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Posts Tagged ‘Winter Plants’

I decided to prune a very old, overgrown Forsythia at work last week. This is what I found on the oldest branches; Lilliputian gardens. I think I recognize star rosette (Physcia stellaris) and hammered shield lichens (Parmelia sulcata,) but others are a mystery. 

Another branch had what I think is yellow witches butter (Tremella mesenterica.) It doesn’t have quite the same appearance as other witches butter fungi I’ve seen but that could be because it was very young.

I’ve learned, with help from knowledgeable readers, that what I have thought was a beard lichen in the Usnea family is actually a bushy, beard like lichen in the Evernia family, called Evernia mesomorpha. The differences, if I understand what I’ve read correctly, are in the flattened, antler like branches. Its common name is boreal oakmoss and it falls out of trees here on a regular basis, but this one was growing on that same Forsythia.

Anyone who knows the Forsythia well knows that, like a raspberry, when a branch tip is allowed to touch the soil it will root and create another plant. Part of what I wanted to do when cleaning up this bush was removing all the baby plants that surrounded the main shrub, and when I started digging I found golden thread like roots like that seen in the photo. They reminded me of the roots of the goldthread plant (Coptis trifolia) but there were none of those growing here. Were they from the Forsythia? I can’t really say but it wouldn’t surprise me with so many other parts of the plant yellow.

One of the reasons you don’t let a Forsythia’s branch tips take root is they form a kind of cage  around the plant so you can’t get a leaf blower or rake in there to get the leaves out. So, once I had all the plants but the main one removed I started in on the leaves underneath it and found this. I thought at first it was a fungal mycelium mat but after a closer look I’m not so sure.

This looks more like a slime mold to me but I don’t see many of them in the early spring. I’m still not sure what it was, but it was fun to see.

One of the strangest things I saw on this Forsythia was a large witches broom, which I removed. Then I saw hundreds of these; smaller witches brooms just getting started. Each one of those little bumps is going to turn into a shoot that will be about 8 inches long, if the one I cut off is any indication. Botanically speaking a witches broom is an “abnormal proliferation of shoots on one area of a stem.” Many shrubs and trees exhibit this abnormal growth and sometimes it is desirable; Montgomery dwarf blue spruce for instance is one of the best dwarf blue spruces, and is from a witches broom. In some cases it isn’t at all desirable; witches broom on rice can be fatal to humans. There are many causes, depending on the plant. Witches brooms are usually caused by either a rust fungus or a parasitic plant such as mistletoe, but there is an aphid known to cause honeysuckle witches’ broom, and on hackberry trees (Celtis occidentalis) it is caused by both a powdery mildew fungus and a tiny mite. On cherry and blackberry it is caused by bacteria carried by insects from elm or ash trees. In the case of Forsythia I can’t find the cause, but how amazing is it that all of these interesting things were found on a single shrub?

I saw this happening to a fallen beech leaf. I would guess that it’s how decomposition happens to a leaf.

I was splitting wood again and found this little critter under the bark of an oak log. I looked it up and found this: “The flat worms that appear under oak tree bark are larvae of pests called flatheaded borers, so named due to the flattened segment behind their heads and flattened bodies. Flatheaded apple tree borers (Chrysobothris femorata) feed on a variety of plants including oaks. The larvae display cream-hued bodies and dark heads with a total length of approximately 1 inch, and adults are black to green beetles. Typically appearing on freshly planted trees during summer, apple tree borers tunnel into bark, resulting in girdled branches, dieback and sometimes tree death. Releasing natural enemies that are available at garden supply retailers, such as parasitic wasps, provides biological control.” This creature’s darker head is on its right end, I believe.

We had to take a window out of a building where I work and when we did this chrysalis fell out of it. After a bit of searching I found that it was a moth chrysalis, but even Bugguide.net can’t seem to pin it down any closer than that. Apparently it could be any one of several different moths. When you hold it in your hand the pointed end jiggles, so it was obviously alive. We put it outside and wished it well. It’s interesting to me that you can see where the head is, where the wings are, and what is obviously the tail.

We had a little snow on the 24th and though it messed up spring cleanup plans at work for a day or two it melted quickly and was gone by the end of the week. Spring snows are common but nobody gets too upset about them because we know it’s simply too warm for them to last. The thawed ground melts them quickly. Much of March has been cool and damp.

The road I travel to work on was a winter wonderland and it reminded me of the words of William Sharp, who said “There is nothing in the world more beautiful than the forest clothed to its very hollows in snow. It is the still ecstasy of nature, wherein every spray, every blade of grass, every spire of reed, every intricacy of twig, is clad with radiance.”

At my house we had just under 5 inches. Though it looks fluffy in the photo is was actually heavy and wet, as spring snows often are.

In the 1800s René Lalique was a French glass designer known for his art deco designs. One of his best known creations was the grayish frosted, matte finish crystal he used for perfume bottles and other items. I thought of that glass when I held this piece of puddle ice up to the sun, and I wondered if one day Mr. Lalique held up his own piece of puddle ice. Maybe that’s where he got his inspiration for such a beautiful glass. If we keep our minds open inspiration can come to us from any bit of nature we happen to see.

