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Posts Tagged ‘Muscle Wood’

Recently we saw nearly 2 inches of rain fall in one day and the placid stream, which is actually called Bailey Brook, that you see in the above photo flooded to cover all of the land seen in the photo and much more. Now that it had returned to normal I decided to follow it for a time and see what kind of damage the flooding had done.

I saw some delicate ice formations.

And stream ice made up of long crystals.

Large chunks of ice had found a place to rest when the flood receded and there they sat scattered here and there, reminding me of glacial erratics.

In some places I thought I was walking on land until my foot went through the ice and found water. From the ice surface down to the soil surface was about 6-8 inches with nothing but air in between, so the stream rose at least that much in flood.

There is a lot of drainage going on in this area and smaller streams meet the main stream in several places. Generally it’s a happy place and a great place to walk with the stream chuckling and giggling beside you, but it can also be a place of great danger when enough rain falls. I’ve seen it flood and go up and over roads in just a matter of a few hours, so you don’t walk here until you’re sure the stream has calmed down after storms makes it rage. First it happened once in ten years, then a couple of more times over the next five years or so, and now it seems to happen each year.

There are still plenty of beech leaves around and I’m glad of that because they add color to the landscape.

A single beech leaf fell and became frozen in the ice. It was a beautiful thing, and it looked like someone had painted it there. It would have been one of the impressionists like Monet or Renoir who would have painted it, I think. It was more light than leaf.

There was something I wanted to see but I had to climb a small hill to get to it. The hill ends right at the stream so there is no level land to walk on. I got up the hill without too much trouble by hugging trees and pulling myself up, but under those leaves was nothing but slippery, solid ice and the only way back down the hill was sitting down and sliding in what I’d guess was a very undignified manner.

But it was worth it because I got to see the horsetails (Equisetum hyemale) that grow along that section of stream. These are ancient plants that are embedded with silica. Another common name is the scouring rush because they are sometimes used to scour pots when camping, and they are also used for sanding wood in Japan. I like the way they look as if someone had knitted them fancy little socks.

There are lots of river grapes growing here along the stream and they are very easy to identify because of their peeling bark. Exfoliating bark is very common on the older wood of many types of grapevines and happens naturally. Older bark cracks from the growth expansion of the newer bark beneath it and eventually the older, cracked bark peels off in strips.

On warm days in the fall this entire area smells like grape jelly because of all the overripe grapes. Birds and animals get most of them but they missed a few, as this photo of a freeze dried grape shows.

I read an article recently that spoke of how we as a people are losing our connection to nature. As of 2008, according to the United Nations, half of all human beings lived in cities and in the U.K. a typical 8 year old child is better at recognizing video game characters than common wildlife. The article mentioned how, not that long ago, people knew trees as well as they knew themselves because they relied on them for heat, shelter, food, and many other things. The article suggested that getting to know trees would be a simple way for people to reconnect with nature, because there are very few people who don’t see trees every day. I suggest starting with easy ones or ones you already know, like the muscle wood tree in the above photo. It’s easy to see why it’s called muscle wood (Carpinus caroliniana.) See how its “tendons” ripple beneath its “skin”? Muscle wood is also called American hornbeam, and its wood is very dense and hard, but learning to identify trees by their bark isn’t hard, and it’s fun. Books like Bark by Michael Wojtech are a great help. You’d be surprised how quickly you would be able to name all of the trees in your neighborhood after a short time.

Here’s another easy one. Yellow or golden birch (Betula alleghaniensis) has peeling bark like a white birch but its bark is kind of reddish brown, which in the right light looks golden. They like cool, moist soil and are usually found near streams and ponds. They can also stand quite a lot of shade so growing here beside this stream in a cool, shaded forest is just about the perfect place for one.

There are a lot of insects after these trees along the stream, including bark beetles. These beetles excavate channels in the wood and when these channels completely encircle the wood the branch or tree has been girdled. Once girdled moisture and nutrients can no longer move freely through the cambium layer. When moisture and nutrients can’t move from the roots to the crown of the tree and back again the tree will die. I see a lot of fallen white pine (Pinus strobus) limbs with bark beetle damage.

Woodpeckers tell me that this standing dead hemlock tree is also full of insects. In large numbers, apparently.

