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Posts Tagged ‘Skunk Cabbage’

Last Sunday I needed to see something new, so I decided on the rail trail that heads south out of Keene to Swanzey, Troy, Fitzwilliam, and eventually the Massachusetts border. I’ve done the northern and southern legs of the trail but never this middle section. I started my hike on this amazing stone arch bridge. Built of granite quarried a half mile away from the site, it was dry laid with no mortar in 1847 and soars 38 feet above the river. The bridge is 27 feet wide with a span of 68 feet, and its arch has a radius of 34 feet. Evidence of the plug and feather method used to split the stones is still visible on the faces of many of the stones. It’s hard to imagine how it was ever built without the use of modern tools and equipment.

The bridge is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which means it earned a little money for upkeep. Part of the upkeep involved upgrading the drainage and laying a new bed of pea stone where the trains would have run. It seems to be still as solid as the day it was built.

Here is a postcard view of the bridge, probably from the early 1900s. The view and landscape is very different today of course. These postcards were usually actual photos colored by hand but I think this one was a drawing.

The white building in the postcard view is no longer there. This view from the top of the bridge looks west towards Vermont. It was a partly cloudy, very windy day and the gusts felt like they might blow me right off the bridge so I didn’t hang around up here for very long. We’ve had at least some wind nearly every day for over a month now.

I saw some very symmetrical horsetails. This is one plant you do not want in your garden because once you have them you’ll never be rid of them. When I had my gardening business I tried just about everything I could think of including covering them with black plastic for a full year. They loved it and grew on as if nothing had happened.

I also saw some very red new leaves on the staghorn sumacs (Rhus typhina.

The trail is wide and dry for the most part because the drainage channels that the railroad built 150 years ago are still working.

Skunk currants (Ribes glandulosum) grew in patches here and there along the trail. I’ve read that the plant gets its common name from the odor given off by its ripe dark red berries, which doesn’t sound too appealing but they are said to be very tasty. If you can get past the smell, I assume. This is a very hairy plant; even its fruit has hairs. The Native Ojibwa people used the root of skunk currant to ease back pain but it is not a favorite of foresters or timber harvesters because it carries white pine blister rust, which can kill pine trees.

Skunk currant flowers are quite small at about 1/4 inch across. They are saucer shaped with 5 petals and 5 purple stamens.

Unfortunately I also saw a lot of garlic mustard out here. Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is an invasive plant once used as an edible pot herb. This plant forms large colonies and chokes out natives by poisoning the soil with compounds called glucosinolates that leach into the soil and kill off many soil fungi that native species depend on to survive. It grows from 1-4 feet tall and has a strong but pleasant garlic / onion odor when the leaves are crushed. It spreads quickly and prefers growing in shaded forests. It isn’t uncommon to find areas where no growing thing can be seen on the forest floor but this plant. It is considered one of the worst invasive species because of its ability to spread rapidly and is found in all but 14 U.S. states, including Alaska and large parts of Canada. Maybe if we all decided to eat it, it would prove to be less of a problem. According to what I’ve read, the young spring plants are delicious.

The sunshine seemed to always be just up around the next bend. Until I got to the next bend, that is. By then it had disappeared.

This is a typical New Hampshire mixed forest with mostly pine, hemlock, cherry, beech, oak, maple and white and gray birch. Also this single beautiful golden birch.

I saw a small bird’s nest in a cherry sapling. It was about 5-6 inches across so a small bird must have made it.

Violets bloomed all along the trail. I thought this might be an early blue violet but since my color finding software sees mostly purple, I’ll just call it a violet. It had long above ground rhizomes that I’ve never seen on a violet.

Sessile leaved bellworts (Uvularia sessilifolia) grew along the drainage channels in groups. I’ve seen them carpet large areas of forest floor so I had the feeling that they must have just gotten started here. They’re in the lily of the valley family, which can also form large colonies.

This signal post looked new, and that’s because someone had painted it. I’m not sure why anyone would but there it was, looking like it had just been installed yesterday.

I was very surprised to see skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) growing on a wet hillside. I’ve read that eating the leaves can cause burning and inflammation but something had eaten many of the leaves. Often animals don’t have the same reaction to plants that we do. Birds even eat poison ivy berries.

This is a photo of the fruit of a skunk cabbage which is a rare sight, even for those of us who look for such things.

I saw just two red trilliums (Trillium erectum) out here. I also saw Jack in the pulpit, starflowers, and lots of fern fiddleheads. The trilliums and our other spring ephemerals will probably be done by the time this post is read. Leaves on the trees and warmer weather finish their short bloom periods quickly.

I saw lots of wild sarsaparilla plants (Aralia nudicaulis) just unfurling their leaves. At this stage many people confuse wild sarsaparilla with poison ivy, which comes up at the same time and has glossy green leaves. One way to tell the two apart is by the stem. Poison ivy usually has an older, woody stem while sarsaparilla has a fresh, tender stem. The roots of this plant were once used to make root beer but the drink that was called sarsaparilla contained no part of the plant. It was made from birch oil and sassafras root.

There were already flower buds on some sarsaparilla plants. They’ll bloom in late May, with ping pong ball size flowerheads made up of tiny individual flowers.

I thought these new oak leaves were beautiful, both in color and shape. They were soft like velvet, and there were flower buds as well.

A broken whistle post told me that a road was coming up. What looks like an M is really an upside down W. The W stands for whistle and the post is called a whistle post, because it marks the spot where the locomotive engineer was to blow the train’s whistle. When there is a crossing very nearby, where the railbed crosses a road, the whistle would have alerted wagon or auto drivers that a train was coming. Some whistle posts were marked – – o -, which meant “two longs and a short” on the whistle.

There was indeed a road; route 12 south out of Keene parallels the rail trail and I had walked to the Cheshire Fairgrounds in Swanzey. Only 2.2 miles by car from where I started, so I’d guess it was a two mile walk.

