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Posts Tagged ‘Signs of Spring’

Flowers aren’t the only beautiful things to appear in spring. Fern fiddleheads can also be beautiful as this lady fern fiddlehead (Athyrium filix-femina) shows. Lady fern is the only ferns I know of with brown / black scales on its stalk. This fern likes to grow in moist, loamy areas along streams and rivers.

I came very close to stepping on this small garter snake because I didn’t see it until the last moment, but it didn’t move. In fact it let me take a few photos and walk away and when I went back later it was still there soaking up the sun. It’s a good thing my grandmother wasn’t with me because she would have been up the nearest tree, so great was her fear of snakes. She knew garter snakes weren’t poisonous, but she was still afraid of them.

Garter snakes might not be poisonous but false hellebore (Veratrum viride) certainly is. In fact it’s one of the most toxic plants to grow in a New England forest and people have died from eating it after mistaking it for something else. Even animals won’t eat them, but certain insects or slugs will, and usually by July the plant’s leaves look shot full of holes. I think the deeply pleated oval leaves are quite pretty when they first come up in spring.

It’s hard to believe that a plant with flowers that look as delicate as those on heartleaf foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) can make it through a winter but these plants are evergreen and because of that are photosynthesizing far ahead of their competition. Their pretty 4 inch tall racemes of small white flowers will appear in mid-May. Sometimes these leaves are mottled with purple or have dark purple veins. Some Native American tribes used the mashed roots of foamflower in a poultice on wounds and used an infusion of the dried leaves to relieve sore eyes.

Japanese knotweed can be quite beautiful when it starts to unfurl its leaves in spring but Americans have no love affair with it because it is an invasive weed that is nearly impossible to eradicate once it becomes established. I’ve seen it killed back to the ground by frost and in less than 3 weeks it had grown right back. I’ve heard that the new spring shoots taste much like rhubarb, so maybe we could defeat it by eating it.

Speaking of rhubarb, it has just come up. This one was just unfolding a new leaf and had a tomato red bud just waiting. Rhubarb is a native of China, and though its leaves are poisonous it was used medicinally there for centuries.

Though these plants looked like ferns I’m not sure if they are. If they are they’re the earliest to leaf out that I’ve seen.

Beaver brook wasn’t showing any signs of new leaves on the trees that arch out over it but I don’t think it’s going to be long before they appear. We saw 90+ degree temperatures this week.

While at beaver Brook I visited the plantain leaved sedge (Carex plantaginea) to see if its flower buds had opened. They were open but only the cream colored male stamens were showing. This is odd because female sedge flowers usually appear first.  In any case I’m sure it knows what it’s doing better than I and I would bet that by now the female flowers are out and waiting to be pollinated.

How I wish you could have heard all the spring peepers chirping and trilling away in this beaver swamp. It’s a sound that many of us here in New England long to hear once March and April come along.  For those not familiar with them, spring peepers are small frogs with a loud voice and sometimes a pond full of them can be almost deafening on a warm spring evening. They are brown with a darker X shape on their backs and large toe pads for climbing. The “peep” is a mating call that comes from the male, which of course is trying to attract a female.

I went to the beaver pond looking for the bloodroot flowers that grow there but they hadn’t come up yet. Instead I saw some of what I think were Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pennsylvanica) flowers. It’s too bad that many people never see these tiny blooms. They stand about 4 inches tall and grow from a clump of what looks like coarse grass, but what is actually a sedge. Creamy yellow male staminate flowers release their pollen above wispy, feather like female pistillate flowers. The female flowers usually open first so they can receive pollen from another plant and avoid self-fertilization. As the plant ages the male flowers will turn brown and the female flowers, if pollinated by the wind, will bear seed. Though it looks much like the plantain leaved sedge flowers we saw earlier these flowers and plants are much smaller.

What look like giant pussy willow catkins are actually the catkins of quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides.) Quaking aspen is the only poplar tree with catkins like these that doesn’t also have sticky bud scales. If the shiny brown bud scales were sticky it would be a balsam poplar(Poplar balsamifera.) These long catkins fall from the trees and get stuck in other tree’s branches and in shrubs. They can make quite a mess for a short time.

