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Posts Tagged ‘Ashuelot River’

Our hot dry weather continues, and the more visible stones there are in the Ashuelot River the lower the water. This is normal in the in late July and August, but it has been this way since May, and that isn’t normal. Or maybe it’s the new normal.

Despite the low water levels I’m seeing a lot of dragonflies, like this 12 spotted skimmer.  Males are sometimes called 10 spotted skimmers, but apparently it depends on whether you count the white spots or brown spots. Only males have white spots between the brown. I’ve read that mature males seldom perch, but this one returned to its twig again and again.

I’m not sure about the identity of this dragonfly, but it might be a dusky club tail. There is a similar dragonfly called the ashy club tail though, and I’ve read that care needs to be taken in identification of the two. Since I have no field guides that are very helpful for dragonflies I’ll leave it up to those more knowledgeable than I to make an identification, if they care to. Males of both species have blue gray eyes and very similar markings and colorblindness keeps me from seeing any obvious differences.

The widow skimmer is another common dragonfly with brown and white wing patches, but only males have the white markings. One day it seemed like hundreds of them flew at a local pond and that is a good thing, because they eat mosquitoes.

I’m not sure what was going on here; either an ant and a spider were fighting or an ant was carrying a big striped egg. Whatever was going on it was all taking place on a Queen Anne’s lace flower head.

There have been times when butterflies literally landed at my feet on various trails but so far this year I can’t get near them. This one did sit still for more than a few seconds though, so I was able to get a poor shot of it. I think it’s a white admiral.

I saw these strange little pencil eraser size brown things on a log recently. They were small enough so I had to use my camera to see the details and when I did I realized they were the chocolate tube slime mold (Stemenitis) that I had been hoping to see for a very long time.

Chocolate tube slime molds get their common name from their long brown sporangia, which stand at the top of thin black, horsehair like stalks. They typically grow in clusters on rotting wood and are found on every continent on earth except Antarctica. They are also called “pipe cleaner slime molds” or “tree hair.” There are thought to be about 18 species which can only be accurately identified with a microscope. Some can be quite long and look like sea anemones, but these examples were short; about a half inch long. They start life as a white plasmodial mass before becoming a cluster of small yellow bumps, and they in turn grow into what you see here.

Once its spores have been released the chocolate tube slime mold kind of melts away, and this is what is left.

I saw a good example of scrambled egg slime mold (Fuligo septica) on another log. This common slime mold grows in full sun on logs, wood mulch or wood chips and is easily seen because it can get quite large. It also produces the largest spore producing structure of any known slime mold. At the stage shown the slime mold has formed a crust and before long it will darken in color and begin to release its spores.

Porcupine sedge (Carex hystericina) is blossoming. This common sedge is also called bottlebrush sedge and I usually find it on the shores of ponds or in wet ditches.

The flowers of porcupine sedge are so small they are almost microscopic, but you can see them here. They are the whitish wisps that appear at the ends of the spiky protrusions, which are called perigynia. Waterfowl and other birds love its seeds.

Another sedge that was flowering recently was this bladder sedge (Carex intumescens.) The wispy white flowers look like those on porcupine sedge but these are larger and easier to see. This is another sedge I find on pond edges and wet places.  I thinks it’s one of the prettier sedges.

I think anyone who has spent much time on a riverbank or pond shore has seen brown wooly sedge (Scirpus cyperinus,) but I can’t remember ever seeing it flowering before like it’s doing here. It is also called cotton grass bulrush, I’d guess because of the cottony look of its many white flowers. This is a big, clumping sedge with three foot tall flower spikes but the flowers are so small I couldn’t even get a useable photo of them. In time these tiny flowers become even fuzzier and look more cottony than they do in this photo.

I hope everyone takes the time to look at grasses because some can be quite beautiful when they flower. The latest one I saw blossoming was this Timothy grass (Phleum pretense.) This well-known grass was brought to North America by early settlers and was first found in New Hampshire in 1711 by John Hurd. A farmer named Timothy Hanson began promoting cultivation of it as a hay crop about 1720 and the grass has carried his name ever since.

Timothy grass flowers from June until September and is noted for its cold and drought resistance. It’s an excellent hay crop for horses. Each tall flower head is filled with tiny florets, each one with three purple stamens and two wispy white stigmas. The flower heads often look purple when they are flowering.

An oak tree came up in deep shade and decided it didn’t need to photosynthesize, since it never saw any sunshine. It might grow on but I doubt it will last long unless an older tree falls and opens up a hole in the canopy.

You see lots of photos of the fuzzy red berries of staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) but you never see the flowers that the berries come from, so I like to show them now and then. The big green flower heads were just coming into bloom when I took this photo.

The small, yellow-green, five petaled, fuzzy flowers will never win any prizes at a flower show but they’re interesting and always remind me of poison ivy flowers, even though they aren’t poisonous.

Many people forage for and eat (or drink) the fuzzy red berries of staghorn sumac just as Native Americans did. This year there will be plenty because, as this photo shows, the birds have hardly touched them. I’ve read that the berries “yield a fine claret colored spice that is deliciously tart and clean tasting.” I’ve heard they taste like lemon, and I know that a drink that could easily pass for lemonade can be made with them. They are said to be very high in vitamins C and A. In Europe a different sumac, Rhus coriraria, is used in much the same way. Why the birds don’t eat the berries like they do in other parts of the country is a mystery to me.

Sarsaparilla plants are interesting at all times of year. In spring their leaves appear in threes at the top of  thin stalks and quickly turn to shiny bronze. In summer they display patterns made by leaf miners, and in late summer when I don’t want to think about fall yet they are among the first leaves in the understory to turn yellow. I have a hard time imagining  an insect so small it can eat its way between the top and bottom surfaces of a leaf but the patterns they make can be interesting.

I was mowing one afternoon quite far from any shelter when these clouds decided that a 20 minute, torrential downpour would be fun. Luckily I found a place where I could stay relatively dry and when the storm broke mare’s tail clouds formed as I watched. Mare’s tails are a type of cirrus cloud known as cirrus uncinus, which means “curly hooks” in Latin. When they appear with altocumulus clouds they often mean that a storm is brewing. I should have been paying attention to their message before the rainstorm.

