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Posts Tagged ‘Sap Buckets’

Spring is happening but very slowly. We just had a week with nighttime temps in the teens F. and days that hardly reached 40 degrees. This is slowing the sap flow down, according to the maple syrup producers, and it’s looking like a poor year for the industry. This farmer used traditional sap buckets to gather his sap but many have switched over to plastic tubing that runs from tree to tree and then into a large holding tank. Squirrels love sweet maple sap and will nick maple bark with their teeth and then lick it up, but they’ve discovered that chewing a hole in the plastic tubing is easier and the sap flows better, so they’re doing that instead. Because the sap is drawn through the tubing by a vacuum pump even a small hole in it causes the entire system to stop flowing. That means the farmer has to walk miles of tubing to find and patch the hole, so I’m guessing that we can expect the price of maple syrup to go up. It’s about $70.00 per gallon now. I’m also guessing that more sap gatherers will return to the old ways and hang buckets again.

The syrup farmers don’t have much time because once the trees start blossoming the sap turns bitter, and sugar maples usually flower around the second week of April.  This cluster of red maple buds (Acer rubrum) had a few opening. You can see one just above and to the right of the center of the bud group. It looks like there might be female flowers inside.

Native Americans used to also tap another member of the maple family for its sap: box elder (Acer negundo.) The twigs and buds of this tree are pruinose, which means they’re covered with white, waxy, powdery granules that reflect light in ways that often makes their surfaces appear blue. It doesn’t look like these buds have started swelling yet but they will soon. Its flowers are very beautiful and I enjoy seeing them in spring. The earliest example of a Native American flute, from 620-670 AD, was made from the wood of this tree.

I thought for sure I’d see the yellow flowers of willows appearing through the gray catkins this week but the cool weather must have held them back.

The catkins of the white poplar (Populus alba) are gray and fuzzy much like willow catkins. They grow to 3 or 4 inches long and fall from the trees in great numbers. This tree was imported from Europe in 1748 and liked it here enough to now grow in almost every state. Soon their fluffy seeds will be floating on the wind.

I saw a flock of robins throwing leaves around in the forest litter, probably hoping worms or insects were hiding beneath them. One spring I had a robin land right beside me and do the same, but these birds were skittish. These are the first robins I’ve seen in many months.

There were starlings doing the leaf flipping trick along with the robins but I couldn’t get a very good photo of them because they were even more skittish than the robins.

I went to the swamp where skunk cabbages grow and saw a pair of mallards swimming away as fast as they could go. At least I think they were mallards; I’m not good with bird identification.

The skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) are fully up now and many have opened the split in their splotchy spathes to let in insects. You wouldn’t think there would be many insects out in this weather but I’ve seen many this year on warmer days.

You can just see the round spadix with its many stubby flowers through the slit in this spathe. Photos like this one are hard to get; you’d better be prepared to get your knees wet if you want to try.

The spadix of a skunk cabbage is a one inch diameter pink or yellow, stalked flower head from which the flowers emerge. The flowers don’t have petals but they do have four sepals. The male stamens grow up through the sepals and release their pollen before the female style and pistil grow out of the flower’s center to catch any pollen that insects bring in from other plants. The spadix is what carries most of the skunk like odor at this point and it is thought by some that the plant uses the odor to attract flies and other insects that might pollinate it. These tiny blossoms can produce large amounts of pollen and sometimes the inside of the spadix is covered in it.

Alder catkins have started to take on quite a lot of color, as the one on the right shows. They swell up and lengthen as the season progresses and the colors change to maroon and yellow-green. They sparkle in the sunlight and make the bushes look like someone has hung jewels from the branches. When they are fully opened and the tiny male blossoms start to release pollen I’ll look for the even smaller female flowers, which look like tiny threads of scarlet red. You can just see three of the much smaller female catkins at the very top of this photo.

I saw a strangely shaped cloud. I’ve never seen another like it and can’t even guess why it had that shape. Maybe it was a good luck horseshoe.

Vernal witch hazels (Hamamelis vernalis) still bloom and perfume the air with their wonderful, clean fragrance. Their strap like petals can curl up into the bud if it gets cold and then unfurl again on warm days, so you don’t see too many that have been frost bitten. These ones have withstood temperatures as low as 15 degrees F.

