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Posts Tagged ‘Cattails’

This past weekend was an uncharacteristically busy one for me, with the car having to be looked at and modems and routers to change, so I lost a lot of time to the busyness. Because of that I decided to take a simple walk around the neighborhood. This is something I enjoy but I’ve been putting it off, so it was time. The view above is of a small pond in the neighborhood where turtles, frogs, beavers and muskrats live. Ducks, geese, and an occasional great blue heron will also stop in now and then. The strange green stuff on the far end is tree pollen, and it shows that it hasn’t rained for a while.

The water in the pond is so low cattails (Typha latifolia) are almost growing on dry land. It’s hard to believe that we actually need rain after the non-stop rains of spring. Cattails can grow faster than fertilized corn and can create monocultures by shading out other plants with their dense foliage and debris from old growth. They are very beneficial to many animals and birds though, and even help the ponds and lakes they grow in by filtering runoff water and helping reduce the amount of silt and nutrients that flow into them. Scientists have recorded cattail marshes travel up to 17 feet in a year with prime conditions just by sending out new shoots. Of course, that doesn’t account for all the new plants that grow from seed. Cattail flowers are very prolific; one stalk can produce an estimated 220,000 seeds. Cattails were an important food for Native Americans. Their roots contain more starch than potatoes and more protein than rice, and native peoples made flour from them.  They also ate the new shoots in spring, which must have been especially welcome after a long winter of eating dried foods. They had uses for every part of this plant; even the pollen was harvested and used in bread.

A drift of black eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) grows beside the pond. I like their cheeriness but not their message of the approaching fall. Summer will end sooner for me than for them; they’ll bloom right up until a hard freeze in October.

Yellow pond lilies (Nuphar lutea) grew in curious islands in the pond. I’ve never seen them do this, but I can picture them doing it to the entire pond. The seeds of the yellow pond lily plant were a very valuable food source to Native Americans, who ground them into flour. They also popped them much like popcorn, but unless the seeds are processed correctly they can be very bitter and foul tasting. The plant was also medicinally valuable to many native tribes.

There is a small grove of gray birch (Betula populifolia) near the pond and I often search their branches to see if any new lichens have moved in. Gray birch doesn’t have the same bright white bark that paper birches do, but lichens seem to love growing on their limbs.

The largest birch in the previous photo had a split in its bark that made it look as if someone had unzipped it. I can’t imagine what might have caused it but it can’t be good.

One of the reasons I wanted to take this walk was to see if there were any berries on the bunchberry plants that grow in the V made by these two trees. The white dogwood like flowers become a bunch of bright red berries, and that gives 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.

But I didn’t see any bunchberry berries today and I wasn’t really surprised; I see maybe one plant with berries for every twenty without. Apparently pollination isn’t very successful among bunchberry plants.

The blueberries crop doesn’t look too bad this year though. I think there will be enough to keep both bears and humans happy. One of the best places to pick blueberries that I’ve seen is from a boat, canoe or kayak, because blueberries grow on the shores of our lakes and ponds in great profusion and the bushes often hang out over the water. You can fill a small bucket in no time.

It looks like we might have a good blackberry harvest as well. Easy to pick blackberries can be found along virtually any rail trail and many woodland trails. Blackberries have been eaten by man for thousands of years. The discovery of the remains of an Iron Age woman called the Haraldskær Woman showed that she ate blackberries about 2500 years ago. The Haraldskær Woman is the body of a woman found naturally preserved in a peat bog in Jutland, Denmark in 1835. Native Americans made a strong twine from fibers found in blackberry canes, and they used piles of dead canes as barricades around villages. I’m guessing that anyone who had ever been caught on blackberry thorns wouldn’t have tried to make it through such a barricade.

Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium) is a common late summer sight in wet meadows and on river banks. There are several species of this plant including hollow Joe-Pye-weed (E. fistulosum,) sweet Joe-Pye-weed (E. purpureum,) three-nerved Joe-Pye-weed (E. dubium,) and spotted Joe-Pye-weed (E. maculatum.) Hollow Joe-Pye weed is the most common species in this area. There are also cultivated varieties sold in nurseries.

Eventually if you go the way I did you come to a wooded trail that really doesn’t lead anywhere. It simply connects two roads. I don’t know its history but it makes for an enjoyable walk through the woods.

It’s close to impossible to get a photo of a forest when you’re inside it, but I keep trying. This view shows that these trees are not that old and that means this land was cleared not that long ago.

There are some big white pines (Pinus strobus) out here though. I’d guess many of them are close to 100 years old.

Tatarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica) berries start out green and then turn orange before finally ripening to red. They are pretty things but they can be mildly toxic to adults and more so to children, though I’ve never heard of anyone eating them. Tatarian honeysuckle is considered an invasive shrub. Birds eat the berries and the plant spreads quickly, with an estimated seedling density of 459,000 per acre. Once grown their dense canopy shades the forest floor enough so native plants can’t grow, so the land around dense colonies is often barren.

Hedge bindweed (Calystegia sepium) winds itself among the tall stems of any plant it can find. It is said that bindweed purifies and cleanses the body and calms the mind. Native Americans used the plant medicinally for several ailments, including as an antidote to spider bites.

Meadow sweet (Spirea alba) is just about finished for this year. 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, like I did on this day.

The small pond that I showed a photo of previously eventually empties into a large swamp, which is called a wetland these days. I’m guessing that beavers and muskrats keep the water way open through it; it has been this way for as long as I’ve lived in the area.

