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Posts Tagged ‘Oriental Bittersweet Berries’

I’m still taking vacation days from work to use them up before I retire and that’s a good thing, because the weather forecast was for dangerous wind chills of -30 F last Saturday. Flesh freezes in 15 minutes in that kind of cold, I believe the weather people said, so instead of testing their accuracy I opted for a Friday walk, when the temperature was a balmy 36 degrees F. I chose a rail trail in Swanzey that I knew would have packed snow from snowmobiles, but I was surprised to see the summer gate still up. It’s there to keep wheeled vehicles off the rail trails in warmer months but is lowered in winter for snowmobiles. Still, there it was. In any event the snow had still been well packed by snowmobiles.

I like this trail because it still has a lot of the old railroad artifacts still here, like this whistle post. The W on the post told the engineer to blow his whistle or horn to warn traffic on the road up ahead. Where I grew up it was two shorts and a long on a horn and I could hear it inside the house with all the windows and doors closed. I used to love seeing those trains, so much so that I spent years building an HO scale model train layout.

Something else left out here from the railroad days is the stiff wire stock fencing they used to keep animals off the tracks. Miles and miles of it were strung along each side of the right of way, usually on stout metal posts, but in this instance a wooden fence post was used, and it showed its age beautifully, I thought.

Slowly, it was becoming hollow. The railroad came through this area about 150 years ago, and I wondered if this post had stood here all of that time. It looked like it might have so maybe it was black locust, which is known to last 100 years or more in the ground.

I saw many wood aster seed heads here and I noticed that many had been eaten, so that made me happy. Cardinals, chickadees, goldfinches, indigo buntings, nuthatches, sparrows, towhees and other birds are said to enjoy aster seeds, so that’s a good reason to let them grow rather than treating them as weeds.

The birds had picked this flower clean except for one tiny seed, and that was perfect so I could show you what an aster seed looks like. It has a little tuft of filaments at the top which acts as a parachute. When a seed hits the ground the wind can catch in the filament parachute and blow the seed along the ground to a spot where it can grow.

This is the second time in recent months that I’ve seen a bird’s nest in a shrub overrun with Oriental bittersweet. I can see how the invasive vine’s many leaves would provide good cover, but since the berries don’t appear until late fall, I doubt it has anything to do with the nesting bird eating them. It would be nice for the mama bird if she could just sit in the nest and eat the berries that surrounded her but nature doesn’t work that way. There is plenty to eat but they have to go and find it.

What does Oriental bittersweet do when there are no trees around to strangle? It strangles itself.

As I began paying closer attention when I was in the woods and became more aware of my surroundings, I noticed things on trees in winter that didn’t seem to be there in the summer. At least that’s what I thought but no, they were there all the time. It was just that they became more visible in the winter, like the way frullania liverworts darken to a dark purple color in the winter. All of the sudden the trees were covered by these dark spots, so I began looking at them closely.

The tiny leaves of frullania liverworts are strung together like beads. Some of them are said to be very fragrant but I haven’t been able to smell them yet. There are over 800 species of this liverwort. I haven’t tried to identify them but I have noticed that the ones I see must like high humidity, because they never grow too far from water.

This drainage ditch looked to be frozen solid. The black spots on the snow are hemlock seeds and scales from the cones. Birds and squirrels had been busy.

Not all of the drainage ditches were solidly frozen, so I got to see some beautiful patterns in the ice.

Beech leaves are falling I’ve noticed, and while I’ll miss seeing them I know they’re letting go so new leaves can appear in the spring. Seeing buds breaking on a beech tree is one of the great gifts of spring in a northern forest. How very beautiful they are as they unfold from the bud like silvery angel’s wings.

I saw a pheasant feather in the snow; the first I’ve ever seen that was not on a bird. This bird had met an untimely end, judging from what I saw just out of camera range to the left. I’ve learned to be at peace with seeing death in nature. Sometimes, as in the case of some fungi and trees I’ve seen, death can even be beautiful. As John Muir said “Let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life.”  

