more blue; the beautiful blue of first year black raspberry canes (Rubus occidentalis.) When I was a boy I used to pick and eat handfuls of them along the tracks that used to be here.

The blue color is caused by the way light is reflected off the powdery, waxy white crystals that cover the canes. The crystals are there to protect the young canes from moisture loss and sunburn and many other plants including blueberries, plums, grapes and blue stemmed goldenrod also use the same strategy. The color in this instance was much like that of a blue jay.

There are also wild grapes growing along the trail and most of them were fermenting up in the trees, so the smell of grape jelly was heavy in the wind.

I saw a squirrel up ahead working furiously at something and as I got closer it ran off with a corn cob in its mouth. When I looked at the place it had been I found a pile of corn. It had been stripping the kernels from the cob, and I wondered why it didn’t do it in its nest.

In fact this trail is overrun with squirrels and I’ve never seen so many squirrel nests in one place. The trees were full of them and I’d bet that I must have seen 30 or 40 on this walk. Nests start with a woven twig floor and then damp leaves and moss are packed on top. A spherical framework is woven around the floor and leaves, moss and twigs are stuffed into it until a hollow shell of about 6-8 inches across has been formed. Gray squirrels can have nests that are up to two feet wide and though they look like they’re open to the sky from below, they aren’t.

Some of the trail sides were covered by newly fallen maple leaves and I’m sure the squirrels are using them for nest building. I’ve watched them build nests before and have seen them gather up a bunch of leaves, tuck them up under their chin and hold them there with one front paw, and then run up the tree with the other three paws. They will also carry leaves in their mouth but they can’t seem to carry as many that way.

In spite of the drought last spring the corn grew well this year. I lived very near here when I was a boy and back then the Boston and Maine Railroad ran through here twice each day. There were extensive corn fields all along the railroad tracks in those days, and not much else. These days there are shopping malls nearby and the college has grown more than anyone thought it would. I used to sit out here all day and not see a soul but these days the trail is like a city sidewalk. College students, joggers, walkers, bicyclists and snowmobilers all use it regularly.

The farmer was harvesting his corn while I was there. This is silage for cows, what we used to call “cow corn,” so the entire plant except for the roots is chopped up and blown into 10 wheel dump trucks to be taken off to the farm. The stubble that is left will get tilled under in the spring and then the field will be planted again. These fields aren’t watered so it all depends on weather.

The farmer wasn’t the only one harvesting the corn. His crop must support hundreds of squirrels, and that explains why there are countless squirrel nests here even though there are no oak trees for acorns and very few pine trees for pine seeds.

There is a good view of Mount Monadnock from here, and on this day it was very blue. Since it was easy to see all over town this is the view I grew up with and it comes to mind whenever anyone mentions the mountain. It was from right here when I was probably 14 or so that I hatched a plan to identify and catalog all the wildflowers on the mountain. Henry David Thoreau started doing just that in the 1800s but never finished. I thought I will finish what Henry started, but when I finally got to the mountain I saw how foolish the plan was because this mountain is huge, and it might take ten lifetimes to do what I thought would be a lark. It’s no wonder that Henry never finished.

We’re almost there. That big thing in the center of the photo is a bridge.

And the bridge goes over a very busy highway, built so Keene State College students and others could cross safely. If you’re interested I wrote about it in a post I did last year called “Bridging a Dangerous Crossing.” When I was a boy the highway was just a road so I don’t think it was quite so busy as it is now, but over the past few years you often had to stand and wait for a while before being able to cross.

When I see the bridge I know I’m very close to the maple tree with the beautiful lichen on it, but on this day I got distracted by these married maples. A tree “marriage” happens when two trees of the same species rub together in the wind. When the outer bark is rubbed off the inner cambium layer of the trees can become naturally grafted together and they will be married from then on. The process is called inosculation and isn’t as rare as we might think. I see it happening more all the time.

I knew when I was near the bridge that the tree with the lichen on it would be on the left side of the trail, just a few yards from the bridge. It was a maple but they were all maples and all about the same size, so I had to look at each tree. Actually I had to inspect each tree with my camera because the lichen I was looking for is only about as big as a dime. If you look at all the white spots on the married trees in the previous photo you’ll see what I was up against; those are all lichens.