And that meant that it was two miles back, but on such a sweet spring day with birds singing in the trees two miles didn’t seem like anything, really. It was one of those days that gets inside you and lets you see how wonderful this life really is, and there was no hurry to get anywhere or to do anything. I felt doubly blessed.

Some journeys take you farther from where you come from, but closer to where you belong. ~Ron Franscell

Thanks for stopping in. I hope everyone is able to find some outdoor time.

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I saw a plant with pretty little blue flowers on it that I haven’t seen before. I think it might be called heartleaf (Brunnera macrophyllas,) which is also called Siberian bugloss and great forget-me-not. It’s a perennial garden plant native to the Caucasus that apparently prefers shade.

The flowers were very pretty and did indeed remind me of forget-me-nots.

Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) gets its common name from the way chickens peck at it. The plant is in the mint family and apparently chickens like it. The amplexicaule part of the scientific name means clasping and describes the way the hairy leaves clasp the stem. The plant is a very early bloomer and blooms throughout winter in warmer areas. Henbit is from Europe and Asia, but I can’t say that it’s invasive because I rarely see it. I’ve read that the leaves, stem, and flowers are edible and have a slightly sweet and peppery flavor. It can be eaten raw or cooked.

This is the first Forsythia blossom that I’ve seen this year. Forsythias shout that spring has arrived and it’s hard to ignore them because they are everywhere. I think you’d have a hard time finding a street in this town that doesn’t have at least one. Forsythia is a plant that nurserymen agree does not have a fragrance, yet some say they love the plant for its fragrance and others say they can’t stand its odor. I’ve never been able to smell one, but I don’t correct those who think they do. If an imagined fragrance seems real to the person doing the smelling, then so be it. Forsythia is a native of Japan and was under cultivation as early as 1850 in England. It is named after William Forsyth (1737-1804), the Scottish botanist who co-founded the Royal Horticultural Society in London. The shrub is said to forecast the weather because as the old saying goes “Three more snows after the Forsythia shows.” I’m hoping it isn’t true.

I’m seeing a lot of chickweed blooming now. I’m not sure if this is common chickweed, which has shiny leaves or mouse ear chickweed, which has hairy leaves. I do see some hairs but they look like they might be coming from the bracts rather than the leaves. In the end it doesn’t matter because it’s a pretty little thing that I’m always happy to see so early in spring.

One of my favorite spring bulbs is striped squill (Puschkinia scilloides, var. libanotica.) Since blue is my favorite color I’m very happy to see them. But I don’t see many; they border on rare here and I hardly ever see them. The flowers are about the same size as the scilla (Scilla siberica) flowers I think most of us are familiar with. They’re beautiful little things and though catalogs will tell you that the blue stripes are found only on the inside of the blossom they actually go through each petal and show on the outside as well as the inside, as the unopened buds in this photo show. I think it must be their simplicity that makes them so beautiful.

Glory of the snow (Chionodoxa forbesii,) doesn’t appear on this blog very often because I only see it occasionally. They remind me of scilla but the flowers are twice the size. I’ve read that they come from south-west Turkey. Though they are said to be one of the earliest blooming spring bulbs I’ve seen quite a few others that are weeks earlier.

That little crocus in the upper right told me that it was just about time to say goodbye for another year but I didn’t really want to hear it. I’ll be sorry to see them go.

Magnolias are blooming and they aren’t looking too frost bitten. Some of these flowers are intensely fragrant. You can just see one of the beautiful purple buds that these flowers come from off to the left.

Someone remarked that they were surprised that I hadn’t been seeing more pollinators, but seeing them and capturing them with a camera are two different things. I’ve seen plenty of them but so far this is the first that was willing to pose. That blossom in the lower right just wanted to do its own thing, apparently. Obviously a leader and not a follower.

The pollinators are doing their job, judging by the amount of seeds I’ve been seeing.

The purple flowers of ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea), which is in the mint family, have a very light minty scent that isn’t at all overpowering unless you mow down a large patch that has taken over the lawn. Lawns are one of its favorite places to grow and so it has been labeled a terrible weed and kicked to the curb. It is said that nature abhors a vacuum and rushes to fill it. I would add that nature also abhors bare ground and so has plants like ground ivy rush to fill it. That’s something that many don’t understand-if a lawn is doing well and is thick and lush weeds can’t get a foothold and won’t grow because there is too much completion. It isn’t a plant’s fault that its seed fell on a piece of bare ground in what we might call a lawn. 

Gosh I thought, have I never seen bleeding heart foliage? I’ve been in a lot of gardens and yes, I’ve seen lots of dicentra foliage, but never like these. The color was beautiful, I thought.

American elm (Ulmus americana) flowers form in small clusters. The flower stems (pedicels) are about half an inch long so they wave in the slightest breeze and that makes them very hard to get a good photo of. They are wind pollinated, so waving in the breeze makes perfect sense. Each tiny flower is about an eighth inch across with red tipped anthers that darken as they age. The whitish feathery bits seen here and there are the female pistils which protrude from the center of each elm flower cluster. If the wind brings it pollen from male anthers it will form small, round, flat, winged seeds called samaras. I remember them falling by the many millions when I was a boy; raining down enough so you couldn’t even see the color of the road beneath them.

Here is a closer look at the male anthers. They’re a pretty plum color for a short time. Male flowers have 7 to 9 stamens with these dark anthers. Each male flower is about 1/8 of an inch across and dangles at the end of a long flower stalk (Pedicel.)

I keep vacillating between red maple and silver maple when I see seeds (samaras) forming with white hairs on them. I think the answer might be that when very young red maple samaras are bright red with white hairs which are lost as they age, and that’s what is confusing me. You can see the white hairs in these buds which are just showing samaras, but you won’t see them for long because they disappear in just a couple of days. They’re really quite beautiful and worth looking for.

There is a very short time when the first leaf of skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) really does look like cabbage but you wouldn’t want it with your corned beef. It comes by its common name honestly because it does have a skunk like odor. Whether or not it tastes like it smells is anyone’s guess; I don’t know anyone who has ever eaten it. I’ve read that eating the leaves can cause burning and inflammation, and that the roots should be considered toxic. One Native American tribe inhaled the odor of the crushed leaves to cure headache or toothache, but I wonder if the sharp odor didn’t simply take their minds off the pain.

