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Posts Tagged ‘Staghorn Sumac’

I’ve mentioned a few times on this blog lately that I’ve been doing a lot of walking, so I thought I’d show you some of the things I see on these walks. If I choose to go this way, I can see a pond full of water plants like burr reed and yellow pond lilies. The big circular plant colonies are all yellow pond lilies, and they appear to be trying to take over the pond.

I’ve seen lots of hemlock varnish shelf fungi (Ganoderma tsugae) on an old hemlock stump and the pile of logs beside it. For the first time I’ve had a chance to see these mushrooms grow day by day and I can now understand that they grow quite fast. This one went from looking like a piece of dough to what we see here in less than two weeks. It’s about the size of a salad plate; less diameter than a dinner plate but more than a saucer. It is considered the most important of all the herbs and substances used in Chinese Herbal Medicine, including ginseng. In China it is called the Reishi mushroom, and scientists around the world are researching its anti-cancer potential.

Swamp candles (Lysimachia terrestris) burned brightly in roadside ditches. This is our first yellow loosestrife to bloom each year and I sometimes see them in great numbers. They like wet places and often grow right where the water meets the shore. In fact my knees were getting wet so this isn’t a very good shot.

Soft or common rush (Juncus effusus) also grew in a ditch alongside the road. Ditches are always a good place to find a variety of plants that like wet feet, like rushes and sedges. Soft rush can form large clumps and are easy to grow. They’re interesting if placed here and there around garden ponds.

Sedge stems are triangular and have edges but soft rush stems are smooth and cylindrical, with a light pith inside. They feel soft if you pinch them, not sharp. The flower head, shown in the above photo, looks like it grows from one side of the stem but the stem actually ends at the flowers. Anything appearing above the flowers is a bract, not part of the stem. The flowers are tiny and not showy, but overall the plant is pleasing to the eye.

Gray’s sedge (Carex grayi) always reminds me of the spiky mace weapons that knights used in the Middle Ages. A botanist would say this about that: each spikelet consists of a globoid cluster of perigynia that radiate in all directions. A perigynium is a fleshy cup or tube, which in this case comes to a point or beak. Coming out of each beak are the flowers, which are what look like threads in this photo. They start out white and brown as they age. Gray’s sedge is named after Asa Gray, who wrote Grays Manual of Botany in 1848. I read my copy about 50 years ago and have used it many times since that initial reading. If you have trouble sleeping at night just read Asa’s manual for a half our or so before bedtime. You’ll sleep like a stone.

Porcupine sedge (Carex hystericina) had recently flowered and I knew that because the tiny threads at the ends of the perigynia were still white. This common sedge is also called bottlebrush sedge. Waterfowl and other birds love its seeds.

Curly dock (Rumex crispus) has flowered and is now producing its tiny winged seeds, which look a bit like stalks full of flakes.

If you look closely, you will see that each flake, which is more like a wing, has a tiny seed on it. It looks like a seed pearl at this stage but as they ripen and age the seed and its wing will turn brownish. Finally they will fall from the plant and the wind will catch the tiny wings and blow them to new places to grow. They will often persist through winter and fall the following spring. Since March is the windiest month, it is a sensible strategy for a plant that depends on the wind to get around.

Marsh fern (Thelypteris palustris) is another ditch loving plant that likes full sun and wet feet. This one had a fern ball on its tip. Fern balls appear at the tip of a fern frond and look like what the photo shows. Inside the ball is a caterpillar, which has pulled the tip of the fern into a ball shape and tied it up with silk. Once inside the shelter they feed on the fern leaflets and live completely in the fern ball until they are ready to become a moth. Emily Dickinson once wrote “To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else,” and I wonder if she didn’t see a fern ball just before she wrote it.  

Native Americans called blueberries star berries, and now you know why; the blossom end of each berry forms a five-pointed star. They used blueberries, and also the plant’s leaves and roots, medicinally as well as for food. They cultivated the bushes and made a pudding out of corn meal and water and added the blueberries to it. They then baked it, and it saved the life of many a European settler, as did their pemmican.

I see several native catalpa trees (Catalpa speciosa) on my walks and right now they’re in full bloom and very beautiful. It’s like looking at a tree full of orchids.

Catalpa flowers are big; your index finger will fit right in there. The trees they grow on are also very big and a mistake I see people make over and over again is planting them too close to their house. Catalpa, for all its beauty, is also a messy tree. First the spent flowers fall by the thousands in early summer, and then in fall the giant heart shaped leaves turn yellow and fall. In the spring the seedpods come down. These are like two-foot-long string beans and they make quite a mess. It is a tree that creates a lot of work if planted where everything that falls from it has to be raked up but in spite of all of this if someone asked me if they should plant a catalpa I’d say absolutely, just keep it away from the house. Plant it at the edge of the property, or by a pond if you have one.

I saw a bittersweet nightshade plant (Solanum dulcamara) coming up out of the center of a yew, and it was loaded with its pretty blue and yellow flowers. It might be pretty but it’s a real stinker, and if you break the stems, you’ll smell something unusual. It produces solanine which is a narcotic, and all parts of the plant are considered toxic, so that might account for the smell. The plant climbs up and over other plants and shrubs and often blossoms for most of the summer. It’s originally from Europe and Asia and is in the potato family, just like tomatoes. The fruit is a red berry, which in the fall looks like a soft and juicy, bright red, tiny Roma tomato. I wouldn’t eat one though.

I like the flowers when they’re fully open like this one but you have to be quick to catch them this way because the petals recurve quickly. You can see that most of them have done so in the previous photo. Cranberry flowers do the same thing.

A button bush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) was budding up and preparing to flower. It will have a perfectly spherical flower head that looks a lot like a pincushion before it is through. I’ve seen lots of button bush flowers but apparently, I’ve never paid any attention to the buds. These reminded me of the game Jacks that we used to play long ago.

English plantain (Plantago lanceolata) flowers open in rings as they circle their way up the flower stalk, starting at the bottom and working towards the top. Though an invasive from Europe and Asia English plantain prefers growing in soil that has been disturbed, so it isn’t often seen in natural areas where there is little activity. I see it in lawns more than anywhere else but I see more of it each year.

Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) has just started blooming. This now common plant wasn’t always common in this area. When I was a boy, I had a transistor radio and at night I used to fall asleep listening to it. One of the songs I could count on hearing every night was Polk Salad Annie by Tony Joe White. It was about a poor southern girl who had only pokeweed to eat because her mother was on a chain gang and her grandmother was eaten by an alligator. Her father and brothers were lazy, so all they had were the poke greens. Of course all of us school kids talked about both the song and the plant, but when we asked our parents what pokeweed was, they didn’t know. They just said it must be a southern plant, but no more; now it’s an everywhere plant, and it is big and noticeable.

Pokeweed flowers are about 1/4 inch wide and have 5 petal-like, rounded sepals. In the center of the flower are green carpels that come together and will form the purple black berry. Native Americans called the plant pocon and used the juice from the berries to decorate their horses. People still use it to dye wool today. If you’d like to hear the song about Polk Salad Annie that I used to hear in 1969, just click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MCSsVvlj6YA

Pokeweed is toxic unless you get the early spring shoots and I’ve read that it can make you kind of crazy if you eat too much of it, so that might account for all the grunting and oohing you hear from Tony Joe White.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is having an amazing year and the plants are huge. It starts blooming usually in June and then takes a rest in the heat of summer before re-blooming when it cools off again. This plant was once so highly valued that it was traded among all the people of the earth, but now we hardly give it a glance. It is mentioned in the Chinese I Ching, which is said to pre date recorded history, and it was found in an excavation of a Neanderthal grave site. It was a valuable healing herb, one of the nine “holy herbs,” and its value was most likely due to its ability to staunch the flow of blood. The Achillea part of the scientific name comes from the Greek god Achilles, whose soldiers it is said, used the plant to treat their wounds. Because of its being so freely traded it is one of just a few plants that now grow on every continent except Antarctica. I see it everywhere I go.