But after about half an hour of searching I found the frosted comma lichen (Arthonia caesia) I was looking for, so my memory hadn’t completely failed me. Why did I want to find a dime size white spot on a tree? Because it’s a beautiful thing and this is the only example of it I’ve ever seen. The only other lichen I know of with blue fruiting bodies is the smoky eye boulder lichen and that one has blue apothecia only in a certain light. The spherical fruiting bodies on this lichen, called ascomata, are blue in any light and they don’t change color when they dry out. They are also very small; each blue dot is hardly bigger than a period made by a pencil on a piece of paper, so lichen hunters need to carry a good loupe or a camera that is macro capable.

As I walked back down the trail I wondered how and when all the grass grew along the sides of this rail bed. It wasn’t here when I used to come here as a boy. Back then all you saw here were sharp black clinkers, which were basically boiler slag and ash. They were the ballast that the tracks were laid in and it must have been an awful lot of work to get rid of them, but I do like the result. Those clinkers were hard things to take a fall on, which I seem to remember doing quite regularly as a boy.

As I was walking back this birch tree caught my eye. I like to look at the inner bark of trees because sometimes it can be quite beautiful. The inner bark of staghorn sumac can be bright red for instance, after it has peeled and been exposed to light and air. This birch had a deep wound, right down to the wood, and the peeling bark was thick. I thought I saw color there so I had to have a look.

I never expected to see anything like this on the inner bark of a gray birch. The only thing I could think of is the tree’s sap might have turned blue in the cold, because the blue bits weren’t lichens. I can’t think of anything else that could explain so much color. White pine tree sap turns a beautiful blue when it gets cold and on this day it was in the 30s F. with a biting wind. Whatever caused it, it was beautiful and I was happy to see it. As I said it was a blue day and, since blue is my favorite color, I wasn’t at all blue.

There is a way that nature speaks, that land speaks. Most of the time we are simply not patient enough, quiet enough, to pay attention to the story. ~Linda Hogan

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I know this photo of Mount Monadnock doesn’t look very spring like but we got a dusting of snow Friday and I wanted to see how much fell in other places. They got about 3-4 inches in Troy where this was taken, but I’d guess there is a lot more up there on the mountain. I climbed it in April once and in places the snow was almost over my head. It was a foolish thing to do; I got soaked to the skin.

In lower altitudes flowers were blooming in spite of it being a cold day and I finally found some coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara.) The flowers on coltsfoot plants come up before the leaves show so there is no hint of when it will appear. You have to remember where you’ve seen it last year and revisit the places the following spring. This was taken last Saturday and I’m guessing that there are a lot more blooming now, so I’ve got to get back there and see. 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.

The male catkins of American hazelnut (Corylus americana) have lengthened and turned golden, and that’s a sure sign that they’re almost ready to release their pollen.

It wouldn’t make sense for the male hazelnut catkins to release their pollen unless the female blossoms were ready to receive it, so when I see the male catkins looking like those in the previous photo I start looking for the female blossoms, like those pictured here. If pollinated successfully each thread like crimson stigma will become a hazelnut.

Female American hazelnut flowers are among the smallest flowers that I try to photograph but size doesn’t always come through in a photo, so I clipped a paperclip to the branch to give you an idea of scale. That isn’t a giant paperclip; it’s the standard size, so you have to look carefully for these tiny blooms. Male catkins and female flowers will usually be on the same bush. Though the shrubs that I see aren’t much more than 5-6 feet tall I just read that they can reach 16 feet under ideal conditions. The ones I see grow along the edges of roads and rail trails and are regularly cut down. In fact I had a hard time finding any this year. I went to one spot near powerlines and found that hundreds of them had been cut.

A week ago I saw 2 dandelion blossoms. This week I saw too many to count and some had insects on them, so it looks like we’ll have a good seed crop before too long.

Each stalked brownish-purple bud scale on a male speckled alder catkin (Alnus incana) opens in spring to reveal three male flowers beneath, each with a lobed calyx cup and three to five stamens with anthers covered in yellow pollen. The flower parts are clearly visible in this photo but even though it is heavily cropped they are still tiny. The entire catkin is only about 2 ½ inches long.

Just like with the male American hazelnut catkins we saw earlier, when I see the male catkins open on alders I start looking for the female flowers. In this photo the tiny scarlet female stigmas poke out from under the bud scales on all sides of the catkin. The whitish material is the “glue” the plant produces to seal each shingle like bud scale against the wet and cold winter weather. If water got under the bud scale and froze it would kill the female blossoms. When pollinated each thread like female stigma will become a small cone like seed pod (strobile) that I think most of us are used to seeing on alders. These female flowers aren’t much bigger than the female hazelnut flowers we saw earlier so you need good eyes. Or good glasses.

