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Posts Tagged ‘Winter Plants’

Just so you don’t think that every day is sunny here in New Hampshire I decided to flirt with a drenching rain and walk along the Ashuelot River last Saturday. The forecast was for rain and lots of it, but it wasn’t supposed to happen until later in the afternoon, so I thought I’d stay dry.

The trail was snow covered but not icy, so that made for a relatively easy walk. This trail I believe, though I have no real proof, was probably originally used by Native Americans to get to their favorite fishing spots. The word Ashuelot means “collection of many waters” in Native American language and just upriver from here an archeological dig discovered artifacts dating to about 12,000 years ago. Their villages were all along this river, so why wouldn’t they have used this trail or one very much like it in this same general area? People still fish here today as I did as a boy, and they still use this trail to get to their favorite spot.  

I startled a flock of black capped chickadees that were poking around on the bare ground under a white pine.

These branches of an old sunken tree always remind me of the timbers of a ship, so “shiver me timbers” came to mind. Actually the word shiver had nothing to do with ice or cold. It meant splintering the timbers of a ship, accomplished by storms or cannonballs. And it’s doubtful that a pirate ever said it; the term first appeared in print in 1834 in a novel called Jacob Faithful, written by a British Royal Navy officer named Captain Frederick Marryat.

On a meandering river like this one the current always flows slowest on the inside of a bend, and because of the slow moving current ice can form there easier than it can in the swift moving current on the outside of bends. That’s why only half the river was ice covered.

A pair of mallards swam near the far bank. She ate while he watched me for any sudden moves. Meanwhile I fumbled with my camera, trying to get a too short lens to reach them.

Maleberrry (Lyonia ligustrina) shrubs look much like a blueberry, even down to their flowers, but their flowers are much smaller than those of blueberry. I’d guess barely half the size of a blueberry blossom. The two shrubs often grow side by side and look so much alike that sometimes the only way to tell them apart is by the maleberry’s woody brown, 5 part seed capsules, seen here. These seed capsules stay on the shrub in some form or another year round and are helpful for identification, especially in spring when the two shrubs look nearly identical. They both grow all along the banks of the river.

Clubmosses poked up out of the snow. These evergreen plants have been around for a while; fossil records show that they were here 200 million years ago and that some now extinct species reached 100 feet tall. They are thought to be the source of the coal that we burn today. Though some club mosses look enough like evergreen seedlings to be called princess pine, ground pine, and ground cedar they bear no relation to pines or cedars. I remember, not too far in the past, people collecting club mosses to make Christmas wreaths and earn extra money. Unfortunately that led to over collecting and club mosses are now on the endangered species list in many states. They seem to be making a good comeback here, though I still see wreaths made from them every now and then.

Clubmosses don’t flower like pines and cedars but instead produce spores like a fern. Spores form in spike-like structures called sporophylls, which are the  yellowish “clubs” seen in the previous photo. They reproduce by their spores, which can take 20 years to germinate, and by horizontal underground stems. When the “clubs” look prickly like this example they have released their spores and they usually do so in winter. The spores were used to control bleeding and the plants used in a medicinal tea by Native Americans. The spores contain a wax like substance that repels water and have also been used to soothe diaper rash and other skin ailments. Dried spores are extremely flammable and will explode in a blinding flash when lit. They are the source of the flash powder used in some stage pyrotechnics and were used in photography as an early form of what later became the flash bulb.

I went off the trail into the woods to look at something and there was a tearing at my clothes. I thought I had stumbled into a blackberry patch but no, these were the thorns of multiflora rose  (Rosa multiflora.) This plant originally came from China to be used as an ornamental and as the old story goes, almost immediately escaped and started to spread rapidly. It grows over the tops of shrubs and smothers them by using all the available sunshine. I’ve seen it reach thirty feet into trees. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it was imported more for its scent than any other reason, because to smell it is like smelling a bit of heaven on earth. Its thorns mean business though.

There were more thorns to worry about on invasive Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) stems. They looked like knee high barbed wire. The shrub grows into nearly impenetrable thickets here along the river and fruits prolifically. It crowds out native plants and can prevent all but the smallest animals getting through. The berries are rich in vitamin C and are sometimes used to make jams and jellies.

A broken maple had fallen into another tree on the far side of the river.

Another broken maple was closer, right along the path. This was a red maple.

The target canker on the bark of this tree tells me it’s a red maple because, if I understand what I’ve read correctly, red maple is the only maple that gets target canker. There are plenty of red maples here, and in fact I think they’re the predominant species. Unfortunately many of them seem to be weak trees because they fall regularly. It isn’t because of target canker though; it doesn’t hurt the tree.

I saw through a see through tree.

Beavers had munched part way through an ash tree. I wish they’d take the tree down because half cut trees can be dangerous, especially with the winds we’ve had lately. In the end though, I don’t suppose the beavers care what I think. They have their reasons for doing what they do and they’ve been doing it for a lot longer than I’ve been wishing they wouldn’t.

