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Posts Tagged ‘Beech Leaf’

If you’ve spent much time in the woods you know that there is an incredible amount of stuff falling from the trees. What is it? It is made up of everything from the lichens and mosses that perch on the trunks and branches to the trunks and branches themselves. Where does it all go? Thankfully the decomposers clean all of it up. If it weren’t for them we’d be up to our noses in forest litter. Bears, woodpeckers and other animals shred larger logs into smaller pieces and then the termites and ants make the pieces even smaller. Bacteria, slugs, snails, worms, centipedes, microbes and many insects all have their shot at cleaning up the forest and then there are the fungi and slime molds. Between them all they can clean up a forest floor in a surprisingly short time, but since there is always more falling, their work is never done and their menu never exhausted.

This is a common sight in this region. These little scales are what’s left of a white pine (Pinus strobus) cone after a squirrel has eaten all the seeds from it. Each scale has two reddish-brown winged seeds and they’re a favorite of gray squirrels. Pine cones can close their scales to protect the seeds from the cold and animals but squirrels have figured that out. Native Americans also ate these seeds, which are said to be sweet and nutritious.

The amount of cones a tree will produce varies from year to year but every now and then we’ll have a mast year and what seems like billions of cones will fall. That happened a couple of years ago and the squirrel population seemed to explode. I’ve read that cone production peaks every 3 to 5 years but it seems longer than that. In any event, thanks to the squirrels pine cones disappear quickly.

White pine needles are 3 to 5 inches long, bluish green on top and whitish underneath and grow in bundles of 5. They are pointed, soft and flexible and the tree sheds them every 2 years. In the fall they’ll turn brown and fall off but this doesn’t hurt the tree like some people fear. A mature white pine can be 250 or more years old and each one drops an incredible amount of material each year. There is nothing better to build a camp fire with than fallen white pine limbs. A fire built with them will be hot and will burn down quickly. They are also the tallest trees in eastern North America; the tallest trees living are just under 200 feet tall.

I’m guessing that this piece of wood was hacked out of a tree by a pileated woodpecker. I’ve seen these birds cut standing, rotten trees right in half and have seen large piles of wood chips many times at the base of various trees.

This wood was soft and rotted, and I think fungi had been having their way with the tree it came from. Of course if woodpeckers were after it the tree was also full of insects. I’ve cut down trees and found them full of carpenter ants, which make tunnels all through the tree like termites.

I must see hundreds of fallen branches each week but I don’t see many from the poplar family like this one. Poplar trees (Populus) are in the willow family and their opening buds remind me of giant spring pussy willows. North American poplars are divided into three main groups: the cottonwoods, the aspens, and the balsam poplars. If the buds aren’t sticky then the tree belongs in the aspen group. These weren’t. Aspen buds begin to swell during the first warm period in spring, when minimum temperatures are still below freezing. Air temperature rather than day length determines when their buds will break, so it can vary from year to year.

The flat seed pods of black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) are a common sight in winter. These dark brown pods stay attached to the tree and their color lightens during the winter. Finally as spring nears they begin to fall and, though they are light and can be blown long distances, many can be found under the tree on top of the snow, as this photo shows.

The tiny brown seeds of a black locust look like miniature beans and that’s because they are in the same family. Their coating is very tough and they can remain viable for many years. They’re also very toxic and should never be eaten.

Eastern or Canada hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis) are messy trees that shed their smaller branches, needles, and cones all winter long but they provide plenty of seeds for the smaller birds like black capped chickadees. The 1/2 inch long eastern hemlock cones are among the smallest of all the trees in the pine family but the trees usually produce so many of them that the ground is completely covered in the spring. The needles and twigs of hemlocks are ground and distilled and the oil is used in ointments, so the next time an ointment helps your sore muscles, thank a hemlock.

The white stripes on the undersides of the flat hemlock needles come from four rows of breathing pores (stomata) which are far too small to be seen without extreme magnification. The stripes make the tree very easy to identify. They look like racing stripes.

Arbor vitae (Thuja occidentalis) is another messy evergreen that sheds small branches by the cartload some years but they provide great cover for birds and I usually have at least one family of robins living in the ones in my yard.