It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see. ~Henry David Thoreau

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A lot of our aquatics and pond side plants bloom at this time of year and one of the prettiest is meadow sweet (Spirea alba.) This plant likes moist ground and I have found it near water more often than not but lately I’ve been seeing it in drier spots as well. Its flowers have long stamens that always make them look kind of fuzzy. Some people confuse this plant, which is a shrub, with steeplebush (Spiraea tomentosa), which is also a shrub, but steeplebush has pink flowers and the undersides of its leaves are silvery-white, while the undersides of meadowsweet leaves are green.

Aquatic common arrowhead (Sagittaria latifolia) grows just off shore and is also called broadleaf arrowhead and duck potato, because ducks eat its small, potato like roots and seeds. All arrowheads that I’ve seen always have three pure white petals, but I’ve heard that some can be tinged with pink. Flowers are about an inch across. In late fall or early spring, disturbing the mud in which they grow will cause arrowhead’s small tuberous roots to float to the surface. They are said to have the texture of potatoes but taste more like chestnuts. They were an important food for Native Americans, who sliced the roots thinly and dried them and then ground them into a powder that was used much like flour. Ducks, beavers, muskrats and other birds and animals eat the seeds, roots, and leaves.

We have many different varieties of St. Johnswort and the one above I first thought was  dwarf St. Johnswort (Hypericum mutilum,) but the flowers were too big. Dwarf St. Johnswort flowers are about the size of a pencil eraser and these are nearly the size of common St. Johnswort. So then I thought it might be pale St. Johnswort (Hypericum ellipticum) but the flowers aren’t pale yellow, they’re bright lemon yellow.  Note how big the leaves are; much bigger than common St. Johnswort.

Dwarf St. Johnswort, pale St. Johnswort, and this St. Johnswort all grow in the wet mud at pond edges.
I’ve had trouble sorting it out with plant guides but if you know I’d welcome your thoughts. It’s a very pretty flower and obviously a St. Johnswort.

Pickerel weed (Pontederia cordata) is another aquatic that has small purple, tubular flowers on spikey flower heads that produce a fruit with a single seed. Ducks and muskrats love the seeds and deer, geese and muskrats eat the leaves. If you see pickerel weed you can almost always expect the water it grows in to be relatively shallow and placid, though I’ve heard that plants occasionally grow in water that’s 6 feet deep. It’s a plant that often forms large colonies.

Native Americans washed and boiled young pickerel weed’s leaves and shoots and used them as pot herbs. They also ground the seeds into grain. The plant gets its name from the pickerel fish, which is thought to hide among its underwater stems.

Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum) is a geranium that grows on the banks of the Ashuelot River in Surry, which is north of Keene. My question, once I had identified it, was: Robert who? As it turns out Robert was a French monk who lived in 1000 AD and cured many people’s diseases using this plant, and that leads to another common name: Saint Robert’s Herb. If you crush its leaves they are said to smell like burning tires, so yet another common name is stinky Bob.

This is the first time white avens (Geum canadense) has appeared here, mostly because I’ve always been too late to get a photo of it. I know of only one place where it grows and thimbleweed also grows there. With its bigger, showier flowers thimbleweed has always stolen the show and I’ve forgotten about white avens. Each flowers is about a half inch across with 5 white petals and many anthers. The anthers start out white and then turn brown and you usually find both on each flower. Each flower becomes a seed head with hooked seeds that will stick to hair or clothing.

Tall thimbleweed’s (Anemone virginiana) white flower sepals don’t seem to last very long. Every time I see them they have either turned green or are in the process of doing so, and you can just see a hint of green on two or three of these. That means if you see them in bloom that’s the time to get a photo. There are usually plenty of yellowish stamens surrounding a center head full of pistils, even after the flowers turn green. These flowers are close to the diameter of a quarter; about an inch.

Thimble weed’s seed head continues growing after the sepals have fallen off and it becomes thimble shaped, which is where the common name comes from. Though the plant is poisonous Native Americans used the root to ease whooping cough and the smoke from the seeds was used to treat breathing difficulties.

Last year I found a small colony of long leaf speedwell (Veronica longifolia.) I’m happy to say it looks bigger this year. I’ve never seen it growing in the wild before then. It’s a pretty plant that is native to Europe and China and grows on steppes, grassy mountain slopes, meadows at forest edges and birch forests. Here in the U.S. it is commonly found in gardens but it has obviously escaped. It certainly doesn’t seem to be aggressive or invasive. I love its showy blue flower spikes.

Each tiny long leaf speedwell blossom is purple–blue or occasionally white, about a quarter inch across and 4 lobed with quite a long tube. Each has 2 stamens and a single pistil.

I like both single and double roses. This beautiful example of a single rose had enough scent for both.

Perennial pea (Lathyrus latifolius) is a beautiful little flower that I’ve never seen before. Originally from Europe it has been grown in gardens here in the U.S. since the 1700s. Of course it has escaped gardens and now can be found along roadsides and in waste areas. I found these plants growing along a small stream and I was surprised that I had never seen them before. It is a vining plant that I’ve read can reach 9 feet, but these weren’t more than a foot tall, so maybe they’re young plants. It is also called wild sweet pea, everlasting pea, and hardy sweet pea. The pods and seeds are toxic and shouldn’t be eaten.

Crown vetch (Securigera varia) has just come into bloom and I’m happy to see it because I think it’s a beautiful flower. It’s one of those that seem to glow with their own inner light and I enjoy just looking at it for a time. Crown vetch has seed pods look that like axe heads and English botanist John Gerard called the plant axewort and axeseed in 1633. It is thought that its seeds somehow ended up in other imported plant material because the plant was found in New York in 1869. By 1872 it had become naturalized in New York and now it is in every state in the country except Alaska.

