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Posts Tagged ‘Swanzey New Hampshire’

I’m opening this post with an old fashioned shrub that many of you may not know, even though it’s hard to mistake a Japanese quince (Chaenomeles japonica) for any other shrub. Its pinkish orange blooms appear on thorny branches long before its leaves. The plant is in the apple family and has edible fruit that is said to make excellent jelly. It is also the toughest shrub I know of. If you have a sunny spot where nothing will grow just plant a quince there and your problem will be solved. It is indestructible and 100% maintenance free, unless you feel the need to trim it. In the 1800s this plant was often called simply Japonica.

If you don’t like the orange pink color of the quince flowers in these photos there are also red, pink and white flowered cultivars.

I knew I was too far away from this shadbush to get a good shot but I’m showing it here so you can see how shadbushes grow naturally and so you can see the painterly quality that is sometimes found in photos. If I was still painting I’d be all over this because I think it shows the beauty of spring.

Here is a closer look at what was so impressionistically out of focus in the previous photo; the beautiful blossoms of the shadbush, named after the shad fish that once swam in our rivers in numbers so great they couldn’t be counted. And if you want names this one has many; shadblow, serviceberry, June berry, and Saskatoon among them. Its Sunday go to meeting name is Amelanchier canadensis, and there are many cultivars that have been developed for gardens. In nature it tends to be a bit tall, narrow and lanky and bends into the sun, so hybridizers have come up with smaller trees that are bushier and more compact. Native Americans made arrows from its wood and used its fruit for food, often in pemmican. Its fruit is said to taste better than even blueberries, and that’s high praise in New England.

New Hampshire has four native cherry trees: black cherry (Prunus serotina), choke cherry (Prunus virginiana), pin cherry (Prunus pensylvanica), and wild American plum (Prunus americana). The blossoms in the above photo are pin cherry blossoms, which are very early. Choke cherries come along soon after.

The bell shaped dangling flowers of sessile leaved bellwort (Uvularia sessilifolia) are so humble and unassuming you could walk by a forest full of them and not know it. And that’s where they like to grow; on the forest floor. In botanical terms the word sessile describes how one part of a plant joins another. In sessile leaved bellwort the leaves are sessile against the stem, meaning they lie flat against the stem with no stalk, and you can see that in the photo. New plants, before the flowers appear, can resemble Solomon’s seal at a glance. Sessile leaved bellwort is in the lily of the valley family and is also called wild oats.

You’ll see one or two strawberry blossoms (Fragaria virginiana) each day for a week or so and then all of the sudden you’ll see them everywhere. I found this one along the shores of the river but I have a small sunny embankment in my yard that becomes covered with wild strawberry blossoms each year at this time. The soil there is very sandy and dry so I’m always surprised to see such large amounts of blossoms. The fruits are very tasty but also very small so it takes quite a bit of picking for even a handful. My daughter and son used to love them when they were small.

I saw the first highbush blueberry blossom (Vaccinium corymbosum) of the year. If all goes well and we don’t have a late frost we should have a good crop this year. Blueberries are said to be one of only three fruits native to North America. The other two are cranberries and concord grapes, but then I wonder about crabapples, which are also native fruits. Native Americans called blueberries “star berries” and used the plant medicinally, spiritually, and of course as a food. One of their favorites was a pudding made with dried blueberries and cornmeal.

Crabapples have just come into bloom and we have many, both cultivated and wild. This one grows in a field near an old abandoned factory. I like its deep color. The crab apple is one of the nine plants invoked in the Anglo-Saxon Nine Herbs Charm, recorded in the 10th century. The nine herbs charm was used for the treatment of poisoning and infection by a preparation of nine herbs. The other eight were mugwort, betony, lamb’s cress, plantain, mayweed, nettle, thyme and fennel.

Apple blossoms are one of those flowers that always make me think of my grandmother, because she loved them and I loved bringing them to her.

The hand size flower heads on hobblebushes (Viburnum lantanoides) were spaced evenly all along a branch. They’re blossoming beautifully this year and I’ve never seen so many; they grow alongside many of our roads and are easily seen. The large sterile flowers have opened but the tiny fertile flowers in the center are holding back. Moose and deer will eat the shrub right back to the ground, and ruffed grouse, brown thrasher, Swainson’s thrush, cedar waxwings, red-eyed vireos, and pine grosbeaks eat the berries. They are one of our most beautiful native shrubs; George Washington thought so highly of them he planted two at Mt. Vernon.

The flowers on two of the three eastern redbud (Cercis Canadensis) that I know of were killed by frost and that’s really too bad, but the hardiness of this tree can be questionable here unless trees started from northern grown seed are planted. Even though these trees were sheltered by buildings the cold still found them.

Common blue violets (Viola sororia) have just appeared and though I’m happy to see them I doubt many flower gardeners are. Though pretty, these little plants can over take a garden in no time at all if left to their own devices.

Violets are known for their prolific seed production. They have petal-less flowers called cleistogamous flowers which fling their seeds out of the 3 part seed capsules with force. They do this in summer when we think they aren’t blooming. Personally I tired of fighting them a long time ago and now I just enjoy them. They’re very pretty little things and their leaves and flowers are even edible. Though called “blue” they’re usually a shade of purple. We colorblind people don’t mind.

White violets seem shyer than the blue / purple ones.  I see one white for every hundred purple. I think they are the white wood violet (Viola sororia albiflora.) Note how the blue lines in its throat guide an insect to where the prize is found.

I was surprised to find a small group of yellow violets blooming. I think this is only the third time I’ve seen yellow violets, and I think they must be on the rare side here. I think these were either the round leaved yellow violet (Viola rotundifolia) which likes to grow in rich woods. Or the downy yellow violet (Viola pubescens,) which likes the same conditions. Native Americans had many uses for violets. They made blue dye from them to dye their arrows with and also soaked corn seed in an infusion made from the roots before it was planted to keep insect pests from eating the seeds. The Inuktitut Eskimo people placed stems and flowers among their clothes to give them a sweet fragrance, and almost all tribes ate the leaves and flowers.

One of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen was a large field of dandelions and violets blooming together. Nature brings the two plants together naturally, as this small grouping reminded me the other day. In my opinion it’s the perfect combination.

Wood anemones (Anemone quinquefolia) have just started blooming but they are sun lovers so there’s a good chance they won’t be blooming much longer with the trees leafing out.

Wood anemone is very similar to false rue anemone (Enemion biternatum.) Rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides) which is also similar, also grows in New Hampshire, which complicates being able to identify these plants. While false rue anemone is native to the eastern U.S., the USDA and other sources say that it doesn’t grow in New England, so that leaves wood anemone and rue anemone. False rue anemone always has 5 white sepals, while wood anemone and true rue anemone can have more.

I first saw this very pretty little plant for the first time last year. It stands maybe a foot tall and the pretty flowers cover the plant. It is called the perennial sweet pea (Lathyrus vernus) and this example grows in a local park.

Bradford pear blossoms (Pyrus calleryana) have pretty plum colored anthers but that’s about all this tree has going for it. Originally from central Asia and the Middle East the tree was introduced by the USDA in  1966 as a near perfect ornamental urban landscape tree, loaded with pretty white blossoms in spring and shiny green leaves the rest of the time. But problems quickly became evident; the tree has weak wood and loses branches regularly, and birds love the tiny pears it produces, which means that it is quite invasive. In the wild it forms nearly impenetrable thickets and out competes native trees. And the pretty flowers? Their scent has been compared to everything from rotting fish to an open trash bin, so whatever you do don’t plant a Bradford pear.