If there is one thing I see lots of it is fallen trees, but the beautiful grain pattern in this old dead pine caught me and held me one morning. I took lots of photos of it but this closeup was my favorite. I couldn’t see all the beauty in this world if I lived 10 lifetimes.

Before the new leaves appear and when the spring rains fall to plump them up, orange crust fungi are at their most beautiful. To me they are like a beacon in the woods. Their startlingly bright orange color among the leftover browns and grays of winter call to me from quite a distance.

I stopped one day to see if the spring beauties that you saw in the last post were blooming and a large shadow passed over me when I got out of the car. And then another, and when I looked up there were two turkey vultures flying low, swooping in circles around me. What could they be after? I wondered until I saw a dead raccoon and then I knew that I had interrupted their meal. But darn it I had flowers to see and I thought they could wait for a few minutes while I did. Apparently they thought so too because they sat in the top of a nearby tree to wait. The raccoon certainly wasn’t going anywhere.

Every night when I get home from work this joyful scene is what greets me; thousands of beautiful little moss spore capsules glowing in the afternoon sun. One day last week I decided I wanted to know more about these little friends, so even though mosses can be a challenge to identify I started trying to find out their name.

Here is one of the spore capsules and its stalk. If I have identified it correctly by April the capsules will turn a light brown and their pointed tip (operculum) will fall off so their spores can be released to the wind through a fringe of teeth (peristome) at the end of the capsule. I’ve watched them over time and they started out straight up and thin, like a toothpick.

I think that this moss might be one called baby tooth moss (Plagiomnium cuspidatum,) though I’m still far from sure. One reason I’m having such a hard time is its size. What you see here is so small I can’t even think of anything to compare it to. I probably took 30 photos to get just this one of its leaves and you can still barely see the tiny teeth that should line the upper half of each leaf.

I teased a tiny piece of this moss out of the pack and brought it inside, thinking that I could get a better shot of it but I found that it started drying out instantly, and the leaves started curling into their dry state, so I can’t see any of the tiny teeth I hoped to see. What this photo does show is how the stalk that supports the spore capsule comes right up out of the center of the leaves. I’ve read that it should have a tiny foot where it meets the leaves but I can’t see it here. If you know what this tiny little moss is I’d love to hear from you.

If the sight of the blue skies fills you with joy, if a blade of grass springing up in the fields has power to move you, if the simple things in nature have a message you understand, rejoice, for your soul is alive. ~Eleanora Duse

Thanks for stopping in. Take care everyone, and be safe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Signs help show you the way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for stopping in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And spring is indeed early.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for coming by.

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Last Sunday I decided to skip climbing and walk a familiar rail trail instead. Though it had been a warm week it was a cold enough weekend to have ice on the trails and I left my micro spikes at work, so climbing was out. I was still happy to be on this trail though because I’ve walked here since I was just a boy. At that time trains ran through here though, so it’s always a different feel. 

Right off I saw the beautiful blue of black raspberry canes. I think I must have been 12 or 13 before I got serious enough about plants to begin reading botany books but before that I read anything by Henry David Thoreau because I loved how he was so interested in nature. I suppose I loved that about him because I was interested in the same things, and it was here along this trail that I began to wonder about the things I saw, just like he did in Concord, Massachusetts. I wondered for instance, why these canes were blue, and I found that they had a waxy coating that protected them from getting too much sunlight. You could wipe it right off the cane, and like any wax it would melt and disappear in the summer heat. That’s why this beautiful color is seen more in winter than in summer. It’s my favorite shade of blue.

The wind roars over the hills to the west and blows through here with what is sometimes quite a strong wind and these virgin’s bower seed heads (Clematis virginiana) were blowing all around when I took their photo. Of course this is just what the plant wants, because it grows those long feathery filaments called styles on its seeds (fruits) so the wind can carry them long distances. This is a common but pretty native clematis that drapes itself over shrubs and climbs into trees all along this trail.

Bright yellow fringed candle flame lichen (Candelaria fibrosa) grew on an old black cherry. People worry that lichens will hurt a tree but they simply use tree bark as a roosting place much like a bird would, and don’t harm the tree in any way. A tree’s bark will often grow in ways that allow the tree to shed any rain water quickly in what I think of as vertical streams, and you’ll often find lichens growing right alongside these streams, as these were. This particular lichen is said to be very sensitive to air pollution, so seeing it is a good sign that our air quality is good.

Some of the trees that might have been saplings when I first came through here 50+ years ago are already dying. I’d guess they’re American elms, which are still falling to Dutch elm disease. Keene was once called the “Elm City” but no more. There are very few left.

There are grape vines in the trees everywhere out here and this was the first place that I ever noticed how much the forest smelled like grape jelly on warm fall days, thanks to the overripe fruit. There were lots of different kinds of native fruit out here and I suppose that was why I used to see so many Baltimore orioles.

