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Posts Tagged ‘Coltsfoot’

Last weekend I decided to visit the deep cut rail trail up in Westmoreland. Hacked out of the bedrock over 150 years ago by the railroad, it is the only place I know of to find such a huge variety of plants, mosses, liverworts and algae. Because of the 50 foot height of the walls of this man made canyon and the trees growing above them it can be quite dark in here, even on a sunny day.

This was not a sunny day and photography was a challenge so I hope you won’t be too disappointed in the quality of what you find here.

The tip of a fern leaf revealed that something had pulled the tips of the fronds together with silk to form a ball. From what I’ve read a caterpillar of one of three native moth species in the genus Herpetogramma practice this leaf rolling and tying habit and so they are called fern leaf tiers. The ball is hollow on the inside and the caterpillar will live in it and feed on the leaf presumably until it is ready to become a moth.

The underside of a fertile frond was covered with small dots called sori, as can be seen in the previous photo. The sori are clusters of spore producing sporangia and they can be naked (uncovered) or capped by a cover called an indusium, as they are on the spinulose wood fern (Dryopteris spinulose,) which I believe this was. When the spores are ready to be released thicker cell walls on one side of each sorus will age and dry out, and this creates a tension which causes the cover (indusium) to burst open and release its spores. It all seems so amazing and improbable.

On their way to becoming brilliant red, the berries of false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum) are speckled green and red for a short time and in my opinion this is when they are at their most beautiful. This plant is also called treacle berry because the berries are supposed to taste like treacle or bitter molasses. They are rich in vitamins and have been used to prevent scurvy, but large quantities of uncooked berries are said to act like a laxative to those who aren’t used to eating them. Native Americans inhaled the fumes from the burning roots to treat headaches and body pain. They also used the leaves and roots in medicinal teas.

I had to lighten this shot quite a lot but I wanted you to see the lush abundance of plant growth found here. It always reminds me of the Shangri-La described in the book Lost Horizons by James Hilton, which I read and enjoyed very much when I was a boy. It would take many years to identify all these plants.

I just read an interesting article about pink or “watermelon” snow found on the Presena glacier in northern Italy. The snow was colored by an algae bloom growing right on the snow rather than a spore release, but colored rains are common all over the world and they’re usually colored by the release of spores. The orange color seen in this place on the stone of the canyon is caused by green algae called Trentepohlia aurea. Though it is called green algae a carotenoid pigment in the alga cells called hematochrome or beta- carotene, which is the same pigment that gives carrots their orange color, hides the green chlorophyll. There have been red rains, black rains, and yellow and green rains, all colored by algae spores. The red “blood” rains usually wreak much havoc among the superstitious throughout the world, who believe such a thing is a bad omen.

I wasn’t happy to see purple loosestrife blooming here because it’s just about the most invasive plant we have in these parts. It’s right up there with Japanese knotweed.

Purple flowering raspberry (Rubus odoratus) has big, light gathering leaves that give it a certain tolerance for low light, and that’s how it can grow here so well. 

A hickory tussock moth caterpillar (Lophocampa caryae) crawled on the flowering raspberry. It humped itself up when it saw me for some reason.

But then it straightened itself out and went on its way. Hickory tussock moth caterpillars have a stark beauty but each one should come with a warning label because those long hairs can imbed themselves in your skin and cause all kinds of problems, from rashes to infections.

This is a place where coltsfoot grows on stone, and it can do that because of the constant drip of groundwater. Every plant here has a never ending supply of rich mineral laden water, and that’s what makes the place so lush.

Since the drainage channels along the railbed were so low due to our prolonged drought I thought I’d visit with my friends the great scented liverworts (Conocephalum conicum,) which grow here by the thousands. They are one of the plants that I’ve never seen anywhere else, and they’re one of the reasons I come here. The great scented liverwort is such a beautiful thing and it somehow manages to look both plant and animal at the same time. Scientists say that liverworts are like “a canary in a coal mine” because they are very vulnerable to environmental changes and will be one of the first organisms to show the effects of climate change. On this day I was happy to see that most of them looked good and healthy. The lighter shade of green signifies new growth, and I saw lots of it.

The beautiful reptilian appearance is caused by the way its pores and air chambers are outlined on its surface. It is the only liverwort with this feature so it is very easy to identify. And, if you squeeze a small piece and smell it you’ll immediately smell one of the cleanest scents found in nature that I know of. In general liverworts are a sign of very clean water, so that says a lot about the quality of the groundwater in this place.

I don’t like to hang around with the liverworts too long because rocks fall from these walls regularly. Many of them land in the drainage channels as seen here, and some are big enough to crush a car. I love the golden green of the water here when the light is right.

Meadowsweet (Spirea alba) still bloomed beautifully here. If you see a spirea when you look at this flower good for you; you know your plants. Spirea blossoms always look fuzzy due to their many stamens.

There wouldn’t be anything unusual about this particular tinder polypore (Fomes fomentarius) if it weren’t for the teeth marks on it. I first saw this a few years ago happening on lichens but I think this is only the second time I’ve seen it on a fungus. I have a couple of theories about what made these marks and why; either a squirrel or chipmunk is scraping algae off the surface or they are inhibiting the growth of their teeth. They are both rodents and must gnaw to control tooth growth.

I saw the first New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) of the year on this day and I’m always of two minds about that first one. I’d like summer to go on for a few months longer but the sooner we get through winter the sooner spring will be here. New England asters are our biggest and showiest native aster and the large, inch and a half diameter blossoms come in varying shades of purple. Some can be almost white and some are very dark. This one was kind of in between and it was very beautiful.

Joe Pye weed  (Eutrochium purpureum) kindly offered to show us what a true whorl is. You can see how its leaves radiate from a single point around the stem, so if the leaves were flat and you looked at them on edge they would look like a plate, all in one plane, with no leaf higher or lower on the stem than the others in the whorl. It’s good to know not just what a plant’s flowers look like, but their leaf shape and growth habits as well. When you’re out in the field surrounded by thousands of plants it is easy to get home, look at your hundreds of photos, and wonder “what on earth is that?”

There’s no doubt what this one is; a turtle head (Chelone glabra linifolia.) I was hoping they would be in bloom because I wanted my friend Dave to see them. When he first saw a photo of a turtlehead flower he said that he thought “turtle head” immediately, even though he had never seen the plant and didn’t know its name. It seems odd to me because I have never seen turtleheads when I look at them. I think they look more like a fish mouth.

The plant gets the first part of it scientific name from Chelone of Greek mythology. She was a nymph who insulted the gods and was turned into a turtle for her trouble. I think she looks more like a trout but maybe Greek turtles look different than New Hampshire ones.

Turtleheads are very susceptible to disease and the plants here were covered with molds and mildews.

White snakeroot grows here; one of two places I know of to find it. It wasn’t flowering but that doesn’t matter, because I’d like you to see its leaves. Though its flowers closely resemble those of boneset, which flowers at the same time, white snakeroot’s (Ageratina altissima) large heart shaped, toothed leaves look nothing like boneset leaves. Though boneset is used medicinally this plant is very toxic and in the early 19th century it killed thousands of settlers in the Midwest. A compound called trematol is passed from the plant to cows that graze on it and when humans drank the milk before too long they started to show signs of what was called “milk sickness.” In a week or less most would die of heart or liver failure. Abraham Lincoln’s mother died from milk sickness when he was just 9 years old. All parts of the plant are toxic to cattle, horses, sheep, and humans. Today’s farmers eradicate the plant from their pastures and mix the milk from many cows together, so now milk sickness is almost unheard of. A Native American woman from the Shawnee tribe is credited with finally warning settlers about this plant and most likely saving thousands of lives.

Here is a closer look at a white snakeroot leaf. It looks nothing like boneset. You can often see the delicate tracery of leaf miners on these leaves. Native Americans used the root in a poultice to treat snakebite, and that’s how the plant gets its common name. If you don’t know what you’re doing however, it’s a plant best left alone.

Here are the leaves of boneset, knitted together around the stem like healing bones, and they are obviously very different from the leaf in the previous photo. Though many botanists will tell you it’s always best to identify plants by their flowers, in the case of boneset and white snakeroot with flowers that look nearly identical, it might be best to pay more attention to the leaves.

It was so dark by the time I got to the old lineman’s shack I had to use a flash to get a shot of it. I was happy to see the old place still standing, even it the gloom.

