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Posts Tagged ‘Steeple Bush’

Last Saturday the heat and humidity were supposed to return so I set off for one of my favorite rail trails. Since it was morning and the trail is mostly shaded I thought I’d be fine, but by the time I got back I was hot enough to complain about it.  The heat has kept me indoors just once since I’ve been doing this blog and that was the weekend before this walk when the heat index reached 104 degrees F. The humidity level was so high it made it very close to unbearable, so I spent my time next to an air conditioner. At least on this day the humidity wasn’t bad.

Right off I started seeing flowers, including this aster. I decided long ago that life is too short to spend days or weeks trying to identify asters and goldenrods, so I don’t know its name.

Steeplebush I do know and I was happy to see it. It’s a cousin of meadowsweet and is in the spirea family (Spirea tomentose) like that shrub is. Sometimes it gets confused with meadowsweet (Spirea alba) but that plant is a very woody shrub with white flowers in flower heads that aren’t as long and pointed as these are. A dense coat of white wooly hairs covers the stem and the leaf undersides of steeple bush, and that’s where the tomentose part of the scientific name comes from. It means “covered with densely matted woolly hairs.” Five petaled, pink steeplebush flowers are about 1/16 of an inch wide and loaded with 5 pistils and many stamens, which is what often gives flowers in the spirea family a fuzzy appearance. Many different butterflies love these flowers. Native Americans used the plant medicinally in much the same way that we would use aspirin. I almost always find this plant at the water’s edge and this one grew by the drainage ditch alongside the trail.

Cattails also grew in the drainage ditch and I liked the way the sunlight played on this one’s leaves. Darkish green is their natural color and the light green / yellow parts are caused by sunlight. When a ray of sunshine falls on a single plant or other bit of nature I always pay attention, and I’ve seen some beautiful things by doing so.

To some people sweet fern (Comptonia peregrine) isn’t a very exciting plant and I have to say that I haven’t had much to say about it over the course of this blog, but it is interesting. Sweet ferns are usually found growing in gravel at the edge of roads or in waste areas. They are small; about 3 feet tall-and have a mounding growth habit. The leaves are very aromatic and the scent can travel quite a distance on a hot summer day. It is said that crushing the leaves and rubbing them on your skin will keep insects away, and you can also make sweet fern tea from the foliage like Native Americans did.

The leaves of sweet fern do look sort of fern like and that’s how it gets its common name. I often run my hands over the leaves to release the fragrance that is held in tiny resin dots. The fragrance is what it is named for; some compare it to soap, others to spices or fresh mown hay. It is a very unusual scent that smells clean and a bit spicy to me. Sweet fern comes from the same family (Myricaceae) as the bay laurel, which is where bay leaves come from.

Once the spiky bur like husk opens the seed of the sweet fern, called a nutlet, appears.  Though the nutlets usually appear in clusters this example had just one. They’re very small at less than a quarter inch. Scientists have documented germination in seeds which had been in the soil for over 70 years and it is thought that seeds could still grow after lying in the soil for 100 years or more.

Hay scented fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula) can grow in shade or full sun, so it was right at home along the trail. This fern gets its name from the way that it smells like fresh mown hay when you brush against it. The Native American Cherokee tribe used this fern medicinally to treat chills.

Stone walls are common along rail trails. It was a land owners way of telling the railroad where their right of way ended. Most of the walls along rail trails are very old.

This stretch of rail trail like many others in this area follows the Ashuelot river and you can get a glimpse of it every now and then. The embankment down to it is very high and steep though so actually getting near the river is all but impossible for me.

Some lucky homeowner has built a bridge right from his back yard to the rail trail. It’s easy to forget that these trails run so close to people’s homes but we shouldn’t forget. Just think how you’d feel if you had an endless procession of hikers, joggers, and bicyclists passing your house all day every day. It has to be annoying, so I don’t get upset when I see the occasional no trespassing sign.

In places the water in the drainage ditches had dried up, leaving multicolored mineral deposits behind.

