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Posts Tagged ‘Seeing Small Things in Nature’

These days, at least where I work, you don’t actually rake leaves very often. We have leaf vacuums and leaf blowers that take care of what by the end of the season is a huge mountain of leaves. If I were to do it all with a rake I’d still be raking when the leaves started falling next year but there are always little corners and such where only a rake will do, and this post is about one of those. I had one little corner left to do to finish the season but when I started to rake I saw the plant shoots seen above, so I put down the rake and raked with my fingers, gently. I believe the shoots are from the Stella d’ Oro daylily (Hemerocallis) that grows here, but snowdrops grow here as well so they could be those. 

This seed pod is definitely from the daylily and it has been eaten by an unknown insect. Stella d’ Oro daylilies are popular because it was one of the first “ever blooming” day lilies. The dwarf plant has flowers that only last a day like any daylily but there are so many of them that it blooms for months and will often be the latest blooming daylily in a flower bed. This plant was developed in 1975 and is still seen all along city streets and in commercial parking lots.

Pulling the leaves away also revealed a tiny fern fiddlehead, no bigger in diameter than a pencil eraser. I believe it was a sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis). Several of them grow in this spot because it is shaded and damp.

The spore casings (sori) of the sensitive fern are unmistakable so you don’t need leaves to identify it. It’s leaves had long since gone because, as the early settlers who gave its common name noticed, it is extremely sensitive to frost. I’ve read that turkeys will peck at and eat the sori, and that is why sometimes you find the fern’s spores lying on the snow around the plant.

I found a tiny seedling under the leaves, hardly bigger than a pea. It might pay for its hurry to grow.

Beside where I was working false dandelions (Hypochaeris radicata) grew. This plant gets its name from its resemblance to the dandelion, but it would be hard to mistake one for the other. The flowers are about half the size of a true dandelion and they bob around on long, wiry stems. At a glance you might think you were seeing a hawkweed flower when you look at a false dandelion flower because they’re close to the same size. One look at the leaves however, will show you that you’re seeing something entirely different because they resemble those of the dandelion more than hawkweed foliage. Hawkweed and false dandelion also bloom at different times, which helps when trying to identify them.

Once I had raked all the leaves I had to wander a bit and see what I could see. A blackberry grew nearby and it had leaves that started to show their purple / red fall color. At least that’s how I see them; my color finding software sees only gray, green and a bit of orange, which seems odd.

Mouse ear hawkweed (Hieracium pilosella) does well here and there are literally thousands of plants blooming in June and July. Their yellow flowers resemble those of false dandelion but that plant has longer, more wiry flower stems. The basal rosettes of leaves on this plant often turn very deep purple in the fall.

It isn’t hard to see where the name mouse ear came from.

I’m not sure what they’re finding to eat but there are large flocks of yellow shafted flickers here. I find their feathers all the time.

They’re very pretty feathers that you don’t often recognize when they’re still on the bird.

There is a small stream near where I was working so of course I had to explore it. That’s something I’ve never bothered to do in all the time I’ve worked here but on this day nature was calling to me louder than usual.

A gray birch had fallen and the rectangular tear in its bark reminded me of the rectangular hole in a cloud I had seen earlier in the week.

For the first time ever I saw a lichen growing on the bark of a white birch. Lichens normally don’t seem to like white birch but they will grow on the branches of gray birch. This was a beard lichen and it grew on the side of the tree towards the stream. Lichens like lots of humidity and I’d bet that it gets it here.

River grapes grew by the stream. I like to look at grape tendrils because they always seem to remind me of something. In this one I could see the strand-like hypha of a fungus. Two or more hypha are hyphae, and two or more hyphae are mycelium, and mycelium are like the “roots” of a fungus and the above ground parts are the “fruit.” Mycelia are always searching, either for food or for other mycelia. I might have seen all of this in this tendril because I happen to be reading one of the best books on fungi I’ve ever read. It’s called Entangled Life and is written by Merlin Sheldrake. If you know someone with a fungal fascination, they would love this book.