Deer tongue grass (Dichanthelium clandestinum) gets its common name from the way its leaves resemble a deer’s tongue. It’s one of the earliest denizens of the forest floor to start showing its fall colors. Purples, yellows, oranges, and other colors can be found in its leaves.

There are enough different goldenrods (over a hundred it is said) which look enough alike to convince me that I don’t want to spend the rest of my life trying to identify them all, but some are quite easy to identify.  One of the easiest is gray goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis).  It’s one of the first to bloom and its flower heads always look like they have been in a strong wind that blew them over to one side of the stem.

There was a very strange beetle (I think) with a big nose on that goldenrod in the previous photo. I haven’t been able to identify it.

Our minds, as well as our bodies, have need of the out-of-doors. Our spirits, too, need simple things, elemental things, the sun and the wind and the rain, moonlight and starlight, sunrise and mist and mossy forest trails, the perfumes of dawn and the smell of fresh-turned earth and the ancient music of wind among the trees.~ Edwin Way Teale

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Last Saturday the heat and humidity were supposed to return so I set off for one of my favorite rail trails. Since it was morning and the trail is mostly shaded I thought I’d be fine, but by the time I got back I was hot enough to complain about it.  The heat has kept me indoors just once since I’ve been doing this blog and that was the weekend before this walk when the heat index reached 104 degrees F. The humidity level was so high it made it very close to unbearable, so I spent my time next to an air conditioner. At least on this day the humidity wasn’t bad.

Right off I started seeing flowers, including this aster. I decided long ago that life is too short to spend days or weeks trying to identify asters and goldenrods, so I don’t know its name.

Steeplebush I do know and I was happy to see it. It’s a cousin of meadowsweet and is in the spirea family (Spirea tomentose) like that shrub is. Sometimes it gets confused with meadowsweet (Spirea alba) but that plant is a very woody shrub with white flowers in flower heads that aren’t as long and pointed as these are. A dense coat of white wooly hairs covers the stem and the leaf undersides of steeple bush, and that’s where the tomentose part of the scientific name comes from. It means “covered with densely matted woolly hairs.” Five petaled, pink steeplebush flowers are about 1/16 of an inch wide and loaded with 5 pistils and many stamens, which is what often gives flowers in the spirea family a fuzzy appearance. Many different butterflies love these flowers. Native Americans used the plant medicinally in much the same way that we would use aspirin. I almost always find this plant at the water’s edge and this one grew by the drainage ditch alongside the trail.

Cattails also grew in the drainage ditch and I liked the way the sunlight played on this one’s leaves. Darkish green is their natural color and the light green / yellow parts are caused by sunlight. When a ray of sunshine falls on a single plant or other bit of nature I always pay attention, and I’ve seen some beautiful things by doing so.

To some people sweet fern (Comptonia peregrine) isn’t a very exciting plant and I have to say that I haven’t had much to say about it over the course of this blog, but it is interesting. Sweet ferns are usually found growing in gravel at the edge of roads or in waste areas. They are small; about 3 feet tall-and have a mounding growth habit. The leaves are very aromatic and the scent can travel quite a distance on a hot summer day. It is said that crushing the leaves and rubbing them on your skin will keep insects away, and you can also make sweet fern tea from the foliage like Native Americans did.

The leaves of sweet fern do look sort of fern like and that’s how it gets its common name. I often run my hands over the leaves to release the fragrance that is held in tiny resin dots. The fragrance is what it is named for; some compare it to soap, others to spices or fresh mown hay. It is a very unusual scent that smells clean and a bit spicy to me. Sweet fern comes from the same family (Myricaceae) as the bay laurel, which is where bay leaves come from.

Once the spiky bur like husk opens the seed of the sweet fern, called a nutlet, appears.  Though the nutlets usually appear in clusters this example had just one. They’re very small at less than a quarter inch. Scientists have documented germination in seeds which had been in the soil for over 70 years and it is thought that seeds could still grow after lying in the soil for 100 years or more.

Hay scented fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula) can grow in shade or full sun, so it was right at home along the trail. This fern gets its name from the way that it smells like fresh mown hay when you brush against it. The Native American Cherokee tribe used this fern medicinally to treat chills.

Stone walls are common along rail trails. It was a land owners way of telling the railroad where their right of way ended. Most of the walls along rail trails are very old.

This stretch of rail trail like many others in this area follows the Ashuelot river and you can get a glimpse of it every now and then. The embankment down to it is very high and steep though so actually getting near the river is all but impossible for me.

Some lucky homeowner has built a bridge right from his back yard to the rail trail. It’s easy to forget that these trails run so close to people’s homes but we shouldn’t forget. Just think how you’d feel if you had an endless procession of hikers, joggers, and bicyclists passing your house all day every day. It has to be annoying, so I don’t get upset when I see the occasional no trespassing sign.

In places the water in the drainage ditches had dried up, leaving multicolored mineral deposits behind.

You might have seen an acorn in the previous photo. All along the trail I heard the pfffft of them falling through the tree foliage. If I go by all the nuts and berries I’ve seen I’d guess that the animals will eat well this year.

Indian pipes (Monotropa uniflora) slowly turn their heads to the sky. Once they’re looking straight up at the sky that is the sign that they’ve been pollinated. They are also called ghost or corpse plants. Fresh stems contain a gel that Native Americans used to treat eye problems. The common name comes from the plant’s shape, which is said to resemble the pipes that the Natives smoked and the uniflora part of the scientific name means a single flower, which is all each plant has.