Bittersweet vines twine around tree trunks; they don’t grow straight like this. There is no exfoliating bark, tendrils, or branching like a grape vine would have, so they can’t be that. Since there are no tendrils it isn’t Virginia creeper either. Those are the “big three” native vines that I would expect to find here but if the examples growing up this pine tree aren’t one of them what are they? Poison ivy, that’s what, and it’s a good idea to leave vines you don’t recognize alone until you’re sure of their identity. Poison ivy isn’t poison and it isn’t an ivy. Way back in the early 1600s Captain John Smith thought it looked like the English ivy he had left behind in England and, since it made him itch, thanks to him it became known as poison ivy. The urushiol the vine contains is considered an allergen and there is nothing poisonous about it, but is sure can make you itch and it will give you a rash that might last for weeks. You can get the rash from any part of the plant, including the naked stems seen here.

We’ve probably all heard the old “Leaves of three, let them be” saying about poison ivy, but the plant has no leaves in winter so “Hairy vine, no friend of mine” has to do when there is snow on the ground.  “Hairy rope, don’t be a dope” might work too. The roots seen in this photo are how the poison ivy vine clings to what it climbs, and there will often be a thick mat of roots all along the stem. But not always; poison ivy can grow as a vine, a shrub, or it can creep along the forest floor. It’s wise, if you plan on spending time in a New England forest, to study the plant and know it well. I usually get a small rash on my knees each spring from kneeling on unseen vines growing under the forest litter when I’m taking photos of early spring wildflowers, and I know it well. I’m lucky enough to be little bothered by it but I’ve known people who were hospitalized because of it.

Everywhere I go I see lichens that look like they’ve been chewed on and I’ve tried to find out why with limited success. Reindeer eat lichens but we don’t have reindeer in these woods, just white tails. I’ve seen squirrels eat mushrooms and since fungi are an important part of a lichen I thought that they might be the culprit, but I’ve never found anything in print about it until researching this post. According to a website called “What Do Squirrels Eat” http://www.whatdosquirrelseat.org squirrels have expanded their palates and will eat just about anything, including what we and our pets eat. It also says that they do indeed eat lichens, so I can finally put the chewed lichen mystery to bed.

But it’s rare day when you hike through a forest and do not come away with a mystery, and this was today’s mystery. From the opposite side this looked like a hard gray lump, smaller than the first joint on my little finger, on a poplar limb. When I looked at the underside I saw what appears in this photo. Though I’ve searched for a few days for an identification so far I have no idea what insect made and hatched from it. I’m guessing that it was some type of gall wasp. It might take a few years but one day I’ll find out more about it. In the end I went home happy, because I saw all kinds of interesting and beautiful things and surprisingly, saw no real flood damage at all.

Study how water flows in a valley stream, smoothly and freely between the rocks. Also learn from holy books and wise people. Everything – even mountains, rivers, plants and trees – should be your teacher. ~Morihei Ueshiba

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1-the-ashuelotEvery single time I walk the banks of the Ashuelot River without fail I see something new or unexpected, and this rainy day I spent exploring its banks in Swanzey was no exception. I hope you won’t mind the dreariness of some of these photos. I had to take what nature gave me and after such a long drought a little rain was very welcome.  Ashuelot is pronounced ash-wee-lot or ash-will-lot depending on who you ask. It is thought to mean “ the place between” by Native American Pennacook or Natick tribes.

2-multiflora-rose-hips

Raindrops on multiflora rose hips (Rosa multiflora) told the story of the day. The many hips on this single plant show why it’s so invasive. It originally came from China and, as the old familiar story goes, almost immediately escaped and started to spread rapidly. It grows over the tops of shrubs and smothers them by hogging all the available sunshine and I’ve seen it grow 30 feet into a tree. 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.

3-pumpkin

A pumpkin floated downriver. In October 2010 close to 100,000 pumpkins were washed into the Connecticut River during flooding in Bradford, Vermont. This one will probably go to the Atlantic, just like they did.

4-milkweed-seed

What I thought was a feather in the sand turned out to be a milkweed seed. Though many insects feed on milkweed and birds use the fluffy down from its seed pods for nest building, I’ve never found any reference to birds or animals eating any part of the plant.

