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Posts Tagged ‘Spruce Cones’

A cool damp spring like the one we’ve had can make New Englanders out of sorts sometimes and downright grumpy at other times, but a snowstorm in May can seem like a real slap in the face. Just as we were raking all the leaves we couldn’t get raked last fall because of November snows, along comes more snow on May 14th. Luckily this time we only saw about an inch but one year we saw about a foot of snow fall after the leaves had come out on the trees, and it caused an unbelievable amount of tree damage. I was still picking up fallen branches in July.

Luckily most of the leaves appeared after the snow had melted, so it was little bother.

Of course I watched the leaves appear. Beech leaves especially, are very beautiful in the spring. They look like little angel wings.

This photo shows how bud break progresses on a beech tree. Many people think one leaf comes out of each beech bud but in fact all of the current year’s growth for that branch is contained in a single bud. Here you can see at least 4 leaves coming from this bud. The branch will grow and elongate so the leaves are separated just enough so one doesn’t block the sunlight falling on another; just one of the many miracles of nature that so many never see.

A new beech leaf retains its silvery hairs for just a very short time so you have to watch closely to catch it. I try not to offer much advice to the readers of this blog but I know that what works for me might work for others so as I have said before; try to find joy in the simple things in life, because if you do joy will follow you wherever you go. When you find yourself passing up just about anything else to watch the unfurling of a leaf or to sit beside a giggling stream you’ll know you are there. And you’ll want to stay.

Beech isn’t the only tree growing leaves in spring of course. Oak leaves usually start life in some color other than green like red or purple, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen them wearing white.

Maple trees also have leaves that open to something other than green; usually red or orange if it’s a red maple (Acer rubrum.) If it’s cold or cloudy as the new leaves emerge they’ll stay in their non green state but sunlight and warmth will eventually coax the tree into producing chlorophyll and they green up quickly so they can start photosynthesizing and making food.

Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) can be beautiful in the spring; beautiful enough so you want to touch it, but if you do you’ll be sorry. I know the plant well and would never intentionally touch it but I got into it somehow and I’ve been itching for a week. You can get the rash even from the leafless stems and that’s usually where I get it.

There are a few evergreen trees in a local park that produce beautiful purple cones in spring and this is one of them. It’s a spruce tree but I don’t know its name. It’s needles are very stiff and sharp and I actually drove one of them into my finger when I was trying to get this photo.

Many plant parts are purple in spring, including flowers like those on what I believe is sweet vernal grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum.) Grasses can be very beautiful and I hope everyone reading this walks a little slower and looks a little closer so they can see them.

I thought these new tall meadow rue leaves (Thalictrum pubescens) edged in purple were very pretty. This is a fast growing plant which will tower over my head and be blooming on the fourth of July with little orange tipped white flowers that look like bombs bursting in air.

Right after I told Jerry at the Quiet Solo Pursuits blog that I hadn’t seen any butterflies I started seeing them, and that’s the way this blogging thing always seems to work. I don’t dare tell you it will be sunny tomorrow because if I did it would surely rain. Anyhow, this eastern swallowtail landed in a bare spot in a lawn I was standing on and I noticed that it had a large piece of its left wing missing. It was a close call because whatever took its wing just barely missed its body. I’m guessing a bird got it.

By the way, you can find Jerry’s blog over there on the right in the “favorite links” section and you should, because it’s a great nature blog that I’ve enjoyed for many years.

An ant was on a dandelion blossom but when I went to take its photo it crawled off onto a nearby leaf. I never knew they were so hairy.

This swamp is where I find many of the spring ephemeral flowers that you see on this blog. Goldthread, trillium, bloodroot, wild ginger, dwarf ginseng and others grow here. Great blue herons nest here and many types of ducks visit, but they’re very wary and almost impossible to get a good shot of.

Many ferns also grow around the swamp in the previous photo. This cinnamon fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum) was unfurling beautifully one recent day. It’s hard to believe this little thing will be waist high in just a short time.

I find chanterelle wax cap mushrooms (Hygrocybe cantharellus) growing in clusters on well-rotted logs, but I don’t think I’ve ever found them in May. This is a pretty little orange mushroom with a cap that might get as big as a nickel, but that’s probably stretching it. These mushrooms show themselves for quite a long time and I often still see them in September.

Fuzzy foot mushrooms (Xeromphalina campanella) are easy to confuse with chanterelle wax caps but they have a dense tuft of orange brown hairs at the base of the stem and these mushrooms didn’t have that. Chanterelle wax caps have pale yellow gills that run down the stem. They also have occasional short gills, which means they stop short of the stem. Both features can be seen in this photo.

The skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) swamp is green with new leaves. Many thousands of plants grow here as they have for who knows how many hundreds or even thousands of years.

I love the spring green of the forest floor seen here. It’s hard to tell but the green comes from many thousands of wildflowers, including sessile leaved bellworts (Uvularia sessilifolia.) This forest along the Ashuelot river is where I come to find them each spring.

I also visit the Ashuelot River to watch the buds of shagbark hickories (Carya ovata) break each spring. They’re one of the most beautiful things seen in a New England forest in spring in my opinion, and I wouldn’t miss their opening. I’ve always thought this tree liked lowlands but I recently saw them growing high on a hillside in a hardwood forest.

Indescribable, endless beauty and deep, immense joy. These are what nature offers to those willing to receive them, and all it costs is a little time. I hope you’ll take that time, if you can.

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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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. Storefronts

In 2003 bulldozers and dump trucks moved onto a local wetland and began tearing it up. After two years had passed what was left was a sprawling 70 acre suburban eyesore, and any trace of what was once a natural wetland was gone. Or so I thought. I’ve been keeping an eye on this place since it was built just to see what kind of an impact it would have on the natural surroundings and I’ve been surprised again and again.

2. Pond

When they built the shopping center they also built a retention basin to manage runoff and hopefully improve the quality of the water that makes it into the Ashuelot River and from there ultimately to the Atlantic Ocean. Retention basins are described as “artificial lakes with vegetation around the perimeter which include a permanent pool of water in their design.”  This is more of a pond than a lake but it is able to hold the runoff from drainage ditches that were dug around the entire perimeter. The pond did come very close to flooding one summer but that was because beavers moved in and immediately dammed the outflow channel. The beavers also began cutting down and feeding on the very expensive ornamental trees that the landscape architects ordered, but they didn’t get far. After they dropped the first thousand dollar Bradford pear they “disappeared” and I haven’t seen a beaver here since.

3. Juniper Berries

For some unknown reason, possibly to keep people from driving into it, they built long mounds of earth called berms all along the edges of the parking lots and roadways near the retention pond. The berms are about 5-6 feet high but apparently that wasn’t enough so they planted evergreens on top of them. They used spruce, balsam fir, white pine and juniper and they do a great job of completely hiding any hint of of water. The junipers here fruit heavier than any I’ve seen and I wanted to get a photo of the beautiful blue berries (actually modified cones). So there I was with my Panasonic Lumix point and shoot that I use for macro photos all warmed up and ready to go when a blackish colored head popped up out of the snow not three feet from where I stood. It saw me and immediately dropped back down into the snow, but just a few seconds later popped up again and stared at me. I felt like I was playing one of those Whack a Mole games. “Well hello there,” I said, “what are you doing here?” A stupid question if there ever was one I know, but it was all I could think of with such short notice.

4. Mink on the Run-3

And then after a few seconds of trying to figure out what I was off it went, bounding over the snow, so I just pointed the Panasonic in its general direction and without even looking through the view finder clicked the shutter as fast as my finger could go. The very poor photo above is the result, but it along with a lot of detective work tells me that this sleek blackish brown animal with white under his chin and a tail that tapers to a point is very probably an American Mink. He was about 2 feet long and his round hairy tail made up about a third of his length.

5. Burrow

This explained how he could pop up out of the snow without having snow all over his face and head. Minks are burrowing animals but they usually take over the burrows of muskrats and other animals in embankments along rivers and ponds instead of digging them themselves. They are carnivores and eat just about anything including frogs, mice and voles, fish, and birds. They also kill and eat muskrats and will go right into their burrows to do so. I haven’t been able to find any information on whether or not they bother beavers but I wondered if minks could be responsible for the mysterious disappearance of the beavers from this pond.

6. MinkTracks

If I understand what I’ve read correctly, one way to tell a mink from other members of the weasel family is by its bounding gait. This one was a real bounder and moved surprisingly fast. Rough measurements with my monopod tell me that there are about 14 inches between these prints. Minks can also climb trees and this one headed right for the evergreens along the top of the berm.

7. Paw Prints

I went back the next day to see if I could get photos of the mink’s tracks but because of the powdery snow he bounded through the tracks were barely visible. The ones in this photo were the best and they aren’t great, but one of them does show claw marks.  I’ve read that minks have paws that are slightly webbed, but nothing like the webbing that otters have. The State Fish and Game website says that minks and other members of the weasel family are very rarely seen, so I feel lucky to have gotten these photos even if they aren’t great.

