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Posts Tagged ‘American Wintergreen’

There were two things I wanted to know last weekend; were turtles active yet and were trout lilies blooming. I couldn’t think of anyplace better to answer those questions than along the Ashuelot River, so last Saturday off I went along one of my favorite riverside trails. The water was quite high, probably from snow still melting in the higher elevations. Snow is still chest deep in the northern part of the state and they’re still having avalanches in the White Mountains, so reports have said.

I’ve been walking this trail for over 50 years so I know it well. There used to be a small wooden hut up ahead where that paved spot is. It had an open front facing the river and a bench to sit on, almost like a bus stop. It was made of wood so of course every young boy with a pocket knife had to come here and carve their initials into it, including me. I’ve wondered for years why it was there because in the 1960s this trail saw very little traffic. Traffic or not the trail was here and I think that it’s been here for quite a lot longer than I’ve been around because I think it was originally used by Native Americans. It’s close to many shallow areas in the river and there are lots of places to fish. It seems like it would be perfect for someone who lived off the land.

A pair of Canada geese chatted quietly off across a setback.

My question of active turtles was answered quickly. I also heard toads and tree frogs out here, as well as the little frogs we call spring peepers. It was great to hear them again. I wanted to get a better view of this turtle so I walked on, hoping for a side shot.

But all that was left was the log the turtle sat on. Not a very interesting subject.

I thought I had scared the turtle away but then I saw those two geese come steaming up the river and I wondered if they were what the turtle was afraid of. Do geese bother turtles? I don’t know the answer to that one. It’s a question that would require much sitting and watching to answer.

The geese weren’t afraid of me. In fact they followed along beside me as I went on. Maybe they thought I had a pocket full of bread. A couple of young boys on bikes came along, saw the geese and dropped their bikes. Once the geese saw them sit on the river bank they swam right over. Whether or not the boys had bread for them I don’t know.

It was a beautiful day but at 70 degrees F. it seemed warm and I was glad I hadn’t warn a jacket. The shirts I had on were plenty warm enough. There were lots of insects out but I didn’t get bitten by any of them.

There was still ice to be found in cool, shaded backwaters but the frogs were active and chirping even in places that still had ice.

A couple of posts ago I showed a papery trumpet shaped stem and wondered what it was. Luckily reader Eliza Waters recognized them and said they were jewel weed (Impatiens capensis) stems. I knew a lot of jewel weed grew in a spot along this trail and when I got there sure enough, there they were. Thanks again Eliza! Each stem is about a foot tall and has a trumpet shaped opening that looks just about right for a pea to sit in.

Ever since I was a young boy I’ve wondered what was over there on the other side of the river but since it probably would involve a lot of bushwhacking due to the lack of a trail, I’ve never gotten up enough ambition to find out. Maybe it’s better that way, but that glow does look inviting.

I suppose it’s a good thing I never did cross the river and follow along its far side. I might have been arrested. No hunting, no fishing and no trespassing pretty much covers everything.

That dark spot ahead is actually a wet spot, one of surprisingly few along this trail. The trail through these woods isn’t that far from where the railroad repair depot used to be in Keene, and the trail is black because it was “paved” with the unburned slag from the big steam locomotive fireboxes. This slag is usually called “clinkers” or “clinker ash” and it is made up of pieces of fused ash and sulfur which often built-up over time in a hot coal fire. Firebox temperature reached 2000 to 2300 degrees F. in a steam locomotive but they still didn’t burn the coal completely. A long tool called a fire hook was used to pull the clinkers out of the firebox and in Keene we must have had tons of the stuff, because it was used as ballast on many local railroad beds. The section that ran by my house was as black as coal.

I had finally reached the little red bridge, and this was the spot where my second question would be answered. I had been to another spot where thousands of yellow trout lilies grow and didn’t see any sign of them, not even a leaf. I thought this place might get more sunshine and maybe the soil warmed quicker, but there was still no sign of trout lilies. I could be rushing it though; I just discovered by looking back through the blog that April 20 is the earliest I’ve seen them.

I did admire some American wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) The leaves are just coming out of their purple winter color and turning green so they can begin photosynthesizing again. This plant is also called teaberry or checkerberry and its small white flowers resemble those of the blueberry. It is probably the easiest of all wintergreens to identify because of the strong, minty scent that comes from its crushed leaves. If you have ever tasted teaberry gum then you know exactly what it smells and tastes like. The plant contains compounds that are very similar to those found in aspirin and Native Americans used it medicinally. They also chewed the minty leaves on long hikes.

Alders love water and many grow here. This speckled alder (Alnus incana) lived up to its name.

I’ve tried for a long time to show you what alders look like with all their male catkins open and dangling like jewels and with the help of a flash I was finally able to get a photo. It isn’t as easy as I thought it would be; it only took 8 years.

The bent tree marks a side trail that I keep telling myself I’ll have to follow one day, but I never do. I hope to have much more time for such things once I retire. I’d love to be able to just sit in the woods again without a care like I did when I was a boy.

One of the many feeder streams along the trail had a lot of what looked like orange rust in its water and that’s why this photo of it looks so strange. It might be algae coloring it, or maybe last year’s decaying leaves. The reflections of the trees look as if they have leaves but the leaves are really on the bottom of the stream.

The greatest joy is not finding something that we’ve been looking for. The greatest joy is when we’d given up on ever finding it and then it found us.
~Craig D. Lounsbrough

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With daytime temperatures above freezing the snow is melting more each day. The woods in this photo have a southern exposure so the snow melts quickly. In fact I drove by them again yesterday and saw that all the snow had melted before I could even get this post posted. Soon there will be trout lilies blooming here. False hellebore, Pennsylvania sedges and ramps also grow here and this is one of my favorite places to visit each spring.

There is still a lot of snow left to melt in places though. This pile was about ten feet high and three times that long. It’s best for it to melt slowly so it doesn’t cause any flooding so daytime temperatures in the upper 40s F. and lower 50s are best, and that’s just what we’ve been getting.

Of course all the melting makes mud and we have plenty of it this year. I’ve already come close to getting stuck in it two or three times. We call this time of year mud season, when the upper foot or two of soil thaws but anything under that stays frozen. Water can’t penetrate the frozen soil so it sits on top of it, mixing with the thawed soil and making dirt roads a muddy quagmire. It’s like quicksand and it’s hellish trying to drive through it because you’re usually stuck in it before you realize how deep it is.