Poplar seeds fall from the female trees and often find each other in the wind, and then roll into a ball of what looks like cotton. This is the reason the trees are also called cottonwoods. A tree 100 feet high and five feet across can grow from a seed just 5/32 of an inch long. For a certain amount of time in spring the air is filled with them.

Back when I was a boy everyone said that when the wind blew hard enough to show the bottoms of the leaves on trees like silver maple, it meant that it was going to rain. I have since learned that what it really means is that the wind is blowing, and nothing more. The strong wind might be caused by a front passing through, but that doesn’t always mean rain. On this day all the leaves were showing silver but we didn’t see a drop fall.

I like to watch grasses flower and turn purple, and one of the most purple of them all is Timothy, named after farmer Timothy Hanson, who began to cultivate and promote it in 1720. Each tiny flower on Timothy grass has three purple stamens and 2 wispy white stigmas. I spent a lot of time when I was a boy chewing on a piece of this grass hanging while I walked the railroad tracks and as I’ve mentioned before, it is the grass I think of when I hear the opening line of the song Ventura Highway by the band America, which starts Chewing on a piece of grass, walking down the road… I just listened to it and it still sounds as good as it did in 1972. It reminds me of simpler times.

These are the leaves of staghorn sumac, which I see just about everywhere I walk and which in spring remind me of bamboo. Later on they’ll remind me of palm trees. If I’m lucky I’ll see them wearing bright red in the fall.

I hope you enjoyed this walk, just one of several that I do. There is nothing easier than walking; you don’t even have to choose where to go because the paths are just there and going right or left really doesn’t matter. I’ve always been more of a walker than a driver but until now I never really paid attention to the health benefits. I’m losing weight, my legs and knees feel better and I can breathe much easier than I could just a few months ago. I don’t think of distance or destination or anything else. I just walk until I’m ready to stop. If you’re healthy and interested open your door and start walking, and just see what you see. Give yourself the time and freedom to wander. You might be surprised by what you find.

The only way to understand a land is to walk it. The only way to drink in its real meaning is to keep it firmly beneath one’s feet. Only the walker can form the wider view. ~Sinclair McKay

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What I would have to call my favorite rail trail was calling to me and had been for a week or two, but I had resisted its pull until this day. Like getting a song out of your head by playing it, I had to walk this trail to stop it from calling, so here we are. Since I love jungles, I was happy to see that the area had almost become one. I hadn’t been here since last February and of course I didn’t see how overgrown it had become then.

The first thing I noticed was orchard grass (Dactylis glomerata) flowering along the side of the trail. Orchard grass is a pretty little grass. In my opinion a kind of architectural grass, if there could be such a thing. It was introduced into this country over two hundred years ago as a forage crop and of course it immediately escaped and is now everywhere I go. That’s fine with me because it’s very pretty when it flowers, as can be seen in the photo.

I followed the railroad tracks that were here when I was a boy every chance I had and one of my favorite things to do as I walked along in summer was to eat the raspberries that grew here. Last summer when I came here I didn’t see any, but there were plenty on this day. Not ripe yet but they’re coming along.

Blackberries are also waiting in the wings.

My biggest surprise on this day was finding ragged robin flowers (Lychnis flos-cuculi) growing along the trail. I’ve never seen them in any other place than in Hancock where I used to work, and I searched for many years before I found them there.

It’s a very unusual flower that is hard to find and amazingly, here it was right where I first flowered. I hope to one day see many of them here. It is said to prefer disturbed habitats like meadows and fields.

Multiflora roses (Rosa multiflora) have just started blooming and the pollen eaters aren’t wasting any time. Though this small flowered rose from China is very invasive it is also highly fragrant and I’ve always loved smelling it as I walk along. Birds plant it everywhere and I’ve met people who fertilized it, not knowing what it was or where it came from, but thankful for its wonderful scent. I’ve seen it climb 30 feet up into trees without any fertilizer, so personally I’d just let it be.

This is where as a boy I discovered that the best walks are unplanned. They are those with no purpose, when you have nothing to gain and no destination in mind. You just surrender yourself to the unknown and wander the countryside, and over and over again you stop, you see, you wonder, you learn. This is where I discovered the value of empty space and silence, and first found the solitude that was to become a life long friend. My grandmother worried about my being alone out here and thought I was “brooding,” as she put it. She thought I was deeply unhappy because I didn’t have a mother, but had I been older I would have asked her, how can you miss what you’ve never known? I was too young and didn’t have the words to explain to her that what I really felt out here was pure unencumbered bliss.

I tell these stories hoping that they will resonate with the parents and grandparents out there. Let your children and grandchildren run free in nature. Let them wander and wonder. Or, if you can’t bear to cut them loose, go with them. If you can’t bear that send them off to a nature camp. Nature will become their teacher, and they will be all the better for it. Just be prepared to find them books on botany, biology, entomology, nature study, etc., etc, because their heads will be full of questions. They’ll want to know everything; not about the latest video game but about life and their place in it.

I went down the embankment to see what was once a cornfield, but what is now forest. Nothing but silver and red maples, and sensitive ferns. All of it has sprung up over the last 50 years or so, which means that I’m older than everything in this photo. The way the flooding of the river and Ash Brook happens now I doubt this will ever be farmland again.

I was surprised to find bloodroot plants (Sanguinaria canadensis) out here because I’ve never seen them here before. Next May I’ll have to come back and see their flowers.

I could tell that the plants had bloomed because they had seedpods on them. They also had poison ivy growing all around them and I knelt right in it. As of this writing my knees aren’t itching but since I end up with a poison ivy rash every year I won’t be surprised if they do.

Something seemed to be ravaging the new buds on American hazelnuts (Corylus americana), which will mean no nuts this year on this bush.

I can’t blame this tiny creature for the damaged hazelnut buds but it was the only insect I found on the plant. After a bit of searching I have been able to identify it as the larva of an Asian ladybug (Harmonia axyridis) so it was not eating the hazelnut buds. It will actually eat the aphids that do harm to so many plants.

River grapes (Vitis riparia) were flowering in high numbers and I was happy to see them. I hope the grapes will draw the Baltimore orioles back to the area. There used to be lots of them when I was young but I never see them out here anymore. Grape flowers are among the smallest I see but when thousands of them bloom together their wonderful fragrance can be smelled from quite a distance. I’m sure many have smelled them and not known what they were smelling. The vines climb high into the treetops by using tendrils, and you can just see one over on the left, looking for something to cling to.

Other plants have different strategies when it comes to climbing. Native climbing false buckwheat (Fallopia scandens) does it by sending long shoots straight up, hoping to find something to twine itself around. This one missed the mark by a few feet but it will just fall over after a bit and grab on to whatever it can. Eventually it will get to where the most sunlight is. This plant is also called climbing bindweed and there are invasives that resemble it.

A bicycle built for two had ridden over the trestle just before I reached it. I saw lots of people on bikes out here on this day including an old friend I hadn’t seen in many years. I was glad to see so many people using the trail. That means it will stay open and will be cared for.

I went down beside the trestle, which is something I used to do regularly years ago, just to explore. The banks seem to have narrowed quite a lot between the stream and the abutments since those days but I suppose it’s in the nature of a stream to want to widen over the years. I wanted to go under the trestle but I didn’t trust the mud there. When conditions are right you can sink into it quickly. I saw animal tracks but no human ones, so I stayed away.

