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Posts Tagged ‘Swanzey New Hampshire’

I saw the first bee I’ve seen this season. It’s over there on that left hand dandelion blossom. I wish I had seen it when I was taking the photo so I could have gotten a closeup but I didn’t see it until I saw the photo. I’m always more amazed by what I miss than what I see.

Here is another attempt to show you what an alder looks like when all of the male catkins are blooming. Not a very successful attempt I’m afraid but I’ll get it right one day.

The male speckled alder catkins (Alnus incana) are open now and this bush let go a cloud of dusty greenish yellow pollen when I touched it. The brown and purple scales on the catkin are on short stalks and there are three flowers beneath each scale, each with a lobed calyx cup and three to five stamens with anthers, which are usually covered in yellow pollen. Since the female blossoms are wind pollinated it doesn’t take much for the males to release their pollen.

And the female speckled alder flowers are waiting to receive that pollen. The tiny female (pistillate) catkins of speckled alder consist of scales that cover two flowers, each having a pistil and a scarlet style. Since speckled alders are wind pollinated the flowers have no petals because petals would hinder the process and keep male pollen grains from landing on the sticky female flowers. These female catkins will eventually become the cone-like, seed bearing structures (strobiles) that are so noticeable on alders.

I was going to open this post with this photo but I thought if I did no one would care to read it. This was what we woke up to last Thursday, the first day of spring; about two inches of wet, slushy snow that had all melted by the end of the day. Nature has a very refined sense of humor but sometimes I don’t get the joke. 

Female red maple flowers (Acer rubrum) have presumably received their allotment of pollen and will soon become tiny red seeds (samaras.) A plant puts a lot of energy into seed production and that could be why the sap becomes bitter when red maples flower, but I don’t know that for certain. What I do know is that many billions of maple seeds will be in the air before too long.

Male red maple flowers pass quickly out of photogenic appeal in my opinion, but they get the job done. Continuation of the species is all important and red maples are experts at it.

Native Americans used to tap box elders (Acer negundo) and make syrup from their sap but I don’t think today’s syrup producers tap them. They’re in the maple family but it seems to me that I’ve read that it takes too many gallons of sap to make syrup, and that isn’t profitable for today’s producers. This example had its bud scales opening. The earliest known Native American flute, dating from 620-670 AD, was made from the wood of a box elder.

In a ground ivy blossom (Glechoma hederacea) five petals are fused together to form a tube. The lowest and largest petal, which is actually two petals fused together, serves as a landing area for insects, complete with tiny hairs for them to hang onto. The darker spots inside are nectar guides for them to follow into the tube. The pistil’s forked style pokes out at the top under one of the three separate petals. It’s in a perfect position to brush the back of a hungry bee. It’s another invader, introduced into North America as an ornamental or medicinal plant as early as the 1800s, when it immediately began taking over the continent.

Red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) buds are swelling up quickly now. Soon they’ll open to reveal what sometimes look like dark purple fingers that will grow quickly into green leaves. In mid May the white flower panicles will appear and they’ll be followed by bright red berries that birds love.

I pulled back the leaves at the base of a tree in a place I know it grows and sure enough, there was a wild ginger (Asarum canadense) shoot tipped with a new bud. I admired it for a bit and then covered it back up with the leaves. It will bloom toward the end of April. Wild ginger is a plant you have to watch closely if you want to see its flowers, because it can produce leaves and flowers in just days. The small brown, spherical flower buds appear quickly so I start watching them about once each week starting in mid-April.

I went to the place where spring beauties, trout lilies, false hellebores and ramps grow, but so far all I’ve seen were sedges, and they were greening up fast. They should bloom soon.

I saw some of the prettiest little reticulated iris (Iris reticulata) that I’ve ever seen. These flowers are often so early they’ll even bloom with snow around them, even before crocuses, but this year they and the crocuses bloomed at about the same time.

This is one of my favorite crocuses. It’s more beautiful in bud than when its plain white flowers open, in my opinion.

I like the soft shading on this one too. We’re lucky to have so many beautiful flowers to enjoy in the spring.

Many daffodils are now showing color.

Unfortunately this is what happens to over anxious magnolia buds. It has gotten frost bitten badly.

Grape hyacinths bloomed early in this spot and I was surprised to see them. The Muscari part of their scientific name comes from the Greek word for musk and speaks of their fragrance. I just learned that grape hyacinths can be classified in both the asparagus family and the hyacinth family, which seems a little odd.

The beautiful little scilla have come along, pushing up through last year’s leaves. Their name comes from the Latin word “scilla,” which is also spelled “squilla,” and that means “sea onion.” I very much look forward to seeing them each spring.

There was lots of pollen showing on this one and I’m surprised that I didn’t see more bees. It was a chilly, windy day though, so that may be why.

What I believe are beaked willows (Salix bebbiana) are very nearly in full flower now but I haven’t seen any of the showier willows blooming yet. This small native tree is common and is also called gray willow, or Bebb’s willow. It was called red willow by native Americans, probably because of its very red branches which were used for baskets and arrow shafts. I like looking for willows in the spring because they grow in wet places and I often hear spring peepers, chickadees and red winged blackbirds when I’m near them. Lost in this sweet song of life I awaken inside, much like the earth awakens each spring.

