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Posts Tagged ‘Solomon’s Seal’

Longtime readers of this blog know how much I enjoy exploring the banks of the Ashuelot River; it is something I’ve done since I was a young boy. On this day I chose a section with nice wide trails through a beautiful forest.  The old trail winds through a place called Ashuelot Park, which is in downtown Keene. It has been a big hit with joggers, dog walkers, bikers, and families with children but when I started coming here 50 or so years ago there was no park. Back then it was just a trail through the woods and you hardly ever saw anyone, but on this day it was busy and it was nice to see so many people out enjoying nature. It was a hot humid day; more August than May, and like me I suppose they sought out the shade of the forest and the breeze off the river.

The trail through these woods isn’t that far from where the railroad repair depot used to be in Keene, and the trail is black because it was “paved” with the unburned slag from the big steam locomotive fireboxes. This slag is usually called “clinkers” or “clinker ash” and it is made up of pieces of fused ash and sulfur which often built-up over time in a hot coal fire. Firebox temperature reached 2000 to 2300 degrees F. in a steam locomotive but they still didn’t burn the coal completely. A long tool called a fire hook was used to pull the clinkers out of the firebox and in Keene we must have had tons of the stuff, because it was used as ballast on many local railroad beds. The section that ran by my house was as black as coal.

It’s hard to believe that the seeds of red maples (Acer rubrum) are falling already. It seems like it was hardly more than a week or two ago that I was taking photos of the flowers. Though I felt like I was 10 years old again walking along this trail this little seed reminded me just how fast time passes.

Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum multiflorum) was one of the first flowers I found along the trail, but this was no ordinary Solomon’s seal. The plant was large and very robust, much bigger than our native plants. Its leaves and flowers were also at least twice the size of those on native plants, and that’s because it is a hybrid plant that has escaped a garden and is now naturalizing in the woods. It’s the first one I’ve ever seen in a forest and there’s really no telling what it will do.

False Solomon seal (Maianthemum racemosum or Smilacina racemosa) have just started blooming and they were all along the trail. False Solomon’s seal has small white, star shaped flowers in a branching cluster (raceme) at the end of its stem, unlike the dangling pairs of flowers of true Solomon’s seal. Soon the blossoms will give way to small reddish berries that provide food for many birds and other wildlife. It is said that a Native American tribe in California crushed false Solomon’s seal roots and used them to stun fish. Other native tribes used the plant medicinally.

Last year at this same spot I saw a turtle wiggling its toes in the breeze and had to laugh, because it looked like it was trying to fly. This year on the same sunken log here was another turtle doing the same thing, and as I watched a woman stopped and asked how long my monopod extended. “Would it be long enough to help that poor turtle?” she asked. “Just look at the poor thing; it’s stuck and can’t get back into the water.” Last year a helpful reader told me that this is one way turtles regulate their body heat, so I passed that on to the concerned woman. “Well that’s a relief” she said, “now I’ll be able to sleep tonight!” We humans, I thought after she left, sure do come up with some strange ideas about nature. And yes, I do include myself in that statement.

When they are near a water source royal ferns (Osmunda spectabilis) can grow quite large and appear to be a shrub, but this one was young and on dry ground so it wasn’t very big. The royal fern is found on every continent except Australia, making it one of the most widespread of all living species. They are also thought to be one of the oldest living things, with fossil records of the Osmundaceae family dating back over 300 million years. Individual plants are believed to be able to live for over 100 years. Cinnamon and interrupted ferns are also in the Osmundaceae family. It is thought that the genus might have been named after King Osmund, who ruled in the British Isles in the eighth century. Royal ferns are one of my favorites because they are so unlike any other fern.

Royal ferns have just started growing their spore bearing fertile fronds. Another name for this fern is “flowering fern,” because someone once thought that the fertile fronds looked like bunches of flowers.

At this stage the sporangia of royal ferns are green but soon they’ll turn a beautiful purple color, and that’s why the plant was named flowering fern.

Chokecherries blossomed on the river bank. Like most of the white spring flowering trees, chokecherries (Prunus) and chokeberries (Aronia) grow on the edge of the forest. Though they look alike from a distance, chokeberries and chokecherries are only distantly related in the rose family. The common name is the giveaway here: A cherry is a stone fruit with one seed, so the chokecherry will have one seed. A berry will have multiple seeds; in the case of the chokeberry 5 or fewer.  Chokeberry flower clusters are smaller than chokecherry and kind of flat on top. Chokecherry flower clusters are usually long and cylindrical like a bottle brush. Positive identification between these two is important because chokecherry leaves and seeds contain prussic acid which can convert to cyanide under the right conditions, so it wouldn’t be good to eat too many seeds. The simplest way to be sure is by counting the seeds in a piece of fruit before picking and eating from the tree.

After walking the trail for a while you see it begin to narrow a bit and that’s because it doesn’t see a lot of traffic on the more northern section. Many people turn and go back rather than walk the entire trail and they miss a lot of beauty by doing so.

In spots with little to no current the tree pollen collected on the water’s surface. With all of the different species of trees we have pollination is an extended event in spring, and then after the trees come the grasses, so it goes well into summer. It’s a tough road for allergy sufferers.

You would expect to see insects along a river and I saw this one, which I think must be some type of crane fly.

I came upon the biggest colony of Indian cucumber root plants (Medeola virginiana) I’ve ever seen, right there beside the trail and I have to say that I was astounded. I’ve walked by this spot literally hundreds of times since I was a boy and have never seen it, so that shows that it’s worthwhile to walk the same trail again and again. In years past I’ve spent hours searching for just one plant and here were hundreds upon hundreds of them. So much for my “excellent powers of observation;” I miss as much as anyone else.