A feather had fallen on a fern leaf and pointed the way home, and home I went. When I come away from this place I always feel as if I have been cleansed and renewed. It is a place to be totally and completely immersed in nature and though it’s hard to explain in words, you never come out quite the same as you were when you went in. You gain something; you grow.

There is a way that nature speaks, that land speaks. Most of the time we are simply not patient enough, quiet enough, to pay attention to the story. ~Linda Hogan

Thanks for stopping in.

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Leaves on the coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) means it’s time to say goodbye to this spring ephemeral. The flowers appear before the leaves, sometimes weeks before. Coltsfoot is said to be the earliest blooming wildflower in the northeast but there are many tree and shrub flowers that appear earlier, so I suppose “earliest” depends on what your definition of a wildflower is. In the past coltsfoot was thought to be good for the lungs and the dried leaves were often smoked as a remedy for asthma and coughs. It was also often used as a tobacco substitute, asthma or not. A native of Europe, it was brought over by early settlers who used it medicinally. This plant’s common name comes from the shape of the leaves, which are said to look like a colt’s hoof.

Seeing coltsfoot leaves means you should also see seed heads, and here they were. They look very different than a dandelion seed head; much more cottony. Coltsfoot plants have composite flowers, which is a larger flower head made up of many smaller flowers, in this case central disc florets and thin, radial, ray florets. If you turn clockwise at just about 11:30 you can see what a single tiny coltsfoot flower looks like.   

These hobblebush flowers had just opened and you can tell that from the yellow blush on each of the normally pure white flowers. Hobblebush flower heads are made up of small fertile flowers in the center and large infertile flowers around the perimeter. The infertile flowers are there to attract insects to the much less showy fertile ones and it’s a strategy that must work well because I see plenty of berries in the fall. They start out green and go to bright red before ripening to a deep purple color. The outer infertile flowers always seem to open before the fertile ones. Hobblebushes are one of our most beautiful native shrubs.

Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) is up and already budded. Often I’m just as surprised by what I’ve missed than what I’ve seen and, though I’ve seen this plant thousands of times, I never knew how quickly the flower buds appeared until I saw these. Each year the above ground stem leaves a scar, or “seal” on the underground stem, which is called a rhizome. Counting these scars will reveal the age of the plant.

Goldthread (Coptis trifolia) is a tiny flower that you often have to sprawl on the ground to get a photo of, but the shiny 3 lobed leaves make this one easy to spot. Goldthread gets its common name from its thread like, bright yellow roots. This plant usually grows in undisturbed soil that is on the moist side. I often find it near swamps.

I like the tiny styles curved like long necked birds and the even smaller white tipped stamens of goldthread. 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 golden true petals are cup shaped and hold nectar, but it must be a very small insect that sips from that cup. 

Jack in the pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is a striking spring wildflower. It is also called bog onion or Indian turnip. The striped outer “pulpit” is a spathe, which is essentially a sheath that protects the flowers.  “Jack,” who lives under the pulpit just like an old time New England preacher, is a spadix, which is a fleshy stem that bears the flowers. Few actually see the small flowers of a Jack in the Pulpit because they form down inside the spathe. 

I usually open the pulpit for a moment just to see what Jack is up to. This early in the year Jack has just come up and is waiting for fungus flies who think they smell mushrooms to come and fertilize his flowers. If they do the spathe will die back and a cluster of green berry-like fruit will form where the flowers were. These will turn bright red after a time and a deer might come along and eat them, helping to spread the seeds.  The root, which is a corm, may be eaten if it is cooked thoroughly and prepared correctly but is toxic when uncooked. 

Pussytoes (Antennaria) are popping up everywhere. There are close to 45 species of pussytoes, which makes identifying them more difficult.  Pussytoes are a favorite of many butterfly species. Another common name for the plant is everlasting. They like to grow in dry, sandy or rocky soil.

The flowers of the pussytoes plant are said to look like cat’s paws but I’ve never thought so. Someone also thought the stamens on a pussytoes flower looked like butterfly antennae and that’s where the Antennaria part of the scientific name came from. Native Americans used the plant medicinally to treat coughs, fevers, bruises, and inflammations.

I’m seeing more bluets (Houstonia caerulea) this year than I ever have and, though I often show it here I realized that I’ve never mentioned how what looks like a four petaled flower is actually a single, tubular, four lobed “petal.” However you describe them they’re pretty little things.

Wood anemones (Anemone quinquefolia) have just started blooming and because of the cold, cloudy weather finding the flowers open has been a real treasure hunt. These low growing plants often grow in large colonies and the flowers can be pink or white. They have 5 (usually) white sepals and no petals. Because of the way they tremble in the slightest breeze anemones are also called wind flowers. From seed to flower takes about 4-5 years. An unusual habit is how the plants completely disappear in summer.

I gave up on showing most small yellow flowers on this blog long ago because many look so much alike that it can take quite a long time to identify them, but this one grew all alone in a big field  so I took its photo. I think it’s a common cinquefoil (Potentilla simplex) but it could also be the European cinquefoil (Potentilla reptans.) They’ve just opened this past week.

Though I’ve never seen it in a forest creeping phlox (Phlox subulata) is native to the forests of North America and has just started blooming. Another plant called creeping phlox is Phlox stolonifera, native to the Appalachians from Pennsylvania to Georgia. One way to tell the two plants apart is to look for the darker band of color around the center of each flower; only Phlox subulata has it. Creeping phlox is also called moss phlox or moss pinks. April’s “pink moon” got that name from the way the “moss pinks” bloom in that month. It’s a plant that loves growing in lawns as it is here and luckily it doesn’t seem to mind being mowed. Even so many people wait until it’s done blooming to do their first spring mowing.

That darker band around the center of the flower tells me this is Phlox subulata. Most people see the beauty in the mass display but not the individuals responsible for it in creeping phlox.

Dwarf ginseng (Panax trifolius) flowers are so small that even a cluster of them is hardly bigger than a nickel, and the entire plant could easily fit into a teacup. One interesting thing about this little plant is how some plants have only male flowers while others have perfect flowers with both male and female parts. Each plant can also change its gender from year to year. This photo also shows where the trifolius part of the scientific name comes from. Three to five leaflets each make up the whorl of three compound leaves. Dwarf ginseng doesn’t like disturbed ground and is usually found in old, untouched hardwood forests. It is on the rare side here and I only know of two places to find it. This is not the ginseng used in herbal medicine.

What is most unusual about this particular plant is how the flower head is misshapen. Usually the flower heads form a near perfect globe but I saw several plants on this day with out-of-round flower heads. Each flower is about 1/8 inch across, with five white petals. The three stamens on these flowers tell me they were perfect, with both male and female parts. Nothing is known about the insects that pollinate them but since I have found seed capsules on these plants something does.

We have a peach tree at work that has just come into bloom, quite early I think. This tree grows peaches but they’re more seed than fruit and they fall from the tree uneaten. Peach trees and their buds are very tender and do not like cold but peaches are grown in southern New Hampshire where there are a few pick your own peach orchards.

For years I’ve heard that flies are drawn to red trilliums (Trillium erectum) because of the carrion scented flowers and finally, here was a small fly on one.  It’s there on the left side of the bottom petal. This plant is also called stinking Benjamin and is said to be pollinated by flies as well.

I went back to the ledges in Westmoreland on a windy, snowy day to see the wild columbines (Aquilegia canadensis) blooming and thankfully they were. I was afraid they might have all died from frost bite but they were all unharmed, so I think maybe they aren’t quite as delicate as they appear.

I always gently bend a stem down onto the soft moss so I can get a shot looking into a blossom for those who have never seen what they look like. Columbines are all about the number 5. Each blossom has 5 petals and 5 sepals. Each petal is yellow with a rounded tip and forms a long funnel shaped nectar spur that shades to red. Long tongued insects and hummingbirds probe the holes for nectar. The oval sepals are also red and the anthers are bright yellow. All together it makes for a very beautiful flower and I was happy to see them again.

Almost every person, from childhood, has been touched by the untamed beauty of wildflowers. ~Lady Bird Johnson

Thanks for coming by. Take care.

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We’ve seen cold, rain, snow and mostly cloudy days lately so last Saturday when it was wall to wall sunshine and 65 degrees, it seemed like a great gift. Since it was near time for wild columbines to bloom I set off along the old rail trail up in Westmoreland to the ledges where they grow. I saw all kinds of beautiful and interesting things there and it was hard to leave.

