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Posts Tagged ‘Pussy Willows’

I hope everyone can stand seeing more ice covered water because we have an awful lot of it here right now. This is a little pond I visit often in summer but I don’t think I’ve done so in winter, so I thought I’d give it a go. In summer it is full of fragrant white water lilies, and great blue heron, Canada geese, and ducks visit it often. I’ve seen mink and beaver here as well, so it seems to be a popular place with wildlife of all kinds. The pond ice was very shiny because we had a day of rain and warmth and then everything re-froze.

The rain washed a lot of the snow away again. It’s been going this way since November, with cold and snow one week and warmth and rain the next.

Not all the snow had disappeared but the top layer of this snow had and the tunnels of a mouse or vole became visible. There is a lot more activity under snow than a lot of people realize.

Near the shore the ice was thin and full of lacy patterns.

There are a lot of alders around the pond. You can often tell an alder from quite a distance because of all the tongue gall that grows on the female seed cones, called strobiles. They are what make these large dark bunches on the branches.

The male alder catkins (On the right) are starting to show some color. It will be a while before the much smaller female catkins on the left show any. Once they bloom tiny scarlet threads, which are the female flowers, will poke out from between the scales on the catkins. I watch for the male catkin’s release of pollen to know when to look for the almost microscopic female flowers.

Though I don’t know if this is one of their nests red winged blackbirds nest here in great numbers, and they aren’t afraid to protect their nests by flying all around your head.

They’ll use the downy seeds from the many cattails around the pond to line their nests with. This is where I first saw a female red winged blackbird grab a big white grub out of a dead cattail stem. I’ve seen them do the same in other places since. I had no idea that grubs were in cattail stems and I still don’t know what insect they turn into.

I could see a lot of plant growth under the ice.

I could also see thousands of bubbles in the ice and I wondered if they were coming from the plants.

Here was something I’ve never seen on a pond; the huge slab of ice on the right had broken away from that on the left and had fallen about 3 or 4 inches. That tells me there must be quite an air space under the ice. This happens regularly on rivers but not on ponds that I’ve seen. The ice was noisy on this day and was cracking, creaking, groaning, and grinding. If you’ve never heard the eerie sounds that ice can make you really should walk by a frozen pond or lake. You’ll hear things you’ve never heard.

You could have knocked me over with a feather when I saw these pussy willows. In January!

Much of January was warm but I didn’t think it was warm enough to coax plants into bloom. Since we’re supposed to drop below zero again this week spring might be a little different this year. I would think that extreme cold would kill off these buds, but maybe not. They do have nice fur coats.

I saw a very strange pouch like web or cocoon on a tree. It wasn’t very big; about the diameter of a pencil or maybe a little bigger. I’ve never seen anything like it and couldn’t find anything that looked like it online so I wrote to insect expert Charley Eiseman and sent him the photo. In about 5 minutes he had written back and explained that this is a tussock moth cocoon, probably made by the white marked tussock moth. The caterpillar constructed it incorporating its own hairs into the design. Tussock moth caterpillars are very hairy and their hairs can cause a rash when touched, so I’m glad I didn’t touch it. Thanks very much to Charley for the help.

If you like seeing and reading about insects Charley’s blog is the place for you. It can be found at bugtracks.wordpress.com

That isn’t water. It’s ice and yes, it was as slippery as it looks. I didn’t think I’d need my micro spikes out here so I was bare soled and sliding.

I went off the road into the brush to look at something and got snagged on these, the sharp, ripping thorns of the multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora,) which is an invasive plant from China that seems bent on taking over the world. The raspberry plant-like blossoms appear in June by the hundreds and are extremely fragrant.

Of course each blossom turns into a rose hip and birds (and squirrels) love them. That’s why and how the plants spread like they do. They crawl up and over native shrubs and take up most of the available sunlight. The native shrub, deprived of light, eventually dies.

Overhead were thousands of red maple buds. It won’t be much longer before they start to open. It usually happens sometime in mid-March.