I found an old ornamental cherry in bloom where I work. Since there are over one thousand varieties of cherry in the U.S. it’s doubtful that I’ll ever be able to tell you its name but its beauty was welcome on a cool spring day.

This bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis) grows in a local park. It gets its common name from its pretty, heart shaped blossoms. Each blossom, if looked at from the right angle, appears to have a drop of “blood” dripping from it, and that’s where the name comes from.

A few trout lilies (Erythronium americanum) have finally come into bloom, quite later than usual. Their flowers remind me of small versions of Canada lilies because except for their leaves, that’s just what they look like. Another name for the plant is fawn lily, because the mottled leaves reminded someone of a whitetail deer fawn. Native Americans cooked their small bulbs or dried them for winter food.  Black bears also love them and deer and moose eat the seed pods.

My favorite part of a trout lily blossom is its back, because of the very beautiful markings. Of course beauty as they say, is in the eye of the beholder, so why not just take a little time and behold?

Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them. ~Marcus Aurelius

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On Friday, April 16th nature decided to surprise us. This photo shows what I saw on my way to work that day. Parts of the state ended up with a foot of heavy wet snow but it was too warm for it to last..

…and in a day or two it was all gone.

It did get cold for a while but that didn’t slow things down for too long. Ferns like this lady fern  (Athyrium filix-femina) still showed off their stamina with their naked spring fiddleheads. Lady fern is the only fern I know of with brown / black scales on its stalk in the fiddlehead stage. This fern likes to grow in moist, loamy areas along streams and rivers. They don’t like windy places, so if you find a shaded dell where a grove of lady fern grows it’s safe to assume that it doesn’t ever get very windy there.

Interrupted fern (Osmundastrum claytoniana) fiddleheads wore fur and huddled together to keep warm.

Red maple (Acer rubrum) seeds (samaras) are growing by the many millions. These are one of the smallest seeds in the maple family. It is estimated that a single tree 12 inches in diameter can produce nearly a million seeds, and if the tree is fertilized for 2 years seed production can increase by 10 times. It’s no wonder that red maple is getting a reputation for being a weed tree.

For a short time between when they appear and when they ripen and fall American elm (Ulmus americana) seeds have a white fringe. When they ripen they’ll become dry and papery and finally fall to the wind. I grew up on a street that had huge 200 year old elms on it and those trees put out seeds in the many millions. Elm seeds contain 45% protein and 7% fiber and in the great famine of 1812 they were used as food in Norway.

As I write this the large, infertile white blossoms of hobblebush (Viburnum lantanoides) have most likely fully formed, but when I last went to see them this is what they looked like; almost there. Hobblebush flower heads are made up of small fertile flowers in the center and large infertile flowers around the perimeter. The infertile flowers are there to attract insects to the much less showy fertile ones and it’s a strategy that must work well because I see plenty of berries in the fall. They start out green and go to a beautiful bright red before ripening to a deep purple color.

Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) can be quite beautiful when it starts to unfurl its leaves in spring but Americans have no love affair with it because it is an invasive weed that is nearly impossible to eradicate once it becomes established. I’ve seen it killed back to the ground by frost and in less than 3 weeks it had grown right back. I’ve heard that the new spring shoots taste much like rhubarb. If we ate them maybe they wouldn’t be such a bother. Maybe in pies?

This mullein plant was one of the biggest I’ve seen; as big as a car tire. I loved the pattern the leaves made. Native Americans used tea made from its large, gray green furry leaves to treat asthma and other respiratory ailments. They also used the roots to treat coughs, and it is also said to be useful as a relaxant and sleep aid. The Cherokee tribe are said to have rubbed mullein leaves in their armpits to treat prickly rash and the Navaho tribe made an infusion of the leaves and rubbed it on the bodies of their hunters to give them strength. Clearly this plant has been used for many thousands of years. It is considered one of the “oldest herbs’ and recent research has shown that mullein does indeed have strong anti-inflammatory properties.

Wild Leeks (Allium tricoccum), also called ramps, are up. They look like scallions and taste somewhere between onions and garlic. They are considered a great delicacy and are a favorite spring vegetable in many parts of the world, but they’ve been over collected so harvesting has been banned in many parts of the U.S. and Canada. They’re slow growers from seed and a 10 percent harvest of a colony can take 10 years to grow back. They take 18 months to germinate from seed and 5 to 7 years to become mature enough to harvest. That’s why, when people write in and ask me where to find them, I can’t tell them. The two small colonies I’ve found have less than 300 plants combined.

This photo is from a few years ago when I foolishly pulled up a couple of ramps, not knowing how rare they were. It shows their resemblance to scallions though, and that’s what I wanted you to see. They are said to be strongly flavored with a pungent odor, but they’ve been prized by mankind since the ancient Egyptians ate them. Each spring there are ramp festivals all over the world and in some places they’re called the “King of stink.” The name ramp comes from the English word ramson, which is a common name of the European bear leek (Allium ursinum,) which is a cousin of the North American wild leek.

In one of the spots I go to find ramps I find false hellebore (Veratrum viride) growing right beside them. There is a lesson in that, and it is know your plants well if you’re going to eat them. Ramps are one of the most delicious wild plants and false hellebore one of the deadliest. As you can see from the photos they look nothing alike but people do still confuse them. As recently as 2019 a physics professor and his wife wanted some spring greens for breakfast at their cabin in Vermont. The greens they chose, instead of the ramps they thought they were picking, were actually false hellebore. They spent 2 weeks in the hospital and almost died. From 2014 to 2019 in Vermont 18 people were poisoned by false hellebore so again; know your plants. In this case it is simple: ramps smell like onions and false hellebore does not.

And then there is skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus,) which is also up at the same time as ramps and false hellebore. Though I haven’t heard of anyone mistaking skunk cabbage for ramps,. when the leaves of skunk cabbage just come up and start to unfurl I could imagine some thinking they were ramps. In any event skunk cabbage won’t kill a person but after smelling it I can picture it giving a person a good tummy ache.

There are is magic in the woods; beautiful things that many never see, and the glowing spring buds of the striped maples are one of them. Velvety soft and colored in pink and orange, they are one of the things I most look forward to seeing in spring.

But you have to be quick and pay close attention if you’re going to watch spring buds unfold, because it can happen quickly. This striped maple bud was all ready to break.

I saw a porcupine in a tree where I work. This porcupine, if it is the same one, had a baby with her last year. This year she doesn’t look well but since you could fit what I know about porcupines in a thimble and have room to spare, I can’t be sure. I do know that three or four of us thought she looked as if something was wrong.

I felt as if I was being watched one day when I was taking photos of violets and turned to find a very suspicious robin wondering just what it was I was up to. I said hello and it hopped even closer. It looked very well fed and I wondered if it was hopping in the grass because it was too heavy to get off the ground. Of course I didn’t ask. Instead I stood and walked across the lawn and when I turned to look again I saw that it was still watching me. Probably making sure I wasn’t making off with any of its worms.

I don’t see many wooly bear caterpillars in spring but here it was. Folklore says that the wider the orangey brown band on a wooly bear caterpillar is, the milder the winter will be. We did indeed have a mild winter but I doubt the wooly bear cared either way because wooly bears produce their own antifreeze and can freeze solid. Once the temperature rises into the 40s F in spring they thaw out and begin feeding on dandelion and other early spring greens. Eventually they spin a cocoon and emerge as a beautiful tiger moth. From that point on it has only two weeks to live. Since this one was on a step I’m guessing that it was looking for a place to make a cocoon.

The new shoots of Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) are up and leafing out. Usually even plants this small will have tiny flower buds on them but I didn’t see any on this one. Each year the above ground stem leaves a scar, or “seal” on the underground stem, which is called a rhizome. Counting these scars will reveal the age of the plant but of course you have to dig it up to do that and I never have.