The flowers are what give beaked willow its name. They are spherical at the base and taper into a long beak. Each flower has 2 yellow stamens at its tip. But willows can be very hard to identify and I’m never 100% positive about what I’m seeing when I look at them. Beaked willows easily cross pollinate with other willows and create natural hybrids. Even Henry David Thoreau said “The more I study willows, the more I am confused.”

When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.  ~Marcus Aurelius 

Thanks for coming by. Stay safe everyone.

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Every day I drive by a wooded area that has had some changes come to it over the past year. About a year ago a huge machine came along and chewed its way through what was once a nearly impenetrable forest. Okay I thought, let’s see what they do next. But they did nothing, and what you see above is what is left. Why, I wondered, would they go to all that trouble to chew their way into the woods and then not do anything with the now empty space? I had an idea, so I decided to go exploring.

This particular piece of forest borders a large wetland and as the above stump shows, there is quite a lot of beaver activity here. I saw more stumps like this one than I could count. I wondered if the machine chewed through the forest to get at a beaver dam, so I kept going to see where it would lead.

They didn’t finish this one.

The ripples under the bark of the muscle wood (Carpinus caroliniana) tree are what give it its common name. It is also called American hornbeam, blue beech, and ironwood. It’s in the hazelnut family and the name iron wood comes from its dense, hard and heavy wood that even beavers won’t usually touch. At least I’ve never seen them touch it until this day; virtually every tree they had cut was ironwood. How odd is that? I asked myself.

Female iron wood catkins form in pairs at the ends of the branches and are about a half inch long with a leaf-like bract. Last year’s bracts are  what is seen in the above photo. The bracts eventually grow to 1 inch or more long, becoming 3-lobed with smooth or irregularly toothed edges. They look like leafy butterflies.

The forest eating machine had come quite a way into the forest, I was surprised to see. It had to stop somewhere though, or it would sink into the swamp. I kept following the trail.

I noticed that all the evergreen ferns had magically lain themselves flat on the forest floor. Quite often snow will flatten them but we really haven’t had much snow. Maybe it was the three or four ice storms we had. In any case new fiddleheads will be along to replace them at any time now.

Well, here was the swamp and as I thought it marked the end of the forest chewer’s progress. But I didn’t see a beaver lodge or dam. Do they put on waders and walk in from here? I wondered.

I think the reason for all of this worry about beaver activity is because of this stream that flows into the swamp. It flows under a busy road and when we’ve had a lot of rain it can flood quickly. I’ve seen it washing over the road several times. If there is a beaver dam on it it’s even more likely to flood.

Since I was here I decided to explore along the stream. This entire area is a drainage for the surrounding hills and smaller streams join the larger one all along its length. Eventually all of the water finds its way to the Ashuelot River, then the Connecticut River, and then on to the Atlantic, so all the water that passed me on this day will join that great sea before long.

The water here is very clean and clear and the stream bed is gravel with very few aquatic plants growing in it.

There are so many river grapes (Vitis riparia) along this stream you often have to weave your way through the old, thick vines that grow into the treetops. I always like to see what I can see in their tendrils. I’ve seen Hindu dancers, fanciful animals and many other things. On this day I saw the beckoner, which held its arm out as if to beckon me close to it so it could give me a hug. River grapes are known for their ability to withstand cold and have been known to survive -57 degrees F. That makes them a favorite choice for the rootstock of many well-known grape varieties. We have about 20 native species of wild grape in the U.S. and Native Americans used them all. The fruit is usually too acidic to eat from the vine so they mostly made juice and jelly from them. They were also used to dye baskets a violet gray color.

Tree mosses (Climacium dendroides) grow along the stream but it’s getting harder to get to them all the time because what was once a streamside trail has become a brushy maze that I have to weave my way through. They are cheery mosses that look like little palm trees, and they always glow with a beautiful inner light, so they’re worth the effort. By this stream is the only spot I’ve ever found them so they aren’t common in this area, but I’m happy to see that they’ve spread quite well where they grow. They must not mind being under water for a time because this stream floods once or twice a year.

Rough horsetails (Equisetum hyemale) also grow along the stream, and like the tree moss this is the only place I’ve ever seen them. These are ancient plants that are embedded with silica. Another common name is the scouring rush because they are sometimes used to scour pots when camping, and they are also used for sanding wood in Japan.

I like the way they look as if someone had knitted them fancy little socks.

Japanese honeysuckles (Lonicera japonica) are already leafing out but I wasn’t surprised. Many invasive plants get a jump on natives by leafing out and blooming earlier.

I saw more hazelnut catkins (Corylus americana) turned to gold but none of the male flowers were peeking out yet.

I’m seeing more and more female hazelnut blossoms though. I’m surprised that they don’t wait until the male flowers open before appearing. That’s the way alders do it.

I saw some willow catkins but they weren’t anywhere near as far along as others I’ve seen. It could be the shade here that’s holding them back or it could be the plants themselves. If every willow bloomed at the same time and we had a frost there would be no seed production, so willows and many other shrubs and trees stagger their bloom time so that can’t happen.

The biggest surprise for me on this day was finding what I believe is a marsh marigold plant growing in the sand beside the stream. I searched for marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris) for many years and never found a single one until I found one growing in a roadside ditch a couple of years ago. The ditch was reconstructed the following year and there went the plant so I lost hope of ever seeing another one. They are rare here in my experience and I was very happy to finally see another one. I’ll come back in early May to see if it’s old enough to bloom. I’d love to see those pretty yellow flowers again.