While I was thinking about the beaver tree I almost stumbled into a muskrat burrow. It looked like it had collapsed and fallen in on itself. The word muskrat is thought to come from the Algonquin tribe of Native Americans and is said to mean “it is red.” I’ve read that the original native word was musquash. Muskrats will burrow into the banks of ponds, rivers or lakes creating an underwater entrance. They also build feeding platforms in wetlands.

Every now and then I’ll see a tree standing dead, with all of its bark gone. I always wonder what, even if the tree has died, would cause all of its bark to come off. It’s normal for trees to lose bark, but usually not all of it all at once. I’ve seen long strips of bark at the base of trees like this one, curled around the trunk where it fell. Sometimes these bark strips are 10 feet long or more and pliable, as if they fell off while still healthy.

I kicked around in the snow at the base of the tree in the previous photo and sure enough, there were strips of bark all around it. The bark was still pliable; this photo shows the beautiful colors of the inner bark.

The inner bark of trees can often be beautiful and sometimes unexpectedly colored. I’ve even seen blue. This photo shows the colors found under a strip of birch bark that someone had peeled off this tree.

I reached the little red bridge in what seemed like record time, but I had seen much. When you dawdle and look at this and admire that sometimes you lose yourself and time does strange things. In any event I had no appointments and had only to wonder about the coming rain. In the end I didn’t get wet so it was a perfect day. Actually it would have been a perfect day even if I had gotten wet.

All along the trail I kept getting glimpses of a bright golden something on the bank up ahead and finally when I reached the bridge I could see that it was only a clump of grass. I had to smile because all along the trail every time I had tried to get a photo of it there was something in the way, but I also had to admire it for its beautiful color. Never did a clump of dead grass please me more.

Those who find beauty in all of nature will find themselves at one with the secrets of life itself. ~L. Wolfe Gilbert

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Well the January thaw ended with a wake up slap; two snowstorms within a week and temperatures a good 40 degrees below the 62 degree high we saw during the thaw. It looks like it’s back to normal for now. This photo was taken before dawn on the morning of the first snowstorm. Because it was still dark when I took it, it’s very grainy but it shows how the snow stuck to everything in the forest.

Once it got lighter it was still a black and white world. Sometimes the sun will come out after it snows but it usually stays pretty gray for a day or so.

The snow was wet and the wind made sure it stuck to even the tree trunks.

Though there really wasn’t much snow, maybe three inches, it looked like a lot more.

This shot taken under trees shows how thin it was in places.

I like what the light does in winter and though this is another shot that it was really too dark to take, the sky was amazing.

This shot of Half Moon Pond reminds me of a 1930s post card.

The previous photos were from the first storm. This shot, taken from my back doorway, shows a fresh coating of another 4 inches of snow later in the week.

Though this time the snow was very light and powdery it still covered everything. As William Sharp once 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. If you click on this photo you’ll see what he meant.

Two posts ago this view of the Ashuelot River in Swanzey looked like it had been taken in March. Now here it is back in January dress again. Once this storm had blown itself out the sun came out quickly, and this made for a prettier day.

The snow covering a local pond looks pristine with hardly a mark on it but just off to the left out of the frame a man was shoveling the ice for skating on. This despite at least 5 signs warning that the ice was too thin.

No matter how many of these are put up people think they know better, but shoveling off the ice so your children can skate on it even after seeing the signs seems a bit reckless to me. It’s hard to understand the thought processes of some people.

But it was a beautiful sunny day and I decided to follow the trail around the pond.

Some thoughtful soul had made a path down the middle of the trail and I was thankful because that made walking easier. At first I thought the path had been made with a shovel but after I walked it I was fairly sure that it was made by a child’s plastic sled being pulled through here. There is a great sliding hill nearby and it’s usually crowded after a storm.

The light was beautiful. It kept stopping me so I could watch it before it passed.

It was easy to see which way the wind had blown during the storm.

Every beech leaf wore a mantle of snow, but they still stayed dry and papery. Leaves that weren’t weighted by snow still whispered as I passed by.

Anyone who knows rhododendrons and winter weather knows that they only do this when it’s very cold. There are several theories about why rhododendron leaves do this, but the most plausible (to me) is that the leaf curls to prevent moisture loss. Another theory that sounds likely is that the leaf is protecting its soft underside by curling it up inside the tougher, waxy outer surface. In any event this behavior doesn’t harm the plant, and once it warms up the leaves will perk up and flatten right out again.

More light through the trees. It was a beautiful scene, I thought, with the sunlight on the snowy branches.

Every twig on this tree was highlighted. Winter is my least favorite season because of all the added work but that doesn’t mean I can’t see the beauty that is unique to the season and for me the beauty of this scene is how easily you can see how this tree grew into in two trees. Though they had the same root ball the two trunks didn’t seem to get along and grew apart from each other over the years. It isn’t hard to imagine them wishing they could simply walk away from each other. That’s something we humans have to be thankful for, I suppose.