The flowers of Indian cucumber root have 6 yellowish green tepals, 6 reddish stamens topped by greenish anthers, and 3 reddish purple to brown styles. These large styles are sometimes bright red- brown. These plants were blooming earlier than I’ve ever seen them bloom. Each flower will become a shiny, inedible dark purplish black berry. Native Americans used Indian cucumber roots as food. As its common name implies, this plant’s small root looks and tastes a lot like a mini cucumber.  It’s easy to identify because of its tiers of whorled leaves and unusual flowers. It likes to grow under trees in dappled light, probably getting no more than an hour or two of direct sunlight each day.

There were also some large colonies of blue bead lily out here, which I have also never noticed before. Since I just featured them in my last post I’ll just show their photo here.

The round white flower heads of wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis) hide beneath its leaves and quite often you can’t see them from above.  Compared to the ping pong ball size flower heads the leaves are huge and act like an umbrella, which might keep rain from washing away their pollen. These flower heads are usually covered with insects and I think this is the only time I’ve ever gotten a photo of them blooming without insects on them.

Each sarsaparilla flower is smaller than a pea but as a group they’re easy to see. Dark purple berries will replace the flowers if pollination is successful, and it’s usually very successful. This is one of the most common wildflowers I know of and I see them virtually everywhere I go, including in my own yard. Every now and then you’ll find a plant with flowers but no leaves over them. I don’t know if these leafless plants are a natural hybrid or how the plant benefits from having fewer leaves. Fewer leaves mean less photosynthesizing and that means less food for the plant but maybe animals eat them, I don’t know.

I saw the strangely shaped pine tree that I’ve wondered about for years. Something traumatic must have happened to it. I’m guessing another tree fell on it when it was young.

There were many violets blooming all along the trail, including beautiful little northern white violets (Viola pallens.) As I’ve said in previous posts, this seems to be a banner year for violets. I’ve never seen so many.

All journeys back into childhood have to end somewhere and mine ended right here. Not too far up ahead is a busy highway that I didn’t need to see so I turned and meandered back to my starting point, giving a good look to everything that caught my eye along the way.  I saw kayakers and friendly dogs, spoke with friendly people, and saw a nice big patch of lilies that will bloom in a month or so, so all in all it was a fine day. I hope yours was and will be the same.

Every summer, like the roses, childhood returns. ~Marty Rubin

Thanks for stopping in.

 

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Seeing the purple trilliums bloom told me that it was time to walk down an old rail trail in Westmoreland to see the wild columbines bloom. But purple trilliums aren’t the only sign and I almost turned back when I saw that the red elderberry at the start of the trail wasn’t blooming yet. So far every time I’ve seen the columbines in bloom the red elderberry was blooming as well.

There has been a lot of logging going on up here over the past few years and you can now see deep into the forest, which is or was mostly beech, maple and oak. I was glad I could see so far because this is known bear country up here. I had a can of bear spray with me but I’m hoping I never have to use it. If I saw a bear way off in the distance I’d sooner leave the woods to it rather than spray it.

It was a little disorienting to see the plants so far along here. Here were ferns in leaf while in Keene they were barely out of the ground.

I was just taking photos of striped maple buds (Acer pennsylvanicum) breaking the day before and here they were in leaf.

I hadn’t seen any sign of wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis) in Keene but here it was in its strange, clasping pose. This is how it looks just before its leaves unfurl.

Some plants had even leafed out already. At this stage many people confuse wild sarsaparilla with poison ivy, which also comes up at the same time and has glossy green leaves.

What looks like a dark tunnel is where we’re going. Once you get there you find that it isn’t dark and it isn’t a tunnel.

But what was that up ahead?

Beech bud break; one of my favorite things to see in the spring forest. They are this beautiful for a very short time; less than a day before leafing out completely. It usually starts when the buds begin to curl in mid-May, so these were early. At this point I hadn’t seen any sign of bud break in Keene.

I don’t know how long I stood there admiring the new leaves and taking photos but it was a good while. This only happens on one or two days each year and I usually lose myself in the beauty of it for a while. In what seems like no time at all the new leaves will lose their silver fringe and become completely green for the summer. If I’d seen no more of nature for the rest of the day I still would have been very happy. I do hope readers of this blog will look for new leaves in spring. They can be astoundingly beautiful and they’re so easy to find.

Here we are already. These ledges were made when the railroad cut its way through in the mid-1800s. It is part of the same rail trail that the Westmoreland deep cut is on, which I’ve posted about regularly over the years. The major difference in the two cuts is how this wall of this cut is bathed in sunshine for much of the day. It means that a lot of different species of wildflowers can grow here. I have a feeling that this ledge is lime rich because wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) prefers a slightly alkaline soil.

There they were and I was surprised, because though every other plant I had seen here was ahead of its cousins to the south the columbines were not. They were heavily budded though and I won’t mind another walk out here to see the blossoms. Most of the columbines grow over my head on the ledges so getting good photos of them can be difficult. I tried climbing up to them once and slipped on the oak leaves, landing in a very undignified heap at the foot of the ledge.

This bud was within reach and had a few stamens poking out. It also had what looks like a tiny insect egg on it, there on the left. I’m guessing that it would have been about the size of a single letter in any word of this sentence as they appear here; so very small I didn’t even see it until I looked at the photo.

