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Posts Tagged ‘Speckled Alder Catkins’

I know this photo of Mount Monadnock doesn’t look very spring like but we got a dusting of snow Friday and I wanted to see how much fell in other places. They got about 3-4 inches in Troy where this was taken, but I’d guess there is a lot more up there on the mountain. I climbed it in April once and in places the snow was almost over my head. It was a foolish thing to do; I got soaked to the skin.

In lower altitudes flowers were blooming in spite of it being a cold day and I finally found some coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara.) The flowers on coltsfoot plants come up before the leaves show so there is no hint of when it will appear. You have to remember where you’ve seen it last year and revisit the places the following spring. This was taken last Saturday and I’m guessing that there are a lot more blooming now, so I’ve got to get back there and see. 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.

The male catkins of American hazelnut (Corylus americana) have lengthened and turned golden, and that’s a sure sign that they’re almost ready to release their pollen.

It wouldn’t make sense for the male hazelnut catkins to release their pollen unless the female blossoms were ready to receive it, so when I see the male catkins looking like those in the previous photo I start looking for the female blossoms, like those pictured here. If pollinated successfully each thread like crimson stigma will become a hazelnut.

Female American hazelnut flowers are among the smallest flowers that I try to photograph but size doesn’t always come through in a photo, so I clipped a paperclip to the branch to give you an idea of scale. That isn’t a giant paperclip; it’s the standard size, so you have to look carefully for these tiny blooms. Male catkins and female flowers will usually be on the same bush. Though the shrubs that I see aren’t much more than 5-6 feet tall I just read that they can reach 16 feet under ideal conditions. The ones I see grow along the edges of roads and rail trails and are regularly cut down. In fact I had a hard time finding any this year. I went to one spot near powerlines and found that hundreds of them had been cut.

A week ago I saw 2 dandelion blossoms. This week I saw too many to count and some had insects on them, so it looks like we’ll have a good seed crop before too long.

Each stalked brownish-purple bud scale on a male speckled alder catkin (Alnus incana) opens in spring to reveal three male flowers beneath, each with a lobed calyx cup and three to five stamens with anthers covered in yellow pollen. The flower parts are clearly visible in this photo but even though it is heavily cropped they are still tiny. The entire catkin is only about 2 ½ inches long.

Just like with the male American hazelnut catkins we saw earlier, when I see the male catkins open on alders I start looking for the female flowers. In this photo the tiny scarlet female stigmas poke out from under the bud scales on all sides of the catkin. The whitish material is the “glue” the plant produces to seal each shingle like bud scale against the wet and cold winter weather. If water got under the bud scale and froze it would kill the female blossoms. When pollinated each thread like female stigma will become a small cone like seed pod (strobile) that I think most of us are used to seeing on alders. These female flowers aren’t much bigger than the female hazelnut flowers we saw earlier so you need good eyes. Or good glasses.

Red elderberry buds (Sambucus racemosa) often break quite early as this one has, and they often pay for it by being frostbitten. But, though it was 18 degrees F. the night before and this one had ice on it, it looked fine. Each small opening leaf looked great all the way to the tip with no damage.

Many of the red maple (Acer rubrum) female blossoms in this area are fully opened now, so from here on it’s all about seed production. I’m looking forward to seeing their beautiful red samaras. The male blossoms have dried and will simply fall from the trees once they have shed their pollen. Sugar maple buds haven’t opened yet that I’ve seen.

At a glance the buds of striped maple (Acer pennsylvanicum) don’t look like they’ve changed much since January, but you have to look a little closer to see what’s going on.

Once you turn the buds of striped maple sideways you can see that the bud scales have come apart, revealing the bud inside. These pink and orange fuzzy buds will be some of the most beautiful things in the forest in a while and I’d hate to miss them. That’s why I check them at least weekly, starting about now. These buds illustrate perfectly why you have to be willing to touch things in nature and bend or turn them whenever possible so you can see all sides, otherwise you can miss a lot of beauty.  When I take photos I try to get shots of all sides, and even under the caps of mushrooms when possible. Most of them are never seen by anyone but me but I can choose the best ones to show you.

From a distance I couldn’t see any yellow flowers on the willows but my camera’s zoom showed me that there were plenty of them. It was one of those sun one minute and clouds the next kind of days, with a blowing wind.

The bees will be very happy to see these blossoms, which are some of our earliest to appear. Willow bark contains salicin, a compound found in aspirin, and willows have been used to relieve pain for thousands of years.

Last week the tiny white flowers of what I think are hairy bittercress plants (Cardamine hirsuta) were ground hugging, but this week they stood up on 4 inch tall stalks. That’s a lot of growth in a week. I’ve read that the seed pods are explosive, so having them as high up as possible makes perfect sense.