I tried to get a good shot of the entire trestle but low hanging silver maple limbs were in the way. Since when I was a boy I had to cross another trestle near my house to get to this one, this will always be the second trestle to me. Its sides are much lower than the first trestle for some reason, maybe only as high as the bottom of a rail car. For that reason I also think of it as the small trestle. When I was a boy, I could and often did sit out here all day long and not see another person. The brook meets the Ashuelot river just around that bend and there is a high sand bluff where bank swallows used to nest, and I would sit and watch them for hours, wondering how a bird could dig a hole.

Ash Brook was calm and shallow and behaving nicely on this day but I wasn’t fooled by its calm demeanor. I’ve seen it rage and swell up and pour over its banks too many times. This was a good place to learn about the true power of nature.  

As you get closer to the brook the trees get bigger because this land was never cleared like the land from a few photos ago was. It wasn’t cleared for planting because it has always flooded, but never like it has lately. You can see where the waterline shows on some of the tree trunks from the flooding last February. The water here would have been up to my chest in this spot, I’d guess, which is deeper than I’ve ever seen it. I remember standing on the embankment listening to the hissing, creaking and cracking ice. Of course deeper water means it spreads further over the land, and that’s why there is no corn grown anywhere near here now. It takes too long for the soil to dry out so planting can begin.  

The undergrowth in the photos of the forest is made up almost entirely of sensitive ferns (Onoclea sensibilis). Many thousands of them grow here, for as far as the eye can see. They, like the trees, don’t mind wet ground and in fact they are a good wetland indicator. Their rhizomes branch and creep and as this photo shows, this fern can form large colonies. I know this fern is toxic to cattle and horses but I don’t know if it is toxic to wildlife. I do know that Deer and muskrats won’t eat it. The only animal I’ve ever seen have anything to do with it was a beaver that was swimming down the river with a huge bundle of fronds in its mouth one day. I supposed it would use them for soft bedding rather than food.

Though there were so many ferns you couldn’t see the ground, more were still coming. I’ve heard that you can eat the spring fiddleheads but I certainly wouldn’t.

Can you see the wind when you look at this nodding sedge (Carex gynandra)? See how the hanging seed spikes aren’t hanging perfectly vertical? The breeze came from the right and the camera had to stop the motion.

On the way back I saw lots of stitchwort blossoms (Stellaria graminea) that I hadn’t seen on the way out. They’re pretty little things and I’m always happy to see them, even if they are a weed.

I also saw plenty of fuzzy staghorn sumac buds (Rhus typhina). Soon they will be tiny green fuzzy flowers that will become first pink and then red, fuzzy berries. This was the first time I’ve noticed that the buds spiral up the stem. The spiral is nature’s way of packing the most flower buds into the least amount of space, but that’s only one example of how nature uses spirals. I see them everywhere all the time, in everything from trees to snail shells to coiled snakes. It’s just another one of those many things in nature that makes you wonder and seek answers.

Must we always teach our children with books? Let them look at the stars and the mountains above. Let them look at the waters and the trees and flowers on Earth. Then they will begin to think, and to think is the beginning of a real education.  ~David Polis

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Last Friday the 18th was a beautiful day, already warm when I got to Pitcher Mountain in Stoddard at about 11:00 am. I could see spots of ice on the trail so I wore a coat and had my micro-spikes in my pocket, just in case. I couldn’t find any recent information on trail conditions so I didn’t know what to expect but I knew it would be nice to be climbing again after the terrible ice had kept me on level ground all winter.

I looked at the hobblebushes (Viburnum lantanoides) along the way and though I saw plenty of leaf buds I didn’t see a single flower bud.

There are lots of dead trees in the forest along this trail. A standing dead tree like this one is called a snag, and snags play an important part of the overall health of the forest. This tree is probably full of insects and I could see where woodpeckers had been at work. Fungal spores will also find their way to it and eventually it will fall and provide nutrients to the surrounding soil for years to come. This one looked almost like it had a bear platform in it.

Beech leaves are quickly going white. Strong March winds usually clean them off the trees and I’m seeing as many on the ground as I am on the trees lately.

I think of this stop at the meadow as the great breathing space. I can catch my breath and think about absolutely nothing here. It’s just earth, myself, and sky. And silence. I often find a nice rock and just sit for a while.

It paid to rest up a bit for this stretch. I was expecting a little ice on the trails here but instead I got thick mud, which on a hill is almost as bad.  

Mud and stones for the rest of the way.

And roots; lots of roots. They were useful to stop yourself if you were slipping backwards in the mud, which I did a couple of times. You really want to wear good, sturdy hiking boots with some ankle support here if you can.

The bright orange-red witches’ brooms on blueberry bushes burned like fire in the woods. They may seem unsightly to some and if you have a blueberry plantation you would surely want to remove them, but I worked around a blueberry bush that had one for many years, and it bore fruit just as well as the other bushes that didn’t. I left it as an experiment, just to see what would happen and it really didn’t seem to bother the bush at all.  

If you turn around in the right spot as you climb the leg of the trail beside the meadow you can see Mount Monadnock over in Jaffrey. On this day it showed me that it would not be a good day for views. It was strange because I saw no signs of haze as I drove from Keene.

As I neared the summit, I saw that the old ranger cabin’s broken windows had finally been boarded up. It had been broken into and vandalized last year so better late than never, I suppose. It would be tough getting the tools and materials up here to do the job, I would think.

The only mountain ash (Sorbus americana) I’ve ever found in the wild lives up here and it looked to be doing well.

Big, black and pointed mountain ash buds often look like they have a single cap like bud scale but they actually have several overlapping scales which are quite sticky. They should be swelling any time now if this warm weather keeps up.

As I looked up at the fire tower on the summit I was grateful, because I remembered the winter I had to crawl up those last few rocky yards on my hands and knees because of the ice. I doubt I’ll ever do it again, even though being up here in January can be pretty special.

This really was not a day for views but I was able to get a fuzzy shot of the wind turbines over in Antrim. It really is amazing how big they are.

When I saw these three trees, I thought of the three witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

There was plenty of water on the summit for the birds to drink, and that meant plenty of mud as well. There was no escaping the mud on this day. It was over 70 degrees F. and everything had melted quickly, including any frost in the ground. By this point I was wishing that I had left my coat in the car.

Deep striations in the granite are a reminder that this entire region was once under ice. It’s hard to imagine ice thick enough to cover these mountains. It is estimated that the ice that covered New England in the last ice age was 2 Km (6,562 Ft.) thick. That means that 2,153-foot-high pitcher mountain was buried under more than 4000 feet of ice.

The near hill looked a bit drab on this day but I’ve known it in all seasons and soon it will be beautifully green with new spring leaves, because it is covered with mostly deciduous trees. In the fall it will be even more beautiful when those leaves begin to turn.

The summit is covered with many different lichens, like the yellowish goldspeck and the black and white tile lichens seen here. There are 136 species of tile lichens so identification is difficult without a microscope. I just like the colors in this scene.

I don’t know if the Pitcher family who settled here planted apple trees but there are apple trees here, and the sapsuckers love them. Their trunks are full of small holes.

I got to see a staghorn sumac bud just beginning to open.

And then there was the trail down. I picked my way carefully avoiding what mud I could, and I made it just fine, and that made a beautiful spring day seem even better.

Since there were no summit views to be had I thought I’d stop and get a shot of the Congregational Church in Stoddard on my way home so those of you who have never been to New England could see what a fairly traditional New England church looks like. The town was named after Colonel Sampson Stoddard of Chelmsford, Massachusetts, the charter being granted to him and others on May 10, 1752. The population has fluctuated over the years, falling to as low as 100 people in 1900 to around 1000 today. According to the town’s website the Congregational Church was organized in 1787, but the building in the photo wasn’t built until 1836.

