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Posts Tagged ‘Canada Yew’

I thought I’d start this post about evergreens with something you probably don’t associate with the word, but in fact we do have a few ferns that stay green all winter and are considered evergreen. Some more common ones are the Eastern wood fern (Dryopteris marginalis), Intermediate wood fern (Dryopteris intermedia), Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), Polypody fern (Polypodium virginianum) and a few others. As this post will show, if you are willing to look closely you’ll find that there is quite a lot of green still out there in winter.

Clubmosses are one of our most noticeable evergreens in winter once it snows, but they aren’t mosses at all. They are vascular plants that don’t flower; they produce spores instead of seeds and are considered fern allies. Fossils have been found that show the lowly clubmosses once grew to 100 feet tall. But that was a very long time ago; the tree clubmoss (Lycopodium dendroideum) in the above photo is barely 3 inches high. It shows the upright yellow spore bearing strobili, sometimes called candles or clubs that give the plants their common names. The plant is also called ground-pine because of its resemblance to the pine tree. Clubmoss spores have been collected and dried to make flash powder for many years. They are high in fat content and when mixed with air become highly flammable. They’ve been used in fireworks and explosives for years, and also as camera flashes before flash bulbs were invented. These days they are still used in magic acts and chemistry classes. They also repel water, so if dip your finger in a glass of water that has spores floating on it, your finger will come out dry.

Fan shaped clubmoss (Diphasiastrum digitatum.) was once used as a Christmas decoration (and still is in some places.)  These forest floor evergreens were collected by the many thousands to make Christmas wreaths and they are still rarely seen here because of it. Clubmosses aren’t mosses at all but do produce spores and are called “fern allies,” which are vascular plants that don’t produce seeds. I think fan shaped clubmoss is the most elegant of any of the clubmosses and I’m always happy to see it, especially in winter. A single plant can take 20 years or more to grow from spore to maturity, so they should never be disturbed.

Something that is always a surprise to see in the woods here is a northern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis.) I don’t know if it was a garden escapee or not but they don’t grow naturally here that I know of. The Native American Ojibwe tribe thought the trees were sacred because of their many uses. They showed 16th century French explorer Jacques Cartier how to cure scurvy with its leaves 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.

Canada yew (Taxus canadensis) is native from Newfoundland west to Manitoba, south to Virginia, Tennessee, Illinois, and Iowa, but in this region I rarely see it. This plant was a small seedling barely 6 inches tall. Though all parts of the yew plant are poisonous several Native American tribes made tea from the needles to ease everything from numbness to scurvy.

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

Usually when I do an evergreen post in winter I don’t show the flowers but that leaves me feeling like I’ve cheated you, so this time I’ll show you the flowers. All the flower photos were taken previously, of course. I like the tiny styles curved like long necked birds and the even smaller white tipped stamens on a goldthread blossom. The white, petal like sepals last only a short time and will fall off, leaving the tiny golden yellow club like petals behind. The ends of the petals are cup shaped and hold nectar, but it must be a very small insect that sips from that cup. 

Trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens) is also called mayflower because that’s often when its small white to pink, very fragrant flowers appear.  Its oval evergreen leaves are tough and leathery and hug the ground but though it looks like a groundcover botanically speaking it has a persistent woody stem, so it is classified as a shrub. This plant was once collected into near oblivion but these days it can be found at many nurseries so there is no longer any reason to dig it up. Since it’s very fussy unless it’s given the right amount of light, water, nutrients and soil type it won’t grow except where it chooses to anyway. That’s true of many of these native evergreens, in fact.

The reason trailing arbutus was collected so much was because of its small pink to white, very fragrant flowers. My grandmother loved this plant and she always wanted to show it to me but we could never find it back then. I see it now here and there.

Swamp dewberry (Rubus hispidus) is a trailing plant with fruit like a black raspberry and its stems are every bit as prickly. It also looks a lot like a strawberry when it’s in bloom and because of its strawberry like leaves, which stay green under the snow all winter. This is a plant that can trip you up when hidden by snow.

Swamp dewberry’s flower is quite pretty but its fruit is said to be sour and that is the reason it isn’t cultivated. Native Americans had many medicinal uses for this plant, including treating coughs, fever and consumption. Swamp dewberry, as its name implies, is a good indicator of a wetland or moist soil that doesn’t dry out.