Out of a bed of probably 50 hyacinths a single one is about to bloom. Most have buds that have just appeared and aren’t even showing color yet, but this one just doesn’t want to wait. I hope it knows what it’s doing. It’s still getting down into the teens at night.

The daffodil bud that I saw last week and thought would be open this week was not, but it had a visitor. Some type of fly I think, but I’m not very good with insects. It’s not a great photo but it does show that there are indeed insects active. I also saw a hoverfly but I haven’t seen a bee yet.

In spite of it being a sunny day all the crocuses had closed up shop but the reticulated irises (Iris reticulata) were still open for business. They’re beautiful little things.

The tiny ground ivy flowers (Glechoma hederacea) are still showing on a single plant that is surrounded by hundreds of other plants that aren’t blooming. It’s clearly working harder than the others. It must have had ten blossoms on it.

So the story from here is that though spring is happening winter hangs on as well. The last snowstorm dusted my yard with snow that looked like confectioner’s sugar and it melted overnight, but just a few miles north at Beaver Brook the hillsides got considerably more. Chances are it is still there too, because it has been cool. Sooner or later it’s bound to warm up and stay the way. The weather people say there’s a chance we might see 50 degrees today and 70 degrees by Saturday. We’re all hoping they’ve got it right.

The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day.

~Robert Frost

Thanks for coming by.

 

 

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Back a few years ago I had the luxury of working from home, telecommuting in a way. At times it could get slightly monotonous so to break up the monotony I took a walk at lunch time each day. Of course I had a camera with me and many of the photos I took on those lunchtime walks appeared here on this blog. The above photo shows the road I walked on, what we always called the “dirt road,” because it was a dirt road for many years until the town came along and paved it.

To the right of the road is a small pond where Canada geese used to swim but now it is home mostly to frogs, snapping turtles, and muskrats.

The muskrats eat the cattail roots. The snapping turtles eat the frogs, and the frogs eat up a lot of mosquitoes, for which I am very grateful. I’m looking forward to hearing the spring peepers start singing again in March.

To the left of the road is a large alder swamp where in the spring red wing blackbirds by the many hundreds live. They don’t like people near their nesting sites and when I walked by here they always let me know how disappointed they were with my walking habits. Just out there in the middle of the swamp was an old dead white pine I used to call it the heron tree, because great blue herons used to sit in its branches. Since it fell I haven’t seen as many herons fishing here.

The alders were heavy with dangling catkins, which in this case are the shrub’s male (Staminate) flowers. I believe that most of the alders here are speckled alders (Alnus incana) but I can’t get close enough to most of them to find out, because this swamp never freezes entirely.

The beautiful alder catkins, each packed with hundreds of male flowers, will open usually around the last week in March to the first week of April. When the brownish purple scales on short stalks open they’ll reveal the golden pollen, and for a short time it will look as if someone has hung jewels of purple and gold on all the bushes. That’s the signal I use to start looking for the tiny crimson female (Pistillate) flowers, which will appear in time to receive the wind born pollen. They are among the smallest flowers I know of and they can be hard to see.

The female alder flowers become the hard little cones called strobiles which I think most of us are probably familiar with.  These strobiles have tongue gall, which is caused by a fungus called Taphrina alni. The fungus chemically deforms parts of the ovarian tissue of the developing cone and causes long, tongue like galls called languets to grow from them. I’m guessing that the fungus benefits from these long tongues by getting its spore bearing surfaces out into the wind. They don’t seem to hurt the alder any. In fact most galls don’t harm their hosts.

Medieval writers thought witch’s brooms were a bewitched bundle of twigs and called them Hexenbesen, but witch’s brooms are simply a plant deformity; a dense cluster of branches caused by usually a fungus but sometimes by a parasitic plant like mistletoe. Witch’s broom can sometimes be desirable; the Montgomery dwarf blue spruce came originally from a witch’s broom. This example is on an old dead white pine (Pinus strobus) and is the only one I’ve ever seen on pine.

A colorful bracket fungus grew on a fallen log. Or maybe I should say that it was frozen to it, because it was rock hard. My mushroom book says that this fungus can appear at all times of year though, so it must be used to the cold. It’s described as hairy with ochre to bright rust yellow and rust brown banding and if I’ve identified it correctly it’s called the mustard yellow polypore (Phellinus gilvus.) That’s an odd name considering that it has very little yellow in it but even the photo in the book shows only a thin band of yellow.

This bracket fungus was very thin and woody and grew in several examples around the perimeter of a fallen tree. I think it’s probably the thin maze polypore (Daedaleopsis confragosa,) which is fairly common.

This photo is of the maze-like underside of the thin maze polypore. This is a great example of how some mushrooms increase their spore bearing surfaces. When fresh the surface is pale gray and turns red when bruised. This fungus causes white rot in trees.