Humble little narrow-leaf cow wheat (Melampyrum lineare) seems like a shy little thing but it is actually a thief that steals nutrients from surrounding plants. A plant that can photosynthesize and create its own food but is still a parasite on surrounding plants is known as a hemiparasite. Its long white, tubular flowers tipped with yellow-green are very small, and usually form in pairs where the leaves meet the stem (axils). I find this plant growing in old, undisturbed forests. It is quite common, but so small that few seem to notice it. The tiny flowers bloom at about shoe top height.

I like a challenge and each year at this time my greatest challenge comes from the tiny flowers of enchanter’s nightshade (Circaea lutetiana canadensis.) This woodland plant is a shade lover and I notice it along trails only when it blooms in July. It gets its scientific name Circaea from Circe, an enchantress in Homer’s Odyssey with a fondness for turning men into swine. There are similar plants native to Europe and Asia.

Each tiny 1/8 inch wide enchanter’s nightshade flower consists of 2 white petals that are split deeply enough to look like 4, 2 green sepals, 2 stamens, and a tiny central style. I’m guessing that I must have tried 50 times or more for this one photo and it still isn’t as good as I hoped it would be. It should be sharper.

At the base of each flower there is a 2 celled ovary that is green and covered with stiff hooked hairs, and this becomes the plant’s bur like seed pod, which sticks to just about anything. When a plant’s seed pods have evolved to be spread about by sticking to the feathers and fur of birds and animals the process is called epizoochory. The burs on burdock plants are probably the best known examples of epizoochory.

When our native yellow loosestrifes have all bloomed then it’s time for purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) to start in and despite the belief that they need wet places to grow in I found these plants at the edge of a dry cornfield. Purple loosestrife is an invasive that came over from Europe in the ballast of a cargo ship in the 1800s. The beach sand ballast, loaded with purple loosestrife seeds, was originally dumped on Long Island, New York. The seeds grew, the plant spread and now it covers most of Canada and all but 5 of the lower Untied States. Purple loosestrife chokes out native plants and forms monocultures. These colonies can be so large that finding a single plant is becoming very difficult.

Though it is much hated you can’t deny the beauty of purple loosestrife. I’ve worked for nurseries in the past and have had people come in wanting to buy “that beautiful purple flower that grows in wet areas.” In New Hampshire I could be heavily fined for selling or planting it.

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) is one of those flowers that take me out of myself. In my opinion it’s the most beautiful of all the milkweeds and is one of those flowers that I most look forward to seeing each summer. How could you not look forward to seeing something so beautiful? I could look at it all day. Swamp milkweed is somewhat rare here. I know of only two places it grows.

Maybe, beauty, true beauty, is so overwhelming it goes straight to our hearts. Maybe it makes us feel emotions that are locked away inside. ~James Patterson

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Last Saturday I decided to hike one of my favorite rail trails. Not only does it have wildflowers and flowering shrubs all along it, it has plenty of railroad history too. I hadn’t been out here for a couple of years because I had heard of a bear out here that seemed to have no fear of humans. A bear that has no fear of humans is a bear to fear, but bears and many other animals are most active early in the morning and in the evening, so when the clock reached mid-morning I grabbed my can of bear spray and out I went.

This is the first example of spreading dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium) that I’ve seen blooming this year and it’s about a month early. Dogbane is toxic to both dogs and humans, but insects love it. It’s closely related to milkweeds and has milky sap like they do. Monarch butterflies drink its nectar. Though it is an herbaceous perennial its growth habit makes it look like a 3 foot tall shrub. The Apocynum part of its scientific name means “away from dog.” Not only dogs but most other animals avoid it because of its toxic sap. Native Americans used the plant medicinally and used its strong fibers to make thread and cord. The plant’s milky white sap is very sticky and I wonder how they removed it from the thread they made.

An Ox eye daisy bloomed in a sunny spot at the edge of the trail. It was notable because there was just one.

Invasive but very fragrant multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) grew up trees all along the trail. I just featured this plant in my last post if you’d like to know more about it.

If you’re on a rail trail and see a stream flowing under it, there’s a good chance that it is flowing through a culvert-possibly a very old culvert. The one in the photo is a box culvert, made up of two side walls, top or lintel stones, and a stone floor. In the mid-1800s railroad stone masons cut these stones from ledges or boulders found in the woods near the rail line. There were certain rules that they had to follow. One regarded the thickness of the lintel stones and by how many inches they had to overlap the side walls, and even how much soil would be packed on top of them. These lintel stones were at least a foot thick and supported the weight of locomotives twice a day for over a century.

According to a website I found called Historic Stone Highway Culverts in New Hampshire the difference between a bridge and a culvert is the length of the span. (Width of the opening) Anything less than 10 feet is a culvert, and more than that is a bridge. Most culverts are covered by earth fill and the amount of fill over a culvert plays a huge role in how much weight it can carry.

Though I grew up hearing everyone call this type of span a trestle, according to Wikipedia this is a Warren-type through-truss bridge. This type of bridge was made of wood, wrought iron, cast iron, or steel. We have several that cross and re-cross the Ashuelot River and for the most part they are cared for by snowmobile clubs, but I was dismayed to find that this one had seen no attention for a while. All the wooden side rails were missing and the floor boards were rotting enough so some had holes through them. I hope the snowmobile clubs haven’t abandoned this leg of the trail. We owe them a great debt of gratitude for working so hard to keep these trails open. They donate their time, tools and quite often their own money.

The view of the Ashuelot River from the trestle shows how low it is. We’re over 3 inches shy of average rainfall now, and I don’t think we’ve had a real rainy day for about a month.

I was surprised to find native whorled loosestrife (Lysimachia quadrifolia) blooming out here already. It’s about two weeks early and as this photo shows, it was wilting from the dryness and heat. This plant’s leaves and flowers grow in a whorl around the stem and that’s how it comes by its common name. A whorl, in botanical terms for those who don’t know, is made up of at least three elements of a plant (leaves, flowers, etc.) that radiate from a single point and surround the stem.

Both the leaves and flowers grow in a whorl on whorled loosestrife, because where each leaf meets the stem (axils) a five petaled, star shaped yellow flower appears at the end of a long stalk. Many plants grow flowers in the axils of the leaves, but most do not grow in whorls. Almost all species of loosestrife with yellow flowers often have a lot of red in them as this example had.

