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Posts Tagged ‘Pussy Willow Catkins’

Every day I drive by a wooded area that has had some changes come to it over the past year. About a year ago a huge machine came along and chewed its way through what was once a nearly impenetrable forest. Okay I thought, let’s see what they do next. But they did nothing, and what you see above is what is left. Why, I wondered, would they go to all that trouble to chew their way into the woods and then not do anything with the now empty space? I had an idea, so I decided to go exploring.

This particular piece of forest borders a large wetland and as the above stump shows, there is quite a lot of beaver activity here. I saw more stumps like this one than I could count. I wondered if the machine chewed through the forest to get at a beaver dam, so I kept going to see where it would lead.

They didn’t finish this one.

The ripples under the bark of the muscle wood (Carpinus caroliniana) tree are what give it its common name. It is also called American hornbeam, blue beech, and ironwood. It’s in the hazelnut family and the name iron wood comes from its dense, hard and heavy wood that even beavers won’t usually touch. At least I’ve never seen them touch it until this day; virtually every tree they had cut was ironwood. How odd is that? I asked myself.

Female iron wood catkins form in pairs at the ends of the branches and are about a half inch long with a leaf-like bract. Last year’s bracts are  what is seen in the above photo. The bracts eventually grow to 1 inch or more long, becoming 3-lobed with smooth or irregularly toothed edges. They look like leafy butterflies.

The forest eating machine had come quite a way into the forest, I was surprised to see. It had to stop somewhere though, or it would sink into the swamp. I kept following the trail.

I noticed that all the evergreen ferns had magically lain themselves flat on the forest floor. Quite often snow will flatten them but we really haven’t had much snow. Maybe it was the three or four ice storms we had. In any case new fiddleheads will be along to replace them at any time now.

Well, here was the swamp and as I thought it marked the end of the forest chewer’s progress. But I didn’t see a beaver lodge or dam. Do they put on waders and walk in from here? I wondered.

I think the reason for all of this worry about beaver activity is because of this stream that flows into the swamp. It flows under a busy road and when we’ve had a lot of rain it can flood quickly. I’ve seen it washing over the road several times. If there is a beaver dam on it it’s even more likely to flood.

Since I was here I decided to explore along the stream. This entire area is a drainage for the surrounding hills and smaller streams join the larger one all along its length. Eventually all of the water finds its way to the Ashuelot River, then the Connecticut River, and then on to the Atlantic, so all the water that passed me on this day will join that great sea before long.

The water here is very clean and clear and the stream bed is gravel with very few aquatic plants growing in it.

There are so many river grapes (Vitis riparia) along this stream you often have to weave your way through the old, thick vines that grow into the treetops. I always like to see what I can see in their tendrils. I’ve seen Hindu dancers, fanciful animals and many other things. On this day I saw the beckoner, which held its arm out as if to beckon me close to it so it could give me a hug. River grapes are known for their ability to withstand cold and have been known to survive -57 degrees F. That makes them a favorite choice for the rootstock of many well-known grape varieties. We have about 20 native species of wild grape in the U.S. and Native Americans used them all. The fruit is usually too acidic to eat from the vine so they mostly made juice and jelly from them. They were also used to dye baskets a violet gray color.

Tree mosses (Climacium dendroides) grow along the stream but it’s getting harder to get to them all the time because what was once a streamside trail has become a brushy maze that I have to weave my way through. They are cheery mosses that look like little palm trees, and they always glow with a beautiful inner light, so they’re worth the effort. By this stream is the only spot I’ve ever found them so they aren’t common in this area, but I’m happy to see that they’ve spread quite well where they grow. They must not mind being under water for a time because this stream floods once or twice a year.

Rough horsetails (Equisetum hyemale) also grow along the stream, and like the tree moss this is the only place I’ve ever seen them. 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.

Japanese honeysuckles (Lonicera japonica) are already leafing out but I wasn’t surprised. Many invasive plants get a jump on natives by leafing out and blooming earlier.

