Posts Tagged ‘Lichens’

On Easter Sunday I went for a walk along the Ashuelot River in Keene. This trail, possibly used by Native Americans for thousands of years, is one of my favorites. 12 Native American historical sites have been found along the Ashuelot River, including the oldest known evidence of humans in New Hampshire dating back 10,500 years.  I’ve walked here for over 50 years and think I know it well, but I see new things each time I visit.

This day’s new thing were these strange orange buds on the shrubs that the river had swamped.

At least I thought they were buds; they’re actually the male catkins of the sweet gale (Myrica gale.) Sweet gale  is also called bog rosemary. It likes to grow on the banks of acidic lakes, bogs and streams. Touching the foliage releases a sweet, pleasant scent from its resinous leaves which have been used for centuries as a natural insect repellent. Though it is a native plant here it also grows native in Europe, where it is used as an ingredient in beer making in some countries. It is also used in an ointment used to treat sensitive skin and acne. I was hoping to see some of the scarlet female flowers but I think I was too early.  

The banks of the Ashuelot are lined with highbush blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum) and their buds had swollen to bursting, easy to see against the blue of the water. The highbush blueberry is a native plant that you can quite literally find just about anywhere in this part of the state.

The bud scales have opened and, though I didn’t see any leaves yet, I think it’s safe to say that bud break has happened among the blueberries.

Bud break is defined as “when the green tip of a leaf can be seen emerging from the bud,” and these new cherry leaves more than fit that description. You can see how the bud scales have curled and peeled back to release the new growth within.

The stamens of male box elder flowers (Acer negundo) hang down from the buds on long filaments and sway in the breeze. Box elder is in the maple family but its wood is soft when compared to other maples. Several Native American tribes made syrup from its sap and the earliest example of  a Native American flute, dating from 620-670 AD, was made from its wood, so it seems appropriate that the trees would grow here along the river.

I saw two turtles on a log but my camera doesn’t have enough reach for anything better than this. As soon as I hit the trail the sun went behind a cloud and stayed there the whole time, so the turtles were gone when I returned. Of course as soon as I left the trail the sun came back out.

The trail through these woods isn’t that far from where the railroad repair depot used to be in Keene, and the trail is black because it was “paved” with the unburned slag from the big steam locomotive fireboxes.

This slag is usually called “clinkers” or “clinker ash” and it is made up of pieces of fused ash and sulfur which often built-up over time in a hot coal fire. Firebox temperature reached 2000 to 2300 degrees F. in a steam locomotive but they still didn’t burn the coal completely. A long tool called a fire hook was used to pull the clinkers out of the firebox and in Keene we must have had tons of the stuff, because it was used as ballast on many local railroad beds. The section that ran by my house was as black as coal and I learned at a very young age not to walk barefoot on it. Those clinkers are sharp.

When a spring beech bud (Fagus grandifolia) grows longer and starts to curl like a rainbow it is getting ready to open. The buds I saw this day have a while to go but you can see the curl starting. The curling begins when the sun shining on one side of the bud causes the cells on that side of the bud to grow faster than those on the other, shaded side. This causes tension in the bud, making it curl first and eventually making it tear open its bud scales, releasing the new growth within. When beech buds break the new growth looks like downy, silvery angel wings for just a very short time. It’s one of the most beautiful things in the forest and well worth watching for.

The roots of this young beech caught my eye.

And the thorns of this multiflora rose caught my clothes. Invasive multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) originally came from China to be used as an ornamental and as the old story goes, almost immediately escaped and started to spread rapidly. It grows over the tops of shrubs and smothers them by using all the available sunshine. I’ve even seen it reach thirty feet into trees. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it was imported more for its scent than any other reason, because to smell it is like smelling a bit of heaven on earth.

The hips of a multiflora rose are about the size of a pea, so that should tell you something about the size of that spider.

The fuzzy white buds of shadbush (Amelanchier canadensis) were seen here and there along the banks of the river. Shadbushes originally got their name from the way they bloomed when the shad fish were running upriver to spawn, including here in the Ashuelot. Another name, Juneberry, refers to when its fruit ripens. The fruit is said to resemble a blueberry in taste, with a hint of almond from the seeds. Shadbush wood is brown, hard, close-grained, and heavy. It can also be very straight, and Native Americans used it for arrow shafts. Shadbush makes an excellent garden shrub or small tree and is easily found in nurseries. It grows naturally at the edge of forests and along waterways.

The bark peeled off an old dead birch and revealed a bright orange fungus.

I thought I’d found something on a tree that I had been looking for for a very long time; an asterisk lichen (Arthonia radiata.)

But it was a common script lichen (Graphis scripta.) it is also called the secret writing lichen, for obvious reasons. I’ve never been able to decipher their meaning but I enjoy seeing them.

One of the reasons I wanted to come out here was to see if the trout lilies that live here were blooming. They weren’t but the plants looked very robust and healthier than those I’ve seen in other places. I have a feeling this colony will be beautiful when they all are in bloom.

This trout lily leaf came up through one of last year’s leaves so it couldn’t unfurl. Which leaf will win, I wondered.

The trout lilies grow by the little red bridge, which is my turnaround spot.

In July you can step over what is little more than a trickle in this spot and I’ve always wondered why they even put a bridge here, but on this day it was like someone had made a wide path of black marble for it to cross. This stream and many others empty into the Asuelot River, and that might be why the name means “collection of many waters” in Native American language.

Well, I didn’t see many flowers but I did see a lot of other things that brought me closer to spring; especially the swelling buds of many trees. I hope all of you are able to get outside and find a bit of spring for yourself and I hope you’ll be able to be able to stay safe while doing so.

If you have a river, then you should share it with everyone. Chen Guangbiao

Thanks for stopping in.

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In the spring walking along Beaver Brook in Keene is one of my favorite things to do because there are so many interesting and rare plants growing there. Last Sunday was a beautiful spring day of warm temps and a mix of sun and clouds, so off I went to see what was growing.

The walk is an easy one on the old abandoned road that follows alongside the brook. Slightly uphill but as trails go it’s really no work at all.

One of the reasons I like to come here is because I can see things here that I can’t find anywhere else, like this plantain leaved sedge (Carex plantaginea.) This is the only place that I’ve ever seen it. It should be blooming before the trees leaf out sometime in mid-April, and I’ll be here to see it.

The flower stalks (culms) on plantain leaved sedge are about 4 inches tall and when they bloom they’ll have wispy, white female (pistillate) flowers below the terminal male (staminate) flowers. Sedge flowers are actually called spikelets and the stems that bear them are triangular, hence the old saying “sedges have edges.” I can’t speak for the rarity of this plant but this is the only one I’ve ever seen and it isn’t listed in the book Grasses: An Identification Guide, by Lauren Brown. I’ve read that it likes cool shady places where the humidity is relatively high.

The sedge grows on a stone that’s covered by delicate fern moss (Thuidium delicatulum,) which is a very pretty moss. I like how it changes color to lime green in cold weather. Because I’m colorblind it often looks orange to me and an orange moss commands attention.

I knew that red trilliums (Trillium erectum) grew near the plantain leaved sedge but I didn’t expect to see any on this day. But there they were, and already budded, so they’re going to bloom maybe just a little early, I’d guess. They usually bloom in mid to late April. They are one of our largest and most beautiful native wildflowers and are also called purple trillium, wake robin, and stinking Benjamin because of their less than heavenly scent.

Bud break is one of the most exciting times in a forest in my opinion, and one of the earliest trees to open their bud scales so the buds can grow is striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum.) The large velvety buds of striped maple in shades of pink and orange are very beautiful and worth looking for. Bud break can go on for quite some time among various species; striped and sugar maples follow cherry, and birch and beech will follow them, and shagbark hickory will follow birch and beech. Oaks are usually one of the last to show leaves. That’s just a small sampling that doesn’t include shrubs like lilac and forest floor plants that also have beautiful buds breaking.

This is how striped maple comes by its common name. Striped maple bark is often dark enough to be almost black, especially on its branches. This tree never seems to get very big so it isn’t used much for lumber like other maples. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one bigger than my wrist, and even that might be stretching it. It could be that it stays small because it usually gets very little direct sunlight. The green / white stripes on its bark allow it to photosynthesize in early spring before other trees leaf out but it’s still the most shade tolerant of all the maples, and in the shade is usually where it’s found. It is said that Native Americans made arrow shafts from its straight grained wood.

I found a mountain maple (Acer spicatum) growing here a few years ago and realized on this day that I had never paid attention to its buds. I was surprised how even though I’m colorblind I could see how bright red the bud scales were. And then the bud is orange. I can’t think of another tree that has such a splashy color scheme. Something else unique is how all other maple trees have flowers that hang down but mountain maple’s flower clusters stand upright, above the leaves. At a glance the big leaves look much like striped maple leaves. The shrub like tree is a good indicator of moist soil which leans toward the alkaline side of neutral. Native Americans made an infusion of the pith of the young twigs to use as eye drops to soothe eyes irritated by campfire smoke, and the large leaves were packed around apples and root crops to help preserve them.