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

Thanks for stopping in. I hope everyone is healthy and doing the best they can in these unusual circumstances we find ourselves in. From what I’ve read most states and countries, even when they say you should self-quarantine, say that people can get out for some exercise. I can’t think of any better way to get some exercise and calm yourself down than taking a nice walk in the woods. There is a difference between intelligence and wisdom and though 21st century man may be clever he isn’t very wise, and that’s because he has lost touch with nature. In any event whatever you do and wherever you do it, please stay safe and try to be calm. This too shall pass.

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Last week we had enough warm days to melt just about all the snow and then we had a rainy day on top of it, so the Ashuelot river was filled nearly to bankful. The word “Ashuelot” is pronounced Ash-will-ot if you’re from this area or Ash-wee-lot if you’re from away. The word is a Native American one meaning “collection of many waters,” and that’s exactly what it is; in Keene and surrounding towns all the streams and tributaries empty into this river, so it can fill quite fast.

I was able to practice my wave catching skills at the river in Swanzey. Nothing teaches you that a river has a rhythm more than trying to catch a curling wave in the viewfinder of a camera. The trick is to match your rhythm to the river’s. Too fast or slow with the shutter release and you’ve missed it.  

Blueberry buds are swelling and the bud scales are starting to pull back a little but it will be a while before we see leaves on them. Blueberries are everywhere you look here and many birds and animals (and humans) rely on a good crop each year. Most years nobody is disappointed. Native Americans called blueberries “star berries” and used them medicinally, spiritually, and as food. One of their favorite uses for them was in a pudding made of dried blueberries and cornmeal.

This is the first time an annual chickweed has appeared on this blog in March but some varieties of the plant are said to be nearly evergreen in milder climates, and we’ve had a mild winter. I think this one is Common chickweed (Stellaria media,) a very pretty little thing to see in March. And it was little; this blossom could easily hide behind a pea. I’ve read that chickweed is edible and is said to be far more nutritious than cultivated lettuce.

Ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) has suddenly appeared here and there but I’m not seeing a lot of blossoms just yet. Soon I’ll be seeing flowers by the hundreds in some places. It’s a pretty little thing which can also be invasive, but nobody really seems to care.

I thought I saw a lot of frog eggs in this small pond but I couldn’t get a good shot of them. I left the photo in anyway though, because I liked the colors and because I wanted to tell you that spring peepers, the tiny frog with a loud voice, have started to sing. I heard them just the other day and it was a very welcome song.

There is yellow hidden in the willow catkins and I’m guessing that I’ll see flowers this weekend.

There just happened to be a poplar tree beside the willow and it too displayed its fuzzy catkins.

Red maples (Acer rubrum) have responded to the warm temperatures in a big way and though last week I saw a blossom here and there, this week I’m seeing them everywhere. This photo is of the sticky, thread like female stigmas that catch the pollen from male trees. Soon they will become seeds; many millions of them.

Last week I saw no male red maple blossoms but this week I saw thousands, and many were already producing pollen. This usually happens in mid-April, so this year they’re about a month early.

Virtually every part of the beautiful red maple tree is red, including the male stamens.

Male and female red maple flowers often grow on the same tree but this is only the second time I’ve ever seen them grow out of the same bud cluster as these were doing. Just when you think you have nature all figured out it throws you a curve ball.

Last week I looked at this spot and didn’t see a single sign of reticulated iris (Iris reticulata) but this week there was a basket full of them. What a beautiful color. They are also called netted iris; the “reticulata” part of the scientific name  means “netted” or “reticulated,”  and refers to the netted pattern found on the bulbs.

Each petal wore a pretty little badge. If I understand what I’ve read correctly reticulated iris flowers are always purple, yellow and white, but the purple can be in many shades that vary considerably.

But here was a very pretty little reticulated iris that looked blue to me and in fact my color finding software sees several shades of blue. Apparently this plant didn’t read what I read about them always being shades of purple.

I saw a different vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis,) much wilder looking than most of the restrained blossoms I see in spring. Quite often plant breeders have to sacrifice something when they breed for larger or more colorful blossoms, and often what is sacrificed is scent. I think that was the case with this plant because its scent was very weak. Many vernal witch hazels have a scent strong enough to be detected from a block away.

Hundreds of crocuses bloomed in one of my favorite color combinations.

Oh to be a bee, just for a day.

The fuzzy bud scales of magnolias are opening, revealing the buds within. Though the flowers of this one are white its buds are yellow.

American hazelnut catkins (Corylus americana) have taken on their beautiful golden spring color but the tiny male flowers aren’t showing quite yet. The catkins have lengthened and have become soft and pliable in the breeze though, so It won’t be long.

Tiny little female American hazelnut flowers are all over the bushes now so it looks like we’ll have a good crop of hazelnuts again this year. Native Americans used these nuts to flavor soups and also ground them into flour. In Scotland in 1995 a large shallow pit full of burned hazelnut shells was discovered. It was estimated to be 9,000 years old, so we’ve been eating these nuts for a very long time.

Yes that’s a dandelion. A lowly, hated weed to some but in March, to me it is as beautiful as any other flower I’ve seen. I hope you can see the beauty in it too.

The spring came suddenly, bursting upon the world as a child bursts into a room, with a laugh and a shout and hands full of flowers. ~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Thanks for coming by.