I saw more hazelnut catkins (Corylus americana) turned to gold but none of the male flowers were peeking out yet.

I’m seeing more and more female hazelnut blossoms though. I’m surprised that they don’t wait until the male flowers open before appearing. That’s the way alders do it.

I saw some willow catkins but they weren’t anywhere near as far along as others I’ve seen. It could be the shade here that’s holding them back or it could be the plants themselves. If every willow bloomed at the same time and we had a frost there would be no seed production, so willows and many other shrubs and trees stagger their bloom time so that can’t happen.

The biggest surprise for me on this day was finding what I believe is a marsh marigold plant growing in the sand beside the stream. I searched for marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris) for many years and never found a single one until I found one growing in a roadside ditch a couple of years ago. The ditch was reconstructed the following year and there went the plant so I lost hope of ever seeing another one. They are rare here in my experience and I was very happy to finally see another one. I’ll come back in early May to see if it’s old enough to bloom. I’d love to see those pretty yellow flowers again.

It is very important to go out alone, to sit under a tree—not with a book, not with a companion, but by yourself—and observe the falling of a leaf, hear the lapping of the water, the fishermen’s song, watch the flight of a bird, and of your own thoughts as they chase each other across the space of your mind. If you are able to be alone and watch these things, then you will discover extraordinary riches which no government can tax, no human agency can corrupt, and which can never be destroyed. ~ Jiddu Krishnamurti

Thanks for stopping in. I hope everyone is healthy and doing the best they can in these unusual circumstances we find ourselves in. From what I’ve read most states and countries, even when they say you should self-quarantine, say that people can get out for some exercise. I can’t think of any better way to get some exercise and calm yourself down than taking a nice walk in the woods. There is a difference between intelligence and wisdom and though 21st century man may be clever he isn’t very wise, and that’s because he has lost touch with nature. In any event whatever you do and wherever you do it, please stay safe and try to be calm. This too shall pass.

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It certainly appears that spring is upon us but those of us who have been around for a few decades are always wary of a false spring. A false spring, for those who don’t know, is a period of unusual warmth in late winter or early spring that can last long enough to bring plants and animals out of dormancy. When the normal cold temperatures return, sometimes weeks later, the plants and animals that have woken early are taken by surprise and can suffer. I haven’t seen any alarming signs of plants waking early but the bears and skunks are awake, and they’re hungry. The Fish and Game Department has been telling us to stay out of the way of the bears, which is surely good advice even if it is common sense. One of the signs of spring that I’ve always enjoyed is the way willows turn golden, as the one in the above photo has. There is a species of willow from Europe and Asia called golden willow (Salix alba vitellina) but I have no way of knowing if this tree is that one.

Another tree I always love seeing in spring is the red maple, with all of its globular red buds standing out against a blue sky. Each season seems to have its own shade of blue for the sky. A spring sky isn’t quite as crisp as a winter sky but it is still beautiful. The level of humidity in the air can make a difference in the blue of a sky because water vapor and water droplets reflect more of the blue light back into space. This means we see less blue than we do when water vapor is at a lower level. The scientific term for this phenomenon is “Mie scattering.” The sun’s angle can also make a difference in how much of the blue we see.

I found these red maple buds near the Ashuelot River in Keene and was surprised to see so much red on them. The purple bud scales slowly open to reveal more and more red and soon after this stage the actual flowers will begin to show. The flowers open at different times even on the same tree, so the likelihood of them all being wiped out by a sudden cold snap is slim. Early settlers used red maple bark to make ink, and also brown and black dyes. Native Americans used the bark medicinally to treat hives and muscle aches. Tea made from the inner bark was used to treat coughs. 

We have sugar maples where I work and someone broke a twig on one of them. The other day I noticed it was dripping sap, so syrup season is under way.

I didn’t see any dandelions blooming but that’s only because I was late getting there. There were three plants in one small area with seed heads all over them. I’ve seen them bloom in January and March but never in February, so I would have liked to have seen them.

The skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) are happy in their swamp. Bears that come out of hibernation early will sometimes eat skunk cabbages but not much else bothers them. There is little  for bears to at this time of year but a helpful reader wrote in and said that they also dig up and eat the roots of cattails. When I was taking these photos a small flock of ducks burst from the cattails not five feet from me. You won’t need a defibrillator when that happens I’ll tell you, but what struck me most about it was the sound of snarling just before the flock hit the sky. I wonder if they were being stalked by a bobcat when I came along and ruined its hunt. If so I never saw it but it was an angry snarl that didn’t sound like any duck I’ve ever heard.  

Through a process called thermogenesis skunk cabbages are able to generate temperatures far higher than the surrounding air. You can often see evidence of skunk cabbage having melted their way through several inches of solid ice. I saw plenty of the splotchy spathes but I didn’t see any that had opened to reveal the flower studded spadix within.

I went to one of my favorite places to find pussy willows and found that they had all been cut down. Luckily I know of more than one place to see them but I had to wonder why anyone would have cut them. Unless you get the roots they’ll grow right back, bushier than ever. I’ve seen willow shoots even grow from cut willow logs, so strong is their life force.

Another fuzzy bud is the magnolia, but I’m scratching my head over what is going on here. The bud scales of the magnolia are fuzzy and gray and they open and fall off when the flowers open, but here it looks like the bud scales have opened to reveal more bud scales. Could the open scales still be there from last spring? Hard to believe but possible, I suppose.

I saw some alder catkins that were still covered with the natural glue that protects the flower buds. Each brown convex bit seen here is a bud scale which will open to let the male flowers bloom. Between the bud scales is a grayish, waterproof “glue” that keeps water out. If water got in and froze, all the tiny flower buds inside would be killed. Many plants use this method to protect their buds.

You can see the same “glue” on the buds of American Elms. Also sugar maples, poplars, lilacs, and some oaks protect the buds in this way. I assume that the warming temperatures melt this waxy glue in spring so the bud scales can open.

In places with a southern exposure the snow pulls back away from the forest, and this happens because the overhanging branches have reduced the amount of snow that made it to the ground along the edges of the woods.

Though the grass in the previous shot was brown I did see some green.

I also saw some mud. They might not seem like much but green grass and mud really get the blood pumping in people who go through the kind of winters we can have here. When I was growing up it wasn’t uncommon to have shoulder deep paths through the snow drifts and 30 degree below zero F. (-34.4 C)  temperatures. In those days seeing mud in spring could make you dance for joy. But then mud season came so we put on our boots. Mud season turns our dirt roads into car swallowing quagmires each spring for a month or so.

One of the theories of why evergreen plant leaves turn purple in winter is because they don’t photosynthesize, they don’t need to produce chlorophyll. Another says the leaves dry slightly because the plant doesn’t take up as much water through its roots in winter. It is called “winter bronzing” and whatever the cause it can be beautiful, as these swamp dewberry (Rubus hispidus) leaves show. Before long they’ll go back to green and grow on without having been harmed at all.

The hairy, two part valvate bud scales of the Cornellian cherry are always open just enough to allow a peek inside. The gap between the bud scales will become more yellow as the season progresses and finally clusters of tiny star like yellow flowers will burst from the bud. These buds are small, no bigger than a pea. I’m not sue what the hairs or fibers on the right side are all about. I’ve never seen them on these buds before. Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) is an introduced ornamental flowering shrub related to dogwoods. It blooms in early spring  and has a long history with mankind; its sour red fruit has been eaten for over 7000 years, and the Persians and ancient Romans knew it well.

Daffodil leaves that have been weakened by the cold will often be yellowed and translucent but these looked good and heathy and green. Even if the plant loses its leaves to cold it can still bloom but since it has to photosynthesize to produce enough energy to bloom it probably won’t do so the following year. It might take it a year or two to recover.

I didn’t expect to see tulip leaves but there were several up in this sunny bed.