I finally found the female flowers of sweet gale (Myrica gale.) They’re bushy little things that remind me of female alder catkins. Sweet gale is also called bog rosemary and 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.

These are the male catkins of sweet gale. They’re much larger than the female catkins and much easier to spot.

If there is anything that holds more promise than new spring leaves I’ve never experienced it.

Bud break is defined as “when the green tip of a leaf can be seen emerging from the bud.” It’s happening right now to a lot of trees like this sugar maple. I love the veining on sugar maple leaves just before they unfurl.

I complained in an earlier post how, though maple leaves often come out of the bud colored red, all I was seeing this year were green. Of course as soon as I say something like that nature throws me a curve ball and on this day all I saw were young red leaves. Actually my color finding software calls them salmon pink and orange.

All of the snow in that first photo ended up like this; spring runoff. That means of course that I get to enjoy the moisture in its two forms; first when it clothes every branch and twig and second when it becomes a beautiful waterfall. This is one of my favorite spring scenes. I call this the “disappearing waterfall” because it comes and goes depending on the weather. It was in fine form on this day but it could be gone completely the next time I go to see it.

I meant to do my work today, but a brown bird sang in the apple tree, and a butterfly flitted across the field, and all the leaves were calling. ~Richard le Gallienn

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We’ve had a colder week with daytime temps in the 40s and nighttime temps in the 20s and though it has slowed a lot of flowers down it hasn’t stopped them, as this new red trillium (Trillium erectum) blossom shows. Red (or purple) trilliums are our earliest, followed by nodding and then painted trilliums. Red trilliums are also one of our largest spring ephemeral flowers. Everything about them is in threes.

From one of the largest spring ephemerals to one of the smallest; goldthread plants have just started blooming. The shiny, three part leaves and small, aspirin size flowers are sure signs that you’ve found goldthread.

There’s a lot going on in a goldthread (Coptis groenlandicum) blossom, despite its small size. The tiny styles curve like long necked birds and the even smaller white tipped stamens fill the center of a goldthread blossom. The white, petal like sepals last only a short time and will fall off, leaving the tiny golden yellow club-like true petals behind. The ends of the petals are cup shaped and hold nectar.

I was dismayed to find that, as I was crawling around trying to get a photo of goldthread, my foot inadvertently pulled up a plant. Well, I thought, at least we’ll be able to see the golden root, and here it is in the photo above. 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. I can tell you that many tens of thousands of plants would have had to have been destroyed to make up a pound of roots, because this one weighed next to nothing. Dry, it would have weighed even less. 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.

Ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) blossomed in a sunny spot on a lawn. Ground ivy was introduced into North America as an ornamental and medicinal plant as early as the 1800s, when it immediately began taking over the continent. But nobody seems to mind. The purple flowers have a very light minty scent that isn’t at all overpowering unless you mow down a large patch that has taken over the lawn. This is one of those flowers that takes me back to my childhood, because it grew everywhere that I did.

I don’t remember ever seeing henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) when I was a boy but it must have been here. It was reported in New York’s Hudson valley in 1751. It is another annual in the mint family and is edible.

I’ve read that small birds love the seeds of henbit and hummingbirds love their nectar. They always seem a bit clownish to me; like a cartoonist had drawn them.

If only you could smell these magnolia flowers. If the afterlife is scented surely one of those scents will come from magnolias. To sit outside on a warm spring evening with their scent in the air is something you just never forget.

As you can imagine you see a certain amount of death when you spend a lot of time in nature. Every now and then I stumble upon something that is as beautiful in death as it was in life; insects, mushrooms, and this magnolia blossom that looked as if it had been carved out of wood. I hope you too can appreciate its beauty.

Vinca (Vinca minor) is a trailing plant from Europe. It is also invasive but has been here long enough to have erased any memories of them having once crossed the Atlantic on the deck of a wooden ship though. In the 1800s Vinca was a plant given by one neighbor to another along with lilacs and peonies, and I’ve seen all three still blooming beautifully near old cellar holes off in the middle of nowhere, as the plants you see here do. it is nowhere near as aggressive as many non-natives so we enjoy its beautiful violet purple flowers and coexist.

Another name for vinca is Myrtle and that’s what I’ve always called it. It has a flower of sixes, double that of trillium.

Pulmonaria (Pulmonaria officinalis ) has just started blooming. Other than spring bulbs, this perennial is one of the earliest to bloom in spring. It prefers shady places so it is valuable in gardens that get little sun. During the middle ages in Europe lungwort, which is another name for the plant, was considered dangerous because the grey spots on its leaves were associated with an infected lung. Later, it was used to treat lung disorders. The scientific name Pulmonaria comes from the Latin pulmo, meaning lung.

Dandelions are having a great year so far. I’ve never seen them bloom so profusely.

Just look at all of those seed heads in waiting.

I’m seeing more and more trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens) each year and that’s a good thing, because it was once over collected almost to the point of oblivion. My grandmother always called this, her favorite flower, mayflower. She always wanted to show it to me but back then it was so scarce we could never find any.

Violas are loving the cool weather. All plants in the pansy family can take a lot of cold and that’s why they’re an early spring staple for window boxes and flower pots. They chase away the winter blues that so many seem to suffer from.

Here is another look at the beautiful bulb bed that I showed in the last flower post. It’s just about done now.

Creeping phlox (Phlox subulata) has just come into bloom and before long it will be in bloom everywhere I go. Creeping phlox is native to the forests of North America. Another plant called creeping phlox is Phlox stolonifera, native to the Appalachians from Pennsylvania to Georgia.

One way to tell Phlox subulata from stolonifera is to look for the darker band of color around the center of each flower; only Phlox subulata has it. Creeping phlox is also called moss phlox or moss pinks.

Hellebores are another plant that can stand a lot of cold. Pliny said that if an eagle saw you digging up a hellebore it (the eagle) would cause your death. He also said that you should draw a circle around the plant, face east and offer a prayer before digging it up. Apparently doing so would appease the eagle. I can’t even guess how such a belief would have gotten started.

This is a fine example of why I can sometimes kneel in front of a flower and have no idea how long I’ve been there.

My grandmother taught me that it was best to cut lilacs and bring them to her when the flowers just started to open. In that way all the  other buds would open inside so she could enjoy their fragrance longer. I would watch them closely and when just a few blossoms showed I’d bring them in to her. They seem to be doing well this year. In fact many plants are doing better than they have in a long time.

It’s time to say goodbye to the vernal witch hazels. What joy they’ve brought to spring,

A redbud tree (Cercis Canadensis) showed me how it got its name. Eastern redbud  is not native to New Hampshire but I do find them here and there. Do to the cold weather this one has refused to go beyond bud. The hardiness of this tree can be questionable here unless trees started from northern grown seed are planted.

I hoped to show you some trout lily blossoms in this post but they’re being stubborn so instead I’ll show you the spring beauties (Claytonia carolinana) that grow with them. They’re with us just a very short time so I hope you won’t get tired of seeing them.

This is what a forest floor covered by spring beauties looks like. It’s a rare sight, and is one I’ve been wanting to show you for years. It isn’t a great shot but it gives you an idea of what forest flowers look like. Once the leaves come out on the trees, their short lives are over. And I will miss them.

In those vernal seasons of the year, when the air is calm and pleasant, it were an injury and sullenness against Nature not to go out and see her riches, and partake in her rejoicing with heaven and earth.  ~John Milton

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John Burroughs said “To find new things, take the path you took yesterday,” and that was to prove very true last Sunday. I followed a rail trail in Swanzey that I’ve followed more times than I can count but saw many things that I’ve never seen here before.