Red elderberry buds (Sambucus racemosa) often break quite early as this one has, and they often pay for it by being frostbitten. But, though it was 18 degrees F. the night before and this one had ice on it, it looked fine. Each small opening leaf looked great all the way to the tip with no damage.

Many of the red maple (Acer rubrum) female blossoms in this area are fully opened now, so from here on it’s all about seed production. I’m looking forward to seeing their beautiful red samaras. The male blossoms have dried and will simply fall from the trees once they have shed their pollen. Sugar maple buds haven’t opened yet that I’ve seen.

At a glance the buds of striped maple (Acer pennsylvanicum) don’t look like they’ve changed much since January, but you have to look a little closer to see what’s going on.

Once you turn the buds of striped maple sideways you can see that the bud scales have come apart, revealing the bud inside. These pink and orange fuzzy buds will be some of the most beautiful things in the forest in a while and I’d hate to miss them. That’s why I check them at least weekly, starting about now. These buds illustrate perfectly why you have to be willing to touch things in nature and bend or turn them whenever possible so you can see all sides, otherwise you can miss a lot of beauty.  When I take photos I try to get shots of all sides, and even under the caps of mushrooms when possible. Most of them are never seen by anyone but me but I can choose the best ones to show you.

From a distance I couldn’t see any yellow flowers on the willows but my camera’s zoom showed me that there were plenty of them. It was one of those sun one minute and clouds the next kind of days, with a blowing wind.

The bees will be very happy to see these blossoms, which are some of our earliest to appear. Willow bark contains salicin, a compound found in aspirin, and willows have been used to relieve pain for thousands of years.

Last week the tiny white flowers of what I think are hairy bittercress plants (Cardamine hirsuta) were ground hugging, but this week they stood up on 4 inch tall stalks. That’s a lot of growth in a week. I’ve read that the seed pods are explosive, so having them as high up as possible makes perfect sense.

Out of a bed of probably 50 hyacinths a single one is about to bloom. Most have buds that have just appeared and aren’t even showing color yet, but this one just doesn’t want to wait. I hope it knows what it’s doing. It’s still getting down into the teens at night.

The daffodil bud that I saw last week and thought would be open this week was not, but it had a visitor. Some type of fly I think, but I’m not very good with insects. It’s not a great photo but it does show that there are indeed insects active. I also saw a hoverfly but I haven’t seen a bee yet.

In spite of it being a sunny day all the crocuses had closed up shop but the reticulated irises (Iris reticulata) were still open for business. They’re beautiful little things.

The tiny ground ivy flowers (Glechoma hederacea) are still showing on a single plant that is surrounded by hundreds of other plants that aren’t blooming. It’s clearly working harder than the others. It must have had ten blossoms on it.

So the story from here is that though spring is happening winter hangs on as well. The last snowstorm dusted my yard with snow that looked like confectioner’s sugar and it melted overnight, but just a few miles north at Beaver Brook the hillsides got considerably more. Chances are it is still there too, because it has been cool. Sooner or later it’s bound to warm up and stay the way. The weather people say there’s a chance we might see 50 degrees today and 70 degrees by Saturday. We’re all hoping they’ve got it right.

The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day.

~Robert Frost

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We had another couple of warm days last weekend with temps in the high 40s F, so I decided to go and check on the skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) to see how they were doing. They are our earliest flowers, often flowering in March, and they grow around the swamp in the above photo, which is one of only two places I’ve seen them.

I doubted I’d see any since it’s only January but there was a single green shoot, probably still there from last fall. This is not a flower bud though, it is a leaf bud. Skunk cabbage is an arum and the actual flowers are hard to see because they blossom inside a spathe. A spathe is a modified leaf which in skunk cabbages usually is colored a splotchy, mottled yellow and maroon. True leaves appear around mid-April when the plant is done flowering.

Do cattails (Typha latifolia) produce new shoots in the fall or in spring? I wondered when I saw these. When I looked them up I read that new shoots appear in spring, but this is January. I have a feeling they appeared last fall and are just biding their time until it warms up. Native Americans wove cattail leaves into waterproof mats and used them on their lodges.

The approach to the swamp is through the woods shown here and then down the steep embankment in the distance, so I was glad there wasn’t much snow to slip and slide in.