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Last Sunday I decided it was time to give my tired lungs a little more exercise by climbing 962 foot Mount Caesar in Swanzey. This is the longest climb that I do these days. I’ve done it many times, but not lately. The COPD I have makes it a little more difficult but I believe lungs are just like any other body part; they need to be used. This photo shows the start of the trail. The end of the trail at the summit is also granite bedrock. In fact after you’ve climbed it you realize that you’re on a huge granite outcrop with a little bit of soil on it.

Did you see that depression in the granite in that first photo? For years I’ve wondered if it was natural or man-made. “Man” would have been the red man; Native Americans had been here for thousands of years before Europeans and according to the town history of Swanzey, they are said to have used this mountain as a lookout. The Native Squakheag tribe (I think) burned the town to the ground in the 1740s but it was rebuilt some time later.

There are lots of reindeer lichens (Cladonia rangiferina) here. Huge drifts of them line both sides of the trail at its start. These lichens are quite fragile and should never be walked on.  Reindeer lichen is very slow growing at about an eighth to three eighths of an inch per year and if overgrazed or dug up, it can take decades to reappear. I’m guessing the large colonies found here must be hundreds of years old. The Native American Ojibwa tribe was known to bathe newborns in water in which reindeer lichens had been boiled.

I was surprised to see that native evergreen goldthread had melted its way through the ice in a shaded spot. Goldthread (Coptis trifolia) gets its common name from its bright yellow, thread like roots. Native Americans showed early colonists how to chew the roots to relieve the pain of canker sores and that led to the plant being called canker root. It became such a popular medicine that the Shakers were paying 37 cents per pound for dried roots in 1785 and people dug up all they could find. At one time more goldthread was sold in Boston than any other plant, and of course that meant the plant came close to being lost. Two centuries of being left alone have brought healing to Goldthread though, and today I see the tiny but beautiful white flowers quite regularly in April.

When I see soil configurations like this I know what to look for…

…Ice needles. I just talked about them in a previous post so I won’t go into great detail but as they grow up out of the soil they push up and lift any soil in their way, and you can tell you’re walking on them by the crunching sound the soil makes.

Quite often you’ll find a place where the ground looks like it has heaved up and around stones. The stone sits at the bottom of a hole that is usually shaped exactly like it is, so it also looks like the sun has heated the stone enough for it to melt down into the frozen soil. I doubt that is the answer though because the sun would heat the surrounding stones as well and often only one stone has done this. I think the ground must have heaved up and lifted all the soil that surrounded it. I saw that this had happened in several places along the trail. It’s a common sight in the spring.

It was a beautiful day to be in the woods. I saw many friendly people (and their dogs) and we all said the same thing; We were glad to see the end of winter.  

The beeches backlit by the sun made me want to just sit and admire them. They’re so beautiful at all times of year but especially in the spring and fall.

I didn’t see any signs of movement in beech buds but it won’t be long. By mid-May the newly opened buds will be the most beautiful things in the forest. It’s something I look forward to all year.

The old stone walls that line the trail tell a lot about the history of the place. At one time the flanks of this mountain were cleared of trees, most likely for sheep pasture. When the industrial revolution came along and farmers went to work in the mills all of that hard won pasture reverted back to forest. This means that most of the trees here aren’t much older than the mid-1800s, if that. They may have been cut again and again since that time.

There are still a few big trees left though; pines and an occasional oak. This huge old white pine was emptying itself of all the rotted wood within. I’m guessing that it’s probably full of carpenter ants but it can still stand and live for years, even when completely hollow. I wouldn’t want to be near it in a windstorm.

These seed heads at the edge of the trail caught my eye.

I moved a few leaves aside and found the orchid the seed heads were attached to; downy rattlesnake plantain orchids (Goodyera pubescens.) There are about 800 different species of Goodyeara orchids and telling them apart can be tricky because they cross pollinate and create natural hybrids. These leaves look fragile but they’ll remain green throughout winter. They’re a very pretty but also very small plant. Many aren’t more than two inches across.

In places the trail gets steep and an occasional side trail veers off, but all in all it’s an easy trail to follow. I’ll never forget the day I saw a high school aged boy run up the trail to the top and then he ran back down, all before I could even reach the summit. I think that I could have done it at his age but not now.

Signs help show you the way.

There is a an old , very large log near the summit and I often pretend that I’ve seen something interesting on it so I can stop and catch my breath. On this day I didn’t really have to catch my breath but I did see something interesting on it.

The green bits in the photo are eastern hemlock needles. If you know that tree that should give you an idea of how small these unusual growths were. A lichenologist friend looked at this photo and he said he’s quite sure they aren’t lichens. I’ve looked through every one of my mushroom books and haven’t found anything there either, so if you should happen to know what they are I’d love to hear from you. I used to collect cacti and succulents and they remind me of the succulent called “living stones” (Lithops) but of course they aren’t those.  

NOTE: A kindly reader has identified this mystery being as the Ceramic parchment fungus (Xylobolus frustulatus.) Many thanks to all of the kindly readers out there. You’ve been a lot of help over the years!

The views were hazy on this day, a good illustration of why I don’t climb for the view.