As this photo shows mud season has been with us for a long time. If you Google “Mud season” you’ll see cars, trucks, school buses and just about any other vehicle you can name stuck in the mud, just like this one. Some towns in the region have already closed roads because of it. This old tin Lizzie had chains on its wheels but it still got stuck.

One of the things I enjoy most at this time of year is walking through the woods to see what the melting snow has uncovered, like the purple leaves of American wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) seen here. Though the plant is an evergreen it doesn’t photosynthesize in winter so it doesn’t need green leaves. In fact many evergreen plants have purple leaves in winter but they’ll be greening up soon. This plant is also called teaberry and checkerberry because of its minty, bright red berries.

Swamp dewberry (Rubus hispidus) also has purple leaves in winter. This is a trailing vine with white flowers and black berries that look much like blackberries. Though it acts like a prickly vine botanically it is considered a shrub. It is also called bristly blackberry but I’ve heard that the blackberry like fruit is very sour. Native Americans used the roots of this plant medicinally to treat coughs and other ailments.

It isn’t always plants that appear from under the snow. I love seeing these curled fern leaves from last year.

Puddles get very big at this time of year and some, like the one seen here on a mowed lawn, could almost be called small ponds. It had a thin layer of ice on it on this cold morning.

Trail ice unfortunately is some of the last to melt. I’m guessing it’s because it has been so packed down and has become dense. It’s very hard to walk on without ice spikes.

Did this tree look like that when it fell or has the yellow conifer parchment fungus been growing under the snow all winter? Whatever the answer, the tree was covered with it.

Conifer parchment fungus (Stereum sanguinolentum) causes brown heart rot in trees, which is a reddish brown discoloration in the wood of conifers. It is also called bleeding parchment fungus because of the red juice they exude when damaged, but so far all of the examples I’ve seen were very dry and hard, and fairly impossible to damage.

Conifer parchment fungus is beginning to concern me because I’m seeing so much of it, virtually everywhere I go. If it’s on a standing tree like this one it means a death sentence for the tree. Nature will have to run its course and find a balance; I doubt there is very much we can do to stop it.

There were mallards on the Ashuelot River but the river wasn’t quite at bank full despite all the melting going on.

Regular readers know that I like to try to catch cresting river waves with my camera, but the water level has to be just right for good waves. If the river is too high or too low the waves will be small or nonexistent. This one was small but I still wouldn’t want to be hit by it.

Instead of the usual teardrop shape ice baubles along the river took on more of a flattened disc shape this day. They look like coins on sticks in this photo.

This one looked more like an orb but it was a disc. These may be the last ice baubles I get to see this year but that’s okay. They’ll be a happy memory and I’ll be warmer.

Fan clubmoss (Lycopodium digitatum) is one of my favorite clubmosses but I don’t see it too often because it has been so over collected for Christmas wreaths and other things. A single plant can take 20 years from spore to maturity so they shouldn’t ever be disturbed. This plant gets its name from the way its branches fan out at the top of the stem.

Trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens) has made it through the winter just fine. This plant is also called Mayflower because that’s when its small, very fragrant white or pink flowers appear. It was one of my grandmother’s favorites and seeing it always makes me think of her. Even ice won’t hurt its tough, leathery leaves.

So what I hope I’ve shown in this post are all the beautiful and interesting things that are buried under the snow in winter; things like the turkey tail fungi (Trametes versicolor) above. This is the time, before plants start growing new leaves and hiding them, that is the best time to find things like this.

These are some of the most beautiful turkey tails I’ve seen and there they were, in a spot I’ve visited many times, but I’ve never seen them. I hope you’ll see something as beautiful when the snow melts where you are.

Like the seeds dreaming beneath the snow, your heart dreams of spring. Kahlil Gibran

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Back a few years ago I had the luxury of working from home, telecommuting in a way. At times it could get slightly monotonous so to break up the monotony I took a walk at lunch time each day. Of course I had a camera with me and many of the photos I took on those lunchtime walks appeared here on this blog. The above photo shows the road I walked on, what we always called the “dirt road,” because it was a dirt road for many years until the town came along and paved it.

To the right of the road is a small pond where Canada geese used to swim but now it is home mostly to frogs, snapping turtles, and muskrats.

The muskrats eat the cattail roots. The snapping turtles eat the frogs, and the frogs eat up a lot of mosquitoes, for which I am very grateful. I’m looking forward to hearing the spring peepers start singing again in March.

To the left of the road is a large alder swamp where in the spring red wing blackbirds by the many hundreds live. They don’t like people near their nesting sites and when I walked by here they always let me know how disappointed they were with my walking habits. Just out there in the middle of the swamp was an old dead white pine I used to call it the heron tree, because great blue herons used to sit in its branches. Since it fell I haven’t seen as many herons fishing here.

The alders were heavy with dangling catkins, which in this case are the shrub’s male (Staminate) flowers. I believe that most of the alders here are speckled alders (Alnus incana) but I can’t get close enough to most of them to find out, because this swamp never freezes entirely.

The beautiful alder catkins, each packed with hundreds of male flowers, will open usually around the last week in March to the first week of April. When the brownish purple scales on short stalks open they’ll reveal the golden pollen, and for a short time it will look as if someone has hung jewels of purple and gold on all the bushes. That’s the signal I use to start looking for the tiny crimson female (Pistillate) flowers, which will appear in time to receive the wind born pollen. They are among the smallest flowers I know of and they can be hard to see.

The female alder flowers become the hard little cones called strobiles which I think most of us are probably familiar with.  These strobiles have tongue gall, which is caused by a fungus called Taphrina alni. The fungus chemically deforms parts of the ovarian tissue of the developing cone and causes long, tongue like galls called languets to grow from them. I’m guessing that the fungus benefits from these long tongues by getting its spore bearing surfaces out into the wind. They don’t seem to hurt the alder any. In fact most galls don’t harm their hosts.

Medieval writers thought witch’s brooms were a bewitched bundle of twigs and called them Hexenbesen, but witch’s brooms are simply a plant deformity; a dense cluster of branches caused by usually a fungus but sometimes by a parasitic plant like mistletoe. Witch’s broom can sometimes be desirable; the Montgomery dwarf blue spruce came originally from a witch’s broom. This example is on an old dead white pine (Pinus strobus) and is the only one I’ve ever seen on pine.

