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Posts Tagged ‘Keene’

Fall has slowly been making its presence known here in this part of New Hampshire and Half Moon Pond in Hancock is one of the best places to see it happen, because it always comes here before anywhere else that I know of. I’m not sure what the trees on the other side of the pond are but they always turn very early. The trees on this side of the pond are mostly maples.

And maples are changing too. I found this one in Swanzey.

Not only are leaves changing, they’re dropping as well.

River grapes (Vitis riparia) have ripened and hang in great bunches from the vines. If they aren’t all eaten they will begin to over-ripen and on warm fall days they make the forest smell just like grape jelly. River grapes are known for their ability to withstand cold and have been known to survive -57 degrees F. That makes them a favorite choice for the rootstock of many well-known grape varieties. We have about 20 native species of wild grape in the U.S. and Native Americans used them all. The fruit is usually too acidic to eat from the vine so they mostly made juice and jelly from them. They were also used to dye baskets a violet gray color.

Virginia creeper vines (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) climb high in the trees to reach as much sunshine as they can. They aren’t noticed for most of the year but when their leaves start to turn they can’t be ignored. Virginia creeper berries are poisonous to humans but many birds and small animals eat them. My mother loved this vine enough to grow it on the side of the house I grew up in. It shaded the porch all summer long.

Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) is another vine that climbs to the top of trees for sunlight but unlike our native vines this one is highly invasive and damages the trees it climbs on. It is the yellow leaved vine in this photo and it is slowly strangling an ash tree.

Black locusts (Robinia pseudoacacia) are trees that often change early. In June these trees are loaded with white, very fragrant blooms that hang down like wisteria blossoms. Black locusts were prized by colonial Americans for their tough, rot resistant wood. In 1610 colonists found black locust trees planted beside Native American dwellings and thought the Natives were using the tree as an ornamental, so they decided to use it that way as well .They also used the wood for ship building, forts and fence posts while the Natives used it to make bows and blow darts. It was once said to be the toughest wood in all the world and was one of the first North American trees exported to Europe.

The invasive burning bushes (Euonymus alatus) along the Ashuelot River will go from green to red, and then will finally become a soft pastel pink to almost white. Right now they’re in their loud orange / red / yellow stage. It’s too bad they’re so invasive because they really are beautiful, but they dominate the understory and create so much shade nothing else can grow.

A few burning bush leaves had already changed to pastel pink. I’ve seen thousands of these shrubs along the river drop their leaves overnight when the weather is cold enough and I’m hoping that doesn’t happen this year so I can show them to you in their pastel pink stage. When hundreds of them are this color it really is a beautiful sight.

I chose a swamp in Swanzey to show you what happens to white pines (Pinus strobus) in the fall. Many evergreens change color in the fall and many lose their needles. The row of pines are the taller trees in the distance in this photo, looking somewhat yellow brown.

These examples of fall color grew right at the edge of the swamp.

Dogwoods also grow in the swamp, and along with blueberries they often make up most of the red you see.

Native little bluestem grass (Schizachyrium scoparium) catches the sunlight and glows in what are usually luminous pink ribbons but every now and then you see patches of deep purple, as this example was. This common grass grows in every U.S. state except Nevada and Washington and is beautiful enough to be grown in many gardens. After a frost it often takes on a darker reddish purple hue, but we haven’t had a frost yet.

It’s the way its seed heads capture and reflect sunlight that makes little bluestem glow like it does.

Here is the same view from a different angle. I’ve learned that if you want to have blue river water in your photos you should photograph it with the sun behind you, and now I’m wondering if the same isn’t true with some grasses.

Virgin’s bower seed heads (Clematis virginiana) light up shady spots at this time of year and sometimes you can see hundreds of them together. Virgin’s bower is a native clematis that has small white flowers in late summer. An extract made from the plant is hallucinogenic (and dangerous) and was used by Native Americans to induce dreams. Mixed with other plants like milkweed, it was also used medicinally. It is a very toxic plant that can cause painful sores in the mouth if eaten.

Pokeweed berries (Phytolacca americana) are beautiful when they ripen to their deep purple-black. I love seeing the little purple “flowers” on the back of pokeweed berries. They are actually what’s left of the flowers’ five lobed calyx, but mimic the flower perfectly. People do eat its new shoots in the spring but all parts of this plant are considered toxic, so it’s wise to know exactly what you’re doing if you choose to try it. Native Americans used the plant medicinally and also used the red juice from its berries to decorate their horses. Recently scientists found that the red dye made from the berries can be used to coat solar cells, increasing their efficiency.

Why it is that in a field of thousands of goldenrod plants one or two will turn deep purple while the rest remain green is a question I can’t answer, but that’s often what happens. The plants somehow just decide to stop photosynthesizing earlier than all of their cousins.

We have several different varieties of sumac here and from what I’ve seen all are very colorful in the fall. This is smooth sumac (Rhus glabra.) At least I think so; I didn’t pay real close attention when I took the photo. It could also be shining sumac (Rhus copallinum.)

Most staghorn sumacs (Rhus typhina) are still green but this one had already gone to red. Sumacs are one of our most colorful shrubs in the fall. They can range from lemon yellow to pumpkin orange to tomato red, and anything in between. Once fall starts there is no stopping it and soon people from all over the world will come to enjoy it. I’ll do my best show you all of this incredible beauty that I can.

Why is it that so many of us persist in thinking that autumn is a sad season? Nature has merely fallen asleep, and her dreams must be beautiful if we are to judge by her countenance. ~Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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Our biggest and showiest aster, the New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae,) has just started blooming this week and I’m seeing lots of my favorite one, which is of the deepest purple. They come in much paler shades of purple and the paler ones are easier to find, but I always search for the dark ones.