The flower buds on this Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) were clearly visible but I haven’t seen this plant anywhere near this far along in Keene. It must be the bright sunshine up here, or the fact that cold air runs downhill like water and pools in the valleys like the one Keene is in. This must be some type of microclimate.

Jack in the pulpit plants (Arisaema triphyllum) were blooming on the ledges. I always lift the hood of the spathe to see “Jack,” which is the spadix, and to see the beautiful dark stripes. Another name for this plant is tcika-tape, which translates to “bad sick” in certain Native American tribal language. But they didn’t get sick on the poisonous roots because they knew how to cook them to remove the calcium oxalate crystals that make them toxic. That leads to another common name: Indian turnip.

I’ve always thought of the spadix in a Jack in the pulpit as being black, but the bright sunshine shows it to actually be more plum colored. If you’re looking for Jack in the pulpit yet another name for it is bog onion, and that should tell you that it likes low, damp places. But it will also grow on stone as it does here, as long as there is dripping groundwater to keep it good and moist.

There is a large clump of purple trillium (Trillium erectum) here as well.

I know I just showed a purple trillium in my last post but who can resist something as beautiful as this? They’ll be gone before we know it.

In my last post I told about finding marsh marigold, which is a plant I’d never seen, and here was another one I’d never seen: blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides.) Cohosh is believed to be an Algonquin name used for several different plants with different color fruit and in this case the blue refers to the berries. The stems and leaves also have a blueish cast. I think this must have been this plant’s first year here. It stood knee high right next to the trail and was quite bushy, so I surely would have seen it last year. It is said to be long lived when it grows in a place that it likes.

Each of the 6 yellow green petal-like sepals of the blue cohosh flower contains a nectar gland to attract spring insects. The flowers are small at about 1/2 inch across. 6 yellow stamens form a ring around the green center ovary. The true petals are the shiny green parts that ring the center between the sepals and the stamens. Though both Native Americans and early settlers used the plant medicinally to treat a variety of ailments including childbirth, it contains alkaloids and all parts of it should be considered toxic.

Though the flower buds showed some blue the name blue cohosh actually comes from the blue fruit, which looks much like a blueberry but isn’t really a berry at all. They are actually brown seeds with a dark blue fleshy seed coat that protects them. The naked seeds are considered the plant’s fruit but are poisonous. I’m looking forward to coming back and seeing the “berries” when they ripen in summer. It also has beautiful dark blue shoots as it comes out of the ground in spring, so of course I’ll have to be here next year to see that as well. I certainly haven’t seen every plant there is to see but I’ve seen many, so finding two plants I’ve never seen before in one day really amazed me. I think I had a great week. Tomorrow I’ll go back to see those columbines in bloom.

My relationship to plants becomes closer and closer. They make me quiet; I like to be in their company. ~Peter Zumthor

Thanks for stopping in. Happy Mother’s Day to all of the moms out there!

 

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I’m happy to be able to say that the bees have suddenly appeared. This one happens to be the very first bumblebee I’ve seen this season, but honeybees have also shown up in what seems like great numbers.

The honeybees were swarming all over the flowers of the Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) and it really was like a swarm. I thought for sure I’d get stung but they let me be.

But I couldn’t get a photo of a honeybee for you no matter what I did, so you’ll have to take my word for it. They were also swarming all over these willow flowers. It’s so good to see them in such great numbers. I was getting a little anxious about not seeing any, even on the warmer days. I think there are many people out there who don’t understand all of what bees do for us. If they go we go, and not long after unless we all work the orchards and fields with little paintbrushes. I do know how to pollinate flowers by hand but it isn’t something I’d want to do from dawn to dusk every day.

We had some major winds one day last week and a huge old white pine fell on my favorite grove of coltsfoot plants (Tussilago farfara.) Many of them appear to have been wiped out but there are enough left to re-seed the area, so I expect this little grove of plants will grow in again eventually. They seem to love this spot.

Remember what I said in my last flower post about coltsfoot blossoms always having a flat flower head rather than a mounded one like a dandelion? Well, you can forget that. I’m not sure when I’ll learn that there are no absolutes in nature. “Never” and “always” simply don’t apply when you describe nature, and nature reminds me of that every single time I use either word on this blog. I also said coltsfoot has a scaly stem though and that remains true, as you can see in the above photo.

If this doesn’t say spring then nothing ever will. The bulb gardens are coming along nicely and tulips are about to bloom. The fragrance of those hyacinths was almost overwhelming.

I think it’s almost time to say goodbye to the reticulated iris (Iris reticulata) for another year. Their time with us is brief, but beautiful.

I hope we see crocuses for another week but it’s up into the 60s F. this week and that might wither them. Thanks to a helpful reader I found that there are indeed many “bee friendly” and non-bee friendly crocus varieties out there, so I hope everyone will do their homework when buying crocus bulbs. Often when plant breeders work on flowers they have to sacrifice one thing to get another, like breeding the scent out of a rose to get bigger blooms. In the case of crocuses many bred varieties no longer have viable pollen and nectar for the bees. This is important because there are so few flowers blooming at this time of year and the bees don’t have a lot of choice. I’ve never seen a single bee on this group of flowers. I thank Emily Scott for leading me to this information.

Scilla (Scilla siberica) has just come up in the last week. They’re very cheery little flowers and they’re my favorite color. The only complaint I’ve heard about these nonnative bulbs is that they can be invasive. They can get into lawns here sometimes but people don’t seem to mind. In fact that’s just what many people want them to do.

Ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) is doing well this year and I’m now seeing flowers by the hundreds. It’s a pretty little thing which can also be invasive, but nobody really seems to care.

I saw my first violet of the year. I think it’s a common blue violet because of the white hairs on the throat of the side petals. It came up among so many other plants I couldn’t even see its leaves.

I’ve been watching the trees and one of the things I’ve seen was a magnolia bud shrugging off its winter fur coat. I’d guess it will be a flower by next week at this time. Some magnolias are very fragrant and I’m looking forward to smelling them again.

Box elder buds (Acer negundo) had their dark, reddish brown male stamens just starting to show. These flowers are small and hang from long filaments. Each male flower has a tan colored, tiny stamen too small to be seen without magnification. Once the male flowers have opened the beautiful lime green female flowers will appear along with the leaves. Box elders have male and female flowers on separate trees, so I need to find a female.

Though both male and female flowers appear in the same cluster on American elms (Ulmus americana) I didn’t see any female flowers on this example, which was one of only a handful that I could reach. This is odd because the female flowers reach maturity first to prevent cross pollination, so they should be showing. It could be that I was too late to see them. Female flowers are white and wispy like feathers and male flowers have 7 to 9 stamens with reddish anthers. Each male flower is about 1/8 of an inch across and dangles at the end of a long flower stalk. (Pedicel)

The flowers of American elm appear before the leaves. This is a closer look at the male flowers, which are very small. They look like they’ve been dipped in sugar.

Some of the red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) buds have opened and flower buds have formed. The white flower heads (racemes) aren’t what I’d call stunning but the bright red berries on black stems that follow them certainly are. The only problem with them is how quickly the birds eat them. It happens so fast that I have rarely been able to get a photo of them. The roots, bark, flowers and leaves of the shrub are poisonous but some people do make syrup or wine from the berries. Native Americans steamed the sweetened berries and made a kind of jelly or jam from them. The berries are very seedy and are said to be bitter when unsweetened. I’ve always heard they were poisonous like the rest of the plant, so I won’t be eating or drinking them.

I checked on one of two places I know of where ramps (Allium tricoccum) grow last week and there was no sign of them. This week there they were, up and growing fast. These wild leeks 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.

I saw the salmon pink shoots of Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) just out of the ground. This plant grows fast and will be flowering in no time.

I also saw some new shoots of red or purple trillium (Trillium erectum.) The leaves should be unfurled by the weekend and the large reddish flowers will quickly follow. It isn’t a flower you want to get on your knees to sniff though; another common name is stinking Benjamin, and it lives up to it. These early plants have to get it done before the leaves come out on the trees, so they live life in the fast lane. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them blooming next week.

I was looking for yellow trout lilies and was feeling disappointed because I saw many leaves but didn’t see a single bud, so I thought I’d wander a few yards over into the part of the woods where the spring beauties grow. Usually trout lilies bloom before spring beauties, so you could have knocked me over with a feather when I saw dozens of spring beauties blooming. I was so happy to see them; even though each blossom is only the size of an aspirin they’re very beautiful things.

Imagine the one thing in all the world that you want more than anything else is suddenly there lying right at your feet and you’ll have a good idea of how I feel when I stumble upon the first spring wildflowers. My pulse begins to quicken, every thought flies out of my head, I fall to my knees and it’s just the flower and me; an instant dullard. The entire town of Keene could have paraded right by me and I’d never have known it.

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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The spring growth on a white pine (Pinus strobus) begins when the terminal bud at the end of a branch forms what is called a “candle.” The cluster of candles in the photo above are new shoots that will bear the tree’s leaves (needles.)  White pine needles grow in bundles of 5 and last for 2 years before turning first yellow and then brown before finally falling off. White pine needles contain five times the amount of vitamin C of lemons and were used by Native Americans to make tea. The knowledge they shared saved many early settlers who were dying of scurvy.

Both the cinnamon (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum) and interrupted fern (Osmunda claytoniana) are up and growing quickly. Both have wooly fiddleheads that make them hard to tell apart when young, but there are clues.

If you look closely you might see each fiddlehead is covered by tiny spherical bumps.

These tiny spheres are the fern’s spore bearing sporangia, and of the two ferns only interrupted fern has sporangia on its fronds. Cinnamon ferns grow separate fertile fronds that bear its sporangia and they appear a little later on, so I’d say that these fiddleheads belong to the interrupted fern. In any case neither fern has edible fiddleheads. In fact some ferns have fiddleheads that are carcinogenic, so if you want to eat fiddleheads in spring it pays to learn all you can about them.

As the sun gets brighter and the days grow longer light sensitive tree buds can tell when there is enough daylight for the leaves to begin photosynthesizing, so the buds begin to break. Bud break is defined as “when the green tip of a leaf can be seen emerging from the bud” and this can be a very beautiful thing. American beech (Fagus grandifolia) bud break begins when the normally straight buds start to curl, as in the above photo. The curling is caused by the cells on the sunny side of the bud growing faster than those on the shaded side. This creates a tension that curls the bud and eventually causes the bud scales to pull apart so the leaves can emerge. At the bud’s location on the tree branch an entire year’s new leaves and stems will often grow from a single bud.

When I see beech buds begin to curl I watch them closely, because I know that any time now the new leaves will appear and I wouldn’t want a spring to pass without seeing them. They are silvery and downy and very beautiful at this stage and I’ve lost myself in their beauty many, many times.

