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Posts Tagged ‘Box Elder Buds’

Days above freezing (32 °F) and nights below freezing get tree sap flowing from the roots to the branches, and that means a lot of work for maple syrup producers. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup and our season usually lasts only 4 to 6 weeks, so they’re very busy at this time of year. Sugaring season usually starts in mid-February but this year it was slightly ahead of schedule, so we might see a bit more than our average 90,000 gallons.

Of course flowing sap means swelling buds, so I had to go and see what was happening. The elongated buds on this red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) were a surprise because normally they’d be almost perfectly round at this time of year. I have a feeling that they’re opening too soon, but we’ll see. I heard on the news that this February was our second mildest on record, so that might explain a few over anxious buds. When these buds open beautiful deep purple leaves will begin to unfold and then they’ll quickly turn green, so I’ll have to keep my eye on them.

Red maple (Acer rubra) buds have just started to swell a bit, as seen in the bud at about two o’clock there on the right. The outer layer of bud scales have started to pull back on several other buds as well. Red and sugar maple buds tell syrup producers when their time is nearly up, because once the trees start to blossom the sap can be bitter.

Native Americans used to tap box elders (Acer negundo) and make syrup from their sap but I don’t think today’s syrup producers tap them. They’re in the maple family but it seems to me that I’ve read that it takes too many gallons of sap to make syrup, and that isn’t profitable for today’s producers. This example looked like the bud scales might have been just starting to open. The earliest known Native American flute, dating from 620-670 AD, was made from the wood of a box elder.

The daffodils that came up before the last snow storm didn’t seem to be hurt by it at all, and that’s probably because it was relatively warm when it fell. It doesn’t always have to be below freezing for snow to fall. Last year these bulbs lost almost all of their foliage to cold.

I saw that some reticulated irises had come up too. These are usually the first flowers to bloom, even beating crocuses and snowdrops. I’ve seen snow and ice on their blossoms, and they just shrugged it off.

Odd that I didn’t see any crocus shoots but I did see these tulips. It seems very early for tulips.

In just a week the willow catkins had emerged from their bud scales. When I last checked there was no sign of them.

Before long each “pussy” will be a yellow flower. Male flowers are always brighter yellow than the female flowers. Willows cross breed freely and it’s always hard to tell exactly which species you’re looking at. Even Henry David Thoreau said “The more I study willows, the more I am confused.” I know how he felt.

There isn’t anything special about this photo, other than it shows that ice is melting from our streams and ponds, but I took it because this is where I felt that first warm breath of spring on the breeze. You can feel it and you can sense it and when you do you want to run home and throw open the windows or hug someone or dance in the street; anything to celebrate winter’s few last gasps. We might get more snow and more cold, but there is no stopping spring now.

The Ashuelot River is still alarmingly high and as I write this heavy rain is predicted Friday which, by the time you see this post, will have been yesterday. My plan is to go out today (Saturday) and see what if any damage was done. I grew up just a few yards from the river and each spring it used to do this, and it seemed that there was always a certain tightness in the air while everyone wondered if it would stay within its banks. It usually did.

Plenty of water was flowing over the dam but it wasn’t lowering the water level any. It has to flow down the Ashuelot and Connecticut Rivers before it reaches the Atlantic, and that takes time. I would guess that there are many obstructions between here and there.

At this time of year mud becomes first and foremost in many people’s minds, especially those who live on dirt roads. Mud season is our unofficial fifth season, and in mud season roads can become car swallowing quagmires. Many roads have weight limits imposed on them until the mud dries up, and any deliveries that involve heavy trucks are put on hold, usually until April or May. Some roads may even have to be closed.

According to Wikipedia Mud Season is “a period in late winter/early spring when dirt paths such as roads and hiking trails become muddy from melting snow and rain,” but that isn’t really it at all. Melting snow and rain do indeed make trails muddy, but in a cold winter like the one we’ve had the ground can freeze to a depth of 3-4 feet, and when things begin to thaw in spring they thaw from the top down. The top 16-18 inches of road thaws but all the meltwater has nowhere to go because it is sitting on top of the rock hard frozen ground two feet below. The soil at the surface then liquefies and acts like quicksand, and the above photo shows the result. Note that this car even had chains on the wheels when it got stuck.