Though these tiny stigmas looks like the female flowers of American Hazelnut (Corylus americana) they are actually the flowers of the beaked hazelnut (Corylus cornuta,) which grows in areas north and east of Keene. Beaked hazelnuts get their name from the case that surrounds the nut. It is long and tubular and looks like a bird’s beak, while the nut cases of American Hazelnut have two parts that come together like a clamshell. The best way to tell the two apart is by looking at the new growth. On American hazelnut the new twigs will be very hairy and on beaked hazelnut they’ll be smooth like the one shown.

White baneberry (Actaea pachypoda) is an extremely toxic plant but I love the movement that its new spring shoots have. Every time I see them I think how nice it would be to sit beside them and draw them, but I never seem to find the time. Native Americans brewed a tea from the roots of this plant and used it medicinally to treat pain and other ailments, but no part of it should ever be ingested. In late summer it will have bright white berries with a single black dot that give the plant its common name of doll’s eyes.

When you see white fur like that in this photo appear on female silver maple buds, this means the seeds (samaras) are just about to appear. For just a very short time they’re deep red with a furry white fringe, and they’re beautiful enough to watch each day so you don’t miss them. I hope to have a chance to catch them in all their glory this year.

The stamens of male box elder flowers (Acer negundo) hang down from the buds on long filaments and sway in the breeze. Box elder is in the maple family but its wood is soft when compared to other maples. Several Native American tribes made syrup from its sap and the earliest example of  a Native American flute, dating from 620-670 AD, was made from its wood.

Once the leaves start to show on a box elder it’s time for the lime green female flowers to appear.

Here’s a closer look at the female box elder pistils just starting to show. They’re very pretty things but they don’t last long. Soon the seeds will form and there will be no need of flowers.

The flower buds of the American white ash (Fraxinus americana) appear before the leaves and can be colorful sometimes and at other times be as black as blackberries. The Native American Wabanaki tribe made baskets from ash splints and some tribes believed the wood was poisonous to rattlesnakes, and used canes made of ash to chase them away.

The beautiful pink and orange buds of striped maple (Acer pennsylvanicum) have appeared but I was a little late in seeing them because many had already opened so the leaves could unfurl. Their opening signals that it’s time to now watch beech buds, which should open at any time. Beech bud break is another very beautiful forest treat that many people miss seeing.

I meant to do my work today, but a brown bird sang in the apple tree, and a butterfly flitted across the field, and all the leaves were calling. ~Richard le Gallienn

Thanks for stopping in.

 

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 1. Sap Buckets

People who collect maple sap the old way in buckets like these are becoming a rare breed. The sap is flowing but syrup producers say it’s coming slowly, in fits and starts, because we’ve had so many cold days. Daytime temperatures need to be in the mid-forties and nighttime temps at around 28 degrees  for optimal sap flow. Though some days and nights have been perfect it hasn’t been consistent. We’re still seeing below zero nights and, since the 4-6 week season ends in early April, each cold snap brings a renewed sense of urgency. Last year New Hampshire produced 176,000 gallons of syrup. In the abnormally warm winter of 2012 producers didn’t even see half that amount, and this year it might be cold that hinders production.

 2. Muddy Road

When we have the kind of cold we’ve had this year it drives the frost deep into the ground. In spring when the soil begins to thaw the water can’t seep into the frozen ground so it sits on top, saturating the soil to the point where it can’t hold any more water. When the soil in question happens to be a road, things can get very interesting. Here in New England we call it “mud season” and when I drove over the road in the above photo I knew it was upon us, because it felt like I was driving on gelatin. Our roads become quaking quagmires that have been known to swallow even 40 foot long school buses.  If you’d like to see some photos of mud season in all its muckiness, just click here.

 3. Peat Mosses

In the swamps, peat mosses aren’t wasting any time. They seem to green up almost immediately after the snow melts. I just read that scientists took a piece of moss from part of an Arctic ice core sample that was over 1000 years old. When they exposed it to light and warmth the ancient moss grew just fine. This moss that is now green once again was alive when Rome was in its infancy. This is why some people wonder if mosses and lichens ever really die.

 4. Skunk Cabbage 

Skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) are growing fast in spite of the cold nights. Since they produce their own heat through a process called thermogenesis, they don’t care how cold it is. This photo shows skunk cabbage spathes partly out of the soil. Once they reach full size they will open so flies can visit the flower covered spadix within.

 5. Vernal Witch Hazel 

The vernal witch hazels (Hamamelis vernalis) keep poking out their strap like petals, only to roll them back up again because of the cold. They, like the maples, are going through fits and starts this year.