A mountaintop is not simply an elevation, but an island, a world within a world, a place out of place. ~Paul Gruchow

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When I came to this wildlife management area back in September, I saw an amzing number of flowers in bloom but I also noticed the trees. They were almost all maples and of course they were all green then but I thought they must be glorious in the fall, so that’s what this post is about. We’re going into that forest you see in the above photo.

The wires you saw in the previous photo are from the high-tension powerlines that run through here. I played under them as a boy and have walked under them off and on for most of my life, but a few years ago a man was electrocuted very near here when a wooden cross arm failed and a wire fell and touched the ground. The current travels through the ground and will kill you long before you get close to the fallen wire, so now I always look up to make sure all the wires are hanging where they should be. On this day they looked fine but I wasn’t going to be under them long.

It was a cloudy, cool day; the kind of day you find bees sleeping on flowers, and that’s what one was doing. At this time of year I often find bumblebees have died while hanging on to flowers but I saw it slowly move so not this one, not yet. I’ve always thought that there is little in nature more perfect than a bee dying while clinging to a flower. The two are inseperable. In fact the two are really one.

There were pockets of New England asters still blooming beautifully in the sunniest spots, but most are done for this year.

The mowed trail makes it seem as if you are walking through a vast park laid out by a landscape designer but this is still the same forest I grew up playing in as a boy. The path must have been the idea of the local college. I’m happy to see it because it opens the forest up to many people who would have never come here otherwise.

I’m glad this place will be protected. Maybe other children will fall in love with it as I did.

The colors weren’t what I expected and I think that was because the trees here are mostly all silver maples, which turn yellow in the fall. You need red maples for the rich oranges and reds. Silver maple is a short lived tree, and that’s why most of the trees in this post appear young.

I’ve never met a single person out here but I’d like to run into someone who knew what these mile markers are all about. I’ve seen two, this one and another that says 1.56 miles. Without knowing where the start point is they don’t mean much but I’m guessing that local college students must run through here. The area floods so the soil is too soft for a bike race, I would think. It’s almost mud in places.

Wild cucumbers (Echinocystis lobata) have finished flowering for the year…

…and now they’re busy making fruit. My friends and I used to spend a lot of time throwing these soft spined fruits at each other at this time of year.

Smallish asters grew in the woods in the sunnier spots. They were too big and too light colored to be blue wood asters I think, but not big enough to be New England asters.

I saw rose hips but for a change they weren’t on an invasive multiflora rose. They were too big for that rose, so I’ll have to come back next year to see what rose it is.

Some of the staghorn sumacs (Rhus typhina) had changed color and they were getting beautiful. Sumacs have quite a color range, from purple to bright red to pumkin orange.

I walked a few steps to the edge of the river and remembered that these river banks are often undercut, so you can find yourself standing on only an inch or two of soil without realizing it. They’ve crumbled away beneath me before and I didn’t need that, so I took a couple of quick shots and backed off. That’s one of many things I learned here as a boy. Nature taught me much and I dreamed a lot of dreams out here. After reading Ivan Sanderson’s Book of Great Jungles this is where I hatched the plan to become a great plant explorer. I told myself I’d visit all of those jungles I had read about and bring back plants so beautiful people would weep at the sight of them. In the end I had to lower my sights a bit and bring plants back from nurseries instead of jungles. I did indeed bring beautiful plants to people’s gardens but there wasn’t any weeping involved. I might have heard a gasp or two.

Here was one of those muddy spots I was talking about. Much too damp for bicycles I would think, though I have seen those wide tire bikes going through snow.

This was the wettest spot. The river flooded over summer and this land has never completely dried out because of the weekly rains we’re still seeing. Out here is where the fear of high water first took hold of me. We lived very close to the river and almost every spring snow melt made it rise right to the very top of its banks. Luckily the river bank on the side farthest from our house was slightly lower, so if the river topped its banks all the water spilled into these woods and into the many cornfields in the area. I saw it happen again just this past summer and it’s still scary.

I was surprised to find the lots of the pale-yellow flowers of wild radish (Raphanus raphanistrum) out here. These were kind of sulfur yellow but they can also be white or pink. This plant is considered a noxious weed because it gets into forage and grain crops. Everyone seems to agree that this is a non-native plant but nobody seems to know exactly where it came from or how it got here.

Here is another example of the soft, muted color of silver maples. They’re still pretty but for color variation and saturation they can’t match red maples. The day was also cloudy and that can also knock some of the punch out of certain fall colors.

A freshly fallen silver maple leaf on the trail looked nice and bright though.

There were large colonies of foxtail grass (Setaria faberi) out here too. It and all of the other plants in this post don’t mind wet feet, and can even stand a bit of flooding.

In this spot it had gotten so wet in the flooding that all of the grass disappeared from the trail but the sensitive ferns (Onoclea sensibilis) on either side still thrived, and that’s because they don’t mind wet ground. For that reason they’re a good wetland indicator. They always make me happy I’ve had sense enough to wear waterproof hiking boots.

Common milkweeds (Asclepias syriaca) are releasing their seeds. They like to colonize disturbed ground and can form huge colonies in places that are to their liking. They like dry ground though, so it was surprising to find them here. Last summer the spot where they grow was under water for several days.

Because of all the flooding that has gone on here for who knows how many thousands of years the soil is rich and fertile, and nothing showed that better than the chickweeds that grew more thickly and looked healthier than I’ve ever seen. It’s as if they had been fertilized. I believe this was common chickweed (Stellaria media.) Originally from Europe, it has found a home here and has settled in comfortably. It likes damp, shady places.

The Stellaria part of chickweed’s scientific name means star and that’s what the flowers look like; tiny stars shining on the forest floor. They may be considered invasive by some but I think my world is a better place for having them in it. As with most things in this world, if you take a moment to really see them you find that they’re quite beautiful.

In every real man a child is hidden that wants to play. ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

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On a recent hot, humid day I thought a rail trail might be a rather effortless walk so I chose one I knew well. When I started walking here some 50+ years ago trains ran through what now looks like a jungle. The railroad would never have put up with so much growth on the sides of the railbed of course, but I kind of like it this way. I was to find out that a little bit of everything grows here now, and the time spent here was full of discovery. This trail has become popular with bicyclists and I was passed by quite a few.

I saw lots of hazelnuts (Corylus americana.) Hazelnuts are a common sight along our rail trails but they have good years and bad years and more often than not there are no nuts on the bushes. On this day though, they were everywhere.

If you turn the nut cluster and look at the back you can see and feel the unripe nuts inside. There were four in this cluster.

Fringed loosestrife grew in shaded places along the trail. Note how virtually every flower nods toward the ground. As far as I know this is the only one of our yellow loosestrifes with this habit. Whorled loosestrife looks identical at a glance, but its flowers face outward.

A vine I never saw when I was a boy and saw only in one spot just a few years ago is spreading enough so now I’m seeing it almost everywhere I go. It is the smooth carrion flower vine (Smilax herbacea.) This native, non woody vine gets its common name from the strong odor of its flowers. There are both male and female plants, and they usually grow near each other.

The flowers of the smooth carrion flower vine become dark blue berries that birds love and I would guess that accounts for it quickly spreading from place to place as it has. The berries on this vine were still green but I would guess that they’ll be ripe by the end of July.   

Common mullein surprised me by growing along the trail. I’ve always wondered if the railroad didn’t spray some type of herbicide along the tracks because you never would have found plants like mullein growing here back when the trains ran. There were an awful lot of raspberries and blackberries back then though, but now all I see are canes with no berries. Raspberries and blackberries bear fruit only on second year canes so I’m guessing the young canes I’ve seen here are being cut. Possibly by a snowmobile trail improvement crew.

Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) grew all along the trail and had large flower heads all ready to bloom. You can see how smooth and hairless its stems are in this photo. They are also a bluish color when young. This is another plant I don’t remember ever seeing here when I was a boy.

Here is a smooth sumac flower, just opened. They are so small I really doubted that I’d be able to get a useable photo of them. They look quite complicated for such a small thing.

While smooth sumac was just starting to bloom staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) had already formed fruit. I didn’t know that sumac berries went from green to pink before they became red.

Some of the things I remember most about this place when I was a boy are the cornfields, most of which are still here. More or less; last years drought killed off the young corn plants and for the first time that I can remember there was no corn growing here. This year in spring I came out here and found wheat growing in this field, as far as the eye could see. Wheat? I didn’t know what that was all about but they’ve cut all the wheat and are leaving this part of the field fallow, apparently. Off in the distance you can just make out corn growing, about a third of the way up in this photo. Why they didn’t plant the whole field I don’t know but the corn that is there was knee high by the fourth of July, and that’s perfect.

Here is the wheat I found a couple of months ago. It is actually triticale according to Google lens, which is a hybrid of wheat (Triticum) and rye (​Secale) first developed in laboratories during the late 19th century in Scotland and Germany. If the word triticale (trit-ih-KAY-lee) rings a bell you might have seen an original Star Trek episode called “The Trouble with Tribbles.” Everyone knew what triticale was except captain Kirk, and the tribbles ate all the poisoned triticale and saved the day.

I kept taking photos of the trail because I couldn’t believe how jungle like it has become. I dreamed of being a plant hunter in the world’s jungles when I was young, so I would have loved this. Back then though, this corridor was at least twice as wide.

There are things to watch out for in any jungle and on this day it was stinging nettle (Urtica dioica.) The Urtica part of the scientific name comes from the Latin uro, which means “I burn.” The hollow stinging hairs on the leaves and stems are called trichomes and act like hypodermic needles, injecting histamine and other chemicals that cause the stinging.

Buttery little sulfur cinquefoil (Potentilla recta) likes waste places and disturbed ground so I wasn’t really too surprised to see it here. I was surprised that it got enough sunlight to bloom though.

Tall meadow rue (Thalictrum pubescens) bloomed weakly. Since it starts blooming in June I was surprised to see any flowers at all. I took this shot this way specifically so you could see the plant’s leaves. In early spring a lot of people confuse this plant with wild columbine, though the leaves are quite different.

What surprised me more than anything else I saw was a Canada lily (Lilium canadense) blooming beside the trail. This is something I would have remembered had I seen them here years ago. These plants are one of our biggest wildflowers. They can reach 7 feet tall and have as many as 10 flowers dangling chandelier like from long petioles. This plant only had 2 blossoms and I think it was because it didn’t get enough sun and grew in dry, sandy soil. I’ve seen woodchucks burrow into this ground and all they’ve brought up from under the railbed is pure sand.

Canada lily flowers are big, and can be yellow, orange or red, or a combination. They have purple spotted throats that aren’t always seen because the flowers almost always face downwards. If you’re very gentle though, you can bend a stem back enough to see into a blossom without breaking it. This plant is unusual because it prefers wet places. Most lilies, and in fact most plants that grow from bulbs, do not like soil that stays wet. They prefer sandy, well-drained soil. I almost always find Canada lilies growing along rivers and streams, and that’s why I was so surprised to see it here in this dry soil.

A tiny golden metallic bee landed on a leaf beside me.

The green berries of false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum) are now speckled with red. Eventually they’ll become all red and will disappear quickly.

I was surprised to see tall lettuce (Lactuca canadensis) blooming out here. Though it can reach 10 feet tall its flowers are very small; no more than a 1/4 inch across, and appear in loose clusters at the top of wiry stalks. Native Americans used the plant for pain relief, as a stimulant, and for calming the nerves. The milky white sap contains a compound called lactucarium, which has narcotic and sedative properties. It is still used in medicines today but should be used with caution because overdoses can cause death.

There was the trestle over ash brook, where the brook meets the Ashuelot River after it snakes its way through Keene. I usually like to go under it and see what flowers are blooming along the banks of the brook but we’ve had several inches of rain and the water was far too high.

Of course the river was high as well. Not too far from this spot there used to be a small island in the river just off shore, and an oak tree had fallen from the river bank to the island and made a bridge. I used to spend many happy hours on that island but high water like that which we see here first washed away the oak tree bridge and then over the years the island disappeared as well. Water is a powerful thing.

This is a magical place for me. It’s a place where I can see, better than anywhere else, how the world has changed. Or at least this small part of it. The land in this view for instance was a cornfield when I was a boy. Now it’s just silver and red maples and a lot of sensitive ferns; all plants that don’t mind wet feet. If you walk through here you find that the surface soil is pure silt, as fine as sifted flour, and that makes me think they probably stopped farming this piece of land because of flooding. Both the brook and the river still flood in this area and since as I write this on July 11 there are rain or showers predicted every day for the coming week, it’s liable to flood again.

Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time. ~John Lubbock

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Last Sunday I felt like it was time to climb again, so I chose Pitcher Mountain in Stoddard. It was supposed to be a hot, humid day so I made sure I got there earlier than I usually do. In fact I had never been on the mountain that early in the day, so the quality of the light was surprising all the way up.

I saw lots of blackberries, in bloom and forming berries.

I also saw lots of unripe blueberries and I was going to show you some but this fly landed on a blueberry leaf and instead of getting shots of the blueberries I got a mediocre shot of the fly just before it flew off. And I forgot about the blueberries.

As its common name implies Indian cucumber root’s (Medeola virginiana) small root looks and tastes a lot like a mini cucumber, and Native Americans used it for food. The plant is 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.

The flowers of Indian cucumber root dangle under the leaves and usually have 6 yellowish green tepals, 6 reddish stamens topped by greenish anthers, and 3 reddish purple to brown styles. These large styles are bright red- brown but I think they darken as they age. Each flower will become a shiny, inedible dark purplish black berry. I had to lift one of the leaves to get this shot, so you have to look carefully to see them.

Halfway up the mountain I found the meadow ready to be cut for hay. That’s Mount Monadnock in the background.

It looked like the meadow was full of orchard grass (Dactylis glomerata,) which I’m sure the Scottish Highland cattle that live here appreciate. George Washington loved orchard grass so much so that he wrote “Orchard grass of all others is in my opinion the best mixture with clover; it blooms precisely at the same time, rises quick again after cutting, stands thick, yields well, and both cattle and horses are fond of it green or in hay.” As this photo shows, it’s also beautiful when it flowers.

Orange hawkweed bloomed profusely in the meadow and what I believe were great spangled fritillary butterflies enjoyed them. I hoped to get a shot of their pretty silver spotted underwings but I never did. I did see them once or twice though.

This one turned around on the flower head so I could look into its eyes.

And what eyes it had. Amazingly beautiful. I’d love to be able to see through eyes like that, just once.

The fire tower looked unmanned and I wasn’t surprised. The fire danger isn’t very high now, thankfully.

Staghorn sumacs were soaking up the sun and doing their best palm tree impersonation.

Mountain white cinquefoil (Potentilla tridentata) is also called three toothed cinquefoil because of the three large teeth at the end of each leaf. The white 5 petaled flowers are small; maybe a half inch across on a good day. They are said to bloom for 2 or 3 months and make an excellent choice for a sunny rock garden that doesn’t get too hot, because they don’t like heat. I would think that they must struggle a bit up here in full sun all summer but they’re spreading all over the summit.

This shot perfectly illustrates why I always say I don’t climb for the views. I like to see the views as much as anyone but if I was disappointed every time the views weren’t good I’d spend a lot of time being disappointed. I see so many interesting and beautiful things while I’m climbing a hill or mountain by the time I reach the summit the view is secondary; just icing on the cake.