The first thing I saw was a small patch of coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara.) It’s hard to believe that it’s almost time to say goodbye to this cheery little spring ephemeral but I’m seeing white in almost all the flowers I look at these days, and white is a good sign that they’re setting seed.

Red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) grows beside the trail and it was all ready to bloom. By now it probably has.

Maple buds were breaking; the first I’ve seen this year. New maple leaves are often bright red as these were.

The velvety buds of striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum) were seen all along the trail. Sometimes they can be pink, orange, or a combination of the two like this one was.

When I looked at the other side of the bud I saw that it was breaking. The next time I come out here I should see leaves.

There is a lot of groundwater very close to the surface in Westmoreland and it runs from the cracks in the stone. That’s one reason such a variety of plants and mosses grow here.

Algae dripped from the cracks in the stone, or maybe they were washed down the face of the stone by the never ending drip of groundwater. I’ve read that they grow in nutrient rich places. They’re always interesting so I wanted to take a closer look.

The algae were spirogyra, with common names that include water silk and mermaid’s tresses. It is described as a “filamentous charophyte green algae of the order Zygnematales.” The strange thing that looks like a vacuum cleaner hose is a chloroplast, and its spiral growth habit is what gives these algae their name. There are more than 400 species of Spirogyra in the world, almost always found in fresh water situations. I see it on wet stone fairly regularly. According to what I’ve read, when used medicinally spirogyra are known as an important source of “natural bioactive compounds for antibiotic, antiviral, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and cytotoxic purposes.”

That little black square up ahead is where we’re going, but it won’t be black when we get there.

Our wild cherries should be blooming soon, and the birds will be very happy about the abundance of fruit that will follow.

This is near the area where I saw a huge black bear last year at this time. Since there are high stone ledges and a southern exposure it would stay quite warm here in the winter I would think, and that tells me that it would be a perfect spot for a bear to live. The one I saw here certainly looked like it had been living the high life.

There is even a cave here, way up high in the cliff wall, and it’s plenty big enough for a bear. Thankfully the bear was elsewhere on this day. I carried a can of bear spray but I was very happy that I didn’t have to use it. I’ve been within touching distance of a few wild animals and last year’s encounter is the closest I ever want to be to a bear, but so far they seem to have sensed that I mean them no harm and we’ve gone our separate ways.

This is that black spot we saw in a previous photo and these are the ledges I was interested in visiting. They’re right alongside the trail and all kinds of plants grow here. I believe it’s because the stone is full of lime and the soil is much less acidic than in most other places I visit. Most Southern New Hampshire soil is quite acidic but you do find occasional “sweet spots” like this one.

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) seedlings grew at the base of the ledges. I see lots of these in the spring and I’ll see lots of their orange flowers later on.

I come out here to see wild columbines (Aquilegia canadensis) and there are plenty of them growing on the ledges. On this day most had buds but I didn’t see a single flower, so that means another trip out here this weekend. The spring shades of green are always electric here.

Here was a flower bud. Some buds looked to be close to opening but we aren’t getting a lot of sun lately so I wonder if they’ll be fully opened this weekend.

The spring shoots of smooth Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) absolutely glowed, and it looked like someone had dipped a paintbrush in pure light and painted them there on the ledges. How beautiful they were. Native Americans and early colonists ate these shoots the way we would eat asparagus and they used the plant’s starchy roots in soups and stews, and dried them to make flour for bread. The Chippewa tribe sprinkled the dry roots on hot stones and inhaled the smoke to cure headaches.

Though herb Robert (Geranium robertianum) blooms from spring through October I didn’t see any flowers on this day, even though there were many plants growing at the base of the ledges. Native Americans used this plant medicinally for healing wounds, herpes and skin eruptions. The plant’s common name comes from a French monk who lived in 1000 AD, and who is said to have cured many people by using it. For that reason it is also called Saint Robert’s Herb.

There’s a nice clump of purple trillium (Trillium erectum) here at the base of the ledges and it had two or three blossoms on it this year. Last year there was only one.

One of the flowers looked a little torn but it was still beautiful.

Something I’ve been searching for for a long time are the small blue spring shoots of blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) and this year I found them but I was about a week late and they had grown to about 6 inches high. They had also lost that vivid purplish blue color that they have when they have just come out of the ground. But now I know that next year I need to come a week or so earlier, and I’ll be here.

You can see a little bit of blue on this shoot but I’d bet by this posting the plant has already turned green. The green is kind of a light blueish green. Cohosh means “rough” when translated from Native American Algonquin language, and refers to the knobby root. A tincture of the root was said to start childbirth but science has shown the entire plant to be toxic. It’s shadow over on the right makes me think of an alien creature.

Treasures are hidden away in quiet places. They speak in soft tones and often become silenced as we approach. They don’t beg to be found, but embrace us if we do happen to find them. They are the product of completely ordinary circumstances unfolding in wonderfully extraordinary ways. They are found hidden in the nooks and crannies of our existence; all around us if we quit allowing our attention to be captivated by that which is noisy and listen for that which is quiet and still.
~Craig D. Lounsbrough

Thanks for Stopping in. It’s supposed to be a beautiful weekend here, so why not take a walk in the woods? The beauty and solitude you find there will most likely re-charge your batteries and will certainly help you put things into perspective. Stay safe everyone.

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Last Sunday was the first warm, sunny day we’ve had in over a week so I decided to climb the High Blue trail up in Walpole. It’s actually more of a walk than a climb but with my lungs it does have enough of an uphill slant to get me huffing and puffing.

I saw that the rain we had in Keene the day before had fallen as snow here, and it hadn’t melted in shaded areas. There was no ice though.

Years ago there were hundreds of coltsfoot plants (Tussilago farfara) here but then along came a logging skidder and it plowed them all up. On this day I was happy to see that they had made a small comeback. May they be allowed to spread at will.

I could see a little white in this one, which means it was about to go to seed. I also saw lots of insects buzzing around the flowers.

Hobblebushes (Viburnum lantanoides) grow all along the first leg of the trail. In May these flower buds will open to reveal one of our most beautiful native shrub blossoms. The large white, flat flower heads are very noticeable as they bloom on hillsides along our roads. Botanically speaking the flower head is called a corymb, which is a flat topped disc shaped flower cluster. The name hobblebush comes from the way the low growing branches, unseen under last year’s fallen leaves, can trip up or “hobble” a horse or hiker. George Washington thought so highly of them he planted two at Mt. Vernon.

A huge oak tree had blown over and had taken a good piece of soil with it. It’s always surprising to see how shallow growing tree roots really are. That could be because there is lots of water here and the tree’s roots didn’t have to go deeper searching for it. The hole the uprooted tree left was full of water.

There is a lot of good farmland in Walpole and as this cornfield and hayfield show, much of it is still in use. I’ve seen signs of bear in this spot in the past but I was hopeful that I wouldn’t see any on this day.

Before you know it you’re at the trail head. You can’t miss it.

The trail narrows from here on up.

You can hunt at daybreak here but getting to your hunting spot in the dark can be a challenge, so hunters put small reflecting buttons on the trees. A flashlight will pick them out easily, I would think.

One year the meadow that was here suddenly became a cornfield and the corn attracted animals of all kinds, including bears. I’ve seen a lot of bear droppings all over this area ever since, so I carry a can of bear spray when I come here.

In Keene red maples (Acer rubrum) are producing seeds but up here their buds haven’t even opened yet.

Striped maple buds (Acer pensylvanicum) were also behind their lowland cousins.

As I neared the overlook I saw a new sign, so I decided to explore.

Yes, there were ledges and I could see that the rock pilers had been here, piling their rocks. I’m guessing that they took them from one of the stone walls, which carries a fairly hefty fine if you get caught at it. I’m always at a loss as to why anyone would do this because these piles of rock don’t mark a trail and are meaningless, for the most part.

Other than a nice quartz outcrop there was really nothing here to see; trees blocked any view there might have been.

I left the ledge and kept on toward the summit and as I usually do when I come here, I had to stop at what’s left of the old foundation. I’m not sure who lived up here but they had plenty of courage and were strong people. All of this land would have been cleared then and sheep would probably have lived in the pastures. It was a tough life in what the Walpole Town History describes as a “vast wilderness.” But it was populated; many Native Americans lived here and they weren’t afraid to show their displeasure at losing their land.