A passing glance might tell you that you had stumbled onto a large group of dandelions, but unless you looked a little closer, you’d be wrong.

A closer look would tell you this isn’t a dandelion at all; it’s a coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara.) One way to tell is the lack of leaves at the base of the flower stalk, because coltsfoot leaves don’t appear until after the flowers have finished blooming. They’re very pretty little flowers but they aren’t with us long. Depending on the weather and how hot it gets I’ve seen them disappear in two weeks. Coltsfoot is native to Europe and Asia and was brought here by early settlers. It has been used medicinally for centuries and another name for it is coughwort.

Coltsfoot flowers are often smaller than dandelions and they are usually flat, rather than the mounded shape of a dandelion. But the real clincher is the stem, which is scaly like that seen here. Dandelion stems are smooth.

Ice out on Half Moon Pond in Hancock came about a month early this year. It’s so nice to see the water again. You can also see a dusting of snow on Mount Skatutakee there in the background. Skatutakee is thought to be an Abenaki (Algonquin) word for fire, according to the book Native American Placenames of the United States By William Bright.

Not even 24 hours before this photo was taken all I saw were buds when I visited the place where the spring beauties (Claytonia virginica) grow, but this day I saw many blossoms. Soon there will be thousands of them carpeting the forest floor. They’re such small flowers; each one is only slightly bigger than an aspirin, but there is a lot of beauty packed into a small package.

I always try to find the flower with the deepest color. I’ve read that it is the amount of sunlight that determines color in a spring beauty blossom. The deeper the shade, the more intense the color, so I look for them in more shaded areas. I’ve seen some that were almost pure white but no matter where I find them they’re always beautiful. Another name for them is “good morning spring.”

I should let everybody know that, though New Hampshire has a “stay at home” order like most states, we are still able to go outside for exercise as long as we don’t do it in groups. I’m lucky enough to still have a job so I’m also outside at work all day and not breaking any rules by bringing the beauty of nature to you each week. I almost always go into the woods alone even without such an order in place and I meet very few people there, so for now there is no real danger involved in keeping this blog going.

We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures. ~Thornton Wilder

Thanks for coming by. Stay safe everyone.  

 

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I didn’t think I saw Johnny jump ups (Viola tricolor) until April but I checked back on previous blog posts and found that I did see them in bloom on March 28 once. Because of that I can say that this is the earliest one I’ve seen since doing this blog. The hardy little plants were introduced from Europe so long ago that they are thought to be native by many. Today’s garden pansies were developed from this plant. The flowers can be white, purple, blue, yellow, or combinations of any or all of them. The word pansy comes from the French pensée, which means thought or reflection. I’m not sure what thought has to do with it but folklore tells us that, if the juice from the plant is squeezed onto the eyelids of a sleeping person, they will fall in love with the next person that they see. Another name for it is love in idleness, and it can be found in its love potion form in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Not too many people have heard of this non-native, early blooming shrub called Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) but it hails from the Mediterranean regions and was well known to Ancient Greeks and Romans. Archeological digs show that it’s small, tart, cherry red fruits have been eaten by man for thousands of years. It has quite small bright yellow, four petaled flowers that bees absolutely love. The flowers aren’t spectacular but they are a sure sign of spring and I always check to see how they’re coming along. The bright yellow flower buds are just showing between the opening bud scales but it might still be 2 weeks before they’re in full bloom.

I thought I’d go and see how the red maple buds (Acer rubrum) were coming along and you could have knocked me over with a feather when I found flowers instead of buds. These are the female (pistillate) flowers of the red maple, just emerging. They are tiny little things; each bud is hardly bigger than a pea. Once the female flowers have been dusted by wind carried pollen from the male flowers they will begin the process of becoming the beautiful red seeds (samaras) that this tree is so well known for. If you’re lucky you can often find male and female flowers on the same tree. I didn’t see a single male bud open though, and I wasn’t surprised because maple flowers usually appear in April.

I thought I’d show you some ice baubles I saw at the river just before I saw the red maple flowers in the previous photo. It was about 36 degrees, which is why I was so surprised to find them in bloom.

Ice baubles usually display great symmetry but these were asymmetrical for some reason. Maybe they were melting.

It still snows occasionally, though the snow decorating this sugar maple was little more than a nuisance inch or so. I searched for the latest price of maple syrup and found a gallon of pure Vermont maple syrup for $68.95. I’m guessing it’s going to go up with an early spring.

And spring is indeed early.

Hairy bittercress plants (Cardamine hirsuta) are blooming. Cress is in the huge family of plants known as Brassicaceae. With over 150 species it’s hard to know what you’re looking at sometimes, but hairy bittercress is a common lawn weed that stays green under the snow and blooms almost as soon as it melts.

Hairy bittercress flowers can be white, pink or lavender and are very small; no bigger than Lincoln’s head on a penny. The plant is self-fertilizing and seed pods appear quickly. The seed pods will explode if touched or walked on and can fling the tiny seeds up to 3 feet away. Plants can form up to 1000 seeds, so if you have this plant in your lawn chances are good that you always will. Enjoy the flowers when there are few others blooming.

Over just the past few days alder catkins have taken on more color. 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.

The brown and purple scales on the alder catkins are on short stalks and there are three flowers beneath each scale, each with a lobed calyx cup and three to five stamens with anthers, which are covered in yellow pollen. These hadn’t quite opened yet but you can see how they spiral down their central flower stalk.

One of the smallest flowers that I know of is the female blossom of the American hazelnut (Corylus americana,) and they’ve just started blossoming.  The crimson thread-like bits are the stigmas of the female flowers, waiting for the wind to bring them some pollen from the golden male catkins. To give you a sense of just how small they are, the bud that the flowers grow from is about the size of a single strand of cooked spaghetti. They’re so small all I can see is their color, so the camera has to do the rest.