The process of bud break in beech trees moves from start to finish very quickly so you have to watch closely but luckily each tree’s buds will break at different times, so you still have a chance to witness it if you live in the Keene area.  Due to the cool rainy weather (I think) some buds are still just starting to curl.

The only example of plantain leaved sedge (Carex plantaginea) that I know of grows in an old stone wall and is blooming now. The prominent midrib, two lateral veins, maroon bases, and puckered look of the leaves are all used as identifying features for plantain leaved sedge. The leaves can be up to a foot long and an inch wide and I can’t think of another sedge that has leaves that look quite like these.

The flowers stalks (culms) of plantain leaved sedge are about 4 inches tall and have wispy, white female (pistillate) flowers below the terminal male (staminate) flowers. Sedge flowers are actually called spikelets and the stems that bear them are triangular, hence the old saying “sedges have edges.” I can’t speak for the rarity of this plant but this is the only one I’ve ever seen and it isn’t listed in the book Grasses: An Identification Guide, by Lauren Brown. I’ve read that it likes cool shady places where the humidity is relatively high. There is a stream just a few feet from where this one grows.

New spring leaves on many hardwood trees show some amount of red but sunlight and warmth quickly turn them green so they can photosynthesize. When we have a cool, cloudy spring like we’re having this year though, the red stage can last considerably longer. It also seems to depend on the tree; I’ve seen new spring leaves of both red and green on maples.

Oak trees are among our last to leaf out but with the cloudy cool weather holding some trees back it seems to be happening all at once this year. New spring oak leaves are often red but not these examples, even though they still wear their soft downy coatings.

Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) can be very beautiful as it spreads its new leaves to catch the sun. Unfortunately it’s also very invasive and almost impossible to control. I’ve seen Japanese knotweed shoots killed to the ground by cold in the past, and within 3 weeks they had come right back and grew on as if it had never happened. The plants grow quickly into large, 4-5 foot tall shrub like masses that shade out natives. I’ve heard that the new shoots taste much like rhubarb, so maybe if we all developed a taste for them we could finally eradicate them, at least from our roadsides.

The shoots of the common or field horsetail (Equisetum arvense) seemed to appear overnight in a large colony that thankfully wasn’t near anyone’s garden. If you’ve ever tried to rid a garden of them, you know what I mean.

The fertile spore bearing stem of a common or field horsetail ends in a cone shaped structure called a strobilus. Since it doesn’t photosynthesize at this point in its development the plant has no need for chlorophyll, so most of it is a pale, whitish color. When it’s ready to release its spores the cone opens to reveal tiny, mushroom shaped sporangiophores. The whitish “ruffles” at the base of each brown sporangiophore are the spore producing sporangia. When the horsetail looks like the one in the photo it has released its spores and will soon die and be replaced by the gritty green infertile stems that most of us are probably familiar with. Horsetails were used as medicine by the ancient Romans and Greeks to treat a variety of ailments.

More people are probably familiar with the infertile stems of horsetail, shown here. They grow from the same roots as the fertile spore bearing shoots in the previous two photos and they do all the photosynthesizing.  Horsetails spread quickly and can be very aggressive. If they ever appear in your garden you should remove them as soon as possible, because large colonies are nearly impossible to eradicate.

I was admiring these beautiful spruce tree cones (flowers) when it hit me: Wait a minute, I thought; spruce cones always hang down and fir cones always stand up! Well, yes and no. After quite a lot of research I found that young cones of some spruce and pine trees stand up until they are pollinated. This is because they are pollinated by wind borne pollen, and it’s easier for the pollen to settle onto the open cones while they’re in an upright position like those in the photo. Once pollinated they close up, turn green and grow bigger and heavier until they tip over, where they hang until the seeds mature. Once the seeds mature the cones open and the seeds (or the cones) fall to the ground. So is it true that fir cones always stand up and spruce cones always hang down? As is often the case in nature, if you remove the word always the answer is yes.

I thought that this unfurling shoot of Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) was very beautiful. This is a fast growing plant once it gets started and I’ve seen others with flower buds already. Native Americans sprinkled the dried powdered roots of this plant on hot stones and inhaled the smoke to alleviate headaches. All parts of the plant except the roots and young shoots are poisonous, but that’s assuming you know how to prepare the roots and young shoots correctly. Sometimes the preparation method is what makes a plant usable.

I love the movement in the young spring shoots of whitebane berry (Actaea pachypoda) and I look for them every spring. They’re such a beautiful and interesting little things, with new leaves that always remind me of prehistoric hands or wings. If I was still drawing they would be one of my first subjects.

Native Americans used a root tea for various problems including pain, colds and coughs but the entire white baneberry plant is extremely poisonous and its berries especially so, so no part of it should ever be eaten. The bitter berries are white with a single black dot that gives them the common name doll’s eyes. In summer the berries follow a raceme of white flowers that is taller than it is wide, and which will grow from the tiny buds seen in this photo.

Each summer for the past two years we saw nothing but wall to wall sunshine, day after day for month after month. Clouds were rare and I complained about how boring it was to see a never ending flat blue sky. This year nature seems to have decided that it was time I learned another lesson; for the first half of May sunny days have been rare. I took this reflection photo on one of those rare days when the sun was shining. It was also very still that day. Days without wind have also been few but things seem to be turning around now. We’ve had four sunny days in a row this week.