I checked the hazelnuts (Corylus americana) to see how spring was affecting the catkins. They’re taking on a more golden color, as these show. You can also see the edges of bud scales, and that means they’re starting to open. Before long we’ll see strings of golden male hazel flowers everywhere. Then I’ll start looking for the tiny female flowers. A male hazelnut catkin more or less, is a string of flowers which will open in a spiral pattern around a central stem. The pollen these flowers produce will be carried by the wind to the sticky female flowers and we’ll have another crop of hazelnuts.

I’m seeing maples hanging onto their leaves more these days than I have in the past. At least it seems that way.

I don’t remember ever seeing smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) growing here when I was a boy but they’re here now, though not in the same numbers as staghorn sumac. These berries don’t get anywhere near as hairy as staghorn sumac berries do but the plants still look alike and are easy to confuse if you don’t look closely for the hairy stems of staghorn sumac. Smooth sumac leaves turn bright red in the fall and produce a rich brown dye. Birds supposedly love them but the berries are usually still there in spring until the migratory birds come through.

I was going to say the same thing about staghorn sumac berries (Rhus typhina) not being eaten but I happened upon a flock of robins that were gobbling them up. You can see one sitting on a sumac in the center of this photo. My camera doesn’t have enough reach to do birds the right way, so you might have to hunt a bit. Evening Grosbeaks, Bluebirds, Cardinals, and Scarlet Tanagers also eat these berries.

The seed eaters haven’t hardly touched the black-eyed Susan seeds (Rudbeckia hirta,) which seems odd. In my yard they go fast.

The tiny, seed-pearl like seeds of curly dock (Rumex crispus) were going fast. This little bit was all that was left on a three foot tall plant. Once these seeds mature they can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute. The leaves are rich in vitamins A and C and can be eaten raw or cooked. The plant’s common name comes from their curly edges.

I’m seeing lots of pussy willows now. I found a new spot where there were lots of bushes.

But I haven’t seen any of the yellow willow flowers coming yet. Maybe this weekend.

 Willows often have pine cone galls on them, caused by a gall midge (Rhabdophaga strobiloides). The midge lays an egg in the terminal leaf bud of a willow in early spring and the larva releases a chemical that tricks the willow into creating this gall instead of leaves. The midge spends winter inside the gall and emerges in the following spring, so the entire cycle takes a full year. It is fascinating things like this, found all along these railroad tracks, which kept me interested in nature when I was a boy. I saw something new almost every time I went out, and I still do.

Here was an icy spot on the trail but most of it was easy walking.

This is just an abstract shot of puddle ice that I saw. I was fascinated by the perfectly round “jewel” that grew in the ice.

Last year’s grasses were on ice and I liked their stained glass look.

Mosses were glowing in the sunshine. We think of mosses as shade lovers but everything needs sunlight, even if it’s only an hour each day.

I wanted to walk on this trail not only for the memories but also to see the Frosted comma lichen (Arthonia caesia) that lives here. I looked and looked for a dime size white spot on a maple tree but I couldn’t find it. It’s a beautiful thing and this photo taken previously shows the only example of it I’ve ever seen. I’ve found it twice, but today wasn’t the day. The only other lichen I know of with blue fruiting bodies is the smoky eye boulder lichen and that one has blue apothecia only in a certain light. The spherical fruiting bodies on this lichen, called ascomata, are blue in any light and they don’t change color when they dry out. They are also very small; each blue dot is hardly bigger than a period made by a pencil on a piece of paper, so lichen hunters need to carry a good loupe or a camera that is macro capable.

Instead of the beauty of the lichen I settled for the more stark beauty of the moon. In made me remember how, in the summer of 1969 I ran outside after we had landed on it. I thought I might see the lunar orbiter going around and around it, but I never did.

My soul can find no staircase to Heaven unless it be through Earth’s loveliness. ~Michelangelo

Thanks for stopping in. Stay safe, everyone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I couldn’t remember the last time I had climbed a hill or mountain so last Sunday I decided it was time. I chose Hewe’s Hill in Swanzey, for no particular reason other than that’s where the 40 ton glacial erratic called Tippin Rock lives. I set off across the meadow in wall to wall sunshine and a 46 degree temperature. This was no thaw, this was spring, and I was glad that I had worn a short sleeve shirt and a light jacket.

There is at least one basswood tree here and someday I’m going to find it. They aren’t common in this area in my experience.

The trail starts off level enough but it isn’t long before you’re climbing.

Someone lost a glove and someone else hung it on a tree.

There are lots of black birch here. I keep running into black birches (Betula lenta) with what appears to be a deformity in their buds. I wouldn’t call it witches broom but the buds grow in a tightly packed cluster which isn’t normal, judging by the other buds on the trees. I haven’t been able to find out anything about it from any source, so if you happen to know I’d love to hear from you.

Oak leaves have been falling, and that’s a good sign of spring. The trees will make new leaves as they shed the old.

This trail is well blazed. Blazes are important because they keep people from getting lost out here. A trail is easy to follow at this time of year because you just follow the footprints in the snow, but in the fall when the trail is under a fresh coating of leaves it can disappear quickly for those who don’t know how to read the woods. The meaning of various blazes and how to read them is easily found online. This one means there is a right turn ahead. On a single out and back trail like this one blaze color has no real meaning.

The old way, a hatchet blaze, simply tells you that you’re on a trail.