Someday I’ve got to poke around more in this old boulder fall, because there are some quite rare plants growing among the stones. I believe a lot of these stones are lime rich, due to the plants that grow among them.

One beautiful thing that grows on the tumbled stones of the boulder fall is rose moss (Rhodobryum roseum.) Each little rosette of leaves looks like a tiny flower, and that’s how it comes by its common name. Rose moss is a good indicator of limestone in the soil so it’s wise to look for other lime loving plants in the area when it is found. This is a relatively rare moss in my experience; this is the only place I’ve ever found it.

The two toned buds of Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) are poking up everywhere now. This is a fast growing plant once it gets started and it won’t be long before it blooms. Native Americans sprinkled the dried powdered roots of this plant on hot stones and inhaled the smoke to alleviate headaches. All parts of the plant except the roots and young shoots are poisonous, but Native Americans knew how to prepare them correctly. Sometimes the preparation method is what makes a plant medically useful.

One of my favorite things to see here is the disappearing stream on the other side of the brook. It runs when we’ve had rain and disappears when we don’t, but the beautiful mossy stones are always there. You can’t see it here but there was still ice up in there in places.

Another reason I wanted to come here on this day was to witness the buds breaking on the red elderberries (Sambucus racemosa) that grow here. They are handsome at this stage but the whitish, cone shaped flowers that will follow are not very showy. The leaves, bark and roots are toxic enough to make you sick, so this shrub shouldn’t be confused with common elderberry (Sambucus nigra) which is the shrub that elderberry wine comes from.

The spring leaves of the red elderberry  look like fingers as they pull themselves from the flower bud and straighten up. Bud break comes very early on this native shrub. The purplish green flower buds will become greenish white flowers soon, and they’ll be followed by bright red berries that birds snap right up. The berries are said to be edible if correctly cooked but since the rest of the plant is toxic I think I’ll pass. Some Native Americans used the hollow stems to make toys. According to the U.S. Forest Service the Alaskan Dena’ina tribe made popguns from the hollow stems, using a shelf fungus (Polyporus betulinus) for ammunition. The Kwakiutl tribe of British Columbia made toy blowguns from red elderberry stems.

I was surprised to find wood sorrel (Oxalis montana) leaves. This plant is a ground hugger, easily hidden by any plant that is ankle high or more, so I have to hunt for it and though I can’t say if it is rare here, I rarely see it. Each time I find it it’s growing near water, and the above example grows in a wet area by the brook. It’s considered a climax species, which are plants that grow in mature forests, so that may be why I don’t often see it. It likes to grow where it’s cool and moist with high humidity. Though the word Montana appears in its scientific name it doesn’t grow there. In fact it doesn’t grow in any state west of the Mississippi River. It’s a pretty little thing that reminds me of spring beauties (Claytonia virginica,) thought its flowers are larger. This is the first time I’ve noticed the hairs on its leaves.

I wasn’t sure if these were early spring mushrooms or if they were leftovers from last fall. Little brown mushrooms, or LBMs as mycologists call them, can be very hard to identify even for those more experienced than I, so they always go into my too hard basket. There just isn’t enough time to try to figure them all out.

It looks like people are geocaching again. I used to find them here quite often, though I never looked for them. According to Wikipedia “Geocaching is an outdoor recreational activity, in which participants use a Global Positioning System receiver or mobile device and other navigational techniques to hide and seek containers, called “geocaches” or “caches”, at specific locations marked by coordinates all over the world.” Someone tried to put this one under a golden birch but it wasn’t hidden very well.

I hoped to see some fern fiddleheads while I was here but I had no luck. I did see some polypody ferns though. Polypody fern spores grow on the undersides of the leaves in tiny mounds called sori, which are made up of clusters of sporangia (receptacles in which spores are formed) and are naked, meaning they lack the protective cap (indusium) that is found on many ferns. Once they ripen they are very pretty and look like tiny baskets of yellow and orange flowers but these had gone past ripened and in fact most had fallen off the leaf, leaving a tiny indentation behind.

We’ve had enough rain to get Beaver Brook Falls roaring. I toyed with the idea of going down to the brook to get a face on view of them but I’m getting a little creaky in the knees and you slide more than walk down the steep embankment, and then you have to nearly crawl back up again on your hands and knees. Since I was the only one here I didn’t think any of that was a good idea, so a side view is all we get.

In the right light the spore producing fruiting bodies (Apothecia) of smoky eye boulder lichens (Porpidia albocaerulescens) turn a beautiful blue. It happens because of a light reflecting, thin coating of wax that covers each one. In different light they can appear black, gray or whitish but in the special light found here they glow different shades of blue and are as beautiful as jewels on the golden colored ledge they grow on. Beaver Brook is one of only two places I’ve ever seen them this beautiful, and they’re just one of many beautiful reasons I love to spend time here.

We do not want merely to see beauty… we want something else which can hardly be put into words- to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it. ~C.S. Lewis

At Beaver Brook I did indeed bathe in beauty. Thanks for stopping in, and take care.

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I decided to prune a very old, overgrown Forsythia at work last week. This is what I found on the oldest branches; Lilliputian gardens. I think I recognize star rosette (Physcia stellaris) and hammered shield lichens (Parmelia sulcata,) but others are a mystery. 

Another branch had what I think is yellow witches butter (Tremella mesenterica.) It doesn’t have quite the same appearance as other witches butter fungi I’ve seen but that could be because it was very young.

I’ve learned, with help from knowledgeable readers, that what I have thought was a beard lichen in the Usnea family is actually a bushy, beard like lichen in the Evernia family, called Evernia mesomorpha. The differences, if I understand what I’ve read correctly, are in the flattened, antler like branches. Its common name is boreal oakmoss and it falls out of trees here on a regular basis, but this one was growing on that same Forsythia.

Anyone who knows the Forsythia well knows that, like a raspberry, when a branch tip is allowed to touch the soil it will root and create another plant. Part of what I wanted to do when cleaning up this bush was removing all the baby plants that surrounded the main shrub, and when I started digging I found golden thread like roots like that seen in the photo. They reminded me of the roots of the goldthread plant (Coptis trifolia) but there were none of those growing here. Were they from the Forsythia? I can’t really say but it wouldn’t surprise me with so many other parts of the plant yellow.

One of the reasons you don’t let a Forsythia’s branch tips take root is they form a kind of cage  around the plant so you can’t get a leaf blower or rake in there to get the leaves out. So, once I had all the plants but the main one removed I started in on the leaves underneath it and found this. I thought at first it was a fungal mycelium mat but after a closer look I’m not so sure.

This looks more like a slime mold to me but I don’t see many of them in the early spring. I’m still not sure what it was, but it was fun to see.

One of the strangest things I saw on this Forsythia was a large witches broom, which I removed. Then I saw hundreds of these; smaller witches brooms just getting started. Each one of those little bumps is going to turn into a shoot that will be about 8 inches long, if the one I cut off is any indication. Botanically speaking a witches broom is an “abnormal proliferation of shoots on one area of a stem.” Many shrubs and trees exhibit this abnormal growth and sometimes it is desirable; Montgomery dwarf blue spruce for instance is one of the best dwarf blue spruces, and is from a witches broom. In some cases it isn’t at all desirable; witches broom on rice can be fatal to humans. There are many causes, depending on the plant. Witches brooms are usually caused by either a rust fungus or a parasitic plant such as mistletoe, but there is an aphid known to cause honeysuckle witches’ broom, and on hackberry trees (Celtis occidentalis) it is caused by both a powdery mildew fungus and a tiny mite. On cherry and blackberry it is caused by bacteria carried by insects from elm or ash trees. In the case of Forsythia I can’t find the cause, but how amazing is it that all of these interesting things were found on a single shrub?

I saw this happening to a fallen beech leaf. I would guess that it’s how decomposition happens to a leaf.

I was splitting wood again and found this little critter under the bark of an oak log. I looked it up and found this: “The flat worms that appear under oak tree bark are larvae of pests called flatheaded borers, so named due to the flattened segment behind their heads and flattened bodies. Flatheaded apple tree borers (Chrysobothris femorata) feed on a variety of plants including oaks. The larvae display cream-hued bodies and dark heads with a total length of approximately 1 inch, and adults are black to green beetles. Typically appearing on freshly planted trees during summer, apple tree borers tunnel into bark, resulting in girdled branches, dieback and sometimes tree death. Releasing natural enemies that are available at garden supply retailers, such as parasitic wasps, provides biological control.” This creature’s darker head is on its right end, I believe.

We had to take a window out of a building where I work and when we did this chrysalis fell out of it. After a bit of searching I found that it was a moth chrysalis, but even Bugguide.net can’t seem to pin it down any closer than that. Apparently it could be any one of several different moths. When you hold it in your hand the pointed end jiggles, so it was obviously alive. We put it outside and wished it well. It’s interesting to me that you can see where the head is, where the wings are, and what is obviously the tail.