I was surprised to find that I had no fear of falling when I took this shot. Since I fell out of a tree and fractured my spine when I was a boy I haven’t been a great fan of heights, but I thought this cliff face was interesting enough to chance a couple of shots. I didn’t look down but if you look over to the bottom left corner of the photo you’ll get an idea of how high this was. You don’t want to go back down that way.  

When the light is right there’s a good view of Mount Monadnock over in Jaffrey from up here. Of course the best photos are found where you have to dance a little closer to a cliff edge than I like.

All in all this day was as close to perfect as one could get. Full sunshine, warm temperatures, easy breathing and getting to see a whole solar system in a toadstool lichen no bigger than a penny would be hard to beat. I hope all of you will have such a day in your near future.

Mountains are not Stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve; they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion. ~Anatoli Boukreev

Thanks for stopping in.

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I didn’t think I saw Johnny jump ups (Viola tricolor) until April but I checked back on previous blog posts and found that I did see them in bloom on March 28 once. Because of that I can say that this is the earliest one I’ve seen since doing this blog. The hardy little plants were introduced from Europe so long ago that they are thought to be native by many. Today’s garden pansies were developed from this plant. The flowers can be white, purple, blue, yellow, or combinations of any or all of them. The word pansy comes from the French pensée, which means thought or reflection. I’m not sure what thought has to do with it but folklore tells us that, if the juice from the plant is squeezed onto the eyelids of a sleeping person, they will fall in love with the next person that they see. Another name for it is love in idleness, and it can be found in its love potion form in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Not too many people have heard of this non-native, early blooming shrub called Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) but it hails from the Mediterranean regions and was well known to Ancient Greeks and Romans. Archeological digs show that it’s small, tart, cherry red fruits have been eaten by man for thousands of years. It has quite small bright yellow, four petaled flowers that bees absolutely love. The flowers aren’t spectacular but they are a sure sign of spring and I always check to see how they’re coming along. The bright yellow flower buds are just showing between the opening bud scales but it might still be 2 weeks before they’re in full bloom.

I thought I’d go and see how the red maple buds (Acer rubrum) were coming along and you could have knocked me over with a feather when I found flowers instead of buds. These are the female (pistillate) flowers of the red maple, just emerging. They are tiny little things; each bud is hardly bigger than a pea. Once the female flowers have been dusted by wind carried pollen from the male flowers they will begin the process of becoming the beautiful red seeds (samaras) that this tree is so well known for. If you’re lucky you can often find male and female flowers on the same tree. I didn’t see a single male bud open though, and I wasn’t surprised because maple flowers usually appear in April.

I thought I’d show you some ice baubles I saw at the river just before I saw the red maple flowers in the previous photo. It was about 36 degrees, which is why I was so surprised to find them in bloom.

Ice baubles usually display great symmetry but these were asymmetrical for some reason. Maybe they were melting.

It still snows occasionally, though the snow decorating this sugar maple was little more than a nuisance inch or so. I searched for the latest price of maple syrup and found a gallon of pure Vermont maple syrup for $68.95. I’m guessing it’s going to go up with an early spring.

And spring is indeed early.

Hairy bittercress plants (Cardamine hirsuta) are blooming. Cress is in the huge family of plants known as Brassicaceae. With over 150 species it’s hard to know what you’re looking at sometimes, but hairy bittercress is a common lawn weed that stays green under the snow and blooms almost as soon as it melts.

Hairy bittercress flowers can be white, pink or lavender and are very small; no bigger than Lincoln’s head on a penny. The plant is self-fertilizing and seed pods appear quickly. The seed pods will explode if touched or walked on and can fling the tiny seeds up to 3 feet away. Plants can form up to 1000 seeds, so if you have this plant in your lawn chances are good that you always will. Enjoy the flowers when there are few others blooming.

Over just the past few days alder catkins have taken on more color. They swell up and lengthen as the season progresses and the colors change to maroon and yellow-green. They sparkle in the sunlight and make the bushes look like someone has hung jewels from the branches. When they are fully opened and the tiny male blossoms start to release pollen I’ll look for the even smaller female flowers, which look like tiny threads of scarlet red.

The brown and purple scales on the alder catkins are on short stalks and there are three flowers beneath each scale, each with a lobed calyx cup and three to five stamens with anthers, which are covered in yellow pollen. These hadn’t quite opened yet but you can see how they spiral down their central flower stalk.

One of the smallest flowers that I know of is the female blossom of the American hazelnut (Corylus americana,) and they’ve just started blossoming.  The crimson thread-like bits are the stigmas of the female flowers, waiting for the wind to bring them some pollen from the golden male catkins. To give you a sense of just how small they are, the bud that the flowers grow from is about the size of a single strand of cooked spaghetti. They’re so small all I can see is their color, so the camera has to do the rest.

This photo shows two things; how windy it was and how the ice on our smaller ponds is melting back away from shore. Pond and lake ice melts at the shore first, while river and stream ice starts in the center of the flow and melts at the shore last. Wind helps melt ice.

The skunk cabbages seemed happy; I saw many of their mottled spathes. They come in maroon with yellow splotches or yellow with maroon splotches.

Inside the skunk cabbage’s spathe is the spadix, which is a one inch round, often pink or yellow stalked flower head from which the small flowers emerge. I could just see it in this open spathe.