This old train depot along the rail trail in Ashuelot, New Hampshire  isn’t as elaborately adorned as some that still stand in this area but it has been taken care of and seems to be fairly complete, except for the wooden platform it surely must have had. The train would have stopped just a few yards out from that red door. This was on the Ashuelot branch of the Cheshire Railroad, which was part of the Boston and Maine Railroad system. The Cheshire Railroad ran from Keene to Brattleboro, Vermont, and from there north into central Vermont or south to Massachusetts.

The town of Ashuelot has a beautiful covered bridge which was built in 1864, which is a strange time because the Civil War was still raging. I’ve read that it was originally built so wood could be carried across the river to wood burning locomotives, but I have no way to verify that. Anyhow, in spite of the fighting it was built in two spans and is 160 feet long. It’s a Town lattice truss style bridge, patented by architect Ithiel Town in 1820. The open lattice work sides were a big step away from the solid walled bridges that came before it. Now, instead of being dark like a cave covered bridges were filled with light and had better air circulation. They also often had covered walkways for pedestrian traffic, as this bridge has on the far side. I’ve crossed both styles and the difference is amazing. The change must have been a very welcome one to people of the 1800s.  At one time there were about 400 covered bridges in New Hampshire, but only 70 of them were left at the end of the 20th century. The Ashuelot Bridge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

There are many plants growing in the few sunny spots found along the trail and some of the most beautiful on this day were the purple flowering raspberries (Rubus odoratus) in full bloom. This shade tolerant plant is in the rose family and the 2 inch wide flowers might look like a rose at first glance, but one look at its large, light gathering, maple like leaves will show that it isn’t. The plant has no thorns but it does have a raspberry like fruit. The flower petals always look a bit wrinkled.

The name “forget me not” (Myosotis) comes from the original German “Vergissmeinnicht” and the language of flowers in 15th century Germany encouraged folks to wear them so that they wouldn’t be forgotten by their loved ones. Mozart wrote a song about the flowers and Franz von Schober wrote a poem about them. It seems that the plant has always been associated with romance or remembrance; Henry IV had forget me nots as his symbol during his exile in 1398, probably so his subjects would remember him. Surely they must have; he was only gone for a year. Only Myosotis scorpioides, native to Europe and Asia, is called the true forget me not. The plant was introduced into North America, most likely by early European settlers, and now grows in 40 of the lower 48 states. In some states it is considered a noxious weed though I can’t for the life of me understand why. I hardly ever see it.

In several places the sides of the trail had grown in so much there was barely room for two people to pass, and that gave me another sinking feeling that there had been no maintenance here for a while. I do hope I’m wrong.

This view of the river shows how low it really is. In a normal spring you would hardly be able to see a single stone here.

The last time I was out here a hawk circled overhead for quite a while as I walked so I wondered if this time a hawk didn’t snatch up a woodpecker, because I can’t think of any other birds with feathers like this. I hope the birders among you might have a better idea. The feather wasn’t very big; maybe about an inch or inch and a half across.

June is the month when our native mountain laurels (Kalmia latifolia) bloom and they are one of the reasons I wanted to hike this trail, because they bloom along quite a good length of it. The wood of this shrub twists and turns and can form dense, almost impenetrable thickets when it grows in suitable locations like this area. An older name for mountain laurel is spoon wood, because Native Americans used the wood to make spoons and other small utensils.

Like the bog laurel I showed in my last post the pentagonal flowers of mountain laurel have ten pockets in which the male anthers rest under tension. When a heavy enough insect lands on a blossom the anthers spring from their pockets and dust it with pollen. Once released from their pockets the anthers don’t return to them. Though related to the blueberry, all parts of this plant are very toxic.

What once may have been five petals are now fused into a single, cup shaped blossom on mountain laurels. This rear view shows the cups that the anthers fit into. The way that these flowers work to make sure that visiting insects get dusted with pollen is really amazing.

New Hampshire used to have a lot of paper mills but many have gone out of business. This one seems to be slowly crumbling. I’ve watched buildings like this crumble before and it always seems to start with an unrepaired leak in the roof. The water coming through the roof rots the roof rafters, floor joists and sills, and finally the rotting building is too weak to handle the snow load and, usually after a heavy snowfall, down it comes.

I know that a lot of freight was hauled over these rails but I was surprised a few years ago to find these old boxcars slowly sinking into the earth outside the old abandoned paper mill. There was a lumber yard and warehouses across the tracks from my grandmother’s house and when I was a boy I used to play in and on boxcars just like these. That was back when the trains were running so I also used to get chased out of them frequently.

The old knuckle couplers still held the boxcars together after all this time. After a three mile walk I’d seen enough and it was time to turn around and walk the three miles back to my car. I spoke with several homeowners along the way who were out doing yardwork and every one said yes, they had seen bears out here, but I didn’t see one and that made for a fine hike.

After all this talk of railroads I thought you might like to see one of the trains that ran through here. A sister train to the Flying Yankee pictured here carried passengers on the Cheshire Railroad from 1935 until its retirement in 1957. The gleaming stainless steel streamliner with “Cheshire” on its nameplate ran over 3 million miles in its history as a state of the art diesel passenger train. Its second car was a combination baggage / mail / buffet dining car and the third car was coach seating and had a rounded end with 270 degrees of glass for observation. It carried 88 passengers.

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

I’m sorry this post is so long, but I hope you enjoyed it. Thanks for stopping in.

 

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Longtime readers of this blog know how much I enjoy exploring the banks of the Ashuelot River; it is something I’ve done since I was a young boy. On this day I chose a section with nice wide trails through a beautiful forest.  The old trail winds through a place called Ashuelot Park, which is in downtown Keene. It has been a big hit with joggers, dog walkers, bikers, and families with children but when I started coming here 50 or so years ago there was no park. Back then it was just a trail through the woods and you hardly ever saw anyone, but on this day it was busy and it was nice to see so many people out enjoying nature. It was a hot humid day; more August than May, and like me I suppose they sought out the shade of the forest and the breeze off the river.

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.