We had a little snow on the 24th and though it messed up spring cleanup plans at work for a day or two it melted quickly and was gone by the end of the week. Spring snows are common but nobody gets too upset about them because we know it’s simply too warm for them to last. The thawed ground melts them quickly. Much of March has been cool and damp.

The road I travel to work on was a winter wonderland and it reminded me of the words of William Sharp, who said “There is nothing in the world more beautiful than the forest clothed to its very hollows in snow. It is the still ecstasy of nature, wherein every spray, every blade of grass, every spire of reed, every intricacy of twig, is clad with radiance.”

At my house we had just under 5 inches. Though it looks fluffy in the photo is was actually heavy and wet, as spring snows often are.

In the 1800s René Lalique was a French glass designer known for his art deco designs. One of his best known creations was the grayish frosted, matte finish crystal he used for perfume bottles and other items. I thought of that glass when I held this piece of puddle ice up to the sun, and I wondered if one day Mr. Lalique held up his own piece of puddle ice. Maybe that’s where he got his inspiration for such a beautiful glass. If we keep our minds open inspiration can come to us from any bit of nature we happen to see.

If there is one thing I see lots of it is fallen trees, but the beautiful grain pattern in this old dead pine caught me and held me one morning. I took lots of photos of it but this closeup was my favorite. I couldn’t see all the beauty in this world if I lived 10 lifetimes.

Before the new leaves appear and when the spring rains fall to plump them up, orange crust fungi are at their most beautiful. To me they are like a beacon in the woods. Their startlingly bright orange color among the leftover browns and grays of winter call to me from quite a distance.

I stopped one day to see if the spring beauties that you saw in the last post were blooming and a large shadow passed over me when I got out of the car. And then another, and when I looked up there were two turkey vultures flying low, swooping in circles around me. What could they be after? I wondered until I saw a dead raccoon and then I knew that I had interrupted their meal. But darn it I had flowers to see and I thought they could wait for a few minutes while I did. Apparently they thought so too because they sat in the top of a nearby tree to wait. The raccoon certainly wasn’t going anywhere.

Every night when I get home from work this joyful scene is what greets me; thousands of beautiful little moss spore capsules glowing in the afternoon sun. One day last week I decided I wanted to know more about these little friends, so even though mosses can be a challenge to identify I started trying to find out their name.

Here is one of the spore capsules and its stalk. If I have identified it correctly by April the capsules will turn a light brown and their pointed tip (operculum) will fall off so their spores can be released to the wind through a fringe of teeth (peristome) at the end of the capsule. I’ve watched them over time and they started out straight up and thin, like a toothpick.

I think that this moss might be one called baby tooth moss (Plagiomnium cuspidatum,) though I’m still far from sure. One reason I’m having such a hard time is its size. What you see here is so small I can’t even think of anything to compare it to. I probably took 30 photos to get just this one of its leaves and you can still barely see the tiny teeth that should line the upper half of each leaf.

I teased a tiny piece of this moss out of the pack and brought it inside, thinking that I could get a better shot of it but I found that it started drying out instantly, and the leaves started curling into their dry state, so I can’t see any of the tiny teeth I hoped to see. What this photo does show is how the stalk that supports the spore capsule comes right up out of the center of the leaves. I’ve read that it should have a tiny foot where it meets the leaves but I can’t see it here. If you know what this tiny little moss is I’d love to hear from you.

If the sight of the blue skies fills you with joy, if a blade of grass springing up in the fields has power to move you, if the simple things in nature have a message you understand, rejoice, for your soul is alive. ~Eleanora Duse

Thanks for stopping in. Take care everyone, and be safe.

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Last Sunday I decided to skip climbing and walk a familiar rail trail instead. Though it had been a warm week it was a cold enough weekend to have ice on the trails and I left my micro spikes at work, so climbing was out. I was still happy to be on this trail though because I’ve walked here since I was just a boy. At that time trains ran through here though, so it’s always a different feel. 

Right off I saw the beautiful blue of black raspberry canes. I think I must have been 12 or 13 before I got serious enough about plants to begin reading botany books but before that I read anything by Henry David Thoreau because I loved how he was so interested in nature. I suppose I loved that about him because I was interested in the same things, and it was here along this trail that I began to wonder about the things I saw, just like he did in Concord, Massachusetts. I wondered for instance, why these canes were blue, and I found that they had a waxy coating that protected them from getting too much sunlight. You could wipe it right off the cane, and like any wax it would melt and disappear in the summer heat. That’s why this beautiful color is seen more in winter than in summer. It’s my favorite shade of blue.

The wind roars over the hills to the west and blows through here with what is sometimes quite a strong wind and these virgin’s bower seed heads (Clematis virginiana) were blowing all around when I took their photo. Of course this is just what the plant wants, because it grows those long feathery filaments called styles on its seeds (fruits) so the wind can carry them long distances. This is a common but pretty native clematis that drapes itself over shrubs and climbs into trees all along this trail.

Bright yellow fringed candle flame lichen (Candelaria fibrosa) grew on an old black cherry. People worry that lichens will hurt a tree but they simply use tree bark as a roosting place much like a bird would, and don’t harm the tree in any way. A tree’s bark will often grow in ways that allow the tree to shed any rain water quickly in what I think of as vertical streams, and you’ll often find lichens growing right alongside these streams, as these were. This particular lichen is said to be very sensitive to air pollution, so seeing it is a good sign that our air quality is good.

Some of the trees that might have been saplings when I first came through here 50+ years ago are already dying. I’d guess they’re American elms, which are still falling to Dutch elm disease. Keene was once called the “Elm City” but no more. There are very few left.

There are grape vines in the trees everywhere out here and this was the first place that I ever noticed how much the forest smelled like grape jelly on warm fall days, thanks to the overripe fruit. There were lots of different kinds of native fruit out here and I suppose that was why I used to see so many Baltimore orioles.

I checked the hazelnuts (Corylus americana) to see how spring was affecting the catkins. They’re taking on a more golden color, as these show. You can also see the edges of bud scales, and that means they’re starting to open. Before long we’ll see strings of golden male hazel flowers everywhere. Then I’ll start looking for the tiny female flowers. A male hazelnut catkin more or less, is a string of flowers which will open in a spiral pattern around a central stem. The pollen these flowers produce will be carried by the wind to the sticky female flowers and we’ll have another crop of hazelnuts.

I’m seeing maples hanging onto their leaves more these days than I have in the past. At least it seems that way.

I don’t remember ever seeing smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) growing here when I was a boy but they’re here now, though not in the same numbers as staghorn sumac. These berries don’t get anywhere near as hairy as staghorn sumac berries do but the plants still look alike and are easy to confuse if you don’t look closely for the hairy stems of staghorn sumac. Smooth sumac leaves turn bright red in the fall and produce a rich brown dye. Birds supposedly love them but the berries are usually still there in spring until the migratory birds come through.

I was going to say the same thing about staghorn sumac berries (Rhus typhina) not being eaten but I happened upon a flock of robins that were gobbling them up. You can see one sitting on a sumac in the center of this photo. My camera doesn’t have enough reach to do birds the right way, so you might have to hunt a bit. Evening Grosbeaks, Bluebirds, Cardinals, and Scarlet Tanagers also eat these berries.

The seed eaters haven’t hardly touched the black-eyed Susan seeds (Rudbeckia hirta,) which seems odd. In my yard they go fast.

The tiny, seed-pearl like seeds of curly dock (Rumex crispus) were going fast. This little bit was all that was left on a three foot tall plant. Once these seeds mature they can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute. The leaves are rich in vitamins A and C and can be eaten raw or cooked. The plant’s common name comes from their curly edges.

I’m seeing lots of pussy willows now. I found a new spot where there were lots of bushes.

But I haven’t seen any of the yellow willow flowers coming yet. Maybe this weekend.

 Willows often have pine cone galls on them, caused by a gall midge (Rhabdophaga strobiloides). The midge lays an egg in the terminal leaf bud of a willow in early spring and the larva releases a chemical that tricks the willow into creating this gall instead of leaves. The midge spends winter inside the gall and emerges in the following spring, so the entire cycle takes a full year. It is fascinating things like this, found all along these railroad tracks, which kept me interested in nature when I was a boy. I saw something new almost every time I went out, and I still do.

Here was an icy spot on the trail but most of it was easy walking.

This is just an abstract shot of puddle ice that I saw. I was fascinated by the perfectly round “jewel” that grew in the ice.

Last year’s grasses were on ice and I liked their stained glass look.

Mosses were glowing in the sunshine. We think of mosses as shade lovers but everything needs sunlight, even if it’s only an hour each day.

