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Posts Tagged ‘American Hazelnut Catkins’

Dandelions have responded to a few warm days by blossoming heavily but many other plants don’t seem to be in any hurry and some are even blossoming later this year.

I’m always happy to see dandelions at any time of year. They are often one of our first flowers to bloom and sometimes one of the last as well.

Sometimes their flowers get frostbitten again and again but once the red maples (Acer rubrum) get started opening their buds keep blossoming no matter what the weather. This photo shows the male blossoms I found just opening on one tree. Each tiny red anther will become greenish yellow with pollen, which the wind will then carry to the female blossoms. They’re packed very tightly into each bud and there are thousands of flowers on a single branch.

This photo shows just how fast the blossoms can explode from the buds. I found the buds on the same tree as the ones in the previous photo fully open just a day later.

These are the female (pistillate) flowers of the red maple, just emerging. They are tiny little things; each bud is hardly bigger than a pea and each crimson stigma not much bigger in diameter than an uncooked piece of spaghetti. Once the female flowers have been dusted by wind carried pollen from the male flowers they will begin the process of becoming the beautiful red seeds (samaras) that this tree is so well known for. Many parts of the red maple are red, including the twigs, buds, flowers and seed pods.

I was surprised to find tiny little female American hazelnut flowers (Corylus americana) on a single bush recently. I think this is the earliest I’ve ever seen them. Reading back through spring blog posts shows that I usually find them in mid April, so why they’re blooming so early when many other spring plants are late, I don’t know. Native Americans used hazelnuts to flavor soups and also ground them into flour. In Scotland in 1995 a large shallow pit full of burned hazelnut shells was discovered. It was estimated to be 9,000 years old, so we’ve been eating these nuts for a very long time.

What is really baffling is why the female hazelnut blossoms have opened when the male catkins, shown in this photo, aren’t open. Without pollen from these male catkins the female blossoms are wasting their time. You can just see three tiny buds with female flowers above and to the left of these catkins. I think this is the first time I’ve been able to get both in a single photo. It gives you an idea of the huge difference in size.

Five days later the male catkins had opened but weren’t releasing pollen yet.

And five days later the female hazel blossoms were fully opened and looked as if the were reaching for that pollen. By the time the wind brings it to them they’ll be very sticky and receptive. If everything goes well I’ll be able to show you hazelnuts this fall.

Sugar maple buds are indeed swelling quickly and will probably be blossoming in a week or two. That will mean the end of the maple sugaring season this year. I saw a maple stump that had been left by a beaver the other day and it was bleeding sap heavily, so it’s running well right now.

Cornelian cherry buds (Cornus mas) are still opening, but very slowly. The yellow is the actual flower. They’re usually always in bloom by mid April and it’s looking like they will be this year as well.

I thought I had wasted my time when I didn’t see any flowers on the willows, but I heard red winged blackbirds in the alders and that was even better. Ice is melting quickly off the smaller ponds and vernal pools and soon we’ll hear the spring peepers.

It was a rainy day when I was taking photos for this post and all the crocuses were closed so I thought I’d show you this shot from last week, but then the sun came out and they all opened again.

I saw some new white ones that were pretty.

I thought that some of the white ones were even prettier when they were closed.

This blossom had just a naked stem and no leaves, so I’m not sure exactly what it is but I’m guessing it was a crocus but I can’t remember ever seeing pleats in the petals of a crocus.

The reticulated irises (Iris reticulata) have finally blossomed. They’re often the first spring bulb to flower here and I’m not sure what held them back this year. I’ve seen them bloom in the snow.

I thought this one was very beautiful. I’ve never grown them but from what I’ve seen these bulbs seem to slowly peter out and disappear. Groups of 10-15 flowers a few years ago now have only 1 or 2.

I wish you could smell these flowers. There is a spot I know of with about 8 large vernal witch hazel shrubs all in bloom at once and their fragrance is amazing. I can smell them long before I can see them. I can’t think of another flower that smells quite like their clean, slightly spicy scent.

There is a lot of promise for the future. Many of these hyacinth buds were showing color.

I didn’t see any color on the daffodil buds but they’ll be along. I expect by mid April spring will be in full swing with new flowers appearing every day. I hope everyone will be able to get out and enjoy it.

So many hues in nature and yet nothing remained the same, every day, every season a work of genius, a free gift from the Artist of artists. ~E.A. Bucchianeri

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Last Saturday was a beautiful warm spring day and though there was plenty of snow left, it was melting fast. The “plenty of snow” part of things is what dictates where I can go in winter because many parking areas have been plowed in or not plowed at all. Not only that but many places don’t see much foot traffic in winter so the snow hasn’t been packed down. This rail trail in Keene solves all of those problems and that’s why I chose it. There is plenty of parking space and the snow has been packed down by snowmobiles, making it easy to walk on. If you step off that packed trail though, you could find yourself knee deep in snow, so you have to keep that in mind.

I admired the branch structure of the trees against the beautiful blue of the sky. This one is a white poplar (Populus alba,) which is a weak tree that often loses large limbs. In ancient Rome this tree was called Arbour populi, which means tree of the people. These days it is also called silver leaved poplar. It originally came to the U.S. from Europe in 1748 and obviously liked it here because now it can be found in almost every state. It is very common here in New Hampshire and is considered a weed tree.

One of the easiest ways of identifying white poplar is by its diamond shaped lenticels, which are dark against the whitish bark. Another way is by its leaves, which are green on top and white and wooly underneath. The tree has a shallow root system and suckers aggressively from the roots, so it is best not to use it as an ornamental.