It’s hard to believe that the seeds of red maples (Acer rubrum) are falling already. It seems like it was hardly more than a week or two ago that I was taking photos of the flowers. Though I felt like I was 10 years old again walking along this trail this little seed reminded me just how fast time passes.

Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum multiflorum) was one of the first flowers I found along the trail, but this was no ordinary Solomon’s seal. The plant was large and very robust, much bigger than our native plants. Its leaves and flowers were also at least twice the size of those on native plants, and that’s because it is a hybrid plant that has escaped a garden and is now naturalizing in the woods. It’s the first one I’ve ever seen in a forest and there’s really no telling what it will do.

False Solomon seal (Maianthemum racemosum or Smilacina racemosa) have just started blooming and they were all along the trail. False Solomon’s seal has small white, star shaped flowers in a branching cluster (raceme) at the end of its stem, unlike the dangling pairs of flowers of true Solomon’s seal. Soon the blossoms will give way to small reddish berries that provide food for many birds and other wildlife. It is said that a Native American tribe in California crushed false Solomon’s seal roots and used them to stun fish. Other native tribes used the plant medicinally.

Last year at this same spot I saw a turtle wiggling its toes in the breeze and had to laugh, because it looked like it was trying to fly. This year on the same sunken log here was another turtle doing the same thing, and as I watched a woman stopped and asked how long my monopod extended. “Would it be long enough to help that poor turtle?” she asked. “Just look at the poor thing; it’s stuck and can’t get back into the water.” Last year a helpful reader told me that this is one way turtles regulate their body heat, so I passed that on to the concerned woman. “Well that’s a relief” she said, “now I’ll be able to sleep tonight!” We humans, I thought after she left, sure do come up with some strange ideas about nature. And yes, I do include myself in that statement.

When they are near a water source royal ferns (Osmunda spectabilis) can grow quite large and appear to be a shrub, but this one was young and on dry ground so it wasn’t very big. The royal fern is found on every continent except Australia, making it one of the most widespread of all living species. They are also thought to be one of the oldest living things, with fossil records of the Osmundaceae family dating back over 300 million years. Individual plants are believed to be able to live for over 100 years. Cinnamon and interrupted ferns are also in the Osmundaceae family. It is thought that the genus might have been named after King Osmund, who ruled in the British Isles in the eighth century. Royal ferns are one of my favorites because they are so unlike any other fern.

Royal ferns have just started growing their spore bearing fertile fronds. Another name for this fern is “flowering fern,” because someone once thought that the fertile fronds looked like bunches of flowers.

At this stage the sporangia of royal ferns are green but soon they’ll turn a beautiful purple color, and that’s why the plant was named flowering fern.

Chokecherries blossomed on the river bank. Like most of the white spring flowering trees, chokecherries (Prunus) and chokeberries (Aronia) grow on the edge of the forest. Though they look alike from a distance, chokeberries and chokecherries are only distantly related in the rose family. The common name is the giveaway here: A cherry is a stone fruit with one seed, so the chokecherry will have one seed. A berry will have multiple seeds; in the case of the chokeberry 5 or fewer.  Chokeberry flower clusters are smaller than chokecherry and kind of flat on top. Chokecherry flower clusters are usually long and cylindrical like a bottle brush. Positive identification between these two is important because chokecherry leaves and seeds contain prussic acid which can convert to cyanide under the right conditions, so it wouldn’t be good to eat too many seeds. The simplest way to be sure is by counting the seeds in a piece of fruit before picking and eating from the tree.

After walking the trail for a while you see it begin to narrow a bit and that’s because it doesn’t see a lot of traffic on the more northern section. Many people turn and go back rather than walk the entire trail and they miss a lot of beauty by doing so.

In spots with little to no current the tree pollen collected on the water’s surface. With all of the different species of trees we have pollination is an extended event in spring, and then after the trees come the grasses, so it goes well into summer. It’s a tough road for allergy sufferers.

You would expect to see insects along a river and I saw this one, which I think must be some type of crane fly.

I came upon the biggest colony of Indian cucumber root plants (Medeola virginiana) I’ve ever seen, right there beside the trail and I have to say that I was astounded. I’ve walked by this spot literally hundreds of times since I was a boy and have never seen it, so that shows that it’s worthwhile to walk the same trail again and again. In years past I’ve spent hours searching for just one plant and here were hundreds upon hundreds of them. So much for my “excellent powers of observation;” I miss as much as anyone else.

The flowers of Indian cucumber root have 6 yellowish green tepals, 6 reddish stamens topped by greenish anthers, and 3 reddish purple to brown styles. These large styles are sometimes bright red- brown. These plants were blooming earlier than I’ve ever seen them bloom. Each flower will become a shiny, inedible dark purplish black berry. Native Americans used Indian cucumber roots as food. As its common name implies, this plant’s small root looks and tastes a lot like a mini cucumber.  It’s easy to identify because of its tiers of whorled leaves and unusual flowers. It likes to grow under trees in dappled light, probably getting no more than an hour or two of direct sunlight each day.

There were also some large colonies of blue bead lily out here, which I have also never noticed before. Since I just featured them in my last post I’ll just show their photo here.

The round white flower heads of wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis) hide beneath its leaves and quite often you can’t see them from above.  Compared to the ping pong ball size flower heads the leaves are huge and act like an umbrella, which might keep rain from washing away their pollen. These flower heads are usually covered with insects and I think this is the only time I’ve ever gotten a photo of them blooming without insects on them.

Each sarsaparilla flower is smaller than a pea but as a group they’re easy to see. Dark purple berries will replace the flowers if pollination is successful, and it’s usually very successful. This is one of the most common wildflowers I know of and I see them virtually everywhere I go, including in my own yard. Every now and then you’ll find a plant with flowers but no leaves over them. I don’t know if these leafless plants are a natural hybrid or how the plant benefits from having fewer leaves. Fewer leaves mean less photosynthesizing and that means less food for the plant but maybe animals eat them, I don’t know.

I saw the strangely shaped pine tree that I’ve wondered about for years. Something traumatic must have happened to it. I’m guessing another tree fell on it when it was young.