I saw a bird’s nest and wondered, because of the way it hung from branches, if it was a Baltimore oriole’s nest. It was about as big around as a coffee mug and hung in a shrub at about waist high, which seems much too low for an oriole’s nest. The ones that I’ve seen have always been quite high up in the trees. Maybe there are other birds that weave nests that hang.

This photo shows how the bird hung the nest in the V shaped crotch of a branch. It is hung from 3 points for stability. Grasses, cattail leaves and birch bark is what the nest was mostly woven from. I wonder if Native Americans first learned to weave baskets by studying bird nests.

The shiny evergreen leaves of goldthread appeared by the place where skunk cabbages grow and surprised me, because I’ve never seen them here. Goldthread (Coptis trifolia) gets its name from its bright yellow, thread like root. Tiny but beautiful white flowers will appear in late April. Native Americans chewed the roots of goldthread to treat canker sores, which is why the plant is also called Canker root. The natives shared the plant with the English settlers and it became such a popular medicine that by 1785 shakers were paying 37 cents per pound for it dried, which meant people dug up all they could find. At one time there was more goldthread sold in Boston than any other native plant. Luckily after a couple of centuries the plant has recovered enough to be relatively common once again.

Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) is a native plant that makes a good garden groundcover. Small, heart shaped leaves on creeping stems grow at ground level and you can mow right over it. In spring it has white trumpet shaped flowers that grow in pairs and in the fall it has bright red berries which are edible but close to tasteless. I leave them for the turkeys, which seem to love them. My favorite parts of this plant are the greenish yellow leaf veins on leaves that look as if they were cut from hammered metal. I have several large patches of it growing in my yard.

The small blackish bead-like sori that make up the fertile fronds of the sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis) will open to release the spores soon. Sensitive fern is another good indicator of moist places, so I wasn’t surprised to see it here. Its common name comes from its sensitivity to frost, which was first noticed by the early colonials. I just read that turkeys will peck at and eat the sori, and that is why sometimes you find the fern’s spores lying on the snow around the plant.

These oak leaves were pretty amazing for January, warm day or not. I’m not sure how they did this; most other oak leaves I’ve seen this winter have been brown, or sometimes pinkish brown. Maybe these were flash frozen in November, I don’t know, but it was a pleasure to see them.

We saw more pine cones fall from the white pines (Pinus strobus) this year than most of us have ever seen and the squirrels are reaping the harvest. They pull the cones apart scale by scale and eat the seeds, and big piles of scales are a common sight in the woods. Squirrels like to sit up higher than the surrounding landscape when they eat and often sit on stones or logs.

This is what’s left of a white pine cone when a squirrel is finished with it. Not much.

There are plenty of goldenrod and other seeds to keep the birds happy this year as well.

American hazelnut (Corylus americana) catkins are a common enough sight in the winter but I’m not sure what these examples were doing. They usually hang straight down but a couple of these decided to be different. These are the male flowers of the hazel shrub and before long, usually in mid-April, they will begin to show pollen and turn golden yellow.

Turkeys, squirrels and many other birds and animals usually eat hazelnuts up quickly so I was surprised to see quite a few nut clusters still hanging from the branches. It could be that the bumper crop of acorns is keeping the animals busy.

Blackberry seed gall is caused by the blackberry seed gall wasp (Diastrophus cuscutaeformis.) These very small, round hollow galls look like seeds and form in clusters around blackberry stems. Each tiny gall has a stiff, hair like spine and together they form a hairy mass like that in the photo. They start out bright yellow-green and mature to brownish red. This one was about as long as your index finger.

I hoped the vine I saw up in a tree was American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens), but it turned out to be just another invasive Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus,) which is quickly outpacing the natives. That’s mainly because its berries are more enticing to birds and its seeds germinate much faster. The easiest way to tell American bittersweet from Oriental is by the location of the berries on the vine; American bittersweet berries grow on the ends of the vines and Oriental bittersweet berries grow all along them. While both vines climb trees and shrubs, American bittersweet is less likely to strangle its host like Oriental bittersweet will.

I keep seeing this red inner bark on some dead staghorn sumacs (Rhus typhina) and each time I see it I try to find out why it would be red, but so far I’ve never found an answer. It’s always surprising that such a beautiful color would be hidden from sight. Or maybe it turns red as it peels away.

There are often ducks here in this part of the swamp but they probably heard me long before I could have seen them and swam off. Soon this will be a very busy, growing place full of nesting red winged blackbirds, snapping turtles, herons, ducks, and frogs but for now it is simply open water and quiet and for me, that was enough.  I hope you have a nearby swamp or wetland that you can visit, because they’re fascinating places that are full of life.

Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps. ~Henry David Thoreau

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Though he stopped when he saw me watching this male robin was pulling worms from the ground, and that told me that the soil had warmed and thawed enough for things to start growing in it, so off I went last Saturday looking for growing and hopefully blooming things.

I saw a single dandelion blooming a few weeks ago but on this day there were several blooming in the lawn that the robins worked. It’s too bad that chemical companies have convinced so many that dandelions should be hated.  Any flower is a welcome sight at this time of year, even dandelions. Rather than dump chemicals on them maybe we should eat them; when I was a boy my grandmother cooked dandelion greens and served them much like spinach. They’re a good source of Folic acid, Magnesium, Phosphorus and Copper, Fiber, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Vitamin K, Thiamin, Riboflavin, Vitamin B6, Calcium, Iron, Potassium and Manganese. The leaves are higher in beta-carotene than carrots and contain more iron and calcium than spinach. According to the USDA Bulletin “Composition of Foods,” dandelions rank in the top 4 green vegetables in overall nutritional value.

American hazelnut (Corylus americana) is a common roadside shrub that I don’t think many people ever see. When I tell people about the shrubs and the nuts that they bear they always seem surprised.  The best time to find a good stand of hazelnuts is right now, because the male catkins become golden colored and dance in the wind, and they can be seen from quite far away.

So far the hazelnuts have had a rough spring but the tiny female flowers still appear, waiting to be dusted with pollen from the male catkins. If the wind helps with pollination each of those tiny crimson filaments will turn into a sweet little hazelnut.

I was finally able to get a shot of some reticulated iris (Iris reticulata) without snow on them. This is a tough little plant with quite a long blooming period. Unlike bearded irises which grow from large roots and take up quite a lot of space these little flowers grow from bulbs that look something like crocus bulbs. Their leaves also turn yellow and die off in summer like crocus. They’d be a great low maintenance flower for a rock garden.

If I understand what I’ve read correctly reticulated iris flowers are always purple, yellow and white but the purple can be in many shades that vary considerably. The  “reticulata” part of the scientific name  means “netted” or “reticulated,”  and refers to the netted pattern found on the bulbs.

One big difference between crocuses and reticulated iris is how most crocuses stay closed on cloudy days, while reticulated iris open in any weather.

But on the other hand, crocuses come in more colors than reticulated irises. I think if I were planting a bulb garden I’d have a lot of both.

A German doctor named Leonhardt Rauwolf brought hyacinths from Turkey.to Europe in 1573. The original wild hyacinth (Hyacinthus orientalis) was blue or pale blue but today hyacinths come in red, blue, white, orange, pink, violet or yellow. It’s hard to tell what color this example will be but I’m sure it’ll be fragrant. Both Homer and Virgil wrote about the hyacinth’s sweet fragrance, and that’s my favorite part of this flower.

For about a month now, every time I’ve gone to see the Cornelian cherries (Cornus mas,) I’ve said “next weekend they’ll be blossoming for sure” but, as the above photo shows; not yet. Surely the 70+ degree temperatures this week will have made it finally bloom. This very unusual, almost unknown shrub isn’t a cherry at all, it is a in the dogwood (Cornus) family and blooms very early in the spring before the leaves appear. It hails from Europe and Asia and has beautiful yellow, 4 petaled flowers that grow in large clusters. This is a not often seen, under-used plant that would be welcome in any garden.

The red maples (Acer rubrum) have also had a time of it this year; with 60 degree temperatures one day and 20s the next they haven’t known whether to bloom or not. The ones that bloomed early paid the price and were frost bitten, but from what I’ve seen many of them didn’t open at all. This bud cluster tells the story; there are male flowers still in the bud, some that had just come out of the bud, and quite a few that were frost bitten.

The female red maple flowers seem to have been a little more level headed and waited until now to bloom. These are the first I’ve seen, just peeking out of the end of the bud. if pollinated they will turn into winged seed pods called samaras that are a favorite of squirrels. Many parts of the red maple are red, including the twigs, buds, flowers and seed pods.

I was surprised to find this Forsythia blooming so soon after our cold snowy weather, but there it was. It’s easy to think of Forsythia being over used and boring but I always look forward to seeing the cheery yellow blossoms after a long cold winter. An embankment with uncountable thousands of its yellow blossoms spilling down and over it can take your breath away. They shout that spring has arrived and it’s hard to ignore them because they are everywhere. I think you’d have a hard time finding a street in this town that doesn’t have at least one.