Milk white toothed polypores (Irpex lacteus) are resupinate fungi, which means they look like they grow upside down, and that’s what many crust fungi seem to do. This is a common winter mushroom with “teeth” that are actually ragged bits of spore producing tissue which start life as pores or tubes and break apart and turn brown as they age. This fungus can often be found on the undersides of hardwood branches but these examples grew on a stump. They seem to thrive in the cold but also seem to shun direct sunlight, because I often find them on the shaded side of whatever they’re growing on.

Geum urbanum is also called herb Bennet or wood avens, and it’s originally from Europe and the Middle East. The flowers are yellow with 5 petals and have the “look” of the avens family like our native white or yellow avens. But the seed heads are very different and that’s why I think this must be the seen head of Geum urbanum. According to what I’ve read the plant’s roots have the same compounds as the clove plant and are used as a spice in soups and for flavoring ale. Modern herbalists use the plant medicinally as it has been used for many centuries. The idea for Velcro came from a plant with barbed seeds much like this example.

I think the seeds of curly dock (Rumex crispus) are very pretty but I never thought I’d see them in January. There were quite a few plants here, all full of seeds. Though the leaves of curly dock are poisonous to sheep and cattle humans can eat it. The leaves are high in beta carotene, vitamin C, and zinc and the seeds are rich in calcium. Curly dock was an important vegetable during the great depression and the humble plant kept many people alive. They are said to have a lemony flavor.

The cold of winter does things to people and it also does things to plants. Sap from conifers like the white pine and certain spruces like that seen here is usually a honey, amber color but in winter the cold can turn it blue. The deeper the blue, the colder it’s been. It’s quite a beautiful cornflower blue on this tree at the moment and that might be because we’ve seen below zero cold.

All in all I found the pond to be the same quiet, serene place in winter that it is in summer. That should be surprising because this little pond is actually a man-made retention pond that holds water for firefighting, because there is a large mall just off the edge of some of these photos. It just goes to show once again that you don’t have to go very far to enjoy nature. It’s just outside.

Looking at the pond all I could think was that it is an incredible thing how a whole world can rise from what seems like nothing at all. ~Sarah Dressen

Thanks for coming by.

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1-half-moon-pond

February has shown us what a strange month it can be once again. After snow and cold in the first half of the month the temperatures suddenly shot up into the high sixties for the second half. This photo shows what happens when warm air meets the cold ice of a pond: fog; sometimes very heavy fog, as this was. On Saturday morning February 26th at 7:00 am it was close to sixty degrees and then warm enough to wear just a tee shirt by noon, which is just about unheard of in February in New Hampshire. By 8:00 pm they were saying we might see thunderstorms.

2-thin-ice-sign

The ice at a local skating pond became too thin to skate on but this has really been a problem throughout the state all winter, with many people falling through the ice this year. It never really got cold enough to form the kind of ice that is thick enough for vehicles to drive on and pickup trucks and many snowmobiles have gone through the ice, in some instances with fatal results.

3-icy-trail

Unfortunately not all of the ice was thin enough to melt. The warmth melted most of the snow quickly enough to cause a flood watch to go into effect but as this photo shows, when hard packed snow melts it can turn to ice. This trail was icy in spots and completely bare in others.

4-skunk-cabbage

What a welcome break the record breaking warmth was from the cold winds and deep snow. The skunk cabbages responded by sending up their flower spathes. Skunk cabbages can fool you into thinking they’re growing when you see the green sheath on the left, but it covers the leaf buds and appear in the fall. Only the mottled maroon and yellow flower spathe on the right shows new spring growth.

5-yellow-skunk-cabbage

Some flower spathes can show more yellow than maroon as this one does. Bears that come out of hibernation too soon will sometimes eat skunk cabbage. There is little else for them at this time of year.

6-mud

Why am I showing you mud? Because here in New Hampshire we have an unofficial 5th season called mud season. When the frost is 3 or 4 deep in the ground and the top two feet of a road thaws the melt water is sitting on frozen ground and has nowhere to go, and this results in a car swallowing quagmire that acts almost like quicksand. Those who live on unpaved roads have quite a time of it every year. The mud can sometimes be as much as 12-16 inches deep but I haven’t seen it that bad here yet this year. Quite often the mud gets bad enough to close unpaved roads and the logging and over the road shipping industries virtually grind to a halt until things dry out. Mud season has come early this year, so if you need a load of sand, gravel, loam, building materials or other such things you should be prepared to wait until April or May.

