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Posts Tagged ‘Sweet Birch’

The last time I passed through this section of woods I couldn’t have been more than 12 years old. The house I grew up in was just a few yards from the railroad tracks and I’d guess I started walking those tracks almost as soon as I could walk. I knew that if I followed them one way (north) I’d get to my grandmother’s house and then downtown Keene further on. But I didn’t know where the other direction went, so one day I decided it was time to find out. It would be my first great adventure.

There was a slight problem though. The Ashuelot River was also just a few yards from the house and if I was going to follow the tracks the way I’d never been I had to cross it by way of the train trestle over the Ashuelot River. The trestle had gaps between the ties and if you weren’t careful my grandmother said, a skinny little boy like me could fall right through one of those gaps and end up in the river. That thought had held me back for a long time as she knew it would but on this day I was determined, so off I went across the trestle for the first time, headed south.

My father knew that a boy had to run and explore and learn, and he let me off the leash early on. I had no mother to say otherwise so I simply loved life and made my own fun. Unlike the other boys I knew who could only seem to focus on what they didn’t have I saw what I did have, and though we were poor when it came to money I knew that I was rich; I could see it, sharp and clear, and even at twelve years old I knew that no boy anywhere else on earth was having a better boyhood than I was.

But even so my father would have had something to say about this adventure and I probably would have had to eat standing up for a few days if he’d found out. That’s because he knew the river drew me like a magnet. He was forever having to tell me to stay away from it, and with good reason. As I was taking photos of the frozen river on this day it began to groan and crack open and my stomach fell into my shoes. It was the same sound I’d heard when I was walking down the middle of it so many years ago when the ice gave way. Even after 50+ years it’s a sound that can still make my stomach lurch and my hands shake.

I could have drowned that day but instead I learned a good lesson, and it’s one I’ve never forgotten. In fact I learned all kinds of things along these rail lines because I was curious and I wanted to know the answers to the thousand and one questions I had in my head. Since nobody I knew could answer the questions I turned to books. Botany books, wildflower books, tree books, bird books, I had them all and I learned from them, but even so I’m still what I call “overly curious” when it comes to the natural world, and it’s that curiosity that fuels this blog. For instance I’ve wondered for years why the buds on a black birch will suddenly form a cluster of buds like that in the above photo. It’s almost like a witches’ broom but not quite because they don’t seem to grow after they knot up like this. Actually I think they die.

This is what a normal, healthy black birch bud (Betula lenta) looks like. The young bark of these trees looks a lot like cherry bark but if you nibble a twig and taste wintergreen, it’s a black birch. It’s also called sweet birch and cherry birch, and birch beer was once made from it and so was oil of wintergreen. In fact so many trees were taken to make oil of wintergreen for many years the trees were very hard to find. This is the only birch that I’ve seen the strange bud clusters on.

Another mystery is why birds don’t eat sumac berries until spring in this part of the country. I’ve heard that in other parts of the country they snap them up as soon as they ripen but here they’re still on the bushes even into April in some years. I’ve heard that they’re low in fat and not very nutritious so that might have something to do with it, but why wouldn’t that be true everywhere? The berries seen here are those of the smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) but smooth or staghorn sumac berries, most will still be there in spring.

Another mystery is how can a river look frozen solid in one place and then be free of ice less than a mile downstream. It could have something to do with restricted flow, I think. The place where I took the photo of the iced over river has a kind of S curve and an island, and both would slow down the flow.

I had to have a look at the shagbark hickory buds (Carya ovata) while I was here. There is no sign of any movement yet but come mid-May they’ll open to reveal some of the most beautiful sights in the spring forest.

I did see some movement in some of the beech buds (Fagus grandifolia) I looked at though it was almost imperceptible. You can just see how some of the silvery white tips of the bud scales have barely pulled away from the bud. Soon they will start to grow and lengthen and then in May will finally open, and then the trees will look as if they’ve been hung with tiny angel wings.

In places the woods were full of ice.