Here is a rarely seen (on this blog) view into an Indian pipe flower. At the tips of the 10 stamens surrounding the center stigma are the anthers, colored yellow, which contain pollen. The anthers are open and shedding pollen at this stage.  In the center of the flower is the pollen-collecting stigma, which looks like a funnel between the yellowish stamens. Once pollinated each flower will eventually become a brown seed capsule. These capsules always look like beautiful little carved wooden flowers to me. Once they ripen they will split open into 5 separate parts to release tens of thousands of seeds to the wind. Each individual seed is only ten cells thick. Indian pipes are parasitic on certain fungi, which in turn are often parasitic on the roots of trees so in a roundabout way they get their food from trees.

Pretty little fringed loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliate) is the last of the native yellow loosestrifes to bloom in this area. Great colonies of the knee high plant can be found along roadsides and wood edges, and along waterways. It might be confused with whorled loosestrife (Lysimachia quadrifolia) if the two plants bloomed at the same time, but in this area fringed loosestrife blooms later. The flowers on fringed loosestrife are about the size of a quarter and nod to face the ground. On whorled loosestrife they face outward. The leaf arrangements on the two plants are also very different.

Fringed loosestrife gets its common name from the fringe of hairs on its leafstalks, but sometimes the flower petals are also fringed like they are on this example. It’s a cheery, pretty plant that often gets overlooked because there is just so much in bloom at this time of year.

The prize for the strangest thing I saw out here on this day goes to this golf ball.  I can’t imagine how anyone could play golf in a forest but maybe an animal stole it off someone’s lawn, I don’t know. It looked to be in new condition.

Before long I reached the trestle, where I stood for awhile thinking about how lucky I was to have a trail into the woods like this. It lets me see things that I’d never be able to see otherwise, like this stretch of river. If it wasn’t for the trail I’d have to bushwack my way through the woods or paddle upriver to get here. Thanks be to the snowmobilers who keep these trails open. They’re also the ones who add the wooden bits to the trestles so nobody drives their machines off them. That wouldn’t be good.

In this shot it doesn’t look like it would be much of a drop from the trestle to the river below.

But looks can be deceiving, and when I add some people in kayaks to the mix you can see that it would indeed be quite a drop. When I was a boy a friend of mine fell from the top of a trestle, which he had climbed, into the river. He lived to tell about it but I never saw him climb to the top of another one. The kayakers by the way were still,  pondering what to do about that big pine tree you can see up ahead that has fallen all the way across the river.

As the river bank showed, the water level is way down, but I’ve grown up on this river and I’d be surprised if it wasn’t. If you want to walk across the Ashuelot River August is the time to do it in this area. I used to walk in the river when I was a boy, looking for old bottles. I found a lot of them too, and sold them to local bottle collecting clubs. That was when I learned what it was like to have money in my pocket and it was what led me to work at proper jobs, and that was how I lost my connection to nature for many years. Thankfully I was able to get it back.

Away from the tumult of motor and mill
I want to be care-free; I want to be still!
I’m weary of doing things; weary of words
I want to be one with the blossoms and birds.
~Edgar A. Guest

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I hope everyone can stand seeing more ice covered water because we have an awful lot of it here right now. This is a little pond I visit often in summer but I don’t think I’ve done so in winter, so I thought I’d give it a go. In summer it is full of fragrant white water lilies, and great blue heron, Canada geese, and ducks visit it often. I’ve seen mink and beaver here as well, so it seems to be a popular place with wildlife of all kinds. The pond ice was very shiny because we had a day of rain and warmth and then everything re-froze.

The rain washed a lot of the snow away again. It’s been going this way since November, with cold and snow one week and warmth and rain the next.

Not all the snow had disappeared but the top layer of this snow had and the tunnels of a mouse or vole became visible. There is a lot more activity under snow than a lot of people realize.

Near the shore the ice was thin and full of lacy patterns.

There are a lot of alders around the pond. You can often tell an alder from quite a distance because of all the tongue gall that grows on the female seed cones, called strobiles. They are what make these large dark bunches on the branches.

The male alder catkins (On the right) are starting to show some color. It will be a while before the much smaller female catkins on the left show any. Once they bloom tiny scarlet threads, which are the female flowers, will poke out from between the scales on the catkins. I watch for the male catkin’s release of pollen to know when to look for the almost microscopic female flowers.

Though I don’t know if this is one of their nests red winged blackbirds nest here in great numbers, and they aren’t afraid to protect their nests by flying all around your head.

They’ll use the downy seeds from the many cattails around the pond to line their nests with. This is where I first saw a female red winged blackbird grab a big white grub out of a dead cattail stem. I’ve seen them do the same in other places since. I had no idea that grubs were in cattail stems and I still don’t know what insect they turn into.

I could see a lot of plant growth under the ice.

I could also see thousands of bubbles in the ice and I wondered if they were coming from the plants.

Here was something I’ve never seen on a pond; the huge slab of ice on the right had broken away from that on the left and had fallen about 3 or 4 inches. That tells me there must be quite an air space under the ice. This happens regularly on rivers but not on ponds that I’ve seen. The ice was noisy on this day and was cracking, creaking, groaning, and grinding. If you’ve never heard the eerie sounds that ice can make you really should walk by a frozen pond or lake. You’ll hear things you’ve never heard.