Most of the leaves I was raking were oak and thanks to decomposers like fungi and bacteria many were already on their way to becoming humus. I’ve often wondered what the forest would be like without the decomposers. I  think we’d be up to our eyeballs in sticks, logs, leaves and all the other litter that gathers on the forest floor.

I admired the color and intricacies of yarrow leaves.

I found a log by the stream that was covered by brocade moss (Hypnum imponens). This is a moss I don’t see that often. Brocade moss gets its common name from the way it looks as if it has been embroidered on whatever it happens to be growing on.  It is easily confused with knight’s plume moss (Ptilium crista-castrensis,) but the spore capsules on knights plume moss are elbow macaroni shaped and horizontal, while those of brocade moss are cylindrical and stand vertically.

I saw the reddest alder catkins I’ve ever seen along the stream. They’re often purple, but not usually red in my experience.

Tongue gall licked at the female alder cones, which are called strobiles. These long, tongue like galls are caused by a fungus called Taphrina alni. The fungus chemically deforms part of the ovarian tissue of the developing strobile and causes long, strap shaped galls called languets to grow from them. These galls, like most galls, don’t seem to bring any harm to their host.  I wish I knew how they benefit from growing in such unusual forms.

Here was a leaf I didn’t recognize. It was big at about a foot long, and very wrinkled. I’d guess dock, simply because it grows nearby.

But then suddenly, there was no longer any reason to think about leaves. The day after I took the photos you’ve seen here it snowed, so the decision has been made; leaf raking season is over. At least for now. Now leaf removal will turn to snow removal, and before long I’ll be cutting grass again.

A fallen leaf is nothing more than a summer’s wave goodbye. ~Anonymous

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1. Stone Wall

We’ve had some warm weather here and that means that the snow is melting away from the stone walls. Since there are many miniature gardens growing on these old walls I thought I’d have a look.

2. Scattered Rock Posy Lichen

Right off I was drawn to a boulder with patches of bright orange all over it. They turned out to be scattered rock posy lichens (Rhizoplaca subdiscrepans); more than I had ever seen in a single grouping. The white pine needles in this shot will give you an idea of just how small these lichens are.

Observing the small size of lichens is a good way to get used to seeing the small and beautiful things in nature. If you want to see the magic in nature sometimes you have to stretch some, and that includes your eyes, so each year at about this time I start looking closely at lichens to get my eyes and mind back into “small mode.” I practice on lichens in the early spring so I don’t miss the tiny flowers, insects, fungi, slime molds, and other fascinating things that will come later on.

3. Scattered Rock Posy Lichen

The fruiting bodies (apothecia) of these scattered rock posy lichens surprised me by looking like a mass of orange sausages.  Usually they are flat and disc shaped like the one in the upper left corner of this photo, and I’m assuming that this is what they look like before they take on the disc shape. Each disc shaped apothecia is about .04 inches (1mm) across.

If you’re interested in seeing small things in nature and have a ruler handy, you might want to look at it now so you can become familiar with just how small 1 millimeter really is. Finding things that size on a rock or tree can be a challenge, and that’s why I have to retrain my eyes to see them each spring. It isn’t just the eyes though; it’s also knowing where to look and knowing how to “think small,” but they come with experience.

4. Rosy Saucer Lichen aka Ochrolechia trochophora

Lichen identification can be tricky. I found what I believe is a rosy saucer lichen (Ochrolechia trochophora) growing on stone but the book Lichens of North America says that this lichen grows on tree bark. A little further research on the website Images of British Lichens shows that it grows on tree bark or stone. Based on that information and the fact that I can’t find a similar saucer lichen that grows in New England, I’m going with rosy saucer lichen. Even though it has rosy in its name its apothecia can range from pink to orange, according to what I’ve read.

5. Cumberland Rock Shield Fruiting

I’m not sure how fast Cumberland rock shield lichens (Xanthoparmelia cumberlandia) grow but any lichen this big has to be very old. It must have been 10 inches across and there were several others that big nearby, so I think it’s safe to assume that these stones haven’t been disturbed in quite a long time. They were fruiting so they must be happy here.