The tiny leaves of arborvitae are flat and scale like. Arborvitaes are in the cedar family and are used extensively in commercial landscaping. The Native American Ojibwe tribe thought the trees were sacred because of their many uses, and maybe they were. They showed 16th century French explorer Jacques Cartier how to cure scurvy with its leaves and bark, and he was so impressed that he named it Arborvitae, which is Latin for Tree of Life. He had trees with him when he returned to Europe, and that’s how Thuja occidentalis became the first North American tree to be introduced there.

The stiff, woody seed pods of arborvitae look like tiny carved wooden flowers. robins, common redpolls, pine siskins, and dark-eyed juncos eat the seeds. Many small birds use the trees to hide in.

Sometimes what falls out of the trees onto the snow is more snow, and sometimes it falls by the bucket load. All of the holes you see here were made by falling snow.

Of course leaves fall from trees but some trees like oak, hang onto many of theirs throughout winter. In the fall shortening day length tells most deciduous trees that it’s time to stop growing, so the tree forms a layer of waxy, corky cells at the base of each leaf. This is called an abscission layer, and it slows and finally stops the flow of sap to the leaf. Once the sap stops flowing to the leaves they lose chlorophyll and the reds, yellows and oranges that the green chlorophyll was hiding finally become visible.

In some trees like oak (Quercus), beech (Fagus), and hornbeam (Carpinus) , this abscission layer forms much later, so even though the leaves might freeze dead and turn completely brown they still cling to the branches. Pin oaks (Quercus palustris) don’t form an abscission layer until spring, so their leaves stay on the tree all winter. This retention of dead leaves is known as marcescence.

Beech is another hanger on. What oak and beech leaves tell me is when spring is near. When I see them falling in large numbers in March I know that the new buds are taking up sap and swelling. Nobody really seems to know for certain why trees retain dead leaves but some believe that one reason might be to ward off foraging moose, deer and other animals. Animals will eat the bud bearing twigs from the lower parts of older trees and from nearly all parts of younger trees. One theory says that they don’t like the taste or texture of the dead leaves so they stay away from the trees, which means the buds stay safe and can grow on.

It’s very common to be walking through the woods and find twigs and branches with large, leafy (Foliose) lichens like the one pictured growing on them. These lichens can be difficult to identify because they change color drastically when they dry out. I think this one is in the Tuckermannopsis group, but I can’t pin down the species.  They’re very pretty and easy to see and I often find them on birch and white pine branches. This family of lichens is probably the one I see having fallen from trees more than any other.

The second most common lichen I see falling from trees is the beard lichen. Though this example was small they can get quite large. Bristly beard lichen (Usnea hirta) like this one is often found on the ground after a wind or rain storm. Many lichens like sunlight and grow in the tops of trees where there is less shade from the leaves. Native Americans used lichens medicinally for thousands of years and lichens in the Usnea group were described in the first Chinese herbal, written about 500 AD. Today scientists estimate that about 50% of all lichen species have antibiotic properties.

We keep seeing things all our life, yet seldom do we notice them. ~Avijeet Das

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1. Dandelion

I’m not sure why but for the last couple of years I’ve had a hard time finding dandelions blooming in early spring. There was a time when they were the first flowers to bloom in my yard, but no more.  I miss their cheery blooms heralding the arrival of spring and I miss being able to easily get photos of them. A close up photo of a dandelion blossom reveals how they seem to just glow with the enjoyment of life. Of course you can also see this in person if you don’t mind people wondering why you have your nose in their lawn. This one grew right at the edge of a street and I had to kneel in it to get its photo.

2. Common Blue Violet aka Viola sororia

As if nature wanted to give a lesson in complimentary colors, as soon as dandelions appear so do the violets, and how many chubby little toddler fists have proudly held out a bouquet of both in the spring? Even though its common name is common blue violet (Viola sororia) this plant often bears a purple flower. Since I’m colorblind I see blue no matter what, so its name doesn’t confuse me.

3. Wild Strawberry

And if you have dandelions and violets in your lawn, there’s a good chance that you also have wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana). Millions of people would have so much more peace in their lives if, instead of waging war on these beautiful little plants, they simple enjoyed them. I once knew a lady who spent virtually all summer every year on her knees pulling dandelions, violets, and strawberries out of her lawn and I thought then that hers was just about the saddest life one could live. Now I wonder if it wasn’t a form of meditation for her.  I’m sure that it must have given her a sense of accomplishment.