The “Hamamelis” part of witch hazel’s scientific name means “together with fruit” and speaks to witch hazels being the only tree in North America which has flowers, fruit, and buds all at the same time. Though the seed pod has opened you can see in this photo how all three can appear at once; past, present and future all on one branch. The “witch” part of witch hazel comes from the Anglo Saxon word that means “to bend,” and refers to the way the branches can bend without breaking. These branches were used by the early settlers in water witching (dowsing) to find underground water.

I had to go back 3 times to do it but I finally caught these crocus blossoms fully opened. If it’s the least bit cool or cloudy they refuse to open but I was more stubborn than they were and refused to give up.

These were my favorites. How pretty is that after 5 months of winter?

There’s nothing quite like the sight and smell of green grass in spring. All thoughts of winter immediately just fly out the window.

Do you see what looks like a tiny white butterfly just to the right and just above center in this photo?

It’s a winter cress blossom; the first I’ve seen this spring. Cress is in a huge family of plants known as Brassicaceae with 150 or more species but I think this plant might be hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta,) which is a common weed that stays green under the snow all winter and blooms as soon as it melts. Its tiny flowers are about the size of Abraham Lincoln’s head on a penny. Seed pods appear quickly on this plant and explode if touched or walked on, flinging the tiny seeds up to three feet away. Each plant can throw as many as 1000 seeds so if this plant is in your yard, you should probably just learn to enjoy it.

There was something I was hoping to see; the first dandelion blossom.

At this time of year not even an orchid blossom could please me more. It looked as if it were only half awake; shaking off its long winter sleep and thinking about getting down to the business of making seeds. I haven’t seen a bee yet but I have seen quite a few smaller insects flying about.

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

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We’re still on the weather roller coaster but it is slowly warming up and the snow is melting, as the melt ring around this pinecone shows. I was happy when I found this because it answered a question that I’ve had for a long time: why do melt rings form around tree trunks? As the pinecone shows it has to be the sun warming it up, and as the pinecone releases that warmth the snow around it melts. Or maybe it’s simply heat radiating from the pinecone during the day when the sun is shining. The dark cone would absorb more sunlight than the white snow would.

Here is a melt ring just getting started around this tree. A study done by Emeritus Professor of Botany Lawrence J. Winship of Hampshire College, where he used an infrared thermometer to measure heat radiated by tree trunks, found that the sunny side of a red oak was 54 degrees F. while the shaded side was just 29 degrees F. And the ground temperature was also 29 degrees, which means it was frozen. This shows that trees really absorb a lot of heat from the sun and it must be that when the heat is radiated back into the surroundings it melts the snow. The professor found that the same was true on fence posts and stumps so the subject being alive had nothing to do with it, even though a living tree should have much more heat absorbing water in it. In my mind, the pinecone in the previous photo answers the question of melt rings.

But I didn’t have long to wonder about melt rings on trees because on Monday March 4th we got about 6 inches of new snow. This shows part of my drive to work that day.

I pass this scene almost every day so I can see if the ice is melting. It was and then it wasn’t. Winter can be very beautiful but the pull of spring fever can be terribly strong. By this time of year almost everybody but is ready for spring and waiting impatiently.

It’s hard these days to follow a trail that hasn’t been broken. It never used to be but things change. I’ve never been a real fan of snowshoes so I used to just trudge through it, even if it was up to my knees, but going any real distance through snow much deeper than your knees is a struggle at any age and in any condition, and these days I avoid it.

But as I said it can be beautiful enough to stop you in your tracks. Every season has its own beauty, as this early morning view of Half Moon Pond in Hancock shows.

No matter what the sun always appears again and it was very beautiful on this eastern hemlock tree, I thought. I think algae colored its trunk and the sun came along and lit it up. You can walk just about anywhere in nature and find beauty like this any day of the week, and if that isn’t a gift I don’t know what is.

It’s amazing how a little sunlight can transform the simple into something beautiful, as it did with these deer tongue grass leaves.

I don’t think I’ve ever shown icicles hanging from the eaves on this blog before, but that might be because they are so common. You see them on just about every structure in winter.