You might have seen an acorn in the previous photo. All along the trail I heard the pfffft of them falling through the tree foliage. If I go by all the nuts and berries I’ve seen I’d guess that the animals will eat well this year.

Indian pipes (Monotropa uniflora) slowly turn their heads to the sky. Once they’re looking straight up at the sky that is the sign that they’ve been pollinated. They are also called ghost or corpse plants. Fresh stems contain a gel that Native Americans used to treat eye problems. The common name comes from the plant’s shape, which is said to resemble the pipes that the Natives smoked and the uniflora part of the scientific name means a single flower, which is all each plant has.

Here is a rarely seen (on this blog) view into an Indian pipe flower. At the tips of the 10 stamens surrounding the center stigma are the anthers, colored yellow, which contain pollen. The anthers are open and shedding pollen at this stage.  In the center of the flower is the pollen-collecting stigma, which looks like a funnel between the yellowish stamens. Once pollinated each flower will eventually become a brown seed capsule. These capsules always look like beautiful little carved wooden flowers to me. Once they ripen they will split open into 5 separate parts to release tens of thousands of seeds to the wind. Each individual seed is only ten cells thick. Indian pipes are parasitic on certain fungi, which in turn are often parasitic on the roots of trees so in a roundabout way they get their food from trees.

Pretty little fringed loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliate) is the last of the native yellow loosestrifes to bloom in this area. Great colonies of the knee high plant can be found along roadsides and wood edges, and along waterways. It might be confused with whorled loosestrife (Lysimachia quadrifolia) if the two plants bloomed at the same time, but in this area fringed loosestrife blooms later. The flowers on fringed loosestrife are about the size of a quarter and nod to face the ground. On whorled loosestrife they face outward. The leaf arrangements on the two plants are also very different.

Fringed loosestrife gets its common name from the fringe of hairs on its leafstalks, but sometimes the flower petals are also fringed like they are on this example. It’s a cheery, pretty plant that often gets overlooked because there is just so much in bloom at this time of year.

The prize for the strangest thing I saw out here on this day goes to this golf ball.  I can’t imagine how anyone could play golf in a forest but maybe an animal stole it off someone’s lawn, I don’t know. It looked to be in new condition.

Before long I reached the trestle, where I stood for awhile thinking about how lucky I was to have a trail into the woods like this. It lets me see things that I’d never be able to see otherwise, like this stretch of river. If it wasn’t for the trail I’d have to bushwack my way through the woods or paddle upriver to get here. Thanks be to the snowmobilers who keep these trails open. They’re also the ones who add the wooden bits to the trestles so nobody drives their machines off them. That wouldn’t be good.

In this shot it doesn’t look like it would be much of a drop from the trestle to the river below.

But looks can be deceiving, and when I add some people in kayaks to the mix you can see that it would indeed be quite a drop. When I was a boy a friend of mine fell from the top of a trestle, which he had climbed, into the river. He lived to tell about it but I never saw him climb to the top of another one. The kayakers by the way were still,  pondering what to do about that big pine tree you can see up ahead that has fallen all the way across the river.

As the river bank showed, the water level is way down, but I’ve grown up on this river and I’d be surprised if it wasn’t. If you want to walk across the Ashuelot River August is the time to do it in this area. I used to walk in the river when I was a boy, looking for old bottles. I found a lot of them too, and sold them to local bottle collecting clubs. That was when I learned what it was like to have money in my pocket and it was what led me to work at proper jobs, and that was how I lost my connection to nature for many years. Thankfully I was able to get it back.

Away from the tumult of motor and mill
I want to be care-free; I want to be still!
I’m weary of doing things; weary of words
I want to be one with the blossoms and birds.
~Edgar A. Guest

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1. Monkey Flower

Monkey see, monkey do, but I don’t see a monkey in you. Someone must have seen a smiling monkey’s face when they looked at this flower though, because that’s how the Allegheny monkey flower (Mimulus ringens) got its common name. This plant has a square stem and that’s how it comes by another common name: square stemmed monkey flower. It gets about knee high and likes to grow in wet, sunny places, and isn’t all that common. I know of only two places where it grows.