There are an estimated 259,000 miles of stone walls in the northeastern U.S., most of which are in New England, and many are here in New Hampshire. The stones were found when the recently cleared pastures were plowed and they were either tossed into piles or used to build walls, wells, foundations and many other necessities of the day. Sometimes entire houses were built of stone but wood was plentiful and easier to work with, so we don’t have too many stone houses from that time. Most of what we see is used in stone walls like this one, which cross and crisscross the countryside in every direction.

This pond on the summit must be spring fed because it never dries up completely, even in drought years when the streams dry up. I always wonder if it was the water source for the family that once lived here.

I always take a photo of the sign when I come here. What it means is that at 1588 feet above sea level the summit is higher than the surrounding terrain, and the view is always blue.

The view was blue on this day but hazy as well. Still, you could just see the ski trails over on Stratton Mountain in Vermont, which is just across the Connecticut River Valley. I sat for a while, thankful that I made it up without meeting up with any bears. I’ve heard that more and more animals are getting used to seeing fewer people these days and everything from squirrels to deer to bear are being seen in towns, walking down city streets and even sunning themselves on lawns. It makes me think that if people suddenly disappeared it wouldn’t take animals long to get used to the silence.  

When I got back to my car I found a winter dark firefly (Ellychnia corrusca) on my door handle. According to Bugguide.net, these fireflies can be a pest in sap buckets in the spring because they like maple sap, and they will also drink from wounds in maple trees. They like to sun themselves on the sunny side of trees or buildings, but this one seemed happy on a car door handle. Most fireflies live as larvae in rotting wood and forest litter near water and stay in the area they were born in, even as adults. They like it warm and humid, and this recent April day was both. They don’t seem to be afraid of people at all; I’ve gotten quite close to them several times.

Close your eyes and turn your face into the wind.
Feel it sweep along your skin in an invisible ocean of exultation.
Suddenly, you know you are alive.
~Vera Nazarian

Thanks for stopping in. Have a safe and happy weekend!

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I saw a plant with pretty little blue flowers on it that I haven’t seen before. I think it might be called heartleaf (Brunnera macrophyllas,) which is also called Siberian bugloss and great forget-me-not. It’s a perennial garden plant native to the Caucasus that apparently prefers shade.

The flowers were very pretty and did indeed remind me of forget-me-nots.

Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) gets its common name from the way chickens peck at it. The plant is in the mint family and apparently chickens like it. The amplexicaule part of the scientific name means clasping and describes the way the hairy leaves clasp the stem. The plant is a very early bloomer and blooms throughout winter in warmer areas. Henbit is from Europe and Asia, but I can’t say that it’s invasive because I rarely see it. I’ve read that the leaves, stem, and flowers are edible and have a slightly sweet and peppery flavor. It can be eaten raw or cooked.

This is the first Forsythia blossom that I’ve seen this year. Forsythias shout that spring has arrived and it’s hard to ignore them because they are everywhere. I think you’d have a hard time finding a street in this town that doesn’t have at least one. Forsythia is a plant that nurserymen agree does not have a fragrance, yet some say they love the plant for its fragrance and others say they can’t stand its odor. I’ve never been able to smell one, but I don’t correct those who think they do. If an imagined fragrance seems real to the person doing the smelling, then so be it. Forsythia is a native of Japan and was under cultivation as early as 1850 in England. It is named after William Forsyth (1737-1804), the Scottish botanist who co-founded the Royal Horticultural Society in London. The shrub is said to forecast the weather because as the old saying goes “Three more snows after the Forsythia shows.” I’m hoping it isn’t true.

I’m seeing a lot of chickweed blooming now. I’m not sure if this is common chickweed, which has shiny leaves or mouse ear chickweed, which has hairy leaves. I do see some hairs but they look like they might be coming from the bracts rather than the leaves. In the end it doesn’t matter because it’s a pretty little thing that I’m always happy to see so early in spring.

One of my favorite spring bulbs is striped squill (Puschkinia scilloides, var. libanotica.) Since blue is my favorite color I’m very happy to see them. But I don’t see many; they border on rare here and I hardly ever see them. The flowers are about the same size as the scilla (Scilla siberica) flowers I think most of us are familiar with. They’re beautiful little things and though catalogs will tell you that the blue stripes are found only on the inside of the blossom they actually go through each petal and show on the outside as well as the inside, as the unopened buds in this photo show. I think it must be their simplicity that makes them so beautiful.

Glory of the snow (Chionodoxa forbesii,) doesn’t appear on this blog very often because I only see it occasionally. They remind me of scilla but the flowers are twice the size. I’ve read that they come from south-west Turkey. Though they are said to be one of the earliest blooming spring bulbs I’ve seen quite a few others that are weeks earlier.

That little crocus in the upper right told me that it was just about time to say goodbye for another year but I didn’t really want to hear it. I’ll be sorry to see them go.

Magnolias are blooming and they aren’t looking too frost bitten. Some of these flowers are intensely fragrant. You can just see one of the beautiful purple buds that these flowers come from off to the left.

Someone remarked that they were surprised that I hadn’t been seeing more pollinators, but seeing them and capturing them with a camera are two different things. I’ve seen plenty of them but so far this is the first that was willing to pose. That blossom in the lower right just wanted to do its own thing, apparently. Obviously a leader and not a follower.

The pollinators are doing their job, judging by the amount of seeds I’ve been seeing.

The purple flowers of ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea), which is in the mint family, have a very light minty scent that isn’t at all overpowering unless you mow down a large patch that has taken over the lawn. Lawns are one of its favorite places to grow and so it has been labeled a terrible weed and kicked to the curb. It is said that nature abhors a vacuum and rushes to fill it. I would add that nature also abhors bare ground and so has plants like ground ivy rush to fill it. That’s something that many don’t understand-if a lawn is doing well and is thick and lush weeds can’t get a foothold and won’t grow because there is too much completion. It isn’t a plant’s fault that its seed fell on a piece of bare ground in what we might call a lawn. 

Gosh I thought, have I never seen bleeding heart foliage? I’ve been in a lot of gardens and yes, I’ve seen lots of dicentra foliage, but never like these. The color was beautiful, I thought.

American elm (Ulmus americana) flowers form in small clusters. The flower stems (pedicels) are about half an inch long so they wave in the slightest breeze and that makes them very hard to get a good photo of. They are wind pollinated, so waving in the breeze makes perfect sense. Each tiny flower is about an eighth inch across with red tipped anthers that darken as they age. The whitish feathery bits seen here and there are the female pistils which protrude from the center of each elm flower cluster. If the wind brings it pollen from male anthers it will form small, round, flat, winged seeds called samaras. I remember them falling by the many millions when I was a boy; raining down enough so you couldn’t even see the color of the road beneath them.

Here is a closer look at the male anthers. They’re a pretty plum color for a short time. Male flowers have 7 to 9 stamens with these dark anthers. Each male flower is about 1/8 of an inch across and dangles at the end of a long flower stalk (Pedicel.)

I keep vacillating between red maple and silver maple when I see seeds (samaras) forming with white hairs on them. I think the answer might be that when very young red maple samaras are bright red with white hairs which are lost as they age, and that’s what is confusing me. You can see the white hairs in these buds which are just showing samaras, but you won’t see them for long because they disappear in just a couple of days. They’re really quite beautiful and worth looking for.

There is a very short time when the first leaf of skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) really does look like cabbage but you wouldn’t want it with your corned beef. It comes by its common name honestly because it does have a skunk like odor. Whether or not it tastes like it smells is anyone’s guess; I don’t know anyone who has ever eaten it. I’ve read that eating the leaves can cause burning and inflammation, and that the roots should be considered toxic. One Native American tribe inhaled the odor of the crushed leaves to cure headache or toothache, but I wonder if the sharp odor didn’t simply take their minds off the pain.

A passing glance might tell you that you had stumbled onto a large group of dandelions, but unless you looked a little closer, you’d be wrong.

A closer look would tell you this isn’t a dandelion at all; it’s a coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara.) One way to tell is the lack of leaves at the base of the flower stalk, because coltsfoot leaves don’t appear until after the flowers have finished blooming. They’re very pretty little flowers but they aren’t with us long. Depending on the weather and how hot it gets I’ve seen them disappear in two weeks. Coltsfoot is native to Europe and Asia and was brought here by early settlers. It has been used medicinally for centuries and another name for it is coughwort.

Coltsfoot flowers are often smaller than dandelions and they are usually flat, rather than the mounded shape of a dandelion. But the real clincher is the stem, which is scaly like that seen here. Dandelion stems are smooth.