I wanted to walk on this trail not only for the memories but also to see the Frosted comma lichen (Arthonia caesia) that lives here. I looked and looked for a dime size white spot on a maple tree but I couldn’t find it. It’s a beautiful thing and this photo taken previously shows the only example of it I’ve ever seen. I’ve found it twice, but today wasn’t the day. The only other lichen I know of with blue fruiting bodies is the smoky eye boulder lichen and that one has blue apothecia only in a certain light. The spherical fruiting bodies on this lichen, called ascomata, are blue in any light and they don’t change color when they dry out. They are also very small; each blue dot is hardly bigger than a period made by a pencil on a piece of paper, so lichen hunters need to carry a good loupe or a camera that is macro capable.

Instead of the beauty of the lichen I settled for the more stark beauty of the moon. In made me remember how, in the summer of 1969 I ran outside after we had landed on it. I thought I might see the lunar orbiter going around and around it, but I never did.

My soul can find no staircase to Heaven unless it be through Earth’s loveliness. ~Michelangelo

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One of the strangest things I’ve found in nature is when a normally roaring brook is muffled by ice, so last weekend I went up to Beaver Brook to see if it had been muffled or if it was still singing. As this photo shows, it was singing. Loudly.

There were places though, where the ice had almost grown from bank to bank. The ice doesn’t quiet it absolutely but very close, and it’s an eerie thing to know a brook is there and not be able to hear it.

Icicles hung from the edges of ice shelves but they weren’t as impressive as in years past. This has been such a warm winter. It gets cool and snows but then it warms up and the snow melts, and then it happens again, so we have no real snow depth. The reason it has lasted here is because Beaver Brook flows through a shaded canyon between two hills.

I saw more ice on the ledges that line the old road than on the brook.

An evergreen fern waited patiently for spring.

What I call the color changing lichen had put on its lavender / blue coat. My color finding software sees more “steel blue” than any other color but in the warm months this lichen is ash gray. When I see it I always wonder how many other lichens change color. This one is granular and crustose and I’ve never been able to identify it.

I didn’t want to get too close to where the color changing lichen grew because the ledges here are unstable and large pieces have been falling recently. Cracks like this one are caused by water running into them and freezing. The expanding ice makes the crack bigger and bigger and eventually the stone falls, pried away from the ledge face by the ice.

On the hillsides above me there were many fallen trees. Since there are electric lines running through here they have to be cut when they fall on the wires.

I was sorry to see that one of the fallen trees was an old beech with hundreds of beechnut husks on it. These nuts are an important food source for many different animals but I hardly see them at all.

A maple leaf had such beautiful color it stopped me in my tracks and held me mesmerized for a time. I took far too many photos of it but colorful maple leaves are unexpected in February.

I think it has been over a year since I last saw the yellow jelly fungus (Tremella mesenterica) called witches butter, even though they’re fairly common. Though jelly fungi grow at all times of year I think of them as winter fungi because that’s usually when I find them. I often see them on fallen branches, often oak or alder, and I always wonder how they got way up in the tree tops. We also have black, white, red, orange and amber jelly fungi and I’d have to say that white and red are the rarest. I think I’ve seen each color only two or three times. An odd fact about jelly fungi is that they can be parasitic on other fungi.

There are lots of striped maples (Acer pensylvanicum) growing along Beaver Brook. They have colorful twigs and buds and are among the easiest trees to identify no matter what time of year because of the green and white vertical stripes on their bark. Their terminal buds have two scales and are valvate, meaning they have two bud scales. Striped maple is very fussy about where it grows and will not stand pollution, heat, or drought. It likes cool, shady places with sandy soil that stays moist. They bloom in June and have very pretty green bell shaped blossoms.

Hobblebush (Viburnum lantanoides) also does well along the brook. Their buds are naked, meaning they have no scales to protect them, so they have wooly hair instead. This photo shows that the flower bud in the center and the two leaf buds on either side are clothed more in wool than hair, but they come through the coldest winters and still bloom beautifully each spring.

The chubby little green and purple buds of red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) are some of my favorites, but I don’t see them often. Lucky they grow along the brook in places so I could admire them on this day. Red elderberry buds have imbricate scales, meaning they overlap like shingles. Soon the buds will swell and the purple scales will pull back to reveal the green scales underneath.

Here was something I’ve never seen; the normally round buds of red elderberry had elongated. There were several that had done this and I can’t figure out why they would have. Maybe they can gather more sunlight with this shape and are evolving right before the eyes that care enough to watch.

When light rain or drizzle falls on cold snow it can freeze into a crust and that’s what had happened during the last storm. The shiny crust can be very hard to capture on film but here it is, on the other side of the brook. Crusty snow can be awfully hard to walk on because it acts like it will support your weight, but at the last minute it breaks and your foot falls through it. Having it happen over and over makes for a jarring and tiring walk.

A tree fell perfectly and wrapped its arms around another.

Native witch hazels (Hamamelis virginiana) also line the banks of Beaver Brook. This is a shot of the recently opened seed pods, which explode with force and can throw the seeds as far as 30 feet. I’ve read that you can hear them pop when they open and even though I keep trying to be there at the right time to see and hear it happening, I never am. Seeing the ice on the one on the left, I’m wondering if the pods hold water.

I like to visit my old friend the stair-step moss (Hylocomium splendens) when I’m here. It’s a very beautiful moss that grows on stones as far north as the arctic tundra. It seems fairly rare here; this is the only example that I’ve seen, and it doesn’t seem to be spreading. When dry stair step moss has a slight satiny sheen to it, and that’s probably how it came by its other common name of glittering wood-moss. The name stair step moss comes from the way the new growth “steps up” off the midrib of the previous year’s branch.  Each year a new branch grows from the old and this growth habit allows stair step moss to grow up and over other mosses. It is said that you can tell the age of the moss by counting these steps.

The liverwort called greater whipwort (Bazzania trilobata) was frozen absolutely solid. Even frozen it still reminds me of centipedes. It’s very easy to mistake this common liverwort for moss so you have to look closely. The root-like growths are new branches. They aren’t always present but sometimes there will be a lot of them as there were here. This was a happy liverwort, even though it was frozen.

This scene of green algae in a seep reminded me of spring. Hydrologically speaking a seep is a wet place where water reaches the surface from an underground aquifer. This seep is a warm one; in all the years I’ve known it I’ve never seen it completely freeze. Seeps don’t have a single point of origin like a spring, instead they form a puddle that never dries up and doesn’t flow. They’re an important water source for many small animals and birds and unusual plants and fungi can often be found in and around them.

The waters of the stream played the part of the orchestra, and the sunlight provided the dancers. Every now and then a crescendo of wind highlighted the symphony in the clearing by the creek.
~Edward Mooney Jr.

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Over the nearly nine years I’ve been doing this blog the question I’ve been asked more than any other is “How do you find these things?” So this post will be about how I find them; I’ll tell you all the secrets, starting with the jelly baby mushrooms above. Do you see how small they are? They’re growing in an acorn cap. The first time I saw them I was feeling winded and when I sat on a rock to rest I looked down and there was a tiny clump of jelly babies, Just like this one. That day a side of nature that  I never knew existed was revealed and from then on I started seeing smaller and smaller things everywhere I went. 

You have to learn to see small by seeking out small things and training your eyes, and your brain somewhat, to see them. It also helps to know your subject. For instance I know that slime molds like the many headed slime mold above appear most often in summer when it’s hot and humid, and usually a day or two after a good rain. They don’t like sunshine so they’re almost always found in the shade. I’ve learned all of this from the slime molds themselves; by finding one and, not knowing what it was, looking it up to find out. I’ve learned most of what I know about nature in much the same way. If you want to truly study nature you have to be willing to do the legwork and research what you see.

Another secret of nature study is walking slowly. Find yourself a toddler, maybe a grandchild or a friend with one, or maybe you’re lucky enough to have one yourself. No older than two years though; they start to run after that and they’re hard to keep up with. Anyhow, watch a two year old on a trail and see how slowly they walk. See how they wander from thing to thing. They do that because everything is new and they need to see and experience it. You need to be the same way to study nature; become a toddler. Slowly cross and crisscross your line of progress. See, rather than look. Why is that group of leaves humped up higher than all the others? Is there something under them making them do that? Move them and see. You might find some beautiful orange mycena mushrooms like these under them.

So you need to train yourself to see small, to toddle and think like a toddler, and then you need to know your subject. All that comes together in something like this female American hazelnut blossom. I first saw them when I had toddled over to a bush to see the hanging male catkins, which are very beautiful, and out of the corner of my eye I saw a flash of red.

But all I could see was a flash of color because female hazelnut blossoms are almost microscopic. That’s a paperclip behind these blossoms. Even with eye problems I can find them though, because I know they’re tiny. I know they bloom in mid-April and I know they’re red and I know what shape the buds they grow out of are. All I need do is find one and the camera does the rest, allowing me to see its Lilliputian beauty.