Male American Hazelnut catkins swayed lazily in the slight breeze. They had lengthened to three times their winter length and were still heavy with pollen.

The tiny female flowers were waiting for a good dose of that pollen so they could become the hazelnuts that so many birds and animals eat.

There is a nice little box culvert out here that I always like to stop and see. There was quite a lot of water in the stream it carries safely under the railbed on this day. It’s amazing to think these culverts are still keeping railbeds from washing away 150 years after they were built, and without any real maintenance.

The stream rushes off to the Ashuelot River, which is out there in the distance.

The first thing I saw that I had never seen here were trout lily leaves (Erythronium americanum). I didn’t see any flowers but I found the leaves growing all along the trail, and I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t ever seen them.

You can get a glimpse of the Ashuelot River here and there along the trail. This was where I was to get another surprise. I saw something swimming quickly toward me from those fallen trees you see in this photo. I thought it was ducks but I couldn’t see anything except ripples.

And then up popped a muskrat. At least I’m fairly certain it was a muskrat. Though it never showed me its tail it was much smaller than a beaver and nowhere near as skittish. It saw me up on the embankment but still just sat and fed on what looked like grasses. It probably knew I was far enough away; this photo isn’t very good because my camera was at the limit of its zoom capability. At least you can see the critter, and that matters more to me than a technically perfect shot.

I knew that apple moss (Bartramia pomiformis) grew here and I was able to find it. Its reproduction begins in the late fall and immature spore capsules (sporophytes) appear by late winter. When the warm rains of spring arrive the straight, toothpick like sporophytes swell at their tips and form tiny globes that always look like pearls to me, but someone thought they looked like apples and the name stuck.

Beech buds (Fagus grandifolia) are beginning to lose their straightness and that means the beautiful new spring leaves will be appearing before long. Beech bud break begins when the normally straight buds start to curl, as in the above photo. The curling is caused by the cells on the sunny side of the bud growing faster than those on the shaded side. This creates a tension that curls the bud and eventually causes the bud scales to pull apart so the new leaves can emerge. The buds literally “break” and at the bud’s location on the tree branch an entire year’s new leaves and stems will often grow from a single bud.

New maple leaves were everywhere but every one I saw was green. That was unusual because young maple leaves are often red for a while.  

Raspberry plants were also showing their new leaves but blackberry buds had barely broken.

I saw native cherries in all stages of growth. Cherries usually leaf out and blossom quite early.

Some of the willows along the trail had thrown in the towel and were finished for this year.

This is what the flower buds of a shadbush (Amelanchier canadensis) look like. After shadbushes come the cherries, closely followed by the crab apples and apples, and then the peaches and plums. Shadbushes bloom earlier than the other shrubs and trees but are often still in bloom when the others bloom. The flowers appear before the leaves, unlike apples and some native cherries. Small, reddish purple to purple, apple shaped fruits follow in June. The fruit is a berry similar in size to a blueberry and has from 5-10 seeds. They taste best when they are more purple than red. Shadbush flowers are pretty but their fragrance isn’t very appealing. I can’t remember ever seeing them bloom along this trail but there they were.

Forsythia has escaped someone’s garden and was blooming happily beside the trail. Another surprise.

Trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens) is also called mayflower because that’s often when its small white to pink, very fragrant flowers appear, but here they were blooming beside the trail. This is another plant I can’t remember ever seeing out here before. Trailing arbutus was once collected into near oblivion but these days it can be found at many nurseries so there is no longer any reason to dig it up. Since it’s very fussy unless it’s given the right amount of light, water, nutrients and soil type it won’t grow except where it chooses to anyway. The reason it was collected so much was because its small pink to white, very fragrant flowers were used in nosegays.

I reached the trestle and found that someone, most likely a snowmobile club, had overlaid the flooring, which was starting to rot out. This was a another welcome surprise because that little square that juts out to the right was a hole right through the boards. It’s quite a drop down to the river.

This trestle is the last one I know of with its tell tales still in place. These are pencil size pieces of soft wire that hang down low enough to hit the head of anyone standing on top of a freight car. They would warn the person, or “tell the tale” of an upcoming trestle. I can walk from the trestle to this one in under a minute, so whoever was on top of the train wouldn’t have had much time to duck before they’d hit the trestle, and that would have been too bad. Tell tales used to hang on each end of every trestle in the area, but this is the last one I know of.

The river has come up some since the recent snowfall and a few rain showers. I was surprised I didn’t see any kayakers. They like to paddle the river in spring when the water is high because in that way they can float over all the submerged fallen trees.

It still has to gain more run off before it reaches its average height, by the looks. We’re still in a drought according to the weather people.

I was surprised to find a small colony of bloodroot plants (Sanguinaria canadensis) as I was leaving. This is another plant I’ve never seen growing here, so this day was packed full of surprises.

Bloodroot flowers don’t usually open on cloudy days and I couldn’t tell if this one was opening or closing, but I was happy to get at least a glimpse of its beautiful inside. These flowers aren’t with us long.

In a forest of a hundred thousand trees no two leaves are identical, and no two journeys along the same path are alike. ~Paulo Coelho

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It’s that time of year when we don’t know whether we’ll need summer clothes or winter clothes. The temperatures have soared and fallen and then done it again, and some plants seem to be holding back a bit. But not the skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus). I saw a few with leaves like this one. When that first leaf just unfurls is the only time that it actually looks like a cabbage leaf.

While I was in the skunk cabbage swamp I checked on the native early azaleas (Rhododendron prinophyllum). The bud scales are pulling back so that’s a good sign. I look forward to seeing these very fragrant pink flowers in early June when the pink lady’s slippers bloom.

I went to see if there was any sign of spring beauties or trout lilies and didn’t see any, but I did see lots of green shoots in the pond that they grow near. This scene is so simple, so every day, but also so very beautiful and pleasurable, in my opinion. Sitting alone in the spring forest where the world is hushed you can almost hear the new life springing from the earth. If you care to look closely you find that what looks like dead leaves and stems and dried blades of last year’s grass is alive with new green shoots much like these.

There was also green on the Japanese honeysuckles. That’s one reason invasive plants are so successful; they start photosynthesizing weeks before our native plants and so get a leg up.

I went to see the willows and found them full of flowers. This isn’t a flower, by the way. This is a flower head, which is made up of many flowers. The flowers shown are the male (staminate) flowers. Female flowers appear on separate bushes slightly later than the male flowers and aren’t quite as showy. Willows are pollinated by insects, not wind.

There is quite a lot of tension in a willow flower head and you often see them bent nearly double. I think this is caused by the flowers on one side of the catkin opening first and growing faster than those on the opposite side. It’s the same way a beech bud opens.

I thought I’d see if I could find any coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara). I did but all I saw was the tiny yellow speck of a barely open flower.

Since I’d never seen a coltsfoot so close to blooming I went back the next day. They were in full bloom, so apparently once they start showing a little color it doesn’t take long. The flowers on coltsfoot plants come up before the leaves show so there is no hint of when it will appear. You have to remember where you’ve seen it last year and revisit the places the following spring. Coltsfoot is native to Europe and Asia and was brought here by early settlers. It has been used medicinally for centuries and another name for it is coughwort.

Dandelions are coming in twos now, and even threes, fours and fives.

The female red maple flowers are growing slowly due to the cool weather we had last week. I often describe red maple flowers are “petal-less” but that isn’t strictly true. They do have petals but at the stage I photograph them in early spring the petals are very hard to see, so even though they are indeed petal-less in the photo the petals will come along later. You can just see the tops of them coming out of the buds in this shot.  