I saw lots of freshly fallen trees out here; more than I’ve seen anywhere else. There must have been quite a wind storm come through here.

But there are plenty of hemlock seedlings waiting to fill in the gaps. Life is a circle.

There were icicles on the ledges. They weren’t that impressive at about three feet long but it shows how cold it has been up here.

I think the outcrop the ice was on was more impressive. It’s quite long.

I had reached the steepest part of the trail without any breathing issues, for which I was very grateful. I was also grateful that there was no ice on the trail. I did stop here to catch my breath and thought about how nice it was to be climbing through the winter woods again. Climbing is easy to get addicted to. The more you climb the more you want to climb and when you can’t you miss it. It calls to you, and it won’t stop calling until you climb again.

I noticed that captain obvious had put up new signs.

I call this mysterious person captain obvious because the sign in the previous photo is only a few feet from the behemoth called Tippin Rock. You couldn’t miss it if you were blind, so the sign is kind of useless. But how amazing that such a thing was dropped by a glacier onto this hilltop. Even more amazing is how it will rock slowly back and forth like a baby cradle when pushed in the right spot. Even after seeing it myself it’s hard to believe.

Some of the oldest striped maple trees (Acer pensylvanicum) I’ve seen grow up here. This one was probably 6-8 inches through, which seems big for them if I’m to go by the ones I’ve seen.

I learned a long time ago that if you climb solely for the view you’ll be disappointed most of the time. On this day it was hazy but not too bad. I like a good view as much as the next person but I never count on there being one because it doesn’t take much haze or humidity in the air to spoil them.

This view shows the haze in the distance. There was actually a warm breeze blowing and the snow had melted from the leaf covering in several spots so I sat, warm and dry, and looked out over the endless forest.

You can’t help but wonder, after seeing miles of unbroken forest from above, how the early settlers ever did what they did. I always wonder if I could have gone on after seeing this, or would I have turned back? There was nothing familiar out there, after all. No stores, no roads, no houses, nothing. It would have almost been as if they had landed on another planet. Personally I would have loved the emptiness and the solitude but you have to eat and you need shelter, so I’d guess that staying alive would have taken up almost all their time.

It’s a long way down from here so you want to watch your step. I always check to see how near the edge I am before I bring the camera to my eye. Once I’m looking through the viewfinder, I don’t move a step. Heights and I don’t get along well but up here you don’t know how high you are until you look down. Then you get the heebie jeebies.

Of course I couldn’t come all the way up here without checking on my little friends the toadskin lichens (Lasallia papulose.) This one seemed to whisper “Hey, look at me,” so I did and I saw how very different it was. It’s the first one I’ve ever seen that was brown. Usually they’re pea green when moist or ash gray when dry. You can see a hint of that gray in this one’s center. You can also see the point where it has attached itself to the rock in its center. It’s like a belly button and that’s what makes them umbilicate lichens. The many “warts” are what give it its common name.

When dry the toadskin lichens usually turn from their normal pea green color to the ashy gray seen here. They also become very brittle, like a potato chip. All those black dots are this lichen’s fruiting bodies, where it’s spores are produced. I’ve noticed that they often seem to form where the lichen stays wettest longer after a rain.  

The head of a pin is .06 inches (1.5 mm) in diameter and one of the toadskin lichen’s fruiting bodies (Apothecium) could easily hide behind one. The apothecium is where the lichen’s spores are produced. In this case it is tiny black disc with a sunken center that makes it look like a bowl with a thick black rim. The way that they sit on the body (thallus) of the lichen makes them look like they’d blow away in a breeze, but they are attached. This isn’t a great photo but it’s only the second time I’ve ever been able to get this close to this lichen‘s apothecia and it’s a pretty fair bet that you’re seeing something you’ve never seen.

Here is what a normal, healthy and happy toadskin lichen looks like, and this one looked like this because an icicle was dripping meltwater on it. It was about as big as a quarter and cute as a button.

I got back to my car and saw that a horse had been there. Horseshoes are supposed to be lucky but I’m not sure about a horseshoe print. I did feel lucky though, having gotten up and down the hill without any issues. The temperature even went up 8 degrees and it was a beautiful day, up or down. I’m already itching to climb again.

Perhaps there’s no better act of simplification than climbing a mountain. For an afternoon, a day, or a week, it’s a way of reducing a complicated life into a simple goal. All you have to do is take one step at a time, place one foot in front of the other, and refuse to turn back until you’ve given everything you have. ~Ken Ilgunas

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On Sunday, February 2nd Punxsutawney Phil, King of the weather predicting Groundhogs, didn’t see his shadow when he was removed from his burrow. Some might think that this simply meant that Phil woke under a cloudy sky, but it meant far more than that to The King; he immediately declared that we would see an early spring.  So, bolstered by Phil’s decree, I went off in search of spring. As you can see by the above photo, I didn’t find it; at least not right away. In fact all it has done is snow since Phil made his announcement.

This is what it looked like one morning on my way to work. Yes, it was cold too. Since Phil’s decree we reached 8 below zero F. one night; the coldest it’s been all winter. I’m voting we leave Phil in his burrow next year and let him sleep until he wants to wake up.