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

I think I actually gasped the first time I found this large colony of pipsissewa in bloom. I remember kneeling there admiring the rare and beautiful sight for quite some time. It is things like this that keep me wandering through the woods, never knowing what I might stumble across.

Pipsissewa flowers often show a blush of pink. Five petals and ten chubby anthers surrounding a plump center pistil make it prettier than most of our other native wintergreens. Pipsissewa and some other native wintergreens form a symbiotic relationship with the mycelium of certain fungi in the soil and are partially parasitic on them through a process called myco-heterotrophy. This means that, even though they photosynthesize, they supplement their diet with nutrients taken from fungi. That explains why they will only grow in certain places, much like native orchids.

The pretty little seedpods of pipsissewa persist through the winter and poke up out of the snow. They are woody and split open into 5 parts to release the tiny seeds. Each capsule is about a quarter inch across. They remind me of the seedpods of the Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora,) in some ways.

Shinleaf (Pyrola elliptica,) another of our native wintergreens, gets its common name from the way Native Americans used it as a poultice to heal wounds; especially shin wounds, apparently. Like several other wintergreens it contains compounds similar to those in aspirin and a tea made from it was used for many of the same ailments.

Shinleaf’s nodding white, waxy flowers are fragrant and usually appear near the end of June or into July. I find them in sandy soiled forests under pines.

American wintergreen is probably the easiest of all the forest floor evergreens to identify because it is so common. It is also called teaberry, and that name comes from a pleasing tea that can be made from the leaves. The leaves contain compounds similar to those found in aspirin though, so anyone allergic to aspirin should leave them alone. Though it looks like a groundcover botanically speaking it has a persistent woody stem, so it is classified as a shrub. 

American wintergreen’s blossoms look a lot like tiny blueberry blossoms.

Squirrels, chipmunks, mice, grouse, partridges, bobwhites, turkeys, fox, deer and bears eat the berries. If you’re really lucky you might get to eat a small handful before the critters find them. They were one of the first wild fruits I ever ate and I still remember what they taste like; Clark’s Teaberry Gum.

Striped wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) loses its chlorophyll and turns deep purple in winter but as of this photo it hadn’t happened to this plant yet. This plant is relatively rare here and though I’m finding small numbers most of them flower but don’t set seed.  The Chimaphila part of the scientific name is from the Greek cheima (winter) and philein (to love,) so it loves winter and does not die from the cold.

The flowers of striped wintergreen stand out and help me locate the well camouflaged plants, so I begin looking for them in mid-July just as shinleaf is ending its bloom period.

The flower of striped wintergreen has 5 petals that are swept back, as if it had seen a strong wind. It also has 10 anthers but its style is very blunt. I’m hoping the small fly on the blossom was pollinating this plant.

Leatherleaf is a knee high shrub that gets its common name from its tough, leathery leaves, which are lighter and scaly on their undersides and turn purple in the winter. Florists use sprays of leatherleaf leaves as filler in bouquets. 

At a glance you might mistake leatherleaf  for a blueberry but this plant will grow in standing water and blooms earlier. Native Americans used the plant medicinally to treat fevers, headaches and inflammation but it is said that the leaves contain a toxin called andromedotoxin which is released when they’re heated so they’re probably best left alone.

Well, if nothing else I hope this post has expanded your idea of what an evergreen is. Though many of us think of trees like the young spruce in the above photo when we hear the word evergreen the list of plants that can be called evergreen is quite long and involves many species. We even have evergreen orchids.

It is only in winter that the pine and cypress are known to be evergreens. ~Confucius

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From Winchester to the south of Keene to Westmoreland to the north the Cheshire Rail Trail covers about 40 miles, so I’m not surprised that I haven’t hiked the entire thing. One leg I’ve wondered about for quite a while is the piece that goes from Pearl Street in Keene to Whitcomb’s Mill Road. On this day I decided to stop wondering and hike it, and this is what I saw at the outset; a wide, packed gravel trail with street lights and park benches. It was the busiest rail trail I’ve ever been on and this is the only photo I was able to get without people in it. There were hikers, runners, bike riders, dog walkers, elderly couples and small children in strollers, and I wondered what I had done. I’m used to being kind of “right here, right now” when I’m in nature, and there usually is nothing else. When you find yourself continually having to say “hello” or “good morning”, or to explain why you’re taking a photo of an old dead tree, it’s harder to be there.