I took this shot of male red maple flowers that were showing petals. You can see how the anther tipped filaments grow right up out of what almost looks like a tiny tulip.

I like this shot of male red maple flowers because it shows them in all of their stages. In the center you can see some that haven’t yet grown out of the bud and on the left the anthers have grown up out of the bud but they aren’t yet carrying any pollen. On the right the anthers are releasing pollen, which will hopefully find some female flowers. This is the first photo I’ve ever gotten of the male flowers in all stages of growth and I think it happened because of the up down, warm cold weather. Usually you find them all at about the same stage of growth.

The buds on box elder (Acer negundo), which is another member of the maple family, have also opened. The red brown bits are the male anthers, which will dangle at the ends of long filaments before long. I didn’t see any of the fuzzy, lime green female flowers yet but they don’t appear until the leaves just start to show.

Here is a preview of what those stamens of male box elder flowers will look like. Box elder is in the maple family but its wood is soft when compared to other maples. Several Native American tribes made syrup from its sap and the earliest example of a Native American flute, dating from 620-670 AD, was made from its wood.

Johnny jump ups have been blooming for weeks now. I love seeing them. They’re pretty, they self-seed readily and will bloom for years, and they ask for nothing.

Ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) has come along all of the sudden and I’m 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. It’s in the mint family and is related to henbit.

Promises were made by Forsythia…

…and the magnolias.

Bicolor daffodils have arrived.

And lots of hyacinths. They’re beautiful things.

Grape hyacinths are not hyacinths (they’re in the asparagus family) but they do look like upside down bunches of grapes.

These early tulips are very early this year. They looked orange when I was kneeling beside them but now they look red in the photo.

I was surprised that I didn’t see a single bee on this day but it wasn’t because the crocuses weren’t trying. A crocus blossom has three pollen bearing male anthers surrounding the central female stigma, which can be lobed and frilly like this example. I would have enjoyed seeing a pollen covered bee rolling in ecstasy in there.

Google lens tells me these are vernal crocuses (Crocus vernus). I can’t confirm that but I can tell you that they were extremely beautiful and I stood there for a while admiring them without caring what their name was. They, as Georgia O’Keefe once said, became my world for a moment.

That pleasure which is at once the most pure, the most elevating and the most intense, is derived, I maintain, from the contemplation of the beautiful. ~Edgar Allan Poe

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This post will be the last with ice in it for a while, but scenes like this one were still common just two or three weeks ago. Beaver lodges can be quite big, with the floor a couple of inches above the water level. On the floor they scatter a 2 or 3 inch deep bed of dry leaves, grass, shredded wood and other materials to keep the floor dry. They don’t hibernate. They can swim under the ice but they can’t hold their breath forever so they can’t stray far from their lodges in winter. Their winter food is green branches and twigs they anchor into the soft mud around the lodge. When hungry they dislodge a branch, which stay green in the cold winter water, and drag it into the lodge.

This winter I’ll remember for its ice. It was everywhere. It was terrible to walk on but often beautiful to see.

But ice melts, and in this photo it is doing just that on Half Moon Pond in Hancock. The ice usually melts off around mid-April but this year it happened about two weeks early due to above average temperatures and record breaking warmth.

This snowbank raised what looked like a defiant fist and seemed to say “I will not melt”! But it did melt; they all did.

In fact the ice and snow melted so fast the sign removal people couldn’t keep up.

The Canada geese knew the thaw was coming and they were here almost immediately after the ice melted. Many ducks have returned as well, and I’ve heard spring peepers, wood frogs, red winged blackbirds, and the beautiful but sorrowful sounding fee-bee mating call of male black capped chickadees.

I’ve been watching buds, like this blueberry bud. It always amazes me that a plant with blue fruit can have so much red in it. I think the white stripe running up the stem and around the base of the bud might have been frost.

Lilac buds can also have a lot of red in them. They’re starting to swell noticeably now.

Red elderberry buds are also getting bigger by the day. The deep purple fingers of unfurling leaves are beautiful as they come from their buds in the spring. It won’t be long now.

I think the buds of sweet gale have elongated some but they’re so small it’s hard to tell. They’re pretty little things. This small, very aromatic shrub is also called bog rosemary. I find it on the shorelines of ponds along with leatherleaf, alder and rhodora.

How beautiful the leaves of swamp dewberry are in spring before they turn green and start photosynthesizing. Swamp dewberry (Rubus hispidus) is a trailing plant with fruit like a black raspberry and its stems are every bit as prickly. It also looks a lot like a strawberry when it’s in bloom and because of its strawberry like leaves, which are evergreen. This is a plant that can trip you up when hidden by snow. Native Americans had many medicinal uses for this plant, including treating coughs, fever and consumption. Swamp dewberry, as its name implies, is a good indicator of a wetland or moist soil that doesn’t dry out.

We lost a huge old pine tree where I work and I wanted to get photos of it because if you look closely you can see that the bottom half was completely hollow. A big pine like this one fell on a friend’s barn a few years ago and cut it right in half. A snow blower parked inside was crushed down to a jumble of mashed metal.

The scary part of this tree falling was how it fell right next to one of our roads. Thankfully there was no one going by at the time. When it fell it took two or three other smaller trees with it.

I saw a small delicate feather stuck on the bark of a tree and wondered if it might be a nuthatch breast feather. We have lots of them where I work. The rose breasted nuthatches are so fearless that one day I almost stepped on one. I’m glad I saw it at the last minute.

Blue jays stayed here all winter long; the first time I’ve ever seen this. And there were large flocks of them. Many people in the area were commenting about how unusual it was.

I found a beech leaf and a pinecone twirling slowly in the breeze at the end of a strand of spider silk. Since both leaves and cones fall from trees I’m guessing that they fell through a spider’s web. I’ve read that spider silk is five times as strong as the same diameter thread made of steel. I’ve also read that, if you had a piece of spider silk the same diameter as a pencil, it would be strong enough to stop a Boeing 747 in flight. It’s always good to have a little awe in our lives, I think.  

Here is one of the strangest things I’ve ever found in the woods. I said “Oh, a bird’s nest” and walked over to it. I could see bits of yarn and string like a bird would use but something didn’t look right. It was too perfectly round.

And it was as hard as a rock. That’s because it was a ball with the outer covering torn off. If you’ve ever taken the covering off a baseball you’ve seen this same thing, because this was indeed the inside of a baseball.

The inside had been hollowed out like a bird’s nest and I have to say that I have no idea how it got its outer covering removed or how it got stuck in the crotch of a willow tree. Did someone hit a homerun that landed in a tree? Did someone put it there hoping birds would nest in it? It’s a mystery to me.

Tree skirt moss (Anomodon attenuatus) does just what its name sounds like it would; it grows at the base of trees and makes them look like they’re wearing green stockings. It can also grow on soil or stone and can form extensive mats. This was a beautiful example of it. Jut look how it glows.

Tree skirt moss grows up to 3 feet high around the bases of hardwoods, especially oaks. Knowing where certain mosses prefer growing, whether on soil, stone or wood, can help with identifying them. This moss is very changeable and changes its appearance depending on how dry it is. This example was moist and happy.

This one is for Ginny, who last fall said she couldn’t imagine what a leaf pile the size of a box truck would look like. These are all the leaves that were collected last season where I work.

Of course the pile has settled some over the winter but that’s still a lot of leaves. It takes three full months to collect them all; maple, birch, basswood, oak and beech mostly, and once they decompose we use the resulting compost for lawn patches and what have you. You can just see the top of an older pile in the background that we have dug into.

My little friend here and his cousins try to collect all the acorns and pinecones that fall but we had another mast year and there must be millions of both still left to cleanup. I’ve read that mast years happen when the trees are stressed and I’d guess that drought over the past couple of years would have stressed them severely.