Spring is when many animals like squirrels, skunks and raccoons get extra active. Skunks for instance eat grubs they find in the soil, so thawed ground is a magnet for them and you can often wake to a lawn full of small holes where they’ve dug. Unfortunately many people don’t realize that the skunks are doing them a great service by eating the grubs, because the grubs eat the roots of the grass and can kill it. The small holes they dig grow over quickly and by April or May you’d never know they had been there at all. The squirrel was also happy the ground had thawed and it was digging up acorns buried last fall.

Skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) came up quickly but when I saw them they looked like they had just come up, because the mottled maroon and yellow spathes hadn’t opened yet. Once the spathe opens you can see the spadix within, and that’s where the small greenish flowers grow.

You can just see how this one was starting to open down the split over its length. Since these photos are from last weekend I’m guessing that I’ll find quite a few open today. Hopefully I’ll be able to get photos of the tiny flowers.

Through a process called thermogenesis skunk cabbages can raise their temperature as much as 50 ° F above the surrounding air temperature and in so doing can melt their way through ice and snow. Why they want to come up so early is one of those mysteries of nature. There are very few insects out right now, but I do see them occasionally.

The spring blooming (Vernal) witch hazels (Hamamelis vernalis) were blooming in a local park. They are one of our earliest flowers and after a long winter much loved. I wasn’t surprised to see them because I’ve seen them blossom even after a foot of snow and near zero temperatures last year. Though they are native to the U.S. they don’t grow naturally this far north, which seems odd since they can stand so much cold.

Witch hazels are pollinated by winter moths which raise their body temperature as much as 50 degrees by shivering. This allows them to fly and search for food when it’s cold. I’ve never seen one but I’ve seen plenty of seed pods on witch hazels, so they must be doing their job. These flowers were very fragrant with a clean, spicy scent.

Spring is sooner recognized by plants than by men. ~Chinese Proverb

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Last Saturday the weather wasn’t cooperating at all. As the above radar image shows there was a thin ribbon of rain from the Midwest to the northeast. In my corner of New Hampshire it was in the mid-30s and we had snow mixed with rain, which translates into a sloppy mess. With the hill climbing trails still covered in snow and ice March continues to be a challenge.

This is what the view out my back door looked like while it snowed.

In spite of a near blinding snow squall this willow’s golden branches lit up this space. Golden willows are one of the earliest signs of spring in this area.

I’m guessing that I won’t be seeing any yellow flowers on the pussy willows (Salix) real soon. Once the snow stopped they had ice on them on this day.

A sedum decided to throw caution to the wind and come up anyway, even if it was snowing. The shoots looked like tiny cabbages.

Buds of American elm (Ulmus americana) are just starting to open. Their flowers are unusual and beautiful and I hope I don’t miss them this year. I know of only two trees with branches low enough to reach.

Last year this magnolia blossomed too early and lost nearly every flower to frost because of it, but this year there is still a single furry bud scale on every bud. They looked a little wet and bedraggled but they’re still protecting the flower buds inside. Soon they’ll fall off and the tree will start to blossom, cold weather or not.

It looked like the bud scales on these box elder buds (Acer negundo) were just starting to open. The buds and young twigs of box elders are often a beautiful blue or purple color due to their being pruinose. Pruinose means a surface is covered in white, powdery, waxy granules that reflect light in ways that often make the surface they are on appear blue. Certain grapes, plums, and blueberries are pruinose fruits. Certain lichens like the beautiful smoky eye boulder lichen have fruiting bodies (Apothecia) that are often pruinose. Box elder is in the maple family and several Native American tribes made sugar from this tree’s sap.

Lichens are at their best in wet weather so I decided to look at a few I hadn’t seen in a while. I can’t speak for the rarity of hammered shield lichen (Parmelia sulcata) but I do know that I rarely see it. This lichen gets its common name from the way it looks like its lobes were hammered out of a sheet of steel. This one grows on a tree in a local shopping mall. It’s the only example that I could confidently lead  someone to if they asked to see one.