A colorful bracket fungus grew on a fallen log. Or maybe I should say that it was frozen to it, because it was rock hard. My mushroom book says that this fungus can appear at all times of year though, so it must be used to the cold. It’s described as hairy with ochre to bright rust yellow and rust brown banding and if I’ve identified it correctly it’s called the mustard yellow polypore (Phellinus gilvus.) That’s an odd name considering that it has very little yellow in it but even the photo in the book shows only a thin band of yellow.

This bracket fungus was very thin and woody and grew in several examples around the perimeter of a fallen tree. I think it’s probably the thin maze polypore (Daedaleopsis confragosa,) which is fairly common.

This photo is of the maze-like underside of the thin maze polypore. This is a great example of how some mushrooms increase their spore bearing surfaces. When fresh the surface is pale gray and turns red when bruised. This fungus causes white rot in trees.

Despite having more cold days than warm days the sun is doing its work and melting the snow in places with a southerly exposure. Our average temperature in February here in southern New Hampshire is 35 degrees F. so try as it might, winter can’t win now. It can still throw some terrible weather at us though; the average snowfall amount is 18 inches but I’ve seen that much fall in a single February storm before. We are supposed to see 10-12 inches later today, in fact.

The reason the area in the previous photo is so clear of growth is because a large stand of bracken fern grows (Pteridium aquilinum) there. Bracken fern releases release chemicals that inhibit the growth of other plants and that’s why this fern grows in large colonies where no other plants or trees are seen. Bracken is one of the oldest ferns, with fossil records dating it to over 55 million years old. Though they usually grow knee high I’ve seen some that were chest high.

Down the road a ways a large colony of American wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) grows. Since this was the first plant I learned to identify I’m always happy to see it. It is also called teaberry or checkerberry and those who have ever tasted Clark’s Teaberry Gum know its flavor well. Oil of wintergreen has been used medicinally for centuries and it is still used in mouthwash, toothpaste, and pain relievers. Native Americans carried the leaves on hunts and nibbled on them to help them breathe easier when running or carrying game. The leaves make a pleasant minty tea but the plant contains compounds similar to those found in aspirin, so anyone allergic to aspirin shouldn’t use this plant.

Common speedwell (Veronica officinalis) has also been used medicinally for centuries in Europe and its leaves were used as a tea substitute there. Though it isn’t really invasive it is considered an agricultural weed. It forms mat like growths like that seen in the above photo but sends up vertical flower stalks in May. Each flower stalk (Raceme) has many very small blue flowers streaked with dark purple lines. They are beautiful little things, but they aren’t easy to photograph.

Yet another plant found in large colonies along the road is yarrow (Achillea milefolium.) Yarrow has been used medicinally since the dawn of time, and bunches of the dried herb have been  found in Neanderthal graves. It is one of the nine holy herbs  and was traded throughout the world, and that’s probably the reason it is found in nearly every country on earth. I’ve never looked closely at its seed heads before. I was surprised to see that they look nothing like the flowers. If it wasn’t for the scent and the few dried leaves clinging to the stem I’m not sure I would have known it was yarrow.

In one spot a small stream passes under the road. Strangely, on this side of the road it was frozen over…

…while on this side of the road it was ice free. That shows what a little persistent sun or shade can do at this time of year.

This is the tree that first got me wondering why some Eastern Hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis) had red on their bark when most didn’t. I’ve never been able to answer that question so I don’t know if it’s caused by algae, or is some type of loosely knitted lichen, or if it is simply the way the tree’s genes lean.

My lunchtime walk sometimes found me sitting in the cool forest on an old fallen hemlock tree, with this as my view. Just over the rise, a short way through the forest, is a stream that feeds into the swamp we saw previously. This is a cool place on a hot summer day and one that I used frequently. Sometimes it was hard to go back to work but you need discipline when you work from home and I always made it back in time. It was fun taking this walk again for this post. So many good memories!

The walks met a need: they were a release from the tightly regulated mental environment of work, and once I discovered them as therapy they became the normal thing, and I forgot what life had been like before I started walking.  ~ Teju Cole

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I’d like to take you for a little walk through December in New Hampshire so those who’ve never been here might know what it’s like. I’m going to start on December 9th, when I was taking photos of Johnny jump ups (Viola tricolor.) As any gardener knows these pretty little flowers don’t mind a little cold but still, seeing them blooming in December is rare here.

Even rarer than Johnny jump ups blooming in December is forsythia blooming at any time beyond June, but I found one shrub blooming happily in the warm sunshine on the same day I saw the Johnny jump ups. And it wasn’t just a single blossom; this bush probably had 30-40 flowers on it. Whether or not it will bloom again in the spring like it should is anyone’s guess.

Flowers weren’t the only thing happily carrying on in the warmth; bright yellow lemon drop fungi (Bisporella citrina) decorated the end of a log. They look like tiny drops of sunshine sprinkled over logs and stumps, and are fairly common. Lemon drops are in the sac fungus family, which refers to their microscopic reproductive structures that resemble wineskins. There are over 64,000 different sac fungi, including ear and cup fungi, jelly babies, and the morel and false morel mushrooms.

Lemon drops start life as a tiny yellow disc and look as if they lie flat on the log, but they actually hover just above the surface on a short stalk. As they age each disc will become cup shaped. The citrina part of the scientific name comes from the Latin citrin, and means “lemon yellow.” They are very small; the smallest in this photo would be barely the size of a period made by a pencil on paper, so a hand or macro lens comes in handy.

Greater celandine (Chelidonium majus) is a tease and always reminds me of spring, but it just lies under the snow all winter staying almost as green as it is here. Greater celandine was purposely introduced from Europe and is now considered an invasive plant but nobody really seems to mind it. When I was a boy we called it mustard because of the yellow sap that stained your hands, but it is in the poppy family and has nothing to do with mustard. The sap was once used to remove warts but science has found that it is toxic and can be extremely irritating, especially to the eyes and skin, so its use isn’t recommended.