7-dandelion

I’ve seen dandelions blooming in January but that was during an extremely warm winter when the temperature barely fell below freezing. I’ve never seen one bloom this early after a winter like the one we’ve had. To say that I was surprised would be an understatement.

8-cress-blossom

Tiny white flowers bloomed in a lawn. They were so small that three or four of them could have been hidden behind a pea, so I had to kneel in the muddy grass to get a photo of them. I think it belongs to the cress family, which is large with many plants that look alike. It might be spring cress (Cardamine bulbosa,) but I’m really not sure.

9-crocus

These crocus blossoms were a real surprise because I’ve been checking crocus beds and have only seen the leaf tips poking out in all but this bed. I’ve also seen tulips leaves just out of the ground. They might be rushing things a bit.

10-daffodils

Last year these daffodils came up too early and got badly frost bitten. I fear that they’re repeating the same mistake this year, because we’ve gone from the 60s back down to the 30s now.

11-red-maple-buds

Huge swaths of forest bleed with a red haze from red maple buds (Acer rubrum) each spring and it’s starting to happen now.  I’ve tried to get photos of it from above and below, but so far I haven’t had any luck.

12-red-maple-buds

The bud scales on red maple buds can be deep purple in winter, but when it warms up in spring the scales pull back to reveal the tomato red buds they’ve been protecting, and that’s what causes the red haze seen on our forested hillsides. Seeing what must be millions of them together is a spring sight not soon forgotten.

13-pussy-willow-buds

I told myself I was on a fool’s errand the day I went to see if the pussy willow catkins were showing, but there they were. The single bud scales of what I think is the American pussy willow (Salix discolor) open in late winter to reveal the fuzzy gray male catkins. As these flowers age yellow stamens will appear and will begin releasing pollen. The bees will be buzzing at about that time and they will further cross pollinate the many willow varieties. Henry David Thoreau once said “The more I study willows, the more I am confused,” and I have to agree.

14-pussy-willow

The Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates wrote about the medicinal properties of willow in the fifth century BC, and Native Americans across North America used the plants medicinally for pain relief for many thousands of years. Finally in 1829 scientists discovered that a compound in the bark of willows called salicin was what relieved pain. Chemically, salicin resembles aspirin.

15-witch-hazwl-blossoms

I was surprised to see the spring (Vernal) witch hazel blooming so early. Though we do have a native vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis), it doesn’t grow naturally this far north, and since this one is in a park I’m betting it’s one of the cultivated witch hazels, so maybe it has been bred for early blooms. The other American witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) that is native to New England blooms in the fall and grows in the same park.

The Native American Mohegan tribes are believed to have been the first to show English settlers how to use Y-shaped witch hazel sticks for dowsing, an ancient method of finding underground water. Settlers all across the country used this method to find water and it was successful enough to be exported back to Europe. Its twigs are still used by dowsers in the same way today.

17-witch-hazwl-blossoms-close

The Native American Osage tribe used witch hazel bark to treat skin ulcers and sores and my father always kept a bottle of witch hazel ointment for his hands. Many people have most likely used witch hazel without even realizing it; it’s a chief ingredient of Preparation H. Studies have found active compounds in witch hazel such as flavonoids, tannins (hamamelitannin and proanthocyanidins), and volatile oils that give it astringent action to stop bleeding.

17-witch-hazwl-blossoms-close

Witch hazel blossoms are pollinated by owlet moths, which are active in winter and are called winter moths. These moths raise their body temperature by shivering. Their temperature can rise as much as 50 degrees and this allows them to fly and search for food when it’s cold.  I think these blossoms were ready for a visit from them.