It is very important to go out alone, to sit under a tree—not with a book, not with a companion, but by yourself—and observe the falling of a leaf, hear the lapping of the water, the fishermen’s song, watch the flight of a bird, and of your own thoughts as they chase each other across the space of your mind. If you are able to be alone and watch these things, then you will discover extraordinary riches which no government can tax, no human agency can corrupt, and which can never be destroyed. ~ Jiddu Krishnamurti

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1. Blue Dragonfly

The beautiful blue of this dragonfly dazzled me for a few moments one recent day. I’m not sure but I think it might be a blue dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis.) Its color reminded me of the blue stemmed goldenrod, which appears at this time of year.

NOTE: A reader says that this looks like a slaty skimmer. Any thoughts on that?

2. Blue Jay Feather

The blue of the blue jay feather matched that of the dragonfly. This shade of blue seems to appear in unexpected places in nature, like on smoky eye boulder lichens, cobalt crust fungi and first year black raspberry canes.

3. Turtles

There were two painted turtles (Chrysemys picta) on a log one day and the big one looked to be scratching the little one’s back. Or maybe he was trying to push the little one off the log, I don’t know.  They looked like happy turtles, whatever they were doing.

4. White Caterpillar

The hickory tussock moth caterpillar (Lophocampa caryae) is black and white and can cause quite an itchy rash, from what I’ve read. The nettle like hairs can break off and stick in the skin and they are said to bother some people enough for them to be hospitalized, so it’s probably best to look and not touch this one.

5. Salamander

New Hampshire has eight native salamanders including the red-spotted newt (Notophthalmus viridescens.) I found this one under a log and I think it must be a juvenile red-spotted newt, which is called a red eft. It was bigger than many adults I’ve seen of that species but it was bright red as red efts are supposed to be.

NOTE: A reader has confirmed this salamander as an erythristic red-back salamander. Erythristic means that it has more red pigment, like a red headed person. Red back salamanders are the most common salamander in the northeast and usually found under logs, so everything fits this example.

6. Salamander

The salamander was cooperative and let me take several photos until finally quickly ducking under a leaf.

7. Hemlock Growing out of Stump

I saw that a Canadian hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) seed had fallen onto a rotten hemlock stump that was apparently dirt like enough to let the seed grow. And grow it did, until its roots encircled the rotten stump and reached the ground. When the young tree is grown and the stump has rotted away this hemlock will look as if it’s standing on stilts.

8. Fern

Before they go dormant for the winter some ferns turn white, and if you catch them at just the right time they can be very beautiful.

9. Fern Shadow

Other ferns command my attention for different reasons.

10. Smooth Sumac Berries

Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) berries are ripe and red. These berries don’t get anywhere near as hairy as staghorn sumac berries do but the plants still look alike and are easy to confuse if you don’t look closely for the hairy stems of staghorn sumac. Smooth sumac leaves turn bright red in the fall and produce a rich brown dye. Birds love them.

11. Staghorn Sumac Berries

Staghorn sumac berries, like the rest of the plant, are very hairy. They are an important winter emergency food for many types of birds including Robins, Evening Grosbeaks, Bluebirds, Cardinals, and Scarlet Tanagers. After a thorough soaking and washing, the berries were made into a drink resembling pink lemonade by Native Americans. In the Middle East they are dried and ground into a lemon flavored spice.

12. Sumac Pouch Gall

Since I’m speaking of sumacs I might as well give you an update on the sumac pouch galls that the Smithsonian Institution is coming to harvest. They’re looking for winged adult sumac gall aphids (Melaphis rhois) so they asked me to cut a gall open. These galls turn tomato red as they age but as the photo shows this example looked more like a blushing potato.

13. Sumac Pouch Gall Inside

All I found inside were green aphid larva. They need to grow a bit but since I don’t know much about their life cycle I’ll let the Smithsonian people decide when to come. They’re researching the coevolution of Rhus gall aphids and their host plants. Science has found that this relationship between the aphids and the sumac has been going on for at least 48 million years, with no signs of stopping. The galls are surprisingly light; they are really just bags of air.

14. False Solomon's Seal

When false Solomon’s seal (Smilacina racemosa) berries are fully ripe they will be bright red, but I like them speckled like they are at this stage too. I’ve read that soil pH can affect fruit color. Native American’s used all parts of this plant including its roots, which contain lye and must be boiled and rinsed several times before they can be used. Birds, mice, grouse, and other forest critters eat the ripe berries that grow at the end of the stem. They are said to taste like molasses and another common name for the plant is treacle berry.

15. Solomon's Seal Berries

Dark blueish purple true Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) berries dangle under the leaves and look like grapes-quite different than the false Solomon’s seal berries in the previous photo. The berries and leaves of this plant are poisonous and should not be eaten. Solomon’s seal and its variants are great plants for a shaded woodland garden.

16. Burning Bush

Most burning bushes (Euonymus alatus) are still green but every now and then just one branch will turn this orchid color, as if it can’t wait to announce summer’s passing. Though they are very invasive they can also be beautiful. They have taken over the understory of a strip of forest along the Ashuelot River and when the hundreds of shrubs all turn this color it becomes a breathtakingly beautiful sight.

One very important aspect of motivation is the willingness to stop and to look at things that no one else has bothered to look at. This simple process of focusing on things that are normally taken for granted is a powerful source of creativity. ~ Edward de Bono

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1. Deformed Alder Cone

I saw this deformed speckled alder cone (Alnus incana) and took a couple of photos of it.  I can’t tell you what it says but it speaks to me and I like it, so here it is.

