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Posts Tagged ‘Black Chokeberry’

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

Thanks for stopping in.

 

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This is the time of year when some of our most beautiful flowers appear. Lupines are blooming about a week early this year, so they’re in a May post rather than a June one as usual. I’m not sure if this example a native plant or a garden escapee but I was happy to see it blooming along a roadside. It’s such a beautiful shade of blue.

Black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) flowers have big plum colored anthers and that helps tell them apart from some of our other white flowered trees and shrubs. It is more shrub than tree and is considered an important forage plant. Bear, birds, rabbits, mice, chipmunks, deer, elk, moose, bear, and bighorn sheep eat various parts of the plant and ants, butterflies, honeybees, flies, and hummingbirds drink its nectar. Native Americans used all parts of the plant medicinally. The fruit was used for canker sores and sore throats and the roots were dried, chewed, and placed in wounds to stop bleeding. The stems were boiled to make tea to treat fevers. The small drupes have an edible outer fleshy layer but the single seed contains high levels of hydrogen cyanide and children have died from eating handfuls of them without removing the seed.

The rhododendrons have started blooming and this pink one was the first one I saw one recent rainy day.

After a poor showing last year the sweet little bunchberries (Cornus canadensis) seem to be doing well this year, and that tells me that they must like a lot of rain. This colony grows right up into the V made by the two trunks of this oak tree near my house and it seems to be doing well. Bunchberry is often found growing on and through tree trunks, stumps, and fallen logs but exactly why isn’t fully understood. It’s thought that it must get nutrients from the decaying wood, and because of its association with wood it’s a very difficult plant to establish in a garden. Native plants that are dug up will soon die off unless the natural growing conditions can be accurately reproduced, so it’s best to just admire it and let it be so others can enjoy it.

 Bunchberry is also called creeping dogwood and bunchberry dogwood. The large (relatively) white bracts surround the actual flowers, which are greenish and very small. The entire flower cluster with bracts and all is often no bigger than an inch and a half across. Later on the flowers will become a bunch of bright red berries, which give the plant its common name.  Native Americans used the berries as food and made a tea from the ground root to treat colic in infants. The Cree tribe called the berry “kawiskowimin,” meaning “itchy chin berry” because rubbing the berries against your skin can cause a reaction that will make you itch.

Mayapple flowers (Podophyllum peltatum) are hard to get a decent photo of because they nod toward the ground under the plant’s leaves, and this shot took many tries. I’ve read that once a mayapple produces flowers and fruit it reduces its chances of doing so in following years. This year they seem to be flowering well, so if that is true I suppose I should lower my expectations for next year. This plant is also called American mandrake, which is legendary among herbalists for the root that supposedly resembles a man. Native Americans boiled the root and used the water to cure stomach aches but this plant is toxic and should never be eaten. Two anti-cancer treatment drugs, etoposide and teniposide, are made from the Mayapple plant.

Since it is native to North America it’s hard to describe Canada mayflower (Maianthemum canadense) as invasive but it does form monocultures and also invades woodland gardens, where it is almost impossible to eradicate. It grows in the shade of the forest and, as the above photo shows, it does very well there. Its tiny white four petaled flowers will become speckled red berries that are loved by many birds and small animals, and of course they help its spread.

Though it is banned from being sold or planted here in New Hampshire invasive burning bush (Euonymus alatus) is here to stay. Each tiny greenish flower will became a bright orange red berry that birds love, and they’ve helped spread this invasive shrub far and wide. Burning bush is also called winged euonymus.

Burning bush flowers are what a botanist would describe as insignificant, but the shrub has had a significant impact of the landscape, often growing in large colonies that choke out native plants.

There is a tree in a local park that I’ve wondered about for years. Each spring it is covered with beautiful red and yellow blossoms and I knew it was a horse chestnut but didn’t know anything else about it. Then recently I read on Mr. Tootlepedal’s blog of the red horse chestnut (Aesculus × carnea,) which is a cross between the red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) and the horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum.) From what I’ve read I think this one is an example of that same tree. I also read that bees and hummingbirds love the flowers.