They’re a very beautiful flower and as asters go they’re the easiest to identify because of the big blossoms and tall plants. You can easily spot them across a field. Native Americans burned both flowers and leaves of many aster species in their sweat lodges. The smoke was said to revive the unconscious and was used to treat mental illness, nosebleeds, and headaches.

Here is a paler example.

Monarch butterflies certainly like New England asters, as do bumblebees.

A cabbage white butterfly liked this particular aster, which I haven’t been able to identify. There are over 100 species of aster and as I tried to identify this one I found one site where even botanists were throwing up their hands in defeat. I decided a long time ago that life was simply too short to try to identify all the asters, goldenrods, and small yellow flowers out there, so I just enjoy them.

The cabbage white obligingly opened its wings for me.

As I was searching for dark purple asters I found a new place where there were hundreds of slender gerardia (Agalinis tenuifolia) plants growing, and still blooming. The tiny purple flowers would be easy to miss if it weren’t for the large numbers of them on each willow leaved plant. It has the odd habit of dropping all its flowers each afternoon and opening a new crop the next morning, so you have to catch it before noon if you want to see unblemished blooms.

This nodding bur marigold plant (Bidens tripartita) grew along the river’s edge It’s a plant that likes wet feet and often grows in standing water.

This nodding bur marigold blossom was unusual with its smooth petals. They’re usually quite deeply pleated. The flowers usually look something like a miniature sunflower and are supposed to be good for honey production. The plants usually grow to about knee high, but I have seen them waist high as well. I find them  at the edges of rivers and ponds, sometimes in quite large numbers.

I often find purple stemmed beggar’s ticks (Bidens connata) growing in the wet soil at the edges of ponds and rivers too. They’re a close relative of the nodding bur marigold in the previous photos and I often find them growing side by side.

Purple stemmed beggar’s ticks have curious little yellow orange ray-less disc flowers that never seem to fully open and dark, purple-black stems. It is also called water hemp because of the leaf shape. The name beggar’s tick comes from its barbed seeds that stick to fur and clothing like ticks. It is an annual that grows new from seed each year.

This is what the purple stem of purple stemmed beggar’s ticks looks like. The name fits.

I usually find wild radish (Raphanus raphanistrum) in the spring or early summer, so I was surprised when I found about twenty plants all in bloom. The plants I find always have pale yellow flowers similar in color to those of the sulfur cinquefoil (Potentilla recta) but they can also be white or pink. I almost always find it growing at the edges of corn fields, not because it likes growing with corn but because it likes to grow in disturbed soil. Everyone seems to agree that this is a non-native plant but nobody seems to know exactly where it came from or how it got here.

Blue stemmed goldenrod (Solidago caesia) appears early on in summer but waits until September to bloom. Its stems grow vertically until the flowers begin to open and then they fall over into a more horizontal position, as if to show off the yellow blooms that grow in tufts all along the stem. This plant isn’t considered rare but I know of only one or two places where it grows. It is also called wreath goldenrod.

The stems of blue stemmed goldenrod get their blue color from the same natural wax coating that is found on grapes, plums, blueberries and other plants. The coating is called a bloom and plants use it as a form of protection against moisture loss. It’s made up of tiny powdery, whitish crystals which reflect and scatter light in ways that can make the surface that they cover appear very blue. I couldn’t find a stem that was blue this year because the wax crystals can be washed off by rain or melted by the sun, and we’ve had some very hot weather this summer. All of the stems were green this time, so I used this photo from 2015 to show you what the stems would normally look like.

Downy goldenrod (Solidago puberula) plants reach about a foot and a half tall on a good day, but some books say they will reach 3 feet. The narrow, stalked flower heads (panicles) grow on (usually) unbranched plants that live at the edges of forests in dry sandy soil. Though still small the bright yellow 1/4 inch flowers of downy goldenrod seem big when compared to other goldenrod flowers. 9-16 ray petals surround the central disc. Native Americans used goldenrod for treating colds and toothaches and it has been used for centuries in to treat kidney stones and urinary tract infections. In colonial times goldenrod growing naturally by the cottage door meant good fortune.

The white heath aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides) is a plant that is so loaded with small white flowers along its stems that it doesn’t look as if you could fit one more on it. For that reason it has another common name; the many flowered aster. It is also called small white aster, smooth white aster, and old field aster. 

There are many asters that look alike and to complicate matters they cross breed and create natural hybrids. One of the features that help with the identity of the heath aster is how it has nearly every inch of free stem covered by a blossom, all of them on the sunny side of the stem. The shrubby little plants are about knee high and I find them growing in unmown fields and pastures. The blossoms are fairly small; 1/4 to 1/2 inch across at best.

Friends of mine grew this red sunflower in their garden. I think it’s the first completely red one I’ve seen.

I don’t see too many mallow plants but I saw what I think was a musk mallow (Malva moschata) growing on a roadside. Since it’s another plant that is originally from Europe it was probably a garden escapee, but you could hardly call mallows invasive. I see them once in a blue moon. They’re quite big and pretty flowers.

I think it must be time to say goodbye to pretty little forked blue curls (Trichostema dichotomum.) These little beauties get barely ankle tall and like to grow in sandy soil in full sun. I was surprised to see them blooming this late.

Lots of people see forked blue curl flowers but what they don’t see are the tiny seed pods, all decked out in their fall colors. Each seed pod has four tiny round, dimpled seeds. Since the plant is an annual it relies heavily on these seeds to germinate the following year.

Out in the open field of flowers I could feel the sun and see how every golden blossom faced the light… I knew that if I stayed there long enough, the flowers would follow the path of the sun across the sky. It seemed like they knew what they were doing, and at least for a little while, I wanted to be part of that.
~Kimberly Sabatini

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By this time last year I had done two mushroom posts but this year I haven’t done any and that’s because it has been so dry from June on. Things are just starting to change and were getting some beneficial rain each week, and that means fungi of all kinds are just starting to show. Though the Indian pipes above are not fungi they grow in the same places and when I see them I know that I should start looking for mushrooms.