You could have knocked me over with a feather when I saw these pussy willows. In January!

Much of January was warm but I didn’t think it was warm enough to coax plants into bloom. Since we’re supposed to drop below zero again this week spring might be a little different this year. I would think that extreme cold would kill off these buds, but maybe not. They do have nice fur coats.

I saw a very strange pouch like web or cocoon on a tree. It wasn’t very big; about the diameter of a pencil or maybe a little bigger. I’ve never seen anything like it and couldn’t find anything that looked like it online so I wrote to insect expert Charley Eiseman and sent him the photo. In about 5 minutes he had written back and explained that this is a tussock moth cocoon, probably made by the white marked tussock moth. The caterpillar constructed it incorporating its own hairs into the design. Tussock moth caterpillars are very hairy and their hairs can cause a rash when touched, so I’m glad I didn’t touch it. Thanks very much to Charley for the help.

If you like seeing and reading about insects Charley’s blog is the place for you. It can be found at bugtracks.wordpress.com

That isn’t water. It’s ice and yes, it was as slippery as it looks. I didn’t think I’d need my micro spikes out here so I was bare soled and sliding.

I went off the road into the brush to look at something and got snagged on these, the sharp, ripping thorns of the multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora,) which is an invasive plant from China that seems bent on taking over the world. The raspberry plant-like blossoms appear in June by the hundreds and are extremely fragrant.

Of course each blossom turns into a rose hip and birds (and squirrels) love them. That’s why and how the plants spread like they do. They crawl up and over native shrubs and take up most of the available sunlight. The native shrub, deprived of light, eventually dies.

Overhead were thousands of red maple buds. It won’t be much longer before they start to open. It usually happens sometime in mid-March.

Milk white toothed polypores (Irpex lacteus) are resupinate fungi, which means they look like they grow upside down, and that’s what many crust fungi seem to do. This is a common winter mushroom with “teeth” that are actually ragged bits of spore producing tissue which start life as pores or tubes and break apart and turn brown as they age. This fungus can often be found on the undersides of hardwood branches but these examples grew on a stump. They seem to thrive in the cold but also seem to shun direct sunlight, because I often find them on the shaded side of whatever they’re growing on.

Geum urbanum is also called herb Bennet or wood avens, and it’s originally from Europe and the Middle East. The flowers are yellow with 5 petals and have the “look” of the avens family like our native white or yellow avens. But the seed heads are very different and that’s why I think this must be the seen head of Geum urbanum. According to what I’ve read the plant’s roots have the same compounds as the clove plant and are used as a spice in soups and for flavoring ale. Modern herbalists use the plant medicinally as it has been used for many centuries. The idea for Velcro came from a plant with barbed seeds much like this example.

I think the seeds of curly dock (Rumex crispus) are very pretty but I never thought I’d see them in January. There were quite a few plants here, all full of seeds. Though the leaves of curly dock are poisonous to sheep and cattle humans can eat it. The leaves are high in beta carotene, vitamin C, and zinc and the seeds are rich in calcium. Curly dock was an important vegetable during the great depression and the humble plant kept many people alive. They are said to have a lemony flavor.

The cold of winter does things to people and it also does things to plants. Sap from conifers like the white pine and certain spruces like that seen here is usually a honey, amber color but in winter the cold can turn it blue. The deeper the blue, the colder it’s been. It’s quite a beautiful cornflower blue on this tree at the moment and that might be because we’ve seen below zero cold.

All in all I found the pond to be the same quiet, serene place in winter that it is in summer. That should be surprising because this little pond is actually a man-made retention pond that holds water for firefighting, because there is a large mall just off the edge of some of these photos. It just goes to show once again that you don’t have to go very far to enjoy nature. It’s just outside.

Looking at the pond all I could think was that it is an incredible thing how a whole world can rise from what seems like nothing at all. ~Sarah Dressen

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Actually, nothing in any of these photos or any post you may find here is secret or hidden but most people never see these things, and that’s too bad. Just look at how beautiful this young shagbark hickory bud (Carya ovata) was after it opened. A tree full of them looks like a tree full of beautiful flowers and they’re right there in plain sight, so I hope you’ll look for them.

Every bit as beautiful but not quite as colorful is a spring beech bud (Fagus grandifolia) opening. A tree full of these looks like it has been festooned with tiny angel wings and they are one of my favorite things to see in spring. But you have to watch closely because they don’t stay like this for more than a day. A good sign that beech bud break is about to happen is when the normally small, straight buds grow longer and curl like a rainbow. Once that happens they are ready to break and let the leaves unfurl.

A new beech leaf still has some of the delicate silver hairs left from its time in the bud, but it loses them quickly. The orange turns to green quickly too, and then the magic ends for another year.

I saw some beautiful young red buckeye leaves on the Central Ohio Nature blog, a link to which you can find over there on the right in the Favorite Links section. I don’t have the same tree but I do have a bottlebrush buckeye and this photo is of its leaves, which are more of a rosy brown / brick red color.

New oak leaves are covered in soft velvet and come in many colors…

…including hot pink. They also shed water quickly.

Some oaks are already flowering.

According to my color finding software this maple leaf also had pink in it, along with plum purple and fire brick red. I don’t see those colors but I believe the software is accurate.

New poison ivy leaves (Toxicodendron radicans) are often a deep maroon color but these were green with a white fringe. I’ve noticed this year that many new spring leaves that would normally wear various shades of red and bronze are instead shades of green. What this means I don’t know. They seem to want to get a jump on photosynthesizing.