On the same tree, just a few inches away, grows a star rosette lichen (Physcia stellaris) that produces spores quite regularly. The dark brown apothecia with white rims are fairly easy to see without magnification but there was something else here that I had never seen.

I’ve seen many lichens with apothecia that are cup shaped as this one has but some of these cups were full of water, and that’s something I’ve never seen. I don’t know how or even if this benefits the lichen but I do know that most of them like a lot of water. Star rosette lichen gets its common name from the way its lobes radiate outward like a star.

If you don’t mind getting down on your stomach in the kind of swampy ground that they like to grow in you can sometimes get a peek inside the spathe of a skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) to see its flowers. A spathe is just a modified leaf or bract which kind of wraps around itself and protects the flower bud. As the plant matures a gap opens in the spathe to let in the insects which will pollinate the flowers. This one was open far more than they usually are and I wondered if someone had been there before me, taking a peek inside.

Inside the skunk cabbage’s spathe is the spadix, which is a one inch round, often pink or yellow stalked flower head from which the small flowers emerge. The flowers don’t have petals but do have four yellowish sepals. The male stamens grow up through the sepals and release their pollen before the female style and pistil grow out of the flower’s center to catch any pollen that visiting insects might carry from other plants. The spadix carries most of the skunk like odor at this stage of the plant’s life, and it is thought that it uses the odor to attract flies and other early spring insects. This example had released a large amount of pollen and it was stuck to the insides of the spathe. In 1749 in what was once the township of Raccoon, New Jersey they called the plant bear’s leaf because bears ate it when they came out of hibernation. Since skunk cabbage was and is the only thing green so early in the spring so if the bears woke up too early they had to eat it or go hungry.

Some of the skunk cabbages came up too early and paid for their mistake by being frozen. Now their spathes are shriveled and black. This one had a new green leaf shooting up beside it but its spathe didn’t look good. The leaf will keep the plant alive but it will have to wait until next year to blossom again. There is a time when they’re young that the leaves do look somewhat cabbage like but they grow quickly and lose any resemblance once they age.

I doubt it would help pollinate a skunk cabbage but I did see what I think is a wasp recently. It seemed sluggish; most likely because of the cold. It did finally rear up on its hind legs when I got the camera too close, but I don’t think it was in any position to sting just yet. It seemed like it could barely stand. After a couple of quick shots I left it alone to contemplate the weather.

Reticulated irises (Iris reticulata) are our earliest iris I think, and usually bloom at about the same time as the crocus does, though this year I saw a crocus blossom two weeks ago. This beautiful and tough little plant comes from Turkey, the Caucasus, Northern Iraq and Iran.

This one looked more like an iris, even with the ice on it making its petals curl. Reticulated iris are a much tougher plant than I ever realized and I appreciate them and the other early bloomers showing me that spring is indeed here, even though it still feels like winter.

The first day of spring is one thing, and the first spring day is another. The difference between them is sometimes as great as a month. ~Henry Van Dyke

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1. Sap Buckets

If you could only take one photo to tell the rest of the world that it was spring in New England, it would have to be of sap buckets hung on a maple tree. In spite of 25 of 31 days in March being colder than  average the sap is flowing, but one syrup producer says that he has collected only about a third of the sap that he had last year at this time.

2. Red Maple Buds

The purple bud scales of red maple (Acer rubrum) have pulled back to reveal the tomato red buds within. Once the buds break and the tree starts to flower the sap becomes bitter, and maple syrup season ends. That usually happens in mid to late April. If you don’t want to look at a tree’s buds another sign is when the nights become warm enough to get the spring peepers peeping.

3. Budded Daffodils

Some of the daffodils are budded, but they have been for a while. They seem to be waiting for the weather to make up its mind before they’ll open. Either that or I’m just getting impatient.

4. Witch Hazel Petals

Hesitantly, like a child sticking a toe in the water to feel its temperature before wading in, the spring witch hazels have started to unfurl their strap like petals.  Last year they unfurled quite early and the cold turned them brown, so I think we’re seeing a “once bitten, twice shy” scenario here this year.  Though we do have a native vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis), it doesn’t grow naturally this far north, and since this one is in a park I’m betting it’s one of the cultivated witch hazels. The other American witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) that is native to New England blooms in the fall and grows in the same park.