Sweet little bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) is the smallest member of the dogwood family that I know of here in New Hampshire. It gets its name from the bunches of red berries that appear after the flowers are pollinated, and I hoped to get some photos of them for you this year but they are apparently popular with the critters because they disappeared quickly. Instead all I can show is its pretty fall leaves. Bunchberry was an important plant to Native Americans. They made tea from it to treat colds and also dried the leaves for smoking. Ashes from the burned plants were used to treat sores and insect bites and the roots were ground and used to treat colic in infants. The plant has strong antiseptic, antibiotic, and anti-inflammatory properties but I love it for its beautiful pure white, dogwood like blossoms.

I wish I could tell you what this is but I don’t know myself. I found several of them growing in damp, sandy soil in full sun and it says liverwort to me, but I can’t be sure. It is a low growing, flat on the ground plant. When I went back to look a little closer they had all curled up and died from the cold. At least I think so.  If you’ve seen them and know what they are I’d love to hear from you.

Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is our latest blooming shrub, even blooming as late as January in a warm winter, so I wasn’t that surprised to see these blossoms in December. What the real surprise concerning witch hazels was this year was their lack of blossoms. Most of the shrubs that I know of didn’t bloom at all this year, and that’s very strange. In fact I only saw two or three shrubs out of hundreds blooming and I can’t guess what is holding them back, unless it was the unusually cool weather in August. Some Native American tribes steamed witch hazel twigs over hot stones in their sweat lodges to soothe aching muscles and others made tea from it to treat coughs. As is often the case Natives had a use for virtually every part of the plant and witch hazel is still in use today. It can be found as a lotion in almost any drugstore.

Since I was in the neighborhood I had to stop in to see the only plantain leaved sedge (Carex plantaginea) that I know of. It grows in an old stone wall and I like to see its crinkly, foot long evergreen leaves. Each leaf has a prominent midrib and a vein running on either side of it, and this makes identification very easy. I often come to see it in mid spring when it blooms. I wish I’d see more of them but so far in my experience this plant is quite rare here.

Heartleaf foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) blooms in May and seems like a delicate little thing, but in reality it’s a very tough plant that stays green under the snow all winter. Some foamflower plants have leaves that turn pink and maroon but these examples stayed green. Like many plants that hold their leaves through winter, this year’s foliage will only brown and die back in spring, when new ones will appear. It is thought that some plants stay green in winter so they can get a jump on their competitors by photosynthesizing just a short time earlier. Foamflowers form dense mats of foliage and there is usually nothing else seen growing among them.

American wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens,) another of our native evergreens, goes by many other names but to me it will always be the checkerberry. Thanks to my grandmother, who had trouble getting up after keeling and so had me crawl around through the forest looking for its bright red berries, it was the first plant I learned to identify. We loved the minty, spicy flavor of the berries but coming up with only a handful was often difficult. The name checkerberry comes from the chequer tree, which is a mountain ash tree native to Europe and which is thought to have similar berries. From what I’ve seen though the only similarity is the color of the fruit. Oil of wintergreen can be distilled from the leaves of American wintergreen, and they also make a pleasant, minty tea. Native Americans would take a handful of the leaves with them on a hunt and nibble on them to help them breathe easier while running or carrying heavy game.

With a name like evergreen Christmas fern you probably wouldn’t be surprised to see this fern’s green leaves in winter, but these leaves did surprise me because they weren’t the deep green color that they usually have. They were a much paler, blanched green and this is something I’ve never seen before. I can’t even guess what would have caused this nearly indestructible fern to lose its color. Early colonials used to bring the fronds of this fern indoors in the winter, presumably to brighten what must have been a long, cold, dark period for them. If you look closely you can see that each leaf has a tiny “toe,” which makes it look like a Christmas stocking.

You would expect it to get cold in December and we weren’t too deep into the month when I started finding mushrooms like these brown ones frozen absolutely solid, but the cold that froze them was nothing compared to what was to come.

If you want to strike fear into the heart of even the crustiest New Englander just say the words “Ice storm.”  An ice storm coats absolutely everything in ice and as the ice builds up layer after layer on tree branches the branches and sometimes the whole tree will fall, and when they fall they usually take the already weighed down power lines with them. This leaves entire regions; sometimes millions of people, without electricity. Of course it is cold outside as well, and when you don’t have electricity to power your furnace, unless you have a woodstove or fireplace you have only two choices: move or freeze. I have no backup heat source, and all of these thoughts crossed my mind as I walked through the landscape on the morning of Christmas Eve day, right after an ice storm.

An ice storm can be both beautiful and terrible at the same time, but thankfully only a few thousand people lost their power this time and it was restored rather quickly. I’ve known people who have lost their power for close to a month after an ice storm and returned home only to find their house nearly destroyed by frozen and burst water pipes. I don’t think there is any weather event that we fear more.

The ice looked thick on all the trees but in reality was probably only about a quarter inch thick, which isn’t usually enough to cause much damage, thankfully.  Anything above that can mean trouble.

After the ice came about 5 inches of snow on Christmas morning, and this weighed the branches down even more because most of the ice was still on them. Still, though the Christmas tree lights blinked once or twice our power stayed on and I was able to cook our Christmas ham.

After the snow of Christmas day came the cold, and I do mean cold. Record breaking, dangerous cold settled in and hasn’t left yet, nearly a week later. As I write this I’m hoping I don’t wake to -16 °F again tomorrow as I did this morning, because you don’t go outside in that kind of cold, and it’s hard to chronicle what is happening in nature if you can’t get outside. In nearly eight years of writing this blog the weather has never stopped it, but this year could be different. I waited until it warmed to +14 ° and went out to take some photos, but an hour of that was all I could take. I must be getting old or maybe just tired of the cold; when I started this blog I could stay out most of the day if it was above 10 degrees but on this day it was more like work than fun.

But the cold can’t last forever; the earth will continue tilting toward the sun and spring will come once again. Meanwhile I’ll get outside when I can and if I can’t I might have to do a re-blog, which is something I’ve never done and don’t have the slightest idea how to do. It can’t be that hard.

If you’re wondering why I’m showing a photo of an old rock, it isn’t the rock I’m trying to show; it’s the skirt of ice it’s wearing. This stone is in the Ashuelot River and the river has frozen over from bank to bank in places. All I need to see is the river frozen over like that and I don’t need a thermometer to know it has been cold.

