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Posts Tagged ‘Winter Cress’

Spring is happening but very slowly. We just had a week with nighttime temps in the teens F. and days that hardly reached 40 degrees. This is slowing the sap flow down, according to the maple syrup producers, and it’s looking like a poor year for the industry. This farmer used traditional sap buckets to gather his sap but many have switched over to plastic tubing that runs from tree to tree and then into a large holding tank. Squirrels love sweet maple sap and will nick maple bark with their teeth and then lick it up, but they’ve discovered that chewing a hole in the plastic tubing is easier and the sap flows better, so they’re doing that instead. Because the sap is drawn through the tubing by a vacuum pump even a small hole in it causes the entire system to stop flowing. That means the farmer has to walk miles of tubing to find and patch the hole, so I’m guessing that we can expect the price of maple syrup to go up. It’s about $70.00 per gallon now. I’m also guessing that more sap gatherers will return to the old ways and hang buckets again.

The syrup farmers don’t have much time because once the trees start blossoming the sap turns bitter, and sugar maples usually flower around the second week of April.  This cluster of red maple buds (Acer rubrum) had a few opening. You can see one just above and to the right of the center of the bud group. It looks like there might be female flowers inside.

Native Americans used to also tap another member of the maple family for its sap: box elder (Acer negundo.) The twigs and buds of this tree are pruinose, which means they’re covered with white, waxy, powdery granules that reflect light in ways that often makes their surfaces appear blue. It doesn’t look like these buds have started swelling yet but they will soon. Its flowers are very beautiful and I enjoy seeing them in spring. The earliest example of a Native American flute, from 620-670 AD, was made from the wood of this tree.

I thought for sure I’d see the yellow flowers of willows appearing through the gray catkins this week but the cool weather must have held them back.

The catkins of the white poplar (Populus alba) are gray and fuzzy much like willow catkins. They grow to 3 or 4 inches long and fall from the trees in great numbers. This tree was imported from Europe in 1748 and liked it here enough to now grow in almost every state. Soon their fluffy seeds will be floating on the wind.

I saw a flock of robins throwing leaves around in the forest litter, probably hoping worms or insects were hiding beneath them. One spring I had a robin land right beside me and do the same, but these birds were skittish. These are the first robins I’ve seen in many months.

There were starlings doing the leaf flipping trick along with the robins but I couldn’t get a very good photo of them because they were even more skittish than the robins.

I went to the swamp where skunk cabbages grow and saw a pair of mallards swimming away as fast as they could go. At least I think they were mallards; I’m not good with bird identification.

The skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) are fully up now and many have opened the split in their splotchy spathes to let in insects. You wouldn’t think there would be many insects out in this weather but I’ve seen many this year on warmer days.

You can just see the round spadix with its many stubby flowers through the slit in this spathe. Photos like this one are hard to get; you’d better be prepared to get your knees wet if you want to try.

The spadix of a skunk cabbage is a one inch diameter pink or yellow, stalked flower head from which the flowers emerge. The flowers don’t have petals but they do have four 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 insects bring in from other plants. The spadix is what carries most of the skunk like odor at this point and it is thought by some that the plant uses the odor to attract flies and other insects that might pollinate it. These tiny blossoms can produce large amounts of pollen and sometimes the inside of the spadix is covered in it.

Alder catkins have started to take on quite a lot of color, as the one on the right shows. They swell up and lengthen as the season progresses and the colors change to maroon and yellow-green. They sparkle in the sunlight and make the bushes look like someone has hung jewels from the branches. When they are fully opened and the tiny male blossoms start to release pollen I’ll look for the even smaller female flowers, which look like tiny threads of scarlet red. You can just see three of the much smaller female catkins at the very top of this photo.

I saw a strangely shaped cloud. I’ve never seen another like it and can’t even guess why it had that shape. Maybe it was a good luck horseshoe.

Vernal witch hazels (Hamamelis vernalis) still bloom and perfume the air with their wonderful, clean fragrance. Their strap like petals can curl up into the bud if it gets cold and then unfurl again on warm days, so you don’t see too many that have been frost bitten. These ones have withstood temperatures as low as 15 degrees F.

