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Posts Tagged ‘Checkerberry’

With daytime temperatures above freezing the snow is melting more each day. The woods in this photo have a southern exposure so the snow melts quickly. In fact I drove by them again yesterday and saw that all the snow had melted before I could even get this post posted. Soon there will be trout lilies blooming here. False hellebore, Pennsylvania sedges and ramps also grow here and this is one of my favorite places to visit each spring.

There is still a lot of snow left to melt in places though. This pile was about ten feet high and three times that long. It’s best for it to melt slowly so it doesn’t cause any flooding so daytime temperatures in the upper 40s F. and lower 50s are best, and that’s just what we’ve been getting.

Of course all the melting makes mud and we have plenty of it this year. I’ve already come close to getting stuck in it two or three times. We call this time of year mud season, when the upper foot or two of soil thaws but anything under that stays frozen. Water can’t penetrate the frozen soil so it sits on top of it, mixing with the thawed soil and making dirt roads a muddy quagmire. It’s like quicksand and it’s hellish trying to drive through it because you’re usually stuck in it before you realize how deep it is.

As this photo shows mud season has been with us for a long time. If you Google “Mud season” you’ll see cars, trucks, school buses and just about any other vehicle you can name stuck in the mud, just like this one. Some towns in the region have already closed roads because of it. This old tin Lizzie had chains on its wheels but it still got stuck.

One of the things I enjoy most at this time of year is walking through the woods to see what the melting snow has uncovered, like the purple leaves of American wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) seen here. Though the plant is an evergreen it doesn’t photosynthesize in winter so it doesn’t need green leaves. In fact many evergreen plants have purple leaves in winter but they’ll be greening up soon. This plant is also called teaberry and checkerberry because of its minty, bright red berries.

Swamp dewberry (Rubus hispidus) also has purple leaves in winter. This is a trailing vine with white flowers and black berries that look much like blackberries. Though it acts like a prickly vine botanically it is considered a shrub. It is also called bristly blackberry but I’ve heard that the blackberry like fruit is very sour. Native Americans used the roots of this plant medicinally to treat coughs and other ailments.

It isn’t always plants that appear from under the snow. I love seeing these curled fern leaves from last year.

Puddles get very big at this time of year and some, like the one seen here on a mowed lawn, could almost be called small ponds. It had a thin layer of ice on it on this cold morning.

Trail ice unfortunately is some of the last to melt. I’m guessing it’s because it has been so packed down and has become dense. It’s very hard to walk on without ice spikes.

Did this tree look like that when it fell or has the yellow conifer parchment fungus been growing under the snow all winter? Whatever the answer, the tree was covered with it.

Conifer parchment fungus (Stereum sanguinolentum) causes brown heart rot in trees, which is a reddish brown discoloration in the wood of conifers. It is also called bleeding parchment fungus because of the red juice they exude when damaged, but so far all of the examples I’ve seen were very dry and hard, and fairly impossible to damage.

Conifer parchment fungus is beginning to concern me because I’m seeing so much of it, virtually everywhere I go. If it’s on a standing tree like this one it means a death sentence for the tree. Nature will have to run its course and find a balance; I doubt there is very much we can do to stop it.

There were mallards on the Ashuelot River but the river wasn’t quite at bank full despite all the melting going on.

Regular readers know that I like to try to catch cresting river waves with my camera, but the water level has to be just right for good waves. If the river is too high or too low the waves will be small or nonexistent. This one was small but I still wouldn’t want to be hit by it.

Instead of the usual teardrop shape ice baubles along the river took on more of a flattened disc shape this day. They look like coins on sticks in this photo.

This one looked more like an orb but it was a disc. These may be the last ice baubles I get to see this year but that’s okay. They’ll be a happy memory and I’ll be warmer.