Despite the haze I tried to get a few good shots because I know people like to see them. This view of Mount Monadnock wasn’t too bad.

I love the blue shading on the distant hills and I could just sit and look at them the entire time I spent here. Every peak is followed by a valley, like waves on the sea.

Reaching what I call the near hill would still be a long walk.

The bushes seen flowering in some of these shots are smooth arrow wood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum.) the shrub has yellowish white, mounded flower clusters and it can be seen blooming just about everywhere right now. Later on the flowers will become dark blue drupes that birds love. It is said that this plant’s common name comes from Native Americans using the straight stems for arrow shafts. They also used the shrub medicinally and its fruit for food.

It took all the zoom my camera had in it to get this shot of the wind turbines over in Antrim.

Since I’ve said enough about the old ranger’s cabin in previous posts I thought I’d skip it this time and I did, until I was coming down off the summit. It was then that I saw a window open that was boarded up the last time I was here.

The first time this happened I thought it was probably a bear, but bears don’t usually sit in white plastic lawn chairs and there were now several of them on the front porch. I could see one inside as well, so I had a good idea where the ones on the porch came from.

The inside looked trashed, and American flags were on the floor among the litter. Some may feel that a flag is just a piece of cloth but a flag, any flag, always stands for something, and both it and what it stands for deserve respect. It’s hard to see old places like this vandalized but it looks like that’s what has happened. Hopefully someone from the Forest Service or someone else in charge will board the window back up.

Just inside the window there was a table and it had an Audubon magazine on it. It was from 1988 and it cost three dollars. That seems like a lot for back then.

I could have gone back down the mountain fretting about the vandalism I saw but since there is little I could do about it other than making it known by showing it here, I chose instead to marvel at the smallness of a creature that can live between the upper and lower surface of a sarsaparilla leaf. I sometimes feel like I’m just bouncing from one astonishment to another.

Certain things catch your eye, but pursue only those that capture your heart. ~Native American saying.

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A few years ago I found a beautiful lichen on one of the trees you see in this photo and then I went back later on and found it again, but since then I’ve never been able to find it, and that’s what this post is about. The lichen post I did a while back reminded me that the fruiting (spore producing) bodies of some lichens only appear in the winter. I had been looking for it in the summer and hadn’t seen a thing, so on this coldish day I had high hopes of finding it.

I walked here two days before Christmas so the rain hadn’t yet washed away the 16 inch snowfall. Thankfully snowmobiles had packed it down. My days of breaking trails through knee deep snow are over so I wait for them to do it for me. They make winter walking much easier.

The weather people said partly cloudy and I had to let them get away with it, even though it was more cloudy than not.

I didn’t see any change in the American hazelnut catkins but it’s early. In February they’ll start to lengthen and soften and then will finally turn yellow with pollen and flower when the female blossoms appear at the end of the month. It’s an event I look forward to each year.

I saw a branch covered with milk white toothed polypore (Irpex lacteus). This fungus is common and easily seen in winter. It is a resupinate fungus, which means it looks like it grows upside down, and that’s what many crust fungi appear to do.

The “teeth” of a milk white toothed polypore are actually ragged bits of spore producing tissue which start life as pores or tubes and then break apart and turn brown as they age.

Last year when the corn in the nearby cornfields was ripe I came out here and saw 15-20 squirrel’s nests in the trees. This year the corn didn’t grow due to the drought, and I saw just one dilapidated squirrel nest that looked like it had been abandoned.

Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), covered with fine velvet like hairs, glowed in the dim sunshine.

The velvet on a staghorn sumac is much like that found on a summer deer antler and I wondered if a male whitetail had tangled with this sumac stem. “Buck rubs” happen when a male deer rubs its antlers on a tree to get the dry, shedding velvet off its antlers. This velvet covering is soft and blood filled through summer but once the antlers mature and start to harden the velvet dries and begins to peel in strips.

But a deer didn’t do this; this sumac looked like it had been through a sickle bar mower.

The inner bark of dead staghorn sumacs is often bright red for a time but it does fade as this example was. I’ve heard that a rich brown dye can be made from sumac bark.

There was the beautiful blue of black raspberry canes and I wasn’t surprised. These old rail trails are a great place to pick berries in the summer, just as they were when the trains were running. I used to eat my way down the tracks when I was a boy.

I saw a bird’s nest so small you couldn’t have fit a robin’s egg in it. I don’t know which bird made it but it was very well made. It would have fit in the palm of my hand with plenty of room to spare.

Virgin’s bower seed heads (Clematis virginiana) glowed in the sunlight. This shows how this native clematis vine grows up and over shrubs, trying to reach as much sunlight as it can.

Virgins bower seed heads remind me of feeding furry tadpoles. It is said that the plant is toxic but early settlers used parts of the vines as a pepper substitute. Native Americans used it to treat migraine headaches and nervous disorders, and herbalists still use it to treat those same illnesses today.

Someone marked a gray birch tree with a bow. Trees are often marked for cutting, especially those that are in danger of falling, but not usually with a bow.

My favorite view of Mount Monadnock can be seen from here, and it’s my favorite because it’s the one I grew up with.

A plane droned by overhead and it reminded me of those lazy summer days as a boy when I would lay on my back in the grass and watch the clouds. Summer seemed like it would never end back then.

Finally I was at the spot where I thought the lichens grew. Luckily I had taken a photo of the group of trees that I had originally found the lichen on so I was able to find the group of trees, but I had no pointer to which tree in the group I had to look at, so the first trip was fruitless and I didn’t find the lichen. I tried again the next day and finally found it, slightly bigger than a pea growing on the smooth bark of a young red maple it was unmistakable with its yellowish body (Thallus) and blue apothecia. The first one I found years ago was dime size but this smaller one tells me there is more than one here. If I have identified it correctly it is the frosted comma lichen (Chrysothrix caesia) and this is the only spot I’ve ever found it in.

Also known as Arthonia caesia, this photo shows its granular thallus and blue gray apothecia (actually  called ascomata on this lichen) which get their color from the same waxy “bloom” that colors the black raspberry cane we saw earlier. They make this lichen easy to identify, but don’t make it any easier to find. Though it might seem a lot of work for little reward I now know that this lichen only fruits in winter and I’ve also read that some of them can be sterile. I also know that it’s a waste of time to look for them in summer, so I learned a lot about another being that I share this planet with.

Live this life in wonder, in wonder of the beauty, the magic, the true magnificence that surrounds you. It is all so beautiful, so wonderful. Let yourself wonder. ~Avina Celeste

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If there was ever a plant so beautiful that it made me want to kneel before it it is the greater purple fringed orchid (Platanthera grandiflora.) Like a two foot tall bush full of beautiful butterflies it hides away in a swamp, burning with the light of creation, seen by only a very few lucky souls.

What can I say about something so beautiful? Orchids are the most highly evolved of all the flowering plants and they are also among the most beautiful. This one leaves me speechless, because I know I’m in the presense of something very special. That’s why I feel that I should do nothing to disturb it. I take a few photos and leave it until next year when hopefully, it will reappear. I’m very happy that I can show you such a rare and beautiful thing.

Some flowers seem to just refuse to cooperate when a camera is pointed at them and enchanter’s nightshade (Circaea lutetiana canadensis) is one of those. I usually have to try again and again to get a good photo of it and this year was no different. Luckily this shade lover grows in my own yard so I have plenty of opportunities to take its photo. This isn’t one of the best I’ve taken but it shows what I’d like you to see. Each tiny 1/8 inch wide flower consists of 2 white petals that are split deeply enough to look like 4, 2 green sepals, 2 stamens, and a tiny central style. At the base of each flower there is a 2 celled ovary that is green and covered with stiff hooked hairs, and this becomes the plant’s bur like seed pod, which sticks to just about anything. When a plant’s seed pods have evolved to be spread about by sticking to the feathers and fur of birds and animals the process is called epizoochory. The burs on burdock plants are probably the best known examples of epizoochory.