And in other places they were nearly ice free.

The drainage ditches that were dug by the railroad 150 years ago were still working fine, though they were ice covered.

What interests me most about this ice is the oak leaf shape in the lower left corner. I can’t even guess how that would have happened. Ice is such fascinating stuff.

There are lots of old stone walls out here. They are “tossed” or “thrown” walls, where the stones were literally just thrown on top of one another, because the object was to get them out of what would become cropland as quickly as possible. I know this wall is quite old because of the lichens and mosses on the stones. Walls I built 45 years ago still don’t have any mosses or lichens on them and the stones haven’t even grayed yet. I’d guess this one must be at least 200 years old, built even before the railroad came through.

This boulder pile shows what those who first cleared the land faced. Left here by the last glacier, they had to be moved if you were going to plant crops.  I’ve collected stones to build walls with and I can say that it is backbreaking work.

I hoped to see some signs of hazelnut catkins opening but these were still closed tight. It won’t be long now though.

Distances seemed longer and time passed much slower when I was a child and this walk seemed very long indeed, but for the first time I had actually left my town and crossed into another: Swanzey, and that was quite a feat in my opinion. Swanzey lies to the south of Keene and it isn’t very far but I remember feeling so tired that day when I came to this road, and I had the walk home still ahead of me. I could have waited for the Boston and Maine freight and hopped it, but my grandmother told me in graphic detail what can happen to little boys who try to hop on trains. Of course she did that to keep me from hopping the trains I saw creeping by twice a day, and it was very effective. I wanted badly to try, but I never did.

So I walked back home dog tired but elated, and as I retraced those steps on this day once again I realized how very lucky I was to have had this place to grow up in; to be able to run and play in the fields and forests along the river, surrounded by and immersed in nature. It was such a glorious life and if I ever had a choice of where and when I could return to it would be that place and that time, because for me there is simply nothing better. I really do hope that all of you have a place that you feel the same about, and I hope you’re lucky enough to be at least able to revisit it occasionally.

A boy’s will is the wind’s will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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1. Trail

I noticed that people had broken a path through the snow at a local forest that I visit often, so I decided to follow it one cold and cloudy day. The snow was well packed and easy to walk on and squeaked under my boots. For those of you who have never experienced real cold; when it’s really cold the snow squeaks when it’s walked on, and it does that so nature nuts know that it’s too cold to be out walking on it. At least, that’s my theory.

2. Trail

The path was also only 1 person wide and if you stepped off it into the soft snow at the sides you found yourself up to your knees in it. I suspected that would be the case so I thought ahead for a change and wore my knee high gaiters. I seem to be having some hip trouble so snowshoes aren’t a good idea right now.

3. Common Greenshield Lichen

With the gaiters on I was able to plow through the snow without getting soaked below the knees and boots full of snow, so I could get a look at things like this green shield lichen (Flavoparmelia caperata.) It’s not hard to see how it came by its common name; it looks just like a shield. Its dryness reminded me that winter can be as dry as a desert, in spite of all the snow.

4. Stalked Feather Moss aka Brachythecium rutabulum

One of the best things about walking through the woods in winter is seeing those things which we ordinarily wouldn’t see or which wouldn’t register, like moss on a tree trunk. At other times of the year there is so much to see that most of us would pass a small bit of moss by without a second glance.

5. Stalked Feather Moss aka Brachythecium rutabulum

But if we did we’d probably be missing something beautiful and fascinating, like this stalked feather moss (Brachythecium rutabulum.) Though it doesn’t seem to be moving we know that it is because we can read its movements and easily see how it has crawled up and over the bark plates looking for that perfect spot where it will get all the sunshine, water and nutrients that it needs. It seems to pulse with energy and you can sense how full of life it is. Its beautiful green color offers a welcome contrast to the brown, black and white winter landscape.

