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Posts Tagged ‘Switch Grass’

I didn’t realize, until I started cleaning it up, how much stuff falls from trees. There must be tons of it raining down; it falls 24 hours per day seven days per week. Eastern forest broadleaf trees alone, it is estimated, can drop 2 to 3 tons of leaves per acre in the fall. And then there are the branches, seed cones, acorns and everything else that falls. If it wasn’t for the animals, bacteria and fungi that process it we would surely be buried under it all.

The tiny black specks you see here are seeds of the gray birch (Betula populifolia). Tiny yes, but there must have been millions of them in this small birch grove. Pine siskins, chickadees, and other songbirds eat them. Deer, moose and rabbits eat gray birch twigs.

I thought the brown on the snow in this shot must be dust like seeds but I suspect it was just dust.

Eastern white pines (Pinus strobus) drop an incredible amount of material each year; large branches, needles, cones and bark all end up on the forest floor.

Whenever I see a fallen pine branch I check it for lichens and probably 8 out of 10 times there are lichens on it. I believe this foliose example is in the Tuckermanopsis family, possibly Tuckermanopsis americana. It was quite dry even though it was on the snow, so I’d guess that its color had lightened.

After branches pine cones are probably the things that fall out of pine trees the most. They are everywhere, but they don’t always fall end first into the snow like this one had. The heavy end falls first sometimes like this one did but I’ve also seen them turned 180 degrees with the lighter end in the snow.

Usually when you see a fallen pine cone they look like this, but this one has done something special; the sun had heated it enough for it to melt its way into the snow. I’ve seen oak leaves melt into the snow in the same way.

When I see good size fallen pine limbs I always look for bark beetle damage. Bark beetles usually attack weak or dying trees but they can also kill healthy trees by girdling them.  Adults bore small holes in the bark and lay eggs in a cavity. Once the larvae emerge from the eggs they make tunnels in the inner bark, like those seen here. Once they stop feeding they will pupate at the end of these tunnels. The pupae then become young adults and fly off to find another tree. These beetles carry spores of various fungi which can grow on the outer sapwood and stop the upward flow of water to the crown. Bark Beetles include over 100 species and it is said that their work is like a fingerprint for the species. They can create such beautiful patterns in wood that it looks as if a calligrapher has taken up a chisel instead of a pen.

Mosses of course, are also common on fallen branches. These were very dry but the shield lichen next to them didn’t look too bad. I think it was a common greenshield (Flavoparmelia caperata) , which is indeed very common. They often have patches of granular soredia on them as this one did in its center.

If white pine branches are the most common on the forest floor then eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) branches are the second most common. The difference about hemlock branches though, is how they are almost always small enough to decompose quickly.

Both pines and hemlocks catch much of the snow on their branches, and underneath them the ground is often bare or nearly so in all but the snowiest winters. These bare spots are often full of small birds like juncos scratching around for seeds.

Honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) seed pods are pretty things. When the seed pods are green the pulp on the inside is edible and very sweet, while the pulp of the very similar black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) is toxic. One good way to tell the two trees apart is by the length of their seed pods; honey locust pods are much longer and may reach a foot in length, while black locust pods only grow to about 4-5 inches long. Honey locust seed pods look a lot like giant flat string beans about 9-12 inches long and often curled. Some of them look like polished mahogany and others can be purple. Beautiful white, fragrant flowers cover these trees in late spring. Locusts are legumes, in the pea family. Deer love the seed pods, which often fall in such abundance they cover the ground under the trees.

You want to watch where you walk under a honey locust because fallen branches can be very thorny. Honey locust thorns grow singly and can be 3 to 6 inches long. They will sometimes branch like the example in the photo. These thorns are big and as hard as iron. They can reach 6 inches in length and poke right out of the bark of the tree along its branches and sometimes even the main trunk. They are tough enough to puncture shoe soles and can cause a nasty wound. In the past the hard thorns of the younger trees were used as nails. Confederate soldiers once used them to pin their uniforms together and survivalists still use them as fish hooks, spear heads, nails, sewing needles and even small game traps. Native Americans used the wood to make bows, and medicines were made from various parts of the plant.

The orangey color of these leaves caught my eye. I think they may have been American hornbeam leaves (Carpinus caroliniana). This tree is also know n as muscle wood, ironwood, hornbeam and blue beech, and younger trees will often hang onto their leaves quite late into the year.

In the fall shortening day length tells most deciduous trees that it’s time to stop growing, so the tree forms a layer of waxy, corky cells at the base of each leaf. This is called an abscission layer, and it slows and finally stops the flow of sap to the leaf. In some trees like oak (Quercus), beech (Fagus), and hornbeam (Carpinus), this abscission layer forms much later, so even though the leaves might freeze dead and turn completely brown they still cling to the branches. Pin oaks (Quercus palustris) don’t form an abscission layer until spring, so their leaves stay on the tree all winter. This retention of dead leaves is known as marcescence. When I start seeing lots of beech leaves blowing around in late winter I get excited, because that means spring isn’t far off.

I think this pile of beech leaves, blown by the wind, was fairly recent.

I see a lot of woodchips around dead and dying trees, almost always left there by woodpeckers. These small bits of wood disappear quickly.

Trees losing their bark isn’t anything strange but there were a lot of animal tracks around this tree and it looked like an animal might have pulled this piece of bark off. Porcupine maybe?

This white pine had lost some of its bark but it wasn’t lying on the ground anywhere near the tree that I could see. Wounds like this are how fungi can get into a tree and start things like heart rot.

I was surprised to see a virgin’s bower vine (Clematis virginiana) on the ground. This vine can climb high enough to make it into the trees occasionally but usually it just drapes itself over shrubs and hangs on tight. It’s more likely to decompose right there on the shrub than to fall on the forest floor. Those long feathery filaments called styles are on its seeds (fruits) so the wind can carry them, but that can’t happen if they’re on the ground.

This switch grass did most certainly not fall from a tree but its delicate beauty caught my eye so I’ve put it here. I hope you enjoy seeing it as much as I did.

Anyone who thinks fallen leaves are dead has never watched them dancing on a windy day. ~Shira Tamir

Thanks for stopping in.

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