Fan clubmoss (Lycopodium digitatum) is one of my favorite clubmosses but I don’t see it too often because it has been so over collected for Christmas wreaths and other things. A single plant can take 20 years from spore to maturity so they shouldn’t ever be disturbed. This plant gets its name from the way its branches fan out at the top of the stem.

Trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens) has made it through the winter just fine. This plant is also called Mayflower because that’s when its small, very fragrant white or pink flowers appear. It was one of my grandmother’s favorites and seeing it always makes me think of her. Even ice won’t hurt its tough, leathery leaves.

So what I hope I’ve shown in this post are all the beautiful and interesting things that are buried under the snow in winter; things like the turkey tail fungi (Trametes versicolor) above. This is the time, before plants start growing new leaves and hiding them, that is the best time to find things like this.

These are some of the most beautiful turkey tails I’ve seen and there they were, in a spot I’ve visited many times, but I’ve never seen them. I hope you’ll see something as beautiful when the snow melts where you are.

Like the seeds dreaming beneath the snow, your heart dreams of spring. Kahlil Gibran

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1-tree-club-moss

I see by the number of views that posts like this get that not everyone is interested in native evergreens but they make up a large part of the outdoors and are a pleasure to see at this time of year. I hope posts like these will show those who believe that there is nothing to see in the winter that there is indeed still a lot of nature out there to see. I thought I’d start with clubmosses, which 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.

2-club-moss-club

This clubmoss strobilus is still tightly closed and hasn’t released its spores yet.

3-club-moss-club

They look a bit ragged after they’ve released their spores.

4-club-moss-flash-powder

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. This photo is from the Chemical Store.

5-running-ground-pine-lycopodium-clavatum

Running ground pine (Lycopodium clavatum) is another clubmoss that someone once thought looked like the tree. The “running” part of the common name comes from the way its underground stems spread (run)  under the leaf mold. Other names include lamb’s tail, fox tail, wolfs claw, stag’s horn and witch meal. Native Americans used clubmosses medicinally to cure headaches and to treat urinary tract problems and diarrhea. They were also used to treat wounds and to dye fabrics. The Lycopodium part of the scientific name comes from the Greek lycos, ‘wolf’, and podus, ‘foot’, because whoever named it thought it looked like a wolf’s paw.

6-fan-club-moss

Fan clubmoss (Lycopodium digitatum) is one of my favorites. The plant gets its common name from the way its branches fan out in a 180 degree arc at the top of the stem. Another common name is ground cedar because of its resemblance to the cedar tree. At one time this and other clubmosses were used to make Christmas wreaths and were collected almost into oblivion, but they seem to be making a fairly good comeback. A single plant can take 20 years or more to grow from spore to maturity, so they should never be disturbed.

7-marginal-wood-fern

I don’t think many people associate ferns with winter hardiness but we do have a few that stay green all winter, like the eastern wood fern (Dryopteris marginalis) seen here. It is also called the marginal wood fern because of where its spore clusters lay in relation to the pinnule (leaf division) margins. Intermediate wood fern (Dryopteris intermedia,) Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides,) and polypody fern (Polypodium virginianum) are some of our other evergreen ferns.

8-partridge-berry

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. I’ve never seen a partridge eating them but I know that wild turkeys love them.

9-checkerberry

American wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) is also called teaberry or checkerberry and its small white flowers resemble those of the blueberry. It is probably the easiest of all wintergreens to identify because of the strong minty scent that comes from its crushed leaves. If you have ever tasted teaberry gum then you know exactly what it smells and tastes like. The plant contains compounds that are very similar to those found in aspirin and Native Americans used it much like we use aspirin. This photo was taken after a recent snowstorm and shows how wintergreens got their name. The small white object in front of the middle leaf is a starflower seed pod (Trientalis borealis.)

10-checkerberries

American wintergreen was the first plant my grandmother taught me to identify. Because she had trouble getting up from a kneeling position she would have me crawl around and gather up handfuls of the bright red, minty berries, which we would then share. She always called them checkerberries, but nobody seems to know where that name or the several others it has originated. The name teaberry comes from a pleasing tea that can be made from the leaves. Squirrels, chipmunks, mice, grouse, partridges, bobwhites, turkeys, fox, deer and bears eat the berries.