One of the first mushrooms to show in the late summer are purple cort mushrooms (Cortinarius iodeoides.) Young examples are very purple and lighten as they age. Squirrels and chipmunks won’t touch this one, possibly because it’s covered with a very bitter slime. This slime often makes the young examples look wet. Slugs don’t have a problem eating it and I often see white trails on the caps where they have eaten through the purple coating to the white flesh below.

I’ve known for a long time that purple cort caps lightened as they aged but I didn’t know they started at the center and worked outward. This is the first time I’ve ever seen a darker ring like this.

If they’re small, sticky and orange with bell shaped caps and grow on a cluster on a log they must be orange mycena mushrooms (Mycena leaiana.) These little (less than an inch across) mushrooms fruit from June through September and are fairly common. If you touch them the orange color will stain your fingers. Mycena mushrooms also come in bright red, pink and purple. Some also bleed a blood colored latex when cut.

I love this orange crust fungus (Stereum complicatum) and look for it every year at this time. It’s color is so bright it’s like a beacon in the woods and it can be seen from quite far away on fallen branches. The complicatum part of its scientific name means “folded back on itself” and that is often just what it does.

Though there are bolete mushrooms with gills most have pores. I think these examples were the flaming gold bolete (Pulveroboletus auriflammeus,) which have a mycorrhizal association with oaks. I think the white spots are slug damage which have molded over. Some boletes are edible but many are not so if you plan on eating mushrooms of any kind you should know them well. You get know them well by going on mushroom hunts with qualified mushroom foragers or, if you’re very lucky, by knowing a mycologist.

Violet toothed polypore (Trichaptum biformis) looks a little like the turkey tail fungus (Trametes versicolor,) and I’m fairly certain that I have misidentified it as such here on this blog. Once you get to know the two though, it’s obvious that the purple edges on these are not found on turkey tails.

The undersides of violet toothed polypores are a beautiful lilac purple color, and it’s easy to see where the “toothed”  part of the common name comes from. The teeth on toothed fungi are usually simply folds of tissue that hang like teeth. With mushrooms its all about increasing the spore bearing surface, be it by gill, pore or folded tissue because more spores mean a better likelihood of the continuation of the species.

I saw a log that had beautiful burl markings on it and when I got close enough to take a photo a frog jumped off it and landed in the leaves. The frog had blended into the burl so well that I hadn’t even seen it, and I suppose that was its point. I was so fascinated I forgot to get a photo of the burl, but I did get a frog portrait. It had hemlock needles stuck all over itself from being in the woods instead of in the water where its webbed feet told me it belonged.

A monarch butterfly chrysalis dangled from a blackberry cane like a jewel. I wish I could have stayed and watched as the butterfly emerged. The life cycle of this butterfly starts with egg, which hatches into the caterpillar. The caterpillar becomes the pupa (chrysalis), and the adult butterfly emerges from the chrysalis to start the cycle over again. Monarch butterflies can go through four life cycles per year.

This is the caterpillar of the American dagger moth, named for the dagger like markings on their wings. Dagger moths usually live in swampy woodlands and eat the leaves of many different tree species. When they can’t eat an entire leaf they cut it from the branch so it doesn’t give away its presence to birds. It is said that seeing half eaten leaves under a tree is a sign that one of these caterpillars might be above you.

Friends of mine have an invasion of Mexican bean beetles on their string beans. Though it looks like a ladybug it’s an orange yellow color. According to what I’ve read “The newly emerged adult is of a straw or cream-yellow color. Shortly after emergence, eight black spots of variable size appear on each wing cover, arranged in three longitudinal rows on each wing cover. The adults darken with age until they become an orange-brown with a bronze tinge, at which time the black spots are less conspicuous.”

Larva of the Mexican bean beetle is spiky and yellow. A few hours after molting, the tips of the spines become darker, so I’m guessing this one had gone through a recent molt; one of four molts during its development. It was found on the underside of a bean leaf. Both larva and adult beetles will feed on leaves, flowers and bean pods. One sign you may have them is having bean leaves with a lace like appearance.

This grasshopper that I haven’t been able to identify is at least the third one from this particular family of grasshoppers to live at my house and I see them every year at about this time on various pieces of wood. I’ve shown one of them before on this blog, saying at the time that I thought it was stuck in a crack in a 2 X 4. But it wasn’t stuck; it put its ovipositor in the crack to lay its eggs. Everything I’ve read about grasshoppers says that they lay their eggs in soil, but apparently the grasshoppers that live here  didn’t get the memo because they’ve been doing what you see this one doing for years.

Here is a better shot of its ovipositor buried in a wooden post. The first time I saw this I thought that grasshopper was stuck in a crack and when I tried to help it out it actually fought me and wriggled its ovipositor back in the crack. Do you see all the wood chips around it? I can’t find any information about grasshoppers being able to drill holes in wood, but scroll on.

Here is the hole the grasshopper drilled into the post. The thing that fascinates me about this is how they’ve returned to the same spot for at least three years now to lay their eggs at my house. Do they return to the same place each year to spawn like salmon? I can’t find answers to any of the questions I have about this but I can say that they have no fear of me and will sometimes even let me touch them without hopping off. The other day when it rained the one in these photos (I think) was sitting under the eaves so it wouldn’t get wet, and still sat there as I walked by it. It seems like very strange behavior for an insect, but what do I know? If you’ve ever heard of anything like this I hope you’ll let me know.

There isn’t anything strange about a great blue heron pretending to be a statue. They do it all the time and they have taught me a lot about patience. They have also shown me that they have far more patience than I do because I usually give up waiting for them to do something interesting and move on.