 5. Dwarf Raspberry Leaves

I did find some green leaves in the woods, but they were on the evergreen dwarf raspberry (Rubus pubescens.) This plant likes wet places and trails along the ground like a dewberry, but it has smooth stems and dewberries have prickly stems. Its fruit looks and tastes much like a raspberry, but good luck getting any of it. Birds and animals eat the berries as fast as they ripen.

6. Ledge Ice

There is still plenty of snow and ice to be seen as this photo shows. Still, this is a sign of spring because this ice is rotten and parts of it were falling as I was taking this photo. The opaque milky grayish-white color of this ice was a sure sign that it was rotten, so I didn’t get too close. When ice rots the bonds between the ice crystals weaken and water, air or dirt can get in between them and cause the ice to become honeycombed and lose its strength. It looks to be full of small bubbles and has a weak, dull sound when it is tapped on. It’s a good thing to stay away from when it gets to be taller than you are.

7. Box Elder Buds

A couple of posts ago I talked about pruinose lichens but they aren’t the only things that can be pruinose, as these box elder buds (Acer negundo) show. In case you’ve forgotten, pruinose means a surface that is covered in white, powdery, waxy granules that seem to be able to reflect light in ways that often make the surface they are on appear blue. Certain grapes, plums, and blueberries are pruinose fruits that we are all familiar with.

8. Common Split Gill Mushrooms

Split gill mushrooms (Schizophyllum commune) had their winter coats on, as usual. These are “winter” mushrooms that are usually about the size of a dime but can occasionally get bigger than that. They grow on every continent except Antarctica and because of that are said to be the most studied mushroom on earth. Their wooly coats make them very easy to identify.

9. Common Split Gill Mushroom

The “gills” on the split gill fungus are actually folds on its under surface that split lengthwise when it dries out. The splits close over the fertile surfaces as the mushroom shrivels in dry weather. When rehydrated by rain the splits reopen, the spore-producing surfaces are exposed to the air, and spores are released. These little mushrooms are very tough and leathery.

 10. Golden Foxtail Moss aka Brachythecium salebrosum

I think this golden foxtail moss (Brachythecium salebrosum) has to take the prize for the longest moss that I’ve seen; its branches must have been at least 2 inches long. It’s unusual because it likes dry places, and I found it growing on stone in a shaded spot under an overhang, where it must have seen very little direct rainfall. This moss has insect repellant qualities and was once used to stuff pillows and mattresses. Today it is a favorite in moss gardens and in India they use it to wrap fruit in.

11. Moss With Unknown Growth

White cushion moss (Leucobryum glaucum) gets its common name from the way it turns a whitish color when it dries out. When wet though, it can be dark green as this photo shows. What this photo also shows are some fuzzy white growths on the moss that I’ve never seen before.

12. Moss With Unknown Growth

I don’t know if the fuzzy white things are mold that has grown due to the moss being covered by ice, or what they are. I’ve seen two different photos online of cushion moss with the same growths, but neither site explained what they were. If you’ve ever seen them and know what they are I’d like to hear from you.

 13. Whiskered Shadow Lichen aka Phaeophyscia hispidula

This is my first photo of a whiskered shadow lichen (Phaeophyscia adiastola.) It’s one of those easily ignored lichens that you think you see all the time but in reality when you look closely, you realize that you’ve never seen anything quite like it. This lichen grows on bark, stone or soil and gets its common name from its abundant root-like rhizines, which show here as a kind of black outline. I found it growing on a piece of ledge that dripping water splashed on, so it was very wet.

14. Whiskered Shadow Lichen closeup

This isn’t a very good photo but at least you can see the “whiskers” that give the whiskered shadow lichen its common name.  These rhizines help foliose lichens anchor themselves onto whatever they’re growing on, much like the roots of a vascular plant would.

 15. Inner Tree Bark

This is nothing but an old piece of bark that I found lying on the snow, but it was quite large and the photo shows what I saw when I turned it over. This is the side that would have been next to the wood of the tree, unseen. I thought the colors and patterns were amazing. If fungi would have caused this is a question that I can’t answer.

April is a promise that May is bound to keep. ~Hal Borland

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