2. Monkey Flower

I’m still not seeing a monkey. All I see is a beautiful little flower that is whispering summer’s passing.

3. Bugle Weed

Northern bugleweed (Lycopus uniflorus) has opposite leaves that turn 90 degrees to the previous pair as they make their way up the square stem. Tufts of very small white flowers grow around the stem in the leaf axils. This plant likes wet places and, since there are many different species of Lycopus, it can be hard to identify. In fact, I’m never 100% sure that I’ve gotten it right.

4. Bugle Weed

The tiny flowers of northern bugleweed are about 1/8 inch long and tubular with 4 lobes, a light green calyx with 5 teeth, 2 purple tipped stamens, and a pistil. They are also very difficult to photograph because they’re so small. The plant is usually about knee high when I find it along the edges of ponds and streams. They often fall over and grow at an angle if there aren’t any other plants nearby to support them. Several Native American tribes used the tuberous roots of bugleweed as food.

5. Yellow Sorrel

Native common yellow wood sorrel (Oxalis stricta) is unusual because it grows in woods or meadows and I see it in both. It’s considered a weed by many and is largely ignored by most, but it’s a very interesting plant. Its raw leaves can be chewed as a thirst quencher if you forgot to bring water on your hike. The native American Kiowa tribe called it “salt weed” and used it that way for long walks. Its seed capsules can also be chewed but they can also explode when mature and can fling seeds up to 13 feet away. They are said to be tart with a flavor similar to rhubarb. The plant is high in vitamin C and it can be pressed to make a passable vinegar substitute.

6. Slender Fragrant Goldenrod

Slender fragrant goldenrod (Solidago tenuifolia) is a goldenrod that’s easy to identify because of its long slender, willow like leaves and its pleasant, vanilla like fragrance that is impossible to describe. The only other similar goldenrod is the lance leaved goldenrod (Solidago graminifolia) but its leaves are wider and have 3 to 5 veins as opposed to the single vein in a slender fragrant goldenrod leaf. It is also called flat topped goldenrod.

7. Slender Fragrant Goldenrod

Insects of all kinds swarm over slender fragrant goldenrod and you have to be careful that you aren’t going to inhale one when you smell it.

8. Teaberry

My grandmother taught me a lot about plants and the one she started with was one of our native wintergreens that she called checkerberry. I call it teaberry (Gaultheria procumbens) and if you’ve ever chewed Clark’s Teaberry Gum you know exactly what the plant’s small red berries taste like. The fragrance of the oil is unmistakable and can be recognized immediately in toothpaste, mouthwash, pain relievers, etc. Another name for it is American wintergreen. Its evergreen leaves were once chewed to relieve pain because they contain compounds similar to those found in aspirin, and anyone allergic to aspirin should leave it alone. As the photo shows teaberry’s blossoms look a lot like tiny blueberry blossoms. The plants are having a good year; I’ve never seen so many blossoms on teaberry plants.

9. Tansy

Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) is a European native that has been cultivated for centuries. The flat flower heads are made up of many button like disc flowers; almost like a daisy without the white ray flowers that we call petals. Tansy is a natural insect repellent and was used as such in colonial times. Dried tansy added to the straw in mattresses was said to keep bedbugs away. Most tansy plants are seen in gardens but it had naturalized itself in New England by 1785 and can still be occasionally found growing along roadsides. It’s a good plant to use in vegetable gardens for pest control. The ancient Greeks grew tansy for medicinal use but modern science has found it to be toxic.

10. Field Milkwort

I know of only one place to find field milkwort (Polygala sanguinea) and it is always worth the walk to see them.  The flowers are very beautiful and unusual enough to make you want to sit beside them for a while and study them, and that’s just what I usually do.

11. Field Milkwort

On field milkwort flowers what look like petals arranged on a central stem are actually individual flowers packed into a raceme no bigger than the end of an average index finger. Each tiny overlapping flower has two large sepals, three small sepals, and three small petals that form a narrow tube. Several different kinds of bees help pollinate this plant. Its flowers can be white, purple, pink, or green and I’ve noticed that the color can vary considerably from plant to plant.