The berries of silky dogwood are turning from green to white to blue, and in the middle of that ripening process some of the berries are white and blue at the same time, as these berries show. I’ve always wondered if that’s where the ancient Chinese got the idea for their beautiful blue and white porcelain. That’s a question that will most likely never be answered but I’d say that it is a fair bet that most if not all ancient innovations came from studying nature. One need only to look at the spiral as an example; it is found in everything from the center of a sunflower to the shape of a hurricane to the Archimedes screw, and spirals have fascinated mathematicians, scientists, and artists for thousands of years.

The pretty little berries of bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) always remind me of tiny roma tomatoes, but you don’t want them in your spaghetti sauce because the plant is toxic. It contains solanine, which is the same toxic substance found in many members of the nightshade family including deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna.) Ripe berries are usually less toxic than the leaves and unripe berries, but even ripe berries can be poisonous. Though ancients used certain nightshades to poison each other not all nightshades are poisonous; tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplant are also in that family.

A blue flag iris seed pod (Iris versicolor) had just opened when I stumbled across it. It looked like it had rows of menacing teeth and that might be a good thing considering this is another plant which, though very beautiful, carries names like dagger flower, dragon flower, and poison flag. Those who gather the roots of cattails have to be very careful not to gather the roots of blue flags along with them because this plant, like all irises, is toxic.

I think, even as a boy walking along the railroad tracks, that the startlingly beautiful blue of black raspberry canes always brought me a certain amount of joy. They were one of the things that taught me to just stop for a moment to enjoy what I saw, and I still have that habit today. As I’ve said here before, if you can find joy in the simple things in this life you’ll be full of joy no matter where you go, and I hope everyone has time to experience the joy and wonder that such simple things can bring.

In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks. ~John Muir

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We’re almost at that point of peak flower production now as this view across a stream shows. Goldenrod, tall asters, Joe Pye weed, boneset, and purple loosestrife can all be seen here. We’re still waiting on New England asters but it shouldn’t be long.

The funny little plants called false dandelion (Hypochaeris radicata) have appeared in force and I’m seeing them everywhere. This plant gets its name from its resemblance to the dandelion, but it would be hard to mistake one for the other. The flowers are about half the size of a true dandelion and they bob around on long, wiry stems. At a glance you might think you were seeing a hawkweed flower when you look at a false dandelion flower because they’re close to the same size. One look at the leaves however, will show you that you’re seeing something entirely different because they resemble those of the dandelion more than hawkweed foliage. Hawkweed and false dandelion also bloom at different times, which helps when trying to identify them.

False dandelion leaves look like miniature versions of dandelion leaves and are nowhere near as wide or as long.

White wood asters (Aster divaricatus) lined a woodland path and made a pretty walk even prettier.

I always find silverrod in dry, gravelly places at the edge of the woods near the end of August. It’s hard to get a photo of because it’s usually surrounded by other plants and rarely grows alone. It grows about knee high and isn’t seen anywhere near as often as the yellow goldenrods.

I think almost everyone knows what goldenrod looks like but not everyone has seen silverrod. Silverrod (Solidago bicolor) is in the goldenrod family and is also called white goldenrod. It is the only native white flowered goldenrod found in the northeast. The small flowers spiral up the stem and open from the top down.

Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) is a European native that has been cultivated for centuries, even grown in the herb gardens of Charlemagne. It was brought from England by early colonists and by 1785 it had naturalized in New England. The flat flower heads are made up of many button like disc flowers; almost like a daisy without the white ray flowers that we call petals. Tansy is a natural insect repellent and has historically been used as such. Dried tansy added to the straw in mattresses was said to keep bedbugs away. I rarely see it in nature but it can still be occasionally found growing along roadsides. It’s a good plant to use in vegetable gardens for pest control. The ancient Greeks grew tansy for medicinal use but modern science has found it to be toxic.

White rattlesnake root (Prenanthes alba) can be tough to identify because even plants growing side by side can have differently shaped leaves, but once they bloom identification becomes much easier. I can’t think of another plant that has small, drooping white, lily like blossoms at this time of year. The half inch flowers appear in clusters at the end of branched stems that can reach 5 or 6 feet in some cases, and have forked stamens that are longer than the petals. The plant gets its common name from the Native American belief that it could cure rattlesnake bites.

I saw a hosta recently in a park that was just another plain green unremarkable plant, but the reason I’m showing it here is because of its huge white flowers.

This hosta had the biggest flowers I’ve ever seen; at least three times the size of a “normal” flower.

I decided to visit Meetinghouse Pond in Marlborough one day to see what was growing there this year. Last year I found some really interesting plants there.

One of the first things I noticed at the pond was a big bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare,) all in bloom. I don’t usually see them bloom like this. They usually have two or three flowers and many closed buds waiting in the wings. You can see a bee loving the flower over in the upper left quadrant.

Asters grew in standing water at the shoreline. For that reason and the fact that the small, sword shaped leaves had no stems (petioles) I think they were bog asters (Oclemena nemoralis.) Each unbranched stem grew to about a foot tall and  had a single, light purple flower at its tip.

No matter what their name the flowers were beautiful. Because the plant usually grows in thickets in wet, swampy areas many people never see them.

This pond is the only place I know of to find native sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale.) I’ve never seen it anywhere else in the wild and I don’t know how it got here, but it was worth the drive to see it.

Sneezeweed’s common name comes from its dried leaves being used as snuff. It was inhaled to cause sneezing  because sneezing was thought to rid the body of evil spirits and both men and women used it. The Helenium part of the scientific name comes from Helen of Troy. One  legend regarding the plant says that it grew wherever her tears fell.

Sneezeweed has curious winged stems and this is a good way to identify them. It is a poisonous plant and no part of it should be eaten. It also contains compounds that have been shown effective in the treatment of tumors. The Native American Cherokee tribe used the plant medicinally to induce sneezing and as an aid in childbirth.

Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) still blooms here and there but it’s pretty well finished for this year. Its final act will be to drop millions of seeds before it dies back completely until spring. This plant was brought to Europe from Japan sometime around 1829. It was taken to Holland and grown in nurseries that sold it as an ornamental. From there it found its way across the Atlantic where we still do battle with it today. It is one of the most invasive plants known and the only plant I have ever seen overtake it is purple loosestrife, which is also an invasive weed. Japanese knotweed is also a tough plant that is very hard to eradicate once it has become established.

Pink turtleheads (Chelone lyonii) still bloomed in a local park and though the flowers seemed fine the plants themselves looked terrible; all black and crisp leaves. My plants haven’t even showed color on the buds yet, but I hope they do better than these. I don’t know the origin of this plant and have never known if it was a native or a cultivar but it does very well in my yard and asks for nothing. Pink turtleheads are native to the southeastern U.S. and don’t seem to mind dryness in spite of naturally growing near water.

I always like to see if I can get a shot looking down the throat of the turtle. It’s very hairy in there but it doesn’t bother bumblebees. They were swarming over these plants on this day but I didn’t see any honeybees on these or any other flowers in the park.  

This little plant was hard to identify. I think I’ve tried for about three weeks off and on but I finally settled on catchfly (Silene armeria,) which is originally from Europe and which is also called sweet William catchfly. It is said to be an old fashioned garden plant in Europe. I’ve never seen it here but it is supposed to be a “casual weed” in New Hampshire. The name catchfly comes from the sticky sap it produces along its stem. Small insects are said to get caught in it but I didn’t see any on this single plant. Its leaves and stems were a smooth blue grayish color and along with the small pinkish purple flowers they made for a very pretty little plant that I’m hoping to see more of.

Just imagine becoming the way you used to be as a very young child, before you understood the meaning of any word, before opinions took over your mind. The real you is loving, joyful, and free. The real you is just like a flower, just like the wind, just like the ocean, just like the sun. ~Miguel Angel Ruiz

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I know of only three places to find gentians and only one place to find bottle or closed gentians, and that place is along the Ashuelot River in Keene. Last year I got upset when I went looking for them and found that the Keene Parks and Recreation Department had sent someone out here with a weed wacker, and that person had cut down countless beautiful wildflowers all along the trail, including the gentians. I didn’t know what I would find this year but last Saturday down the trail I went.

One of the first things I noticed was how ripe the false Solomon’s seal fruit (Maianthemum racemosum) was getting. It goes from mottled to solid red and many of these were red. They’re very pretty berries that are said to taste like molasses.

Virginia bugleweed (Lycopus virginicus) bloomed all along the trail. This is a close relative of water horehound (Lycopus americanus) and looks much like it except for its purple tinged leaves.

It was a beautiful day for a walk in the woods and I petted dogs, talked to strangers, and was happy to be in a place I’ve known since I was about 10 years old. To think I was walking a trail which was, in high probability, a Native American fishing trail which has probably changed little in thousands of years. Remains of settlements dating back 12,000 years have been found very near here and it boggles the mind to think about all that might have gone on in this place.

I always seem to see something I haven’t seen before out here, even though I’ve walked this trail for over 50 years. On this day it was a nice colony of one of our prettiest native orchids, the pink lady’s slipper (Cypripedium acaule.) I wonder if I’ll remember where they are next June when they’re in bloom.  

One of the lady’s slippers still had last year’s seed pod on it, and on that was a spider’s egg sac.

The branches of this fallen tree always make me think of the ribs of an ancient sunken ship. Indeed, at one time sections of this river were dredged so that river boats could navigate it, but the railroad coming to town put a stop to that.

Other trees might add to the hazards in the river; I could see right through this hollow red maple (Acer rubrum.)

There was lots of duckweed on the backwaters where the current is almost nonexistent.

Mad dog skullcap (Scutellaria laterifolia) grew on the sunny parts of the riverbank. 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. There is powerful medicine in many skullcap species and when Native Americans wanted to go on a spirit walk or vision quest this was one of the plants they chose. The small blue and white flowers always grow in pairs in the leaf axils on mad dog skullcap but you have to look closely because sometimes one bloom will fall off before the other, which is what has happened with this example.

The seed pods of fringed loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliata) are unusual and hard to confuse with any other plant. I saw hundreds of seedpods but only one flower left, growing out of reach down the river bank.

Royal fern (Osmunda spectabilis) hasn’t changed into its fall yellow yet. When they are near a water source royal ferns can grow quite large and appear to be a shrub, but this one was young and on dry ground so it wasn’t very big. The royal fern is found on every continent except Australia, making it one of the most widespread of all living species. They are also thought to be one of the oldest living things, with fossil records of the Osmundaceae family dating back over 300 million years. Individual plants are believed to be able to live for over 100 years. Cinnamon and interrupted ferns are also in the Osmundaceae family and also grow here. It is thought that the genus might have been named after King Osmund, who ruled in the British Isles in the eighth century. Royal ferns are one of my favorites because they are so unlike any other fern.

I think, in the eight years I’ve been doing this blog, that I’ve only show beech nuts (Fagus grandifolia) one other time and that’s because I rarely see them. But on this day I stumbled onto hundreds of them that must have just fallen, because many of the kernels were still inside the prickly looking husks seen here. If you harvest beechnuts and then leave them alone for a day or two they will open and out will drop two kernels. Like many trees and other plants, beech trees will have a year of heavy production, known as a mast year, and then produce very few nuts for a few years afterwards.

I put a kernel on a penny so you could get a sense of scale. A penny is 3/4 of an inch in diameter. Chipmunks and squirrels and even bears love the kernels, so you usually find more empty husks than anything else.