This photo shows two things; how windy it was and how the ice on our smaller ponds is melting back away from shore. Pond and lake ice melts at the shore first, while river and stream ice starts in the center of the flow and melts at the shore last. Wind helps melt ice.

The skunk cabbages seemed happy; I saw many of their mottled spathes. They come in maroon with yellow splotches or yellow with maroon splotches.

Inside the skunk cabbage’s spathe is the spadix, which is a one inch round, often pink or yellow stalked flower head from which the small flowers emerge. I could just see it in this open spathe.

The flowers don’t have petals but do have four yellowish 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 visiting insects might carry from other plants. The spadix carries most of the skunk like odor at this stage of the plant’s life, and it is thought that it uses the odor to attract flies and other early spring insects. In 1749 in what was once the township of Raccoon, New Jersey they called the plant bear’s leaf because bears ate it when they came out of hibernation. Since skunk cabbage was the only thing green so early in the spring the bears had to eat it or go hungry.

This year it seems that everything is blooming at once, with wild flowers blooming early and garden flowers pretty much on time, so for a flower lover it’s a dream come true. I don’t think it’s unprecedented but it isn’t common either.

Some crocuses were just dipping their toes in, not sure if they should go all the way or not.

Others were somewhere in between. I like this one’s light pastel blush but you’d need hundreds of them to make any impact because they’re tiny at not even an inch across. There were only these two in this bed.

Snowdrop buds looked like tiny white Christmas bulbs. The old fashioned kind that I grew up with.

Vernal witch hazels (Hamamelis vernalis) started blooming very early and it seems like they’ll go on for quite a while yet. I wish I could let you smell their fragrance. It’s one of the lightest, freshest, cleanest scents I’ve experienced in nature. Someone once said the flowers smelled like clean laundry just taken in from the line, but I can’t verify that. I have a dryer.

It won’t be long before we’re seeing daffodil blossoms.

Since I started with a Johnny jump up I might as well end with one. This one bloomed in Hancock while that first one bloomed in Keene. That illustrates the oddness of this spring, because flowers usually bloom in Keene before blooming in Hancock. That’s because Keene has a lot of pavement and is slightly warmer. In any case it’s always nice to see their beauty no matter where I am.

Listen, can you hear it?  Spring’s sweet cantata. The strains of grass pushing through the snow. The song of buds swelling on the vine. The tender timpani of a baby robin’s heart. Spring! ~Diane Frolov

Thanks for coming by.

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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

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One last photo from the recent January thaw when the temperature reached 67 degrees in Concord, our State Capital. It isn’t unheard of but it is quite rare for it to be that warm in January. This photo is from when the thaw had ended and it had started getting colder again. A mist rose from the warm soil and flowed over the landscape like water.

In places what little snow fell after the thaw had been sculpted by the wind. Wind can do strange things to snow. I’ve seen drifts up over my head and curls like ocean waves.

The wind also made ripples on a puddle and then they froze into ice. I’ve seen some amazing things in puddle ice.

I don’t know what it is about grass and snow but the combination pleases me, and I always enjoy seeing them together.

It hasn’t been truly cold this winter but it has gotten down into the single digits at night, and that’s cold enough to turn pine sap blue. I see it in varying shades of blue just about everywhere I go.

When the snow starts to melt it often melts in layers and as the top layers melt away what were mice and vole runs under the snow are exposed. These small animals are active all winter long but are rarely seen. It didn’t look like this one knew exactly where it wanted to go.

Wild turkey tracks are very easy to identify because of their large size. I happened upon a spot where many of them had gathered but since I didn’t see a trail of tracks either into or away from the place I have to assume that they flew in and out of it. Maybe they wanted to catch up on what was happening in the forest, I don’t know.

Sunshine transformed an icicle into a prism for a few moments as I watched.

Snow melts in strange ways. This photo shows how it has melted into a round mound. I’m not sure how or why it would do this. Was it colder in that small, 10 inch spot than the surrounding soil?

I saw a tiny speck move in a cobweb in a building at work so I took my macro camera off my belt and inched it closer and closer until I got the shot of the American house spider you see here. Not surprisingly this tiny, quarter inch spider is called a cobweb spider. The reason it let my camera get so close is because they have poor vision, I’ve read. They can bite but this one didn’t move. I think it was busy eating. They are said to be the most often encountered spider by humans in North America so the next time you see a cobweb this is probably what made it. They can live for a year or more.

Rim lichens are very common in this area but that doesn’t mean they’re any easier to identify. I think this one is a bumpy rim lichen (Lecanora hybocarpa) because of the bumpy rims around the reddish brown fruiting bodies (Apothecia.) They aren’t smooth and round as I’d expect so at first I thought they had simply shriveled from dryness but no, they always look like this. This lichen likes to grow on the bark of hardwood trees in well lighted forests, and that’s exactly where I found this one.

I see lots of drilled holes in stone and many are out in the middle of nowhere, where you wouldn’t expect them to be. Who, I always wonder, would go to all the trouble of drilling a hole in a boulder and then just leave it? An inch and a half diameter hole is not an easy thing to drill in stone.

The smooth sides of this hole tell me it isn’t that old. It might have once been drilled for blasting ledges along the side of a road, but right now it’s filled with pine needles.

If the hole in the stone in the previous photos were from the 1800s it would have a shape like this one, which was made by a star drill. One person would hold the drill bit and another would hit the end of it with a sledge hammer. After each hammer blow the bit was rotated a quarter turn and then struck again. It was a slow process but eventually a hole that could be filled with black powder had been drilled. You filled it with black powder, stuck a fuse in and lit it, and ran as fast as you could go.

Speaking of powder, when I touched this puffball it puffed out a stream of spores that were like talcum. I was careful not to breath any in; there are people out there who seem to think that inhaling certain puffball spores will get them high, but it is never a good thing to do. People who inhale the spores can end up in the hospital due to developing a respiratory disease called Lycoperdonosis. In one severe instance a teenager spent 18 days in a coma, had portions of his lung removed, and suffered severe liver damage.

