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Posts Tagged ‘Skunk Cabbage’

On Friday, April 16th nature decided to surprise us. This photo shows what I saw on my way to work that day. Parts of the state ended up with a foot of heavy wet snow but it was too warm for it to last..

…and in a day or two it was all gone.

It did get cold for a while but that didn’t slow things down for too long. Ferns like this lady fern  (Athyrium filix-femina) still showed off their stamina with their naked spring fiddleheads. Lady fern is the only fern I know of with brown / black scales on its stalk in the fiddlehead stage. This fern likes to grow in moist, loamy areas along streams and rivers. They don’t like windy places, so if you find a shaded dell where a grove of lady fern grows it’s safe to assume that it doesn’t ever get very windy there.

Interrupted fern (Osmundastrum claytoniana) fiddleheads wore fur and huddled together to keep warm.

Red maple (Acer rubrum) seeds (samaras) are growing by the many millions. These are one of the smallest seeds in the maple family. It is estimated that a single tree 12 inches in diameter can produce nearly a million seeds, and if the tree is fertilized for 2 years seed production can increase by 10 times. It’s no wonder that red maple is getting a reputation for being a weed tree.

For a short time between when they appear and when they ripen and fall American elm (Ulmus americana) seeds have a white fringe. When they ripen they’ll become dry and papery and finally fall to the wind. I grew up on a street that had huge 200 year old elms on it and those trees put out seeds in the many millions. Elm seeds contain 45% protein and 7% fiber and in the great famine of 1812 they were used as food in Norway.

As I write this the large, infertile white blossoms of hobblebush (Viburnum lantanoides) have most likely fully formed, but when I last went to see them this is what they looked like; almost there. Hobblebush flower heads are made up of small fertile flowers in the center and large infertile flowers around the perimeter. The infertile flowers are there to attract insects to the much less showy fertile ones and it’s a strategy that must work well because I see plenty of berries in the fall. They start out green and go to a beautiful bright red before ripening to a deep purple color.

Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) 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. If we ate them maybe they wouldn’t be such a bother. Maybe in pies?

This mullein plant was one of the biggest I’ve seen; as big as a car tire. I loved the pattern the leaves made. Native Americans used tea made from its large, gray green furry leaves to treat asthma and other respiratory ailments. They also used the roots to treat coughs, and it is also said to be useful as a relaxant and sleep aid. The Cherokee tribe are said to have rubbed mullein leaves in their armpits to treat prickly rash and the Navaho tribe made an infusion of the leaves and rubbed it on the bodies of their hunters to give them strength. Clearly this plant has been used for many thousands of years. It is considered one of the “oldest herbs’ and recent research has shown that mullein does indeed have strong anti-inflammatory properties.

Wild Leeks (Allium tricoccum), also called ramps, are up. They look like scallions and taste somewhere between onions and garlic. They are considered a great delicacy and are a favorite spring vegetable in many parts of the world, but they’ve been over collected so harvesting has been banned in many parts of the U.S. and Canada. They’re slow growers from seed and a 10 percent harvest of a colony can take 10 years to grow back. They take 18 months to germinate from seed and 5 to 7 years to become mature enough to harvest. That’s why, when people write in and ask me where to find them, I can’t tell them. The two small colonies I’ve found have less than 300 plants combined.

This photo is from a few years ago when I foolishly pulled up a couple of ramps, not knowing how rare they were. It shows their resemblance to scallions though, and that’s what I wanted you to see. They are said to be strongly flavored with a pungent odor, but they’ve been prized by mankind since the ancient Egyptians ate them. Each spring there are ramp festivals all over the world and in some places they’re called the “King of stink.” The name ramp comes from the English word ramson, which is a common name of the European bear leek (Allium ursinum,) which is a cousin of the North American wild leek.

In one of the spots I go to find ramps I find false hellebore (Veratrum viride) growing right beside them. There is a lesson in that, and it is know your plants well if you’re going to eat them. Ramps are one of the most delicious wild plants and false hellebore one of the deadliest. As you can see from the photos they look nothing alike but people do still confuse them. As recently as 2019 a physics professor and his wife wanted some spring greens for breakfast at their cabin in Vermont. The greens they chose, instead of the ramps they thought they were picking, were actually false hellebore. They spent 2 weeks in the hospital and almost died. From 2014 to 2019 in Vermont 18 people were poisoned by false hellebore so again; know your plants. In this case it is simple: ramps smell like onions and false hellebore does not.