Before 1850 there were no forsythias here, so spring must have been very different. Much less cheery, I would think.

In my own yard the Scilla are up and in a day or two should be blooming. This fall planted bulb with small blue flowers is also called Siberian squill and comes from Russia and Turkey. It spreads quite quickly and is a good flower to grow in a lawn because it usually goes dormant before the grass needs to be cut. I grow it because it takes care of itself and is my favorite color. These bulbs are easily confused with glory of the snow (Chionodoxa) because the differences are so slight (flattened stamens) that even botanists have trouble telling them apart. It is for that reason that many botanists think the two plants should be classified as one.

Very small plants blossomed in a lawn; so small any one of them would fit in the bottom of a tea cup. I think they’re some type of spring cress; possibly small-flowered bitter cress (Cardamine parviflora.) Each white flower has 4 petals and is very small. None had fully opened on this cloudy day.

I don’t see many snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) but the ones I do see usually bloom right on the heels of skunk cabbage and vernal witch hazels. Their common name is a good one because they’ll blossom even when surrounded by snow. The first part of this plant’s scientific name comes from the Greek gala, meaning “milk,” and anthos, meaning “flower.”  The second part nivalis means “of the snow,” and it all makes perfect sense. Snowdrops contain a substance called galantamine which has been shown to be helpful in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. It’s not a cure but any help is always welcome.

There was still ice on the trails on Saturday, but after a 70 degree Sunday and 84 degrees on Monday and yesterday, I’m guessing that it’s probably all gone now. It can’t disappear quickly enough for me. I can’t remember another winter with so much ice.

As is often the case here in this part of the state all the melting snow and ice has raised the levels of the rivers and streams. There was a flood watch for a couple of days and the Ashuelot River flooded a field or two in outlying areas, but I haven’t heard of anything serious. One of the good things about a few feet of snow is that it has eased the drought. They say we could slip back into a drought without too many dry days, but the threat has eased considerably.

Behold, my friends, the spring is come; the earth has gladly received the embraces of the sun, and we shall soon see the results of their love! ~Sitting Bull

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Last Sunday dawned sunny and relatively warm (in the 40s,) so I decided to visit a rail trail that I’d never been on. Of course as soon as I reached it the clouds returned and that was the end of the sunshine for the day. As the photo shows this trail is paved; one of just a handful that are. It was a pleasure to not have to slip on ice or trudge through snow for a change, but I really prefer unpaved trails.

I don’t expect you to read these signs but they do contain interesting historical information so I’ve put them here for those who may be interested.

Poplar trees (Populus) are in the willow family and their hairy catkins remind me of spring pussy willows. North American poplars are divided into three main groups: the cottonwoods, the aspens, and the balsam poplars. If the buds aren’t sticky then the tree belongs in the aspen group. Those shown here weren’t. Aspen buds begin to swell during the first warm period in spring, when minimum temperatures are still below freezing. Air temperature rather than day length determines when their buds will break, so it can vary from year to year. I think this year they misjudged and opened early. These examples were very wet from the rain and snow that fell the day before.

Crispy tuft moss (Ulota crispa) grew on a tree trunk. This moss is very common on tree trunks in these parts and I see it all the time. When dry its leaves tighten and curl tightly, and that’s where the “crispy” part of its common name comes from. This clump was about an inch across. Most of them I see are quite small. This one seemed to have a bright inner light and it called me off the trail to enjoy its great beauty. Mosses are overlooked by many and that’s too bad because they can be remarkably beautiful. They are also everywhere, and very easy to find.

This beech tree was as big around as my leg and its twisted shape showed that it had been strangled by oriental bittersweet  (Celastrus orbiculatus.) Luckily for the tree someone had cut the wire like vine away, but it will always be twisted.

Male hazel catkins (Corylus americana) are just starting to release their pollen. It pays to watch them develop because once they’ve started releasing pollen the tiny and rarely noticed female flowers will soon begin to blossom. During early to middle spring, the drooping catkins begin to swell and become longer and larger in diameter. Each male flower has two tiny bracts and 4 stamens. You can just see the yellowish stamens beginning to show on these examples.

The female hazel flowers open at the same time as the male flowers, or sometimes even a little sooner. As this poor photo shows, several of the hair like female flower stigmas can grow and bloom out of each small swollen bud. They are very small and always a photographic challenge. When pollinated by the wind each female blossom with become a small, sweet nut. The nuts were used by Native Americans to flavor soups, and other parts of the shrub were used medicinally.