A thin maze polypore (Daedaleopsis confragosa) wore a cap of snow. This photo doesn’t show much of the maze-like underside of it, but it was there. When fresh the surface is pale gray and turns red when bruised. This fungus causes white rot in trees.

I saw quite a few beautiful blue and purple turkey tail fungi (Trametes versicolor) earlier in the year but now I’m seeing a lot of brown. One of the things I’d like to learn most about nature is what determines this mushroom’s color. It’s like a rainbow, but why? Minerals in the wood would be my first guess but apparently nobody knows for sure.

Among the many things Ötzi the 5000 year old iceman, whose well preserved body was found in the Ötztal Alps in 1991carried were birch polypores (Piptoporus betulinus.) 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 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. By the way, polypores always want their spore bearing surface pointed towards the ground, so you can see that these examples grew after this birch had fallen.

I went to visit the skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) in their swamp and saw many of the mottled spathes I hoped to see. They weren’t open yet but inside the spathes is the spadix, which carries the flowers. The spadix is a one inch diameter pink or yellow, stalked flower head from which the small flowers emerge. It carries most of the skunk like odor at this point and it is thought by some that it uses the odor to attract flies and other insects that might pollinate it. 

The skunk cabbages grow in a hummocky swamp. When I was a boy I used to jump from hummock to hummock but my hummock jumping days are over, so now I just wear waterproof hiking boots.

How beautiful this life is, and how many wonderful things there are to see. I do hope you’re seeing more than your share of it. It doesn’t take much; the colors in a sunrise, a sculpted patch of snow, the ice on a puddle. All will speak to you if you’re willing to just stop for a moment and look, and listen.

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

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In 1906 Albert Proell, manager of the Keene Forestry Association, was allowed to start a tree plantation on unused land near what is now the Keene airport. Trees, chiefly Scot pine and Norway spruce, were grown from seed to be used in reforestation projects. The spruce trees have done well but the Scot pines have not; neither the soil nor climate is right for them. Many of the spruce trees are still here and, as the above photo shows, are tall but have no real girth because they were meant to be transplanted into other areas, not allowed to reach full size. They are too close together and cast such deep shade that nothing but a few mosses and fungi will grow beneath them.

This view looking up shows how the trees are more poles than trees.

The plantation trees often die young as this one did.

But the near sterile tree plantation is only part of the story, because not all of the trees in this forest were planted. In fact most of them weren’t and some have been here for a very long time. Many old and large white pines (Pinus strobus) grow here, as well as hemlocks, larches, birches, beeches, maples, oaks and poplars.

Beech leaves glowed in the sun. I watch these leaves in winter because when they start falling from the trees spring isn’t far off. This is a tree that brings me year round pleasure, from its beautiful new leaves in spring until the last leaves fall in the following spring. I just read that beech trees were a sign of soil fertility for early settlers moving west, and when they found a good stand of beech that’s where they would start their farms. It’s also a very important tree to woodland creatures and everything from mice to black bears eat its nuts.

A large part of this land is swamp, and this is where I come to see skunk cabbage, wild azaleas and many other plants I don’t find anywhere else.

Skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) are just waiting for it to warm up a bit and at the end of February or early March they’ll start to bloom. They’re one of our earliest spring blooming plants, if not the earliest.

I was happy to see seed pods on a few of the native roseshell azaleas (Rhododendron prinophyllum.) If a plant is producing seed it is happy, and these native shrubs are hard to find. The fragrant pink flowers are among the most beautiful found in the spring forest.

The shiny evergreen leaves of pipsissewa (Chimaphila umbellata) are quite easy to see in winter. They’re one of our native wintergreens and they like to grow in undisturbed, sandy woodland soil that is on the dry side. Pipsissewa was once used as a flavoring in candy and soft drinks, including root beer. Its common name comes from the Native American Cree tribe, who used it medicinally to treat kidney stones. It was thought to break them up into pieces. Even though pipsissewa photosynthesizes it supplements its diet by taking certain nutrients from fungi, and for that reason it is considered partially parasitic. This is one of a very few places I’ve seen it. 

The pretty little seedpods of pipsissewa persist through the winter and poke up out of the snow. They are woody and split open into 5 parts to release the tiny seeds. Each capsule is about a quarter inch across. They remind me of the seedpods of the Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora,) in some ways.

Another rarity in this forest is striped wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata.) I’ve found 5 or 6 examples here, all growing in the same general area. Striped wintergreen has a symbiotic relationship with the mycelium of certain fungi in the soil and is partially parasitic on them through a process called myco-heterotrophy. This means that, even though they photosynthesize, they supplement their diet with nutrients taken from fungi. That explains why they will only grow in certain places, much like our native orchids. It also explains their rarity. I read recently that the plant is considered rare in both New England and Canada. I’ve also read that it won’t grow on land that has been disturbed in the last 100 years.

A yellow area on a tree had me thinking I knew what it was, but then I looked closer…

…and I realized that I had no idea what it was. But I thought that it must be a liverwort and after some digging I came up with a liverwort called flat-leaved scalewort (Radula complanate.) It is said to be relatively common on trees and rocks but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it. It doesn’t like direct sunlight and it certainly wouldn’t have gotten any where I found it growing.

Another of our native evergreen’s leaves were buried under the snow but I didn’t need to see them to identify this plant. The big J shaped flower styles of shinleaf (Pyrola elliptica) are unmistakable, even on its winter seedpods. Shinleaf is quite common in this area and can form large colonies. It seems to be more successful than some other wintergreens. Shinleaf and other plants in the wintergreen family contain compounds that are similar to aspirin and shinleaf was used by Native Americans as a poultice on injured shins and other parts of the body. That’s how the plant comes by its common name. Shinleaf leaves form a rosette at the base of the single, 4-5 inch tall flower stalk.