The native tree population in the area is mostly maple, pine, birch, and black cherry. This forest is young; I can remember when it was a cornfield, and knowing I’m older than the trees makes me feel a little strange. I can’t remember exactly when they stopped farming this land but if I go by the size of the tree trunks it couldn’t have been more than 25 or 30 years ago.

I finally saw birds eating birch seeds. This gray birch had a whole flock of them in it and they let me stand 5 feet away and watch them feed until a snowmobile came along and scared them away. These aren’t good photos at all but I wanted to show that I wasn’t imagining things when I say that birds eat birch seeds.

I tried looking these small birds up and the closest I could come was the black and white warbler, because of the stripes you can see in this  poor shot.  There was a resounding chorus of birdsong all along this trail on this day and now I know who was singing at least part of it. How could someone not be happy when so many birds are?

The whole of both sides of this trail are lined with American hazelnut bushes (Corylus americana) and I like the way the green-gold catkins shine in the spring sun. I looked several time for signs of them opening, but not yet. When they open there will be a single bright, yellow-green, male flower peeking out from under those diamond shaped bud scales.

As I was taking photos of these sapsucker holes I could hear a woodpecker drilling off in the distance. Yellow bellied sapsuckers are in the woodpecker family but unlike other woodpeckers they feed on sap instead of insects. They drill a series of holes in a line across the bark and then move up or down and drill another series of holes before moving again, and the end result is usually a rectangular pattern of holes in the bark. They’ll return to these holes again and again to feed on the dripping sap. Many small animals, bats, birds and insects also drink from them, so these little birds helps out a lot of their forest companions.

I was admiring the sunshine on black cherry branches (Prunus serotina) when a plane flew by. A single engine Cessna practicing stalls, I think. It flew in a nose up attitude and was surprisingly quiet.

This black cherry had a bad case of black knot disease, which is what caused the growth seen here. Though it looks like a burl it is not; it’s caused by a fungus called Apiosporina morbosa. When it rains the fungus releases spores that are carried by the wind to other trees and almost every cherry along this trail had the disease, which is always fatal if it isn’t cut out of the tree when it’s young. It also infects plum and other ornamental cherry trees. It’s often mistaken for the chaga mushroom but that fungus doesn’t grow on cherry trees. Note the tree’s platy, dark gray bark with horizontal lenticels. Black cherries can grow to 80 feet tall and 2 to 3 feet in diameter if they aren’t attacked by black knot.

I saw what I thought was snow on a fallen branch but it was a bracket fungus that had degraded so badly it had become paper thin and the purest white.

I reached the point where ash swamp brook meets the Ashuelot River and there were two small black and white ducks here, splashing across the water very fast; so fast I couldn’t get a shot of them. They were probably half the size of a mallard with dark and light colored bodies and they could really move.

I used to come here as a boy and watch the bank swallows that lived in this embankment. That’s all soil, probably 10 feet deep, from the brook to the top, all deposited as river silt over who knows how many thousands of years and soft enough for the birds to dig in. It’s no wonder farmers have farmed this land for centuries. “Rich bottom land” I believe they call it.

The brook and river still flood to this day, and you can usually see huge plates of ice all around the trees in this area in winter, but I didn’t see any on this day.

I was able to climb / slide down the hill into the forest to get a shot of the trestle I stood on to take the previous 3 shots. This trestle is known as a “double intersection Warren pony truss bridge” and was probably built around 1900. It is also described as a lattice truss. Metal truss bridges were used as early as 1866 but railroads didn’t begin using them until around 1870. By 1900 they were common and replaced wooden bridges, which occasionally burned and often were washed away in flooding. I’ve seen water almost up to the bottom of this one and that’s a scary sight.

Some of these old Boston and Maine Railroad trestles have been here for 150 years and if man leaves them alone I’d bet that they’ll be here for another 150 years. I wish I knew if they were built here or built off site and shipped here. I do know that the abutments were built here from local granite, all without a drop of mortar.

Ash swamp brook was very low but since it hasn’t rained and no snow had melted for a week or so I wasn’t surprised. This brook meanders through parts of Keene and Swanzey and originates to the north of Keene. Hurricane brook starts it all near a place called Stearn’s hill. It becomes white brook for a while before emptying into black brook.  Black brook in turn empties into Ash Swamp, and the outflow from the swamp is called ash swamp brook. It finally meets the Ashuelot river at this spot after changing names at least 4 and maybe more times. I’m guessing all the different names are from the early settlers, who most likely didn’t know they were looking at the same brook. It’s quite long and I doubt anyone has ever followed it from here to its source.

I saw a small oak branch that was full of split gill fungi (Schizophyllum commune.) These are winter fungi that in late fall and I was happy to see them because I’ve been looking for them all winter but hadn’t seen any. They are about the size of a penny and are very tough and leathery.

Split gill fungi wear a wooly fur coat and this makes then easy to identify. Split gills grow on every continent except Antarctica and are said to be the most studied mushroom on earth. Scientists have isolated a compound in them that is said to inhibit the HIV-1 virus.

The “gills” on the split gill fungus are actually folds of tissue on its underside that split lengthwise when the mushroom dries out. The splits close over the fertile spore producing surfaces in dry weather and open to release the spores when they’re rehydrated by rain. It’s a pretty little mushroom, in my opinion.

It’s spring fever, that’s what the name of it is. And when you’ve got it, you want — oh, you don’t quite know what it is you do want, but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so! ~Mark Twain

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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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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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