I do hope everyone has a healthy and happy Easter and I hope the sun shines for you, wherever you are.

It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see. ~Henry David Thoreau

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Have you ever gone outside on a spring morning and found the day so beautiful you wanted to throw out your arms and shout thank you? That’s what this day started like, with a beautiful blue sky and wall to wall sunshine. And with all of the red maples so full of red buds; I knew I had to go and find some flowers.

But it was still a little cool and I was afraid most flowers wouldn’t have opened yet, so I went to the river. I found ice baubles had grown over night on the shrubs that line the riverbank, so it had gotten colder than I thought.

The ice baubles form when river water splashes onto a twig or anything else and freezes. Slowly, splash by splash often a round ice ball will form. They’re usually as clear as crystal but these seemed to have a lot of bubbles in them.

There were waves on the river so I thought I’d practice catching one with my camera. I don’t use burst mode; when each wave comes I click the shutter, but it isn’t quite as easy as it sounds because there can be three or four small waves between big ones, so you have to sync yourself to the rhythm of the river. Sometimes you get a miss like this shot was. Just a bit too early for a really good curl but I love the colors.

And sometimes you’re a little too late. I find that there are times when I can “give myself” to the river and get shot after shot of breaking waves. I can’t really describe what giving myself to the river is, but your mind clears and you shoot each wave almost without really trying. I sometimes call it stepping out of myself or losing myself, and it’s always wonderful when it happens. You find that you can do things you didn’t know you could do, like reading waves.

As I was leaving the river I saw a bit of ice in a depression in a boulder. It looked like it had a face in it. Was it an elf? It was wearing a stocking cap, whatever it was.

Wildflowers are coming along and I saw my first dandelion. Since I found one blooming in February last year I’ve now seen dandelions blooming in every month of the year. Believe it or not I have more trouble finding them in summer these days than I do in the colder months. I know many people think of dandelions as weeds but to me all flowers are beautiful and there’s nothing cheerier than a field of dandelion blossoms in March. In fact one of the most beautiful sights I’ve seen was a field of dandelions and violets all blooming together. My grandmother used to cook dandelion greens like spinach for me, so I suppose they’re part of me.

I also saw henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) blooming. Henbit gets its common name from the way chickens peck at it. The plant is in the mint family and apparently chickens like it. The amplexicaule part of the scientific name means “clasping” and describes the way the hairy leaves clasp the stem. The plant is a very early bloomer and blooms throughout winter in warmer areas. It’s from Europe and Asia, but I can’t say that it’s invasive because I rarely see it. I’ve read that the leaves, stem, and flowers are edible and have a slightly sweet and peppery flavor. It can be eaten raw or cooked.

Here is what the foliage of henbit looks like for those who have never seen it. I find growing along with ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea), which the foliage resembles in shape but not in habit. Henbit stands taller than ground ivy and the leaves are a different shade of green in early spring. Those of ground ivy lean more toward dark purple in early spring.

I also saw what I think were some very crinkly hollyhock leaves. I don’t know if they appear very early or if they live under the snow all winter.

We who live in New England have a fifth season called “mud season” and it is upon us now. Sometimes it can really be brutal; in the old days schools were often closed for a month because of it.

Here is a view, courtesy of the Cheshire County Historical Society, of what mud season can do. This was taken in Westmoreland, New Hampshire sometime in the 1940s. Gravel roads become a sea of mud and very little in the way of motorized transport can get through it. It begins when the upper foot or two of soil thaws but anything under that stays frozen. Water can’t penetrate the frozen soil so it sits on top of it, mixing with the thawed soil and making dirt roads a muddy quagmire. It’s like quicksand and it’s hellish trying to drive through it because you’re usually stuck in it before you realize how deep it is.

Snowdrops were living up to their name up in Hancock where there is still snow. When I was gardening professionally not a single client grew snowdrops and as far as I know nobody in my family did either, so I don’t know them well. I do know that they’re scarce in this area; I see small clumps of 4 or 5 flowers here and there every spring but not the huge drifts of them that I’ve seen online. They simply don’t seem to like it here and that could be because they aren’t used to our kind of below zero cold. I’ve read that they’re in the amaryllis family so maybe that’s why.  

I went to see the budded daffodils that I saw last week. I was sure they’d be blooming but not yet. We’ve had a coolish week so maybe they’re waiting for that silent signal. I have a feeling these will be white daffodils because of the bud shape. Of course they might not open at all; I once worked for an English lady who complained about bud blast in her white daffodils. Most springs they would start to open and then, just as they were showing a little color they would die off. Either a freeze or a hot spell can cause it and these have been through both. White varieties appear to be much more susceptible to bud blast than the yellows.

Tulips are growing fast. These had doubled in size in a week.

One of my favorite spring bulbs, the reticulated iris, doesn’t seem to be doing well this year. Or maybe they’re just Petering out. I’ve never grown any myself but I’ve heard they just fade out after awhile.

I went to see if the skunk cabbages were showing any foliage growth yet but didn’t see a single leaf. The ground had thawed in their swamp so rather than kneel down it wet mud I sat on a hummock beside them to get this shot with my phone. I thought about that silent signal as I sat there; the one that calls the red winged blackbirds back and makes the spring peepers peep and the turtles come up out of the mud. It’s doubtful that the signal is heard by the critters, I thought, so it must be felt. But if that is so, why can’t I feel it? But then I thought about how I wanted to throw out my arms and shout my joy that morning and wondered if maybe I did feel it and just didn’t know it. The things that come to mind when you’re sitting on a hummock in a swamp.

I would have bet breakfast that the willows would be in bloom but they held back like the daffodils. In fact many things are holding back but this week is supposed to be in the 50s and 60s, so that should coax all the plants that haven’t dared to dip their toes into spring to finally jump in with a splash.

The violas were still blooming just the way they were a week previous, so the weather doesn’t bother them at all. The pansy family is made up of cool weather lovers anyhow, so I wasn’t surprised.

The witch hazels were still going strong too. What a glorious fragrance!

Crocuses certainly aren’t holding back. Blue (purple?) ones have joined the yellows I saw last week. The gardener is going to wish he’d raked those leaves before the flowers came up. Now he or she is going to have to hand pick them.

This one is certainly purple, and very beautiful as well. The first crocuses of the year just do something to you. They let you know that yes, spring really is here despite the forecast.

These crocuses grow under redbud trees and don’t see sunlight until the afternoon so they hadn’t opened yet. I was disappointed until I saw how beautiful the unopened blossoms were, and then I didn’t care. How lucky we are to have such beauty in our lives. And everywhere you look, too. It really is a wonder we can get anything done.

Behold, my friends, the spring is come; the earth has gladly received the embraces of the sun, and we shall soon see the results of their love! ~Sitting Bull

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In typical March fashion the first week of the month was cold and very windy, so it came in like a lion. Everyone I know is hoping it goes out like a lamb but meanwhile the snow is still melting, and with sixty degree temperatures expected in the near future I’d guess that this scene will be snow free by the weekend. I’ve been itching to climb again but with all the ice that came with February I haven’t done it.  Instead last weekend I went wandering, just to see what I could see.

I wondered if the red winged blackbirds had returned so I went to a place I knew they’d be if they had, but I didn’t hear them. I did see that ice had re-formed on the stream though.

There are plenty of cattails for them to build nests with when they do come back. There is a pond I go to where I can walk right along the edge, just where the cattails grow, and I often scare the female red winged blackbirds when I do, so I know that the nests are tucked down in the stems, quite close to the water. I’ve seen females picking large grubs out of the previous year’s decomposing stems as well, so nature has provided everything they need in a cattail stand; both food and nesting material. They’ll be back before long.