“Red sky at night, sailor’s delight” the old saying goes, so this beautiful evening sky gave me hope that the weather would turn.

As of this writing we’re still getting a storm each week but they’ve carried little snow. What you see here amounts to maybe 4 inches at most. After every storm it warms up and melts a lot of the snow that fell. I read recently that scientists studying our dwindling snow cover have found that trees are suffering, because when the insulating qualities of snow are gone the soil can freeze deeper, and this can kill a tree’s feeder roots. Instead of expending energy of growing new leaves and branches trees have to divert their energy to re-growing their roots. Without the life giving energy from photosynthesis that more leaves provide a tree can weaken, and that increases the possibility of attacks from insects and fungi.

When you plow even 4 inches into a pile it looks like a lot more.

But it’s melting in the woods, as this patch of American wintergreen shows. All those plants and I couldn’t find a single berry. When I was a boy my grandmother often took me walking through the woods to teach me what she knew about wild plants. One of the first plants I remember getting to know is the Eastern teaberry (Gaultheria procumbens,) also known as checkerberry or American wintergreen. My grandmother and I would pick the small red berries from the plant she always called checkerberry until we each had a handful, and then we would have a refreshing, spicy feast in the forest. Chewing the leaves can also be refreshing when hiking on a hot day. In the past, the leaves were also chewed by Native Americans to relieve pain.

Lilac buds showed no signs of opening but they did look like they might be swelling some. We dug a hole where I work and found that the frost is only 5 inches down in the ground. It’s usually much deeper and can reach nearly 4 feet in very cold winters. That’s why all of our water pipes have to be buried at least 4 feet deep, otherwise they could freeze and burst.  

I always start checking American Hazelnut (Corylus americana) bushes early for signs of life. So far the male catkins aren’t doing much and I haven’t seen any of the tiny female flowers either, but it won’t be too long. I have a feeling they’ll be early this year. When the catkins open there will be a single bright, yellow-green, male flower peeking out from under each of those diamond shaped bud scales. They grow and bloom in a spiral down the length of the catkin.

I’ve always assumed that migrating birds ate the staghorn sumac berries because nothing touches them until spring. There are thousand of berries in this one photo and not one of them has been eaten, even though I heard robins nearby. I also saw black capped chickadees and dark eyed juncos.

Nothing had been eating the wild grapes hanging from this pine tree either. I was surprised because grapes usually do get eaten quickly.

I wanted to just sit by the river and think one day-I was in that kind of mood-but every stone was covered with ice and snow so there was no dry place to sit. This is what the shoreline looked like; a half inch of ice covered everything.

But the river itself remains unfrozen. So far it hasn’t frozen over in any of the usual places this winter.

Sometimes in spring the river fills itself from bank to bank but so far this year it’s shallow enough to walk across. You’d think it was August by this photo but since we’ve had so little snow to fill it with snowmelt I wasn’t surprised.

The trees in this photo are tipped with gold and that’s a sure sign that things are changing. I think they were poplars but I couldn’t get close enough to find out for sure. Poplar buds swell early and some species have catkins that look like pussy willows.

Red maple flower buds (Acer rubrum) are small and round or oval with short stalks and 4 pairs of bud scales. The bud scales are often purple like those seen here. They have a fine fringe of pale hairs on their margins and when they start to open a tomato red color can be seen between the scales. Red maples can be tapped and syrup made from their sap but the sap gatherers have to watch the trees carefully, because the sap can become bitter when the tree flowers. Seeing the hillsides awash in a red haze from hundreds of thousands of red maple flowers is a treat that I always look forward to. Unfortunately I’ve found that it’s almost impossible to capture that beauty with a camera.

Crocus leaves poked up out of the ice.

And daffodils poked up out of the soil in a raised bed. They were a surprise.

But the biggest surprise of all came in the form of spring blooming witch hazels (Hamamelis vernalis) blossoming. Until now the earliest I’ve ever seen them bloom was February 23rd but these bloomed a full week earlier. 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.

There was a large building between me and the witch hazels but I could still smell their wonderful, clean fragrance. It’s so good to see them again; I was ready for spring a month ago so I’m glad the groundhog got it right.  

It starts with a gentle southerly breeze; a soft, warm breath. The sun grows stronger and its warmth penetrates the soil a little deeper each day, and as the soil warms the yearly miracle will begin. Once started it won’t be stopped; sap is starting to flow and soon buds will swell to bursting. An indescribable beauty will cover the earth and as usual I will be here, trying to describe the indescribable. I do hope you’ll be able to get out there and see it for yourself. It’s so much better than reading about it.

Spring is when you feel like whistling, even with a shoe full of slush.  ~Doug Larson

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One of the strangest things I’ve found in nature is when a normally roaring brook is muffled by ice, so last weekend I went up to Beaver Brook to see if it had been muffled or if it was still singing. As this photo shows, it was singing. Loudly.

There were places though, where the ice had almost grown from bank to bank. The ice doesn’t quiet it absolutely but very close, and it’s an eerie thing to know a brook is there and not be able to hear it.