I checked on the field horsetails (Equisetum arvense) each day and there was no sign of them and then overnight there they were, hundreds of them. One little tap and what looks like clouds of pollen float off them but the “pollen” is actually a cloud of microscopic spores.

The fertile spore bearing stem of a field horsetail ends in a light brown cone shaped structure called a strobilus. Since it doesn’t photosynthesize at this point in its development the plant has no need for chlorophyll so most of it is a pale whitish color. When it’s ready to release spores the cone opens to reveal tiny, mushroom shaped sporangiophores. The whitish ruffles at the base of each brown sporangiophore are the spore producing sporangia. When the horsetail looks like the one in this photo it has released its spores and will shortly die.

When the fertile spore bearing stems of the horsetail have released their spores the infertile green, photosynthesizing stems pf the plant appear. These shoots are rough and gritty since they contain a lot of silica. In fact they are often used by campers to scrub pots and dishes because they are so gritty. They are also very close to impossible to eradicate from a garden, so this isn’t a plant to wish grew closer to home.

I didn’t see a goldfinch but I knew it had been here. A beautiful gift from a beautiful little bird.

The big buds of Norway maple (Acer platanoides) opened a week or so ago but the flowers still persist on the trees. Last year they were blossoming in late April so they’re clearly late this year. These trees are native to Europe and are considered invasive here. Finding white sap in the leaf stem (Petiole) is one way to identify Norway maple. Sugar maple and red maple have clear sap.

The flower clusters of Norway maples are large and appear before the leaves so they can be seen from quite a distance. Though invasive the trees were once used extensively as landscape specimens and you can find them all over this town. Unfortunately the tree has escaped into the forests and in places is crowding out sugar and other maples. Norway maple is recognized as an invasive species in at least 20 states and it’s against the law to sell or plant them in New Hampshire.

The new spring shoots of cattails (Typha latifolia) are coming up among last year’s fallen stalks. Science has recorded cattail marshes growing up to 17 feet in a single year, but animals like muskrats often eat the roots and this helps keep them in check. Cattail roots contain more starch than potatoes and more protein than rice and they were an important food source for Native Americans. They made flour from the fleshy roots and ate the new shoots in spring. They had uses for every part of the plant, including its pollen. To anyone thinking they’ll go collect a basketful of cattail roots I say be very careful, because blue and yellow flag iris leaves look much like cattails and often grow right along with them, and iris roots are very poisonous. Know your roots!

For a short time between when they appear and when they ripen and fall American elm (Ulmus americana) seeds have a white fringe. When they ripen they’ll become dry and papery and finally fall to the wind. I grew up on a street that had huge 200 year old elms on it and those trees put out seeds in what must have been the millions. I remember how they wreaked havoc with cars by clogging the vents. My father complained about them more than once. Elm seeds contain 45% protein and 7% fiber and in the great famine of 1812 they were used as food in Norway.

I finally found some developing silver maple seeds to show you. Normally when very young they’re bright red with white hairs but these had gone over to green, even though they still had the hair. I’ll have to try again next spring. You really can’t see everything there is to see in spring unless you have all day every day to look, and even then I doubt it would be possible.

Some ferns are just coming up and others are knee high and ready to unfurl. I think these were cinnamon ferns (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum) but they could be interrupted ferns (Osmundastrum claytoniana.) Royal ferns and sensitive ferns are still in the just out of the ground fiddlehead stage.

This isn’t a very good photo because all I had with me was the small camera I use for macro shots, but how often do we get to see baby squirrels playing? These three babies were less than half the size of an adult squirrel and spent quite a lot of time chasing each other in and out of a hollow tree, learning all the while I suppose. I’ve always liked watching squirrels. They’re a lot of fun to watch because they seem to have a lot of fun.

Go out, go out I beg of you
And taste the beauty of the wild.
Behold the miracle of the earth
With all the wonder of a child.

~Edna Jaques

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Back a few years ago I had the luxury of working from home, telecommuting in a way. At times it could get slightly monotonous so to break up the monotony I took a walk at lunch time each day. Of course I had a camera with me and many of the photos I took on those lunchtime walks appeared here on this blog. The above photo shows the road I walked on, what we always called the “dirt road,” because it was a dirt road for many years until the town came along and paved it.

To the right of the road is a small pond where Canada geese used to swim but now it is home mostly to frogs, snapping turtles, and muskrats.

The muskrats eat the cattail roots. The snapping turtles eat the frogs, and the frogs eat up a lot of mosquitoes, for which I am very grateful. I’m looking forward to hearing the spring peepers start singing again in March.

To the left of the road is a large alder swamp where in the spring red wing blackbirds by the many hundreds live. They don’t like people near their nesting sites and when I walked by here they always let me know how disappointed they were with my walking habits. Just out there in the middle of the swamp was an old dead white pine I used to call it the heron tree, because great blue herons used to sit in its branches. Since it fell I haven’t seen as many herons fishing here.

The alders were heavy with dangling catkins, which in this case are the shrub’s male (Staminate) flowers. I believe that most of the alders here are speckled alders (Alnus incana) but I can’t get close enough to most of them to find out, because this swamp never freezes entirely.