6. Red Oak Bark

You don’t always have to see something on the bark of a tree though, because often the bark itself is every bit as interesting and beautiful as anything that might grow on it.  As I took off my glove and ran my hand over the beautiful, deeply furrowed bark of this old northern red oak I imagined that I knew how Adam must have felt when he first laid eyes on the garden. Surely the love of creation must have welled up inside of him like a spring bubbling up from the earth.

7. Snow Depth

The woods might seem hushed and quiet but if you stop and listen you’ll find that spring is in the air. When I stopped squeaking the snow I heard a bird singing a beautiful song just above me in the treetops. I couldn’t see it so I don’t know which bird it was but it wasn’t one of the common, often heard songs. In fact I can’t remember ever hearing it before, but I’d love to hear it again.

8. Wind Blown Snow

The trees will tell you which way the wind blew during the last storm.

 9. Red Oak Buds

There are many northern red oaks (Quercus rubra) in these woods and I stopped to admire the buds of another one.  We have a lot of white oak (Quercus albra) as well but their buds aren’t as sharply pointed as these. There was no sign of these swelling just yet.

10. Oak Branch

Sugar maple buds look very similar to red oak buds because of the overlapping bud scales but an easy way to tell the two apart is by their branching habits. Oaks like the one in the photo have alternate branching and maples have opposite branching. If you’d like to be able to identify trees in winter studying their branch structure and winter buds is a great place to start.

11. Black Birch Bud

This bud had me scratching my head for quite a while but the taste test finally told me that it was a black birch (Betula lenta.) Black birch looks so much like cherry that another common name for it is cherry birch, but this bud didn’t look anything like a cherry bud. Actually, it looks a lot like a buckthorn bud but that’s a shrub, not a tree. Chewing a twig revealed a taste of wintergreen and told me immediately what it was. Black birch often fools me because so many were harvested to make oil of wintergreen that I rarely see them unless I go to spots where I know they grow.  Now I know another spot.

12. Hemlock Twig

Eastern hemlock branches aren’t hard to identify; I’ve raked up millions of them.  Hemlocks, much like weeping willows, are a “self-pruning” tree and can be quite messy. The snow in this photo seems to have a strange, luminous quality that I don’t remember seeing in person.

13. Inner Barberry Bark

The yellow inner bark will tell you that you’re seeing a barberry….

14. Barberry Thorn

But in the winter it’s the thorns that will tell you which one. European barberry (Berberis vulgaris) and American barberry (Berberis canadensis) both have clusters of 3 or more thorns but since American barberry doesn’t grow in New England it comes down to European or Japanese, and only the very invasive Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) has single thorns.

 15. Sunny Snow Storm

I don’t think I’ve ever seen it snow when the sun was shining as much as I have this year. It’s as if the atmosphere is so full of snow that it can’t even wait for the sun to stop shining before it drops more of it, and what looks like spots and smudges on this photo are just that-more of it.

By walking in a snowy forest you can really forget about this world, and every time you forget about this world you leave this world, and every time you leave this world you gain a very special wisdom that does not exist in this world. ~Mehmet Murat ildan

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1. Pond Ice

This photo of pond ice does something to satisfy that abstract craving that I have every now and then. It seemed to want to be in black and white so I granted its wish, even though it hardly changed from the original. These shards of ice were quite long and looked like they had just started to form. The process of ice crystals beginning to form in super cooled water is called nucleation.

 2. Bracket Fungi on Bracket Fungi

There were bracket fungi growing on this tree when it fell. Bracket fungi have their top toward the sky and bottom toward the soil but when the tree they grow on falls, what was horizontal can become vertical. They solve that problem by growing young, horizontal bracket fungi from the older ones that now grow vertically. That’s determination.

 3. Bracket Fungi on Bracket Fungi

A shot from another direction shows that these bracket fungi have teeth.  I think they might be Steccherinum ochraceum, which is a tooth fungus that can form brackets and is strongly affected by gravity and sunlight.

4. White Pine Bark

This old white pine had very colorful bark. There were several other old specimens growing quite close together but this was the only one that looked like it wanted to be as colorful as a sycamore.