The flowers don’t have petals but do have four yellowish sepals. The male stamens grow up through the sepals and release their pollen before the female style and pistil grow out of the flower’s center to catch any pollen that visiting insects might carry from other plants. The spadix carries most of the skunk like odor at this stage of the plant’s life, and it is thought that it uses the odor to attract flies and other early spring insects. In 1749 in what was once the township of Raccoon, New Jersey they called the plant bear’s leaf because bears ate it when they came out of hibernation. Since skunk cabbage was the only thing green so early in the spring the bears had to eat it or go hungry.

This year it seems that everything is blooming at once, with wild flowers blooming early and garden flowers pretty much on time, so for a flower lover it’s a dream come true. I don’t think it’s unprecedented but it isn’t common either.

Some crocuses were just dipping their toes in, not sure if they should go all the way or not.

Others were somewhere in between. I like this one’s light pastel blush but you’d need hundreds of them to make any impact because they’re tiny at not even an inch across. There were only these two in this bed.

Snowdrop buds looked like tiny white Christmas bulbs. The old fashioned kind that I grew up with.

Vernal witch hazels (Hamamelis vernalis) started blooming very early and it seems like they’ll go on for quite a while yet. I wish I could let you smell their fragrance. It’s one of the lightest, freshest, cleanest scents I’ve experienced in nature. Someone once said the flowers smelled like clean laundry just taken in from the line, but I can’t verify that. I have a dryer.

It won’t be long before we’re seeing daffodil blossoms.

Since I started with a Johnny jump up I might as well end with one. This one bloomed in Hancock while that first one bloomed in Keene. That illustrates the oddness of this spring, because flowers usually bloom in Keene before blooming in Hancock. That’s because Keene has a lot of pavement and is slightly warmer. In any case it’s always nice to see their beauty no matter where I am.

Listen, can you hear it?  Spring’s sweet cantata. The strains of grass pushing through the snow. The song of buds swelling on the vine. The tender timpani of a baby robin’s heart. Spring! ~Diane Frolov

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In my last post I said I had never seen a dandelion blooming in February but never mind; this one was blooming on Leap Day. Now I’ve seen them bloom in all of the coldest months of December, January and February. They’re a hardy plant, and pretty too.

The morning sunlight caught in the trees always makes me slow down on my way to work but on this day it was so beautiful I had to stop. There is little else like a spring morning; cool but with a hint of the warmth that the day will bring. Even as a young boy a morning like this one made me so happy I felt like I could become part of it; maybe I could float up into the trees with the birds and sing their praises along with them. I know just how they feel on such beautiful mornings, and I’ve known for a very long time. It’s about what a joy it is to be alive.

I was splitting wood at work and picked up a log and found these winter oysterling mushrooms (Panellus ringens) growing on it. At least I think that’s what they are after comparing them to photos and descriptions I’ve found online. I can’t find them in any of my mushroom books but I did see some examples found in Connecticut online. They’re small and said to be reddish brown but my color finding software sees more orange than red. They are a true winter mushroom that doesn’t mind the cold and they were as limber as my ear lobe. They’re said to be bioluminescent, but I have no way of confirming that.

Winter oysterlings have an off center stem. It seems odd how they grow with their gills up but in my experience mushrooms want their spore bearing surfaces pointed toward the ground and what I saw as up might have been down while they grew on the log. I didn’t see them until their log reached the wood splitter so it was hard to know how they grew. This photo does show how they’ve erupted out of a flattish mass.

When I split open another log I saw future fungi in the form of mycelium. For those who don’t know, mycelium can be compared to roots in the way that they reach out from the fruiting body of a fungus to search for moisture and nutrients. Botanically it is the vegetative structure of a fungus and the mushrooms we see above ground grow from it. They can be tiny or as large as a forest. The largest one known covers 2,385 acres in the Malheur National Forest in Oregon. Unfortunately it is from the Armillaria ostoyae fungus, which is parasitic on tree roots and will kill trees.

If you strip the inner bark (phloem) of an oak log you can find fibers that are useful in the making of lashings and cordage. Once the fibers are twisted together to make cordage they are quite strong and can be used for anything we would normally use string or rope for. The outer bark had fallen off this oak log naturally due to weather, exposing the fibers underneath. The phloem carries food to the rest of the tree so normally these fibers would run parallel to the length of the log but the weather must have had its way with these because they were all in a jumble as you see here. Native Americans turned tree fibers into threads and cords and made ropes, fishing lines, nets, mats, baskets and even shoes out of them.

Another red oak log just happened to split just right to reveal an insect’s egg chamber deep inside. When you see a woodpecker pecking at a tree this is what it’s looking for. I’m not sure what the insect was but before I split the log open there were about 30 larvae in this one chamber. Lots of protein for a hungry bird.

This is what a pileated woodpecker can do to a tree when it looks for those larvae in the previous photo. It had almost cut this dead beech right in half and wood chips littered the snow.

A beech log when cut revealed spalting. Spalted wood is evidence of fungal damage. Sometimes woods affected by fungi can become very desirable to woodworkers, and spalted wood is one of them. Spalting is essentially any form of wood coloration caused by fungi but there are 3 major types; pigmentation, white rot and zone lines. Sometimes all 3 can be present as they are on the end grain of the beech in the above photo. Pigmentation is the blue gray color, which is probably caused by bluestain or sapstain. White rot is in any areas that look soft or pulpy, and the zone lines are the dark, narrow lines found radiating randomly throughout the log.