The beautiful alder catkins, each packed with hundreds of male flowers, will open usually around the last week in March to the first week of April. When the brownish purple scales on short stalks open they’ll reveal the golden pollen, and for a short time it will look as if someone has hung jewels of purple and gold on all the bushes. That’s the signal I use to start looking for the tiny crimson female (Pistillate) flowers, which will appear in time to receive the wind born pollen. They are among the smallest flowers I know of and they can be hard to see.

The female alder flowers become the hard little cones called strobiles which I think most of us are probably familiar with.  These strobiles have tongue gall, which is caused by a fungus called Taphrina alni. The fungus chemically deforms parts of the ovarian tissue of the developing cone and causes long, tongue like galls called languets to grow from them. I’m guessing that the fungus benefits from these long tongues by getting its spore bearing surfaces out into the wind. They don’t seem to hurt the alder any. In fact most galls don’t harm their hosts.

Medieval writers thought witch’s brooms were a bewitched bundle of twigs and called them Hexenbesen, but witch’s brooms are simply a plant deformity; a dense cluster of branches caused by usually a fungus but sometimes by a parasitic plant like mistletoe. Witch’s broom can sometimes be desirable; the Montgomery dwarf blue spruce came originally from a witch’s broom. This example is on an old dead white pine (Pinus strobus) and is the only one I’ve ever seen on pine.

A colorful bracket fungus grew on a fallen log. Or maybe I should say that it was frozen to it, because it was rock hard. My mushroom book says that this fungus can appear at all times of year though, so it must be used to the cold. It’s described as hairy with ochre to bright rust yellow and rust brown banding and if I’ve identified it correctly it’s called the mustard yellow polypore (Phellinus gilvus.) That’s an odd name considering that it has very little yellow in it but even the photo in the book shows only a thin band of yellow.

This bracket fungus was very thin and woody and grew in several examples around the perimeter of a fallen tree. I think it’s probably the thin maze polypore (Daedaleopsis confragosa,) which is fairly common.

This photo is of the maze-like underside of the thin maze polypore. This is a great example of how some mushrooms increase their spore bearing surfaces. When fresh the surface is pale gray and turns red when bruised. This fungus causes white rot in trees.

Despite having more cold days than warm days the sun is doing its work and melting the snow in places with a southerly exposure. Our average temperature in February here in southern New Hampshire is 35 degrees F. so try as it might, winter can’t win now. It can still throw some terrible weather at us though; the average snowfall amount is 18 inches but I’ve seen that much fall in a single February storm before. We are supposed to see 10-12 inches later today, in fact.

The reason the area in the previous photo is so clear of growth is because a large stand of bracken fern grows (Pteridium aquilinum) there. Bracken fern releases release chemicals that inhibit the growth of other plants and that’s why this fern grows in large colonies where no other plants or trees are seen. Bracken is one of the oldest ferns, with fossil records dating it to over 55 million years old. Though they usually grow knee high I’ve seen some that were chest high.

Down the road a ways a large colony of American wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) grows. Since this was the first plant I learned to identify I’m always happy to see it. It is also called teaberry or checkerberry and those who have ever tasted Clark’s Teaberry Gum know its flavor well. Oil of wintergreen has been used medicinally for centuries and it is still used in mouthwash, toothpaste, and pain relievers. Native Americans carried the leaves on hunts and nibbled on them to help them breathe easier when running or carrying game. The leaves make a pleasant minty tea but the plant contains compounds similar to those found in aspirin, so anyone allergic to aspirin shouldn’t use this plant.

Common speedwell (Veronica officinalis) has also been used medicinally for centuries in Europe and its leaves were used as a tea substitute there. Though it isn’t really invasive it is considered an agricultural weed. It forms mat like growths like that seen in the above photo but sends up vertical flower stalks in May. Each flower stalk (Raceme) has many very small blue flowers streaked with dark purple lines. They are beautiful little things, but they aren’t easy to photograph.

Yet another plant found in large colonies along the road is yarrow (Achillea milefolium.) Yarrow has been used medicinally since the dawn of time, and bunches of the dried herb have been  found in Neanderthal graves. It is one of the nine holy herbs  and was traded throughout the world, and that’s probably the reason it is found in nearly every country on earth. I’ve never looked closely at its seed heads before. I was surprised to see that they look nothing like the flowers. If it wasn’t for the scent and the few dried leaves clinging to the stem I’m not sure I would have known it was yarrow.

In one spot a small stream passes under the road. Strangely, on this side of the road it was frozen over…

…while on this side of the road it was ice free. That shows what a little persistent sun or shade can do at this time of year.

This is the tree that first got me wondering why some Eastern Hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis) had red on their bark when most didn’t. I’ve never been able to answer that question so I don’t know if it’s caused by algae, or is some type of loosely knitted lichen, or if it is simply the way the tree’s genes lean.

My lunchtime walk sometimes found me sitting in the cool forest on an old fallen hemlock tree, with this as my view. Just over the rise, a short way through the forest, is a stream that feeds into the swamp we saw previously. This is a cool place on a hot summer day and one that I used frequently. Sometimes it was hard to go back to work but you need discipline when you work from home and I always made it back in time. It was fun taking this walk again for this post. So many good memories!

The walks met a need: they were a release from the tightly regulated mental environment of work, and once I discovered them as therapy they became the normal thing, and I forgot what life had been like before I started walking.  ~ Teju Cole

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We had another couple of warm days last weekend with temps in the high 40s F, so I decided to go and check on the skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) to see how they were doing. They are our earliest flowers, often flowering in March, and they grow around the swamp in the above photo, which is one of only two places I’ve seen them.