Icicles hung from the edges of ice shelves but they weren’t as impressive as in years past. This has been such a warm winter. It gets cool and snows but then it warms up and the snow melts, and then it happens again, so we have no real snow depth. The reason it has lasted here is because Beaver Brook flows through a shaded canyon between two hills.

I saw more ice on the ledges that line the old road than on the brook.

An evergreen fern waited patiently for spring.

What I call the color changing lichen had put on its lavender / blue coat. My color finding software sees more “steel blue” than any other color but in the warm months this lichen is ash gray. When I see it I always wonder how many other lichens change color. This one is granular and crustose and I’ve never been able to identify it.

I didn’t want to get too close to where the color changing lichen grew because the ledges here are unstable and large pieces have been falling recently. Cracks like this one are caused by water running into them and freezing. The expanding ice makes the crack bigger and bigger and eventually the stone falls, pried away from the ledge face by the ice.

On the hillsides above me there were many fallen trees. Since there are electric lines running through here they have to be cut when they fall on the wires.

I was sorry to see that one of the fallen trees was an old beech with hundreds of beechnut husks on it. These nuts are an important food source for many different animals but I hardly see them at all.

A maple leaf had such beautiful color it stopped me in my tracks and held me mesmerized for a time. I took far too many photos of it but colorful maple leaves are unexpected in February.

I think it has been over a year since I last saw the yellow jelly fungus (Tremella mesenterica) called witches butter, even though they’re fairly common. Though jelly fungi grow at all times of year I think of them as winter fungi because that’s usually when I find them. I often see them on fallen branches, often oak or alder, and I always wonder how they got way up in the tree tops. We also have black, white, red, orange and amber jelly fungi and I’d have to say that white and red are the rarest. I think I’ve seen each color only two or three times. An odd fact about jelly fungi is that they can be parasitic on other fungi.

There are lots of striped maples (Acer pensylvanicum) growing along Beaver Brook. They have colorful twigs and buds and are among the easiest trees to identify no matter what time of year because of the green and white vertical stripes on their bark. Their terminal buds have two scales and are valvate, meaning they have two bud scales. Striped maple is very fussy about where it grows and will not stand pollution, heat, or drought. It likes cool, shady places with sandy soil that stays moist. They bloom in June and have very pretty green bell shaped blossoms.

Hobblebush (Viburnum lantanoides) also does well along the brook. Their buds are naked, meaning they have no scales to protect them, so they have wooly hair instead. This photo shows that the flower bud in the center and the two leaf buds on either side are clothed more in wool than hair, but they come through the coldest winters and still bloom beautifully each spring.

The chubby little green and purple buds of red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) are some of my favorites, but I don’t see them often. Lucky they grow along the brook in places so I could admire them on this day. Red elderberry buds have imbricate scales, meaning they overlap like shingles. Soon the buds will swell and the purple scales will pull back to reveal the green scales underneath.

Here was something I’ve never seen; the normally round buds of red elderberry had elongated. There were several that had done this and I can’t figure out why they would have. Maybe they can gather more sunlight with this shape and are evolving right before the eyes that care enough to watch.

When light rain or drizzle falls on cold snow it can freeze into a crust and that’s what had happened during the last storm. The shiny crust can be very hard to capture on film but here it is, on the other side of the brook. Crusty snow can be awfully hard to walk on because it acts like it will support your weight, but at the last minute it breaks and your foot falls through it. Having it happen over and over makes for a jarring and tiring walk.

A tree fell perfectly and wrapped its arms around another.

Native witch hazels (Hamamelis virginiana) also line the banks of Beaver Brook. This is a shot of the recently opened seed pods, which explode with force and can throw the seeds as far as 30 feet. I’ve read that you can hear them pop when they open and even though I keep trying to be there at the right time to see and hear it happening, I never am. Seeing the ice on the one on the left, I’m wondering if the pods hold water.

I like to visit my old friend the stair-step moss (Hylocomium splendens) when I’m here. It’s a very beautiful moss that grows on stones as far north as the arctic tundra. It seems fairly rare here; this is the only example that I’ve seen, and it doesn’t seem to be spreading. When dry stair step moss has a slight satiny sheen to it, and that’s probably how it came by its other common name of glittering wood-moss. The name stair step moss comes from the way the new growth “steps up” off the midrib of the previous year’s branch.  Each year a new branch grows from the old and this growth habit allows stair step moss to grow up and over other mosses. It is said that you can tell the age of the moss by counting these steps.

The liverwort called greater whipwort (Bazzania trilobata) was frozen absolutely solid. Even frozen it still reminds me of centipedes. It’s very easy to mistake this common liverwort for moss so you have to look closely. The root-like growths are new branches. They aren’t always present but sometimes there will be a lot of them as there were here. This was a happy liverwort, even though it was frozen.

This scene of green algae in a seep reminded me of spring. Hydrologically speaking a seep is a wet place where water reaches the surface from an underground aquifer. This seep is a warm one; in all the years I’ve known it I’ve never seen it completely freeze. Seeps don’t have a single point of origin like a spring, instead they form a puddle that never dries up and doesn’t flow. They’re an important water source for many small animals and birds and unusual plants and fungi can often be found in and around them.