Ice out on Half Moon Pond in Hancock came about a month early this year. It’s so nice to see the water again. You can also see a dusting of snow on Mount Skatutakee there in the background. Skatutakee is thought to be an Abenaki (Algonquin) word for fire, according to the book Native American Placenames of the United States By William Bright.

Not even 24 hours before this photo was taken all I saw were buds when I visited the place where the spring beauties (Claytonia virginica) grow, but this day I saw many blossoms. Soon there will be thousands of them carpeting the forest floor. They’re such small flowers; each one is only slightly bigger than an aspirin, but there is a lot of beauty packed into a small package.

I always try to find the flower with the deepest color. I’ve read that it is the amount of sunlight that determines color in a spring beauty blossom. The deeper the shade, the more intense the color, so I look for them in more shaded areas. I’ve seen some that were almost pure white but no matter where I find them they’re always beautiful. Another name for them is “good morning spring.”

I should let everybody know that, though New Hampshire has a “stay at home” order like most states, we are still able to go outside for exercise as long as we don’t do it in groups. I’m lucky enough to still have a job so I’m also outside at work all day and not breaking any rules by bringing the beauty of nature to you each week. I almost always go into the woods alone even without such an order in place and I meet very few people there, so for now there is no real danger involved in keeping this blog going.

We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures. ~Thornton Wilder

Thanks for coming by. Stay safe everyone.  

 

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Last weekend I went up to the deep cut rail trail in Westmoreland to see if any of the hundreds of spring blooming coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) plants that grow here were blooming. A friend of mine likes to use the plants medicinally so I thought I’d find him some, but unfortunately I didn’t see any up yet. But I did see some ice still clinging to the walls and that surprised me, since it has been so warm.

I knew I wouldn’t see any ice climbers here because this ice was rotten and melting quickly.

It was also falling and some of it had reached the trail. This is always cause for a bit of anxiety when walking through here at this time of year.

Most of the ice didn’t have much height, which meant when it fell it couldn’t reach that far into the trail, so I thought it would be safe to stay. I saw and heard plenty of ice falling but it was quite small.

Here was a slab falling away from the wall in slow motion.

These 4 pieces of ice would have filled a pickup truck.

I saw leaves under ice in the shady parts of the drainage channels.

I always like to look up when I’m here. I think it’s good to be reminded how small we are occasionally.

Heartleaf foamflowers (Tiarella cordifolia) were looking happy, lifting their leaves to gather more light.  They’re one of our prettiest late spring flowers and I always find them near water or growing in wet ground along rail trails. They’re easy to spot because of their hairy, maple-like leaves and foot high flower stalks, and a colony as big as the ones found here are a beautiful sight. Native plants have leaves that are bright green at first and then turn a darker green, sometimes mottled with maroon or brown. Many hybrids have been created and foam flowers are now popular in garden centers and are grown in gardens as much for their striking foliage as the flowers. They are an excellent, maintenance free choice for shady gardens that get only morning sun.

The sun highlighted a blackberry cane with last year’s leaves still attached. It isn’t uncommon for blackberries and raspberries to hold onto their leaves all winter. Though some will stay green, most won’t.

The buds on the blackberry canes didn’t look as if they were ready just yet. It stays cool here so plants are slightly behind those that grow outside of this canyon.

Now this could be a conundrum; apple moss (Bartramia pomiformis) gets its name from its round spore capsules, but as you can see here these spore capsules were elongated and more cylindrical that round. But since I also saw round capsules I was sure it was apple moss. Are immature apple moss spore capsules cylindrical? Yes. Were there two mosses here? No. The answers are: apple moss begins its reproduction in the late fall and immature spore capsules (sporophytes) appear by late winter. When the warm rains of spring arrive the straight, toothpick like sporophytes swell at their tips and form tiny globes.

And I mean tiny; apple moss sporophytes are about .06-.08 inches in diameter. Without a macro lens you would need a 10X loupe to see any real detail. The second part of the scientific name, pomiformis, means “apple-like” in Latin.

One of the plants that grows here is the great scented liverwort (Conocephalum conicum,) and they grow on the stones by the thousands. This is the only place I’ve ever seen them and I think that’s because the conditions here are perfect for them. They like to grow in places where they never dry out and the constant drip of the groundwater makes that possible. They like to be wet but they can’t stand being submerged for any length of time so growing on the vertical walls above the drainage channels is ideal. They were heavily “budded” so they should display plenty of new green reptilian lobes later on.

For a long time I thought this was a leafy moss in the Fissidens family but now I suspect it is a leafy liverwort called Plagiochila asplenioides, also known as spleenwort hepatic, because each stem is said to resemble a tiny simple fern. And they are tiny; though the plant itself can grow large each stem from leaf tip to leaf tip is only about 1/8 inch across and the stem itself a mere half inch long. Identifying features include elliptical leaves with the corner nearest where the base meets the stem leading down the stem. Leaf edges have very fine teeth, seen only at 8X or greater magnification. I can see some in this photo, I think. The leaf attachment to the stem is slanted so that the leaf corner that extends down the stem overlaps the top of the leaf below it. All of that helpful information comes from the book Outstanding Mosses of Pennsylvania and Nearby States by Susan Munch. This liverwort loves water and grows in places where water drips constantly on the stones it grows on.

One of the most unusual things growing here are these green algae, called Trentepohlia aurea. Though it is called green algae a carotenoid pigment in the algal cells called hematochrome or beta-carotene color the algae orange by hiding their green chlorophyll. It is the same pigment that gives carrots their orange color. I keep hoping I’ll see it producing spores but I never have.

This natural sculpture was perched in the middle of a drainage channel. It looked like a great blue heron had poked its head up out of the water.

I saw a seed stalk I didn’t recognize. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one like it. The way it opens is interesting and unusual.

The old lineman’s shack has made it through another winter by the looks, but I don’t know how. It seems like more of it is missing each time I see it. Since there was no provision for a woodstove in the building that I can see, I’m guessing this was simply a place to keep tools. I’d also guess that somehow they had to move a lot of snow out of the canyon so the trains could keep running. It would have been quite a job, I imagine, so lots of shovels were probably stored here.

I took another look at the old bridge that’s out in back of the lineman’s shack. It’s far too narrow for cars or trains but it crosses a stream and seems to go nowhere.

But they wouldn’t have gone to this much trouble to go nowhere. I have a feeling I’ve finally figured this mystery out, or have at least come up with a plausible theory.

By the bridge, on the far end, there is a huge pile of broken granite and, since there are massive stone walls here, I’m thinking this is where the stones for the walls were faced. “Facing” a stone means making at least one face flat, and when you stack a lot of flat faced stones together you get a flat faced wall.

These stone walls are some of the largest dry (no mortar) stone walls I’ve ever seen. The space between the walls is narrow; just wide enough for someone to stand aside when a train passed. And I’d guess that nearly every stone would have had to have been faced. That’s why I think the bridge led to where that work was done, and the pile of cut granite is left over from that operation. Small carts full of faced stones could have been pushed across the bridge to a waiting flat car to move the stones down the rail bed to where they were needed. They most likely would have had a rail mounted crane as well. Just a theory yes, but if I had been in charge of building such massive walls that’s what I would have done.

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

Thanks for stopping in. Be well and please stay safe.

 

 

 

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Last Saturday I went into the deep cut rail trail up in Westmoreland to see if I could find some turtlehead blossoms. I know two or three places where they grow but when I checked the other locations I didn’t even see the plants, much less the blossoms. This man made canyon was blasted out of the bedrock in the mid-1800s by the railroad and it has become a hidden gem of nature, with plants growing here that I’ve never seen anywhere else. The section shown above is the northern section; what I think of as the “sterile” part, where it’s too dark for all but a few mosses to grow. I had to boost the ISO on my camera as high as it would go just to get this shot, and it was a sunny, bright day.

When I enter the trail I turn south to follow the part of the trail seen here. It starts with huge retaining walls on both sides of the trail, and they answer the question of what the railroad did with all the stone they blasted out of the canyon. This is a good lesson for all the wall builders out there; you can see how the wall tilts back into the hillside, usually at about 10-15 degrees. This adds to the strength of the wall. Behind most retaining walls here in the northeast you’ll find sand, gravel or other porous material so water will drain away from the wall. In this climate the last thing you want behind your wall is wet soil, because when it freezes and expands in the winter it will tear your wall apart. These walls have stood for 150 years and I’m guessing they’ll still be here hundreds of years from now if people leave them alone.