18-orange-witch-hazel

I have to say that I’m not a fan of orange witch hazel blossoms because they aren’t as bright and cheery as the yellow ones, but when it comes to fragrance the orange flowers beat the yellow hands down. I know a spot on the local college grounds where several large orange flowered shrubs grow and on this day all I had to do was follow my nose, because their clean spicy fragrance could be detected from two blocks away. Someone said the fragrance was like that of clean laundry just off the line, but I think it’s even better than that, especially after a long winter. One shrub still had a nursery tag still on it that read “Hamamelis vernalis,” so they are our native vernal witch hazels. Odd that they don’t grow naturally this far north. They seem to do well here; these examples must be 10 feet tall. If I were planting witch hazels I’d mix the yellow and orange flowered varieties; one for cheer and one for fragrance.

19-puddle-ice

The paper thin white puddle ice that makes that strange tinkling sound when it’s broken always takes me back to my boyhood. Seeing this ice on puddles after a long winter meant that spring was here and though nights still got cold and icy, the days were warm and muddy. My spirits used to soar at the thought of spring when I was a boy and that’s something I’ve carried with me all of my life. The difference is now I look at the ice instead of breaking it to hear it tinkle, because I can see so much in it. The waves that formed it, bubbles and birds flying, mountains, distant suns, space and time; all are there for the seeing, but few take the time to look.

20-sap-buckets

As I write this last entry the thermometer reads 34 degrees, so our week long flirtation with high spring has ended. The dandelion blossom has probably been frost bitten and the witch hazels have most likely stored away their petals for another warm day, but 34 degrees is above freezing and that’s what maple syrup producers want. Days above freezing and nights below freezing get the tree sap flowing  and the sap buckets have been hung, so there’s no turning back now. True spring must surely be right around the corner.

It’s spring fever, that’s what the name of it is. And when you’ve got it, you want — oh, you don’t quite know what it is you do want, but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so! ~Mark Twain

Thanks for coming by. Happy March first!

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1. Ashuelot

Last Saturday we were blessed with wall to wall sunshine and a warm breeze out of the southwest that nudged the thermometer up towards 50 degrees. Even though it isn’t spring it was the perfect spring day, so I went off to see if nature was stirring. A week ago we had below zero cold and this stretch of the Ashuelot River in Swanzey had frozen nearly from bank to bank. As I stood looking out at the river on this day with a warm breeze in my face I wondered if I had dreamed the ice and dangerous cold of just seven days ago, so amazing was the difference.

2. Ice

There were still some slabs of ice on the river but they were melting quickly in the warn sunshine.

3. Frozen Stream

Even in the shade of the forest ice was melting, and how the birds did sing!

4. Maple with Sunglasses

Even the trees seemed to be in a spring time frame of mind.

5. Daffodils

I stopped by a local park and saw daffodils out of the ground everywhere I looked.

6. Orange Witch Hazel

I also saw some orange vernal witch hazel that was in full bloom. I’m not sure of its name but it was very fragrant and you could smell its fresh clean scent on the breeze. Someone once described witch hazel as smelling like clean laundry that has just been taken down from the clothesline, and I’d say that’s a fair description. After a long winter such a scent can seem like a small piece of heaven, right here on earth.

7. Yellow Witch Hazel

I hoped to see some yellow witch hazel flowers and I did see some color, but like a swimmer dipping his toe into a cold pond it hesitated, and just couldn’t seem to make up its mind.

8. Island

Speaking of cold ponds; there was still ice on Wilson Pond in Swanzey but it too was melting fast. This is the first winter I can remember when ice fisherman’s huts didn’t dot our lakes and ponds, but this year the ice just never grew thick enough to be safe. If we still lived in the days before refrigeration when ice was harvested from ponds for ice houses and ice boxes, we’d be seeing a meager harvest indeed. Food preservation would be on everyone’s mind right about now, I would think.

9. Skunk Cabbage Swamp

I also visited one of my favorite places to explore in the spring, and that’s the swamp where the skunk cabbages grow.

10. Skunk Cabbage

It seems like I always have to re-train my eyes in spring so it took me a while to find any skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus.) I finally saw this small blue-gray finger poking up out of the snow, which told me that the plants were up. I also stepped on a couple of plants that I didn’t see and they released their scent so I’d know what I had done. It isn’t as overpowering as actual skunk spray but it runs a close second.