There were many violets blooming all along the trail, including beautiful little northern white violets (Viola pallens.) As I’ve said in previous posts, this seems to be a banner year for violets. I’ve never seen so many.

All journeys back into childhood have to end somewhere and mine ended right here. Not too far up ahead is a busy highway that I didn’t need to see so I turned and meandered back to my starting point, giving a good look to everything that caught my eye along the way.  I saw kayakers and friendly dogs, spoke with friendly people, and saw a nice big patch of lilies that will bloom in a month or so, so all in all it was a fine day. I hope yours was and will be the same.

Every summer, like the roses, childhood returns. ~Marty Rubin

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I’ve seen reticulated iris (Iris reticulata) blossoms with snow on them in early March. They are usually our earliest garden flower but this year they decided to wait a bit. I like the dark orchid one on the right. This little iris does well in rock gardens and looks good along with miniature daffodils like tete-a-tete. They originally came from Turkey, the Caucasus, Northern Iraq and Iran. The reticulated part of their name comes from the net like pattern on the bulbs.

I love this color too but I’m not sure it works on these small irises.

Like someone flipped a switch all of the sudden there were flowers, including crocuses. These yellow ones were a photographic challenge in bright sunlight.

These purple crocuses were being blown about by the breeze. I wondered if that was why I didn’t see any bees on them even though it was a warm day.

My favorite flowers on this day were these beautiful crocus blossoms. I love the shading on the inside of each petal. There are about 90 species of crocus and each spring it seems like I see one that I’ve never seen before. They are in the iris family and originally came from Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. They grow naturally from sea level all the way to Alpine tundra, so they’re tough little plants. Though they’re not native to the Netherlands they’ve been grown there since about 1560.

I just missed the first daffodil flower.

There is a bulb bed at the local college that I’ve been struggling with since the snow melted. I remember last year kneeling before it to smell the hyacinths that grew there but this year all I saw were tulip leaves. Somehow I convinced myself that the tulip leaves must be hyacinth leaves, even though they don’t look at all alike and I knew better. The answer came with this budded hyacinth flower head when I realized that there are both tulips and hyacinths growing here. I think what confused me were the early tulips. I saw tulip leaves even before crocus or reticulated iris leaves, and that’s very early.

What I think is bittercress was blooming. Cress is in the huge family of plants known as Brassicaceae. With over 150 species it’s hard to know what you’re looking at sometimes, but hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) is a common lawn weed that stays green under the snow and blooms almost as soon as it melts. The flowers can be white, pink or lavender and are very small; no bigger than Lincoln’s head on a penny. The plant is self-fertilizing and seed pods appear quickly. The seed pods will explode if touched or walked on and can fling the tiny seeds up to 3 feet away. Plants can form up to 1000 seeds, so if you have this plant in your lawn chances are good that you always will.

Snowdrops were living up to their name on this day.

But just a few days later all the snow had gone and there were snowdrop blossoms instead of buds. This is a flower I rarely see. It seems to be rarely used here and I’m not sure why. The flowers are beautiful, especially when seen in large drifts. As well as the snowdrops, this photo shows that my macro camera isn’t very good with depth of field. It would have been a better shot if all the trailing blossoms were in focus as well.

All that melting snow and a day or two of rain have pushed the Ashuelot River to bank full again. I hope all of those April showers come in the form of a gentle drizzle. I wondered if the Canada geese had their new nests flooded; though I’ve seen them in this spot for the past several weeks there was no sign of them this day.

I think I must have been a half mile downwind of these vernal witch hazel shrubs (Hamamelis vernalis) when I first smelled them, so powerful is their fragrance. This year they’ve bloomed steadily for over a month, through four nor’easters and bitterly cold nights, so they’re very hardy. In fact I think the cold must prolong their bloom time, because I’ve never seen them bloom for so long.

Female red maple flowers (Acer rubrum) have almost fully opened now. The scarlet stigmas will grow longer before becoming pollinated and turning into winged seed pods (Samaras.) Each bud is about the size of a pea and holds several female flowers which are about the same diameter as an uncooked piece of spaghetti. Sugar maple flowers haven’t opened yet but it shouldn’t be too much longer.

The male red maple flowers aren’t as pretty as the female flowers but their pollen is important because without it there would be no viable seed. Mature red maples can produce nearly a million seeds in a single season. They are also called soft or swamp maples, even though silver maples are usually found in the wetter spots.

Grasses and sedges have started growing in areas that are wet in spring. By June this spot will be dry and the waist high grasses will have stopped growing.

Since the skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) have been blooming for about a month I thought I might see some leaves appearing but apparently the cold and snow has held even them back. Many of the mottled spathes had softened and darkened signaling the end of their bloom period, but a few still looked fresh like these two. I’m guessing that their leaves will appear soon. The new spring leaves are the only part of the plant that actually resemble a cabbage, and then only for a very short time.

One reason invasive honeysuckle shrubs are so successful is because they grow leaves and begin photosynthesizing weeks before most of our native shrubs. We have 3 invasive honeysuckles here in New Hampshire. Bell’s honeysuckle (Lonicera x bella) has whitish to pink flowers that fade to yellow, along with slightly hairy stems and leaf undersides. They are very common. Morrow’s Honeysuckle (Lonicera morrowii) also has whitish pink flowers but they’re on long, slightly hairy flower stalks. The leaves are also slightly hairy on the underside. Tatarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica) is the prettiest among the invasives, having pink or red flowers on long stalks. Its leaves are hairless on the undersides. Stems of all three shrubs are hollow while native honeysuckle stems are solid. It is illegal to sell, propagate or plant these shrubs in New Hampshire.

The willows still haven’t produced flowers but the fuzzy gray catkins are much bigger now than they were just a week ago, so I decided to look a little closer.

In the right light I could see the yellow willow flower buds just under the gray fuzz. Any day now there should be bright yellow flowers on this bush.

I’m finally seeing robins and I watched this one pull a worm out of the lawn he was on and gulp it down. That means the soil is well thawed, so the spring explosion of growth is right on schedule in spite of the wintery March. Nature always seems to balance things out somehow.