That’s how I start the growing season each spring; by re-training my eyes to see small again. Most of what I see in winter is big so I need to get used to small again. Spring beauties like those above are as small as an aspirin, so they’re a good subject to start with. They’re also very beautiful and a forest floor carpeted with them is something you don’t soon forget.

Sometimes I’ll see something like this larch flower in a book or on another blog and I’ll want to see it in person. That’s what happened when I first found one, and I was surprised by how small they were. This is another example of my being able to only see a flash of color and then having to see with a camera. They’re just too small for me to see with my eyes but they’re beautiful and worth the extra effort it takes to get a photo of them.

I spend a lot of time looking at tree branches, especially in spring when the buds break. I’ve learned what time of month each tree usually blossoms and I make sure I’m there to see it happen. This photo shows male red maple flowers. Each flower cluster is full of pollen and the wind will be sure the pollen finds the female blossoms. When you see tulips and magnolias blooming it’s time to look at red maples. One of the extraordinary things about these blossoms was their scent. I smelled them long before I saw them.

Lichens aren’t easy to identify but there are easy to find because they grow virtually everywhere; on soil, on trees, on stone, even on buildings. But most are quite small, so walking slowly and looking closely are what it takes to find them. This mealy firedot lichen was growing on wet stone and that’s why the background looks like it does. You could spend a lifetime studying just lichens alone but it would be worth it; many are very beautiful.

Countless insects make galls for their young to grow in and the size and shape of them is beyond my ability to show or explain, so I’ll just say that I always make a point of looking for them because they’re endlessly fascinating, and you can match the gall to the insect with a little research. This one looked like a tiny fist coming up out of a leaf. Something else I like about them is that you don’t have to kneel down to see them. That isn’t getting any easier as time goes on. 

When young the female spore capsule (sporangium) of juniper haircap moss is covered by a cap called a calyptra, which protects the spore capsule and the spores within. It is very hairy, and this is what gives this moss part of its common name. Eventually, as the capsule ages it moves from a semi vertical to a more horizontal position before the calyptra falls off.  The spore capsule continues to ripen and when the time is right it will open and release the spores. When it’s time to release the spores the end cap (operculum) of the now reddish brown, 4 cornered but not square spore capsule will fall off and the spores will be borne on the wind. I learned all of that by studying the moss and reading about what I saw going on, and you can too. And you can do it with virtually anything you find in nature. To me, that is exciting.

A good memory isn’t strictly necessary for nature study but it can come in handy if you wish to see a plant in all stages of its life cycle. I knew where some rare dwarf ginseng plants grew in this area and I knew when they blossomed but I had never seen their seedpods, so I had to remember to go back to see what you see here. It might not look like much but it’s a rare sight and I doubt more than just a few have seen it. I often can’t remember my own phone number or where I parked my car but I can lead you right to the exact spot where this plant grows, so I seem to have two memories; one for every day and one for just nature. The one for nature works much better than the every day one.

Develop an eye for beauty. Give yourself time to simply stand and look, and before long you’ll find that you don’t just see beauty, you feel it as well, all through your being. This is just tree pollen on water; something I’ve seen a thousand times, but not like this. On this day it was different; it usually looks like dust on the surface but this pollen had formed strings that rode on the current. I wasn’t looking for it; I just happened upon it, and that shows that a lot of what you see on this blog is just dumb luck. But I wouldn’t happen upon it if I wasn’t out there. That’s another secret; you have to be out there to see it. You’ll never see it by staring at a phone or television.

This is another rarity that I just happened upon; a mushroom releasing its spores. Mushroom spores are carried by the wind so it is unusual to see them dropping to the forest floor like they have in this photo. I’ve only seen this happen three times and twice it was on a still, hot, humid day. Once it was on a cooler but still humid day, without a hint of a breeze to blow the spores away. This is why it’s so important to walk slowly and look carefully. You could easily pass this without seeing it.

Something else that is rare to see is a mushroom with another fungus feeding on it, like this bolete with a mycoparasite called Syzygites megalocarpus growing on its cap. A mycoparasite is essentially a fungus that feeds on other fungi. This one has been found on over 65 species of mushroom. It can appear overnight if heat and humidity levels are just right, and that’s exactly what this one did. You can’t plan to see something like this, you simply have to be there when it happens.

Do you know how many puddles there are with ice on them in winter? I don’t either, but I do take the time to look at them and I almost always see something interesting when I do. I’ve never seen another one like this.

Sometimes if you just sit quietly unusual things will happen. I was on my hands and knees looking at something one day and I looked up and there was a fly, sitting on a leaf. I slowly brought my camera up and this is the result. By the way, much of what I see comes about because I spend a lot of time on my hands and knees. If you want to see the very small, you have to. And before I get back on my feet I always try to look around to see if there’s anything interesting that I’ve missed.

I was crawling around the forest floor looking for I don’t remember what one day and saw something jump right in front of me. It was a little spring peeper. It sat for a minute and let me take a few photos and then hopped off. Another secret of nature study is to expect the unexpected. If you want to document what you see always have your camera ready. I have one around my neck, one on my belt and another in my pocket, and I still miss a lot.

I was in a meadow in Walpole climbing the High Blue trail when I saw a blackish something moving through the grass on the other side. Apparently it saw me because it turned and came straight for me. When it got close I could see that it was a cute porcupine. I thought it must have poor eyesight and would run away when it got close enough but then it did something I never would have  expected; it came up to me and sat right at my feet. I took quite a few photos and then walked on after telling it goodbye. I still wonder what it was all about and what the animal might have wanted. I’ve never forgotten how we seemed to know one another. It’s another example of why you have to expect the unexpected in nature study. You just never know.

Sometimes all you need to do is look up. When was the last time you saw mare’s tails in the sky? There’s a lot of beauty out there for you to see, and you don’t really have to study anything.

So, what you’ve read here isn’t the only way to study nature. It’s simply my way; what I’ve learned by doing. I had no one to guide me, so this is what and how I’ve learned on my own. I thought that it might help you in your own study of nature, or you might find your own way. It doesn’t matter as long as you’re out there having fun and enjoying this beautiful world we live in. I’ll leave you with a simple summary that I hope will help:

  1. To see small think small. There is an entire tiny world right there in plain sight but there’s a good chance you haven’t seen it. Nothing is hidden from the person who truly sees.

  2. Don’t just look, see; and not just with your eyes. Use all your senses. I’ve smelled certain plants and fungi before I’ve seen them many times. I also feel almost everything I find.

  3. Walk at a toddlers pace. Cross and crisscross your path.

  4. Know your subject. You probably won’t find what you hope to unless you know when and where it grows, or its habits. When you see something you’ve never seen if you want to know more about it research it.

  5. Be interested in everything. If you’re convinced that you’ve seen it all then you’ll see nothing new. Run your eye down a branch. Roll over a log. Study the ice on a puddle.

  6. Expect the unexpected. I’ve heard trees fall in the forest but I’ve never seen it happen. Tomorrow may be the day.

  7. Develop an eye for beauty; it’s truly everywhere you look. Allow yourself to see and feel it. Appreciate it and be grateful for it and before long you too will see it everywhere you go.

  8. Let nature lead. Nature will teach you far more than you’ve ever imagined. It will also heal you if you let it, but none of this can happen if you spend all your time indoors.

  9. None of the things you’ve read here are really secrets. Nature is there for everyone and you can study it and take pleasure in it just as easily as I can.

  10. Have fun and enjoy nature and you’ll be surprised how quickly your cares melt away. Problems that once might have seemed insurmountable will suddenly seem much easier to solve.

To look at any thing,
If you would know that thing,
You must look at it long. 
~John Moffitt

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One last photo from the recent January thaw when the temperature reached 67 degrees in Concord, our State Capital. It isn’t unheard of but it is quite rare for it to be that warm in January. This photo is from when the thaw had ended and it had started getting colder again. A mist rose from the warm soil and flowed over the landscape like water.

In places what little snow fell after the thaw had been sculpted by the wind. Wind can do strange things to snow. I’ve seen drifts up over my head and curls like ocean waves.

The wind also made ripples on a puddle and then they froze into ice. I’ve seen some amazing things in puddle ice.

I don’t know what it is about grass and snow but the combination pleases me, and I always enjoy seeing them together.

It hasn’t been truly cold this winter but it has gotten down into the single digits at night, and that’s cold enough to turn pine sap blue. I see it in varying shades of blue just about everywhere I go.

When the snow starts to melt it often melts in layers and as the top layers melt away what were mice and vole runs under the snow are exposed. These small animals are active all winter long but are rarely seen. It didn’t look like this one knew exactly where it wanted to go.

Wild turkey tracks are very easy to identify because of their large size. I happened upon a spot where many of them had gathered but since I didn’t see a trail of tracks either into or away from the place I have to assume that they flew in and out of it. Maybe they wanted to catch up on what was happening in the forest, I don’t know.

Sunshine transformed an icicle into a prism for a few moments as I watched.