If you happened to be standing on top of a moving train, not knowing there was a bridge or tunnel up ahead, that probably wouldn’t have turned out well. To solve the problem the railroad came up with what they called “Tell tales.” They were lengths of soft, pencil thick wire that would hit you and “tell the tale” of a low obstruction up ahead. If you were smart you would drop to your knees immediately. These wires used to hang on either end of tunnels and trestles. I used to see them regularly when I was a boy but now this is the last one I know of.

The railroad engineers often used what they had at hand, like splitting boulders and ledges to get useable stone for building. In the case of tell tales they simply stood a section of rail on end and sank it into the ground. Then they added a rod that stood 90 degrees to the rail and hung the wires from it.

And here was the old trestle, just like the one that was near my house when I was a boy. Back then there was no solid floor like the snowmobile clubs have installed these days. Instead there were wooden ties, spaced just as far apart as they were on the railbed, and between each pair, far below, you could see the water. This was a fence when I was young, and it prevented me exploring the land of mystery to the south. I was told that little boys who weren’t careful could fall between the railroad ties and end up in the river, and for a while that possibility was an insurmountable fear. At six, seven or eight years old I was probably thin enough to actually fit between the wooden ties but I kept trying, going further and further out on the trestle, all the while hoping that a train didn’t come. Then one day at maybe twelve years old I made it across and I was free to explore the far side of the river. It was like a great space had suddenly opened around me, and I’ll never forget how happy I was about being able to see more of the river and the woods along its banks.

I looked at the Ashuelot River through a silver maple, which seems to lean just a bit more each time I come here.

There was ice along the riverbanks and since we’ve had below zero cold since I was there, I’m guessing it has grown some. It will grow from each shore and meet somewhere near the middle if it stays cold enough.

The snowmobile club had put up a warning sign on a pine tree, but I was more interested in the burl behind it.

Burl is an abnormal growth that grows faster than the surrounding tree tissues. They are thought to grow on trees that have been weakened by stress or damage.  Once the tree’s defenses have been weakened insects and /or fungi can attack and cause the abnormal growth. I see them all the time on hardwoods but not usually on evergreens. Woodworkers can make some beautiful things from burls.

You know it has been cold when the sap of white pines turns blue.

I finally found a fresh blueberry stem gall and all signs pointed to the tiny wasps still living inside, because when the wasps have left the gall, the sides are shot full of small round holes. Blueberry stem gall forms when a shiny black wasp called Hemadas nubilipennis damages a bud while laying her eggs on the tip of a tender shoot. The plant responds to the damage by growing a kidney shaped gall around the eggs, and this is where the larvae will overwinter before emerging as adults in the spring.

But not so fast. There was one very large hole in the end of the gall and that told me a bird, possibly a woodpecker, had robbed the gall of all the wasp larvae. I’ve seen this happen to the round galls on goldenrod and have seen black capped chickadees pecking at those. This gall and its inhabitants appear to be done for but someday I hope to be able to show you a fresh inhabited one.

My favorite thing from this day was this stump. No bigger around than a tennis ball where it was cut but it looked as if it had been there for a thousand years. It’s a good thing I have never found a way to bring all of the beautiful wooden things that I find in the woods home with me because I wouldn’t be able to move.

I don’t mind going nowhere, as long as it’s an interesting path. ~Ronald Mabbitt

Thanks for coming by.

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Two days before I went on a walk down a rail trail in Keene temps were in the 50s F and the sun was shining. Then we had a storm and though some parts of the state saw eight inches of snow we saw about an inch and a half of glop. Glop, for those who don’t have to deal with it, is snow, rain and sleet all falling in the same storm. It freezes into white concrete and about all you can do with it is wait for some sunshine to come and melt it away.

As soon as I stepped onto the trail I was getting mixed messages. While someone wore Yak Tracks….

…. someone else rode a bike. I supposed I’d have to find out for myself if it was icy or not. It was certainly cold enough for ice at 30 degrees, and with the strong breeze coming over the hills to the west, it felt more like 20. You have to give weather like this a chance if you are going to be a nature nut, and you give it a chance by being smart about it and dressing for it. I was dressed for it and I knew that, once I started seeing things that grabbed my interest, I wouldn’t feel cold at all.