I find goat’s beard (Tragopogon pratensis) growing in a meadow in full sun. Luckily I was there in the morning because goat’s beard flowers close up shop at around noon and for this reason some call it “Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon.” A kind of bubble gum can be made from the plant’s milky latex sap and its spring buds are said to be good in salads. Another name for goat’s bead is meadow salsify. It is native to Europe but doesn’t seem to be at all invasive here. In fact I usually have trouble finding it.

At a glance it might be easy to confuse the large oval leaves of blue bead lilies (Clintonia borealis) with those of lady’s slippers, but they don’t have the deep pleats that lady’s slipper leaves have, and of course once the flowers appear there is no doubt. The two plants often grow side by side and bloom at the same time. It can take more than 12 years for blue bead lily plants to produce flowers from seed.

It’s easy to see that blue bead lilies are in the lily family; they look just like small Canada lilies. Ants like them and they were crawling all over these plants. I like seeing both the pale yellow flowers and the blue berries that follow them. Their color has been described as porcelain blue but it’s hard to put a name to it. I call it electric blue and I really can’t think of another blue to compare it to, but it’s beautiful.

Pink lady’s slipper orchids (Cypripedium acaule) have just come into bloom but I’m seeing far fewer of them than I did last year. I have a feeling that the drought last year must have affected them. But at least they’re here; there was a time when these plants were collected nearly into oblivion by people who didn’t know any better. The plant interacts with a Rhizoctonia fungus in the soil and this fungus must be present for it to reproduce.  If the plants are dug up and placed in private gardens they will eventually die out if the fungus isn’t present so please, look at them, take a couple of photos, and let them be.

For those who haven’t seen one, a pink lady’s slipper blossom is essentially a pouch called a labellum, which is a modified petal. The pouch has a slit down the middle, which can be seen in this photo. Veins on the pouch attract bumblebees, which enter the flower through the slit and then find that to get out they have to leave by one of two openings at the top of the pouch that have pollen masses above them. When they leave they are dusted with pollen and will hopefully carry it to another flower. It takes pink lady’s slippers five years or more from seed to bloom, but they can live for twenty years or more.

Our native azaleas have also just started to bloom. I haven’t held out much hope for the plant pictured because a tree fell on it two summers ago. It seemed to be hanging on by a thread last year but this year its strong will to live has it blooming beautifully again. It grows in a shaded part of the forest and is called early azalea (Rhododendron prinophyllum,) even though the Rhodora (Rhododendron canadense) is earlier. It’s also called roseshell azalea and I often find them by their fragrance, which is a bit spicy and a bit sweet.

The flowers of the early azalea aren’t quite as showy as some other azaleas but I wish you could smell their heavenly scent. It isn’t overpowering but when the temperature and breeze are just right you can follow your nose right to them.

Another common name for the early azalea is wooly azalea, and it comes from the many hairs on the outside of the flowers. It is these hairs that emit the fragrance, which is said to induce creative imagination. I don’t know about that but it always makes me smile.

Beautiful little fringed polygala (Polygala paucifolia) flowers often grow in pairs like those shown in the photo. Each blossom is made up of five sepals and two petals. Two of the petals form a tube and two of the sepals form the “wings” that give them the name gay wings. The little fringe like structure at the end of the tube is part of the third petal, which is mostly hidden. A lot has to happen for this little flower to become pollinated. When a heavy enough insect (like a bumblebee) lands on the fringed part, the third sepal drops down to create an opening so the insect can enter the tube, where it finds the flower’s reproductive parts and gets dusted with pollen.

You can just see in this photo how any weight on the brushy part of the fringed polygala flower would cause it to drop down and create an opening that a bee could crawl into. That pollination happens at all in a fringed polygala seems a bit miraculous but in case it doesn’t, this flower has insurance; there are more unseen flowers underground that can self-pollinate without the help of insects.

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 coming by.

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