I see feathers all the time, but this is the first partridge feather I’ve ever seen. The partridge is an old world game bird that was introduced into the U.S. sometime around 1790. From what I’ve read it hasn’t been very successful here but it can do well on northern prairies and open farmland.  They forage in tall grass and whole flocks of them can often be very close but remain unseen, so that might help explain why I’ve never seen one. I hope they and all the other birds and animals survive this terrible cold. How they do so, I don’t know.

So that’s our look at December in New Hampshire. Maybe January will be warmer so we can all go outside once again.

Ice burns, and it is hard for the warm-skinned to distinguish one sensation, fire, from the other, frost. ~A.S. Byatt

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We had a day with blue skies, puffy white clouds, and low heat and humidity so I thought I’d take advantage of such a fine day by climbing Mount Caesar in Swanzey. The mountain it is said, is named after a freed slave named Caesar Freeman and he is supposed to be buried somewhere on it, but nobody really seems to be able to verify any of the tale. One thing about the mountain is certain; Native Americans used it for a lookout and in the mid-1700s they burned Swanzey to the ground, house by house and mill by mill. The climb to the top starts on a path of solid granite bedrock, as is seen in the photo.

One of my favorite things to see on Mount Caesar is this river of reindeer lichen. Since there are no reindeer or other animals to eat the lichens they thrive here. But they are fragile and should never be walked on.  Reindeer lichen is very slow growing at about an eighth to three eighths of an inch per year and if overgrazed or dug up, it can take decades for drifts like the one pictured to reappear. The Native American Ojibwa tribe was known to bathe newborns in water in which reindeer lichens had been boiled.

Just before you enter the forest there is a meadow teeming with wildflowers. On this day most of what was blooming were pale spike lobelias (Lobelia spicata,) which get their common name from the small, pale blue to almost white flowers. Every now and then you can find a plant with deeper blue flowers, but most are pale.

Sometimes if you look carefully you can find dark blue pale spike lobelias, as this one was. These flowers are small; hardly bigger than a standard aspirin. Native Americans had many medicinal uses for lobelia and one of them was as a treatment for asthma, but it has to be used with great care because too much of it can kill.

Stone walls will follow you almost all the way to the summit of Mount Caesar and remind hikers that this land was once completely cleared of trees. I’d guess that sheep once grazed on the mountain’s flanks, as was true of most of the hills in the area. The walls most likely date from the late 1700s and early 1800s. Not old enough to be covered by moss yet but there certainly are plenty of lichens on them. The yellow ones seen in the photo are sulfur dust lichens (Chrysothrix chlorina). This lichen doesn’t like to be rained on so it is usually found hiding under some type of overhang.

I saw many mushrooms on this climb, among them yellow chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius.) I’m not a real mushroom aficionado but I know this edible mushroom is considered choice. I don’t see many but when I do it’s usually about this time of year or a little earlier, and I always see them growing right alongside trails. It is believed by some that the compacted earth of the trail or road may cause the chanterelle mycelium to react by fruiting.

Another mushroom I saw in great abundance was yellow patches (Amanita flavoconia,) and it is not a choice edible fungus, in fact it is poisonous and should never be eaten. This mushroom is identified by the chrome yellow “warts” on the cap, which are easily brushed off. It prefers growing in hemlock forests, so it is right at home here. It is said to be one of the most common and widespread species of Amanita in eastern North America. It faintly resembles yellow fly agaric (Amanita muscaria v. formosa) but that mushroom has white warts on its cap.

I’ve seen people go up to the summit and then back down again in the time it took me to reach the half way point but this isn’t a race and I dawdle and wander, looking at this and that all the way up and down the mountain. A 45 minute climb with me can easily take half a day, and that’s why I almost always hike alone. To see the kinds of things that I see you absolutely must walk slowly and from what I’ve seen most people simply aren’t able to do it. Unfortunately most people I’ve seen and spoken with in places like this seem to feel that the end of the trail is far more important than what can be seen along it and race through it. If only they knew that they were missing all of the best that nature has to offer.

Eastern teaberry (Gaultheria procumbens,) bloomed all along the trail. This native wintergreen is in the same family as the blueberry and its flowers show that. Teaberry is also known as checkerberry or American wintergreen and by fall its flowers will have turned into small red berries that taste minty, like Teaberry chewing gum. Many animals, from foxes to chipmunks, and birds including grouse and pheasant rely on the berries to help them get through the winter. Wintergreen oil has been used medicinally for centuries, and the leaves make an excellent, soothing tea. The plant’s fragrance is unmistakable and its oil is used in toothpaste, mouthwash, pain relievers, and many other products.

Before too long the approach to the summit appears as granite bedrock, and that’s when you realize that this mountain is just a huge piece of solid granite with a few inches of soil covering it. I’ve seen several trees that have blown over and their roots were very shallow. They have to be because they can’t penetrate the granite.

I like a few clouds in the sky to give it some interest. A year or two ago we had an entire summer of blue skies with not a cloud to be seen, and it was quite boring if you wanted landscape photos. I like the way the shadows of the clouds pass over the land. It’s something I’ve watched and enjoyed since I was a boy.

The view was hazy in some directions but I usually spend time marveling at how vast this forest really is, so I don’t mind a little haze.

Mount Monadnock could be seen through the haze off to the east but it wasn’t a day for mountain portraits.

You need to watch where you step when you’re taking photos of the mountain because you have to get close to the edge of the cliff if you want the best shot. This is one time when it isn’t wise to step outside of yourself and become totally absorbed by what you see before you. It’s a long way down and for someone who doesn’t like heights it’s a stomach knotter, and I tread very mindfully up here.

I was surprised to see so many old friends up here, like this bristly sarsaparilla. It made me wonder if it has just moved in or if I have been negligent and ignored it on previous climbs. It obviously likes it up here; it was blooming well. It normally grows in dry, sandy soil at road edges and waste areas. Its stems are covered in short, sharp, bristly hairs and that’s where its common name comes from. Technically, though it looks like a perennial plant, it is considered a shrub because the lower part of its stem is woody and persists throughout winter.

Each tiny bristly sarsaparilla flower will become a round black berry if the pollinators do their job and it looked like they were hard at it. I’m not sure what this insect’s name is but it was very small. The entire flower head of the plant in the previous photo is barely bigger than a ping pong ball.