As I’ve said so many times, spring and fall really begin on the forest floor, much earlier than many of us realize. This wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis) is a good example of that. It might be leafless before many of the trees it grows under have even started to turn color. 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.

There was a single blossom on what looked like an all but dead St. John’s wort plant (Hypericum perforatum.) I haven’t seen these blossoms for a few weeks now so I’m going to say this may be the last one I see this year. It’s a beautiful thing. This plant has been used medicinally for thousands of years. It likes to grow in open meadows in full sun but will stand some shade as it did here.

Wild cucumber (Echinocystis lobata) climbed up over the shrubs along the trail. It likes to grow in sandy soil and prefers a bit of shade over full sun. The flower spikes (Racemes) grow to 6 inches or more all along the main stem.

When those maples on the other side of the river turn scarlet in the fall this is an awesome view, but it isn’t really so bad in green either.

I saw a single New England aster blossom (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae.) As I’ve said in previous posts, they are our biggest, most showy aster. Some tower up over my head but this one had bent down to about knee level.

I was very surprised to see turtleheads (Chelone glabra linifolia) blooming out here. I’ve never seen them here before this day.

And there they were; one of my favorite shades of blue is found on bottle gentians (Gentiana andrewsii) but I don’t see many because they are quite rare here. This is the only place I can find them so you can imagine my delight when I found that they hadn’t been cut down again. When they start to go by theses flowers become even more beautiful by turning very dark blue and then a kind of purple. They closely resemble narrow leaved gentian (Gentiana linearis) but that plant has much narrower leaves. Why anyone would cut such a rare and beautiful thing is beyond me.

I’ve been here enough times to know that the only thing beyond this bridge is a highway, so this is where I turn and go back. As I chose what photos to use for this post I was amazed that I saw so much on what is a relatively short walk of only an hour or so, and once again I was thankful that it hadn’t all been cut down again, because it’s a beautiful walk.

To find the universal elements enough; to find the air and the water exhilarating; to be refreshed by a morning walk or an evening saunter; to be thrilled by the stars at night; to be elated over a bird’s nest or a wildflower in spring- these are some of the rewards of the simple life. ~ John Burroughs

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Our meadows and roadsides are starting to take on that “Monet painting” look now, with purple loosestrife and goldenrods still predominating. Soon asters will take over, along with later goldenrods as the loosestrife blooms itself out.

You can’t tell from the previous photo but a lot of the Canada goldenrods (Solidago canadensis) I’m seeing have bunch galls at the very tip of the stem like the one seen in the above photo. A gall midge (Rhopalomyla solidaginis) lays its egg in a leaf bud and when the larva hatches the plant stops growing taller but continues to produce leaves in a “bunch” like that seen here. Since the midge only lays its eggs on Canada goldenrod it makes this plant easy to identify.

Nodding smartweed (Polygonum lapathifolium) gets its common name from its drooping flower heads and the very sharp, peppery taste of the stems, which makes the tongue smart. It doesn’t seem to bother ducks, geese, and all of the other animals that eat it, though. The plant is also called curly top smartweed; obviously because of the way the long flower spikes droop. It is originally from Europe.

Each nodding smartweed flower spike is made up of many pink to white, very small flowers. The flowers never seem to fully open, but I got lucky on this day and found two blossoms sort of open. Each flower has 5 sepals and no petals. There are also six stamens, two partially fused carpels and two styles.

Japanese beetles, I’ve discovered, love smartweeds. Better smartweeds than garden plants. They can do a lot of damage to a garden.

Tall white asters (Doellingeria umbellata) are very tall with large flower heads (panicles) and weak stems, so when all the flowers bloom the stems often bend and the flowers end up at ankle level. This is one of the earlier, more showy asters that spreads by underground rhizomes and usually grows in large colonies of plants. I see them on forest edges and meadow edges, sometimes by the hundreds.

Pilewort (Erechtites hieracifolia) is a strange plant with inch long flower buds that never seem to fully open. This plant gets its common name from the belief that it was useful in the treatment of piles (hemorrhoids,) because the buds are the size and shape of suppositories. The Native American Algonquin people used the plant to treat poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) and poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) rashes. It has also been used as a source of a blue dye for cotton and wool.

Even after they open pilewort flowers still look like they are in the bud stage, so you have to look at them closely. This photo shows about all we can see of them. The flower is made up of many tiny florets which are pollinated primarily by wasps and hornets. In some areas it is called burn weed because of the way it moves quickly into burned areas. I usually find it along river and stream banks.

The little lobelia called Indian tobacco (Lobelia inflata) is one of our smallest lobelias. Its small flowers are about 1/3 of an inch long and pale lavender to almost white. It is the only lobelia with calyxes that inflate after the flowers have fallen and to identify it I just look for the inflated seedpods. The inflated seed pods resemble the smoking material pouches that Native Americans carried. The inflata part of its scientific name also comes from these inflated pods. The pods form so quickly that they can usually be found on the stem while flowers are still blooming, as this photo shows.

I’ve been neglecting pretty little red clover blossoms this year, but not intentionally. I’ve told the story of how this lowly weed helped me see things differently but I’ll tell it again, because the same thing could happen to you. There was a time when all red clover (Trifolium pretense) plants meant to me was more hard work. I didn’t like having to weed it out of lawns and garden beds but it was so unsightly with its long, weak flower stems and sprawling, weedy habit. And then one evening a single ray of sunshine came through the clouds and fell directly on a red clover plant at the edge of a meadow, and when I knelt in front of it to take its photo for the first time I saw how beautiful it really was. I saw that it had an inner light; what I think of as the light of creation, shining brightly out at me. I’ve loved it ever since, and since that day I don’t think I’ve ever truly thought of another flower, no matter how lowly, as a weed.