This is what a spalted log looks like when it has been split. They can be very beautiful and when sawed into planks can be worth quite a lot of money.  

I’m seeing lots of orange crust fungi on the logs I’m splitting. I think they’re one called Stereum complicatum. It’s color is so bright it’s like a beacon in the woods and it can be seen from quite far away on fallen branches. The complicatum part of its scientific name means “folded back on itself” and that is often just what it does.

I picked up a log and put it on the wood splitter and saw what I thought was a leaf fluttering in the wind, and then I saw the legs and realized it was a butterfly. A butterfly in February? Apparently, and the closest I can come with an identification is the question mark butterfly (Polygonia interrogationis.) According to what I’ve read September laid eggs develop into the winter form of the butterfly, which appear in late fall and spend the winter in various shelters. This one had no shelter and hung onto this log for dear life in a strong wind. When I took  photos the log it was on was vibrating on the log splitter so this is the best of a bad lot. Its long white legs reminded me of the Rockette dancers.

Whenever I see spruce gum on a tree I always wonder who the first person was to peel it off the tree and chew it. When I see it I don’t think of chewing it, but someone did. If you gently heat the resin, which is called spruce gum, of the black spruce tree (Picea mariana,) it will melt down into a liquid which can then be strained and poured into a shallow pan or other container to cool. After about half an hour it will be hardened and very brittle, and when broken into bite sized pieces it can be chewed like any other gum. Spruce gum is antiseptic and good for the teeth. It has been chewed by Native Americans for centuries and was the first chewing gum sold in the United States.

Sweet gale (Myrica gale) is also called bog rosemary. It likes to grow on the banks of acidic lakes, bogs and streams. Touching the foliage releases a sweet, pleasant scent from its resinous leaves which have been used for centuries as a natural insect repellent. Though it is a native plant here it also grows native in Europe, where it is used as an ingredient in beer making in some countries. It is also used in an ointment used to treat sensitive skin and acne. Its buds are very pretty, but also very small.  They will open and flower in spring.

Two or three years the white pines (Pinus strobus) in this area had a mast year and tens of thousands of pine cones fell. This year strong winds have stripped branches from the trees and every one I look at is loaded with tiny undeveloped cones like the one in this photo, so it looks like we’re headed for another mast year for white pines. Mast are the fruits, seeds and nuts of trees and shrubs, which are eaten by wildlife. Hard mast is made up of nuts, seeds and cones and soft mast are berries, apples and such. A mast year means lots of food for wildlife like the white footed mouse, which carries Lyme disease, so they do have an impact on humans as well. This cone was about an inch long.

Here is something I’d bet most people never see; the open spore cases of the sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis.) This fern is a good wetland indicator and they grow all alongside streams and rivers in the almost always wet soil. Their shin high, spore bearing fronds full of round black spore cases make them very easy to see in winter but I rarely see them opened as these were.

This is what sensitive fern spore cases usually look like. Early colonists noticed that this fern was very sensitive to frost and they gave it its common name. It has toxic properties and animals rarely eat it, but some Native American tribes used its root medicinally.

A mud puddle had evaporated but it left these long ice crystals behind. Puddle ice is an endless source of fascination and beauty.

In my experience I’ve only seen ice needles in spring or fall before the ground freezes or after it has thawed, so these examples that I saw recently were a good sign of spring. When the air temperature is below 32 degrees Fahrenheit right at the soil surface and the soil and groundwater remains thawed, hydrostatic pressure can force the groundwater, sometimes super cooled, out of the soil where it freezes instantly into a “needle.” As more water is forced out of the soil the process is repeated over and over, and each needle grows in length because of more water freezing at its base. From what I’ve seen the needles almost always freeze together and form ribbons, but few of these did.

Though this photo of Mount Monadnock may not look very spring like, down here in the lowlands most of the snow is gone and what’s left is melting quickly. The record keepers at the state capital say that February was 3.5 degrees above average, and that makes for a short winter. Flowers are starting to bloom and the red winged blackbirds have returned. The furnace runs less each day and grass is greening up in places, so though the calendar might not say spring yet all signs are certainly pointing to it.

The earth is rude, silent, incomprehensible at first; be not discouraged – keep on – there are divine things, well envelop’d; I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell.  ~Walt Whitman

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It certainly appears that spring is upon us but those of us who have been around for a few decades are always wary of a false spring. A false spring, for those who don’t know, is a period of unusual warmth in late winter or early spring that can last long enough to bring plants and animals out of dormancy. When the normal cold temperatures return, sometimes weeks later, the plants and animals that have woken early are taken by surprise and can suffer. I haven’t seen any alarming signs of plants waking early but the bears and skunks are awake, and they’re hungry. The Fish and Game Department has been telling us to stay out of the way of the bears, which is surely good advice even if it is common sense. One of the signs of spring that I’ve always enjoyed is the way willows turn golden, as the one in the above photo has. There is a species of willow from Europe and Asia called golden willow (Salix alba vitellina) but I have no way of knowing if this tree is that one.

Another tree I always love seeing in spring is the red maple, with all of its globular red buds standing out against a blue sky. Each season seems to have its own shade of blue for the sky. A spring sky isn’t quite as crisp as a winter sky but it is still beautiful. The level of humidity in the air can make a difference in the blue of a sky because water vapor and water droplets reflect more of the blue light back into space. This means we see less blue than we do when water vapor is at a lower level. The scientific term for this phenomenon is “Mie scattering.” The sun’s angle can also make a difference in how much of the blue we see.