12. Indian Tobacco

I’ve shown 2 or 3 small lobelias with blue / purple flowers over the past few flower posts and here is another one. This lobelia is called Indian tobacco (Lobelia inflata.) and the small flowers are about 1/3 of an inch long. It is the only lobelia with calyxes that inflate after the flowers have fallen and to identify it I just look for the inflated seedpods.

13. Indian Tobacco

Indian tobacco gets its name from the way its inflated seed pods resemble the smoking material pouches that Native Americans carried. The inflata part of its scientific name also comes from these inflated pods. The pods form so quickly that they can usually be found on the lower part of the stem while the upper part is still flowering. Though Native Americans used this and other lobelias to treat asthma and other breathing difficulties they knew how to use what we don’t, and today the plants are considered toxic. They can make you very sick and too much can kill.

14. Coneflower

This purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) seems to have dressed in the dark and thrown on any old thing. Its petals were all different sizes and one or two seemed to be missing, but at least they were all the same color. If the butterflies and bees don’t mind then I don’t suppose I should either. Purple cone flower is known for its medicinal qualities as well as its beauty. According to the USDA the plant was used by many Native American tribes throughout North America to treat a variety of ailments. It was used as a pain reliever, anti-inflammatory, a treatment for toothaches, coughs, colds, and sore throats. It was also used as an antidote for various forms of poisonings, including snake bite. Portions of it were also used to dress wounds and treat infections. Modern medicine has found it useful to combat bacterial and viral infections and as an immune system booster. I grow it because butterflies and bees like its nectar, birds like the seeds, and I like to admire its beauty.

15. Helborine

Broad leaved helleborine orchids (Epipactis helleborine) are originally from Europe and Asia and were first spotted in this country in Syracuse, New York in 1879. The plant has now spread to all but 19 of the lower 48 states and is considered an invasive weed. It doesn’t act very invasive here; I usually see only a few plants each year and every time I see them they’re growing in deep shade. I’ve never been able to find out how the plant comes by its common name. It seems a bit odd because it doesn’t seem to resemble either hellebore or false hellebore.

Scientists have discovered that the nectar of broad leaved helleborine contains the strongest narcotic compounds found in nature; comparable to oxycodone, and when insects (wasps) sip it they tend to stagger around for a while. This increases their chances of picking up the orchid’s pollinia, which are sticky little sacks of pollen that orchids produce instead of the dust-like pollen produced by many other flowers. Once the insect flies off it will most likely be oblivious to the pollen packets that it has stuck all over itself. By transporting its pollinia to another helleborine flower the insect will have repaid the intoxicating orchid for the buzz.

16. Steeplebush

Steeple bush (Spirea tomentose) seems more herb than shrub to me but it’s in the spirea family of many shrubs. Sometimes it gets confused with meadowsweet (Spirea alba) but that plant is a very woody shrub with white flowers in flower heads that aren’t as long and pointed as these are. A dense coat of white wooly hairs covers the stem and the leaf undersides of steeple bush, and that’s where the tomentose part of the scientific name comes from. It means “covered with densely matted woolly hairs.” I almost always find this plant at the water’s edge.

17. Steeplebush

Five petaled, pink steeplebush flowers are about 1/16 of an inch wide and loaded with 5 pistils and many stamens, which is what often gives flowers in the spirea family a fuzzy appearance. Many different butterflies love these flowers. Native Americans used the plant medicinally in much the same way that we would use aspirin.

18. Red Sandspurry

The beautiful little flowers of red sandspurry (Spergularia rubra) are hard for me to see because they’re so small, so I take photos of them so I can see them better. This plant was originally introduced from Europe in the 1800s and it has reached many states on the east and west coasts but doesn’t appear in any state along the Mississippi river except Minnesota. It must have been introduced on both coasts rather than first appearing in New England and then crossing the country like so many other invasive plants have.  I’m not sure where the red in the common name comes from. I wonder if the person who named it was colorblind.

If you truly love Nature, you will find beauty everywhere.  ~Vincent Van Gogh

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