Lush growth is what you find when you walk south on this trail. Every inch of the trail is filled with plants and it doesn’t end there, because the canyon walls are also covered with plants of all kinds.

One of the first thigs I found was a big, yellow spider. I think it was one of the orb weaver spiders (Argiope.)

Possibly a marbled orb weaver, but I haven’t been able to pin it down. It was weaving with plenty of silken threads as I watched. I know that  some of you get creeped out by spiders but if you can just try to put that aside for a moment and just appreciate their various forms and colors and the intricacies of their webs, and realize that they have a right to a place in this world as much or maybe even more than we have, maybe someday you will be able to get along. With me it isn’t spiders but rats, and I’m trying too.

I saw lots of tall blue lettuce (Lactuca biennis) along the trail and I noticed that the flowers with the deepest shade of blue were those that grew in the deepest shade. The ones that grew in the sunnier spots were much lighter in color. I’ll have to remember that when I look for them next year.

There are also lots of purple flowering raspberry plants (Rubus odoratus) here. Because they have large light gathering leaves they can grow in surprisingly shaded places, and even bloom as this one was doing.

The fruit of the purple flowering raspberry looks, not surprisingly, like a giant raspberry. They’re about the size of the tip of your thumb. I’ve heard that it is close to tasteless but some say if you put a berry on the very tip of your tongue it will be delicious, so I tried it. I can’t say it was tasteless but it seemed a bit sour, with a flavor that is hard to describe. It didn’t taste like a raspberry and I can’t say it was delicious, but that might have been because I was chewing peppermint gum, which I often do on hikes to give my breathing a boost. The gum is very sweet and that might account for the sourness of the berry. I’ll have to try again without the taste of peppermint fresh in my mouth.  

And I saw turtleheads (Chelone glabra linifolia); in fact I saw more blooming plants than I’ve ever seen anywhere else, so they obviously like it here. Turtlehead plants seem to have a problem with diseases and pests. Quite often I see the leaves and flower buds at the top of the plant curl and deform, and there are at least two different species of sawfly larvae that feed on the plant, but nothing seems to bother them much here.

The turtlehead plant gets the first part of its scientific name from Chelone of Greek mythology. She was a nymph who insulted the gods and was turned into a turtle for her trouble. I have a friend who said he immediately thought of a turtle when he saw these flowers but for some reason I never see a turtle when I look at them. I’ve always thought it was interesting how two or more people could look at the same thing and give very different descriptions of what they had seen.

In my last flower post I showed hog peanut (Amphicarpaea bracteata) blossoms. What I didn’t mention was how I had to search high and wide to find them in bloom, and here they were blooming more prolifically than I’ve ever seen. Great handfuls of the small flowers hung from the undersides of the vines.

The berries of false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum) turn from green to red and for a short time they are speckled with both colors, as these were.  I’ve read that soil pH can affect the fruit color. Native American’s used all parts of this plant including its roots, which contain lye and must be boiled and rinsed several times before they can be used. Birds, mice, grouse, and other forest critters eat the ripe berries that grow at the end of the stem. They are said to taste like molasses and another common name for the plant is treacle berry.

Can you be happy and heartsick at the same time? If you’re a summer lover who has just found New England asters blooming the answer is yes, because though the flowers are beautiful they also mean that fall is very near. It’s a season that always seems to sneak up on me and I’m not sure that I’ve ever really been ready for it.

New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) are our biggest and showiest native aster and the large, inch and a half diameter blossoms come in varying shades of purple. Some can be almost white and some are very dark. I like the dark ones but I don’t need to see them right away.

White wood asters (Aster divaricatus) also bloom here in great profusion. Though it is very wet here this plant is known for its drought tolerance, and it will grow under a heavy leaf canopy. The stalked, coarsely toothed, heart shaped leaves help with identifying this plant. The small, half inch flowers of white wood asters can have red or yellow centers. This aster is very easy to grow and makes an excellent choice for a dry shaded woodland garden. It is best used in mass plantings and many nurseries sell native asters grown from seed. Where I work they’re used as under plantings for lilacs, but the choice was theirs and they moved under the lilacs completely on their own.

When I was a boy I loved to read about far off jungles and I dreamed of being a plant hunter. Off I’d go to places no one had ever heard of and I’d bring back plants so beautiful tears of joy would fall when people saw them, and mere words couldn’t describe them. One of the places I read about was fictional but it was still my kind of place, and this place reminds me of it; the Shangri-La that James Hilton wrote about in his book Lost Horizon. He described Shangri-La as an earthly paradise, and that’s what this place seems to me. It sends me away; out of myself into a waking dream, and the beauty and the dream draw me back here again and again.

This is a place where coltsfoot grows on stone, and it can do that because of the constant drip of groundwater. Every plant here has a never ending supply of rich minerals and water, and that’s what makes the place so lush.

The smaller plants growing around the coltsfoot in the previous photo are great scented liverworts (Conocephalum conicum,) and they grow here by the thousands. They are one of the plants that I’ve never seen anywhere else, and they’re one of the reasons I come here.

To get close to the liverworts you have to be willing to walk in the drainage ditches and I wear rubber boots to get through them, but there’s nothing I can do about the falling rocks. You can see them scattered around in this photo and apparently they fall quite regularly. I’ve only seen them fall a couple of times though so I cross my fingers and don’t dilly dally when I’m near the liverwort ledges; a couple of quick photos and I’m out of there.

And then I can come home and admire these beautiful things in a photo. The reptilian appearance is caused by the way its pores and air chambers are outlined on its surface. It is the only liverwort with this feature so it is very easy to identify. And, if you squeeze a small piece and smell it you’ll immediately smell one of the cleanest scents found in nature that I know of. In general liverworts are a sign of very clean water, so that says a lot about the quality of the groundwater in this place.

The great scented liverwort is like one of those plants I used to dream I’d bring back from far away places. It’s such a beautiful thing and it somehow manages to look both plant and animal at the same time. Scientists say that liverworts are like “a canary in a coal mine” because they are very vulnerable to environmental changes and will be one of the first organisms to show the effects of climate change. On this day most of them looked good and healthy. The lighter shade of green signifies new growth, and I saw lots of it.

I’ve walked this trail a hundred times I’d bet, and in all those times I’ve never seen white snakeroot growing here. It wasn’t flowering but that doesn’t matter, because I’d like you to see its leaves. Though its flowers resemble those of boneset, which flowers at the same time, white snakeroot’s (Ageratina altissima) large heart shaped, toothed leaves look nothing like boneset leaves. This plant is very toxic and in the early 19th century it killed thousands of settlers in the Midwest. A compound called trematol is passed from the plant to cows that graze on it and when humans drank the milk before too long they started to show signs of what was called “milk sickness.” In a week or less most would die of heart or liver failure. Abraham Lincoln’s mother died from milk sickness when he was just 9 years old. All parts of the plant are toxic to cattle, horses, sheep, and humans. Today’s farmers eradicate the plant from their pastures and mix the milk from many cows together, so milk sickness is almost unheard of. A Native American woman from the Shawnee tribe is credited with finally warning settlers about this plant and most likely saving thousands of lives.

Individual white snakeroot flowers are small, bright white, and fuzzy, much like those of the boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) flowers shown here. But look closely at the leaf shape and then scroll up and look at the leaves of white snakeroot again and you’ll see that they’re very different. The reason I’m harping about this is because boneset is used medicinally, and if you mistake snakeroot for boneset you could find yourself in dire straits, even in Shangri-La.  

I wonder if everyone who comes through here marvels at the staying power of the old lineman’s shack. It has been slowly picked apart over the years by those wanting boards to bridge the drainage ditches and every time I come here I expect it to be down, but here it stands to this day, over a hundred years later. It’s a testament to the quality workmanship of the railroad workers who once populated this place.

I know paradise has many gates, just as hell does. One has to learn to distinguish between them, or one is lost. ~Henning Mankell

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It got to be sunny and hot for a change last Saturday so I sought out the natural cooling of the deep cut rail trail in Westmoreland. It’s usually about ten degrees cooler in there with almost always a bit of a breeze. After I spent some time in the man made canyon in the above photo I was wishing I had worn something a little warmer, so the natural air conditioner was working. Out there it was 80 degrees F. but in here it felt more like 60.

But that was in the deepest, darkest part of the trail. Once I found some sunlight it warmed to a more pleasant temperature.