Blue toadflax (Nuttallanthus canadensis) also grew on the summit. It seems like I’m seeing this little beauty everywhere I go this summer and it makes me wonder if it doesn’t like a lot of rain like we’ve had this year, even though it grows in sandy waste areas.

Zigzag goldenrod (Solidago flexicaulis) was a real surprise because it usually grows in wooded areas instead of out in the open.  It has wide leaves and smallish flowers that grow from the leaf axils and at the terminal end of its zigzagging stem.  Zigzag goldenrod grows in the shade and prefers moist soil, so this seems like an odd place to have found it. It grew beside a large stone so maybe the stone keeps it shaded for part of the day.

We had torrential rains the day before I made this climb so I thought my little friends the toadskin lichens (Lasallia papulosa) would be happy, but most of them weren’t. I don’t know if they just dried out that quickly or if overhanging tree branches kept the rain off them. They grow in just about full sun so I suppose they could have simply dried out. The example in the above photo was close to what I expected but it still wasn’t that deep, pea green color and I could tell that it was drying out. When at their best these lichens are very pliable and feel like an ear lobe, but when dry they feel crisp like a potato chip. This one was somewhere in between.

This one was ashy gray and very dry. You can see the broken edges top and bottom where it has snapped like a brittle chip. I have to say that, though I doubt the lichens enjoy being in such a state, I think they’re at their most beautiful when they look like this. I wish I could see them every day so I could witness all of their changes but I’ve seen them only on the summits, so if you want to visit with them you have to work for the privilege.

To those who have struggled with them, the mountains reveal beauties that they will not disclose to those who make no effort. That is the reward the mountains give to effort. And it is because they have so much to give and give it so lavishly to those who will wrestle with them that men love the mountains and go back to them again and again. The mountains reserve their choice gifts for those who stand upon their summits. Sir Francis Younghusband

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1-tree-club-moss

I see by the number of views that posts like this get that not everyone is interested in native evergreens but they make up a large part of the outdoors and are a pleasure to see at this time of year. I hope posts like these will show those who believe that there is nothing to see in the winter that there is indeed still a lot of nature out there to see. I thought I’d start with clubmosses, which aren’t mosses at all. They are vascular plants that don’t flower; they produce spores instead of seeds and are considered fern allies. Fossils have been found that show the lowly clubmosses once grew to 100 feet tall. But that was a very long time ago; the tree clubmoss (Lycopodium dendroideum) in the above photo is barely 3 inches high. It shows the upright yellow spore bearing strobili, sometimes called candles or clubs that give the plants their common names. The plant is also called ground-pine because of its resemblance to the pine tree.

2-club-moss-club

This clubmoss strobilus is still tightly closed and hasn’t released its spores yet.

3-club-moss-club

They look a bit ragged after they’ve released their spores.

4-club-moss-flash-powder

Clubmoss spores have been collected and dried to make flash powder for many years. They are high in fat content and when mixed with air become highly flammable. They’ve been used in fireworks and explosives for years, and also as camera flashes before flash bulbs were invented. These days they are still used in magic acts and chemistry classes. They also repel water, so if dip your finger in a glass of water that has spores floating on it, your finger will come out dry. This photo is from the Chemical Store.

5-running-ground-pine-lycopodium-clavatum

Running ground pine (Lycopodium clavatum) is another clubmoss that someone once thought looked like the tree. The “running” part of the common name comes from the way its underground stems spread (run)  under the leaf mold. Other names include lamb’s tail, fox tail, wolfs claw, stag’s horn and witch meal. Native Americans used clubmosses medicinally to cure headaches and to treat urinary tract problems and diarrhea. They were also used to treat wounds and to dye fabrics. The Lycopodium part of the scientific name comes from the Greek lycos, ‘wolf’, and podus, ‘foot’, because whoever named it thought it looked like a wolf’s paw.

6-fan-club-moss

Fan clubmoss (Lycopodium digitatum) is one of my favorites. The plant gets its common name from the way its branches fan out in a 180 degree arc at the top of the stem. Another common name is ground cedar because of its resemblance to the cedar tree. At one time this and other clubmosses were used to make Christmas wreaths and were collected almost into oblivion, but they seem to be making a fairly good comeback. A single plant can take 20 years or more to grow from spore to maturity, so they should never be disturbed.

7-marginal-wood-fern

I don’t think many people associate ferns with winter hardiness but we do have a few that stay green all winter, like the eastern wood fern (Dryopteris marginalis) seen here. It is also called the marginal wood fern because of where its spore clusters lay in relation to the pinnule (leaf division) margins. Intermediate wood fern (Dryopteris intermedia,) Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides,) and polypody fern (Polypodium virginianum) are some of our other evergreen ferns.

8-partridge-berry

Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) is one of the lowest growing evergreen plants on the forest floor, hardly growing more than 3 or 4 inches high. Plants have a vining habit but do not climb. Instead they form dense mats by spreading their trailing stems out to about a foot from the crown. Roots will often form at leaf nodes along the stems and start new plants. The 4 petaled, pinkish, fringed, fragrant, half inch long flowers appear in June and July. The berries remain on the plant for long periods unless eaten, and can often still be found the following spring. I’ve never seen a partridge eating them but I know that wild turkeys love them.

9-checkerberry

American wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) is also called teaberry or checkerberry and its small white flowers resemble those of the blueberry. It is probably the easiest of all wintergreens to identify because of the strong minty scent that comes from its crushed leaves. If you have ever tasted teaberry gum then you know exactly what it smells and tastes like. The plant contains compounds that are very similar to those found in aspirin and Native Americans used it much like we use aspirin. This photo was taken after a recent snowstorm and shows how wintergreens got their name. The small white object in front of the middle leaf is a starflower seed pod (Trientalis borealis.)

10-checkerberries

American wintergreen was the first plant my grandmother taught me to identify. Because she had trouble getting up from a kneeling position she would have me crawl around and gather up handfuls of the bright red, minty berries, which we would then share. She always called them checkerberries, but nobody seems to know where that name or the several others it has originated. The name teaberry comes from a pleasing tea that can be made from the leaves. Squirrels, chipmunks, mice, grouse, partridges, bobwhites, turkeys, fox, deer and bears eat the berries.