5-juniper-haircap-moss

Juniper haircap moss plants (Polytrichum juniperinum) look like tiny green starbursts there among the river stones.

6-badge-moss

Badge moss (Plagiomnium insigne) is a pretty little moss that loves to grow in shady moist places and along stream banks. This was the first time I had ever seen it growing here though I’ve walked this river bank countless times. The long oval leaves have a border of tiny sharp teeth and become dull and shriveled looking when they’re dry. It looked like something had been eating them.

7-beech-leaves

Beech leaves have gone pale and dry, and rustle in the wind. They’re very pretty at all stages of their life, I think. One of the things I look forward to most each spring is beech buds unfurling. Just for a short time they look like silver angel wings.

8-split-gill-fungus

Split gill mushrooms (Schizophyllum commune) had their winter coats on, as usual. These are “winter” mushrooms that are usually about the size of a dime but can occasionally get bigger than that. They grow on every continent except Antarctica and because of that are said to be the most studied mushroom on earth. Their wooly coats make them very easy to identify.

9-split-gill-fungus

The “gills” on the split gill fungus are actually folds on its underside that split lengthwise when it dries out. The splits close over the fertile surfaces as the mushroom shrivels in dry weather. When rehydrated by rain the splits reopen, the spore-producing surfaces are exposed to the air, and spores are released. These beautiful little mushrooms are very tough and leathery. I don’t see them that often and I’ve never seen two growing together as they are in this photo.

10-orange-crust-fungus

Orange crust fungus (Stereum complicatum) grew on the underside of a branch, in excellent form and color because of the rain. This small fungus has a smooth whitish underside with no pores. The complicatum part of the scientific name means “folded back on itself” and the above photo shows these examples just starting that folding. It also likes to grow on the logs of deciduous trees.

11-musclewood

The muscle wood tree (Carpinus caroliniana) is also known as American hornbeam and ironwood. It’s very hard and dense and its common name comes from the way that it looks like it has muscles undulating under its bark much like our muscles appear under our skin. This tree is a smallish understory tree that is usually found on flood plains and other areas that may be wet for part of the year.  It’s hard to find one of any great size because they have a short lifespan.

12-woodpecker-hole

A woodpecker had drilled a perfectly  conical hole through this piece of wood. It looked like a funnel.

13-barberry-fruit

These small red berries are what make Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) so invasive. The shrub grows into nearly impenetrable thickets here along the river and fruits prolifically. It crowds out native plants and can prevent all but the smallest animals getting through. The berries are rich in vitamin C and are sometimes used to make jams and jellies.

14-barberry-thorn

Its sharp spines will tell you which variety of barberry you have. European barberry (Berberis vulgaris) and American barberry (Berberis canadensis) both have clusters of 3 or more spines but since American barberry doesn’t grow in New England it comes down to European or Japanese here, and only Japanese barberry has single spines. They’re numerous and very sharp. I had to walk through them to get several of these photos and my legs got a bit scratched up.

15-barberry

Barberry has yellow inner bark that glows with just the scrape of a thumbnail. A bright yellow dye can be made from chipped barberry stems and roots, and the Chinese have used barberry medicinally for about 3000 years.

16-the-ashuelot

It is common enough to love a place but have you ever loved a thing, like a river? I first dipped my toes into the waters of the Ashuelot River so long ago I can’t even remember how old I was. I’ve swam it, paddled it, explored it and lived near its banks for the greater part of my lifetime. Though readers might get tired of hearing about the Ashuelot it means home to me and is something I love, and I’m very grateful for what it has taught me over the years. In fact if it wasn’t for the river this blog probably wouldn’t exist.

17-raindrops-in-sand

I often visit the sandy area in the previous photo because there are usually animal tracks there, but on this day all I saw were the tracks of raindrops. I think this is the first time I haven’t seen animal tracks there. Raccoons come to feed on the many river mussels, deer come to drink, and beaver and muskrats live here.

18-witchs-butter

It must be a good year for jelly fungi because I’m seeing more than I ever have. Or maybe it’s just the rain that’s bringing them out. In any case they’re another winter fungi and I expect to see them at this time of year. I almost always find them on stumps and logs; often on oak. After a rain is the best time to look for them, so this day was perfect. The above example of witch’s butter (Tremella mesenterica) grew on a fallen branch and looked plump and happy.