Despite having more cold days than warm days the sun is doing its work and melting the snow in places with a southerly exposure. Our average temperature in February here in southern New Hampshire is 35 degrees F. so try as it might, winter can’t win now. It can still throw some terrible weather at us though; the average snowfall amount is 18 inches but I’ve seen that much fall in a single February storm before. We are supposed to see 10-12 inches later today, in fact.

The reason the area in the previous photo is so clear of growth is because a large stand of bracken fern grows (Pteridium aquilinum) there. Bracken fern releases release chemicals that inhibit the growth of other plants and that’s why this fern grows in large colonies where no other plants or trees are seen. Bracken is one of the oldest ferns, with fossil records dating it to over 55 million years old. Though they usually grow knee high I’ve seen some that were chest high.

Down the road a ways a large colony of American wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) grows. Since this was the first plant I learned to identify I’m always happy to see it. It is also called teaberry or checkerberry and those who have ever tasted Clark’s Teaberry Gum know its flavor well. Oil of wintergreen has been used medicinally for centuries and it is still used in mouthwash, toothpaste, and pain relievers. Native Americans carried the leaves on hunts and nibbled on them to help them breathe easier when running or carrying game. The leaves make a pleasant minty tea but the plant contains compounds similar to those found in aspirin, so anyone allergic to aspirin shouldn’t use this plant.

Common speedwell (Veronica officinalis) has also been used medicinally for centuries in Europe and its leaves were used as a tea substitute there. Though it isn’t really invasive it is considered an agricultural weed. It forms mat like growths like that seen in the above photo but sends up vertical flower stalks in May. Each flower stalk (Raceme) has many very small blue flowers streaked with dark purple lines. They are beautiful little things, but they aren’t easy to photograph.

Yet another plant found in large colonies along the road is yarrow (Achillea milefolium.) Yarrow has been used medicinally since the dawn of time, and bunches of the dried herb have been  found in Neanderthal graves. It is one of the nine holy herbs  and was traded throughout the world, and that’s probably the reason it is found in nearly every country on earth. I’ve never looked closely at its seed heads before. I was surprised to see that they look nothing like the flowers. If it wasn’t for the scent and the few dried leaves clinging to the stem I’m not sure I would have known it was yarrow.

In one spot a small stream passes under the road. Strangely, on this side of the road it was frozen over…

…while on this side of the road it was ice free. That shows what a little persistent sun or shade can do at this time of year.

This is the tree that first got me wondering why some Eastern Hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis) had red on their bark when most didn’t. I’ve never been able to answer that question so I don’t know if it’s caused by algae, or is some type of loosely knitted lichen, or if it is simply the way the tree’s genes lean.

My lunchtime walk sometimes found me sitting in the cool forest on an old fallen hemlock tree, with this as my view. Just over the rise, a short way through the forest, is a stream that feeds into the swamp we saw previously. This is a cool place on a hot summer day and one that I used frequently. Sometimes it was hard to go back to work but you need discipline when you work from home and I always made it back in time. It was fun taking this walk again for this post. So many good memories!

The walks met a need: they were a release from the tightly regulated mental environment of work, and once I discovered them as therapy they became the normal thing, and I forgot what life had been like before I started walking.  ~ Teju Cole

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1. Black Locust Thorns

I tugged on what I thought was a black locust twig (Robinia pseudoacacia) stuck in the snow but I quickly found out it that was still attached to the stump by dragging the side of my hand over its thorns. Yes, those thorns are every bit as sharp as they look. To be botanically accurate, they are actually stipules. A stipule is a growth that appears on either side of a leaf stalk (petiole.) In the case of the black locust these stipules have been modified into sharp spines, so that makes them stipular spines.

2. Black Locust Seed Pod

If the stipular spines don’t convince you that you’re looking at a black locust, the flat seed pods will. These dark brown pods stay attached to the tree and their color lightens during the winter. Finally as spring nears they begin to fall and, though they are light and can be blown long distances, many can be found under the tree on top of the snow, as the photo shows. The tiny brown seeds look like miniature beans. Their coating is very tough and black locust seeds can remain viable for many years.

3. Honey Locust Thorn

Another locust that I see regularly is the honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos), which in my opinion bears the king of all thorns. These thorns are big and as hard as iron. They can reach 6 inches in length and poke right out of the bark of the tree along its branches and sometimes even the main trunk. They are tough enough to puncture shoe soles and I always watch my step when I walk under one of these trees because thorns like these can cause a nasty wound. Confederate soldiers once used them to pin their uniforms together and survivalists still use them as fish hooks, spear heads, nails, sewing needles and even small game traps.