I love the way icicles sparkle with color in the sun like prisms. This shot doesn’t quite catch it but there was a lot more color in them.

One cold morning frost flowers bloomed on the ice of mud puddles. They form when the frost point in the air is reached and water vapor condenses into ice. They are a form of hoarfrost, so delicate that a touch of a finger or a warm breath will destroy them. In my experience it has to be very cold for them to form, but there also has to be plenty of water vapor in the air. That’s why hoarfrost is often found near streams and ponds.

Mount Monadnock is an old friend, there in my earliest memories, and it is always at its most beautiful when snow frosts its peak. I would guess the snow must be at least 5 feet deep near the summit. I was up there with a friend of mine on April 19th one year and it was about chest deep in places. We had to climb over it and kind of swim through it rather than trying to break a trail through it. The air was warm and the snow was melting, and the fog generated by the cold snow and warm air mixing together was so dense you could barely see your hand at the end of an outstretched arm. I don’t think I’ve ever been as wet as I was that day.

Tramp art was done by chipping and whittling a piece of wood with a pocket knife. Often pieces of wood from cigar boxes and orange crates were turned into picture frames and other household items which were sold for meager amounts of money. That’s what this piece of branch reminded me of when I saw it but the hand of man played no part in this art; it was made entirely by engraver beetles and was very beautiful, I thought. I wish I had kept it and brought it home but then if I had the next hiker to come along couldn’t have marveled at its insect carved hieroglyphics as I did.

I’ve taken many photos of frullania liverworts throughout the winter but never posted any of them because it’s a tough plant to get a good shot of. It’s a leafy liverwort but each leaf is smaller than a house fly so it isn’t an easy subject. There are about 800 species of frullania liverworts and many grow as epiphytes on the bark of trees where the humidity is high. Epiphytic plants take nothing from the host plants they grow on; instead they simply perch there like birds. Mosses and lichens are also epiphytes.

The liverwort’s tiny leaves are strung together like beads, and change from green to deep purple in cold weather. Frullania liverworts can cause a rash called woodcutter’s eczema in some people. It’s an annoying, itchy rash but doesn’t cause any real harm, and it disappears in a week or two if you stop handling logs with liverworts on them.

This post started with winter but it will end with spring, and that illustrates how quickly one season can change into another here in the northeast. Sometimes it’s as if someone flipped a switch, and it’s what inspired Mark Twain’s “If you don’t like the weather in New England just wait a few minutes” quote. Here our earliest flowering plant, the skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus,) has finally shown its mottled yellow and maroon flower spathes.

Some are yellow with maroon spots and some are maroon with yellow spots. It’s good to finally see them no matter what colors they choose to wear. The spathes shown here appear first and multiple flowers grow inside the spathe on a spadix. Soon the spathes will begin to open so insects can enter and pollinate the tiny flowers, and so a photographer or two might get some photos of them.

Sap collecting has begun but you’d hardly know it these days. When I was a boy it seemed like every yard had trees with sap buckets hanging from them in spring but I had to search long and hard to find just a few this year, and I fear family sap gathering a dying art. Nobody knows when or where sap gathering started but most agree that it was learned from Native Americans. They used to cut a V notch into the bark of a tree and then put a wedge at the bottom of the cut. The sap would drip from the wedge into buckets made of bark or woven reeds, or sometimes into wooden bowls. They would then boil it down until it thickened and became syrup.

This Library of Congress photo from the early 1900s shows a Native American woman tapping trees and gathering the sap in what appears to be bark buckets, which it looks like she is making. Birch bark buckets are entirely plausible since they made canoes from the same bark. Sticky pine or spruce sap on the seams made their canoes leak proof. Since it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup sap gathering was a lot of work, and it was almost always done by the women of the tribe. There are many legends about how Natives discovered the process but nobody really knows for sure. Red and silver maples as well as sugar maples were tapped. So were hickory, box elder and birch, though in those trees the sap was less sweet.

I’ve read about mallards migrating and some articles say they do and others say they don’t, so I’m not sure if this photo is a true sign of spring but I saw these two dancing on the ice at a local swamp, most likely hoping for it to hurry up and melt like the rest of us. I thought it was a pretty, spring like scene.

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

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