Sure enough though it was a gray, bleak looking day there were plenty of warm colors to be seen and all thoughts of cold left me when I saw a tree full of bright orange-red crap apples. Not a single one had been touched by birds and that may have been because they were quite large for a crabapple. I doubted any bird I know could swallow one. Also, though it grew here “wild” it might not have been a native crabapple. Many crab apples are ornamental cultivars that birds just don’t like. Some other cultivars have fruit that birds will eat only after it has frozen and thawed several times. For whatever reason they didn’t like these, even though there are usually birds everywhere out here.

These hazelnut catkins were encased in ice and that told me that it must have rained and then gotten cold fast. I can’t explain the hair. Maybe it’s not a hair at all. It could be a bit of silk left by a spider. Whatever it is I see things just like it everywhere I go, on all types of plants.

Virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana) grows long feathery filaments called styles on its seeds (fruits) so the wind can carry them long distances. Botanically speaking these “seeds” are achenes, which are fruits with one seed. But how can the wind carry them away when they’re always wet, as they have been this year? Now they aren’t just wet, they’re frozen together. Maybe they’ll just wait for spring. Meteorological spring, which starts on March first, is only 69 days away. Astronomical spring will take a bit longer and that’s why I prefer meteorological spring. Meteorological spring is based on temperature cycles for a three-month period when temperatures are similar, as in March, April and May. Summer is June, July and August and fall is September, October and November. Winter of course, is what is left.

Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) grows all along this trail and though its berries add a bright spot of color in winter it is terribly invasive.

Almost all of this mass of vines seen here is Oriental bittersweet. They twine around trees with the strength of steel cables to get to the tree’s crown where there is more sunlight. Once there they compete with the tree for light while strangling it from below. Eventually the tree dies and falls over, and I’ll never understand how that benefits the bittersweet, which wants all the sunshine it can get.

This hole was probably six to eight inches across, and I thought it looked like a woodchuck’s hole. I didn’t see any tracks around it though so it might just be an escape tunnel, but someone falling into it could break an ankle.

A birch polypore lived up to the name of “shelf fungus.” There was a group of them at the base of this tree which had all had bites taken out of them. I’d guess by squirrels, but specific information about which animals eat this fungus is very hard to come by.

A tree had fallen and I was surprised to see that its upper branches had fomed a witch’s broom. The only other tree this big that I’ve seen with a witches’ broom was an old white pine that has since fallen. Witches’ broom is a deformity described as a “dense mass of shoots growing from a single point, with the resulting structure resembling a broom or a bird’s nest.” Witches’ broom can cause desirable dwarfism and increased branching in some plants. In fact, many well known dwarf evergreen shrubs are the result of witches’ broom.  For example, Montgomery Dwarf Blue Spruce is one of the best dwarf blue spruces, and it is from a witches’ broom. Though this tree had lost almost all its bark I think it was a black birch (Betula lenta).

Mount Monadnock off to the east had its head in the clouds. I had my head in the clouds too whaen I was a teenager and one of my major dreams as was to pick up where Henry David Thoreau left off and finish cataloging the wildflowers that grew on the mountain. Then one day I helped the ladies of the Keene Garden Club plant wildflowers on the mountain’s flanks to reestablish some species which were thought to have once grown there and that’s when I saw that, even if you lived three lifetimes you wouldn’t have time to find and catalog every flower that grew there. That’s a big mountain.

The wide ditch that runs alongside the railbed has been full of water all year long. We’ve had more rain than I can ever remember.

Often in the fall deer tongue grass (Dichanthelium clandestinum) will turn many colors, with maroon, purple and orange or yellow sometimes on the same leaf. It’s quite pretty and I’ve searched high and low to find some so I could show it to you but every plant I’ve seen has been uniformly tan, just as these were. It seems kind of odd after seeing them so colorful all of my life.

There are lots of staghorn sumac berries (Rhus typhina) out here that the birds haven’t eaten but they’ll probably be gone by spring. I’ve read that they’re low in fat so they aren’t a bird’s first choice.