Here is a tiny enchanter’s nightshade blossom on a penny that I took previously. They’re among the smallest flowers that I try to photograph for this blog. Enchanter’s nightshade gets its scientific name Circaea from Circe, an enchantress in Homer’s Odyssey with a fondness for turning men into swine. There are similar plants native to Europe and Asia.

A bee had filled its little pollen sacs quickly in a patch of brown knapweed (Centaurea jacea,) which had just started blooming. I’ve always thought that knapweed flowers were very beautiful but unfortunately this plant is also from Europe and according to the U.S. Forest Service is a “highly invasive weed that is capable of forming large infestations under favorable conditions.”  The large infestations crowd out native plants including those used for forage on pasture lands, so it is not well liked by ranchers. The brown bracts below the flower are what give the plant its common name. The flowers seem to be very darkly colored this year, or maybe that’s because they had just opened.

At a glance motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) might resemble one of the nettle family but the square stems show it to be in the mint family. The tiny flowers grow in a whorl around the stem in the leaf axils. This plant, originally from Asia, is considered an invasive weed but I don’t see it that often and I don’t think I’ve ever seen more than 2 or 3 plants growing together.  It was brought to this country because of its long history of medicinal use in Europe and Asia. The ancient Greeks and Romans used motherwort medicinally and it is still used today to decrease nervous irritability and quiet the nervous system. There is supposed to be no better herb for strengthening and gladdening the heart, and it is sold in powdered and liquid form. The tiny flowers of motherwort are very hairy and look like a microscopic orchid. They’re also very hard to get a good shot of because of both their size and color.

Another wort is black swallow wort (Cynanchum louiseae.)  The word wort by the way, was generally used to indicate that a plant had some medicinal value and it was often attached to the word for the body part that it was believed to help. That doesn’t seem to fit in the case of swallow wort however, unless it was used to help one swallow. The plant is in the milkweed family and like other milkweeds its flowers become small green pods that will eventually turn brown and split open to release their seeds to the wind. This plant also has a sharp, hard to describe odor that is noticed when any part of it is bruised. It originally came from Europe and in 1867 Gray’s Manual of Botany reported it as “a weed escaping from gardens in the Cambridge Massachusetts area.” In Canada it’s called the dog strangler vine, because its twinning stems are like wire.

Many plants that can take a lot of shade have large, light gathering leaves and the shade tolerant purple flowering raspberry (Rubus odoratus) shows that very well. This plant is in the rose family and the 2 inch wide flowers might look like a rose at a glance. It has no thorns like roses or raspberries however. The fruit looks like a large raspberry but is on the tart, dry side. Native Americans had over 100 uses for this plant, both as food and medicine.

This view shows the newer darker flowers of flowering raspberry as well as the older, lighter colored flowers. Flowering raspberry once got me a job as a gardener, so it holds a special place in my heart. A man called me to his house and asked me a few plant related questions and finally said that if I could tell him what the plants in his hedge were, he’d hire me.  I told him they were flowering raspberry and he hired me right there on the spot, and I worked for him for many years afterwards. This native shrub makes a great landscape specimen, especially in shade gardens, and it’s too bad that more people don’t use it. It attracts both birds and butterflies and can take anything that a New England winter can throw at it.

I thought I’d show you a rose so you could see how different it looks from the flowering raspberry. We have three native wild roses here in the U.S., the Virginia rose (Rosa virginiana,) the prairie rose (Rosa arkansana) and the wild rose (Rosa acicularis.) We also have roses that appear to be wild but which have escaped cultivation. None are truly invasive here and I think it’s safe to say that all are welcome. I found this beautifully scented example on the edge of a forest.

Fringed loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliata) gets its common name from the fringe of hairs on its leafstalks, but sometimes the flower petals are also fringed. It’s a cheery, pretty plant that often gets overlooked because there is just so much in bloom at this time of year. The flowers of fringed loosestrife are unusual because of the way they offer oils instead of nectar to insects. The oils are called elaiosomes and are fleshy structures that are attached to the seeds of many plant species. They are rich in lipids and proteins. Many plants have elaiosomes that attract ants, which take the seed to their nest and feed them to their larvae. Trout lily is another plant with elaiosomes. Native Americans used all of our yellow loosestrifes medicinally for various ailments, usually in the form of tea.

I was surprised to see how darkly colored the tall blue lettuce (Lactuca biennis) flowers are this year. These flowers are usually a lighter ice blue but sometimes they can be quite dark. They grow in a cluster at the very top of the sometimes six foot tall plant. Tall blue lettuce is easily confused with tall lettuce (Lactuca canadensis) when it isn’t blossoming, but tall blue lettuce has hairy leaves and tall lettuce doesn’t. Native Americans had medicinal uses for both of the plants.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) has just started blooming here and I’ve already seen a few monarch butterflies in the area. I keep hoping they’ll make a comeback and we’ll once again see them in the numbers we did when I was a boy. Several times I’ve meant to write about how complicated milkweed flowers are to pollinate but the process is so complicated the task always ends up in my too hard basket. Instead I’ll just ask that you trust me when I say that it’s nearly a miracle that these flowers get pollinated at all. I’ll enjoy their beauty and their wonderful scent while trusting that nature will see to it that they’re pollinated, just as they have been for millennia.

The common orange daylily (Hemerocallis fulva) doesn’t have Lilium in its scientific name because daylilies aren’t a true lily. It’s a plant you’ll find growing near old stone cellar holes out in the middle of nowhere and along old New England roads. It is also found in cemeteries, often planted beside the oldest graves. It is one of those plants that were passed from neighbor to neighbor and spread quickly because of it. These days it is one of those plants that new homeowners go out and dig up when they can’t afford to buy plants for their gardens. It is both loved for being so easy to grow and hated for being so common. It was introduced into the United States from Asia in the late 1800s as an ornamental and plant breeders have now registered over 40,000 cultivars, all of which have “ditch lily” genes and all of which have the potential to spread just like the original has. If you find yourself doing battle with a particularly weedy daylily, no matter the color, there’s a very good chance that the common orange is one of its parents. I know people who mow it after it flowers and it comes right back the following year.

Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) flowers are about 1/4 inch wide and have 5 petal-like, rounded sepals. In the center of the flower are green carpels that come together and will form the purple black berry. It happens quickly and you can find both flowers and fruit in all stages of growth on a single flower head (Raceme.) Pokeweed was called pocon by Native Americans. The Delaware tribe used the plant as a heart stimulant and other tribes made a salve from it and used it as a cure for rheumatism. If it isn’t used correctly pokeweed can be toxic.

Native Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina ) has just started flowering. Before long these flower clusters will be bright red berries from which a good substitute for lemonade can be made. This plant is much more common in this area than smooth sumac (Rhus glabra.) Smooth sumac has very shiny, smooth leaves and does not have hairy stems. 

Staghorn sumac is another flower that most of us, myself included, pass by without a glance. It’s another of those flowers that won’t win any prizes but insects must love them, judging by how each flower head becomes a cluster of bright red, fuzzy berries. Each greenish yellow flower is about 1/4 inch across and has 5 curved petals, a 5 lobed calyx, 5 stamens, and a central pistil, all of which are so tiny I can’t even see them by eye alone.