It was such a spring day as breathes into a man an ineffable yearning, a painful sweetness, a longing that makes him stand motionless, looking at the leaves or grass, and fling out his arms to embrace he knows not what. ~ John Galsworthy

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Last weekend I decided to go and see a bridge I wrote a post about in January of 2017 called Bridging a Dangerous Crossing.  They were still building it then but have since finished it, so I thought I’d go and see what crossing it was like. It just happens to be on the same rail trail that I grew up walking as a boy so not only would I see the bridge, but I’d see pieces of my past as well.

Back then the rail trail was a working railroad with Boston and Maine trains passing my house twice each day. I used to play in the cornfield in the above photo, which runs alongside the trail. There were lots of crows in it on this day and you can see a couple of them flying there on the right. In the fall after the corn is harvested hundreds of Canada geese also visit these fields. They’ve been doing so at least as long as I’ve been around.

If you know where to look there are good views of Mount Monadnock along the rail trail. When I was a boy it was my favorite mountain because it was always just over my shoulder no matter where I went. When I was still quite young I foolishly came up with the idea of cataloging all the plants on the mountain. In my teen years I still had the dream but I was sure someone else must have already done it. Sure enough, Henry David Thoreau had started an inventory of the mountain’s plants and it was fairly extensive, and that’s how I first discovered Henry David Thoreau. When I found that we seemed to think a lot alike I immediately read everything I could find that he had written. But I never did catalog the plants of Monadnock. The closest I came was helping the ladies of the Keene Garden Club plant wildflowers on its flanks. I wouldn’t dream of doing such a thing today but at the time it seemed the right thing to do.

Along these tracks is where my curiosity about the things I was seeing in nature grew until I couldn’t stand not knowing any longer, so I began reading to find answers to the many questions I had, like why is a young black raspberry cane blue? The answer is the same waxy “bloom” found on plums, grapes, and other fruits and plants. They and other plants along these railroad tracks were what prodded me into reading books like “Grays Manual of Botany.” Easily the driest book I’ve ever read, but I learned a lot from it. I began to visit used book stores and usually spent any money I earned on botany and gardening books, and that and a plant loving grandmother is what started me on the path to professional gardening.

I didn’t always have my nose in a book; somewhere along this rail trail my own initials are carved into the bark of a maple, much like these are.

In no time at all here was the bridge, open at last. The arch of the thing was startling because from the side it looks almost level.

Here is the bridge from the side in a photo taken in January 2017 as the concrete deck was being poured. This is why the arch in the previous view was such a surprise; I’m not really seeing such a pronounced arch from here.

Here it is again, closer to the center of the span. It’s very strange that it could look so level from the side.

Up here I was closer to the red maple (Acer rubrum) buds; thousands of them, just starting to open. If you’re looking for red maple flowers as I do each spring, look for a maple with these kinds of round bud clusters on its branches.

Red maples can look a lot like silver maples (Acer saccharinum) but if I understand what I’ve read correctly, only red maples get target canker, which causes platy bark to appear in circular target-like patterns like that seen here. Silver maples prefer damp swampy areas while red maples are more likely to grow in drier places.

The bridge was built so local college students could cross this very busy highway safely. They walk through here constantly to get to the athletic fields which lie beside the rail trail. There is a sister bridge that crosses another nearby highway, and that was originally built because someone was killed trying to cross that road. Nobody wanted to see that happen here so it was agreed that another bridge should be built. These days traffic is very heavy and I’ve waited for quite a while trying to get across. When I was a boy I could walk across this road without having to hurry at all because on many days there was hardly a car to be seen.

Once you’ve crossed the new bridge you come to the old Boston and Maine Railroad trestle. When I was a boy you could sit here all day and not see a soul, but now there’s a steady stream of college students walking across it so it took a while to get shots of it with nobody on it. When this was built there was nothing here; it was just another trestle in the middle of the woods, but now it has all grown up and there’s a huge shopping center just behind and to the left of this view. The college takes up all the land to the right, and if you follow the rail trail straight ahead you end up in downtown Keene. These days this is a very busy spot.

The railroad tracks are gone now and this portion of the rail trail has been paved, and it even gets plowed by the looks. Up just a short distance to the left is the house I grew up in, built in 1920 and changed many times since. Pass that and cross a street and you would have been at my Grandmother’s house, which is now a parking lot. Back in the film camera days when I used to sell photos I always heard that you needed the owner’s permission to publish a photo of a residence so I didn’t take a photo of my old house, but I saw that the box elder tree that I planted when I was about 10 years old is still there. It’s huge now and still shades the porch, just like I planted it to do.

This side view of the trestle shows the wooden rails that have been put up on most of these trestles by snowmobile groups. You wouldn’t want to drive a snowmobile off the edge of a trestle. This view also shows how much land the trestle covers on each end. That’s because this area floods regularly and I’ve seen the Ashuelot River rise almost to the bottom of this bridge many times.

This is “my view” of the river that I grew up with. It looks placid now but when it floods the river can swallow the land seen on the left. The local college foolishly built a student parking lot there and I’ve seen cars floating there in the not so distant past. It’s hard to tell from the photo but the land on the right where my old house still stands is slightly higher than the land on the left, so the flood waters never reached the house that I know of. The cellar sure got wet in the spring though.

Seeing this granite abutment almost completely underwater and the river pouring over the land beyond was a scary thing to a boy living just feet from the river and it has stayed with me; I still get a bit nervous when I see high water, even in photos. The granite in the abutment was harvested locally, most likely in Marlborough, which is a small town slightly west of Keene. It was brought here and laid up dry, with no mortar. It has stood just as it was built for nearly 150 years.

I spent a lot of time under the old trestle as a boy and this view looks up at it from the underside. You can see the original wooden ties, now covered by boards. When I was small I was afraid of the spaces between the ties but before too long I could almost run across, even in the dark. In fact this is where I learned that darkness comes in different shades.

I spent a lot of time sitting and watching the river from this spot beside the old trestle. It might not look like much but it was a wonderful, magical place to grow up. I was lucky that my father let me run and explore and explore I did, and I learned so much. My early years here were so enjoyable; if I had a chance to go back to any time and place I would choose this place in my childhood years, without a second thought. I hope readers with children will please let them explore nature as well. It’s what childhood should be all about.