11-striped-wintergreen

Though I showed it in a recent post striped wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) has my favorite wintergreen foliage so I’m going to show it again. In winter it turns deep purple where the darker green is on the leaf. This plant is rare here, though I’m finding more and more spots where 1 or 2 plants grow. In all I probably know of a dozen widely scattered plants. It’s hard to tell from a photo but these plants are so well camouflaged that I have walked right by them and not seen them.

12-shinleaf

Shinleaf (Pyrola elliptica,) another of our native wintergreens, gets its common name from the way Native Americans used it as a poultice to heal wounds; especially shin wounds, apparently. Like several other wintergreens it contains compounds similar to those in aspirin and a tea made from it was used for many of the same ailments. Its nodding white, waxy flowers are fragrant and usually appear near the end of June. I find them in sandy soiled forests under pines.

13-pipsissewa

Pipsissewa (Chimaphila umbellata) grows in large colonies and is easy to find because of its shiny green leaves that shine winter and summer and last up to 4 years. Like other wintergreens it likes dry, sandy, undisturbed soil in pine forests. Pipsissewa was once used as a flavoring in candy and soft drinks, including root beer. Its name is fun to say. It’s a Native American Cree word meaning “It-breaks-into-small-pieces.” This is because it was used as a treatment for kidney stones and was thought to break them into pieces.

14-pipsissewa-leaf

Pipsissewa and some other native wintergreens form a symbiotic relationship with the mycelium of certain fungi in the soil and are partially parasitic on them through a process called myco-heterotrophy. This means that, even though they photosynthesize, they supplement their diet with nutrients taken from fungi. That explains why they will only grow in certain places, much like native orchids. If looking for this plant look for the teeth on the outer margins of the shiny leaves.

15-trailing-arbutus

Trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens) is also called mayflower because that’s often when its small white to pink, very fragrant flowers appear.  Its oval evergreen leaves are tough and leathery and hug the ground but though it looks like a groundcover botanically speaking it has a persistent woody stem, so it is classified as a shrub. This was one of my grandmother’s favorite flowers and she would walk in the woods to find and smell it rather than dig it up to plant in her yard.  It’s too bad everybody didn’t do the same because this plant was once collected into near oblivion. These days it can be found at many nurseries so there is no longer any reason to dig it up. Since it’s very fussy unless it’s given the right amount of light, water, nutrients and soil type it won’t grow except where it chooses to anyway. That’s true of most of these plants, in fact.

16-goldthread

New goldthread (Coptis groenlandicum) leaves are a bright, glossy lime green but darken as they age and by winter will often be very dark green. They’ll hold their color under the snow all winter and look similar to wild strawberries until late April or early May when new leaves and small white flowers will appear. Goldthread gets its common name from its thread like, bright yellow roots. Native Americans used goldthread medicinally and told the early settlers of its value in treating canker sores, which led to its being nearly collected into oblivion. At one time more goldthread was sold in Boston than any other native plant, probably by its other common name: canker root. Luckily it has made a good comeback and I see lots of it.

17-swamp-dewberry

Swamp dewberry (Rubus hispidus) is a trailing vine blooms with white flowers that look a lot like strawberry flowers. The fruit looks more like a black raspberry than anything else and is said to be very sour. Its leaves live under the snow all winter. It is thought that staying green through the winter lets evergreen plants begin photosynthesizing earlier in the spring so they get a head start over the competition.

18-swamp-dewberry

But though swamp dewberry leaves live under the snow all winter they aren’t always green. These beautiful beet purple plants grew just a few feet away from the green ones in the previous photo. Swamp dewberry looks like a vine but is actually considered a shrub. It likes wet places and is a good indicator of wetlands. It’s also called bristly blackberry because its stem is very prickly.

19-downy-rattlesnake-plantain

Some native orchids have flowers and foliage that look tender and fragile, but as downy plantain orchids  (Goodyera pubescens) show, looks can be deceiving. Its leaves are covered by soft downy hairs and this little orchid can stand being buried under snow all winter without being damaged. It’ll look just as it does now when the snow melts. I hope you’ll take some time to look at the evergreens in your own area. Don’t forget the mosses and lichens!

There is no end to wonder once one starts really looking. ~Marty Rubin

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1. Monkey Flower

Monkey see, monkey do, but I don’t see a monkey in you. Someone must have seen a smiling monkey’s face when they looked at this flower though, because that’s how the Allegheny monkey flower (Mimulus ringens) got its common name. This plant has a square stem and that’s how it comes by another common name: square stemmed monkey flower. It gets about knee high and likes to grow in wet, sunny places, and isn’t all that common. I know of only two places where it grows.

2. Monkey Flower

I’m still not seeing a monkey. All I see is a beautiful little flower that is whispering summer’s passing.

3. Bugle Weed

Northern bugleweed (Lycopus uniflorus) has opposite leaves that turn 90 degrees to the previous pair as they make their way up the square stem. Tufts of very small white flowers grow around the stem in the leaf axils. This plant likes wet places and, since there are many different species of Lycopus, it can be hard to identify. In fact, I’m never 100% sure that I’ve gotten it right.

4. Bugle Weed

The tiny flowers of northern bugleweed are about 1/8 inch long and tubular with 4 lobes, a light green calyx with 5 teeth, 2 purple tipped stamens, and a pistil. They are also very difficult to photograph because they’re so small. The plant is usually about knee high when I find it along the edges of ponds and streams. They often fall over and grow at an angle if there aren’t any other plants nearby to support them. Several Native American tribes used the tuberous roots of bugleweed as food.

5. Yellow Sorrel

Native common yellow wood sorrel (Oxalis stricta) is unusual because it grows in woods or meadows and I see it in both. It’s considered a weed by many and is largely ignored by most, but it’s a very interesting plant. Its raw leaves can be chewed as a thirst quencher if you forgot to bring water on your hike. The native American Kiowa tribe called it “salt weed” and used it that way for long walks. Its seed capsules can also be chewed but they can also explode when mature and can fling seeds up to 13 feet away. They are said to be tart with a flavor similar to rhubarb. The plant is high in vitamin C and it can be pressed to make a passable vinegar substitute.

6. Slender Fragrant Goldenrod

Slender fragrant goldenrod (Solidago tenuifolia) is a goldenrod that’s easy to identify because of its long slender, willow like leaves and its pleasant, vanilla like fragrance that is impossible to describe. The only other similar goldenrod is the lance leaved goldenrod (Solidago graminifolia) but its leaves are wider and have 3 to 5 veins as opposed to the single vein in a slender fragrant goldenrod leaf. It is also called flat topped goldenrod.