The trail crosses another one of Keene’s busiest highways and this bridge was built here after a homeless man was killed trying to cross. This bridge reminds me of the other one like it near Keene State College but this one isn’t as sturdy. A jogger ran over it while I was crossing it and the entire thing was bouncing up and down. For someone who doesn’t get on well with heights it was a little disconcerting. Speaking of heights, this is very near the place where I fell out of a tree a fractured my spine some 50 years ago. That thought just happened to pop into my mind when the bridge started bouncing.  

It had rained the day before so everything, including this greater celandine (Chelidonium majus), was still damp. On this day we were promised full sunshine and strong winds. The wind prediction kept me out of the forest but we had no wind at all, and no sunshine either.

There were plenty of reminders that this was once a railbed, including this pile of old railroad ties and the drainage channel behind. The railroad took up all the rails and ties and left them in piles all along the rail corridor. My question has always been, if they weren’t going to re-use them why did they remove them?

I wondered what kinds of mosses could grow on creosote soaked rail ties so I looked closer. One of them was one of my favorites, white tipped moss (Hedwigia ciliata). It is also called medusa moss because of  the way this moss looks like a bunch of tangled worms when it dries out. This moss is fairly common and I find it mostly growing on stones in sunny spots. It always seems to be very happy and healthy. This example had spore capsules, which I’ve rarely seen on this moss.

A tangle of black raspberry canes made me think of Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up In Blue”. I was happy to let it play in my mind as I walked on.

Honey mushrooms (Armillarea mellea) once grew on this elm tree and I know that because their long black root like structures called rhizomorphs still clung to the dead tree. Honey mushrooms are parasitic on live wood and grow long cream colored rhizomorphs between the wood and its bark. They darken to brown or black as they age, but by the time we see them the tree has died and its bark is falling off. The fungus is also called armillarea root rot or shoestring root rot. It causes a white pulpy rot in the wood and kills many species of both soft and hardwood trees. Fallen logs and standing dead trees will often still have the black rhizomorphs attached to them.

I’ve never paid attention to the inner bark of an elm tree but I will from now on because it is beautifully colored. This piece brought the thought of Jupiter’s great red spot, the anticyclonic storm that has been raging for hundreds of years on that planet.

Off in the distance there was still some color.

And above me hung crab apples. Though we think the apples we’re eating are native, crab apples are really the only apples native to North America. The apples we know originated in Central Asia, where its wild ancestor, Malus sieversii, is still found today. Apples are thought to be the first cultivated tree and have been grown for thousands of years in Asia and Europe. North American apple cultivation began 1607 in Jamestown, Virginia. Settlers had come prepared with seeds, cuttings, and small plants from the best European stock and the trees grew well here; by the end of the 19th century 14,000 apple varieties were being grown. Many were inferior varieties and for one reason or another fell out of favor and have been lost to the ages. Today 2,500 varieties of apples are grown in the U.S. and 7,500 varieties of apples are grown worldwide.

Thank you to Tim Hensley and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden for the article A Curious Tale: The Apple in North America, for some of the information used here.

Bracken fern made me think of the spines and rib cages of ancient fossilized creatures.

I came to a large field. Since it wasn’t fenced I’m guessing it was a hay field. A strange thing to find out here I thought, even though I was only a stone’s throw from suburbia.

And the Keene Country Club’s golf course proved how close I was to suburbia. I was happy to get out of here without getting whacked by a golf ball. How strange that green looked.

Instead of worrying about stray golf balls I kept my mind on the beauty that surrounded me here on the trail. There was plenty of it.

I saw what I first thought was a dead tree and then I looked up and saw a cross brace and realized it was an old railroad pole that once held the glass insulators that telegraph lines were fixed to. It showed great age and I loved its weathered surface and many knots. I’m guessing it must have been locust because no other wood I know of can stand in the ground for two hundred plus years without rotting. It’s a great choice for fence posts.