And then there is skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus,) which is also up at the same time as ramps and false hellebore. Though I haven’t heard of anyone mistaking skunk cabbage for ramps,. when the leaves of skunk cabbage just come up and start to unfurl I could imagine some thinking they were ramps. In any event skunk cabbage won’t kill a person but after smelling it I can picture it giving a person a good tummy ache.

There are is magic in the woods; beautiful things that many never see, and the glowing spring buds of the striped maples are one of them. Velvety soft and colored in pink and orange, they are one of the things I most look forward to seeing in spring.

But you have to be quick and pay close attention if you’re going to watch spring buds unfold, because it can happen quickly. This striped maple bud was all ready to break.

I saw a porcupine in a tree where I work. This porcupine, if it is the same one, had a baby with her last year. This year she doesn’t look well but since you could fit what I know about porcupines in a thimble and have room to spare, I can’t be sure. I do know that three or four of us thought she looked as if something was wrong.

I felt as if I was being watched one day when I was taking photos of violets and turned to find a very suspicious robin wondering just what it was I was up to. I said hello and it hopped even closer. It looked very well fed and I wondered if it was hopping in the grass because it was too heavy to get off the ground. Of course I didn’t ask. Instead I stood and walked across the lawn and when I turned to look again I saw that it was still watching me. Probably making sure I wasn’t making off with any of its worms.

I don’t see many wooly bear caterpillars in spring but here it was. Folklore says that the wider the orangey brown band on a wooly bear caterpillar is, the milder the winter will be. We did indeed have a mild winter but I doubt the wooly bear cared either way because wooly bears produce their own antifreeze and can freeze solid. Once the temperature rises into the 40s F in spring they thaw out and begin feeding on dandelion and other early spring greens. Eventually they spin a cocoon and emerge as a beautiful tiger moth. From that point on it has only two weeks to live. Since this one was on a step I’m guessing that it was looking for a place to make a cocoon.

The new shoots of Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) are up and leafing out. Usually even plants this small will have tiny flower buds on them but I didn’t see any on this one. Each year the above ground stem leaves a scar, or “seal” on the underground stem, which is called a rhizome. Counting these scars will reveal the age of the plant but of course you have to dig it up to do that and I never have.

I finally found the female flowers of sweet gale (Myrica gale.) They’re bushy little things that remind me of female alder catkins. Sweet gale is also called bog rosemary and likes to grow on the banks of acidic lakes, bogs and streams. Touching the foliage releases a sweet, pleasant scent from its resinous leaves which have been used for centuries as a natural insect repellent.

These are the male catkins of sweet gale. They’re much larger than the female catkins and much easier to spot.

If there is anything that holds more promise than new spring leaves I’ve never experienced it.

Bud break is defined as “when the green tip of a leaf can be seen emerging from the bud.” It’s happening right now to a lot of trees like this sugar maple. I love the veining on sugar maple leaves just before they unfurl.

I complained in an earlier post how, though maple leaves often come out of the bud colored red, all I was seeing this year were green. Of course as soon as I say something like that nature throws me a curve ball and on this day all I saw were young red leaves. Actually my color finding software calls them salmon pink and orange.

All of the snow in that first photo ended up like this; spring runoff. That means of course that I get to enjoy the moisture in its two forms; first when it clothes every branch and twig and second when it becomes a beautiful waterfall. This is one of my favorite spring scenes. I call this the “disappearing waterfall” because it comes and goes depending on the weather. It was in fine form on this day but it could be gone completely the next time I go to see it.

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

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For this post I’m going to try to take you through February, starting with the photo of puddle ice above. February was a cold and icy month but beautiful too. The average February temperature usually runs between 16.5°F (-8.6°C) and 31.5°F (-0.3°C) so ice doesn’t come as a surprise.

February was also a snowy month with storm after storm coming through. According to state records in Concord, the state capital, on average snow falls for 10.2 days in February and typically adds up to about 7.36 inches. We’ve had all of that, as the waist high snowbanks on the side of the road I travel to work on show.

The snow and ice might have built up but the finger of open water in Half Moon Pond reached further out into the pond each day. In February days have the least amount sunshine with an average of only about 4 hours per day, so things like this take time. The clouds seen in this shot are typical on an average February day.

But the sun does shine and slowly, the days get longer.

I’ve read that the reflection of sunlight from snow can nearly double the intensity of the Sun’s UV radiation. This photo of a fertile sensitive fern frond was taken in natural light that was reflecting off the snow and it looks like I used a flash.  