Snow melts in strange ways. This photo shows how it has melted into a round mound. I’m not sure how or why it would do this. Was it colder in that small, 10 inch spot than the surrounding soil?

I saw a tiny speck move in a cobweb in a building at work so I took my macro camera off my belt and inched it closer and closer until I got the shot of the American house spider you see here. Not surprisingly this tiny, quarter inch spider is called a cobweb spider. The reason it let my camera get so close is because they have poor vision, I’ve read. They can bite but this one didn’t move. I think it was busy eating. They are said to be the most often encountered spider by humans in North America so the next time you see a cobweb this is probably what made it. They can live for a year or more.

Rim lichens are very common in this area but that doesn’t mean they’re any easier to identify. I think this one is a bumpy rim lichen (Lecanora hybocarpa) because of the bumpy rims around the reddish brown fruiting bodies (Apothecia.) They aren’t smooth and round as I’d expect so at first I thought they had simply shriveled from dryness but no, they always look like this. This lichen likes to grow on the bark of hardwood trees in well lighted forests, and that’s exactly where I found this one.

I see lots of drilled holes in stone and many are out in the middle of nowhere, where you wouldn’t expect them to be. Who, I always wonder, would go to all the trouble of drilling a hole in a boulder and then just leave it? An inch and a half diameter hole is not an easy thing to drill in stone.

The smooth sides of this hole tell me it isn’t that old. It might have once been drilled for blasting ledges along the side of a road, but right now it’s filled with pine needles.

If the hole in the stone in the previous photos were from the 1800s it would have a shape like this one, which was made by a star drill. One person would hold the drill bit and another would hit the end of it with a sledge hammer. After each hammer blow the bit was rotated a quarter turn and then struck again. It was a slow process but eventually a hole that could be filled with black powder had been drilled. You filled it with black powder, stuck a fuse in and lit it, and ran as fast as you could go.

Speaking of powder, when I touched this puffball it puffed out a stream of spores that were like talcum. I was careful not to breath any in; there are people out there who seem to think that inhaling certain puffball spores will get them high, but it is never a good thing to do. People who inhale the spores can end up in the hospital due to developing a respiratory disease called Lycoperdonosis. In one severe instance a teenager spent 18 days in a coma, had portions of his lung removed, and suffered severe liver damage.

A thin maze polypore (Daedaleopsis confragosa) wore a cap of snow. This photo doesn’t show much of the maze-like underside of it, but it was there. When fresh the surface is pale gray and turns red when bruised. This fungus causes white rot in trees.

I saw quite a few beautiful blue and purple turkey tail fungi (Trametes versicolor) earlier in the year but now I’m seeing a lot of brown. One of the things I’d like to learn most about nature is what determines this mushroom’s color. It’s like a rainbow, but why? Minerals in the wood would be my first guess but apparently nobody knows for sure.

Among the many things Ötzi the 5000 year old iceman, whose well preserved body was found in the Ötztal Alps in 1991carried were birch polypores (Piptoporus betulinus.) I assumed that he used them to sharpen tools (They are also called razor strops and their ability to hone a steel edge is well known.) but apparently Ötzi carried them for other purposes; scientists have found that Ötzi had several heath issues, among them whipworm, which is an intestinal parasite (Trichuris trichura,) and birch polypores are poisonous to them. The fungus also has antiseptic properties and can be used to heal small wounds, which I’m sure were common 5000 years ago. By the way, polypores always want their spore bearing surface pointed towards the ground, so you can see that these examples grew after this birch had fallen.

I went to visit the skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) in their swamp and saw many of the mottled spathes I hoped to see. They weren’t open yet but inside the spathes is the spadix, which carries the flowers. The spadix is a one inch diameter pink or yellow, stalked flower head from which the small flowers emerge. It carries most of the skunk like odor at this point and it is thought by some that it uses the odor to attract flies and other insects that might pollinate it. 

The skunk cabbages grow in a hummocky swamp. When I was a boy I used to jump from hummock to hummock but my hummock jumping days are over, so now I just wear waterproof hiking boots.

How beautiful this life is, and how many wonderful things there are to see. I do hope you’re seeing more than your share of it. It doesn’t take much; the colors in a sunrise, a sculpted patch of snow, the ice on a puddle. All will speak to you if you’re willing to just stop for a moment and look, and listen.

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. Don’t go back to sleep. ~Rumi

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If you’ve spent much time in the woods you know that there is an incredible amount of stuff falling from the trees. What is it? It is made up of everything from the lichens and mosses that perch on the trunks and branches to the trunks and branches themselves. Where does it all go? Thankfully the decomposers clean all of it up. If it weren’t for them we’d be up to our noses in forest litter. Bears, woodpeckers and other animals shred larger logs into smaller pieces and then the termites and ants make the pieces even smaller. Bacteria, slugs, snails, worms, centipedes, microbes and many insects all have their shot at cleaning up the forest and then there are the fungi and slime molds. Between them all they can clean up a forest floor in a surprisingly short time, but since there is always more falling, their work is never done and their menu never exhausted.

This is a common sight in this region. These little scales are what’s left of a white pine (Pinus strobus) cone after a squirrel has eaten all the seeds from it. Each scale has two reddish-brown winged seeds and they’re a favorite of gray squirrels. Pine cones can close their scales to protect the seeds from the cold and animals but squirrels have figured that out. Native Americans also ate these seeds, which are said to be sweet and nutritious.

The amount of cones a tree will produce varies from year to year but every now and then we’ll have a mast year and what seems like billions of cones will fall. That happened a couple of years ago and the squirrel population seemed to explode. I’ve read that cone production peaks every 3 to 5 years but it seems longer than that. In any event, thanks to the squirrels pine cones disappear quickly.

White pine needles are 3 to 5 inches long, bluish green on top and whitish underneath and grow in bundles of 5. They are pointed, soft and flexible and the tree sheds them every 2 years. In the fall they’ll turn brown and fall off but this doesn’t hurt the tree like some people fear. A mature white pine can be 250 or more years old and each one drops an incredible amount of material each year. There is nothing better to build a camp fire with than fallen white pine limbs. A fire built with them will be hot and will burn down quickly. They are also the tallest trees in eastern North America; the tallest trees living are just under 200 feet tall.

I’m guessing that this piece of wood was hacked out of a tree by a pileated woodpecker. I’ve seen these birds cut standing, rotten trees right in half and have seen large piles of wood chips many times at the base of various trees.

This wood was soft and rotted, and I think fungi had been having their way with the tree it came from. Of course if woodpeckers were after it the tree was also full of insects. I’ve cut down trees and found them full of carpenter ants, which make tunnels all through the tree like termites.

I must see hundreds of fallen branches each week but I don’t see many from the poplar family like this one. Poplar trees (Populus) are in the willow family and their opening buds remind me of giant spring pussy willows. North American poplars are divided into three main groups: the cottonwoods, the aspens, and the balsam poplars. If the buds aren’t sticky then the tree belongs in the aspen group. These weren’t. Aspen buds begin to swell during the first warm period in spring, when minimum temperatures are still below freezing. Air temperature rather than day length determines when their buds will break, so it can vary from year to year.

The flat seed pods of black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) are a common sight in winter. These dark brown pods stay attached to the tree and their color lightens during the winter. Finally as spring nears they begin to fall and, though they are light and can be blown long distances, many can be found under the tree on top of the snow, as this photo shows.

The tiny brown seeds of a black locust look like miniature beans and that’s because they are in the same family. Their coating is very tough and they can remain viable for many years. They’re also very toxic and should never be eaten.

Eastern or Canada hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis) are messy trees that shed their smaller branches, needles, and cones all winter long but they provide plenty of seeds for the smaller birds like black capped chickadees. The 1/2 inch long eastern hemlock cones are among the smallest of all the trees in the pine family but the trees usually produce so many of them that the ground is completely covered in the spring. The needles and twigs of hemlocks are ground and distilled and the oil is used in ointments, so the next time an ointment helps your sore muscles, thank a hemlock.

The white stripes on the undersides of the flat hemlock needles come from four rows of breathing pores (stomata) which are far too small to be seen without extreme magnification. The stripes make the tree very easy to identify. They look like racing stripes.

Arbor vitae (Thuja occidentalis) is another messy evergreen that sheds small branches by the cartload some years but they provide great cover for birds and I usually have at least one family of robins living in the ones in my yard.

The tiny leaves of arborvitae are flat and scale like. Arborvitaes are in the cedar family and are used extensively in commercial landscaping. The Native American Ojibwe tribe thought the trees were sacred because of their many uses, and maybe they were. They showed 16th century French explorer Jacques Cartier how to cure scurvy with its leaves and bark, and he was so impressed that he named it Arborvitae, which is Latin for Tree of Life. He had trees with him when he returned to Europe, and that’s how Thuja occidentalis became the first North American tree to be introduced there.