 I saw a group of mallards and as usual they were rushing away as fast as they could go. Usually when I get shots of mallards I see more tailfeathers than anything else. They’re very skittish in these parts.

I believe these were willows but they grew on the far side of another stream so I couldn’t get close to them, but many of the willows that grow here have yellow or yellowish branches in spring. I thought their color was very spring like and beautiful whatever they were, so I was happy to see them. They made an impressionistic scene, I thought. Or maybe post-impressionistic; I can see Van Gogh painting it.

I went to the river thinking I might see some interesting ice formations but I think the water was too high for them. Instead I admired the beautiful texture and colors of the water. It really is amazing how the appearance of river water changes. It’s very dependent on the quality of the light.

Closer to shore the sunlit ripples were hypnotizing.

A fallen tree had washed downriver and become stuck on the rocks, and it showed just how cold it was.

This ice is so clear it can’t be seen, but those bubbles were trapped under it.

This ice was anything but clear. I couldn’t tell if the patterns I saw were part of the ice itself or what was under it, but I liked them.

Much like beech and oak leaves do, black locust seed pods (Robinia pseudoacacia) often fall in spring and this one had landed in an icy footprint. You often see these pods with one side gone and the seeds open to the elements, just as these were.

The tiny brown seeds of a black locust look like miniature beans and that’s because they are in the same legume family. Their coating is very tough and they can remain viable for many years. They’re also very toxic and should never be eaten.

There is a stone in a local park that has what appear to be paw prints in it. Not on it; they’re actually depressions in the stone. They’re small like a housecat’s paw and I can’t imagine what might have made them or even if they really are animal prints, but seeing them always gets me wondering. Maybe they were just gas bubbles that popped as the magma that the stone came from was cooling, or maybe they’re impressions from ancient leaves that fell in mud that hardened. I didn’t bother to try to figure out if the stone was sedimentary or igneous but maybe one day.

Speaking of stones, here is a well made stone wall to contrast all the “thrown” and “tossed” walls I’ve shown on this blog. This is just the kind of wall I used to build; a puzzle made of stone, and I miss being able to do it.

I saw a beech tree, large and fairly old, with buds on it that are quite different from our native beech buds. Instead of thin, long and pointed like a native beech it was short and more round, so I think it must be a European beech (Fagus sylvatica). I’ve read that they can escape cultivation but this one lives on the grounds of the local college, so I can’t say it has done that. I’ll have to get a look at its leaves later on.

Native nannyberry buds (Viburnum lentago) with their two bud scales are good examples of valvate buds. These buds always remind me of great blue herons or cranes. Nannyberry is another of our native viburnums but unlike many of them this shrub produces edible fruit. Native Americans ate them fresh or dried and used the bark and leaves medicinally.

While I was thinking of buds I thought I’d check on the red maple buds (Acer rubrum). I didn’t see any open yet but the outer bud scales are definitely pulling back.

I saw a skunk cabbage spathe (Symplocarpus foetidus) that had opened so of course I had to look inside at the spadix.

There were plenty of flowers on the spadix and they were releasing pollen already. 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.

Lots of animals have been waiting all winter for anything green so I’m sure they’ll be happy to see green grass again. I’ve seen both porcupines and muskrats eating dead grass in winter.

I went back to see how the cold had affected the spring blooming witch hazels (Hamamelis vernalis) and found that all of the petals had rolled themselves back into the wooly buds so they didn’t get damaged. With 60 degrees right around the corner I’m guessing that they’ll be in full bloom by the weekend.

The thing that surprised me most was finding crocuses showing color. Though this flower bed isn’t in my yard I know it well enough to know that it has quite a few reticulated irises in it and they have always bloomed before the crocuses. Maybe the gardener pulled up all the irises? I don’t know.

Wandering souls discover sleepless dreams. ~Paul Sachudhanandam

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There is an old stone wall in Swanzey that I like to follow in winter because it has a southern exposure, and that coupled with evergreen branches overhead usually means that very little snow is on the ground. This year though, I got there to find that all the pine trees along the wall had been cut so there was snow right up to the wall. It’s still a great place to explore, so the bit of snow I got in my hiking boots didn’t really bother me. The reason the stones look like they do in this photo is because they are almost completely covered by rock greenshield lichens (Flavoparmelia baltimorensis).

Rock greenshield lichens are very common in this area and are another of those bits of nature that you see so often they no longer register, but when you take the time to look closer you find that they are quite pretty. They must like it here because they cover entire lengths of this wall. It had rained all day the day before so all the lichens I saw were at peak beauty.

The bushy rock lichen (Ramalina intermedia) I first found here a couple of years ago has grown quite a lot and there are even smaller ones growing under it now. Lichen communities grow in succession with many varieties of crustose lichens as pioneers. Foliose lichens come next as intermediary species and finally fruticose lichens like this one are considered climax species. What I don’t know is, how much time is between pioneer and climax? Climax communities of lichens are considered “old growth” communities.

The sun tried to come out but the clouds won the battle.

I believe there must have been animals kept here in the past because holes were drilled into stones and steel rods inserted into them to increase the wall height by about a foot and a half. Each rod has a flattened tip with a hole in it and the hole most likely had wire passed through it. It was fairly common practice in New England.  Stone walls were usually too low to be effective and cows and other farm animals often jumped right over them, so their height was increased by adding wire or other materials. You had to pay a fine if your animals escaped and were caught roaming free. They were brought to the town pound and the owner had to pay to get them back plus the cost of feeding them.

As the steel ground against the granite over the years the holes were made bigger so cut nails were driven in beside the rods to keep them straight. The cut nails seen here date the steel rods to sometime between 1800 and 1900, but the wall itself has been here I think since the mid-1700s.

Because it’s so warm near stone walls in the winter plants like to grow along them. Common speedwell (Veronica officinalis) thrives here. This European native is common here and has been used medicinally for centuries. Its leaves have also been used as a tea substitute and I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the early settlers brought it with them.

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) also does well here along the wall. In fact there is an amazing variety of plants growing on or near this wall. Native Americans used tea made from mullein’s large, gray green furry leaves to treat asthma and other respiratory ailments. It is also said to be useful as a relaxant and sleep aid.

This is a shot of one of the roots of a very old pine stump. They looked to be slowly rotting away but the wave pattern in this one caught my eye. You don’t see things like this every day.

Pixie cup lichens (Cladonia asahinae) grow all along the wall. The tiny little golf tee shaped parts are the fruiting bodies of this lichen. Spores produced in them will be splashed out of the cup by raindrops.  Pixie cups almost always produce large groups of fruiting bodies like these.

Scattered rock posy lichens (Rhizoplaca subdiscrepans) grow all along the wall in sunnier spots. They are quite small and difficult to see without magnification, but it’s worth looking for them because they almost always have their bright orange apothecia showing. They like to grow on stone, especially granite, in full sun.

All of the sudden I’m seeing lots of chipmunks, and here was a chipmunk burrow. These little rodents, bigger than a mouse but smaller than a squirrel, store food for winter in underground chambers and stay underground until spring. In spring they’re usually very hungry, hence all the activity. They love to run along stone walls as well and often follow me through the woods that way, chirping and chucking the whole way.

Some of the stones here are like quilts with such a patchwork of lichens on them.

The most common stone walls in this area are “tossed walls.” Farmers worked from dawn to dusk in Colonial New England and tossed walls required the least amount of time and effort because smaller stones were literally tossed or thrown on top of one another. In the early years getting rid of the plentiful stones quickly and efficiently was more important than enclosing the fields, but this farmer took the time to build a seat into this wall. It’s at the perfect height to sit on (I tried it) and wide enough for two people.