Here is another sensitive fern fertile frond which has released its spores. This was another attempt at catching sunlight on snow. It isn’t easy to do because it’s so very bright. If you stare at it too long you can experience snow blindness, which thankfully is usually only temporary. Still, bright sunlight on snow isn’t good for the eyes especially if you have glaucoma, so I try to always wear sunglasses.

Animals like turkeys, deer and squirrels have been digging up the snow looking for acorns.

And then one day the sunshine was different; it felt like a warm breath, and the melting began in earnest. That’s how spring always begins, but it is something that can never be proven to those who don’t believe. It doesn’t matter if it is February, March or April, spring always begins with that sense; the knowing that something has changed. You feel it and you know it but you can’t explain it, even though you know that from this point on there will be other, more visible signs.

Anything dark colored like this white cedar branch absorbed warmth from the sun and melted down into the snow.

Here a basswood tree limb was doing the same.

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

As the snow melts things that fell on it months ago reappear, like these basswood berries (actually nutlets). That bract is a modified leaf, called a tongue by some, which helps the berries fly on the winds. These didn’t make it very far from the tree however. Native Americans used many parts of the basswood tree, including the berries, as food and also boiled its sweet sap. The fibers found in the tree’s bark were used to make twine and cordage used for everything from sewing to snowshoes. In fact the word “bass” is a mispronunciation of the Native word “bast”, which is their word for one of the types of fiber made from the tree.

No longer moistened by snow melt, this moss growing on a stone was looking quite dry. From here on out it will have to depend on rain.

As the sun warms stones many times you’ll see the frost coming out of them. That’s what the white was in this shot. It doesn’t usually last long so it’s one of those being in the right place at the right time things.

Maple syrup makers hung their sap buckets about the third week of February as usual. Nobody knows when or where sap gathering started but most agree that it was learned from Native Americans. They used to cut a V notch into the bark of a tree and then put a wedge at the bottom of the cut. The sap would drip from the wedge into buckets made of bark or woven reeds, or sometimes into wooden bowls. They would then boil it down until it thickened and became syrup. Since it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup sap gathering was and still is a lot of work.

Winter dark fireflies (Ellychnia corrusca) have appeared on trees. According to Bugguide.net, these fireflies can be a pest in sap buckets in the spring because they like maple sap, and they will also drink from wounds in maple trees. They like to sun themselves on the sunny side of trees or buildings, and this one was happy to do so on an old oak. Most fireflies live as larvae in rotting wood and forest litter near water and stay in the area they were born in, even as adults. They like it warm and humid but they weren’t getting much of either on this February day. They don’t seem to be afraid of people at all; I’ve gotten quite close to them several times.

Buoyed by sap flow and insect activity I thought I’d visit the swamp where the skunk cabbages grow and see if they were up yet.

They were up and that tells me the hazelnuts will most likely be flowering before long. Inside the skunk cabbage’s mottled spathe is the spadix, which is a one inch round, often pink or yellow, stalked flower head from which the small flowers emerge. I’d say it’ll be another week or so before I see them. The spathes seem extremely red this year. They’re usually a deep maroon color. Alder catkins, which are also a maroon / purple color, are also red this year, from here to Scotland. I can’t even guess why.

Of course I had to check the bulb beds, and there were indeed shoots up out of the soil. I’m not positive but I think these were crocus. Since I don’t own the bulb bed I can never be 100 percent sure.

Reticulated irises are usually the first bulb to bloom and they were up and looking good, but no buds yet.

In one bed daffodils seemed to be rushing up out of the ground.

These daffodils were about four inches tall, I’d guess. They looked a little blanched from coming up under the snow but they’ll be fine. They won’t bloom for a while though.

The willows are showing their silvery catkins so it won’t be long before the bushes are full of beautiful yellow flowers.

I hoped I’d be able to show you flowers at the end of this post and the spring blooming witch hazels (Hamamelis vernalis) came through. I was beside myself with joy when I turned a corner and saw them blooming. We might see cold and we might see more snow but there is no turning back now. Spring, my favorite season, has begun in this part of the world. I might have to tie myself to a rock to keep from floating away.