Sumac means red in many of the old languages and that makes perfect sense because everything about it is red. Even these long dead staghorn sumac leaves still held their red color. The plant is said to be rich in tannins and dyes in colors like salmon and plum can be made from it.

Sumacs fall over regularly and whenever I see one, I look at the inner bark to see the rich red color but the color only lasts for a short time and I found none of it on this tree. I did some reading about sumac wood when I got home and found that wooden flutes can be made of it.

I can’t remember ever seeing invasive burning bushes (Euonymus alatus) out here when I was younger but there are a few here now. Usually the bracts that cover the berries are black but on this plant they were bright red. I’ve never seen this on a wild (escaped) plant.

These Virginia creeper berries (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) made me shiver but I wondered why they hadn’t been eaten. They and the Oriental bittersweet and burning bush berries we’ve seen are usually among the first to go. I’ve seen hawks flying around in this area and I wonder if they’ve scared all the birds away.

Common greenshield lichen (Flavoparmelia caperata) is very common and can be found on many of the trees here. 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. They often have patches of granular soredia on them as this one did. A soredium is a tiny granular ball of fungal hyphae and algal cells. They can grow on the body of the lichen or on its margins and might eventually fall off to make new lichens. No matter what living thing you find in nature it’s always about the continuation of the species, and the will to survive is strong in all of the things I see.

Leaves shivered and rattled in the strong breeze. Though they were maple they spoke beech. A man came walking down the trail as I was taking this photo and said good morning. I retuned his greeting and remarked on the cold. “Yes” he said, “it’s cold, but it’s white.” Must be a winter lover, I thought. I’m not a winter hater but at that point I’d had enough to last for a while, so I turned for home.

The splendor of Silence—of snow-jeweled hills and of ice. ~Ingram crockett

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According to statistics November is on average the cloudiest month in this part of the country, but as you can see by the above photo not every day is totally cloudy. This was one of those blue sky, white puffy cloud days and I took this photo because of the clouds. That lower one was growing quickly and I thought it might become a thunderhead, but it never did. It just got bigger.

Many of the photos in this post were taken before the snowstorm I showed in the last post. Snow or not I won’t be seeing anymore fleabane flowers for a few months now. It’s just too cold now for flowers.

November can be a very cold month, when we start to really realize that winter is right around the corner. Frost on the windows helps remind us of that, and I caught this frost crystal growing on my car winshield. They’re beautiful things that most of us pay no attention to.

Ponds are starting to freeze up as well. Bright sunshine has little real warmth in November unless it is coupled with a southerly breeze.

I went to the river to see if any ice baubles had formed along the shore but I got sidetracked for a bit by the beautiful light.

I’ve never seen this stretch of water look gold and blue like it did on this morning.

It was like seeing molten light. None of these colors have been enhanced by me. Nature did all the enhancing.

And on another, colder day, there were ice baubles growing along the shore. If you’ve ever made a candle, you know that you dip the wick in hot wax over and over again, letting the wax harden between dips. If you think of the twigs as wicks, you can see how every wave crest “dips” the twigs in water and the cold air hardens that water into ice. Over time, ice baubles like those seen here form.

Twigs aren’t the only thing that the ice forms on. Anything that the water splashes on over and over will ice up.

The ice baubles are usually as clear as blown glass but on this day a lot of them had air bubbles trapped inside. Many of these examples were nearly round as well but they’re often more pear shaped. Along a river or stream is the only place I’ve ever seen them form in this way, though I suppose they could form anywhere where there is splashing water in winter.

On shore, the sun lit up an oak leaf beautifully.

Some of the biggest oak leaves I’ve ever seen belong to the swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor.) This is a rare species in the woods here but in 2010 the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services removed a 250-year-old timber crib dam in this section of river, and when they replanted the river banks, they chose swamp white oak as one of the tree species. Though the trees are barely 10 feet tall this leaf must have been 8 inches long. Brown is the fall color for the leaves of this oak. The New Hampshire state record for the largest swamp white oak is held by a tree in Swanzey. It is 67 feet tall and has a circumference of 192 inches. That’s 16 feet, so I’m not sure if even 4 people could link hands around a tree that size.