 5. Crumpled Rag Lichen aka Platismatia tuckermanii

Last year I did a post with this lichen in it and at the time I thought it was an example of a spotted camouflage lichen (Melanohalea olivacea), but after doing a little more research I’m now fairly certain that it’s a crumpled rag lichen (Platismatia tuckermanii .)The large greenish brown discs are apothecia or fruiting bodies, and they help identify this lichen. I usually find these on birch limbs.

6. Heather Rag Lichen

I think this is an example of a lichen called heather rags (Hypogymnia physodes), but there are so many that look almost the same that I can’t be completely certain. This lichen has gray, inflated, puffy looking lobes like heather rag lichens do, but so do many others. Heather rags gets its common name by its habit of growing on unburned heather in the United Kingdom, but it is also quite common here in the north eastern U.S.  No matter what its name, this example is a beautiful lichen.

7. Heather Rag Lichen Closeup

Lichen books say to look for soralia bursting from lobe tips when identifying heather rags lichens. Soralia are clusters of intertwined alga and fungi that form a granule-like mass, and I think I see a few of those in this close up. Soralia are a vegetative way for lichens to reproduce. Once separate from the main body of the lichen they will start new lichens, just as taking a cutting from a plant produces a new plant.

8. Small Brain Jelly Fungi

These yellow fungi looked like tiny dots, about half as big as a pencil eraser, on a fallen log. It wasn’t until I saw the photo that I realized they were very small examples of “brain” fungi, possibly Tremella mesenterica, also called witch’s butter. If so they are the smallest examples I’ve seen of that fungus.

9. Pear Shaped Puffball

I saw some pear shaped puffballs (Lycoperdon pyriforme) on a log and noticed that the darker, outer skin had split to reveal a lighter inner surface.  I assumed that this meant that they were ready to release their spores and poked one with a stick. Sure enough it puffed out some spores, which show as light gray powder in this photo. Inhaling enough of these spores can result in lycoperdonosis, which is a respiratory disease that starts out like a cold. The disease causes symptoms similar to those found in pneumonia, and is sometimes misdiagnosed as tuberculosis or pneumonia. If left untreated it can be fatal.

10. Sweet Birch Seeds aka Betula lenta

If you see a cherry tree with this type of growth on it you have found a sweet birch (Betula lenta,) not a cherry. I’ve pointed that out because its bark looks a lot like cherry bark and they are sometimes confused. The cone like object pictured is a female catkin. These catkins begin to shatter and release their seeds in late fall. The seeds, a few of which can be seen in the photo, are called nutlets and are winged, much like an elm seed. The easiest way to identify sweet birch is by chewing a twig. If it doesn’t taste like wintergreen, it isn’t sweet birch. Native Americans boiled the sap and made it into syrup. If enough corn is added, birch beer can also be made from it. After chewing quite a few twigs it seems to me that syrup or beer made from this tree would taste a lot like oil of wintergreen, and I don’t know if I could handle wintergreen flavored flapjacks.

11. Plagiomnium cuspidatum Moss

I found a large patch of baby tooth moss (Plagiomnium cuspidatum) growing on a flat boulder in the sun. This moss can be a little tricky to identify because it has two types of stems with different growth patterns. Vegetative stems trail like a vine and stems with fruiting capsules (sporophytes) stand upright as they are in the photo. Each leaf has tiny serrations from its tip down to about mid leaf, and that’s a good identifying feature.

 12. Plagiomnium cuspidatum Moss Immature Sporophytes

The sun had melted a dusting of snow from the patch of baby tooth moss just before I found it and many of the sharply pointed  immature sporophytes had tiny drops of water clinging to them. When mature the sporophytes will be more barrel shaped with flat ends, and will bend until the capsules droop just past horizontal.

Go to the winter woods: listen there; look, watch, and ‘the dead months’ will give you a subtler secret than any you have yet found in the forest. ~ Fiona Macleod

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