The “Hamamelis” part of witch hazel’s scientific name means “together with fruit” and speaks to witch hazels being the only tree in North America which has flowers, fruit, and buds all at the same time. Though the seed pod has opened you can see in this photo how all three can appear at once; past, present and future all on one branch. The “witch” part of witch hazel comes from the Anglo Saxon word that means “to bend,” and refers to the way the branches can bend without breaking. These branches were used by the early settlers in water witching (dowsing) to find underground water.

I had to go back 3 times to do it but I finally caught these crocus blossoms fully opened. If it’s the least bit cool or cloudy they refuse to open but I was more stubborn than they were and refused to give up.

These were my favorites. How pretty is that after 5 months of winter?

There’s nothing quite like the sight and smell of green grass in spring. All thoughts of winter immediately just fly out the window.

Do you see what looks like a tiny white butterfly just to the right and just above center in this photo?

It’s a winter cress blossom; the first I’ve seen this spring. Cress is in a huge family of plants known as Brassicaceae with 150 or more species but I think this plant might be hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta,) which is a common weed that stays green under the snow all winter and blooms as soon as it melts. Its tiny flowers are about the size of Abraham Lincoln’s head on a penny. Seed pods appear quickly on this plant and explode if touched or walked on, flinging the tiny seeds up to three feet away. Each plant can throw as many as 1000 seeds so if this plant is in your yard, you should probably just learn to enjoy it.

There was something I was hoping to see; the first dandelion blossom.

At this time of year not even an orchid blossom could please me more. It looked as if it were only half awake; shaking off its long winter sleep and thinking about getting down to the business of making seeds. I haven’t seen a bee yet but I have seen quite a few smaller insects flying about.

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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Some of our spring ephemeral flowers are finishing up and others, like goldthread, are just starting. Goldthread (Coptis groenlandicum) gets its common name from its thread like, bright yellow roots. This plant usually grows in undisturbed soil that is on the moist side. I like its tiny styles curved like long necked birds and the even smaller white tipped stamens. The white, petal like sepals last only a short time and will fall off, leaving the tiny golden yellow club like petals behind. The ends of the golden petals are cup shaped and hold nectar, but it must be a very small insect that sips from that cup. Native Americans used goldthread medicinally and told the early settlers of its value in treating canker sores, which led to its being nearly collected into oblivion. At one time more goldthread was sold in Boston than any other native plant, and it was most likely sold under its other common name of canker root. Luckily it has made a good comeback and I see lots of it.

New goldthread leaves are a bright, glossy lime green but darken as they age and by winter will be very dark green. They’ll hold their color under the snow all winter and look similar to wild strawberries until late April or early May when new leaves and flowers will appear. Their leaves come in threes, and another common name is three leaved goldthread.

The rain and cool weather is keeping dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) blooming in numbers I haven’t seen in a while. I wonder how many realize that each “petal” in a dandelion “flower” is actually a tiny flower (floret) by itself, and what we call the flower of a dandelion is really a flower head, made up of hundreds of individual florets. Before the 1800s (before lawns came along) people would pull grass out of their yards to make room for dandelions and other plants that we call weeds today.

The strange flower heads of sugar maples (Acer saccharum) aren’t as showy as other native maples but they must do their job, because we have a lot of sugar maple trees. These are the male (staminate) flowers in this photo. Sugar maples can reach 100 feet in height and can live to be 400 years old when healthy.

Magnolias seem to be having a great year and I’m seeing them everywhere. Their fragrance is amazing.

Bleeding hearts (Dicentra spectabilis) grow naturally in forests so they are plants that like cool, shady locations. They’ll go dormant quickly when it gets hot and they can leave a hole in the garden but that trait is easily forgiven. It’s one of the oldest perennials in cultivation and it is called old fashioned bleeding heart. I’ve always liked them and they were one of the first flowers I chose for my own garden.

The wild plum (Prunus americana) grows in just a small corner of south western New Hampshire, so you could say they are rare here. I’m fortunate to have found three or four trees growing under some power lines, but a few years ago when the powerlines were cleared I didn’t think I’d be seeing them for long. The power company clears the land regularly and cuts every plant, shrub and tree down to ground level. Except these plum trees; they were left alone and unharmed, even though everything around them was cut. I wonder how the power company knows that they are rare enough to leave standing.