The waters of the stream played the part of the orchestra, and the sunlight provided the dancers. Every now and then a crescendo of wind highlighted the symphony in the clearing by the creek.
~Edward Mooney Jr.

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Over the nearly nine years I’ve been doing this blog the question I’ve been asked more than any other is “How do you find these things?” So this post will be about how I find them; I’ll tell you all the secrets, starting with the jelly baby mushrooms above. Do you see how small they are? They’re growing in an acorn cap. The first time I saw them I was feeling winded and when I sat on a rock to rest I looked down and there was a tiny clump of jelly babies, Just like this one. That day a side of nature that  I never knew existed was revealed and from then on I started seeing smaller and smaller things everywhere I went. 

You have to learn to see small by seeking out small things and training your eyes, and your brain somewhat, to see them. It also helps to know your subject. For instance I know that slime molds like the many headed slime mold above appear most often in summer when it’s hot and humid, and usually a day or two after a good rain. They don’t like sunshine so they’re almost always found in the shade. I’ve learned all of this from the slime molds themselves; by finding one and, not knowing what it was, looking it up to find out. I’ve learned most of what I know about nature in much the same way. If you want to truly study nature you have to be willing to do the legwork and research what you see.

Another secret of nature study is walking slowly. Find yourself a toddler, maybe a grandchild or a friend with one, or maybe you’re lucky enough to have one yourself. No older than two years though; they start to run after that and they’re hard to keep up with. Anyhow, watch a two year old on a trail and see how slowly they walk. See how they wander from thing to thing. They do that because everything is new and they need to see and experience it. You need to be the same way to study nature; become a toddler. Slowly cross and crisscross your line of progress. See, rather than look. Why is that group of leaves humped up higher than all the others? Is there something under them making them do that? Move them and see. You might find some beautiful orange mycena mushrooms like these under them.

So you need to train yourself to see small, to toddle and think like a toddler, and then you need to know your subject. All that comes together in something like this female American hazelnut blossom. I first saw them when I had toddled over to a bush to see the hanging male catkins, which are very beautiful, and out of the corner of my eye I saw a flash of red.

But all I could see was a flash of color because female hazelnut blossoms are almost microscopic. That’s a paperclip behind these blossoms. Even with eye problems I can find them though, because I know they’re tiny. I know they bloom in mid-April and I know they’re red and I know what shape the buds they grow out of are. All I need do is find one and the camera does the rest, allowing me to see its Lilliputian beauty.

That’s how I start the growing season each spring; by re-training my eyes to see small again. Most of what I see in winter is big so I need to get used to small again. Spring beauties like those above are as small as an aspirin, so they’re a good subject to start with. They’re also very beautiful and a forest floor carpeted with them is something you don’t soon forget.

Sometimes I’ll see something like this larch flower in a book or on another blog and I’ll want to see it in person. That’s what happened when I first found one, and I was surprised by how small they were. This is another example of my being able to only see a flash of color and then having to see with a camera. They’re just too small for me to see with my eyes but they’re beautiful and worth the extra effort it takes to get a photo of them.

I spend a lot of time looking at tree branches, especially in spring when the buds break. I’ve learned what time of month each tree usually blossoms and I make sure I’m there to see it happen. This photo shows male red maple flowers. Each flower cluster is full of pollen and the wind will be sure the pollen finds the female blossoms. When you see tulips and magnolias blooming it’s time to look at red maples. One of the extraordinary things about these blossoms was their scent. I smelled them long before I saw them.

Lichens aren’t easy to identify but there are easy to find because they grow virtually everywhere; on soil, on trees, on stone, even on buildings. But most are quite small, so walking slowly and looking closely are what it takes to find them. This mealy firedot lichen was growing on wet stone and that’s why the background looks like it does. You could spend a lifetime studying just lichens alone but it would be worth it; many are very beautiful.

Countless insects make galls for their young to grow in and the size and shape of them is beyond my ability to show or explain, so I’ll just say that I always make a point of looking for them because they’re endlessly fascinating, and you can match the gall to the insect with a little research. This one looked like a tiny fist coming up out of a leaf. Something else I like about them is that you don’t have to kneel down to see them. That isn’t getting any easier as time goes on. 

When young the female spore capsule (sporangium) of juniper haircap moss is covered by a cap called a calyptra, which protects the spore capsule and the spores within. It is very hairy, and this is what gives this moss part of its common name. Eventually, as the capsule ages it moves from a semi vertical to a more horizontal position before the calyptra falls off.  The spore capsule continues to ripen and when the time is right it will open and release the spores. When it’s time to release the spores the end cap (operculum) of the now reddish brown, 4 cornered but not square spore capsule will fall off and the spores will be borne on the wind. I learned all of that by studying the moss and reading about what I saw going on, and you can too. And you can do it with virtually anything you find in nature. To me, that is exciting.