I come here quite often at all times of year and each season has much beauty to offer. In spring there is an explosion of growth on the stone walls of the man made canyon, and it always reminds me of the Shangri-La described in the book Lost Horizons by James Hilton. When I was a boy I dreamed of being a world traveling plant hunter who brought back exotic plants from far away places, and in my imagination many of those places looked a lot like this.

Groundwater drips constantly down the stone walls of the canyon and many hundreds of species of plants, mosses, ferns, grasses, liverworts and even trees grow on the stone walls, among them the marsh blue violets (Viola cucullata) seen here.

The violets also grow thickly all along the sides of the trail.

For every thousand blue violets there is a white one. Actually I can’t guess the numbers but white violets are scarce here.

Heart leaf foam flowers (Tiarella cordifolia) also grow here by the thousands. They’re one of our prettiest late spring flowers and I always find them near water or growing in wet ground along rail trails. They’re easy to spot because of their hairy, maple-like leaves and foot high flower stalks, and a colony as big as the ones found here are a beautiful sight. Native plants have leaves that are bright green at first and then turn a darker green, sometimes mottled with maroon or brown. Many hybrids have been created and foam flowers are now popular in garden centers and are grown in gardens as much for their striking foliage as the flowers. They are an excellent, maintenance free choice for shady gardens that get only morning sun.

The strangest thing I saw on this trip was this dandelion stem, which had split in half and curled tightly on either side of the split. I can’t even guess how it might have happened.

I saw a very pretty white moth on a leaf. It had fringe on its wings and that fringe made it easy to identify as the white spring moth (Lomographa vestaliata,) which has a range from Newfoundland west to south-eastern British Columbia and south to Florida and Texas. It likes forest edges.

I saw an unusual flat, antler like fungus growing on a log. The log was down in one of the drainage ditches so I couldn’t get close to it. I haven’t been able to identify it and I wonder if it isn’t a badly degraded bracket fungus from last year. It looked relatively fresh but without touching it, it’s hard to tell.

One of the most unusual things growing here are these green algae, called Trentepohlia aurea. Though it is called green algae a carotenoid pigment in the algal cells called hematochrome or beta-carotene color the algae orange by hiding their green chlorophyll. It is the same pigment that gives carrots their orange color.

Something else unusual is a dandelion growing on stone. I think everyone knows that dandelions have taproots, so how does that work on stone? Maybe there is an unseen crack in the stone that the 4-6 inch long root grew into, I don’t know. Maybe the constant watering means the dandelion doesn’t need a taproot.

I like the fern like leaves of wild chervil (Anthriscus sylvestris) which grows along the trail. Wild chervil is thought to have come over from Europe in wildflower seed mixes. It has been growing in this area since the early 1900s and is considered a noxious weed in places. Wild chervil contains chemical compounds which have been shown to have anti-tumor and anti-viral properties. It isn’t the same plant as cultivated chervil used to flavor soups though, so it shouldn’t be eaten. In many places it is called cow parsley.

Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) also grows along the trail and there are lots of them here, now gone to seed. Coltsfoot is native to Europe and Asia and was brought here by early settlers. It has been used medicinally for centuries and another name for it is coughwort.

So many plants, so little time. The lushness of this place is really quite amazing. Except for the narrow trail nearly every square inch, be it horizontal or vertical, is covered with some type of growth.

One of the plants that grow here are the great scented liverworts (Conocephalum conicum) that grow on the stones by the thousands. This is the only place I’ve ever seen them and I think that’s because the conditions here are perfect for them. They like to grow in places where they never dry out and the constant drip of the groundwater makes that possible. They like to be wet but they can’t stand being submerged for any length of time so growing on the vertical walls above the drainage channels is ideal.

Scientists say that liverworts are like “a canary in a coal mine” because they are very vulnerable to environmental changes and will be one of the first organisms to show the effects of climate change. On this day most of them looked good and healthy. The lighter shade of green signifies new growth, and there was lots of it.

This is one of the most beautiful liverworts in my opinion because of its reptilian appearance, which is caused by the way its pores and air chambers are outlined on its surface. It is the only liverwort with this feature so it is very easy to identify. And, if you squeeze a small piece and smell it you’ll immediately smell one of the cleanest scents found in nature that I know of. In general liverworts are a sign of very clean water, so that says a lot about the quality of the groundwater in this place.

One of the plants growing here that I wasn’t happy to see was garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata.) It’s an invasive plant once used as an edible pot herb. This plant forms large colonies and chokes out natives by poisoning the soil with compounds called glucosinolates that leach into the soil and kill off many soil fungi that native species depend on to survive. It grows from 1-4 feet tall and has a strong but pleasant garlic / onion odor when the leaves are crushed. Garlic Mustard spreads quickly and prefers growing in shaded forests. It isn’t uncommon to find areas where no growing thing can be seen on the forest floor but this plant. It is considered one of the worst invasive species because of its ability to spread rapidly and is found in all but 14 U.S. states, including Alaska and large parts of Canada. Maybe if we all decided to eat it, it would prove to be less of a problem. According to an article I read in the New York Times a few years ago, it’s delicious.

Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) like wet, sunny meadows and open woodlands so it was no surprise to see them growing in drifts as I left the canyon and moved into open meadows. It is said to be an important plant to a number of short-tongued insects that are able to easily reach the nectar in the small yellow flowers. Each flower is only about an eighth of an inch long and has five sepals, five petals, and five stamens. They’re also very difficult to get a good photo of, for some reason.

If I could walk through the canyon with my eyes closed it wouldn’t take too long to reach the old lineman’s shack but since I dilly dally and stop to look at anything that seems interesting and / or beautiful it usually takes a good two hours, so I’ve made what’s left of the shack my turn around point. Picked apart board by board over the years by those wanting to bridge the drainage ditches, it has become a symbol of strength and longevity for me, still standing and bearing heavy snow loads with only two walls left. It was certainly built to last; the the railroad came through here in the mid 1800s.

Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you.
~Lao Tzu

Thanks for coming by.

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All the signs were telling me that the wild columbines should be blooming so last Saturday off I went to the rail trail in Westmoreland. I can’t say that I didn’t have a few misgivings about this hike because the last time I was out here I met up with a very big black bear. Luckily all it did was stare at me and I came away unscathed. Whether or not I would be so lucky this time remained to be seen.

Right off I spotted some coltsfoot blossoms (Tussilago farfara.) I always see them when I’m not looking for them and never when I am but I’m guessing that’s more my fault than theirs. They’re very pretty little things and I was happy to see them on this dreary day. We’ve had rain for so many days in a row I can’t remember when it started and many plants have kept their flowers closed up.

Ferns of all kinds grew all along the drainage ditches, which still work fine 150 years after the railroad built them.

I saw some fuzzy orange grape buds. I’d guess this was probably a river grape (Vitus riparia) because that’s one of our more common native grapes. They’re also called frost grapes because of the way they can stand extreme cold. In nature they climb trees up into the crown where they find plenty of sunlight.

I saw lots of wild sarsaparilla plants (Aralia nudicaulis) just unfurling their leaves. I thought these were red but my color finding software tells me they’re rosy brown, which seems odd. New leaves often display some unexpected colors though, because they aren’t photosynthesizing yet and aren’t using chlorophyll. At this stage many people confuse wild sarsaparilla with poison ivy, which comes up at the same time and has glossy green leaves. The roots of the plant were once used to make root beer but the drink that was called sarsaparilla contained no part of the plant. It was made from birch oil and sassafras root.

As the trail went on I got a little more apprehensive because I was quickly approaching the spot where I ran into that bear. My ears and eyes were working overtime.

Right about here is where it was, I think. I can’t get over how big that bear was. It would have made four of me, and I’m very thankful that it didn’t decide to follow me out of here.

When you meet a bear on this trail you don’t have a lot of options. You can either walk back the way you came or you can try to get down this steep hill to the road. It might take you a half hour to reach the road from here and the bear probably under a minute, so if you meet a bear luck had better be on your side because there’s really nowhere to go. The thing that looks like a toy down there is a Greyhound bus.

I took my mind off bears by admiring beech buds, which were just breaking to reveal the beautiful new leaves, clothed in soft silver downy hairs for just a short while. In my opinion they are one of the most beautiful things you’ll ever see in a New England forest in the spring.

There were many maples already leafed out in many colors. These were the reddest I saw. My color finding software sees fire brick, dark red, and tomato. If these leaves had been mixed in with green leaves I never would have known they were red because for me red disappears when it meets green.