8. Poplar Sunburst Lichen

After the excitement of seeing the mink died down I decided to visit one of my favorite lichens, the poplar sunburst (Xanthoria hasseana.) These lichens grow on the Bradford pear trees that grow alongside the pond and this is the only place that I’ve ever seen them. I’ve been visiting them for several years and each year they get more beautiful. The parts that look like suction cups are their fruiting bodies (apothecia) where their spores are produced.

 9. Hawthorn Fruit

For the most part the landscaping here seems uninspired and unimaginative, but there are bright spots like the two or three hawthorn (Crataegus) trees planted off in a corner where few ever see them.  They usually fruit quite heavily and the birds snap up the berry-like haws quickly. The haws, botanically speaking, are pomes, like apples and pears.  One odd fact about hawthorns is how their young leaves and flower buds are edible and can be used in salads.

10. Hawthorn Thorn

If the haws and the roundish, bright red buds don’t convince you that you’re looking at a hawthorn then the sharp, inch long thorns probably will.

 11.Spruce

I thought I’d use some of the evergreens that they planted on the berms to show you an easy way to tell a spruce from a fir. One way is by their cones. Spruce cones hang down from the branches.

12. Balsam Fir

And fir cones stand up on the branches like candles. This isn’t a great example but it’s the best I could find. Fir cones break apart as they ripen and the thing that looks like a skinny mushroom over on the upper right is what is left behind. Just a stalk and a few scales at the top. Since cones usually appear high up in the tree and are often only produced in 3-5 year cycles it’s wise to learn how to tell conifers apart by other means. Needle shape, length and color, bark appearance, overall growth habits and fragrance can all be used to identify conifers. Since spruce needles are sharp, stiff and square and fir needles are soft, flexible and flat I would have known these trees even if they hadn’t had cones, but the differences would have been much harder to illustrate here.

13. Meadow

The strip of unbroken snow in the foreground of the above photo is one of the drainage ditches and I come here in summer to take photos of arrowhead, nodding burr marigold and other wetland wildflowers that grow in great abundance here. This is a good spot to photograph them because I can get closer to them than I can when they grow in pond water. In the mini meadow in the background goldenrod, Joe Pye weed, boneset, purple loosestrife and other taller wildflowers create scenes worthy of a Monet painting in late summer.

14. Alder Tounge Gall

Native shrubs in the area include various willows, sumacs, and common alder (Alnus glutinosa). The long strap shaped growths coming out of the female alder cones (strobiles) in the above photo are tongue galls caused by a fungus called Taphrina alni. The fungus causes a chemical reaction that deforms the alder strobiles and produces the tongue like galls. Early in the season when the galls are fresh they’re green but as they age they can become yellow, pink, red, purple or orange. Once they mature they turn brown or black and often stay on the strobiles until the next season. I always seem to miss their younger, more colorful stages.

Note: Julie has correctly pointed out that common Alder is a native of Europe. It also goes by the name of black or European alder and was introduced by the earliest settlers. It has taken well to its new home and is seen everywhere here in New Hampshire along with our native gray or speckled alder (Alnus incana.) It is so common that I think of it as a native, even though I know better. Thanks Julie!

15. Hawk

I happened to glance up and saw this hawk sitting on a light pole. I think it’s the same red tailed hawk that I’ve seen in the general area several times before, but I’m not positive about that identification. It’s a big bird; bigger than a crow-and always sits on the highest point available, watching open fields. I’m sorry again about the poor quality of these photos but I’m pretty sure if I could get a look into this bird’s nest I’d find a Canon Powershot SX40 manual that it reads when it isn’t out hunting, because every time I see him / her it makes sure that it is just beyond what the zoom on my camera can comfortably handle. These shots were taken at what would be the equivalent of about 840mm with a DSLR and I still had to crop them.

16. Hawk

When I’m around this bird never sits still long enough to even think about getting the camera on a monopod or tripod. As soon as it sees me with a camera it flies off. I wonder what the mink’s chances are now that it has moved into the neighborhood. If I were him I think I’d be just a bit worried.

Surprisingly, as this walk around this strip mall shows, nature seems to be thriving here. In fact if you include the mink and the hawk, I’ve actually seen a greater cross section of nature here than I usually do in the woods. While I was taking these photos and thinking about what I was seeing I had a strong feeling that nature couldn’t wait to reclaim this land.

Nature is what you see plus what you think about it. ~John Sloan

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