I doubted I’d see any since it’s only January but there was a single green shoot, probably still there from last fall. This is not a flower bud though, it is a leaf bud. Skunk cabbage is an arum and the actual flowers are hard to see because they blossom inside a spathe. A spathe is a modified leaf which in skunk cabbages usually is colored a splotchy, mottled yellow and maroon. True leaves appear around mid-April when the plant is done flowering.

Do cattails (Typha latifolia) produce new shoots in the fall or in spring? I wondered when I saw these. When I looked them up I read that new shoots appear in spring, but this is January. I have a feeling they appeared last fall and are just biding their time until it warms up. Native Americans wove cattail leaves into waterproof mats and used them on their lodges.

The approach to the swamp is through the woods shown here and then down the steep embankment in the distance, so I was glad there wasn’t much snow to slip and slide in.

I saw a bird’s nest and wondered, because of the way it hung from branches, if it was a Baltimore oriole’s nest. It was about as big around as a coffee mug and hung in a shrub at about waist high, which seems much too low for an oriole’s nest. The ones that I’ve seen have always been quite high up in the trees. Maybe there are other birds that weave nests that hang.

This photo shows how the bird hung the nest in the V shaped crotch of a branch. It is hung from 3 points for stability. Grasses, cattail leaves and birch bark is what the nest was mostly woven from. I wonder if Native Americans first learned to weave baskets by studying bird nests.

The shiny evergreen leaves of goldthread appeared by the place where skunk cabbages grow and surprised me, because I’ve never seen them here. Goldthread (Coptis trifolia) gets its name from its bright yellow, thread like root. Tiny but beautiful white flowers will appear in late April. Native Americans chewed the roots of goldthread to treat canker sores, which is why the plant is also called Canker root. The natives shared the plant with the English settlers and it became such a popular medicine that by 1785 shakers were paying 37 cents per pound for it dried, which meant people dug up all they could find. At one time there was more goldthread sold in Boston than any other native plant. Luckily after a couple of centuries the plant has recovered enough to be relatively common once again.

Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) is a native plant that makes a good garden groundcover. Small, heart shaped leaves on creeping stems grow at ground level and you can mow right over it. In spring it has white trumpet shaped flowers that grow in pairs and in the fall it has bright red berries which are edible but close to tasteless. I leave them for the turkeys, which seem to love them. My favorite parts of this plant are the greenish yellow leaf veins on leaves that look as if they were cut from hammered metal. I have several large patches of it growing in my yard.

The small blackish bead-like sori that make up the fertile fronds of the sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis) will open to release the spores soon. Sensitive fern is another good indicator of moist places, so I wasn’t surprised to see it here. Its common name comes from its sensitivity to frost, which was first noticed by the early colonials. I just read that turkeys will peck at and eat the sori, and that is why sometimes you find the fern’s spores lying on the snow around the plant.

These oak leaves were pretty amazing for January, warm day or not. I’m not sure how they did this; most other oak leaves I’ve seen this winter have been brown, or sometimes pinkish brown. Maybe these were flash frozen in November, I don’t know, but it was a pleasure to see them.

We saw more pine cones fall from the white pines (Pinus strobus) this year than most of us have ever seen and the squirrels are reaping the harvest. They pull the cones apart scale by scale and eat the seeds, and big piles of scales are a common sight in the woods. Squirrels like to sit up higher than the surrounding landscape when they eat and often sit on stones or logs.

This is what’s left of a white pine cone when a squirrel is finished with it. Not much.

There are plenty of goldenrod and other seeds to keep the birds happy this year as well.

American hazelnut (Corylus americana) catkins are a common enough sight in the winter but I’m not sure what these examples were doing. They usually hang straight down but a couple of these decided to be different. These are the male flowers of the hazel shrub and before long, usually in mid-April, they will begin to show pollen and turn golden yellow.

Turkeys, squirrels and many other birds and animals usually eat hazelnuts up quickly so I was surprised to see quite a few nut clusters still hanging from the branches. It could be that the bumper crop of acorns is keeping the animals busy.

Blackberry seed gall is caused by the blackberry seed gall wasp (Diastrophus cuscutaeformis.) These very small, round hollow galls look like seeds and form in clusters around blackberry stems. Each tiny gall has a stiff, hair like spine and together they form a hairy mass like that in the photo. They start out bright yellow-green and mature to brownish red. This one was about as long as your index finger.

I hoped the vine I saw up in a tree was American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens), but it turned out to be just another invasive Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus,) which is quickly outpacing the natives. That’s mainly because its berries are more enticing to birds and its seeds germinate much faster. The easiest way to tell American bittersweet from Oriental is by the location of the berries on the vine; American bittersweet berries grow on the ends of the vines and Oriental bittersweet berries grow all along them. While both vines climb trees and shrubs, American bittersweet is less likely to strangle its host like Oriental bittersweet will.

I keep seeing this red inner bark on some dead staghorn sumacs (Rhus typhina) and each time I see it I try to find out why it would be red, but so far I’ve never found an answer. It’s always surprising that such a beautiful color would be hidden from sight. Or maybe it turns red as it peels away.

There are often ducks here in this part of the swamp but they probably heard me long before I could have seen them and swam off. Soon this will be a very busy, growing place full of nesting red winged blackbirds, snapping turtles, herons, ducks, and frogs but for now it is simply open water and quiet and for me, that was enough.  I hope you have a nearby swamp or wetland that you can visit, because they’re fascinating places that are full of life.

Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps. ~Henry David Thoreau

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Well, we survived the coldest stretch of weather I’ve ever seen and now we’re in the midst of a January thaw, but I didn’t think I’d ever thaw out after going out on January 7 th to take many of these photos. It was a brisk 14°F but the sun was shining and I didn’t think it would be too bad, but it still felt frigid because of a breeze. Anyhow, anyone who lives here would know how cold it must have been just by seeing this photo of the Ashuelot River in Swanzey frozen from bank to bank. I think this is the first time in two or three years that this has happened.

Downstream from the previous photo ice shelves were forming but the river was open.

You could see how much ice had formed since the last snow. But the last snow was just 3 days before this photo was taken.

Close to a foot of snow fell and plowing it made mountain ranges.

After the snow storm dragged down more arctic air it got even colder; too cold to be outside for more than just a few minutes.

On New Hampshire’s tallest peak Mount Washington, a tie score for the second coldest place on the planet was recently recorded. At -36 ° F. with a wind chill of -94 °F. it was just two degrees warmer than Yakutsk Russia. What an honor.

Birches bent under the weight of the snow, which fell on top of the ice from the December ice storm. It has been so cold that the ice from that storm weeks ago has never melted.

The birches were giving up their seeds to the wind and to the birds too, probably.

Birds are definitely eating the seeds from eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) cones. Chickadees, pine siskins and other small birds eat them, and several species of warblers nest in the dense foliage. Larger birds like turkeys, owls, and grouse will often roost in the branches, possibly because hemlocks are excellent at shedding water. You can stand under large hemlocks in a pouring rain and barely feel a drop. Deer will eat the foliage.

By September the small cones and seeds of eastern hemlock are ripe but are still green, wet and oily. Once the cones begin to turn brown the seeds will be dry and birds can get at them as soon as the cone opens like the one pictured. Hemlock seeds are often lacking in viability, with less than 20% of them viable. Hemlock trees can live to 800 years old and reach a height of 175 feet. Native Americans used the inner bark, roots, and needles of hemlocks medicinally. They contain antiseptic properties and were used to treat wounds and in sweat lodges to treat colds and rheumatism. When food supplies were low the inner bark was often eaten.

Bird tracks under the hemlocks reveal their value to wildlife.

The birds have eaten all the coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) seeds. Since these coneflowers were mostly planted by the birds the seeds belong to them and I don’t cut them or other plants back until spring. The more seeds they eat and spread around the yard, the more plants I’ll / we’ll have.

A motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) stem poked up from the snow and I thought it was interesting how I could see where all the little tufts of tiny flowers had been much easier without its leaves in the way. Of course the flowers are now seed pods. Though I’ve searched to find out which birds eat the seeds of motherwort I didn’t have any luck at all. It could be because the plant isn’t native, coming originally from Asia. It was brought here because of its long history of medicinal use in Europe and Asia. It is said to be useful as a heart medicine, hence the cardiaca part of its scientific name. It has a sedative effect and is also said to be useful to treat anxiety and muscle spasms.

The ice on most lakes and ponds is safe now, probably thicker than it’s been in years, and fishermen have begun setting up their bob houses. Some of these small, garden shed size buildings are quite elaborate, with all the comforts of home included. This fisherman built his out of clear corrugated plastic, probably hoping for some solar gain. I’d have to want to catch a fish pretty badly to stand on the ice all day, even if it was in a bob house.

When you approach a frozen over pond with snow covered ice you often can’t tell where the land ends and the water begins, so I look for cattails (Typha latifolia.) They always tell me right where the water starts.

Japanese knotweed stems (Fallopia japonica) looked red in the bright sunshine. It’s too bad this plant is so invasive, because it is pretty through much of its life cycle.

Milk white toothed polypores are resupinate fungi, which means they look like they grow upside down, and that’s what many crust fungi seem to do. This is a common winter fungus with “teeth” that are actually ragged bits of spore producing tissue which start life as pores or tubes and break apart and turn brown as they age. This fungus can be found on the undersides of hardwood tree branches. They don’t seem to mind the bitter cold temperatures we’ve had.

When I was in high school I had an art teacher who knew how to paint winter scenes. She taught me how to paint snow on tree branches and have it look realistic, and how to paint snowy landscapes. She was a professional artist as well as a teacher so she knew her way around an easel, but I still questioned her when she said that my gray winter shadows should be blue. I told her I painted them as I saw them, and I saw gray. I don’t know if it was colorblindness or some other reason that I saw gray but whatever it was has corrected itself and now I see blue winter shadows, just as Miss Safford said they should be. What makes them blue? The ice crystals that make up the snow reflect the ambient blue light from the sky. The color of a shadow is determined by the amount of light reaching the area that is in shade and light from the blue sky will even illuminate shaded areas. If the sky is gray, the shadows will appear gray.

It was so cold on this day that even the window frost seemed contracted, like each crystal had been held back by an icy grip, so instead of large, elaborate and beautiful frost feathers what formed were blocky, clunky crystals.

Here is an extreme close up of some window frost crystals. They didn’t have the beauty of frost feathers but this example reminded me of Aztec and Inca carvings I’ve seen photos of. It looks like a figure with a headdress, a long nose or beak, and wings. Or maybe it just looks like ice. I’ll let you decide.

Nearness to nature keeps the spirit sensitive to impressions not commonly felt, and in touch with the unseen powers. ~Charles Eastman

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