I was surprised and happy to see that the old path from my house to the rail trail was still there and still being used, apparently. I would have given anything to have followed it home but I know that this home exists only in my memory now.  And what a memory it is. I hope you all have such great memories.

I hope you didn’t mind this little diversion from the botanical to the mechanical. I don’t mention it often but I’m a mechanical engineer as well as a gardener, so bridges and such things can give me a thrill. No thrill is as great as the one that comes with spring though, and I’ll get back to it in the next post.

Just imagine becoming the way you used to be as a very young child, before you understood the meaning of any word, before opinions took over your mind. The real you is loving, joyful, and free. The real you is just like a flower, just like the wind, just like the ocean, just like the sun. ~Miguel Angel Ruiz

Thanks for stopping in. I hope everyone has a happy Easter!

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The word “Ashuelot” is pronounced Ash-will-ot if you’re from this area or Ash-wee-lot if you’re from away. The word is a Native American one meaning “collection of many waters.” For years I read that the word meant “the place between” but that didn’t make a lot of sense. “A collection of many waters” makes much more sense because that’s exactly what the river is. Wandering the banks of the Ashuelot is something I’ve done since I was too young to even retain the memory of doing so, and I do it often. On this day I was happy to see that the ice shelves had melted and the sandy / stony shoreline was back. The river has been very high for over a month and it’s good to see it finally ready to absorb the next big rain storm, which should come sometime in April unless that month has gone haywire too.

I stopped to admire some ice formations and take some photos so I wouldn’t have to try and explain how cold it was. Actually it wasn’t bad in the sunshine when the wind wasn’t blowing but it was blowing almost constantly along this stretch of river, so it was a day to be wrapped up like you would be in January.

The ice had formed discs on every twig that was in the water and this was remarkable only because the ever splashing water usually forms icy tear drop shapes on the twigs. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever seen these disc shapes here before.

Here is what I’m more used to seeing. Ice baubles I call them, but there weren’t many to be seen. They happen because of the way the current makes the water constantly rise and fall along the shoreline, so one second the twig is in the cold air and the next it’s under water. The runoff freezes and layer by layer and an ice bauble is made. It reminds me of dipping a wick in melted wax over and over again to make a candle.

This is where I come to practice my wave catching skills but there were none to catch on this day because the water was too low. It has to be at just the right height for good waves to form. Too low or too high and there are no waves. I took some photos anyway though, because the water looked like satin as it poured over the unseen stones that cause the waves.

Oak leaves huddled together as if to warm each other in the chilly breeze. I love the warm, orangey brown color of last year’s oak leaves, but I won’t be sorry to see them finally fall.

The oak buds seemed to be swelling a bit but it was hard to know. Oaks are one of our latest trees to leaf out in spring.

I saw a chubby little bird in a bush which looked like it was hoping I wouldn’t see it. I think it was a dark eyed junco but I’m not 100% sure of that. I see these small dark colored birds feeding in flocks along roadsides where the snow has melted away from the pavement , exposing the soil and grass. I’ve read that dark eyed juncos come here as winter sets in and leave in spring, so they must like the cold. There are said to be about 630 million of them from Alaska to Mexico, and all across the U.S. from coast to coast.

I wondered if the juncos were eating the sumac seeds so I had to look it up. Apparently they eat smaller seeds like those of grasses, lamb’s quarters and the like, and in warmer months they also eat insects. Robins, blue jays, grosbeaks, ruffed grouse, cardinals and other larger birds eat the sumac fruit, but it never disappears here until spring.

I went to visit the Ashuelot Falls on West Street in Keene. I used to fish here quite often when I was a boy but back then the river wasn’t as clean as it is now so I didn’t catch that many fish. An occasional perch or dace was about it but that was fine, because my being here really didn’t have much to do with catching fish anyway. I’d let a forked stick hold my pole while I explored the river bank. Now they catch trout here, I’m told.

I wouldn’t have been surprised to see ice pancakes in January but this was March, so I was surprised.

Ice pancakes form when the river foam stirred up by falls or other turbulence comes together into a misshapen lump. As the current moves the misshapen lumps they bump and jostle each other until all the rough edges are shaved off and they’ve become round like a pancake. Then they begin to freeze and their edges build up into rims.

Here is what an ice pancake looks like when it starts life, before its friends smooth out all those angles.

Canada geese waded in the shallows. More and more of them are returning to nest and raise their young in the reed beds along the river. There is always one lookout standing tall while the others preen, sleep, or eat and they count on their lookout to sound the alarm. I wondered if most of these birds even knew I was there.

My pointing the camera at them was too much for one or two of the geese and they swam off quickly.

Normally a river gets deeper as you go toward its middle but a sandbar has grown here, so the water in the middle is quite shallow. Not good for navigation but the geese know they can stand here rather than swim and they take advantage of being able to rest while still in the water. The shading from dark to lighter brown in this photo shows where the sandbar is.

A maple tree had been pecked full of holes by an unseen woodpecker.

I didn’t have to see this woodpecker to know it was a pileated woodpecker, which is our biggest. Its holes are large and almost always rectangular. All of the holes in the previous photo would fit inside this one with plenty of room to spare.

The hole in this old red maple (Acer rubrum) was the biggest of all but I doubt very much that it was made by a bird or an animal. I think the river has washed the soil out from under it.

The hole was plenty big and roomy enough for me to comfortably sit in, almost like a hobbit.

I knew the old tree was a red maple by its buds. The bud scales in many of these examples had pulled back to reveal the many pinkish flowers inside. Those over on the left were even protruding a bit from the bud, but it was still too early to tell if they were male or female blossoms. It’s a good thing they hadn’t fully opened because the temperature fell to zero degrees on this night. The cold isn’t going to leave quickly this year but today is the first full day of spring, even if it doesn’t seem it.

I was born upon thy bank, river,
My blood flows in thy stream,
And thou meanderest forever,
At the bottom of my dream.
~Henry David Thoreau

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