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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Since the last time I did one of these posts it has gotten colder; cold enough to freeze over our ponds and lakes in fact, as this morning scene from Half Moon Pond in Hancock shows. Many ice fishermen and skaters have been enjoying the ice this year. The ice has also been very vocal, and the pinging and twanging sounds I hear daily signal cracking of the ice. If you’ve never heard it the ice can sound eerie, but some people hear it as music. There is a good video with accurate reproduction of these sounds here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=chxn2szgEAg
Nature just never ceases to amaze.

Pressure ridges have been building in the ice on the shore of the pond. It’s easy to think of ice as hard and rigid but it can be quite plastic and it moves around a lot.

Here was a window through the ice; a window into spring.

But it will be a while before spring arrives. We still have to get through February which, though it is the shortest month, can sometimes seem like the longest.

Of course cold doesn’t let snow melt so what looks like a lot of snow in this photo is what has built up over the course of two or three storms that have carried only three or four inches. “Nuisance storms” are what they’re called because, though the amount of snowfall is minimal and hardly worth shoveling or plowing, you never know what the next storm will bring so you’d better get out there and clean it up. It might be a nuisance but you feel better about having done it.

When the snow is light and powdery the wind can sculpt it into all kinds of shapes. That’s how these ripples were made.

I wonder if anyone knows what made these marks in the snow?

The marks were made by a pine cone, blown by the wind and rolling through the snow. I see this a lot.

Animals have started digging through the snow to find acorns and other seeds. I’m guessing these dig marks were made by a squirrel. They have a rough time in the extreme below zero cold we’ve seen lately.

Skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) are patiently waiting in their swamp for the weather to be right before showing their mottled spathes, but it won’t be long. Once the modified leaves called spathes have unfurled and the flowers on the spadix have produced pollen the shoot you see here will grow and unfurl and become the large green, cabbage like leaves that the plant gets its name from. Skunk cabbage, through a process called thermogenesis, can produce its own heat and melt its way through ice and snow. They are a sure sign that spring has arrived.

I’m seeing lots of blackberries hanging onto their leaves this winter, and I’m always happy to see them. These were a pleasing shade of maroon. To see actual leaves in January is a great gift, in my opinion.

When a sunbeam lights up a single bit of nature in a given area I pay attention, and on this day one fell on a golden birch. Golden sunshine on a golden birch; a gift of gold that warmed my spirit on a cold blue winter day.

Blue is a color I see a lot of in winter. Here the normally white or greenish white stripes on a striped maple trunk (Acer pensylvanicum) have turned blue. Since I’ve only seen this happen in winter I assume that it is the cold that does it. This native tree is also called goosefoot maple due to the shape of its leaves, and moosewood maple because moose eat its leaves. Another name that I haven’t heard much of is snake bark maple. Native Americans are said to have used the wood to make arrows, which would make sense because these trees grow very straight. They also used it medicinally to treat coughs and colds.

My favorite part of the striped maple at this time of year is its pink buds at the tip of orange branches. From this point until they leaf out they will get even more beautiful.

This photo taken previously what those striped maple buds will look like in late April or early May, just before they break and the leaves come out. A tree full of them is very beautiful.

A young striped maple’s bark is smooth and green or greenish brown with long white or whitish green vertical lines. As the tree ages the bark turns reddish-brown with darker vertical lines, as can be seen in this photo. It’s a tree that goes through many very visible changes and I like to watch them over time.

I saw an old river grape vine that was as big around as my arm. The bark on grape vines peels naturally and birds use it for nest building. North America has about 20 native species of wild grape and Native Americans used them all. The fruit is usually too acidic to eat from the vine so the grapes were used for juice and jelly or cooked and used in various recipes. Grapes were also used to dye baskets with a gray violet dye.

There is a disease of grapes called black spot disease, also known as anthracnose of grapes, but this isn’t it. This was like a thin black film on the vine that could be peeled off. I’ve searched grape diseases online for a while now and have found nothing like it. I’d hate to think there was a disease spreading among our wild grapes.

I believe that I do know what these black spots I saw on an oak log are; hypoxylon canker, which is a fungal disease of oaks. It appears as black, dead lesions on limbs, branches, and trunks and can kill the tree by causing white rot of the sapwood. The disease usually affects trees that are under stress or which have been damaged in some way. Signs are smaller leaves which are yellowing, along with a thinning canopy and falling twigs and branches.

I can remember when I was surprised to find a single maple dust lichen (Lecanora thysanophora), the only one I had ever seen, but now I’m seeing them everywhere. I don’t know if they were always there and I didn’t see them or if they are spreading, but I’m always happy to find them. They grow usually on smooth barked trees like beech and young maples. Most that I see are an inch or so across but they can get larger.  I like their stark simplicity.