I’ve seen a lot of holes in trees but this was more of a slit than a hole and I haven’t a clue how it came to be. It was in an old white pine that was hollow inside. There are an amazing number of hollow trees in forests but it takes a long time; a hundred years or more, for a tree to become hollow so most of them are quite large. Many birds, animals, and even frogs and snakes live in tree hollows, so they’re important to wildlife but they can also be dangerous if they’re near buildings. I saw a big old white pine that had fallen and cut a barn right in half. It was hollow inside.

Amber jelly fungi (Exidia recisa) looked like stained glass. Being in the snow meant these examples had absorbed plenty of water so they were pliable and rubbery, like your ear lobe. I see this fungus everywhere, especially on fallen oak limbs but also on alder and poplar as well.

A tinder fungus (Fomes fomentarius) looked older than the tree it grew on but of course that isn’t possible. These bracket fungi produce spores at all times of year but through spring and summer studies have shown that they can produce as many as 800 million spores in a single hour. Its common name comes from its usefulness as tinder for starting fires.

Turkey tail fungi (Trametes versicolor) are some of the most colorful in the forest. For years now I’ve wondered what determines the colors that turkey tails display. Why are some brown and others blue? Or orange? Or purple?  If the question has an answer I haven’t found it, but I have found that they are full of antioxidants and contain many immune boosting properties. In fact studies have shown that they can boost the effectiveness of cancer treatments like chemotherapy and radiation.

Lots of clubmosses grow here and fan clubmoss (Lycopodium digitatum) is one of my favorites. The plant gets its common name from the way its branches fan out in a 180 degree arc at the top of the stem. Another common name is ground cedar because of its resemblance to the cedar tree. At one time this and other clubmosses were used to make Christmas wreaths and were collected almost into oblivion, but they seem to be making a fairly good comeback. A single plant can take 20 years or more to grow from spore to maturity, so they should never be disturbed. Clubmosses aren’t mosses at all. They are vascular plants that don’t flower; they produce spores instead of seeds and are considered fern allies. Fossils have been found that show the lowly clubmosses once grew to 100 feet tall.

Indian pipes (Monotropa uniflora) are white and ghostly and grow in the dark places in the forest. They can get away with doing that because they don’t photosynthesize, but they do have flowers and when the flowers are pollinated they stand straight up toward the sky. This tells me that the flower seen here either wasn’t pollinated or didn’t see any need to stand up straight like all of its cousins. The seeds are fine like dust and I think the flower standing up straight must have something to do with rain being able to splash the seeds out of the capsule. Many plants and mosses use the same strategy for seed and spore dispersal. Fresh Indian pipe plants contain a gel that Native Americans used to treat eye problems, and the common name comes from the plant’s resemblance to the pipes they smoked.

That’s what winter is: an exercise in remembering how to still yourself then how to come pliantly back to life again. ~Ali Smith

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I had given up on finding any coltsfoot flowers (Tussilago farfara) last week and then there they were, blooming in a roadside ditch. I was thinking that I was just too early but a 70 degree day must have triggered their bloom. But not only them; many flowers appeared literally overnight.

From a distance a coltsfoot blossom might look like a dandelion but the flowers are often smaller than dandelions and they are usually flat, rather than the mounded shape of a dandelion. But the real clincher is the stem, which is scaly like that seen here. Dandelion stems are smooth.

They’re very pretty little flowers but they aren’t with us long. Depending on the weather and how hot it gets I’ve seen them disappear in two weeks. Coltsfoot is native to Europe and Asia and was brought here by early settlers. It has been used medicinally for centuries and another name for it is coughwort.

I went to the place where spring beauties grow last Saturday afternoon and though I saw a plant or two I didn’t see a single blossom. Then on Sunday, less than 24 hours later, there were 5 or 6 blossoms so it has started, and soon there will be thousands of them carpeting the forest floor. They’re such small flowers; each one is only slightly bigger than an aspirin, but there is a lot of beauty packed into a small package. For me spring isn’t really here until I hear the sad fee-bee mating call of the black capped chickadee and see these beautiful little flowers. Now I’ve seen and heard both and there’s no turning back; spring is in my bones.

Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) gets its common name from the way chickens peck at it. The plant is in the mint family and apparently chickens like it. The amplexicaule part of the scientific name means clasping and describes the way the hairy leaves clasp the stem. The plant is a very early bloomer and blooms throughout winter in warmer areas. Henbit is from Europe and Asia, but I can’t say that it’s invasive because I rarely see it. I’ve read that the leaves, stem, and flowers are edible and have a slightly sweet and peppery flavor. It can be eaten raw or cooked.

Fly honeysuckle (Lonicera canadensis) is one of our earliest blooming shrubs and one that not many people see unless they walk in early spring. This example that I saw recently had pink tipped buds but no flowers yet. I’d guess it would be blooming today, but as always that depends on the weather. It’s unusual flowers are joined in pairs and if pollinated they become small, red orange, oval, pointed end berries that are also joined in pairs. The flowers form on branch ends of small shrubs and many songbirds love the berries, so it would be a great addition to a wildlife garden. Look for the flowers at the end of April on the shaded edges of woods.

Red maples (Acer rubrum) are still blooming heavily and their bloom is staggered over thousands of trees, so some years it seems to go on and on. This photo is of the thread like female stigmas that catch the pollen from male trees. Soon they will become seeds; millions of them.

I found a red maple with many thousands of male flowers all blooming at once and for the first time I smelled their sweet fragrance. I had to actually put my nose right into a bud cluster to make sure the fragrance was coming from them, and it was. This tree was amazing, and just look at all that pollen.

I wish everyone could see and smell a red maple in bloom. It’s something they wouldn’t soon forget.

This box elder, another member of the maple family, was just opening its buds. Box elders (Acer negundo) have beautiful lime green female flowers and I can’t wait to show them to you.

American elm trees (Ulmus americana) are also flowering, as this shot of the male flowers shows. Though both male and female flowers appear in the same cluster on elms I didn’t see any female flowers on this example, which was one of only a handful that I could reach. Female flowers are white and wispy like feathers and male flowers have 7 to 9 stamens with dark reddish anthers. Each male flower is about 1/8 of an inch across and dangles at the end of a long flower stalk (Pedicel.)