 4. Norway Maple Flowers

Norway maples (Acer platanoides) are supposed to be a very invasive species but I know of only one in this area. It’s a very big, old tree that lives at a ball bearing plant. Its branches are too high for me to reach so each spring I pull my truck up under it and climb in the truck bed so I can reach the flowers. Then I hold a branch with one hand and my camera in the other and have a go at capturing its beauty. It’s worth the extra effort, I think.

5. Trout Lily Flower

The trout lilies (Erythronium americanum) have started opening. These are with us for just a short time so I check the spot where they grow every couple of days. There are literally tens of thousands of plants in this spot but most of them have only a single leaf and only mature plants with two leaves will bear flowers. This plant gets its common name from the way its speckled leaves resemble to body of a trout. Some blossoms have a maroon / bronze color on the outsides of the three sepals. The three petals are usually entirely yellow.

6. Trout Lily Flower

I always try to get a shot looking into a trout lily blossom so we can see how lily like they really are. Since these flowers only stand about six inches tall and nod towards the ground this is easier said than done and I usually have to try several times. They can afford to nod the way that they do because they are pollinated by ants and don’t have to show off to attract bees. Like many spring flowers they close each night and open again in the morning.

7. Spring Beauty

Luckily spring beauties (Claytonia virginica) grow alongside the trout lilies. Whoever named this little flower knew what they were talking about. I like its five stamens tipped with pink. This is another flower that closes up at night and on cloudy days, so you have to take its photo in full sun or at least very bright light. To get around that problem I often shade it with my body while I’m taking its photo, but sometimes that creates too much shade and I have to use a flash. That’s what happened here, and that’s why its petals seem so shiny in this photo.

8. Bloodroot

Just a little sunlight or even undiffused light from a flash can bleach out the delicate tracery of the veins in the petals of a bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) blossom, so I wait for overcast days to take their photo. Since this is another flower that closes at night and on cloudy days it can’t be too cloudy when you go to take its photo. Everything has to come together just right to get decent photos of many of the spring ephemerals, and it can be a tricky business.

9. Bloodroot

We’ve had cool, cloudy days here for the past few days and this photo shows what I found many times when I went to visit the bloodroots. They just refuse to open when the clouds make it too dark. Someone in their blog (I don’t remember who) pointed out how bloodroot blossoms resembled tulips when they were closed and that’s something I never thought of before. I didn’t notice it when I was visiting them but the photo shows that at least two of these flowers have lost their petals already. And I’ve only seen one blossom fully opened.

 10. Vinca

As I mentioned when I was talking about the common blue violet, I’m color blind and have a very hard time telling blue from purple. For some reason though, I can always tell that a myrtle (Vinca minor) blossom is purple. It must have just enough red in it to push it over the “almost blue” line, or something. If only this were true with all flowers. I’ve brought home so many plants because they had beautiful blue flowers, only to have someone later tell me that they were purple.

11. Trailing Arbutus

Trailing arbutus plants (Epigaea repens) have borne flowers overnight, it seems. Just last week I couldn’t find any that were even budded and now here they are blooming. My grandmother always called them mayflowers and when I see them they always remind me of her. It is said that these were the first flowers that the Pilgrims saw after their first winter in Massachusetts. If that winter was anything like our last, I’d guess that they were real happy to see them.

 12. Fly Honeysuckle

The strange, joined flowers of the American fly honeysuckle (Lonicera canadensis) are very hard to get a good photo of, but these at least shows their pale yellow color and the unusual way that the pairs branch off from a single stem. There are few shrubs that bloom as early as this one, which usually starts blooming during the last week of April. If pollinated its flowers become pairs of reddish orange fruit shaped much like a football, with pointed ends. Many songbirds love its fruit so this is a good shrub to plant when trying to attract them. I see it growing along the edges of woods but it can be hard to find, especially when it isn’t blooming.

13. Beech Bud Break

It isn’t a flower but in my opinion an unfolding beech leaf is one of the most beautiful things in the forest. They hang from the branches like the wings of tiny angels but appear this way for only a very short time. Tomorrow this will be just another leaf in the forest but for now it’s a miracle.

In those vernal seasons of the year, when the air is calm and pleasant, it were an injury and sullenness against Nature not to go out and see her riches, and partake in her rejoicing with heaven and earth.  ~John Milton

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