Sedges blossomed all along the trail and the cream colored male stamens stood out against the dead leaves, making them easy to see. The wispy, white female flowers have appeared under them so the male flowers must be producing pollen.

I made it to the ledges where the columbines grow without meeting any bears, so I was half way home. I wish it had been a blue sky day but you can’t have everything.

There were columbines (Aquilegia canadensis) aplenty growing on the ledges and most had buds but I didn’t see a single flower, so that means another trip out here this weekend. I don’t know what the story is with these electric shades of green but this photo is untouched, just the way it came out of the camera. Of course the settings could be wrong on this new camera, but I don’t think so.

Some buds were very close to opening but the sun hadn’t shone in over a week so maybe they were pouting. This one actually looks a little shriveled but I’m hoping I’m wrong about that.

Tall meadow rue fools a lot of people into thinking it’s columbine in early spring because the leaves look somewhat similar, but this plant quickly grows much taller than columbines. Tall meadow rue flowers (Thalictrum pubescens) always bloom close to the 4th of July.

I saw my first Jack in the pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) of the year. This plant likes wet places and is also called bog onion because of its onion like root, which botanically speaking is a corm. I always lift the hood of the spathe to see “Jack,” which is the spadix, and to see the beautiful dark stripes. Another name for this plant is tcika-tape, which translates to “bad sick” in certain Native American tribal language. But they didn’t get sick on the poisonous roots because they knew how to cook them to remove the calcium oxalate crystals that make them toxic. That leads to another common name: Indian turnip.

There’s that loud green again, this time on the leaves of purple trillium (Trillium erectum.) I wonder if it’s because they haven’t received any sunlight. I also wonder if lack of light has caused so few flowers. Last year I think this clump had 6 or 7 flowers on it. This year it has one.

I know I just showed a trillium blossom in my last post but you can’t see too many trillium blossoms, in my opinion. They’re with us just a very short time.

I found the blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) that the bear turned me away from last time. I was too late now to see the new shoots coming up and the plant had no flowers on it, so I’ve simply struck out with cohosh this year. Last year the plant I saw here had quite a few flowers but this plant was in a different spot and I couldn’t find the other one. I’ve got to do more reading about this plant.

Now it was time for the return trip and since I’ve posted this you’ve probably figured out that the bear was off doing bear things and left me alone. I had a porcupine walk across a field and sit at my feet one day, and another time a barred owl let me walk right up to it as it sat in the middle of a trail, so I like to think that forest creatures can sense that I mean them no harm. All I know for sure is that the bear could’ve been on me in seconds but instead did nothing but stare. May all of us always be so fortunate in these woods.

He who would study nature in its wildness and variety, must plunge into the forest, must explore the glen, must stem the torrent, and dare the precipice. ~ Washington Irving

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I had given up on finding any coltsfoot flowers (Tussilago farfara) last week and then there they were, blooming in a roadside ditch. I was thinking that I was just too early but a 70 degree day must have triggered their bloom. But not only them; many flowers appeared literally overnight.

From a distance a coltsfoot blossom might look like a dandelion but the flowers are often smaller than dandelions and they are usually flat, rather than the mounded shape of a dandelion. But the real clincher is the stem, which is scaly like that seen here. Dandelion stems are smooth.

They’re very pretty little flowers but they aren’t with us long. Depending on the weather and how hot it gets I’ve seen them disappear in two weeks. Coltsfoot is native to Europe and Asia and was brought here by early settlers. It has been used medicinally for centuries and another name for it is coughwort.

I went to the place where spring beauties grow last Saturday afternoon and though I saw a plant or two I didn’t see a single blossom. Then on Sunday, less than 24 hours later, there were 5 or 6 blossoms so it has started, and soon there will be thousands of them carpeting the forest floor. They’re such small flowers; each one is only slightly bigger than an aspirin, but there is a lot of beauty packed into a small package. For me spring isn’t really here until I hear the sad fee-bee mating call of the black capped chickadee and see these beautiful little flowers. Now I’ve seen and heard both and there’s no turning back; spring is in my bones.

Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) gets its common name from the way chickens peck at it. The plant is in the mint family and apparently chickens like it. The amplexicaule part of the scientific name means clasping and describes the way the hairy leaves clasp the stem. The plant is a very early bloomer and blooms throughout winter in warmer areas. Henbit is from Europe and Asia, but I can’t say that it’s invasive because I rarely see it. I’ve read that the leaves, stem, and flowers are edible and have a slightly sweet and peppery flavor. It can be eaten raw or cooked.

Fly honeysuckle (Lonicera canadensis) is one of our earliest blooming shrubs and one that not many people see unless they walk in early spring. This example that I saw recently had pink tipped buds but no flowers yet. I’d guess it would be blooming today, but as always that depends on the weather. It’s unusual flowers are joined in pairs and if pollinated they become small, red orange, oval, pointed end berries that are also joined in pairs. The flowers form on branch ends of small shrubs and many songbirds love the berries, so it would be a great addition to a wildlife garden. Look for the flowers at the end of April on the shaded edges of woods.

Red maples (Acer rubrum) are still blooming heavily and their bloom is staggered over thousands of trees, so some years it seems to go on and on. This photo is of the thread like female stigmas that catch the pollen from male trees. Soon they will become seeds; millions of them.

I found a red maple with many thousands of male flowers all blooming at once and for the first time I smelled their sweet fragrance. I had to actually put my nose right into a bud cluster to make sure the fragrance was coming from them, and it was. This tree was amazing, and just look at all that pollen.

I wish everyone could see and smell a red maple in bloom. It’s something they wouldn’t soon forget.

This box elder, another member of the maple family, was just opening its buds. Box elders (Acer negundo) have beautiful lime green female flowers and I can’t wait to show them to you.

American elm trees (Ulmus americana) are also flowering, as this shot of the male flowers shows. Though both male and female flowers appear in the same cluster on elms I didn’t see any female flowers on this example, which was one of only a handful that I could reach. Female flowers are white and wispy like feathers and male flowers have 7 to 9 stamens with dark reddish anthers. Each male flower is about 1/8 of an inch across and dangles at the end of a long flower stalk (Pedicel.)

Willows (Salix) are another plant that decided to bloom overnight. Last week these buds were still gray and fuzzy and showed no color at all. Now both male and female flowers are everywhere. These are the male blossoms seen here. They’re the showiest.

The female willow blossoms were just showing color last week and here they are on the same plant already becoming seed pods. Once it starts it happens fast, so if you want to see spring in all its wondrous forms you really have to be outside each day.

Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) was trying but still wasn’t looking much like cabbage to me. I hope I can find some of the fruit this year. I’ve never seen one and I’m guessing that their rarity must be due to most of the flowers not being pollinated.

I recently said that I thought an in-ground sprinkler system installed last fall at a local park must have destroyed the only striped squill (Puschkinia scilloides, var. libanotica) that I know of, but last weekend they were all up and blooming beautifully. Since blue is my favorite color I’m very happy to see them. But I don’t see many; they border on rare here and I hardly ever see them. Though catalogs will tell you that the blue stripes are found only on the inside of the blossom they actually go through each petal and show on the outside as well as the inside, as the unopened buds will show. The flowers on this spring flowering bulb are about the same size as the scilla (Scilla siberica) flowers I think most of us are familiar with. They’re beautiful little things.

These are the first Forsythia blossoms I’ve seen this spring but they certainly won’t be the last. Soon they’ll be blooming on every street in the region. Overused? Yes, but try to imagine spring without them.

The Cornelian cherries (Cornus mas) are hedging their bets and waiting just a little longer before opening their small, waxy yellow flowers. I’d guess another week before we see them.

Bees have suddenly appeared and though this one wouldn’t pose for the camera I think it was a honeybee. I haven’t seen a bumblebee yet but I have seen hoverflies and many other insects.

Magnolias have also started to bloom, with only a handful of blossoms on each tree. This one had beautiful deep pink buds which opened to paler pink flowers.

The pretty white crocuses with purple on the outsides of their petals are still blooming but this will probably be the last time we’ll see them this year. Last week I saw a bed with hundreds of crocuses blossoming in it and by this week they had almost all gone by.

Daffodils of all color combinations have just started blooming.

As I said earlier I’m afraid it might be time to say goodbye to crocuses already so I’ll end this post with this little beauty. For a flower that is with us for such a short time their impact seems huge. They’re another flower that it’s hard to imagine going without in spring.

The spring came suddenly, bursting upon the world as a child bursts into a room, with a laugh and a shout and hands full of flowers. ~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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