Note: Canadian biologist Arold Lavoie has identified this lichen as a peppered rock shield (Xanthoparmelia conspersa). Arold pointed out that Cumberland rock shield doesn’t have any of the granular vegetative reproductive structures called isidium that can be seen on this lichen. Thanks very much for the help Arold.

6. Cumberland Rock Shield Fruiting

This is a closer look at the fruiting bodies (apothecia) of the peppered rock shield lichen. They are fairly common and always seem to be folded or deformed looking. They are also always orangey-brown or dark brown in color.

7.  Crater lichen aka Diploschistes diacapsis

I used to just pass by things that looked like white or gray crust on stones, but I stop and look a little closer now after finding things like this crater lichen (Diploschistes diacapsis). The lighter parts of this lichen make up its thick body (thallus) and the dark spots are its fruiting bodies (apothecia). Its common name comes from the way the apothecia sink into the thallus and look like tiny craters. Crater lichens prefer growing on calcareous stone and are a good indicator of limestone in the area. If you’re trying to find orchids or other plants that like lime laced soil, finding this lichen on the stones in the area you’re searching might lead you to them. I’ll be watching for it later on when I search for hepatica and spicebush.

8. Mealy Firedot Lichen aka Caloplaca citrina

Mealy firedot lichen (Caloplaca citrina) is a pretty little yellow to yellow-orange crustose lichen that likes to grow on wood or stone. The book Lichens of North America says that it is a very common lichen that rarely produces spores but this example seemed to be fruiting happily. The mealy part of its common name comes from the numerous granular soralia, which are used as a vegetative means of reproduction. They are meant to break off and start new lichens.

9. Mealy Firedot Lichen aka Caloplaca citrina

It could be that because mealy firedot lichens reproduce vegetatively they don’t feel the need to use energy in spore production but as this closeup view shows, this example was doing both. The tiny round objects that look like the suckers on an octopus are its fruiting bodies (apothecia). The shiny background in these photos happened because the stone was wet, so this lichen was getting plenty of water.

10. Contorted rimmed lichen aka Aspicilia contorta  Lichen

This is another kind of ‘ho hum’ white crusty lichen that doesn’t look very interesting until you get out your loupe or train your macro lens on it.

11. Contorted rimmed lichen aka Aspicilia contorta  Lichen Fruiting

The ‘boring’ lichens have taught me that if something in nature doesn’t look worth bothering with it was only because I wasn’t really looking at it, because there isn’t a single piece of nature that isn’t beautiful or fascinating in some way. The fruiting bodies of this contorted rimmed lichen (Aspicilia contorta) were as tiny as a pencil dot on a piece of paper but they were there, and I’ve walked by them hundreds of times without stopping to see them. Finally noticing them wasn’t a life changing experience but such an alien landscape is very beautiful to me and I understand a little more about lichens than I did previously. Observing the beauty of nature and gaining knowledge are never a waste of time.

12. Gray and Yellow Crustose Lichen

It seems that every time I do a post on lichens I have one or two that have me completely stumped, and this is today’s winner. Beyond knowing that it is a gray and yellow crustose lichen that was growing on granite, I know nothing about it. It’s another beautiful thing though, and eventually I’ll come across something similar in a book or on line that will get me started on the (sometimes long) trail to its identity.

I should say for those new to this blog that I am strictly an amateur at lichen identification. I don’t have a microscope, chemicals, or any of the other tools that lichenologists use but neither do I guess at lichen identities. I use the tools that I do have and often spend many long hours trying to identify these little beauties. Though I’m fairly confident of a lichen’s identity before I put it into a post, you should be aware of my limitations and should not bet the farm on what I believe it is. If you happen to be reading this and know of any mistakes I’ve made I’d be happy to have you correct them. When that happens we all benefit.

For lack of attention a thousand forms of loveliness elude us every day. ~Evelyn Underhill

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