The splendor of silence, -of snow-jeweled hills and of ice. ~Ingram crockett

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Stone walls, it is said by author Robert Thorson, are much easier to explore in January when the leaves are off the trees and bushes. “Like a negative to a photograph,” he says, “walls are most visible when life is most invisible.” I agree, and that’s why I do these stone wall posts in winter. But as you can see by the above photo, this post was made even easier by the lack of snow. Not only did a January thaw melt it all but the huge old pine trees overhead keep much of the snow off this particular wall, even in mid-winter.

Unusual about this spot are the parallel double walls with a space big enough between them for a horse drawn wagon or a cow herd to pass through with ease. None of the trees seen here would have been here when the wall was young. Tree seeds fell into or very near stone walls and grew and few people ever did anything about it.

I’m guessing that there were animals involved in the path through the double walls because holes were drilled into stones and steel rods inserted into them to increase the wall height by about a foot and a half. As the steel ground against the granite over the years the holes were made bigger so cut nails were driven in beside the rods to keep them straight. The cut nails seen here date the steel rods to sometime between 1800 and 1900, but the wall itself has been here since the mid-1700s.

Each steel rod has a flattened tip with a hole in it. The hole most likely had wire passed through it. This would have all been done by the local blacksmith.

If wire was passed through the hole in the rod it could have been used to hold up barbed wire. Barbed wire would have been used to keep animals from jumping the wall and it can be found strung all along it.

You can occasionally find cut stones on this wall. I think this rectangular example is a granite fence post that broke off at ground level and was thrown on top of the wall to get it out of the way. The most common stone walls in this area are “tossed walls.” Farmers worked from dawn to dusk in Colonial New England and tossed walls required the least amount of time and effort because smaller stones were literally tossed or thrown on top of one another. In the early years getting rid of the plentiful stones quickly and efficiently was more important than enclosing the fields and boy, did famers get rid of them. In 1872 there were an estimated 270,000 miles of stone walls in New England.

Rock greenshield lichens (Flavoparmelia baltimorensis) look like melted candle wax to me. They are very common in this area and are another of those bits of nature that you see so often they no longer register, but when you take the time to look closer you find that they are quite pretty. They must like it here because they cover entire lengths of this wall.

In the story books of my childhood the stones in stone walls were all colors including blue, orange and yellow, so I knew right off that whoever wrote the books had never seen anything built of stone because, as everybody knew, stones were gray. As I grew older and started paying closer attention to the world around me I realized once again that I didn’t know what I was talking about because, as whoever illustrated those books knew, stones could indeed come in many colors. Usually in this area only the oldest stone walls are colored in this way, and of course what grows on them depends on exposure, so they may not be as wonderfully colorful as this one.

The yellow color in the previous photo comes from sulfur dust lichen (Chrysothrix chlorina.) It’s a very soft, pale yellow and hides under overhangs so it doesn’t get rained on. At least I think that’s why I always find it tucked away like this, but this is odd behavior for a lichen because they usually like a lot of rain and sunshine.

The white on this tree is caused by a lichen called, appropriately enough, whitewash lichen (Phlyctis argena.) This lichen is usually found on the bark of hardwood trees and is fairly common. It makes the tree look as if it has been painted white, and that’s where its common name comes from. They can be greenish white, silvery, or bright white as this one is.

I saw a stone with a forest of pixie cup lichens (Cladonia asahinae) on it. The tiny little golf tee shaped parts are the fruiting bodies of this lichen. Spores produced in them will be splashed out of the cup by raindrops.  Pixie cups almost always produce large groups of fruiting bodies like these.

I saw some pixie cup shapes that were unusual; the one on the left is a double one, with two cups grown together. The one on the right has one cup growing out of another. I don’t know if this is common behavior or not but I haven’t ever seen it.

Here was a large stone covered by a carpet of Hedwigia ciliata moss. This moss is common and is also called white tipped moss.

The white leaf tips drawn out to long, fine points help confirm the identity of Hedwigia ciliata moss. It’s one of those mosses that you almost have to run your hand over.

Because it’s so warm near stone walls in the winter many plants like this mullein (Verbascum thapsus)  like to grow along them. In fact there is an amazing variety of plants growing on or near this wall. Native Americans used tea made from mullein’s large, gray green furry leaves to treat asthma and other respiratory ailments. It is also said to be useful as a relaxant and sleep aid.

Bristly or swamp dewberry (Rubus hispidus) is a trailing vine blooms with white flowers that look a lot like strawberry flowers. The fruit looks more like a black raspberry than anything else and is said to be very sour. Its leaves usually live under the snow all winter but these exposed examples were beautifully colored purple. It is thought that staying green through the winter lets evergreen plants begin photosynthesizing earlier in the spring so they get a head start over the competition, and this plant certainly seems to benefit from it. Swamp dewberry looks like a vine but is actually considered a shrub. It likes wet places and is a good indicator of wetlands, but I’ve seen it growing in dry waste areas many times. It’s also called bristly blackberry because its stem is very prickly.