4. Round Holes in White Pine

I wondered what could have created these perfectly round holes on this dead white pine log (Pinus strobus). They weren’t in the usual neat rows that a sap sucker makes and anyway they were much larger than sapsucker holes. Each hole was about 3/8 inch in diameter and after some Googling I found that an invasive horntail called the Sirex woodwasp (Sirex noctilio) likes pine trees and makes exactly these kinds of holes. But it hasn’t been found in New Hampshire yet, so it was back to more Googling. The Asian long horned beetle (Anoplophora glabripennis) is another invasive species that makes holes just like this but it only attacks hardwoods, so again it was back to Google.  Finally I found that a native beetle called the white spotted pine sawyer (Monochamus scutellatus) makes holes in weak and damaged white pines but I couldn’t find a good example of its hole, so I really don’t have an answer.

5. Hole in White Pine

Being an engineer by trade these days I’m fascinated by any creature that could make such a perfectly round hole. Maybe I should have poked around in there. The photo makes it look like something might have been at home. If you know what makes holes like this I’d love to hear from you.

 6. Milk White Toothed Polypore

It might be spring but the “winter” mushrooms are still going strong. One of my favorites is the milk white toothed polypore (Irpex lacteus,) which in my experience is hardly ever really milk white. Its teeth lean more towards tan or yellowish brown. The teeth start life as tubes or pores in the spore bearing surface, which breaks apart with age to become tooth like as the above photo shows. This crust fungus is common on fallen branches and rotting logs.

7. Maleberry Seed Pods

I found this native northern maleberrry (Lyonia ligustrina) shrub growing between two highbush blueberry shrubs on the river bank. Maleberry is sometimes called male blueberry because the flowers look much like blueberry flowers, but the fruit of the two bushes is very different. The fruit on this bush is a hard, woody, 5 part seed pod. Maleberry fruit is said to make a good insect repellant, but you have to get them before they become hard and woody. Native Americans used its straight young stems to make bows, so its wood must be quite strong, flexible, and elastic. It is said that the wood also makes good fence posts but I’ve never seen a maleberrry branch that was big enough in diameter to be used for one.

 8. Maleberry Seed Pod

Maleberrry is one of the easiest of all our native shrubs to identify in winter because its seed pods persist until spring. I just look for the star. There’s a very good chance when you find a maleberrry that there will be blueberries growing nearby.

 9. Winter Stonefly

The first insect I’ve seen since last fall was a winter stonefly. This one was living up to its name by resting on top of a granite post near the Ashuelot River. Its nymphs live beneath rocks and gravel on the bottom of streams and rivers. When the adults emerge they can be found along river and pond banks all winter long, so they are not a good indicator of spring. The adults feed on blue-green algae and the nymphs on aquatic plants. Hungry trout love to eat the nymphs and fishermen use them as live bait.

10. Willow

Willows have just started showing their furry gray catkins and if we hadn’t plunged back into another cold snap it wouldn’t have been too long before we saw their flowers. The cold we’re seeing now will hold them back for a while but it won’t hurt them any. Willows are a spring favorite that many of us enjoy seeing but they’re famous for clogging any type of piping with their moisture seeking roots, so they should never be planted close to a house. They’re great for planting along stream and pond banks because their extensive root systems help hold the soil in place.

11. Witch Hazel Bud

The spring blooming witch hazels in a local park that I visit have been slow to unfurl their strap shaped flower petals, but if you look closely you can see that the bud scales are opening enough to show the 4 bright yellow petals tucked up into the buds. Spring witch hazels often make the mistake of blooming too early and their flower petals turn brown because of damage from the cold, but not this year. Each bud in this photo is about as big as a small pea.

12. Alder Catkins

Speckled alder catkins are just showing signs of producing pollen, as the greenish smudges on the larger male catkins in this photo shows. Soon the bud scales will pull back and the flowers will open. Spring is happening but right now you have to look around a bit to see it.

 13. Skunk Cabbage Spathe

The one plant that tells me that spring is really here is skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). It doesn’t waste time worrying that it might be too cold; it just raises its internal temperature and melts its way through the ice and snow and shouts that spring is finally here. I don’t know if the black bears are coming out of hibernation yet but if they are they’ll be happy to see skunk cabbages. It’s often the only food available to them in early spring.

14. Skunk Cabbage Flower

You can just see the rounded greenish yellow flower head through the opening in the red and yellow mottled spathe on this one. This plant is called skunk cabbage for a good reason, and it is thought that its odor attracts pollinators like flies, stoneflies and bees. Since skunk cabbage can raise its internal temperature by as much as 35º F above the surrounding air temperature, it is also thought that warmth might be another reason that insects visit them.

Spring is sooner recognized by plants than by men.  ~Chinese Proverb

Thanks for stopping in and happy spring!

Note: Today marks the start of the fifth year of this blog. I’ll take this opportunity to say that I appreciate your continued interest and I thank you very much for taking the time to read about what I think is important, and for leaving such thoughtful and often very helpful comments.

Allen

 

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