Near the stone seat is an iron ring in the wall where a horse could be hitched. Both the stone seat and hitching ring are in the shadiest part of this property so it makes perfect sense that this would be the place to sit and have lunch.

The farmer could even have had black raspberries for lunch, in season. They grow in several places along the wall.

As time passed barbed wire was often added to stone walls to keep animals in or out. This wire grew out of the very center of a pine tree, so it was tacked onto the tree quite a while ago. Running their saw into steel wire is one of a wood cutter’s worst nightmares come true but many things have been found inside trees, from axe heads to gravestones to even bicycles.

This chain hook is one of my favorite bits of antique iron work that I find here. A link from a chain would have been hooked over it and then another link hooked over a similar hook a certain distance away. Chains were (and are) often hung across roads or driveways as a way to say “no admittance.”  What I like about this example is the way the blacksmith tapered the hook over its length and finally ended it in what looks like a dragon’s tail. You can still see the marks of the hammer all along its length. It’s a beautiful thing and if I owned it, especially since my grandfather was a blacksmith, it would be considered a work of art.

Even in silhouette pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) can be readily identified by the long stalks that held its berries. What surprised me by these plants is how they were still standing. Pokeweed stems weaken quickly at ground level and it doesn’t usually take much snow to bring them down. Native Americans used the plant medicinally and also used the red juice from its berries to decorate their horses. Recently scientists found that the red dye made from the berries can be used to coat solar cells, increasing their efficiency.

A small oak tree hung on to its fall color and was beautiful on this cloudy, wet day. I loved seeing its bright cheery colors.

The truth is not in the touch of a stone, but in what the stone tells you. ~Rene Denfeld

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For this post I’m going to try to take you through February, starting with the photo of puddle ice above. February was a cold and icy month but beautiful too. The average February temperature usually runs between 16.5°F (-8.6°C) and 31.5°F (-0.3°C) so ice doesn’t come as a surprise.

February was also a snowy month with storm after storm coming through. According to state records in Concord, the state capital, on average snow falls for 10.2 days in February and typically adds up to about 7.36 inches. We’ve had all of that, as the waist high snowbanks on the side of the road I travel to work on show.

The snow and ice might have built up but the finger of open water in Half Moon Pond reached further out into the pond each day. In February days have the least amount sunshine with an average of only about 4 hours per day, so things like this take time. The clouds seen in this shot are typical on an average February day.

But the sun does shine and slowly, the days get longer.

I’ve read that the reflection of sunlight from snow can nearly double the intensity of the Sun’s UV radiation. This photo of a fertile sensitive fern frond was taken in natural light that was reflecting off the snow and it looks like I used a flash.  

Here is another sensitive fern fertile frond which has released its spores. This was another attempt at catching sunlight on snow. It isn’t easy to do because it’s so very bright. If you stare at it too long you can experience snow blindness, which thankfully is usually only temporary. Still, bright sunlight on snow isn’t good for the eyes especially if you have glaucoma, so I try to always wear sunglasses.

Animals like turkeys, deer and squirrels have been digging up the snow looking for acorns.

And then one day the sunshine was different; it felt like a warm breath, and the melting began in earnest. That’s how spring always begins, but it is something that can never be proven to those who don’t believe. It doesn’t matter if it is February, March or April, spring always begins with that sense; the knowing that something has changed. You feel it and you know it but you can’t explain it, even though you know that from this point on there will be other, more visible signs.

Anything dark colored like this white cedar branch absorbed warmth from the sun and melted down into the snow.

Here a basswood tree limb was doing the same.

At this time of year each tree in the forest may have a melt ring around it as the basswood in the above shot does. A study done by Emeritus Professor of Botany Lawrence J. Winship of Hampshire College, where he used an infrared thermometer to measure heat radiated by tree trunks, found that the sunny side of a red oak was 54 degrees F. while the shaded side was just 29 degrees F. And the ground temperature was also 29 degrees, which means it was frozen. This shows that trees really absorb a lot of heat from the sun and it must be that when the heat is radiated back into the surroundings it melts the snow. The professor found that the same was true on fence posts and stumps so the subject being alive had nothing to do with it, even though a living tree should have much more heat absorbing water in it.

As the snow melts things that fell on it months ago reappear, like these basswood berries (actually nutlets). That bract is a modified leaf, called a tongue by some, which helps the berries fly on the winds. These didn’t make it very far from the tree however. Native Americans used many parts of the basswood tree, including the berries, as food and also boiled its sweet sap. The fibers found in the tree’s bark were used to make twine and cordage used for everything from sewing to snowshoes. In fact the word “bass” is a mispronunciation of the Native word “bast”, which is their word for one of the types of fiber made from the tree.

No longer moistened by snow melt, this moss growing on a stone was looking quite dry. From here on out it will have to depend on rain.

As the sun warms stones many times you’ll see the frost coming out of them. That’s what the white was in this shot. It doesn’t usually last long so it’s one of those being in the right place at the right time things.

Maple syrup makers hung their sap buckets about the third week of February as usual. Nobody knows when or where sap gathering started but most agree that it was learned from Native Americans. They used to cut a V notch into the bark of a tree and then put a wedge at the bottom of the cut. The sap would drip from the wedge into buckets made of bark or woven reeds, or sometimes into wooden bowls. They would then boil it down until it thickened and became syrup. Since it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup sap gathering was and still is a lot of work.

Winter dark fireflies (Ellychnia corrusca) have appeared on trees. According to Bugguide.net, these fireflies can be a pest in sap buckets in the spring because they like maple sap, and they will also drink from wounds in maple trees. They like to sun themselves on the sunny side of trees or buildings, and this one was happy to do so on an old oak. Most fireflies live as larvae in rotting wood and forest litter near water and stay in the area they were born in, even as adults. They like it warm and humid but they weren’t getting much of either on this February day. They don’t seem to be afraid of people at all; I’ve gotten quite close to them several times.

Buoyed by sap flow and insect activity I thought I’d visit the swamp where the skunk cabbages grow and see if they were up yet.

They were up and that tells me the hazelnuts will most likely be flowering before long. Inside the skunk cabbage’s mottled spathe is the spadix, which is a one inch round, often pink or yellow, stalked flower head from which the small flowers emerge. I’d say it’ll be another week or so before I see them. The spathes seem extremely red this year. They’re usually a deep maroon color. Alder catkins, which are also a maroon / purple color, are also red this year, from here to Scotland. I can’t even guess why.

Of course I had to check the bulb beds, and there were indeed shoots up out of the soil. I’m not positive but I think these were crocus. Since I don’t own the bulb bed I can never be 100 percent sure.

Reticulated irises are usually the first bulb to bloom and they were up and looking good, but no buds yet.

In one bed daffodils seemed to be rushing up out of the ground.

These daffodils were about four inches tall, I’d guess. They looked a little blanched from coming up under the snow but they’ll be fine. They won’t bloom for a while though.

The willows are showing their silvery catkins so it won’t be long before the bushes are full of beautiful yellow flowers.

I hoped I’d be able to show you flowers at the end of this post and the spring blooming witch hazels (Hamamelis vernalis) came through. I was beside myself with joy when I turned a corner and saw them blooming. We might see cold and we might see more snow but there is no turning back now. Spring, my favorite season, has begun in this part of the world. I might have to tie myself to a rock to keep from floating away.

It was such a spring day as breathes into a man an ineffable yearning, a painful sweetness, a longing that makes him stand motionless, looking at the leaves or grass, and fling out his arms to embrace he knows not what. ~ John Galsworthy

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