It was no surprise to find the European Vinca (Vinca minor) growing in the wall, because in the 1800s Vinca was a plant given by one neighbor to another along with lilacs and peonies, and I’ve seen all three still blooming beautifully off in the middle of nowhere. They grow thickly together and sometimes form an impenetrable mat that other plants can’t grow through. It has been here long enough to have erased any memories of it having once crossed the Atlantic on the deck of a wooden ship, and people like it. Another name for it is Myrtle.

The beautiful blue of first year black raspberry canes (Rubus occidentalis) is always a welcome sight in the winter. The blue color is caused by the way light is reflected off the powdery, waxy white crystals that cover the canes. The crystals are there to protect the young canes from moisture loss and sunburn and many other plants including blueberries, plums, grapes and blue stemmed goldenrod also use the same strategy. The color is often like that of a blue jay.

There are some very old white pine trees (Pinus strobus) here. I’d guess this one had to be approaching 300 years old. It was huge and had deeply furrowed bark. Sometimes I lay my hands against great trees like this one to feel their power. The power of creation just seems to hum through them like an engine.

My grandfather was the town blacksmith for years in Westmoreland, New Hampshire and the old wrought iron hardware I sometimes find in stone walls always makes me think of him. A blacksmith might make a dollar a day in the early 1800s but very little cash changed hands in colonial America, so he most likely would have been paid in food, charcoal for the forge, lumber, or something else he needed. I’d guess my grandfather made more than a colonial blacksmith, but probably not by much. The ring seen here most likely held a chain.

Since history and botany are my favorite subjects it all comes together for me here, and on the historical side of things this chain hook is one of my favorite bits of antique iron work that I find here. A link from a chain would have been hooked over it and then another link hooked over a similar hook a certain distance away. Chains were (and are) often hung across roads or driveways as a way to say “no admittance.”  What I like about this example is the way the blacksmith tapered the hook over its length and finally ended it in what looks like a dragon’s tail. He didn’t have to make such a utilitarian object as beautiful as a dragon’s tail, but he did. It’s a beautiful thing which, if I owned it, would be considered a work of art.

Stones are all about time—time to find them, to move them, to place them, and time, occasionally, to chisel and shape them. And above all, time to see them, experience them, and fall under their spell. ~Charles McRaven

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On Friday the 10th of January it started warming up, and it didn’t stop until the temperature reached 62 degrees F. and all the snow was gone and all the records were broken. January thaws usually last for about a week and temperatures rise an average of 10° F higher than those of the previous week but this was a thaw to remember, with temperatures rising 30 degrees or more. I think of a January thaw as a taste of spring in the dead of winter, and it is always welcome.

Snow was coming off roofs in lacy sheets because of the ice underneath.

I followed an ice covered road by a pond and by the time I walked back, in the space of a half hour most of the ice you see here had melted.

The ice on the pond was melting quickly and was covered with water. When it freezes again it will be a great surface for skating.

On a day like this it was easy to think of red wing blackbirds building nests in the cattails at the pond edges, but they won’t really be back for a couple of months.

North of Keene you could see it was still January on the banks of the Ashuelot River but that snow was thin and I’d guess that it is all gone now.

You can see how thin the snow was in the woods. I’d guess no more than two inches, and two inches melts fast in 60 degree weather.

The high water mark along the river showed that there was plenty of room for all the melting snow.

The Ashuelot River south of Keene looked completely different than the photo I took of it in the north of Keene and they were taken just a few hours apart. This view looks more like March.

The melting ice and snow has uncovered a bounty for animals. It was a good year for acorns.

Spring has always been my favorite season so for me a thaw is also a tease that lights the pilot light of spring fever. Seeing pussy willows in January fuels the flames.

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. 

I went to see a witch hazel that I had seen bloom quite late before and there it was, blooming again. This is unusual because it’s a fall blooming witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana.) At this time of year I’d more expect to see a spring blooming witch hazel in bloom.

But no, the spring blooming witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) buds were still closed up tight. They’ll bloom in March, and I can’t wait to see them again.

I was shocked to see what I think are reticulated iris (Iris reticulata) shoots out of the ground. These irises are early, sometimes even earlier than crocuses, but I have a feeling they’ll pay dearly for believing it was spring in January.

The big flower heads of Hydrangeas can usually be seen blowing across the ground like tumbleweeds in spring, but these stayed put.  

Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata) loses its berries over winter and in the spring you can find the ground under them littered with small blue spheres. These examples were still hanging on tight, so they hadn’t been fooled by the warmth. Boston ivy lends its name to the “ivy league” schools. The odd thing about Boston ivy is its name, because it isn’t from Boston and it isn’t an ivy; it’s a member of the grape family and comes from China and Japan. This vine attaches to just about any vertical surface with tiny circular pads that form at the ends of its tendrils.  It secretes calcium carbonate and uses it to “glue” the pads to the surface it wants to climb. The glue can to hold up to 260 times its own weight, which is pretty remarkable.