11-striped-wintergreen

Though I showed it in a recent post striped wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) has my favorite wintergreen foliage so I’m going to show it again. In winter it turns deep purple where the darker green is on the leaf. This plant is rare here, though I’m finding more and more spots where 1 or 2 plants grow. In all I probably know of a dozen widely scattered plants. It’s hard to tell from a photo but these plants are so well camouflaged that I have walked right by them and not seen them.

12-shinleaf

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. Its nodding white, waxy flowers are fragrant and usually appear near the end of June. I find them in sandy soiled forests under pines.

13-pipsissewa

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.

14-pipsissewa-leaf

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. If looking for this plant look for the teeth on the outer margins of the shiny leaves.

15-trailing-arbutus

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 was one of my grandmother’s favorite flowers and she would walk in the woods to find and smell it rather than dig it up to plant in her yard.  It’s too bad everybody didn’t do the same because this plant was once collected into near oblivion. 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 most of these plants, in fact.

16-goldthread

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 being nearly collected into oblivion. At one time more goldthread was sold in Boston than any other native plant, probably by its other common name: canker root. Luckily it has made a good comeback and I see lots of it.

17-swamp-dewberry

Swamp dewberry (Rubus hispidus) is a trailing vine blooms with white flowers that look a lot like strawberry flowers. The fruit looks more like a black raspberry than anything else and is said to be very sour. Its leaves live under the snow all winter. It is thought that staying green through the winter lets evergreen plants begin photosynthesizing earlier in the spring so they get a head start over the competition.

18-swamp-dewberry

But though swamp dewberry leaves live under the snow all winter they aren’t always green. These beautiful beet purple plants grew just a few feet away from the green ones in the previous photo. Swamp dewberry looks like a vine but is actually considered a shrub. It likes wet places and is a good indicator of wetlands. It’s also called bristly blackberry because its stem is very prickly.

19-downy-rattlesnake-plantain

Some native orchids have flowers and foliage that look tender and fragile, but as downy plantain orchids  (Goodyera pubescens) show, looks can be deceiving. Its leaves are covered by soft downy hairs and this little orchid can stand being buried under snow all winter without being damaged. It’ll look just as it does now when the snow melts. I hope you’ll take some time to look at the evergreens in your own area. Don’t forget the mosses and lichens!

There is no end to wonder once one starts really looking. ~Marty Rubin

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1. One Flowered Pyrola Side View

Plants in the wintergreen family, not surprisingly, stay green throughout winter and some are quite rare in this area. This post is for the plant people among us, of the kind who feel their pulse quicken when they find a plant they’ve never seen before.  And there’s a good chance that they’ve never seen this one called one flowered pyrola (Moneses uniflora) because it is quite rare; the two plants in this photo are the only examples that I’ve ever seen. This plant is also called one flowered wintergreen and single delight. It is found in dry, cool, undisturbed forests and was used by Native Americans as a cold remedy, and to reduce swelling and ease pain.

 2. One Flowered Pyrola

One flowered pyrola is quite small and easy to miss. These nodding flowers were probably about 4 inches high. The flowers are fragrant but don’t produce nectar and are thought to be pollinated by bumblebees. They are made up of 5 petals and 10 stamens surrounding a bright green style and ovary. Along with orchids, the seeds of this plant are among the smallest known.  A single seed weighs about two millionths of a gram.

Because I wanted to do a post on only wintergreens I’ve saved the photos of one flowered pyrola since late June. It is the earliest of the wintergreens to flower here. The following plants are shown in the order of their blooming period.