19-beggars-tick

Purple stemmed beggar ticks (Bidens connata) grow well in the wet soil at the edges of ponds and rivers and there are plenty of plants here along the Ashuelot. It has curious little yellow orange ray-less disc flowers that never seem to fully open and dark, purple-black stems. The name beggar ticks comes from its seeds, which are heavily barbed as the example in the above photo shows. They stick to fur and clothing like ticks and I had them all over me by the time I left the river. They don’t brush off; they have to be picked off one by one.

The first river you paddle runs through the rest of your life. It bubbles up in pools and eddies to remind you who you are. ~ Lynn Noel

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1. Stream

Last year on March 28th I followed a small stream that flows near my house and this year I decided to do the same to see what had changed. As it turned out nothing much had changed but it was still an interesting walk as spring walks often are.

2. Stream

The most obvious change was the lack of snow this year*. The above photo shows what the stream banks looked like last March. This year the walking was much easier but still, there is no path here so you have to find your own way through the underbrush. With luck you might see a game trail and be able to follow that. Deer are regulars here.

*After I put this post together we got about 5 inches of snow and some 20 degree weather, just to show us what we had been missing.

3. Stream Gravel

The stream bed is made up of colorful gravel. I would think that a lot of water must percolate down through it, but though it gets quite low in warm dry weather the stream has never dried up in the more than 20 years that I’ve known it.

4. Grape Tendril

Native river grapes (Vitis riparia) grow along the stream banks. These are old vines that grow well into the tree tops, some as big around as a navel orange, and the fruit make the forest smell like grape jelly on warm fall days. I like looking at their tendrils. Sometimes I see beautiful Hindu dancers in their twisted shapes; other times animals, sometimes birds. They can make the heart sing and imagination soar, and that’s part of the enchantment of the forest.

River grapes are also called frost grapes, and their extreme cold tolerance makes their rootstock a favorite choice for many well-known grape varieties.  If you grow grapes chances are good that your vine has been grafted onto the rootstock of a river grape. If so the cold will most likely never kill it; river grapes have been known to survive temperatures of -57 degrees F. (-49 C)

5. Hemlock

Eastern hemlock trees (Tsuga canadensis); easily identified by the white stripes on the needle undersides, also grow along the stream banks. These trees are important to deer and other wildlife. They grow thickly enough to allow you to stand under one and hardly feel a drop of rain, and deer bed down under them. Many birds nest in them and many small birds like chickadees also feed on the seeds. Larger birds like owls and turkeys use them to roost in. Hemlocks are very shade tolerant and like to grow in cool, moist areas, so finding a grove of hemlocks is a good sign of a cool spot in a forest. Native Americans used the inner bark (cambium) as a base for breads and soups or mixed it with dried fruit and animal fat to use in pemmican. They also made tea from hemlock needles, which have a high vitamin C content, and this saved many a white settler from scurvy.

6. Japanese Honeysuckle

I was surprised to see Japanese honeysuckles (Lonicera japonica) already leafing out but I shouldn’t have been. Many invasive plants get a jump on natives by leafing out and blooming earlier.

7. Swamp Dewberry

Ankle grabbing, prickly swamp dewberry (Rubus hispidus) hadn’t even shed its winter bronze color yet. In June this trailing vine will bloom 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. Native Americans had many medicinal uses for this plant, including treating coughs, fever and consumption. Swamp dewberry, as its name implies, is a good indicator of a wetland or moist soil that doesn’t dry out.

8. Foam Flower

Foamflowers (Tiarella cordifolia) also like shady, moist places and they do well here along the banks of the stream.  They’re very low growing and their evergreen leaves don’t change much from summer through winter, but the leaf veins often turn purple. This plant is a good example of a native plant with much appeal and plant breeders have had a field day with it, so there are many hybrids available. If you have a moist, shaded spot in your garden where nothing much grows, foamflower would be a good choice for a groundcover.

9. Sensitive Fern Fertile Frond

The small blackish bead-like sori that make up the fertile fronds of the sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis) have opened to release the spores. Sensitive fern is another good indicator or moist places. Its common name comes from its sensitivity to frost, which was first noticed by the early colonials.