7. Slender Fragrant Goldenrod

Insects of all kinds swarm over slender fragrant goldenrod and you have to be careful that you aren’t going to inhale one when you smell it.

8. Teaberry

My grandmother taught me a lot about plants and the one she started with was one of our native wintergreens that she called checkerberry. I call it teaberry (Gaultheria procumbens) and if you’ve ever chewed Clark’s Teaberry Gum you know exactly what the plant’s small red berries taste like. The fragrance of the oil is unmistakable and can be recognized immediately in toothpaste, mouthwash, pain relievers, etc. Another name for it is American wintergreen. Its evergreen leaves were once chewed to relieve pain because they contain compounds similar to those found in aspirin, and anyone allergic to aspirin should leave it alone. As the photo shows teaberry’s blossoms look a lot like tiny blueberry blossoms. The plants are having a good year; I’ve never seen so many blossoms on teaberry plants.

9. Tansy

Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) is a European native that has been cultivated for centuries. The flat flower heads are made up of many button like disc flowers; almost like a daisy without the white ray flowers that we call petals. Tansy is a natural insect repellent and was used as such in colonial times. Dried tansy added to the straw in mattresses was said to keep bedbugs away. Most tansy plants are seen in gardens but it had naturalized itself in New England by 1785 and can still be occasionally found growing along roadsides. It’s a good plant to use in vegetable gardens for pest control. The ancient Greeks grew tansy for medicinal use but modern science has found it to be toxic.

10. Field Milkwort

I know of only one place to find field milkwort (Polygala sanguinea) and it is always worth the walk to see them.  The flowers are very beautiful and unusual enough to make you want to sit beside them for a while and study them, and that’s just what I usually do.

11. Field Milkwort

On field milkwort flowers what look like petals arranged on a central stem are actually individual flowers packed into a raceme no bigger than the end of an average index finger. Each tiny overlapping flower has two large sepals, three small sepals, and three small petals that form a narrow tube. Several different kinds of bees help pollinate this plant. Its flowers can be white, purple, pink, or green and I’ve noticed that the color can vary considerably from plant to plant.

12. Indian Tobacco

I’ve shown 2 or 3 small lobelias with blue / purple flowers over the past few flower posts and here is another one. This lobelia is called Indian tobacco (Lobelia inflata.) and the small flowers are about 1/3 of an inch long. It is the only lobelia with calyxes that inflate after the flowers have fallen and to identify it I just look for the inflated seedpods.

13. Indian Tobacco

Indian tobacco gets its name from the way its inflated seed pods resemble the smoking material pouches that Native Americans carried. The inflata part of its scientific name also comes from these inflated pods. The pods form so quickly that they can usually be found on the lower part of the stem while the upper part is still flowering. Though Native Americans used this and other lobelias to treat asthma and other breathing difficulties they knew how to use what we don’t, and today the plants are considered toxic. They can make you very sick and too much can kill.

14. Coneflower

This purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) seems to have dressed in the dark and thrown on any old thing. Its petals were all different sizes and one or two seemed to be missing, but at least they were all the same color. If the butterflies and bees don’t mind then I don’t suppose I should either. Purple cone flower is known for its medicinal qualities as well as its beauty. According to the USDA the plant was used by many Native American tribes throughout North America to treat a variety of ailments. It was used as a pain reliever, anti-inflammatory, a treatment for toothaches, coughs, colds, and sore throats. It was also used as an antidote for various forms of poisonings, including snake bite. Portions of it were also used to dress wounds and treat infections. Modern medicine has found it useful to combat bacterial and viral infections and as an immune system booster. I grow it because butterflies and bees like its nectar, birds like the seeds, and I like to admire its beauty.

15. Helborine

Broad leaved helleborine orchids (Epipactis helleborine) are originally from Europe and Asia and were first spotted in this country in Syracuse, New York in 1879. The plant has now spread to all but 19 of the lower 48 states and is considered an invasive weed. It doesn’t act very invasive here; I usually see only a few plants each year and every time I see them they’re growing in deep shade. I’ve never been able to find out how the plant comes by its common name. It seems a bit odd because it doesn’t seem to resemble either hellebore or false hellebore.

Scientists have discovered that the nectar of broad leaved helleborine contains the strongest narcotic compounds found in nature; comparable to oxycodone, and when insects (wasps) sip it they tend to stagger around for a while. This increases their chances of picking up the orchid’s pollinia, which are sticky little sacks of pollen that orchids produce instead of the dust-like pollen produced by many other flowers. Once the insect flies off it will most likely be oblivious to the pollen packets that it has stuck all over itself. By transporting its pollinia to another helleborine flower the insect will have repaid the intoxicating orchid for the buzz.

16. Steeplebush

Steeple bush (Spirea tomentose) seems more herb than shrub to me but it’s in the spirea family of many shrubs. Sometimes it gets confused with meadowsweet (Spirea alba) but that plant is a very woody shrub with white flowers in flower heads that aren’t as long and pointed as these are. A dense coat of white wooly hairs covers the stem and the leaf undersides of steeple bush, and that’s where the tomentose part of the scientific name comes from. It means “covered with densely matted woolly hairs.” I almost always find this plant at the water’s edge.

17. Steeplebush

Five petaled, pink steeplebush flowers are about 1/16 of an inch wide and loaded with 5 pistils and many stamens, which is what often gives flowers in the spirea family a fuzzy appearance. Many different butterflies love these flowers. Native Americans used the plant medicinally in much the same way that we would use aspirin.

18. Red Sandspurry

The beautiful little flowers of red sandspurry (Spergularia rubra) are hard for me to see because they’re so small, so I take photos of them so I can see them better. This plant was originally introduced from Europe in the 1800s and it has reached many states on the east and west coasts but doesn’t appear in any state along the Mississippi river except Minnesota. It must have been introduced on both coasts rather than first appearing in New England and then crossing the country like so many other invasive plants have.  I’m not sure where the red in the common name comes from. I wonder if the person who named it was colorblind.

If you truly love Nature, you will find beauty everywhere.  ~Vincent Van Gogh

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