 3. Shinleaf Plant

After one flowered pyrola blooms in June shinleaf (Pyrola elliptica) follows closely behind.  Shinleaf is quite common in this area and can form large colonies. It seems to be more successful than some other wintergreens. Shinleaf and other plants in the wintergreen family contain compounds that are similar to aspirin and shinleaf was used by Native Americans as a poultice on injured shins and other parts of the body. That’s how the plant comes by its common name. Shinleaf leaves form a rosette at the base of the single, 4-5 inch tall flower stalk.

 4. Shinleaf Blossom

Shinleaf blossoms nod toward the forest floor so they are very hard to get a good photo of. This isn’t a very good one but it shows the different flower parts.  Like one flowered pyrola, shinleaf blossoms have 5 petals and 10 stamens, but it tucks all of its stamens together up under the top 2 petals.  Another difference is the long, “J” shaped style, which seems to be a perfect landing spot for insects trying to get at its pollen bearing anthers. The petals appear waxy and give the plant another common name of waxflower shinleaf.

5. Shinleaf Seed Pods

Shinleaf seed pods hang onto the flower’s J shaped style as the seeds are forming.

6. Striped Wintergreen Plant

Striped wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) has my favorite wintergreen foliage which in winter turns deep purple where the darker green is on the leaf. This plant is also rare here, though I’m finding more and more spots where 1 or 2 plants grow. In all I probably know of 10 or 12 widely scattered plants. It’s hard to tell from a photo but these plants are so well camouflaged that I have looked right at them many times and not seen them. The flowers stand out and help me locate them though, so I begin looking for them in mid-July just as shinleaf is ending its bloom period.

7. Striped Wintergreen Flower

The flower of striped wintergreen is very similar to that of one flowered pyrola but its 5 petals 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 is pollinating this plant. The Chimaphila part of the scientific name is from the Greek cheima (winter) and philein (to love).

8. Pipsissewa Plant

My favorite wintergreen flowers are found on pipsissewa (Chimaphila umbellata) because they seem to be the showiest and often have a blush of pink. This plant 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.

Something I didn’t know was that both Pyrolas and  Chimaphilas have 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.

9. Pipsissewa Flowers

Once again pipsissewa displays the 5 petals, 10 anthers and large style that are so common among many wintergreens. I just noticed that the flower pictured is a bit of an over achiever and has 12 stamens, which shows how flowers sometimes vary from what we consider “the norm.” These flowers also wear a little pink skirt at the base of the style, which makes them even prettier. As with the previous wintergreens shown, these flowers are from 4-6 inches tall.

10. Teaberry

When I think of wintergreen I think of American wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens,) which looks nothing like the previous wintergreens, either in flower or leaf. This plant is also called teaberry or checkerberry and its small white flowers resemble those of the blueberry. It is probably the easiest of all wintergreens to identify because of the strong, minty scent that comes from its crushed leaves. If you have ever tasted teaberry gum then you know exactly what it smells and tastes like. The plant contains compounds that are very similar to those found in aspirin and Native Americans used it medicinally.

11. Teaberries

American wintergreen was the first plant my grandmother taught me to identify. Because she had trouble getting up from a kneeling position she would have me crawl around and gather up handfuls of the bright red, minty berries, which we would then share. She always called them checkerberries, but nobody seems to know where that name or the several others it has originated.  The berries pictured haven’t ripened yet, but you can tell that it’s going to be a good berry year. I’ve never seen so many on one sprig.

NOTE: These berries belong to the Canada mayflower (Maianthemum canadense), also called false lily of the valley. That plant comes up everywhere and was mixed in with the American  wintergreen. Obviously I wasn’t paying attention when I was taking the photo and, since I’ve never paid much attention to the unripe berries of American wintergreen, I was fooled. See how easy it is?
Thanks to the folks at the New England Wildflower Society for pointing this out, and for reading this blog so faithfully.

Plants are nature’s alchemists, expert at transforming water, soil and sunlight into an array of precious substances, many of them beyond the ability of human beings to conceive, much less manufacture. ~Michael Pollan

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