The magnolia flower buds still wore their fuzzy caps and I was glad to see it. I’ve seen lots of beautiful magnolia blossoms browned over the years by opening early and getting frost bitten.

There wasn’t any ice to be seen at Ashuelot falls. The falls are shaded for a large part of the day so any ice that forms here often stays for the winter, but not this time.

The warm spell was a nice respite from the cabin fever that always starts to set in around mid-January. Forty degrees above our average high lets us catch our breath and prepare for more winter weather. We all know there is plenty of winter left to come but for now a taste of spring was just what we needed. Everywhere I went there were people outside, loving it.

The sun came out,
And the snowman cried.
His tears ran down
On every side.
His tears ran down
Till the spot was cleared.
He cried so hard
That he disappeared.

~ Margaret Hillert

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Back pain led me to look for an easy place to walk, so I chose a familiar rail trail that I knew wouldn’t be too much of a challenge. Since I fell out of a tree and suffered a double fracture to my spine when I was a boy, back pain has been an old “friend” for most of my life. Usually it really isn’t that much of a problem but every now and then it becomes an issue, and I’ve found that the best cure for it is to simply walk it off.

It was a beautiful blue sky day with temperatures just above freezing, so walking was just what the doctor ordered. Actually in my experience the doctor will order you to go home and stay in bed for a week if you complain of back pain, but I’ve found that is the worst thing I can do. Keeping moving; that’s my cure.

I saw a log with some very strange looking branch collars on it. It was some type of evergreen, possibly spruce, but I’m not sure. The part of the tree that protrudes and surrounds the branch is called the branch collar and it should always be left intact when pruning. As can be seen here, the tree leaves it behind naturally.

Private suburban land abuts this section of trail along parts of its length and over the years the homeowners have planted numerous nonnative trees and shrubs, trying to screen their yards from the trail that cuts through them. A homeowner who lived along the rail trail had long ago planted a privet hedge and then never trimmed it so the hedge grew to about ten feet tall, and it was covered with berries that the birds weren’t eating. That’s a good thing because privet is considered invasive.

Evidence of the ice storm I wrote about in my last post was still seen over a week later, sparkling in the sun.

An Oriental bittersweet vine (Celastrus orbiculatus) decided it would try to strangle a large white pine tree. If the tree lives another 50 years or so the bittersweet will most likely win and the tree will die, because these vines are like steel cables. They strangle many native trees by wrapping themselves around the tree’s trunk like a boa constrictor. I’ve seen vines as big as my arm wrapped tightly around trees so as the trees grew they had no room to expand and slowly died. 

Sometimes they even try to strangle each other.

The bittersweet berries are quite pretty but unfortunately they’re also quite tasty to birds, and of course that’s why they’re so successful at spreading throughout the countryside, and why they grow near trees and fences.

One of the things I’ve noticed over the years of doing this blog is how windstorms are becoming more numerous and more severe, and I saw evidence of it everywhere out here. Though it’s hard to tell from a photo this pine tree was the diameter of a car tire and it snapped like a toothpick.

The pine tree wasn’t the only tree that had fallen. Downed trees were everywhere.

I saw a child’s footprint frozen into the ice.

Then I saw a lot more children’s footprints leading off the rail trail into the woods. It seemed I had stumbled onto the trail to a secret hideout off in the woods. It wouldn’t be secret for long though, with all those tracks coming and going. I was tempted to follow the prints but I thought about how I would have felt if an adult had appeared at my secret hideout, so I kept going down the main trail.  

They had marked their secret trail with a broken concrete base to an old birdbath. How in the world did they get that out here, I wondered. It must weigh 50 pounds.

The secret hideout was on Yale Forest land, which borders part of the trail. This sign marking the forest is slowly being eaten by a tree.

These oak leaves shining in the sunshine were beautiful, I thought.

This oak was full of galls. There are horned oak galls, gouty oak galls, artichoke oak galls, potato oak galls, and oak marble galls. The photo above is of marble galls and they really are about the size of a marble. These marble galls are usually near perfect spheres. Some galls form on the undersides of leaves, some on the tree’s roots and others, like the one shown, on the twigs and stems. All are caused by different wasps or mites which will only lay their eggs on the leaves, roots, or twigs of their favorite species of oak tree. Iron sulfate mixed with tannic acid from oak galls made ink that was the standard writing and drawing ink from the 12th century until well into the 20th century. Some still use it today.

I’m not sure what happened here but this oak gall was seriously misshapen.

My back felt much better by the time I reached the trestle but it didn’t last so I’m still trying to walk it off as of this writing. It takes longer to straighten it out as I get older, but it will happen.

Every time I see the Ashuelot River from one of these old trestles I’m very happy that I didn’t have to bushwhack my way through the woods to see it. We’re very lucky to have these trails.