Here was a newer concrete marker post. I’ve tried to look up what 93-24 means but I haven’t had any luck.

There was a small homemade bridge crossing the drainage channel and I’d bet if I had crossed it I would have come to a secret hideout. Every child has one.

The other day on my way to work a red fox ran across the road in front of me and this grass reminded me to tell you about it.

The intense red of the inner bark of a staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) caught my eye. Native Americans used the pulp of the stems and the inner bark to make dye, and after seeing the color I’m not surprised. You have to be quick to find the red color though because it’s only there for a short time right after the tree dies. I’ve read descriptions that say the inner (live) bark is “light green and sweet to chew on,” but no reference to its changing color when it dries, so it is a mystery to me. The plant is said to be rich in tannins and I do know that dyes in colors like salmon and plum can be made from it.

When I was a boy we always carved our names into trees with a pocket knife but as Brittnie shows us, these days it’s done with a marker. Better for the tree I suppose.

From a distance I thought a hawk had gotten a bird but no, the scattered “feathers” were just wet milkweed seeds.

I could sit down and write out a very long list of all the plants and trees one could expect to find along our rail trails but yew wouldn’t be one of them. Canada yew (Taxus canadensis) is native from Newfoundland west to Manitoba, south to Virginia, Tennessee, Illinois, and Iowa, but in this region I rarely see it. Though all parts of the yew plant are poisonous several Native American tribes made tea from the needles to ease everything from numbness to scurvy. A man in England died not too long ago from eating yew, so I wouldn’t advise trying to make tea from it. Natives knew how to treat poisonous plants in ways that made them beneficial to humans, but much of that knowledge has been lost.

Well, this was an interesting hike on a very well maintained trail but it was a bit too busy for my liking, so I doubt it will be a regular in my book of hiking spots. In fact at times it seemed as if I might have been hiking in downtown Keene. I enjoy less traveled trails where solitude is one of the most precious things to be found because, as Marty Rubin once said: “Solitude is where one discovers one is not alone.”

It is very important to go out alone, to sit under a tree—not with a book, not with a companion, but by yourself—and observe the falling of a leaf, hear the lapping of the water, the fishermen’s song, watch the flight of a bird, and of your own thoughts as they chase each other across the space of your mind. If you are able to be alone and watch these things, then you will discover extraordinary riches which no government can tax, no human agency can corrupt, and which can never be destroyed. ~ Jiddu Krishnamurti

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Last Sunday I decided to follow a rail trail in Swanzey that I knew had a trestle on it. History and botany are two of my favorite things and I knew I’d find a lot of both here. It was a beautiful warm, sunny day and hiking just about anywhere would have been pleasant.

Sometimes the sap of white pines will turn blue in very cold weather but it was warm on this day and the sap was still blue. I wonder if it stays blue once it changes.

I’ve never heard of bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) being evergreen but there were several plants along the trail, all wearing their winter purple / bronze color. If this plant looks familiar it’s probably because it is the smallest of our native dogwoods and the 4 leaves look like miniature versions of dogwood tree leaves. Bunchberry gets its common name from its bunches of bright red berries. It is also called creeping dogwood and bunchberry dogwood. 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.

Something unusual I saw this day was a Canada yew (Taxus canadensis.) It is native from Newfoundland west to Manitoba, south to Virginia, Tennessee, Illinois, and Iowa, but in this region I rarely see it. Though all parts of the yew plant are poisonous several Native American tribes made tea from the needles to ease everything from numbness to scurvy. A man in England died not too long ago from eating yew, so I wouldn’t advise trying to make tea from it. Natives knew how to treat poisonous plants in ways that made them beneficial to humans, but much of that knowledge has been lost.

A yew branch looks very flat and once you get to know what they look like you’ll never mistake it for any other evergreen.

Snowmobile clubs have built wooden guardrails along the sides of all of the train trestles in the area to make sure that nobody goes over the side and into the river. That wouldn’t be good, especially if there was ice on the river. Snowmobile clubs work very hard to maintain these trails and all of us who use them owe them a great debt of gratitude, because without their hard work the trails would most likely be overgrown and impassable. I hope you’ll consider making a small donation to your local club as a thank you.