The white / gray fringe around the outside of a maple dust lichen is called the prothallus and using it is a great way to identify it, because from what I’ve read there isn’t another that has it. A prothallus is defined as a “differently colored border to a crustose lichen where the fungus is actively growing but there are no algal cells.” The brownish field or body of this lichen is considered a sorediate thallus, meaning it has powdery structures called soredia that can fall from the lichen and grow new lichens.

If you see this do not touch it, because this is what a poison ivy vine can look like in winter. Poison ivy can appear as a plant, a shrub, or a vine and if you’re going to spend much time in the woods it’s a good idea to know it well. In the winter a vine like this can help identify the plant because of the many aerial roots that come directly out of its bark. It’s best not to touch it because even in winter it can cause an itchy rash. Other common vines like bittersweet, grape, and the trumpet creeper vine do not have aerial roots. They climb by twining themselves around the tree.

What I believe was a dead banded tussock moth was lying on a windowsill where I work. I was shocked when I saw the detail that my new phone camera captured. I think it has passed the macro test.

“Big deal,” I can hear someone say “it’s just an old leaf.” But to me, in the depths of winter when the world sometimes seems black, brown and white, a beautiful spot of color like this will stop me dead in my tracks. Can you be taken out of yourself by an old witch hazel leaf? Can you see that the beauty that you behold is in its essence, who you are? Can you melt into the gratitude that washes over you from having been given such a gift? Yes you can, and nature will show you how if you will let it.

Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude. ~A.A. Milne

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When I thought about the title of this post I wondered if anyone would really want to look back at the last year, but then I thought that these “looking back” posts are as much about looking forward as they are looking back, because in nature it’s a pretty fair bet that what happened last year will happen this year. To a point anyway; I hope the drought will ease this year so I can see mushrooms and slime molds again. The above shot is from last January, when I was stunned by the beauty of fresh snow.

I was also stunned by pussy willows. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them in January before.

In February the first skunk cabbages appeared from under the snow. A welcome sign of spring in February, which can sometimes be the coldest and snowiest month of all.

It was in February that I also saw the vernal witch hazels (Hamamelis vernalis) blossoming. Very small but beautiful, and with a fragrance that you can smell from two blocks away.

In March I saw the first of the American hazelnut blossoms; truly the first wildflowers of the year.

Things start happening in gardens in March as well. That’s usually when reticulated iris (Iris reticulata) appear. They are one of the earliest bulbs to show growth. They’re very cheery after a long winter without flowers.

April is when our spring ephemerals start to appear, and one of the largest and showiest is the purple trillium (Trillium erectum).These flowers are often an inch and a half or more across and very visible because of their color. Trilliums are all about the number three, with three red petals and three green sepals. In fact the name trillium comes from the Latin tres, which means three. The three leaves are actually bracts which the flowers nod under for a short time before finally facing outward. Inside the flowers are six stamens and three stigmas, and if pollinated they will become a red, three chambered berry. 

With so many flowers appearing in spring it’s very hard to choose the ones to put into these posts but one I felt I had to choose for April is bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) and I chose it because most people never see it. They aren’t with us long but luckily colonies in different places bloom at different times, and in that way their bloom time can be extended. They will for the most part bloom only when the sun shines on them but you can occasionally find them on a cloudy day. Their common name comes from the bright red or orange sap in their roots.

One of my personal favorites among the spring ephemerals is the spring beauty (Claytonia carolinana.) Though they sometimes appear in April, May seems to be the month I can really count on seeing them. I know where a colony of many thousands of plants grow and I have happily knelt in last year’s leaf litter taking photos of them for years now. I love their aspirin size, pink striped blossoms.  

Around the end of May is when I start seeing the beautiful little fringed polygalas (Polygala paucifolia). Their color and the fact that they sometimes grow beside violets make them easy to miss so you have to pay attention. The small 3 inch tall by inch and a half wide plants usually bloom in quite large colonies but not always. They are in the milkwort family and are also sometimes called flowering wintergreen and / or gaywings. Once you’ve found some you can go back to see them year after year. They seem quite long lived.

June is when our most well known orchid, the pink lady’s slipper (Cypripedium acaule) blooms. Once collected into near oblivion by people who thought they could just dig them up and plant them in their gardens, they have made a strong comeback and I see quite a few now. They’re beautiful and unusual, and should be left alone so we can all admire them. If transplanted they will not live long.