I know of only one spot to find Carolina horse nettle (Solanum carolinense) and it’s worth going to see it. From what I’ve read it is not a true nettle, but instead is a member of the nightshade family. The flowers have five petals and are usually white or purple with yellow centers. There is a blue variant that resembles the tomato flower, which makes sense since tomatoes are also in the nightshade family. The flowers have no scent but the foliage has a certain odor that I find disagreeable. The fruits resemble tomatoes and are sometimes called devil’s tomatoes. Unripe fruit is dark green with light green stripes, turning yellow and wrinkled as it ripens. Each fruit contains around 60 seeds but the plant spreads successfully by underground stems (rhizomes.)  

Horse nettle’s stem and undersides of larger leaf veins are covered with spines and I can attest to their sharpness. It’s hard to grab it anywhere, even for a photo. This plant is native to our southern states, so why it is growing here is a mystery. It seems to like where it grows and I find more plants growing there each year. I can see its spreading becoming a real problem. Native Americans used the plant as an antispasmodic and sedative, and I’ve also read that it is used to treat epilepsy but all parts of the plant are poisonous and eating it, especially the fruit, can cause death. Pheasant, Bobwhite, Turkeys and Skunks are said to eat the fruit.

If you see a flat topped flower cluster like this one on a native dogwood it’s either a silky dogwood (Cornus amomum) or red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea.) If the flower cluster is slightly mounded it is most likely a gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa.) All three shrubs bloom at about the same time and have similar leaves and individual white, four petaled flowers in a cluster and it’s very easy to mix them up. Sometimes silky dogwood will have red stems like red osier, which can make dogwood identification even more difficult. Both gray and red osier dogwoods have white berries. This silky Dogwood  will have berries that start out blue and white and then turn fully blue.

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw this huge patch of goldenrod blooming at the end of June. I like goldenrod enough to actually grow it but I think these plants were pushing it a bit. It’s a late summer, early fall flower after all. Still, it’s hard not to love it. Just look at that color.

Beauty is something that changes your life, not something you understand. ~Marty Rubin

Thanks for coming by.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Last Sunday I decided to skip climbing and walk a familiar rail trail instead. Though it had been a warm week it was a cold enough weekend to have ice on the trails and I left my micro spikes at work, so climbing was out. I was still happy to be on this trail though because I’ve walked here since I was just a boy. At that time trains ran through here though, so it’s always a different feel. 

Right off I saw the beautiful blue of black raspberry canes. I think I must have been 12 or 13 before I got serious enough about plants to begin reading botany books but before that I read anything by Henry David Thoreau because I loved how he was so interested in nature. I suppose I loved that about him because I was interested in the same things, and it was here along this trail that I began to wonder about the things I saw, just like he did in Concord, Massachusetts. I wondered for instance, why these canes were blue, and I found that they had a waxy coating that protected them from getting too much sunlight. You could wipe it right off the cane, and like any wax it would melt and disappear in the summer heat. That’s why this beautiful color is seen more in winter than in summer. It’s my favorite shade of blue.

The wind roars over the hills to the west and blows through here with what is sometimes quite a strong wind and these virgin’s bower seed heads (Clematis virginiana) were blowing all around when I took their photo. Of course this is just what the plant wants, because it grows those long feathery filaments called styles on its seeds (fruits) so the wind can carry them long distances. This is a common but pretty native clematis that drapes itself over shrubs and climbs into trees all along this trail.

Bright yellow fringed candle flame lichen (Candelaria fibrosa) grew on an old black cherry. People worry that lichens will hurt a tree but they simply use tree bark as a roosting place much like a bird would, and don’t harm the tree in any way. A tree’s bark will often grow in ways that allow the tree to shed any rain water quickly in what I think of as vertical streams, and you’ll often find lichens growing right alongside these streams, as these were. This particular lichen is said to be very sensitive to air pollution, so seeing it is a good sign that our air quality is good.

Some of the trees that might have been saplings when I first came through here 50+ years ago are already dying. I’d guess they’re American elms, which are still falling to Dutch elm disease. Keene was once called the “Elm City” but no more. There are very few left.

There are grape vines in the trees everywhere out here and this was the first place that I ever noticed how much the forest smelled like grape jelly on warm fall days, thanks to the overripe fruit. There were lots of different kinds of native fruit out here and I suppose that was why I used to see so many Baltimore orioles.

I checked the hazelnuts (Corylus americana) to see how spring was affecting the catkins. They’re taking on a more golden color, as these show. You can also see the edges of bud scales, and that means they’re starting to open. Before long we’ll see strings of golden male hazel flowers everywhere. Then I’ll start looking for the tiny female flowers. A male hazelnut catkin more or less, is a string of flowers which will open in a spiral pattern around a central stem. The pollen these flowers produce will be carried by the wind to the sticky female flowers and we’ll have another crop of hazelnuts.

I’m seeing maples hanging onto their leaves more these days than I have in the past. At least it seems that way.

I don’t remember ever seeing smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) growing here when I was a boy but they’re here now, though not in the same numbers as staghorn sumac. 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 supposedly love them but the berries are usually still there in spring until the migratory birds come through.

I was going to say the same thing about staghorn sumac berries (Rhus typhina) not being eaten but I happened upon a flock of robins that were gobbling them up. You can see one sitting on a sumac in the center of this photo. My camera doesn’t have enough reach to do birds the right way, so you might have to hunt a bit. Evening Grosbeaks, Bluebirds, Cardinals, and Scarlet Tanagers also eat these berries.

The seed eaters haven’t hardly touched the black-eyed Susan seeds (Rudbeckia hirta,) which seems odd. In my yard they go fast.

The tiny, seed-pearl like seeds of curly dock (Rumex crispus) were going fast. This little bit was all that was left on a three foot tall plant. Once these seeds mature they can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute. The leaves are rich in vitamins A and C and can be eaten raw or cooked. The plant’s common name comes from their curly edges.

I’m seeing lots of pussy willows now. I found a new spot where there were lots of bushes.

But I haven’t seen any of the yellow willow flowers coming yet. Maybe this weekend.

 Willows often have pine cone galls on them, caused by a gall midge (Rhabdophaga strobiloides). The midge lays an egg in the terminal leaf bud of a willow in early spring and the larva releases a chemical that tricks the willow into creating this gall instead of leaves. The midge spends winter inside the gall and emerges in the following spring, so the entire cycle takes a full year. It is fascinating things like this, found all along these railroad tracks, which kept me interested in nature when I was a boy. I saw something new almost every time I went out, and I still do.

Here was an icy spot on the trail but most of it was easy walking.

This is just an abstract shot of puddle ice that I saw. I was fascinated by the perfectly round “jewel” that grew in the ice.

Last year’s grasses were on ice and I liked their stained glass look.

Mosses were glowing in the sunshine. We think of mosses as shade lovers but everything needs sunlight, even if it’s only an hour each day.

I wanted to walk on this trail not only for the memories but also to see the Frosted comma lichen (Arthonia caesia) that lives here. I looked and looked for a dime size white spot on a maple tree but I couldn’t find it. It’s a beautiful thing and this photo taken previously shows the only example of it I’ve ever seen. I’ve found it twice, but today wasn’t the day. The only other lichen I know of with blue fruiting bodies is the smoky eye boulder lichen and that one has blue apothecia only in a certain light. The spherical fruiting bodies on this lichen, called ascomata, are blue in any light and they don’t change color when they dry out. They are also very small; each blue dot is hardly bigger than a period made by a pencil on a piece of paper, so lichen hunters need to carry a good loupe or a camera that is macro capable.

Instead of the beauty of the lichen I settled for the more stark beauty of the moon. In made me remember how, in the summer of 1969 I ran outside after we had landed on it. I thought I might see the lunar orbiter going around and around it, but I never did.

My soul can find no staircase to Heaven unless it be through Earth’s loveliness. ~Michelangelo

Thanks for stopping in. Stay safe, everyone.

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