Willows (Salix) are another plant that decided to bloom overnight. Last week these buds were still gray and fuzzy and showed no color at all. Now both male and female flowers are everywhere. These are the male blossoms seen here. They’re the showiest.

The female willow blossoms were just showing color last week and here they are on the same plant already becoming seed pods. Once it starts it happens fast, so if you want to see spring in all its wondrous forms you really have to be outside each day.

Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) was trying but still wasn’t looking much like cabbage to me. I hope I can find some of the fruit this year. I’ve never seen one and I’m guessing that their rarity must be due to most of the flowers not being pollinated.

I recently said that I thought an in-ground sprinkler system installed last fall at a local park must have destroyed the only striped squill (Puschkinia scilloides, var. libanotica) that I know of, but last weekend they were all up and blooming beautifully. Since blue is my favorite color I’m very happy to see them. But I don’t see many; they border on rare here and I hardly ever see them. Though catalogs will tell you that the blue stripes are found only on the inside of the blossom they actually go through each petal and show on the outside as well as the inside, as the unopened buds will show. The flowers on this spring flowering bulb are about the same size as the scilla (Scilla siberica) flowers I think most of us are familiar with. They’re beautiful little things.

These are the first Forsythia blossoms I’ve seen this spring but they certainly won’t be the last. Soon they’ll be blooming on every street in the region. Overused? Yes, but try to imagine spring without them.

The Cornelian cherries (Cornus mas) are hedging their bets and waiting just a little longer before opening their small, waxy yellow flowers. I’d guess another week before we see them.

Bees have suddenly appeared and though this one wouldn’t pose for the camera I think it was a honeybee. I haven’t seen a bumblebee yet but I have seen hoverflies and many other insects.

Magnolias have also started to bloom, with only a handful of blossoms on each tree. This one had beautiful deep pink buds which opened to paler pink flowers.

The pretty white crocuses with purple on the outsides of their petals are still blooming but this will probably be the last time we’ll see them this year. Last week I saw a bed with hundreds of crocuses blossoming in it and by this week they had almost all gone by.

Daffodils of all color combinations have just started blooming.

As I said earlier I’m afraid it might be time to say goodbye to crocuses already so I’ll end this post with this little beauty. For a flower that is with us for such a short time their impact seems huge. They’re another flower that it’s hard to imagine going without in spring.

The spring came suddenly, bursting upon the world as a child bursts into a room, with a laugh and a shout and hands full of flowers. ~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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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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I was hoping I’d be able to show flowers on the first day of spring and, though they might not seem like much, these vernal witch hazel petals (Hamamelis vernalis) just coming out of the fuzzy buds were wonderful to see. Actually tomorrow is the first full day of spring but it does start today.

Forsythia is a shrub that takes on a kind of golden hue in spring and this year many are going for broke.

Alder (Alnus) catkins are also coloring up, preparing to open and release the pollen from the male flowers, hundreds of which are hidden behind the scales of the catkins shown here.

Willow catkins aren’t showing any color yet but I think that any day now yellow flowers will start to show among the gray fuzziness of the catkins.

Crocuses are up and budded but I didn’t see any blossoms fully open yet.

It’s great to see a crocus, blossoming or not.

There are reticulated iris in the same bed as the crocuses and I think this might be one of them. they’re very early and often are the first spring bulb to bloom.

Daffodils are still thinking about things and can’t seem to make up their minds whether it is really spring or not. Who could blame them, with 60 degrees one day and 40 the next?

I remembered that what I thought were tulips a post or two ago are actually hyacinths. They look a lot alike at this stage and I seem to make the same mistake every year.

The daylilies at a friend’s house are up and about 3 inches tall, but they get warmth from the house’s foundation. They are an early plant but I haven’t seen any anywhere else yet.

I can’t explain the feeling I got when I saw the yellow buds showing on this Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) but it was a good one. It wasn’t because the flowers are spectacular but more because it is a sure sign of spring and my heart soared at the thought of it. Many people haven’t heard of this non-native, early blooming shrub but it hails from the Mediterranean regions and was well known to Ancient Greeks and Romans. Archeological digs show that it’s small, tart, cherry red fruits have been eaten by man for thousands of years. It has quite small bright yellow, four petaled flowers that bees absolutely love.

I haven’t seen anything happening with the magnolias yet but soon their fuzzy caps will come off to reveal the buds within.

Lilac buds on the other hand, have started to open. You can see how the bud scales, which are very tight and shingle-like in winter, have started to pull away from each other. By mid-May they’ll be in full bloom and their wonderful fragrance will be on the breeze no matter where you go in this area.

Last year I saw red maple flowers (Acer rubrum) on March 25th. This means that these buds have about a week to fully open if they want to do that again and I think that they probably will because we’re supposed to have a week of above freezing temperatures.

But I’ve also seen red maple buds open too early, and the flowers have been badly frost bitten. Luckily the blossoming time of red maples is staggered from tree to tree and since not all flowers have opened there are always some that don’t get damaged by frost. In this shot the uppermost buds on the right and left look to be about ready to open.

I went to the forest where the spring beauties bloom. I didn’t expect to see any flowers but I wondered if I might see a leaf or two. I didn’t see any but they’ll be along soon. Many thousands of beautiful little spring beauties should carpet the floor of this piece of forest sometime in mid-April.

I didn’t see flowers but I saw that the beavers sure had been busy.

And so had the woodpeckers.

The mottled yellow and maroon spathes of skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) are up and so thick you have to be careful not to step on them. If you do step on one you know it; the smell of skunk can be very strong sometimes. It’s too wet where they grow right now to kneel and get a shot of the flowers inside the spathe but I hope to be able to do so soon.

That’s a leaf shoot on the left of this skunk cabbage spathe, and that’s very unusual. The leaves don’t usually appear until after the plants have bloomed. Young leaves can resemble cabbage leaves, but only for a very short time.