I keep hoping that I’ll be able to show you what female speckled alder blossoms (Alnus incana) look like but this year the lingering cold is making them wary, as if they are afraid to bloom. You can just see hints of the tiny female stigmas as they poke out from under the bracts of the catkin, but at this point there should be enough to make them look quite shaggy. These flowers are even smaller than the female hazel blossoms in the previous photo; in fact I think they’re the smallest flower that I’ve ever taken a photo of.

This pedestrian bridge crosses over Beaver Brook and replaced the original railroad bridge that stood here. I used to see a side view of it every day, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen it from this angle.

Another sign tells of railroad and industry history in the area.

The reason I used to see the previous bridge from the side every day was because I used to stand on this one, which is slightly down stream. This is a private bridge which was once owned by the Kingsbury Corporation, a machine tool developer and builder. I worked here for a decade or so as a mechanical engineer and often stood on that bridge at break times. It’s hard to tell from the photo but Beaver Brook actually passes underneath the building, and when it floods so does the building.

Up there where the red brick stripes contrast with the concrete block was the engineering department. It had 50 seats and they were all full, night and day. The bottom fell out of the engineering and machine tool trades in this part of New England though, and now the land and buildings are up for sale.

Though I enjoyed my time at Kingsbury Corporation I sometimes wondered if the barbed wire was meant to keep people out or keep us in. It seemed to go both ways.

This tree looked to be trying very hard to escape…

…while this one just stood and watched.

Kingsbury started life as a small toy company in the 1800s and Kingsbury toys are prized by collectors today. As it evolved it grew to employ over 1,100 people in the U.S. and Canada. This chimney on the property is a familiar landmark in this part of town but it looks like it’s having a few problems.

One of the steel bands that help hold the chimney together has come loose, and I wonder if anyone knows. It’s on private property and nobody should be near it but there are plenty of ways in and I wouldn’t be surprised if teenagers and others walked right under this. Even if it isn’t repaired it should at least be taken down safely.

There were some nice birch groves along the trail. I don’t know if they were natural or planted by the city but they were very pretty. Most were paper birch (Betula papyrifera) but there were a few gray birch (Betula populifolia) mixed in. Not only did Native Americans use paper birch bark for canoes and wigwams but they also made hunting and fishing implements, along with buckets and other containers used for carrying, storage, and even for cooking food in. They were an essential part of native life and many tribes considered birch trees a sacred gift.

I’ve been looking for colorful turkey tail fungi (Trametes versicolor) all year and here they were the whole time. Turkey tails grow in nearly every state in the country and throughout Europe, Asia. and Russia. Their colors are described as buff, brown, cinnamon, and reddish brown, but “versicolor” means “having many colors” and I’ve seen purple, blue, orange and even pink. Turkey tail fungi have been used medicinally by the Chinese, Japanese, and Native Americans for thousands of years. Fueled by grants from the National Institute of Health, here in the U.S. scientists are researching its usefulness in breast and bone cancer therapy.

There was another grove of birches over across Water Street but I didn’t follow that section of the trail because from here it’s just a short walk to downtown Keene. As I turned around I found myself wishing that I had walked this rail trail years ago when I worked for Kingsbury. I saw many things that I didn’t know were here and the things I knew were here I saw from a different perspective. It was an enjoyable walk.

One who returns to a place sees it with new eyes. Although the place may not have changed, the viewer inevitably has. For the first time things invisible before become suddenly visible. ~Louis L’Amour

Thanks for stopping in. Happy April!

 

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Last Friday the temperature started to fall and it didn’t stop until it bottomed out at a meager 4 degrees Saturday morning. Along with 30 mph wind gusts, that meant a wind chill factor of about 19 below zero. In that kind of cold flesh can freeze in 30 minutes, so I decided to wait until it warmed up a bit. By noon the temperature had risen to 15 degrees above zero with a wind chill of zero, so off I went to one of my favorite stands of American hazelnut shrubs (Corylus americana.) They grow beside the rail trail in the above photo. Snow squalls Friday night coated the ground with an inch or two of fresh powder and added to the arctic feel.

I wanted to see the hazels up close to see if the male catkins shown here had opened. They had barely started to open and didn’t look like they would have been releasing much pollen.