I was surprised to find common arrowhead (Sagittaria latifolia) still blooming. It grows just off shore and is also called broadleaf arrowhead and duck potato, because ducks eat its small, potato like roots and seeds.

All arrowheads that I’ve seen always have three pure white petals, but I’ve heard that some can be tinged with pink. The pretty flowers are about an inch across. In late fall or early spring, disturbing the mud in which they grow will cause arrowhead’s small tuberous roots to float to the surface. They are said to have the texture of potatoes but taste more like chestnuts. They were an important food for Native Americans, who sliced the roots thinly and dried them and then ground them into a powder that was used much like flour. Ducks, beavers, muskrats and other birds and animals eat the seeds, roots, and leaves.

Most people would think of a yellow flower with a lot of stamens when they thought of St. John’s wort, but marsh St. John’s wort (Hypericum virginicum) is very pink. As its name implies this plant likes saturated soil and will even grow in standing water at the shoreline of ponds. The beautiful flowers are quite small; about 3/4 of an inch across on a good day, but usually more like 1/2 an inch. This little shin high plant grows south to Florida and crosses the Mississippi River only in Texas and Oklahoma. It is on the rare side in this area and I know of only two places where it grows.

I can’t think of a single time that I have found northern water horehound (Lycopus uniflorus) growing away from water. It’s an odd little plant that might get knee high on a good day, and often leans toward the water that it grows near. Its tiny flowers grow in round tufts at each leaf axil and remind me of motherwort, which has the same habit. It is in the mint family and has a square stem as so many of the plants in that family do. It is also closely related to American water horehound (Lycopus americanus) and the two plants are easily confused. Paying close attention to leaf shape helps tell them apart. The foliage is said to be very bitter and possibly toxic, but Native Americans used the tuberous roots for food.

The flowers of northern water horehound are pretty little bell shaped things, but they are small enough to need a hand lens (or macro lens) to really appreciate them. They are pollinated by bees, wasps and flies and each one will become 4 small nutlets.  I don’t know what birds or animals eat the seeds, but muskrats love the roots.

Nodding bur marigold (Bidens tripartita) likes full sun and wet feet and can often be found growing right beside the water horehound that we saw in the previous photo. Its flower is much showier though, and looks something like a miniature sunflower. As they age the flower heads nod towards the ground and that’s how it comes by its common name. Another common name is nodding beggar’s tick, because its seeds are barbed and stick to just about anything that happens by. In this part of New Hampshire this plant grows about knee high, sometimes in standing water. The flowers look something like a miniature sunflower and are supposed to be good for honey production. I like their deeply pleated petals. 

I saw this stand of balloon flowers (Platycodon grandiflorus) in a local park.

Balloon flowers get their common names from their buds, which look like small, air filled balloons. It’s an Asian native that apparently doesn’t escape gardens, at least in this area. It is also called the Chinese bellflower and is in the campanula family. I love its blue color. This one had beautiful blue veins.

Purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) are still blooming strong. This plant is well known for its medicinal qualities as well as its beauty. According to the USDA the plant was used by many Native American tribes throughout North America to treat a variety of ailments. It was used as a pain reliever, anti-inflammatory, as a treatment for toothaches, coughs, colds, and sore throats. It was also used as an antidote for various forms of poisonings, including snake bite. Portions of it were also used to dress wounds and treat infections. Modern medicine has found it useful to combat bacterial and viral infections and as an immune system booster. As I’ve said before, I grow it because butterflies and bees like its nectar, birds like the seeds, and I like to admire its beauty.

An ox-eye daisy wanted me to remember June. I thanked it for the memory and moved on, wishing it  really was June again.

What a desolate place would be a world without a flower!  It would be a face without a smile, a feast without a welcome.  Are not flowers the stars of the earth, and are not our stars the flowers of the heavens? ~ A.J. Balfour

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I was very happy to find a new colony of narrow leaved gentian (Gentiana andrewsii) on my recent trip to Pitcher Mountain. I saw a flash of blue out of the corner of my eye as I drove by and thought it was probably vetch, but I turned around and was surprised by what you see here. These plants are on the rare side in this area so finding more is always a good thing.

These flowers appear identical to those of bottle gentians (Gentiana andrewsii) but the foliage is quite different. Narrow leaf gentians like moist, calcium rich soil and that’s one reason you don’t see them in this area very often. Another reason is that the flowers never open so insects have to force their way in, and it takes a strong insect like a bumblebee to do so. I saw several trying to get into the flowers while I was with them on this day. Its seeds are too small to interest birds and its foliage too bitter to interest herbivores. Put all of that together and it’s a wonder that this plant is seen at all. It’s listed as rare, endangered or vulnerable in many areas.

Pretty groundnut (Apias americana) flowers have just started blooming. They come in pink, purple or reddish brown and always remind me of the helmets worn by Spanish conquistadors. The plant is a vine that will climb just about anything and I usually find it growing in the lower branches of trees and shrubs along the river.

Indeed Spanish explorers most likely would have seen the plant, because its potato like tuberous roots were a very important food source for Native Americans from New England to Florida. It has been found in archeological digs of Native settlements dating back 9,000 years. Native Americans used the roots of the plant in the same ways we use potatoes today, but groundnut “potatoes” contain about three times the protein. Natives taught the early colonials how to use the groundnut and the plant helped save the lives of the Pilgrims during their first few years as settlers. Not surprisingly another name for it is Indian potato.