2. Apple Moss

Some of our mosses have started producing spores, like the apple moss (Bartramia pomiformis) pictured here. Reproduction begins in the late fall for this moss and immature spore capsules (sporophytes) appear by late winter. When the warm rains of spring arrive the straight, toothpick like sporophytes swell at their tips and form tiny globes that always look like pearls to me, but someone thought they looked like apples and the name stuck.  Sometimes the capsules do turn red as they age, so I guess the name is appropriate.  When there are no sporophytes showing this moss is easily confused with broom moss (Dicranum scoparium.) I know how easy it is to do, because I confuse the two all the time. The leaves look almost identical, but those of broom moss are not as shiny.

3. Star Moss aka Mnium cuspidatum spore capsules

Star moss (Mnium cuspidatum) is also not wasting any time in spore production. I wanted to show you it’s leaves but they were so small and curled because of dryness, I couldn’t get a good shot of them. Like the apple moss we saw previously this moss makes immature toothpick like sporophytes in late fall, and then they swell to form capsules when the warm spring rains arrive. The capsules droop at the tip as seen in the photo. You can tell that they haven’t fully matured by the tiny, whitish stocking cap like structure, called a calyptra, which covers the end of the spore case. It stays in place until the spores are ready to be released. This moss is very short and grows just about anywhere, including in lawns. I found this example on the wet rocks along a rail trail.

4. Downy Rattlesnake Plantain Orchids

I went looking for my old friend the downy rattlesnake plantain orchid (Goodyera pubescens) and even though I know where it lives I walked by it several times before I found it. You would think the color would stand out against the brown leaves but I can look right at it and not see it sometimes. Maybe colorblindness has something to do with it. In any event I went looking for it because I love the color and netting on its leaves and I just wanted to see it again. It’s another one of those plants that I can sit beside and just admire.

 5. Downy Woodpecker

While I was walking back and forth searching for the downy rattlesnake plantain a downy woodpecker said maybe I’ll do instead and flew down onto the path a few feet away. He didn’t stay long though, and by the time I had finished fumbling around with my camera he had found a tree just out of the comfortable range of the lens. He stayed relatively close for quite a while though, letting me snap away. I think he knew he was too far away for my camera and that all of the photos would be soft and fuzzy.

Note: A reader has pointed out that this is a female hairy woodpecker. It’s a good thing I don’t get many bird photos!

 6. Woodpecker Hole

I wondered if he was the woodpecker that excavated this cavity in an old dead pine. It was close to where we were when I saw him.

7. Beard Lichen

Near the woodpecker tree a beard lichen hung from the end of a fallen branch. I have a hard time passing a beard lichen as big as this one was without taking a photo. I think it might be boreal oak moss (Evernia mesomorpha.) The forest I was exploring when I found all of these things is a strange place with plants that you rarely see anywhere else, like larch, spruce, and striped wintergreen. It has a very boreal feel to it, like it really belongs up in Canada.

8. Ice in the Woods

The calendar might say spring but winter is hanging on for dear life this year and doesn’t want to let go. In shady places in the deep woods there is still snow and ice to be found.

 9. Horsetail

Last year I found a place where hundreds of field horsetails (Equisetum arvense) grew, but this year there were just three shoots. If any of you have had horsetails in your garden you know that they don’t give up easily, so I couldn’t imagine how hundreds became three. It turned out that the cold was holding them back I think, because there are more coming along now.

10. Horsetail

One of them was far enough along to start producing spores. The fertile spore bearing stem of a common or field horsetail ends in a light brown, cone shaped structure called a strobilus. Since it doesn’t photosynthesize at this point in its development the plant has no need for chlorophyll, so most of it is a pale, whitish color. When it’s ready to release its spores the cone opens to reveal tiny, mushroom shaped sporangiophores. The whitish “ruffles” at the base of each brown sporangiophore are the spore producing sporangia. When the horsetail looks like the one in the photo it has released its spores and will soon die and be replaced by the gritty green infertile stems that most of us are probably familiar with. Horsetails were used as medicine by the ancient Romans and Greeks to treat a variety of ailments.

11. Solomon's Seal Shoot

The two toned buds of Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) are poking up everywhere now. This is a fast growing plant once it gets started and it won’t be long before it blooms. Native Americans sprinkled dried powdered roots of this plant on hot stones and inhaled the smoke to alleviate headaches. All parts of the plant except the roots and young shoots are poisonous, but that’s assuming you know how to prepare the roots and young shoots correctly. Sometimes the preparation method is what makes a plant useable.

12. Striped Maple Buds

The pinkish leaf buds of striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum) are growing quickly now. They often show hints of orange too and are quite beautiful at this stage; in my opinion one of the most beautiful things in the forest at this time of year. It’s interesting how the bud scales on the two smaller lateral buds open perpendicular to those on the terminal bud. I’ve never noticed that before.

 13. Striped Maple Bark

This is how striped maple comes by its common name. Striped maple bark is often dark enough to be almost black, especially on its branches. This tree never seems to get very big so it isn’t used much for lumber like other maples. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one bigger than my wrist, and even that might be stretching it. It could be that it stays small because it usually gets very little direct sunlight. The green stripes on its bark allow it to photosynthesize in early spring before other trees leaf out but it’s still the most shade tolerant of all the maples, and that’s usually where it’s found. It is said that Native Americans made arrow shafts from its straight grained wood.