When I was a boy I walked the railroad tracks to get to my grandmother’s house but before I got there I had to cross a street. This was the same street crossing that, twice a day, the big diesel Boston and Maine locomotives would slow for. Before they crossed they would blow their horns to warn the cars on the street, and you could hear those horns from either my or my grandmother’s house, so I heard them twice a day everyday while I was growing up. Knowing all that you would think I would know what the W on this post stood for but it has taken me years to learn that it simply means “Whistle,” as in “blow your whistle because there’s a road crossing up ahead.” Two longs blasts followed by a short blast and a final long blast of the train’s whistle or horn is a Federal law and every train crossing a road has to abide by it to warn passing traffic. These days you’re more likely to see a flashing light or some type of barrier, but back then I could tell time by the horns on those trains.

These trains are just like the ones that rumbled by (and shook) my house for so many years. Once the trains stopped running it was very hard to see them tearing up all the tracks in this area, and it took several years before I could walk the rail trails left behind. Though I’m very thankful that we have the rail trails, seeing photos like this one is like seeing a photo of an old friend who has died. They roll by only in dreams now, hauling boxcars full of memories.

Human history and natural history are visible from trails. The old railroad routes through a town can show a lot about how the town developed, what it was like long ago. When you go through a town by bicycle on an old railroad route, the place looks very different than from the customary perspective of the car and the highway. ~Peter Harnick

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Ice storm are two words that can strike fear into the most stouthearted New Englander and last week we had one. Forecasts were for major ice buildup; as much as a half inch of ice on trees and wires. Since it only takes a quarter inch to bring branches down on power lines widespread power outages were forecast. Thankfully the forecasts were wrong, and though we did have an ice storm it wasn’t nearly as bad as people feared.

Of course all anyone could think about was the ice storm of 2008, when millions went without power for weeks in some cases. If you weren’t lucky enough to have a generator you went to a warming shelter and wondered what would become of your home with no heat in January. When water pipes freeze and burst things can seem pretty grim, and memories of going through an ice storm or knowing someone who did are what causes the immediate anxiety when those two words are spoken.

All is quiet while we wait to see what the storm will bring. All that can be heard outside is the steady patter of rain, which freezes on contact. That and the occasional loud crack of a tree branch falling.

Freezing rain happens when warm air sits above cold air. Precipitation falls as rain in the warm layer but freezes on contact with anything in the colder layer at ground level. The accumulating ice weighs everything down; even the goldenrod seen here couldn’t bear it.

Sometimes snow will fall after the ice, weighing tree branches down even more. That is what happened this time so it really is surprising that there weren’t more power outages.

But eventually the sun comes out again as it must, and as the ice melts it falls with strange crinkling, tinkling sounds. But for a brief time before it melts the sun shines on it, and it is like being in a world made of billions of tiny prisms, all shining light of every color of the rainbow in all directions, and it is truly a beautiful sight that many are thankful to have seen no matter how terrible the storm. I’ll never forget driving through the aftermath of the 2008 ice storm. Though trees and wires were down everywhere I went it was easily one of the top 5 most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. I wish I could show you more photos of the aftermath of this storm but it wasn’t to be.

This is the view looking out of a vehicle’s icy windshield. Turn on the heat and let it warm up, because no amount of scraping will get this kind of ice off.

Ripples in the snow looked just like ripples in the sand on a lake bottom but these ripples speak of wind, not waves.

Pressure cracks appeared in the new, thin ice of Half Moon Pond in Hancock. There are many names for cracks in ice but in a lake or pond they’re all caused by stress of some kind. These might have been wet cracks, where the cracks are wide enough to have water showing between them.

They might also have been wave break cracks, caused by waves cracking the ice sheet into fairly large pieces. If you walked out there you might have found that you were standing on a large piece of ice which wasn’t attached to anything. The thing I can’t show you here are the sounds that ice makes. Very eerie sounds can sometimes be heard coming off the pond in winter. Some sound like humming, some like booming, some like cracking, but most are indescribable.

This puddle ice had very clear lens like areas in it. This isn’t something I see a lot of and I don’t know what causes it. I do know that the whiter the ice the more oxygen was in it when it formed. Doing this blog has made me learn an awful lot about ice that I wouldn’t have cared enough to even question before.

Many birds, including robins and cedar waxwings, love crab apples so you would think they would be gobbling them as fast as they could, but this tree was full of them, so why aren’t they? Science has shown that birds will leave fruits that are lower in fat for last but are crab apples low in fat? The answers are simple; many crab apples are ornamental cultivars that birds just don’t like. Some other cultivars have fruit that birds will eat only after it has frozen and thawed several times.  If you want to attract fruit eating birds with crab apples (Malus) the choice of cultivar requires some research.