 6. Red Maple Buds

Red maple (Acer rubrum) and other tree buds are swelling and the hills off in the distance have taken on a reddish haze that is impossible for me to take a photo of, so I settled for a branch. Red maples are one of the first trees to flower in spring and I always look forward to seeing them because they are very pretty. The sap can be made into syrup just like that of sugar maples but it turns bitter when the buds start to break. Since they appear earlier than those of sugar maples, the season doesn’t last as long.

 7. Red Maple Buds

Both red and sugar maple buds are high energy foods and eastern gray squirrels eat them in spring. These buds also have high moisture content and that means that squirrels don’t have to leave a tree for a drink at this time of year.

 8. New Fern Growth 

I spotted this fern growing on a boulder. The cluster of round buds in its center will grow into new shoots, called fiddleheads, before too long. The only fern in this area with fiddleheads that are safe to eat is the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris). They are considered an early spring delicacy but they need to be prepared and cooked correctly or they can make you sick. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has investigated a number of outbreaks of food-borne illness cause by raw and undercooked fiddleheads. They should always be boiled for at least 15 minutes.  Some say you can also eat lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina) and bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) fiddleheads but there is a great debate raging about the safety of eating them, so I can’t say for sure if you should or shouldn’t.

 9. Trailing Arbutus

The snow has melted enough to reveal the tough, leathery, evergreen leaves of trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens). My grandmother always called this plant mayflower but I’ve found its fragrant pinkish flowers much earlier in April. Because it has been so cold this year though, it might live up to its common name. I usually find it in mixed forests growing on sunny embankments.

 10. Oak Leaf on Snow

Last year’s oak and beech leaves are starting to fall. More signs of spring.

 11. Grasses in the Sun

The afternoon sun catching these dry grasses looked very spring like, but the scene looked better in person than it does in the photo.

12. Melting Snow

Sometimes spring comes creeping in quietly and slowly and is hardly noticeable, so we seem to go from winter right into summer. I have a feeling that this year will be that way.

Tomorrow, the first day of spring, will mark the 3 year anniversary of this blog. I remember wondering how I’d ever get through 6 months of it, so thanks go to all of you who have kept it going.

The first day of spring is one thing, and the first spring day is another. The difference between them is sometimes as great as a month.  ~Henry Van Dyke

Thanks for coming by.

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 1. Keene State Plaque

Recently a little birdie told me that some of the students in a certain biology class at a certain college were saying that it was “too cold” and that they “couldn’t walk in the snow.” And how were they supposed to find anything anyway when there’s “snow everywhere?”

Just for fun I decided to return to college myself just to see how valid these complaints were.

 2. Keene State Parker Hall

This was my chosen starting point on the campus of Keene State College. The great thing about nature study is it doesn’t matter which path you take. Nature will have something interesting to show you no matter where you go. With a willingness to participate and a little extra attentiveness you will learn things that you’ve never even imagined.

Oh-you will notice that the snow isn’t “everywhere.”

 3. Boston Ivy Berries

My first stop was the ivy covered walls of Parker Hall shown in the above photo. This photo is of Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata), which 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.

4. Crabapples

If you are a biology student reading this blog then this photo should have you asking questions like why haven’t the birds eaten these crabapples?  You can see the hundreds of them in the background on the snow even though many birds, including robins and cedar waxwings, love crabapples. In a winter as harsh as this one you would think they would be gobbling them as fast as they could, so why aren’t they? Science has shown that birds will leave fruits that are lower in fat for last but are crabapples low in fat? The answers are simple; 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.  If you want to attract fruit eating birds with crab apples (Malus) the choice of cultivar requires some research.

 5. Lilac Buds 

One of the ways to identify trees and shrubs in winter is by their buds. The size and placement of buds as well as the number of bud scales can all help with identification. Bud scales are modified leaves that cover and protect the bud through winter. Some buds can have several, some have two, some just one scale called a cap, and some buds have none at all. Buds that have several scales are called imbricate and have scales that overlap like shingles. The lilac buds in the above photo are good examples of imbricate buds.

 6. Cornelian Cherry  Bud  aka Cornus mas

Buds with just two (sometimes three) scales are called valvate. The scales meet but do not overlap. This Cornelian cherry bud is a great example of a valvate bud. In the spring when the plant begins to take up water through its roots the buds swell and the scales part to let the bud grow. Some bud scales are hairy and some covered with sticky resin that further protects the bud.

Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) is an ornamental flowering shrub related to dogwoods. It blooms in early spring (in March) with clusters of blossoms that have small, bright yellow bracts.

 7.  Powdery Goldspeck Lichen aka Candelariella efflorescens 

Powdery goldspeck lichens ( Candelariella efflorescens) grow on tree bark of all kinds. The round, flattened, yellow patches are very small but grow in large colonies that make them easier to see.  Winter is the perfect time to look for lichens because they aren’t hidden by foliage. I saw plenty on this campus.

Lichens are great indicators of air quality because they refuse to grow where the air is polluted. There was a famous study done by schoolchildren in the United Kingdom in the 1960s. They produced a “mucky air map” that showed the absence of lichens from areas polluted by coal burning. Such a study (on a much smaller scale) done on a college campus might be a real eye opener. The lichens wouldn’t even have to be identified; simply recording their presence is enough. The absence of lichens is not a good thing.

 8. Lenticels in Bark

The Tibetan cherry (Prunus serrula Tibetica) is also called the paper bark cherry because of the way its bark peels as it ages, much like a birch. It is used as an ornamental tree as much for its bark as for its flowers. The mahogany bark has very long, closely spaced lenticels that give it an unusual appearance. Lenticels are corky pores that allow gases like oxygen to reach the living cells of the bark. Without enough oxygen, bark can die.

9. Sweet Gum Pod

I was surprised when I finally realized that these were sweet gum seed pods, because Massachusetts is the northernmost point that sweet gum grows naturally in the U.S. and, though it is native to the east coast, it is considered a “southern tree.” But, there is an old (often risky) trick that landscape designers will sometimes use if a client is determined to have a certain plant that isn’t hardy-they use masonry. If a plant that isn’t reliably hardy is planted near masonry it will often survive lower temperatures than it would otherwise because the masonry absorbs heat from the sun during the day and releases it slowly at night, keeping the plant warm enough to survive. There were several of these sweet gum trees near a massive wall of brick, and they were protected from wind by other buildings.

10. Sycamore Fruit

I’ve never heard of a dwarf sycamore tree but this is an empty sycamore seed head that I plucked from a tree with very mottled sycamore bark that stood no more than 7 feet tall. There are a large number of ornamental trees on this campus and I’m not sure how I would identify them all without occasionally asking the head gardener.

 11. White Rot Fungus aka Fomitiporia punctata

White rot fungus (Fomitiporia punctata) covered this fallen oak limb. There are many species of white rot fungi and they play a major part in wood decomposition. Scientists have discovered that they will also biodegrade environmental pollutants and certain chemical wastes. Researching that might be very interesting.

 12. Amber jelly Fungus

Amber jelly fungi (Exidia recisa) were on the same fallen oak limb, but frozen solid by the looks. This is the first time I’ve seen these growing on oak. I usually find them on alder. Some jelly fungi are also good at helping wood rot. This one fruits in late fall and winter and is a true winter fungus. I’ve always wondered why certain fungi only fruit in winter.

13. Barberry Berries

I was surprised to see this very invasive Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii ) growing as a hedge but as I think about it I shouldn’t have been. I’ve planted barberry hedges myself back when we didn’t realize how invasive it was.  I also saw burning bushes used in a hedge. Also called winged euonymus (Euonymus alatus), they are also very invasive and until recently were widely used. The final invasive that I found was oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus). These were growing near a chain like fence-right where a bird might sit for a while after eating its berries.

Exploring their campus for invasive species would be a good project for a biology class and could be done at any time of year. The results might be surprising for those in charge of such things since, in this instance, this is a state college and the state has banned selling or importing these invasives.

 14. Daffodils 

The most satisfying thing I found on this campus was the little taste of spring provided by these inch high daffodil shoots. I was surprised since we had just seen a temperature of 7 below zero the night before.

So, if anyone reading this happens to be a student attending a certain biology class in a certain college, this post is for you. All of these photos and at least twice as many more were taken in less than an hour while meandering around the Keene State College campus and I didn’t once have to step in snow deeper than the soles of my hiking boots. It was cold but I dressed for it. That’s what we have to do to keep warm in a New England winter.  I hope this post has shown how easy it is to find things in nature with very little effort.

The scientist does not study nature because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful.  ~Henri Poincaré

Thanks for coming by.

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