June was also when I found some larch flowers (Larix laricina). These tiny but beautiful things are so small all I can see is their color. I have to point the camera at the color and “shoot blind” until I get a shot. They can appear in mid May but I usually expect them in late May to early June. If you know a larch tree you might want to have a look. These tiny things will become the cones that hold the tree’s seeds, so if you look for the cones first that will give you an idea of which branches the flowers are most likely to appear on.  

Around the end of June and the first week of July I start looking for one of the most beautiful wildflowers I’ve seen; the purple fringed orchid (Platanthera grandiflora). The big, two foot tall plant looks like a bush full of purple butterflies. They are quite rare in this area and that’s most likely because they grow in swamps. I can usually expect to have wet ankles after taking photos of this one.

Tall meadow rue (Thalictrum pubescens) blossoms right at the same time every year; just in time for the 4th of July, and its flowerheads just happen to look like fireworks. Flowers on both male and female plants lack petals and have only anthers (male) or pistils (female). These are male flowers in this photo.

One of our prettiest and smallest wildflowers bloom in early August. Forked blue curls (Trichostema dichotomum) get barely ankle tall and like to grow in sandy soil in full sun. One unusual thing about the flower, other than its unique beauty, is its four long, arching stamens that dust bees with pollen when they land on its lower lip. You can see the tiny white pollen grains at the end of the anthers on this example.

In my last post I described how colorblindness prevented my ever seeing a cardinal. It works the same way for cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis) unfortunately, so I was elated last August when a coworker and I stumbled upon a group of them. I knew what they looked like, and once I was right on top of them I could see their color, which was beautiful. Note how this much larger flower with its arching stamens uses the same strategy as the tiny forked blue curl we saw previously. The chief difference is, these stamens dust hummingbirds with pollen instead of bees.

It wouldn’t be September without New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) and this one just happens to be my favorite color aster. Unfortunately it’s also the hardest color to find so each year I have to go hunting for them. I can’t complain though; hunting for flowers is a pleasure, not a chore.

I could have shown a fragrant white waterlily (Nymphaea odorata) in any month following May but this is the only photo from last year that showed the center of the flower, where a golden flame burns. I remember standing on the shore of a pond full of hundreds of these beautiful flowers last summer and being able to smell their glorious scent on the breeze. It was one the most amazing things, and I suspect that it wall last in my memory until I no longer have one.

I did see things other than flowers last year; things like this beautiful cedar waxwing I saw eating the berries of silky dogwoods at the river one September evening.

In October I went to see if the old stone staircase was still standing; all that’s left of Madame Sherri’s “castle” in Chesterfield. The castle was actually more of a chalet but it had quite a lot of elaborate stonework. It also had trees growing through the roof. How they kept the rain out is a mystery. Though I didn’t mention it in the original post I walked to the spot I had chosen and promptly tripped over a tree root and fell flat on my face in front of about 15 people who were all jostling to get a shot of the stairway. The camera was unscathed and I got my shot. The fall foliage was beautiful that day and the weather was perfect but the stairway was in need of some immediate help from a mason.

I also went to Willard Pond in October and walked through one of the most beautiful hardwood forests I’ve ever seen.

In November witch hazels bloomed. Also in December, but I doubt I’ll see any in January.

Also in November I was looking at lichens, including the smoky eye boulder lichen seen here. It’s one of the most beautiful in my opinion and I’ve put it here as an answer to the question “What is there to see in winter?” There is as much beauty to be seen in winter as there is at any other time of year. You just have to look a little closer, that’s all.

What could be more beautiful that this mossy hillside? It was like a green carpet covering the earth. What I like most about the colder months is how you can see the bones of the forest. There is no foliage to block your view in December.

One thing I’ll remember about the past year is how it was too dry for fungi. I saw very few until December, when I saw these mock oyster mushrooms (Phyllotopsis nidulans). They were big and beautiful, and looked as if they had been covered in orange velvet. They were well worth the wait but I hope to see more in 2021.

I hope this look back at 2020 wasn’t as bad as what you might have imagined. I’d rather have this blog be an island of calm in a sea of chaos than a running commentary on current events. Current events come and go like the tides and have no permanence, so about all you’re ever going to find here is nature, which is timeless. I do hope that’s why you come.

You live life looking forward, you understand life looking backward. ~Soren Kierkegaard

Thanks for stopping in. I hope you’ll all have a happy, heathy new year.

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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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