A good memory isn’t strictly necessary for nature study but it can come in handy if you wish to see a plant in all stages of its life cycle. I knew where some rare dwarf ginseng plants grew in this area and I knew when they blossomed but I had never seen their seedpods, so I had to remember to go back to see what you see here. It might not look like much but it’s a rare sight and I doubt more than just a few have seen it. I often can’t remember my own phone number or where I parked my car but I can lead you right to the exact spot where this plant grows, so I seem to have two memories; one for every day and one for just nature. The one for nature works much better than the every day one.

Develop an eye for beauty. Give yourself time to simply stand and look, and before long you’ll find that you don’t just see beauty, you feel it as well, all through your being. This is just tree pollen on water; something I’ve seen a thousand times, but not like this. On this day it was different; it usually looks like dust on the surface but this pollen had formed strings that rode on the current. I wasn’t looking for it; I just happened upon it, and that shows that a lot of what you see on this blog is just dumb luck. But I wouldn’t happen upon it if I wasn’t out there. That’s another secret; you have to be out there to see it. You’ll never see it by staring at a phone or television.

This is another rarity that I just happened upon; a mushroom releasing its spores. Mushroom spores are carried by the wind so it is unusual to see them dropping to the forest floor like they have in this photo. I’ve only seen this happen three times and twice it was on a still, hot, humid day. Once it was on a cooler but still humid day, without a hint of a breeze to blow the spores away. This is why it’s so important to walk slowly and look carefully. You could easily pass this without seeing it.

Something else that is rare to see is a mushroom with another fungus feeding on it, like this bolete with a mycoparasite called Syzygites megalocarpus growing on its cap. A mycoparasite is essentially a fungus that feeds on other fungi. This one has been found on over 65 species of mushroom. It can appear overnight if heat and humidity levels are just right, and that’s exactly what this one did. You can’t plan to see something like this, you simply have to be there when it happens.

Do you know how many puddles there are with ice on them in winter? I don’t either, but I do take the time to look at them and I almost always see something interesting when I do. I’ve never seen another one like this.

Sometimes if you just sit quietly unusual things will happen. I was on my hands and knees looking at something one day and I looked up and there was a fly, sitting on a leaf. I slowly brought my camera up and this is the result. By the way, much of what I see comes about because I spend a lot of time on my hands and knees. If you want to see the very small, you have to. And before I get back on my feet I always try to look around to see if there’s anything interesting that I’ve missed.

I was crawling around the forest floor looking for I don’t remember what one day and saw something jump right in front of me. It was a little spring peeper. It sat for a minute and let me take a few photos and then hopped off. Another secret of nature study is to expect the unexpected. If you want to document what you see always have your camera ready. I have one around my neck, one on my belt and another in my pocket, and I still miss a lot.

I was in a meadow in Walpole climbing the High Blue trail when I saw a blackish something moving through the grass on the other side. Apparently it saw me because it turned and came straight for me. When it got close I could see that it was a cute porcupine. I thought it must have poor eyesight and would run away when it got close enough but then it did something I never would have  expected; it came up to me and sat right at my feet. I took quite a few photos and then walked on after telling it goodbye. I still wonder what it was all about and what the animal might have wanted. I’ve never forgotten how we seemed to know one another. It’s another example of why you have to expect the unexpected in nature study. You just never know.

Sometimes all you need to do is look up. When was the last time you saw mare’s tails in the sky? There’s a lot of beauty out there for you to see, and you don’t really have to study anything.

So, what you’ve read here isn’t the only way to study nature. It’s simply my way; what I’ve learned by doing. I had no one to guide me, so this is what and how I’ve learned on my own. I thought that it might help you in your own study of nature, or you might find your own way. It doesn’t matter as long as you’re out there having fun and enjoying this beautiful world we live in. I’ll leave you with a simple summary that I hope will help:

  1. To see small think small. There is an entire tiny world right there in plain sight but there’s a good chance you haven’t seen it. Nothing is hidden from the person who truly sees.

  2. Don’t just look, see; and not just with your eyes. Use all your senses. I’ve smelled certain plants and fungi before I’ve seen them many times. I also feel almost everything I find.

  3. Walk at a toddlers pace. Cross and crisscross your path.

  4. Know your subject. You probably won’t find what you hope to unless you know when and where it grows, or its habits. When you see something you’ve never seen if you want to know more about it research it.

  5. Be interested in everything. If you’re convinced that you’ve seen it all then you’ll see nothing new. Run your eye down a branch. Roll over a log. Study the ice on a puddle.

  6. Expect the unexpected. I’ve heard trees fall in the forest but I’ve never seen it happen. Tomorrow may be the day.

  7. Develop an eye for beauty; it’s truly everywhere you look. Allow yourself to see and feel it. Appreciate it and be grateful for it and before long you too will see it everywhere you go.

  8. Let nature lead. Nature will teach you far more than you’ve ever imagined. It will also heal you if you let it, but none of this can happen if you spend all your time indoors.

  9. None of the things you’ve read here are really secrets. Nature is there for everyone and you can study it and take pleasure in it just as easily as I can.

  10. Have fun and enjoy nature and you’ll be surprised how quickly your cares melt away. Problems that once might have seemed insurmountable will suddenly seem much easier to solve.

To look at any thing,
If you would know that thing,
You must look at it long. 
~John Moffitt

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