One characteristic of swamp white oak is peeling bark on its branches, giving it a ragged look. On young trees like these even the bark of the trunk will peel, as it was on this example. Planting this species of tree here makes sense because it is tolerant of a variety of soil conditions and can stand drought or flood. The only thing they can’t bear is beavers, and these critters have cut down and hauled off many of them.

When I was taking photos of this tree’s branches I looked down and sure enough, beavers had been at its bark. This tree is a goner, I’m afraid. It has been girdled.

At this time of year, when the soil starts to freeze but before any snow falls, you can often hear the soil crunch when you walk on it. That’s the signal that you should get down on your hands and knees and peer down into those tiny frozen canyons. If you do you’re liable to find ice needles there, because the crunching you heard was probably them breaking. Several things have to happen before needle ice can form. First there has to be groundwater. Next, the air temperature has to fall below 32 degrees F right at the soil surface while the soil and groundwater remain thawed. Hydrostatic pressure forces the groundwater, sometimes super cooled, out of the soil where it freezes instantly into a “needle.” As more water is forced out of the soil the process is repeated over and over, and each needle grows in length because of more water freezing at its base. I’ve read that each thin needle is hexagonal in shape, and that needles have been found that were 16 inches long. The needles in these photos were 1-3 inches long I’d guess, and they were frozen into ribbons. They’re another of those gems of nature that many never see.

Puddle ice has been a friend of mine for a very long time. When I was a boy, after the snow melted in spring, I’d get my bike out and ride it to school. It was still cold enough for ice to form on the puddles and I used to think it was great fun to ride through them so I could hear the strange tinkling / crinkling sounds that the breaking ice made. I have since found out that the whiter the ice, the more oxygen was present in the water when it formed. These days instead of breaking the ice I look for things in it. This time I thought I saw a penguin in that curvy shape to the right of center.

I saw a pair of mallards but this is the only shot that came out useable. I thought this was unusual because usually one will tip up while the other stands guard and watches.

An oriental bittersweet vine had reached the top of a small tree and many of its berries had fallen into a bird’s nest, built where the branches met underneath the bittersweet. Birds love these berries but I think the bird that built this nest must be long gone for warmer climes. These vines are terribly invasive so the fewer berries eaten by birds, the better.

The birds have been eating the river grapes, finally.

They have plenty to eat. It has been an exceptional year for grapes and many other plants.

I love that shade of blue on juniper berries. A waxy coating called bloom reflects the light in a way that makes them that color. I always wonder how many gin drinkers know that the unique flavor in their drink comes from this plant’s fruits. Though they’re called berries, botanically speaking juniper fruits are actually fleshy seed cones. Unripe green berries are used to flavor gin and the ripe, deep purple-black berries are the only part of a conifer known to be used as a spice, often used on game like venison, moose and bear meat. Birds also love them so they won’t last long.

The winterberries (Ilex verticillata) are covered with berries this year. This native holly holds its berries through the winter and they look great against the white snow. They have a very low-fat content and birds won’t eat them until other fruits with higher fat contents have been eaten. Other plants that fruit in the fall like maple leaf viburnum, high bush cranberry, and staghorn sumac also produce fruit that is low in fat content. That’s why you often see these plants with the previous season’s berries still on them in the spring. Due to the light of the day all three cameras I carried had a hard time with these berries but I wasn’t surprised because red is one of the hardest colors for a camera to capture.

I found a very old hemlock log. The branches had been cut off long ago but the stubs that were left were amazing in their texture. It was if someone had carved them. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this before.

Orange fan shaped jelly fungi (Dacryopinax spathularia) grew on the dark end of a log and looked like tiny lights. Actually they were more nose shaped than spatula shaped but I’ve found that fungi don’t always live up to what they were named. In the winter they’re a pretty spot of color in a white world.

But for color in winter turkey tails (Trametes versicolor) have to take the prize. These examples were beautiful, and they wore my favorite turkey tail color combinations.

I saw this foreboding sky at dawn one morning. I thought it was beautiful and I hope you’ll think so too.

In a few blinks you can almost see the winter fairies moving in
But first, you hear the crackle of their wings. ~Vera Nazarian

Thanks for stopping in.

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