I know I just showed some lilac buds in my last post but these looked like they had been sculpted by an artist. I thought they were very beautiful and much more interesting than the plain green buds I usually see. You can see all of life, all of creation right here in these buds. Maybe that’s why I’ve spent all of my life watching lilac buds in spring.

I’ll close this post with a look at another venal witch hazel blossom, because it is a very rare thing to see flowers of any kind blooming here in February. They’re tiny little blossoms but their beauty is huge.

When spring came, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest. ~ Ernest Hemingway

Thanks for stopping in.

 

 

 

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On Friday the 10th of January it started warming up, and it didn’t stop until the temperature reached 62 degrees F. and all the snow was gone and all the records were broken. January thaws usually last for about a week and temperatures rise an average of 10° F higher than those of the previous week but this was a thaw to remember, with temperatures rising 30 degrees or more. I think of a January thaw as a taste of spring in the dead of winter, and it is always welcome.

Snow was coming off roofs in lacy sheets because of the ice underneath.

I followed an ice covered road by a pond and by the time I walked back, in the space of a half hour most of the ice you see here had melted.

The ice on the pond was melting quickly and was covered with water. When it freezes again it will be a great surface for skating.

On a day like this it was easy to think of red wing blackbirds building nests in the cattails at the pond edges, but they won’t really be back for a couple of months.

North of Keene you could see it was still January on the banks of the Ashuelot River but that snow was thin and I’d guess that it is all gone now.

You can see how thin the snow was in the woods. I’d guess no more than two inches, and two inches melts fast in 60 degree weather.

The high water mark along the river showed that there was plenty of room for all the melting snow.

The Ashuelot River south of Keene looked completely different than the photo I took of it in the north of Keene and they were taken just a few hours apart. This view looks more like March.

The melting ice and snow has uncovered a bounty for animals. It was a good year for acorns.

Spring has always been my favorite season so for me a thaw is also a tease that lights the pilot light of spring fever. Seeing pussy willows in January fuels the flames.

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. 

I went to see a witch hazel that I had seen bloom quite late before and there it was, blooming again. This is unusual because it’s a fall blooming witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana.) At this time of year I’d more expect to see a spring blooming witch hazel in bloom.

But no, the spring blooming witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) buds were still closed up tight. They’ll bloom in March, and I can’t wait to see them again.

I was shocked to see what I think are reticulated iris (Iris reticulata) shoots out of the ground. These irises are early, sometimes even earlier than crocuses, but I have a feeling they’ll pay dearly for believing it was spring in January.

The big flower heads of Hydrangeas can usually be seen blowing across the ground like tumbleweeds in spring, but these stayed put.  

Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata) loses its berries over winter and in the spring you can find the ground under them littered with small blue spheres. These examples were still hanging on tight, so they hadn’t been fooled by the warmth. Boston ivy lends its name to the “ivy league” schools. The odd thing about Boston ivy is its name, because it isn’t from Boston and it isn’t an ivy; it’s a member of the grape family and comes from China and Japan. This vine attaches to just about any vertical surface with tiny circular pads that form at the ends of its tendrils.  It secretes calcium carbonate and uses it to “glue” the pads to the surface it wants to climb. The glue can to hold up to 260 times its own weight, which is pretty remarkable.

The magnolia flower buds still wore their fuzzy caps and I was glad to see it. I’ve seen lots of beautiful magnolia blossoms browned over the years by opening early and getting frost bitten.

There wasn’t any ice to be seen at Ashuelot falls. The falls are shaded for a large part of the day so any ice that forms here often stays for the winter, but not this time.

The warm spell was a nice respite from the cabin fever that always starts to set in around mid-January. Forty degrees above our average high lets us catch our breath and prepare for more winter weather. We all know there is plenty of winter left to come but for now a taste of spring was just what we needed. Everywhere I went there were people outside, loving it.

The sun came out,
And the snowman cried.
His tears ran down
On every side.
His tears ran down
Till the spot was cleared.
He cried so hard
That he disappeared.

~ Margaret Hillert

Thanks for stopping in.

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