Years ago before air brakes came along, brakemen had to climb to the top of moving boxcars to manually set each car’s brakes. The job of brakeman was considered one of the most dangerous in the railroad industry because many died from being knocked from the train when it entered a trestle or tunnel. This led to the invention seen in the above photo, called a “tell-tale.” Soft wires about the diameter of a pencil hung from a cross brace, so when the brakeman on top of the train was hit by the wires he knew that he had only seconds to duck down to avoid running into the top of a tunnel, trestle, or other obstruction. Getting hit by the wires at even 10 miles per hour must have hurt some, but I’m sure it was better than the alternative. Tell tales are rarely seen these days; the above photo shows the only example I know of.

The Ashuelot River was full in places.

And over full in others. This happens regularly throughout this area and the trees survive it just fine. Many are silver (Acer saccharinum) and red maples (Acer rubrum.)  Another name for them is swamp maple because they often grow in the lowlands along rivers that flood regularly.

The large crimson bud clusters make the maples easy to spot at this time of year but I couldn’t tell if these examples were flowering or not. Many are, now that we’ve had some warmth.

There isn’t a lot of ledge in this section of trail but there is some and it shows the marks of a steam drill.  The railroad workers cut through the solid rock by drilling deep holes into the stone using steam powered drills and then poring black powder into them. Packing these holes with black powder and lighting a fuse was a very dangerous business and many were killed doing it, but dynamite wasn’t invented until 1866 so it was either black powder or brute force. Trains first rolled through here in the mid-1850s.

Maple dust lichens (Lecanora thysanophora) are beautiful and are definitely worth looking for. I’ve found them growing on maple, oak, beech, and poplars. They are usually quite a different green but the camera didn’t seem to be seeing green very well this day.

You can tell that it’s a maple dust lichen by the tiny fringe around its outer edge.

The trail goes on for many miles and it is wide, flat, and sometimes busy as it was on this day. I saw several people while I was here and I was happy to see them out enjoying nature. I hope they saw as many interesting things as I did.

There was snow for anyone who might want it. I didn’t.

American beech (Fagus grandifolia) bud break begins when the normally straight buds start to curl, as in the above photo. The curling is caused by the cells on the sunny side of the bud growing faster than those on the shaded side. This creates a tension that curls the bud and eventually causes the bud scales to pull apart so the leaves can emerge. At the bud’s location on the tree branch an entire year’s new leaves and stems will often grow from a single bud. Beech bud break doesn’t usually start until mid-May, so I think the example in this photo is a fluke caused by early warmth. Others I saw had not curled yet.

Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) is one of the lowest growing evergreen plants on the forest floor, hardly growing more than 3 or 4 inches high. Plants have a vining habit but do not climb. Instead they form dense mats by spreading their trailing stems out to about a foot from the crown. Roots will often form at leaf nodes along the stems and start new plants. The 4 petaled, pinkish, fringed, fragrant, half inch long flowers appear in June and July. The berries remain on the plant for long periods unless eaten, and can often still be found the following spring.

Partridgeberry flowers are fused at the base. Once pollinated, the ovaries of these flowers will join and form one berry with 8 seeds. Partridgeberry plants can always be easily identified by the two indentations on the berries that show where the flowers were. Other names for this plant include twinberry and two-eyed berry. Native Americans ate the berries and made them into a jelly, which was eaten in case of fevers. Partridgeberry is still used in folk medicine today to treat muscle spasms and as a nerve tonic.

Apple moss (Bartramia pomiformis) grows along the sides of the trail and its thousands of tiny spore capsules were shining in the sun. Reproduction begins in the late fall for this moss and immature spore capsules (sporophytes) appear by late winter. In the spring the straight, toothpick like sporophytes swell at their tips and form tiny globes that always look like pearls to me, but someone thought they looked like apples and the name stuck.  Sometimes the capsules do turn red as they age, so I suppose the name makes sense.

Most of these spore capsules were not quite spherical and that means that they were still immature. When they become spherical the spores will begin to ripen and prepare for the wind to disperse them.

Human history and natural history are visible from rail 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 by bicycle on an old railroad route, the place looks very different than from the customary perspective of the car and the highway. ~Peter Harnick

Thanks for stopping in.

 

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