The stiff, woody seed pods of arborvitae look like tiny carved wooden flowers. robins, common redpolls, pine siskins, and dark-eyed juncos eat the seeds. Many small birds use the trees to hide in.

Sometimes what falls out of the trees onto the snow is more snow, and sometimes it falls by the bucket load. All of the holes you see here were made by falling snow.

Of course leaves fall from trees but some trees like oak, hang onto many of theirs throughout winter. In the fall shortening day length tells most deciduous trees that it’s time to stop growing, so the tree forms a layer of waxy, corky cells at the base of each leaf. This is called an abscission layer, and it slows and finally stops the flow of sap to the leaf. Once the sap stops flowing to the leaves they lose chlorophyll and the reds, yellows and oranges that the green chlorophyll was hiding finally become visible.

In some trees like oak (Quercus), beech (Fagus), and hornbeam (Carpinus) , this abscission layer forms much later, so even though the leaves might freeze dead and turn completely brown they still cling to the branches. Pin oaks (Quercus palustris) don’t form an abscission layer until spring, so their leaves stay on the tree all winter. This retention of dead leaves is known as marcescence.

Beech is another hanger on. What oak and beech leaves tell me is when spring is near. When I see them falling in large numbers in March I know that the new buds are taking up sap and swelling. Nobody really seems to know for certain why trees retain dead leaves but some believe that one reason might be to ward off foraging moose, deer and other animals. Animals will eat the bud bearing twigs from the lower parts of older trees and from nearly all parts of younger trees. One theory says that they don’t like the taste or texture of the dead leaves so they stay away from the trees, which means the buds stay safe and can grow on.

It’s very common to be walking through the woods and find twigs and branches with large, leafy (Foliose) lichens like the one pictured growing on them. These lichens can be difficult to identify because they change color drastically when they dry out. I think this one is in the Tuckermannopsis group, but I can’t pin down the species.  They’re very pretty and easy to see and I often find them on birch and white pine branches. This family of lichens is probably the one I see having fallen from trees more than any other.

The second most common lichen I see falling from trees is the beard lichen. Though this example was small they can get quite large. Bristly beard lichen (Usnea hirta) like this one is often found on the ground after a wind or rain storm. Many lichens like sunlight and grow in the tops of trees where there is less shade from the leaves. Native Americans used lichens medicinally for thousands of years and lichens in the Usnea group were described in the first Chinese herbal, written about 500 AD. Today scientists estimate that about 50% of all lichen species have antibiotic properties.

We keep seeing things all our life, yet seldom do we notice them. ~Avijeet Das

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Stone walls, it is said by author Robert Thorson, are much easier to explore in January when the leaves are off the trees and bushes. “Like a negative to a photograph,” he says, “walls are most visible when life is most invisible.” I agree, and that’s why I do these stone wall posts in winter. But as you can see by the above photo, this post was made even easier by the lack of snow. Not only did a January thaw melt it all but the huge old pine trees overhead keep much of the snow off this particular wall, even in mid-winter.

Unusual about this spot are the parallel double walls with a space big enough between them for a horse drawn wagon or a cow herd to pass through with ease. None of the trees seen here would have been here when the wall was young. Tree seeds fell into or very near stone walls and grew and few people ever did anything about it.

I’m guessing that there were animals involved in the path through the double walls because holes were drilled into stones and steel rods inserted into them to increase the wall height by about a foot and a half. As the steel ground against the granite over the years the holes were made bigger so cut nails were driven in beside the rods to keep them straight. The cut nails seen here date the steel rods to sometime between 1800 and 1900, but the wall itself has been here since the mid-1700s.

Each steel rod has a flattened tip with a hole in it. The hole most likely had wire passed through it. This would have all been done by the local blacksmith.

If wire was passed through the hole in the rod it could have been used to hold up barbed wire. Barbed wire would have been used to keep animals from jumping the wall and it can be found strung all along it.

You can occasionally find cut stones on this wall. I think this rectangular example is a granite fence post that broke off at ground level and was thrown on top of the wall to get it out of the way. The most common stone walls in this area are “tossed walls.” Farmers worked from dawn to dusk in Colonial New England and tossed walls required the least amount of time and effort because smaller stones were literally tossed or thrown on top of one another. In the early years getting rid of the plentiful stones quickly and efficiently was more important than enclosing the fields and boy, did famers get rid of them. In 1872 there were an estimated 270,000 miles of stone walls in New England.

Rock greenshield lichens (Flavoparmelia baltimorensis) look like melted candle wax to me. They are very common in this area and are another of those bits of nature that you see so often they no longer register, but when you take the time to look closer you find that they are quite pretty. They must like it here because they cover entire lengths of this wall.

In the story books of my childhood the stones in stone walls were all colors including blue, orange and yellow, so I knew right off that whoever wrote the books had never seen anything built of stone because, as everybody knew, stones were gray. As I grew older and started paying closer attention to the world around me I realized once again that I didn’t know what I was talking about because, as whoever illustrated those books knew, stones could indeed come in many colors. Usually in this area only the oldest stone walls are colored in this way, and of course what grows on them depends on exposure, so they may not be as wonderfully colorful as this one.

The yellow color in the previous photo comes from sulfur dust lichen (Chrysothrix chlorina.) It’s a very soft, pale yellow and hides under overhangs so it doesn’t get rained on. At least I think that’s why I always find it tucked away like this, but this is odd behavior for a lichen because they usually like a lot of rain and sunshine.

The white on this tree is caused by a lichen called, appropriately enough, whitewash lichen (Phlyctis argena.) This lichen is usually found on the bark of hardwood trees and is fairly common. It makes the tree look as if it has been painted white, and that’s where its common name comes from. They can be greenish white, silvery, or bright white as this one is.

I saw a stone with a forest of pixie cup lichens (Cladonia asahinae) on it. The tiny little golf tee shaped parts are the fruiting bodies of this lichen. Spores produced in them will be splashed out of the cup by raindrops.  Pixie cups almost always produce large groups of fruiting bodies like these.

I saw some pixie cup shapes that were unusual; the one on the left is a double one, with two cups grown together. The one on the right has one cup growing out of another. I don’t know if this is common behavior or not but I haven’t ever seen it.

Here was a large stone covered by a carpet of Hedwigia ciliata moss. This moss is common and is also called white tipped moss.

The white leaf tips drawn out to long, fine points help confirm the identity of Hedwigia ciliata moss. It’s one of those mosses that you almost have to run your hand over.

Because it’s so warm near stone walls in the winter many plants like this mullein (Verbascum thapsus)  like to grow along them. In fact there is an amazing variety of plants growing on or near this wall. Native Americans used tea made from mullein’s large, gray green furry leaves to treat asthma and other respiratory ailments. It is also said to be useful as a relaxant and sleep aid.

Bristly or swamp dewberry (Rubus hispidus) is a trailing vine blooms with white flowers that look a lot like strawberry flowers. The fruit looks more like a black raspberry than anything else and is said to be very sour. Its leaves usually live under the snow all winter but these exposed examples were beautifully colored purple. It is thought that staying green through the winter lets evergreen plants begin photosynthesizing earlier in the spring so they get a head start over the competition, and this plant certainly seems to benefit from it. Swamp dewberry looks like a vine but is actually considered a shrub. It likes wet places and is a good indicator of wetlands, but I’ve seen it growing in dry waste areas many times. It’s also called bristly blackberry because its stem is very prickly.

It was no surprise to find the European Vinca (Vinca minor) growing in the wall, because in the 1800s Vinca was a plant given by one neighbor to another along with lilacs and peonies, and I’ve seen all three still blooming beautifully off in the middle of nowhere. They grow thickly together and sometimes form an impenetrable mat that other plants can’t grow through. It has been here long enough to have erased any memories of it having once crossed the Atlantic on the deck of a wooden ship, and people like it. Another name for it is Myrtle.

The beautiful blue of first year black raspberry canes (Rubus occidentalis) is always a welcome sight in the winter. The blue color is caused by the way light is reflected off the powdery, waxy white crystals that cover the canes. The crystals are there to protect the young canes from moisture loss and sunburn and many other plants including blueberries, plums, grapes and blue stemmed goldenrod also use the same strategy. The color is often like that of a blue jay.

There are some very old white pine trees (Pinus strobus) here. I’d guess this one had to be approaching 300 years old. It was huge and had deeply furrowed bark. Sometimes I lay my hands against great trees like this one to feel their power. The power of creation just seems to hum through them like an engine.

My grandfather was the town blacksmith for years in Westmoreland, New Hampshire and the old wrought iron hardware I sometimes find in stone walls always makes me think of him. A blacksmith might make a dollar a day in the early 1800s but very little cash changed hands in colonial America, so he most likely would have been paid in food, charcoal for the forge, lumber, or something else he needed. I’d guess my grandfather made more than a colonial blacksmith, but probably not by much. The ring seen here most likely held a chain.