Here’s another beautiful vernal witch hazel that I found blooming by following the scent. I know a place where several large shrubs grow. When I visited them I couldn’t see any blossoms but I could smell them so I knew they were there somewhere. And they were; way in the back was a single branch loaded with these blossoms. Their wonderful clean scent has been compared to a load of laundry just taken in from the line, and that’s as good a description as I’ve heard. Maybe a tiny bit spicy as well for this variety.

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. Happy first day of spring!

 

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Both the groundhog and the National Weather Service predicted an early spring, but how early? As I write this there are only 22 days until the calendar says spring, so I thought I’d go looking for it. It’s hard to describe how or when spring happens but sometimes it starts with a hint of warmth on a breeze. You can tell that it’s different than other breezes but you don’t know why; you just know that it’s that first warm breath of spring. But that’s just one sign. There are others, like the ice starting to melt off ponds. Even though we still have cold days the ice melts slowly, and it might freeze and refreeze but the sunshine and warmth will win out and before long there will be open water where the ice was. It’s happening now; that spot of open water in this photo has slowly been getting bigger.

More and more trees, and especially willows like the one seen here, are changing into their spring golden colors. It’s something I’ve watched happen for years now, one of those first subtle hints of spring. One lady said her ponies shedding their hair was a sign of spring for her, and skunks coming out of hibernation is another. Seed displays are also popping up in stores.

Willow catkins, called “pussies,” are a sign of spring for many but this year I saw them in January.

The purple bud scales on these red maple buds (Acer rubrum) have definitely been pulling back to reveal the tomato red buds within since the last time I looked at them. The bud scales protect the bud from freezing weather, so I hope the tree knows what it is doing. I’ve seen red maples bloom too early and lose most of their flowers to frost.

I get to see this sugar maple (Acer saccharum) every day so I’m sure the bud scales have been slowly opening on it as well. But, since I haven’t seen any sap buckets yet, buds getting bigger doesn’t make much sense because it’s the sap that drives the growth.  Maybe the sap is flowing in some trees and not others. That sounds like a plausible answer, anyhow.

When I was a boy I used to get highly excited when spring came because that meant I could ride my bike to school again, and when I did I made sure to ride through as many ice covered puddles as I could. That’s why, whenever I see that thin, white, crinkly ice on a puddle it makes me think of spring. This ice wasn’t quite what I mean but it was on a puddle and it had some fantastic, feathery patterns in it.

Mud is also part of spring in these parts; so much so that we even have a “mud season.” That’s when dirt roads turn to something similar to quicksand for a week or two as things start to thaw and the frost comes out of the ground.

For me checking lilac buds is a rite of spring. I’ve been doing it for as long as I can remember, always starting about now, looking at them twice or three times a week for signs of swelling. It’s always exciting to see the bud scales finally fully open to reveal the deep purple, grape like cluster of flower buds within.

Some plants seem like they would do anything to be the first to bloom in spring, and these cress seedlings (I think) are one of those. These seedlings grew next to a building foundation where it’s a little warmer and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them blooming next week. Each plant would fit in a thimble and a whole bouquet of the white, four petaled flowers could easily hide behind a pea.

I saw some tulips up and out of the ground, standing about 3 inches high. There are bulb beds up against a building foundation and this must be why they’re up so early.

I hope those are more leaves coming along and not flower buds.

Reticulated iris grow in the same bed as the tulips. These are very early flowering plants and you can often find the tiny iris blossoms covered by snow.

Daffodils are also still up and growing in a raised bed at the local college. Raised beds drain and thaw earlier than the ground does but anything green in them can still be harmed by the cold, and those daffodils often get frost bitten. When that happens the leaves turn to mush.

I was surprised to see this beech bud curling, because curling like this is often a sign of bud break and it’s far too early for that. The curl is caused by the sun warming the cells on one side of the bud and making them grow faster than the cells on the other side. This causes a tension in the bud which will eventually cause it to open. For beech this usually means mid-May.

Here is a photo of a beech bud breaking from May 19th of last year. There are several leaves in each bud, all edged in downy, silvery angel hair. This is one of the most beautiful sights in a New England forest in spring and I’m very much looking forward to seeing it again.

I checked the skunk cabbages again and still didn’t see any of the blotchy maroon and yellow flower spathes but it shouldn’t be much longer. Since I’ve been keeping track the earliest I’ve seen them was in 2014. They were just coming up on Feb 2 that year and it looks like they might be a month later this year.

The spring blooming vernal witch hazels (Hamamelis vernalis) have bloomed earlier as well, but they’re waiting this year. The weather has been very strange so I’m not surprised. I’m guessing that once we get a week of above freezing temperatures all the early blooming plants will bloom at once.

Though they’re early bloomers I didn’t think there would be any sign of movement in magnolia buds. I just wanted to see their furry bud scales.

45 years ago I was doing some work for a man who suddenly said “Look at the bluebird on the fence.” I got a look at a beautiful blue blur and until just the other day I hadn’t ever seen another eastern bluebird. On this day there were 3 or 4 of them in a birch tree and I saw the beautiful color as I drove by. I stopped, grabbed my camera, and they actually sat still for more than a second or two; just long enough to jump out of the car and get these photos.

The bluebirds were eating the fruit (hips) of the invasive multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) and of course that just helps it spread. Blue birds, from what I’ve read, are migratory and usually return to New Hampshire to nest in March, so these birds are a true sign of spring even if they are a little early. Oddly enough that beautiful blue color doesn’t come from any blue pigment in their feathers because there isn’t any. Instead it comes from a thin layer of cells on each feather that absorbs all wavelengths of color except blue. Only the blue wavelength is reflected so when we see the beautiful blue of this bird we are actually seeing a reflection. But no matter where it comes from it certainly is a beautiful shade of blue, as this male shows.

Bluebirds are called “bluebirds of happiness” and seeing them again after so long certainly made me happy. They could have stayed a little longer but I’m very thankful that I got to see them, however brief that visit was.

But no blue, not even the brightest summer sky, seems as blue as the bluebirds of spring.
~Ron Hirschi

Thanks for stopping in.

 

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