But much to my surprise on such a cold day female flowers were just starting to show. Each tiny crimson thread is a flower stigma protruding from the female buds. The golden catkins that we saw in the previous photo are the male flowers, and the wind blows their pollen to the female blossoms. This photo also shows how hairy this shrub’s stems are. They feel slightly prickly when you run your finger over them, and that’s an easy way to identify them.

Female hazelnut flowers are simple sticky crimson stigmas and are among the smallest flowers that I know of. I have to look up and down each stem very carefully to find them. Even then I often see only color and no real shape so I let the camera sort that out. I had been out in the weather for about a half hour and that was about all I could stand. I hope the hazel flowers weren’t hurt by it; last year I saw many that had been frost bitten.

On a warmer day I had spent some time looking at the alder catkins. The large ones in the foreground are the beautiful male catkins and the tiny ones in the upper left are the female flowers, which at this time were only showing a hint of their crimson stigmas, which are similar to female hazel blossoms in color and shape. The male catkins had already started releasing pollen so the female stigmas should have come out fully at any time, but then we’ve had this terrible cold so now I’m not sure.

Brown and purple scales on the male alder catkin are on short stalks and surround a central axis. There are three flowers beneath each scale, each with a lobed calyx cup and three to five stamens with anthers, which are usually covered in yellow pollen. The opening of alder catkins is one of the earliest signs of spring and when thousands of them open it looks like the bushes have been hung with sparkling jewels.

I was glad to see that the chubby little buds on the red elderberry hadn’t opened yet. Last year they opened early and were frostbitten. The week of 60+ degree temperatures at the end of February fooled a lot of plants. I just heard on the news that apple tree buds started opening and now orchard owners are lighting fires in barrels along the rows of trees, trying to keep them from freezing.

The bud scales on some of the red maple buds (Acer rubrum) have pulled back to reveal cups full of male anthers tightly packed together. When the fuzzy bud scales are closed they protect the flowers through winter and keep them from getting damaged by the cold.

Some red maple blossoms couldn’t wait and started showing themselves, and I’d guess that they’re probably blackened and shriveled by now. I saw many get frost bitten last year but it didn’t seem to hurt the trees any. What it will do is cut down on the number of seeds, so squirrels and other animals that eat them won’t be pleased. When maple trees blossom their sap gets bitter so seeing these flowers tells me that we’re near the end of the syrup season.

Daffodil leaves poked up out of the snow. At least it was just their leaves. Last year we had a cold snap after they had blossomed and I saw many blooms lying on the ground.

Tulip leaves were also covered by snow. I don’t know if tulips are coming up earlier each year or if I’m just not paying attention, but it seems very early for tulips.

The season of Lent began on March first, but I fear the Lenten roses (Hellebores) will give up blossoming for lent this year. The season doesn’t end until April 13th though, so I could be wrong. The flowers are beautiful and I’d like to see them, but not if there’s a chance of them being damaged by cold.

Pussy willows seem to have shrugged off the cold; they hadn’t changed since the last time I saw them.

There was no yellow showing and plenty of fur, so I’m guessing the pussy willows will be fine.

Because skunk cabbage can melt its way through ice and snow by raising their temperature by as much as 50 degrees through a process called thermogenesis I didn’t think the cold would bother them at all, but I found quite a few that had been damaged. Though the above examples look healthy many flower spathes had darkened and had become soft and rubbery. I found several like that last year and wasn’t sure why they seemed sick. Now I know.

The greatest shock for me on this day was seeing the vernal witch hazels (Hamamelis vernalis) all in bloom. I’ve never seen them bloom in this kind of cold and only time will tell if they were hurt by it. I saw this scene on Saturday afternoon and that night it dropped to 2 degrees F., so I won’t be surprised if these flowers show more brown than yellow next time I see them.

There is an old Chinese Proverb that says “Spring is sooner recognized by plants than by men” and the plants, shrubs, and trees are telling me that as far as they’re concerned it is indeed spring, but the weather certainly doesn’t seem to agree. I hope that the cold doesn’t harm too many early blossoms but there aren’t many plants that I know of that can survive such a long stretch of below freezing temperatures and now snow as well. We’ll just have to wait and see.

There I was, hoping for a warm spring rain.
But instead frost flowers bloomed on my window pane.
It wasn’t right; this cold, cold March.
Instead of frost on the windows there should be blooms on the larch.

Winter lies too long in country towns; hangs on until it is stale and shabby, old and sullen. ~Willa Cather

Thanks for coming by.

 

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