The fruits of horse nettle plants are quite pretty against the snow. Carolina horse nettle (Solanum carolinense) isn’t a true nettle but instead is in the nightshade family, along with tomatoes and potatoes and many toxic plants. This plant is also toxic, enough so to be named devil’s tomato. It contains alkaloids that can make you very sick and which have caused death. There are also spines on the leaves which can break off and embed themselves in the skin. Skunks, pheasant, and turkeys are said to eat the fruit but it didn’t look to me like a single one had been touched. Nothing seems to eat the stems or foliage.

I’ve seen lots of seed pods on rose of Sharon plants but when I saw this one I realized that I had never looked inside one.

It was full of flat, dark colored, kidney shaped seeds which were quite pretty. I wondered if they would grow. There must have been thousands of them on this one plant but I’ve never seen a seedling near it.

The seed eating birds have been busy picking all the prickly looking coneflower seeds in my yard. They had eaten about two thirds of this one.

For the first time I’ve seen seed pods on a monkshood plant. If you were found growing monkshood (Aconitum napellus) in ancient Rome there was a good chance that you’d be put to death, because the extremely toxic plant was added to the water of one’s enemies to eliminate them. It was used on spear and arrow tips in wars and in hunting parties. It is also called winter aconite and is so poisonous its aconitine toxins can be absorbed through the skin. People who have mistaken its roots for horseradish have died within 4-6 hours after eating them. It is also called friar’s cap, leopard’s bane, wolf’s bane, devil’s helmet, and queen of poisons. In 2015 an experienced gardener in the U.K. died of multiple organ failure after weeding and hoeing near aconite plants. I didn’t pick the seeds.

This poison ivy was wearing its vine disguise, climbing a tree by using aerial roots which grow directly out of the wood of its stem when it needs them. Poison ivy can appear as a plant, a shrub, or a vine and if you’re going to spend much time in the woods it’s a good idea to know it well. In the winter a vine like this can help identify the plant because of these many aerial roots. It’s best not to touch it because even in winter it can cause an itchy rash.

This poison ivy vine even had a few berries left on it. I was surprised to see them because birds usually eat them right up.

All the freezing rain turned our snow into something resembling white concrete so squirrels, deer and other animals that dig through the snow to find acorns and seeds are having a hard time of it. There is supposed to be a warm up coming though, so that should help. I know that anything that melts all of this ice and hard, slippery snow will be greatly appreciated by humans.

I am grateful for the magic, mystery and majesty of nature – my loyal friend and companion – always there, welcoming and waiting for me to come; to be healed. ~Tom North

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Ever since I was a boy I’ve gotten an itch to start looking at buds at this time of year and I’ve learned a lot from them. They can tell you a lot about the plant they grow on; just counting the bud scales, for instance, will help identify a tree or shrub even in the dead of winter. Bud scales are modified leaves that cover and protect the bud through winter. Some buds can have several, some have two, some have just one scale called a cap, and some buds are naked, with none at all. Buds with just two (sometimes three) scales are called valvate. The scales meet but do not overlap. This Cornelian cherry bud is a great example of a valvate bud. In the spring when the plant begins to take up water through its roots the buds swell and the scales part to let the bud grow. Some bud scales are hairy and some are covered with sticky resin that further protects the bud. Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) is an ornamental flowering shrub related to dogwoods. It blooms in early spring (in March) with clusters of blossoms that have small, bright yellow bracts.

Buds that have several scales like the gray birch bud seen here are called imbricate buds, with scales that overlap like shingles. A gummy resin fills the spaces between the scales and makes the bud waterproof, and it can be seen on this bud. This is especially important in cold climates because water freezing inside the bud scales would destroy the bud.

Gray birch fruit appears as 2 inch long cylindrical clusters of winged nutlets growing at the branch tips. Birds eat them all winter long, and when all the nutlets are gone the stick like core is all that remains. One of those can be seen in the upper left. Ruffed grouse will eat both the buds and catkins and pine siskins and black-capped chickadees eat the seeds of gray birch. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers feed on the sap and I’ve seen beavers take an entire clump of gray birch overnight, so they must be really tasty. Deer also browse on the twigs in winter.

Native nannyberry buds (Viburnum lentago) with their two scales are another example of valvate buds. These buds always remind me of great blue herons or cranes. Nannyberry is one of our native viburnums but unlike many of them this shrub produces edible fruit.

Native Americans ate nannyberry fruit fresh or dried and used the bark and leaves medicinally. They also used the berries in jam with wild grapes. According to the book The Origins of English Words nanny berry is also called sheep berry and that name comes from its fruit, which is said to resemble sheep droppings. The nanny part of the name comes from the nanny goat. Squirrels and birds are said to eat the fruit but I see huge numbers of them still on the bushes well into winter.

Maple leaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium) buds are ovoid with a short stalk and have 4 overlapping dark purple scales, so they are imbricate. This is one of our prettiest native viburnums, from its white flowers in may to its incredibly colored leaves in fall. Its leaves can be pink, purple, yellow, orange or even white and sometimes a combination of 2 or 3 colors.