How I wish you could smell these plum blossoms. The fragrance is wonderful, and so unique that I can’t think of any other flower fragrance to compare it to. It’s very different than the fragrance of apple blossoms.

I’ve been smelling plenty of apple blossoms too, because old, “wild’ apple trees line our roads and even grow in the forests. In fact entire abandoned orchards, left behind when farms were abandoned in the industrial revolution of the 1800s, can sometimes be found off in the middle of nowhere, still blooming beautifully and still bearing fruit. Apple trees can regularly live for 100 years but 200+ year old trees have been known. There is at least one tree that was planted in 1809 that still lives. These days most of the apples from the old trees are enjoyed by deer and bears in this area.

I wonder if people realize that every apple tree in this country (except crabapples) has been imported from somewhere else or was planted by seed; either by man, bird or animal. That’s why John Chapman (aka Johnny Appleseed) did what he did. There are four species of crabapple native to North America; they are Malus fusca, Malus coronaria, Malus angustifolia and Malus ioensis. I planted the example in the photo but I’ve long since forgotten its name. 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.

Our native cherries are also blossoming but I liked the red stars in the blossoms of this cultivated variety.

These pretty viola flowers were quite large and I don’t know if they were escaped pansies or large violets but I loved their color and cheeriness so I stopped to get a photo.  Violets are native To North America but plant breeders have made significant changes to color, size and fragrance.

Boxwood is called “man’s oldest garden ornamental.” The early settlers must have thought very highly of it because they brought it over in the mid-1600s. The first plants to land on these shores were brought from Amsterdam and were planted in about 1653 on Long Island in New York. There are about 90 species of boxwood and many make excellent hedges. I found this one blooming in a local park. I don’t think most people pay any attention to its small blossoms.

It’s already just about time to say goodbye to the trout lilies (Erythronium americanum.) Their stay is brief but spring wouldn’t be the same without them.

Trout lily flowers have three petals and three sepals. All are yellow on the inside but the sepals on many flowers are a brown / maroon / bronze color on the outside. No matter how you look at it it’s a beautiful little thing, but I think it’s even more so from the back side.

Unfortunately it’s also almost time to say goodbye to the beautiful spring beauties (Claytonia virginica.) I doubt I’ll see them for another post but you never know; this cool, rainy weather is extending the bloom time of many plants. I’m still seeing forsythia that looks like it just opened yesterday and they’ve been blooming for weeks.

Winter cress, also called yellow rocket, (Barbarea vulgaris) has just started blooming. This plant is native to Africa, Asia and Europe and is found throughout the U.S. In some states it is considered a noxious weed. In the south it is called creasy greens. It is also known as scurvy grass due to its ability to prevent scurvy because of its high vitamin C content. It is very easy to confuse with our native common field mustard (Brassica rapa or Brassica campestris.) Winter cress is about knee-high when it blooms in spring and it stays green under the snow all winter. This habit is what gives it its common name.

What a show the grape hyacinths are putting on this year.  Since blue is my favorite color, I’m enjoying them.

Dwarf Ginseng (Panax trifolius) has three leaflets which together make up part of a whorl of three compound leaves. Dwarf ginseng doesn’t like disturbed ground and is usually found in old, undisturbed hardwood forests. I usually find it growing at the base of trees, above the level of the surrounding soil. It is very small and hard to see; the plant in the photo could have fit in a tea cup with room to spare. It had two flower heads, and this is the first plant I’ve ever seen with more than one. It is on the rare side here and I only know of two places to find it. This is not the ginseng used in herbal medicine so it should never be picked.

Individual dwarf ginseng flowers are about 1/8″ across and have 5 white petals, a short white calyx, and 5 white stamens. The flowers might last three weeks, and if pollinated are followed by tiny yellow fruits. Little seems to be known about which insects might visit the plant.

Almost every person, from childhood, has been touched by the untamed beauty of wildflowers. ~Lady Bird Johnson

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