11. Skunk Cabbage

The soil of the swamp felt frozen to walk on but even so before long I started seeing skunk cabbages everywhere. They don’t mind frozen soil because they produce their own heat through a process called thermogenesis, and can melt their way even through solid ice. Skunk cabbage is in the arum family and like most arums, inside the spathe is the spadix, which in the case of skunk cabbage is a one inch round, often pink or yellow stalked flower head from which the small flowers emerge. The flowers don’t have petals but do have four yellowish sepals. You can just get a glimpse of them in this photo in the darkest area of the spathe. This is the spathe’s slit-like opening and is the way flies get to the flower’s pollen. The pointed green shoot on the left will become the plant’s foliage.

12. Barberry Berries

I didn’t have any trouble finding the invasive Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) because it was snagging my pants and poking its sharp spines into my legs every now and then. In 1875 seeds of Japanese barberry were sent from Russia to the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, Massachusetts. In 1896 plants were planted at the New York Botanic Garden and the plant was promoted as a good substitute for European barberry (Berberis vulgaris,) which was a host for the black stem rust of wheat. These days it’s everywhere, including in our forests, where it tolerates shade and crowds out our much more valuable native plants.

13. Birch Polypore

I saw an interesting television program recently about Ötzi the 5000 year old iceman whose well preserved body was found in the Ötztal Alps in 1991. Among the many things he carried were birch polypores (Piptoporus betulinus,) a fungus that is so common even I rarely write about it. But I’d heard years ago that he carried them when he was found and 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 recently 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.

14. Birch Polypore Underside

Well, now I’ve done it. While looking into the connection between the 5000 year old iceman and birch polypores I read that as they age both the fungi and the wood they grow on begin to take on an odor similar to green apples, so if you happen to see someone out there with his nose to a birch tree, it’ll be me. The photo above shows the many pores found on the underside of the birch polypore. This is where its spores are produced.

15. LBMs

Ötzi the iceman probably knew the name and medicinal value of every mushroom he saw but I don’t, especially when it comes to the little brown ones, because there are many that look alike. I was surprised to find these examples growing on a log in February. I thought they were probably frozen solid but they were perfectly pliable and felt as tough as shoe leather. I wondered if they had been there all winter or if they had grown recently. Whatever the answer they must have great cold tolerance.

16. Turkey Tails

The snow had melted away from the trunk of this tree revealing turkey tails (Trametes versicolor) that have waited patiently for spring. These fungi are wood degrading and cause white rot, so this rather small tree won’t see old age. Turkey tails have been found on over 70 species of hardwood trees and a few conifers as well. They grow in every state in the U.S. and in most other countries.

17. Turkey Tails

These small turkey tails on a stump looked to be just starting to grow, but what a strange time of year to be doing so.

18. Fern

A fern frond had what looked like flower petals on it, but whatever they were didn’t fall off when the wind blew. I’m guessing that they must have been some kind of insect cocoons but they were very flat and thin.  I can’t remember ever seeing anything like them.

19. Oak Buds

These oak buds appeared to be quite swollen, but that might have been wishful thinking on my part. Still, maple sap is running so the same must be happening to other trees.

20. Pussy Willows

The single bud scales of what I think is the American pussy willow (Salix discolor) have suddenly opened to reveal the fuzzy gray male catkins, but I shouldn’t be surprised because they almost always appear in late winter before the leaves. As these flowers age yellow stamens will appear and will begin releasing pollen. The bees will be buzzing at about that time and they will further cross pollinate the many willow varieties. Henry David Thoreau once said “The more I study willows, the more I am confused,” but I don’t need to study them.  I just enjoy seeing their early flowers because they tell me that nature is stirring and spring is very near.

It was such a spring day as breathes into a man an ineffable yearning, a painful sweetness, a longing that makes him stand motionless, looking at the leaves or grass, and fling out his arms to embrace he knows not what. ~ John Galsworthy

Thanks for coming by.

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