Maple leaved viburnum’s dark blue berry like fruits are called drupes. Botanically speaking a drupe is a fleshy fruit which contains a single seed with a hard outer shell, like a peach or a cherry. Birds and small animals gobble them up so it isn’t often you see them in spring. The Native American Chippewa tribe used the inner bark of this plant to relieve stomach pains.

Red oak (Quercus rubra) buds usually appear in a cluster and are conical and reddish brown. I like the chevron like pattern that the imbricate bud scales make. Red oak is one of our most common trees in New England but in the past many thousands were lost to gypsy moth infestations. It is an important source of lumber, flooring and fire wood. The USDA says that red oaks can live to be 500 years old.

Terminal buds appear on the end or terminus of a branch and nothing illustrates that better than the sugar maple (Acer saccharum.) The large, pointed, very scaly bud is flanked by lateral buds on either side. The lateral buds are usually smaller than the terminal bud. Sugar maple twigs and buds are brown rather than red like silver or red maples. Due to a cold spring New Hampshire only produced 148,000 gallons of syrup in 2019, which was average to below average, according to producers.

Norway maple (Acer platanoides) is supposed to be a very invasive species but they’ve been used for years as landscape trees so the genie has been let out of the bottle and now there is no stopping them. The Norway maple’s terminal bud and stem are larger than the sugar maple’s, and its bud scales are fewer and colored a pleasing maroon. Sugar maples have twice as many bud scales and they are brown. Norway maple terminal buds are also rounded while those of sugar maple are sharply pointed. Norway maple is native to eastern and central Europe and western Asia, from France east to Russia, north to southern Scandinavia and southeast to northern Iran.

One of the smallest buds I know belong to hawthorns (Crataegus) and the cherry red hawthorn bud in the above photo could easily hide behind a pea. There are over 220 species of hawthorn in North America, with at least one native to every state and Canadian province. In New Hampshire we have 17 species, so the chances of my identifying this example are slim to none. Hawthorn berries are called haws and are said to have medicinal value. Native Americans mixed the dried haws and other fruits with dried venison and fat to make pemmican.  The dried flowers, leaves, and haws can be used to make a tea to soothe sore throats, and hawthorn also shows promise for treating heart disease.

I could look at a calendar to see when spring begins but I prefer watching the plants in the forest, because they’re rarely wrong. The terminal buds of shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) shown in the above photo are quite large and can fool you into thinking that they are swelling because of spring sap flow but no, they’re this way all winter.

A bud I most look forward to seeing open in spring is the beech (Fagus grandifolia.) There are beautiful silvery downy edges on the new laves that only last for a day or two, so I watch beech trees closely starting in May. Botanically beech buds are described as “narrow conical, highly imbricate, and sharply pointed.” In May they are one of the most beautiful things in the forest.

I’ve never paid much attention to the buds of basswood (Tilia americana) but the way the terminal bud grows at an angle from the twig reminds me of blueberry buds. It was red and resin covered and had only two bud scales which overlapped. I’ve read that they can sometimes have just one bud scale as well. I can’t explain why this twig was so withered. Basswood is native to New England and the Midwest. Its lightweight wood is often the choice of wood carvers, much like balsa wood, and its tough inner bark was used for rope and mats by Native Americans.

This bud is from a speckled alder (Alnus incana,) and it has two bud scales so it is valvate. They and the twigs are also covered in fine velvet.  Speckled alder is a bit unusual because its branches can have three kinds of buds; leaf buds, male catkins, and female catkins. Catkins are essentially long strings of flower buds growing spirally (usually) around a central stem. I love to watch alder catkins in spring for signs of them opening. When they begin to open the catkins lengthen and their reddish color becomes speckled with golden pollen. They’re quite beautiful.

Witch hazel buds (Hamamelis virginiana) are light, yellow brown and they are hairy, with no bud scales. That means they are naked buds and the hairs protect them instead of bud scales. These buds, as do most of the buds seen here, form in the fall and spend the winter resting and waiting for spring, so they have a long period when the buds must be protected.

Staghorn sumacs (Rhus typhina) also have no bud scales so their naked buds are also hairy. Another name for staghorn sumac is velvet tree, and that’s exactly what its branches feel like. Native Americans made a drink from this tree’s berries that tasted just like lemonade, and grinding the berries produces a purple colored, lemon flavored spice.

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 and / or tomato red. They have a fine fringe of pale hairs on their margins. 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.

I’ve spent many winters watching the buds of trees and bushes, especially those right around my house like the lilac (Syringa vulgaris) in the above photo. I check it regularly starting in February for signs of swelling. In winter buds are my connection to spring and I love watching the bud scales finally open to reveal tiny leaves or flowers. The lilac bud above is a good example of an imbricate bud.

For those who can’t see or don’t want to look at small buds like lilacs fortunately there are big buds on plants like rhododendron. It also has imbricate buds. This one was half the length of my thumb. Buds found on known plants around the yard are a good place to start studying them, if you’d like to learn more.

If you are open to being taught by nature, go listen to the trees. ~Kenneth Meadows

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