Since history and botany are my favorite subjects it all comes together for me here, and on the historical side of things this chain hook is one of my favorite bits of antique iron work that I find here. A link from a chain would have been hooked over it and then another link hooked over a similar hook a certain distance away. Chains were (and are) often hung across roads or driveways as a way to say “no admittance.”  What I like about this example is the way the blacksmith tapered the hook over its length and finally ended it in what looks like a dragon’s tail. He didn’t have to make such a utilitarian object as beautiful as a dragon’s tail, but he did. It’s a beautiful thing which, if I owned it, would be considered a work of art.

Stones are all about time—time to find them, to move them, to place them, and time, occasionally, to chisel and shape them. And above all, time to see them, experience them, and fall under their spell. ~Charles McRaven

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Some people think that once the leaves have fallen there is nothing left to see outside until spring, but they couldn’t be more wrong. Lichens for instance, are there year round and unless you live in a place with poor air quality they are everywhere; on trees, on stones, on the ground, and even on buildings, roofs, windows, and sidewalks. They are like small jewels that have been sprinkled throughout nature. Common goldspeck lichens (Candelariella vitellina) for instance, are uncommonly beautiful. Look for this bright yellow crustose lichen on stone. It’s a very artistic lichen and I like the patterns that it makes. I see it on gravestones quite often.

It shouldn’t come as a great surprise that, at high magnification, the body of the common goldspeck lichen looks like it’s made up of tiny golden specks. The book Lichens of North America describe the body of this lichen as “little cushions of flattened granules.” This lichen is sometimes sterile, with no fruiting bodies present, but this one appeared to have a few. The bluish color in the background is the slate that it grows on.

This is an odd lichen with large white fruiting bodies (apothecia) that look like they just erupt anywhere on the body (thallus) but also look like they are stalked, depending how you look at them. Some are convex and some concave and some have rims and some don’t. The white apothecia and green body with flattened strap like branches tell me that it’s probably the tufted ramalina lichen (Ramalina fastigiata.) A lichen guide from 1902 says this lichen is “very common in New England” but I know of only one place it grows. It is apparently very sensitive to air pollution as many lichens are. If you live in a place with a lot of lichens, breathe happily.

Bright yellow fringed candle flame lichens (Candelaria fibrosa) will often cover entire tree trunks. It must like a lot of water because I see it a lot on the lower parts of trees that grow near irrigation systems, with trunks that are almost always wet in warmer months. Seen up close this lichen always reminds me of scrambled eggs. I call this the “downtown” lichen because I see it a lot there.

It’s interesting how nature seems to use the same shapes over and over again in different ways. The round fruiting cups, called apothecia, of the Poplar Sunburst Lichen (Xanthoria hasseana) remind me of the suckers on an octopus or squid. Instead of latching onto things however, this lichen uses its cups for spore production. To give you a sense of scale-the largest of those in the photo is about an eighth of an inch across. The entire lichen might have been an inch long.

This example was even smaller at about the size of a penny (.75”) and was more apothecia than thallus. Spore production is what it’s all about because that’s what ensures continuation of the species.

The apothecia on this star rosette lichen (Physcia stellaris) are a good example of how colors can change, even on the same lichen. This lichen has dark brown apothecia that are often pruinose. Pruinose refers to the white, waxy, powdery coating. You’ve no doubt seen examples of this waxy “bloom” on blueberries and plums. I’ve noticed by watching lichens that have pruinose apothecia that the coating can reflect light in different ways, sometimes appearing gray and at other times more blue, and sometimes even black. The apothecia on this lichen often show a range of colors, from brown to light blue. The way the sunlight strikes it has a lot to do with its colors.

I think this is the smallest example of a Cumberland rock shield lichen (Xanthoparmelia cumberlandia) that I’ve ever seen, but even at its tiny 1/2 inch size it was beginning to produce spores in its brown apothecia. This lichen likes to grow on boulders or other stone. The body (Thallus) is described as being “yellow-green to sometimes bluish green” and the fruiting discs (Apothecia) are “cinnamon to dark brown.” The body of this lichen always looks like someone dripped candle wax on the stone to me. This one was very symmetrical but they are usually asymmetrical.

Smokey eye boulder lichen apothecia (Porpidia albocaerulescens) are usually a smoky gray color, which is where their common name comes from, but they can also have a bluish tint because of the way their waxy (pruinose) coating reflects sunlight. In this case the body of the lichen is a grayish color but it can also be a brownish gold color. One of the things that can make lichen identification difficult is the ability of some lichens to change color in different light, and this is one that does that. It can look very different from just a few feet away. This is a crustose lichens and it forms a kind of crust on the substrate that it grows on. The bond between a crustose lichen and its substrate is so strong that it can’t be removed without damaging the substrate.  

British soldier lichens (Cladonia cristatella) like to grow on damp wood like rotted stumps and logs, but I’ve found them on buildings, fence posts, and built up forest litter on boulders. At this time of year I don’t pass too many mossy old tree stumps without having a glance for British soldiers. Their bright red apothecia make them easy to see, even if you’re colorblind.

Shrubby little beard lichens are fruticose lichens, and fruticose lichens have upright or pendulous branches. I think this one is a bristly beard (Usnea hirta) but it might also be a young fishbone beard lichen. Though it grew on the shadier side of a tree it was caught in bright sunlight, and I’d guess that it must get an hour of sunlight a day. One way beard lichens reproduce is by fragmentation. Pieces break off and are carried by the wind or maybe animal fur to another spot to colonize. There are many of these high up in the trees and they come down, often still attached to the branch they grew on, during a good wind. I’ve found as many on the ground as I have on trees.

I’ve been trying to identify this beard lichen for years with no luck. Maybe it’s just a different colored example of the bristly beard seen previously?

Common greenshield lichen (Flavoparmelia caperata) is indeed very common. It’s a large lichen and colonies of them often grow big enough to cover entire trees. They often wrinkle like the example seen here. Like many lichens they change color, and go from grayish when dry to yellow green when wet. This example was dry. This lichen also taught me that many lichens prefer growing on the shady side of trees, presumably so the sun doesn’t dry them out quite so fast.

Hammered shield lichens (Parmelia sulcata) are on the rare side here but I see them occasionally, always on trees. There didn’t seem to be anything special about the deciduous tree they were on, this time but it was in a sheltered spot like the last tree I found them on. Hammered shield lichen is said to have a large variety of named varieties and forms, so it can be tough to pin down.

Hammered shield lichens are silvery gray and their many sharp ridges and depressions makes them look like they’ve been hammered out of a piece of steel. Fruiting bodies are said to be rare and I’ve never seen them. It is said to have powdery, whitish soredia but I’ve never seen them either. Soredia are tiny packages of both fungus and alga that break off the lichen. They are simply another means of reproduction.

I find pebbled pixie cup lichens (Cladonia pyxidata) growing on soil or rotting stumps and logs, and occasionally on stone. Pixie cups look like tiny golf tees or trumpets. They are squamulose lichens, and the golf tee shapes arise from leafy growths called squamules. A squamule is a lobe of the body of the lichen (thallus,) and  squamulose lichens have small, leafy lobes like those at the base of this example. The cup is so small even a pea would seem huge in comparison.

Though pixie cup lichens are squamulose they have fruticose fruiting structures called podetia. The parts that look like tiny golf tees are its podetia. “Podetia” describes a stalk like growth which bears the apothecia, or fruiting bodies. This example has some almost microscopic dots around the rim, which are its apothecia. Finally, frucitose means a lichen has a bushy, vertical growth. Since this example has squamules even growing inside the tiny cups it must be a pebbled pixie cup lichen.

If you spend time walking along old stone walls eventually you’ll see a stone with a splash of bright orange on it and it will probably be the sidewalk firedot lichen (Caloplaca feracissima,) so called because it is a lime lover and grows on concrete sidewalks, which have lime in them. When you see it in a stone wall it’s a fair bet that the stone it grows on has limestone in it too. This stone is almost completely covered by it.

A closer look at this example of the sidewalk firedot lichen showed it was very dry. Lichens are at their best when they are wet because that’s when they’ll show their true colors and size, so that’s when serious lichen hunters look for them. A misty or drizzly day is perfect but we haven’t had one in a while.

Some lichens might look like they have little spiders on them, or maybe as if they had been carved with a pocket knife but no, the squiggly lines are the apothecia of the script lichen (Graphis scripta.) This lichen usually prefers trees with smooth bark so I was surprised to see it on this rough barked tree. From what I’ve seen they only produce spores in winter. You can walk right by a tree full of script lichens in summer and see only grayish spots with no apothecia at all. In fact many lichens seem to prefer winter for spore production and I’ve never been able to find out why.

Next time you find yourself walking outside after a rain I hope you’ll take the time to look a little closer at all those colored spots you’ll see on the trees, stones, soil, and even sidewalks. If you do a whole new world of nature study will open for you.

There is a low mist in the woods. It is a good day to study lichens. ~Henry David Thoreau

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