14. White Ash Buds aka Fraxinus americana

The male flower buds of American white ash (Fraxinus americana) appear before the leaves do and look like little blackberries from a distance. According to the U.S. Forest Service one of the earliest reported uses of white ash was as a snake bite preventive. Ash leaves in a hunter’s pocket or boots were “proved” to be offensive to rattlesnakes and thereby provided protection from them. It is said that we have timber rattlers here but since I’ve never seen one I don’t think I’ll put ash leaves in my boots just yet.

15. Box Elder Flowers

Box elder (Acer negundo) was the first tree I ever planted. The tree’s male flowers appear here but my grandmother had a big female one in her front yard that dropped about a billion seeds each year. She knew that if they all grew their roots would destroy the brick foundation, so every few years she would pay me a quarter to go around the house and pull all the seedlings. One day I found a nice tall one that I liked so I pulled it up, took it home, and planted it. That tree took off like I had given it super strength fertilizer and last I knew was still growing strong. It was another one of those times that a plant spoke to me and told me that they and I just might get along.  When you really love them they can tell, of that I’m convinced.

16. Tree Moss

Somehow this post ended up being a little tree heavy but sometimes that’s just the way it works out. The subject of the above photo isn’t a tree but it is called tree moss (Climacium dendroides) because of its resemblance. This tough little moss loves wet places that flood occasionally so I always look for it when I’m near water. It always seems to glow from within, happy to simply be alive.

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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1. Larch Cone

Behind every stone, on every branch and in every puddle, beauty can be found. This tiny new larch cone (Larix laricina) is to me as beautiful as any flower.

2. Lilac Buds

Since I was just a boy one of my favorite things about spring has been watching lilac buds swell and finally open. It’s a simple thing, but for me it’s part of the magic of life that makes it so worth living.

3. Trapped Solomon's Seal

Does an emerging plant make a hole in one of last year’s leaves, or is the hole already there and the plant grows up through it? These are questions that came to mind as I sat pondering how every one of this Solomon seal’s leaves (Polygonatum biflorum) got trapped by a hole in a leaf. Will the plant be able to break free of the leaf and live as it was meant to, or will it be forever trapped by it?

4. Unknown Nest

The nest in this photo was baseball size and hanging from a maple branch. I don’t know what made it but the insects buzzing all around it looked like hornets or yellow jackets. The really odd thing about it is how it looks more like a bird’s nest than a hornet or wasp nest. I’ve never heard of an insect using birch bark to build a nest. Could it be that the wasps or hornets were attacking a bird inside its nest? Another forest mystery.

 5. Painted Turtle

This painted turtle seemed to be having some trouble with its shell. Since seeing it I’ve read that turtles can have all kinds of shell problems, including rot and fungus.

6. Garter Snake

My grandmother was so afraid of snakes that she would almost convulse with revulsion at the mere mention of the word. You’d think someone had run their fingers down a chalkboard to watch her. I think that’s why I became so interested in snakes at an early age. I wanted to see what it was that scared her so badly-she who wasn’t afraid of anything. It sure was a good thing she wasn’t with me when I saw this garter snake. It was a cloudy day and he was too sluggish to slither away, so I had a chance to get a couple of photos. My grandmother would have jumped in the river before the shutter had even clicked.

7. New Beech Leaves

A pillow for thee will I bring.
Stuffed with down of angel’s wing.
~Richard Crashaw

8. Bracken Fern

If you live in New England and see a fern with a single tall stem and three branches at its tip it is a bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum.) Bracken ferns often grow in large, dense colonies with few other plants present and this is because it releases chemicals that inhibit the growth of many other plants. Plants compete for light, water, and nutrients but bracken fern has found a way to almost eliminate the completion.

9. New Staghorn Sumac Leaves

Most tree leaves start life colored something other than green and that’s because they don’t need chlorophyll at this stage because they aren’t photosynthesizing. Production of the green pigment chlorophyll requires plenty of light and warmth so if spring weather happens to be cloudy and cool, you might see reddish leaves on the trees for a while. The crimson leaves on this staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) have just started unfurling. This year, with sunshine and warmth, it has taken them less than a day to turn green.

 10. Petrified Red Pine Cones

The branch that these pine cones grew on died before they could mature and now they seem frozen in time, as if they’re petrified, curled and pointed like animal claws.

11. Rattlesnake Weed aka Hieracium Venosum

The rarest plant I know of is rattlesnake weed (Hieracium venosum). I’ve seen one plant in my lifetime and this is it. It has grown in this spot for some time but didn’t bloom last year and I wondered if it would even appear this year, but here it is. It is in the hawkweed family and its flowers look just like yellow hawkweed, but its purple veined foliage is what makes it so unusual and so beautiful. I’m hoping it will produce plenty of seeds this year and that they will grow into more plants. Its common name comes from the old belief that it only grew where there were rattlesnakes.

12. Unknown Sedge Poss. Carex nigra

I like to watch for grasses and sedges at this time of year because many flower now and they can be very beautiful. I think this one might be common or black sedge (Carex nigra). I like its scaly, almost reptilian appearance. I found it growing beside a small pond.

13. Shagbark Hickory Bud Break

I can understand why flowers have certain colors, and mushrooms and even slime molds, but it’s hard to even guess why the insides of the bud scales of the shagbark hickory tree (Carya ovata) have such extraordinary colors. They spend their entire existence closed tightly around the tender leaves and then open for a day or two before falling from the branch, so what purpose can such colors serve?  I like to think that some things on this earth are here simply to delight the eye of the lucky person who stumbles upon them, and maybe these bud scales are a good example of that.

Looking at beauty in the world is the first step of purifying the mind. ~Amit Ray

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