10. Signs of Flooding

Washed away leaves and plant stems all pointing in one direction mean flooding, and this stream has started flooding regularly over the last few years. It’s hard to believe that a small, meandering stream could become the raging torrent that I’ve seen this one become, but it does and it usually happens quickly. If it had been raining on this day I wouldn’t have been standing anywhere near the spot where this photo was taken.

11. Washout Repair

When the stream floods it often comes up over the road and a couple of years ago it took a good piece of the road embankment with it. The “repair” was a few loads of crushed stone dumped into the resulting hole, but so far it has held.  There was a large colony of coltsfoot that grew here before the flooding but they were washed down stream. Or I thought they had; last year I saw two or three flowers here, so they’re slowly re-colonizing this spot. I would expect that all the stone would catch the sun and raise the soil temperature so the coltsfoot would bloom earlier but they actually bloom later than most others.

12. Tree Skirt Moss

Tree skirt moss (Anomodon attenuates) usually grows from ground level up a tree trunk for about a foot or so, but this example grew about three feet up the trunk and it looked like its lower half had been stripped away by flooding.

13. Tree Skirt Moss

Tree skirt moss looks like it’s made up of tiny braided ropes when it’s dry. It is normally deep green but I think dryness must have affected the color of this example. Many mosses and lichens change color when they dry out. After a rain it will be green again and each tiny leaflet will pull away from the stem, giving the moss a fluffier appearance.

14. Tree Burl

A muscle wood tree (Carpinus caroliniana) had a grapefruit size burl on it and something had worn away the bark on it. A burl is a rounded growth on a tree that contains clusters of knots made up of dormant buds. It is said that burls form on trees that have seen some type of stress, and though scientists aren’t 100 percent sure it is believed that they are caused by injury, a virus, or fungi. The name muscle wood comes from the way that the tree looks like it has muscles undulating under its bark, much like our muscles appear under our skin. This tree likes soil that doesn’t dry out and is common on stream and river banks.

15. Muscle Wood Tree Burl

Other names for the muscle wood tree are American hornbeam and ironwood. The name iron wood comes from its dense, hard and heavy wood that even beavers won’t touch. Since a burl is naturally dense, hard, and heavy a burl on this tree must be doubly so, and would probably be almost impossible to carve. It would make a great bowl though, with its wavy purple stripes.

16. Black Cherry Burl

Black cherry is another tree that doesn’t mind wet feet and it grows well along the stream. This one has what I’ve always thought was a burl bigger than a basketball on it, but further reading shows it to be black knot disease. A fungus (Apiosporina morbosa) causes abnormal growth in the tree’s cells and the resulting burl like growths interfere with the transmission of water and minerals up from the roots and food down from the leaves. Because of this trees with black knot almost always die from it eventually.

17. Horsetails

Horsetails (Equisetum hyemale) rise like spikes from the forest floor. These ancient plants are embedded with silica and are called scouring rushes. They are a great find when you are camping along a stream because you can use them to scour your cooking utensils. Running your finger over a stalk feels much like fine sandpaper.

18. Horsetail

In Japan they are boiled and dried and then used to smooth wood, and are said to produce a finish superior to any sandpaper. Horsetails produce spores in their cone shaped tips, but the examples in this spot rarely grow them. The stripes on them always remind me of socks.

19. Tree Moss

When old friends reunite it’s usually a joyous occasion and it certainly was on this day when I said hello to my old friends the tree mosses (Climacium dendroides). They were right where they were last year, toughly hanging on inches above the water despite all the flooding they’ve seen. The stream bank where they grow is just high enough to be a perfect sit down spot and I can sit beside them comfortably for as long as I wish, admiring their beauty while listening to the chuckles and giggles of the stream. There is no place I’d rather be and nothing that could make me happier, and I could sit here for hours.

20. Tree Moss

Like music for the eyes are these little mosses. It is their shape that gives tree mosses their common name but it is their inner light that draws me here to see them. Some plants seem to shine and pulse with a love of life, and this is one of those. As I sat admiring their beauty we burned with the same flame for a time and loved life together.

Go out, go out I beg of you
And taste the beauty of the wild.
Behold the miracle of the earth
With all the wonder of a child.
~Edna Jaques

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