I found these red maple buds near the Ashuelot River in Keene and was surprised to see so much red on them. The purple bud scales slowly open to reveal more and more red and soon after this stage the actual flowers will begin to show. The flowers open at different times even on the same tree, so the likelihood of them all being wiped out by a sudden cold snap is slim. Early settlers used red maple bark to make ink, and also brown and black dyes. Native Americans used the bark medicinally to treat hives and muscle aches. Tea made from the inner bark was used to treat coughs. 

We have sugar maples where I work and someone broke a twig on one of them. The other day I noticed it was dripping sap, so syrup season is under way.

I didn’t see any dandelions blooming but that’s only because I was late getting there. There were three plants in one small area with seed heads all over them. I’ve seen them bloom in January and March but never in February, so I would have liked to have seen them.

The skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) are happy in their swamp. Bears that come out of hibernation early will sometimes eat skunk cabbages but not much else bothers them. There is little  for bears to at this time of year but a helpful reader wrote in and said that they also dig up and eat the roots of cattails. When I was taking these photos a small flock of ducks burst from the cattails not five feet from me. You won’t need a defibrillator when that happens I’ll tell you, but what struck me most about it was the sound of snarling just before the flock hit the sky. I wonder if they were being stalked by a bobcat when I came along and ruined its hunt. If so I never saw it but it was an angry snarl that didn’t sound like any duck I’ve ever heard.  

Through a process called thermogenesis skunk cabbages are able to generate temperatures far higher than the surrounding air. You can often see evidence of skunk cabbage having melted their way through several inches of solid ice. I saw plenty of the splotchy spathes but I didn’t see any that had opened to reveal the flower studded spadix within.

I went to one of my favorite places to find pussy willows and found that they had all been cut down. Luckily I know of more than one place to see them but I had to wonder why anyone would have cut them. Unless you get the roots they’ll grow right back, bushier than ever. I’ve seen willow shoots even grow from cut willow logs, so strong is their life force.

Another fuzzy bud is the magnolia, but I’m scratching my head over what is going on here. The bud scales of the magnolia are fuzzy and gray and they open and fall off when the flowers open, but here it looks like the bud scales have opened to reveal more bud scales. Could the open scales still be there from last spring? Hard to believe but possible, I suppose.

I saw some alder catkins that were still covered with the natural glue that protects the flower buds. Each brown convex bit seen here is a bud scale which will open to let the male flowers bloom. Between the bud scales is a grayish, waterproof “glue” that keeps water out. If water got in and froze, all the tiny flower buds inside would be killed. Many plants use this method to protect their buds.

You can see the same “glue” on the buds of American Elms. Also sugar maples, poplars, lilacs, and some oaks protect the buds in this way. I assume that the warming temperatures melt this waxy glue in spring so the bud scales can open.

In places with a southern exposure the snow pulls back away from the forest, and this happens because the overhanging branches have reduced the amount of snow that made it to the ground along the edges of the woods.

Though the grass in the previous shot was brown I did see some green.

I also saw some mud. They might not seem like much but green grass and mud really get the blood pumping in people who go through the kind of winters we can have here. When I was growing up it wasn’t uncommon to have shoulder deep paths through the snow drifts and 30 degree below zero F. (-34.4 C)  temperatures. In those days seeing mud in spring could make you dance for joy. But then mud season came so we put on our boots. Mud season turns our dirt roads into car swallowing quagmires each spring for a month or so.

One of the theories of why evergreen plant leaves turn purple in winter is because they don’t photosynthesize, they don’t need to produce chlorophyll. Another says the leaves dry slightly because the plant doesn’t take up as much water through its roots in winter. It is called “winter bronzing” and whatever the cause it can be beautiful, as these swamp dewberry (Rubus hispidus) leaves show. Before long they’ll go back to green and grow on without having been harmed at all.

The hairy, two part valvate bud scales of the Cornellian cherry are always open just enough to allow a peek inside. The gap between the bud scales will become more yellow as the season progresses and finally clusters of tiny star like yellow flowers will burst from the bud. These buds are small, no bigger than a pea. I’m not sue what the hairs or fibers on the right side are all about. I’ve never seen them on these buds before. Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) is an introduced ornamental flowering shrub related to dogwoods. It blooms in early spring  and has a long history with mankind; its sour red fruit has been eaten for over 7000 years, and the Persians and ancient Romans knew it well.

Daffodil leaves that have been weakened by the cold will often be yellowed and translucent but these looked good and heathy and green. Even if the plant loses its leaves to cold it can still bloom but since it has to photosynthesize to produce enough energy to bloom it probably won’t do so the following year. It might take it a year or two to recover.

I didn’t expect to see tulip leaves but there were several up in this sunny bed.

I know I just showed some lilac buds in my last post but these looked like they had been sculpted by an artist. I thought they were very beautiful and much more interesting than the plain green buds I usually see. You can see all of life, all of creation right here in these buds. Maybe that’s why I’ve spent all of my life watching lilac buds in spring.

I’ll close this post with a look at another venal witch hazel blossom, because it is a very rare thing to see flowers of any kind blooming here in February. They’re tiny little blossoms but their beauty is huge.

When spring came, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest. ~ Ernest Hemingway

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