Native hog peanut (Amphicarpaea bracteata ) flowers are small and beautiful, but it’s a plant that comes with a lot of baggage. As the story goes author and forager Samuel Thayer calls them ground beans rather than hog peanut because he claims that the name “hog peanut” was a racial slur against Native Americans. He says that the Europeans came to a point where they refused to eat them because even though the small legumes saved many of their lives they insisted they were only fit for hogs (implying that Native Americans were hogs.) Personally I find this story hard to believe because anyone who has ever raised pigs knows that they root around in the soil looking for just the kinds of legumes that grow on these vines, and it isn’t hard to imagine colonials, who raised pigs, saying “look, the hogs have found some nuts.” I call it hog peanut here not to slander anyone but because nine out of ten people will use a plant’s common name when they look for it in field guides, and field guides call the plant hog peanut. If Samuel Thayer can get them to change that, then I’ll be happy to call it a ground bean.

Like a true peanut, after pollination some of its flowers bury themselves in the soil and form a small, edible, bean like seeds that give the plant its common name. Mice collect these seeds and store them in large caches that Native Americans used to search for. They can be eaten raw or cooked. The plant also forms inch long, pea-like, above ground pods that contain three or four inedible seeds. Hog peanut is a strong, wiry vine that can cover large areas of forest floor and choke out other plants. It is also good at tripping up hikers.

I found a forest of downy rattlesnake plantain orchids (Goodyera pubescens) all in bloom.

The tiny flowers look like miniature versions of our native pink lady’s slipper orchid flowers. Each one is so small it could easily hide behind a pea with room to spare. This photo shows where the “downy” part of the common name comes from. Everything about the flower stalk is hairy.

I like the downy rattlesnake plantain orchid’s mottled silvery foliage as much as its blossoms.  The flowers grow on a relatively long stalk and though I’ve tried hundreds of times I’ve been able to show the flower stalk and basal leaves together clearly in a photo only once. This orchid grows in the woods usually in deep shade, but I find that most plants get at least an hour or two of sunshine no matter where they grow.

Slender gerardia (Agalinis tenuifoliais) is also called false foxglove. There might be a faint resemblance but I think it would be hard to confuse the two, especially after a good look at the slender, sword shaped leaves. The blossoms are very hairy and have a long curved protruding pistil and especially from the side look nothing like foxglove to me.

Slender gerardia is a shy little plant that grows in full sun. It has the unusual habit of dropping all of its opened flowers each afternoon. It opens fresh buds at the start of each day which means that its flowers don’t even last for a full day, so insects (and photographers) have to be quick. The plants that I find are always 6-8 inches tall but I’ve read that they can reach 2 feet.

I’m seeing more slender gerardia flowers this year than I ever have before. You can see in this shot how the blossoms seem to float in the air because the leaves and stems are so small.  

I know of only one place to find field milkwort (Polygala sanguinea) and it is always worth the walk to see them.  The flowers are very beautiful and unusual enough to make you want to sit beside them for a while and study them, and that’s just what I usually do.

On field milkwort flowers what look like petals arranged on a central stem are actually individual flowers packed into a raceme no bigger than the end of an average index finger. Each tiny overlapping flower has two large sepals, three small sepals, and three small petals that form a narrow tube. Several different kinds of bees help pollinate this plant but on this day they were covered in bumblebees. Its flowers can be white, purple, pink, or green and I’ve noticed that the color can vary considerably from plant to plant.

I thought I’d show you a field milkwort flower head on a penny so you could get a better idea of their size. You can also see the small sword shaped leaves in this photo, and how the flower heads sit at the very top of the stem. Both field milkwort and the slender gerardia we saw previously grow in gravel in full sun.

Native Canada St. John’s wort (Hypericum canadense) has deep red seed pods but its flowers come in the more traditional yellow. Though some very reputable websites will tell you that this plant likes wet soil I always find it in dry gravel. It has grown in full sunshine for months now without harm and I think most of the watering it has had has come from morning dew, so it’s a very tough little plant. I wonder if they might have it confused with dwarf St. John’s wort (Hypericum mutilum) which likes the wet soil of pond edges, or if I have it confused with yet another variety of St. John’s wort that I don’t know about. Canada St. John’s wort is also called lessor Canada St. John’s wort, so I assume that there must be a greater Canada St. John’s wort. These blossoms are tiny; less than the diameter of a pencil eraser.

It’s almost time to say goodbye to blue vervain (Verbena hastata) and you can tell that because the remaining blossoms are at the tops of the stems. This is another plant that loves water and it grows near ponds and rivers, and even wet roadside ditches. The bitter roots of this plant were used by native Americans to relieve gastric irritation, as an expectorant, and to induce sweating. The seeds were roasted and ground into flour by some tribes, and others dried the flowers and used them as snuff to treat nosebleeds. Natives introduced the plant to the Europeans and they used it in much the same ways.

I just love the color of blue vervain.

Pretty little blue toadflax (Nuttallanthus canadensis) must be one of the longest blooming wildflowers we have here. It usually starts blooming in May and I’m still seeing it in quite large numbers. I love the shade of blue that it wears.

I think I’ve seen more jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) this year than I ever have. This plant typically blossoms right up until a frost but as day length shortens the plants will produce smaller, closed flowers with no petals and no nectar. They self-pollinate and their sole purpose is to produce plenty of seeds. Jewelweed gets its name not from its orange flowers but from the way raindrops sparkle like jewels on its wax coated leaves.

Jewelweed blossoms dangle at the ends of long filaments and sway in the slightest breath of a breeze, so it’s always tricky getting a shot of one. I like to do it for the practice, but it can make you crazy.

I’ve probably shown too many fragrant white waterlily photos already this year but this one was covered by what I thought might be tiny black water lily aphids (Rhopalosiphum nymphaea.) These insects feed by draining sap from the lily’s leaves, thereby weakening the plant so I wasn’t happy to see them. But when I got home and saw the photo I had taken I saw that even covered with insects, fragrant white waterlilies are very beautiful. It’s one of my favorite aquatic plants.

That pleasure which is at once the most pure, the most elevating and the most intense is derived, I maintain, from the contemplation of the beautiful. ~Edgar Allan Poe

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