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Posts Tagged ‘Dogwood Fall Color’

Last weekend I thought I’d visit a few places along the Ashuelot River in Keene and Swanzey to see if there were any fall colors showing yet. I saw a few, though I really hoped it was still too early for fall.

I even saw signs of fall up in the trees already. As I’ve said here many times, spring and fall start on the forest floor and work their way through the shrubby understory to the trees. To see it already in some of the trees was a bit disconcerting.

Here was a beautiful wild sarsaparilla plant (Aralia nudicaulis) on the forest floor that was sticking to the plan. This is where I expect to see fall first, and sarsaparilla is always one of the first forest floor plants to change. Most turn yellow but this one felt like purple would do best.

Native dogwoods of the shrubby understory are also starting to change. They’re often one of the first shrubs to turn and will often turn purple.

Another shrub that’s beginning to change is the invasive burning bush (Euonymus alatus.) These understory shrubs can take a lot of shade and can form monocultures in the forest. They in turn cast enough shade so natives can’t get a start.  Burning bushes often turn unbelievable shades of pink and a forest full of them is truly an amazing sight. Their sale and cultivation is banned in New Hampshire but there are so many of them in the wild they’ll always be with us now.

Last time I saw this butterfly I had a very hard time identifying it and finally settled on silvery checkerspot, but several of you knew it as a pearly crescent. Then someone wrote in and said they were fairly sure it was indeed a silvery checkerspot, so I’ll leave it up to you to decide. To be honest I just enjoy seeing butterflies and don’t really need to know their names to love them.

This one I did know; a cabbage white butterfly rested on a Virginia creeper leaf. This species is originally from Europe along with quite a few of the cabbage family of plants that their caterpillars feed on.

Of course there were turtles. There are almost always turtles to be seen along the Ashuelot. In the fall this turtle would be looking out upon a blaze of flaming red maples in this spot but on this day all we saw was green.

I saw plenty of flowers along the river, including this aster that I’ve been too lazy to try to identify.

I hate to say it but when I was a boy this river was so polluted you could hardly stand the smell in high summer. I’ve seen it run orange and purple and green, and any other color the woolen mills happened to be dyeing with on any particular day. I’ve seen people dump their trash on its banks and I’ve seen it close to dead, with only frogs, turtles and muskrats daring to get near it. But after years of effort it is clean once again and eagles fish for trout and other freshwater fish along its length. It no longer smells and though you can still find an occasional rusty can or broken bottle it is far cleaner than it was when I was growing up. Or so I thought; when I was a boy you could step in the mud at the river’s edge and see oil accumulating in your footstep, just like it did in the photo above. How long will it take to clean that up, I wonder? It’s a hard thing to see, after all these years.

But the plants don’t seem to mind. Blue vervain (Verbena hastata) is just about done this year but I still loved seeing the few pretty little flowers that were left. This plant can get quite tall under the right conditions but it’s fussy about where it grows. It likes wet soil and full sun, which means I almost always find it near water. Its bitter roots were used by Native Americans to treat gastric irritation and some tribes roasted them and ground them into flour. Others dried the flowers and used them as snuff to stop nosebleeds. This is one of the plants they introduced to the Europeans and they used it in much the same way.

Ducks and many other birds feed on the seeds of buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) and the ones on this plant were almost gone. This native shrub grows all along the river and I see it fairly often. Each puffy bit that looks like a bladder is what a fertilized flower turns into and each should hold two black seeds.

Hairy galls on buttonbush leaves are caused by the buttonbush mite (Aceria cephalanthi.) There are over 900 species of the nearly microscopic Aceria insects that are identified by the host plants they feed on.

Nodding bur marigolds (Bidens tripartita) grew along the shore with smartweeds like tearthumb. I just featured this plant in my last post so I won’t go on about it, other than to say that the way to tell how old the flowers are is by their position. As they age they nod and point toward the ground, so it’s safe to assume that these flowers were relatively freshly opened.

Mad dog skullcaps (Scutellaria laterifolia) are still blooming, I was surprised to see. This plant was unusual because of its one flower. They always bloom in pairs and I must have gotten there just after one of this pair had fallen. They love to grow on grassy hummocks near rivers and ponds and that’s where I always find them. The skullcap part of the common name comes from the calyx at the base of the flower, which is said to look like a medieval skull cap. The plant was once thought to cure rabies, and that is where the mad dog part of the common name comes from. This plant contains powerful medicine so it should never be eaten. When Native Americans wanted to go on a vision quest or a spirit walk, this was one of the plants they chose to get them there.

Giant foxtail grass (Setaria faberi) is a large annual grass that can form large colonies. Its nodding, bristly, spike like flower heads and wide leaves make it easy to identify. The flower heads go from light green to straw colored as they age.

I think pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) goes from flower to fruit quicker than any plant I know of. These berries were overripe and stained my fingers purple when I touched them. The birds usually eat them right up and I was surprised to find so many on this plant. Science says that humans should never eat the berries or any other part of the plant because it’s considered toxic, but people do eat the new shoots in spring. Native Americans used the plant medicinally and also used the juice from the berries to decorate their horses.

My favorite part of the pokeweed plant is the tiny purple “flower” on the back of each berry. The flower is actually what’s left of the flower’s five lobed calyx, but it mimics the flower perfectly. I just noticed that this calyx has six lobes rather than five. That’s the first time I’ve ever seen more than five.

A hedge bindweed (Calystegia sepium) found its way to the top of a pokeweed plant to get more sunlight. Pokeweeds can get 5 or 6 feet tall so the bindweed got a lot closer to the sun than it would have normally been able to.

And here was something new; at least, it was new to me. I can’t believe I’ve walked the banks of this river for over 50 years and have never seen native swamp smartweed (Persicaria hydropiperoides.) This plant is also called false water pepper or mild water pepper and is the only smartweed I’ve ever seen that had most of its flowers open at once. You’re usually lucky to find one or two open on a smartweed.

From what I’ve read even botanists have a hard time with this one because the plant is so variable, probably because of cross breeding. The pretty pinkish white flowers are quite small; less than an eighth of an inch across.  They remind me of the sand jointweed flowers that I featured in the last post, right down to the plum colored anthers.

No, I haven’t put the same shot of the Ashuelot River in this post twice. This one looks upriver from a bridge and the one at the start of the post looks downriver. I couldn’t decide which one I liked best so you get to see both of them. I hope you like one or the other. They show how the green is starting to lighten and fade from a lot of the leaves.

This was one of those perfect New England days in late summer where the spirit of autumn takes a first stealing flight, like a spy, through the ripening country-side, and, with feigned sympathy for those who droop with August heat, puts her cool cloak of bracing air about leaf and flower and human shoulders. ~Sarah Orne Jewett

Thanks for stopping in.

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