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Posts Tagged ‘Winter Woods’

Last Sunday I woke with an urge to climb, so I headed 25 miles north to Stoddard where Pitcher Mountain lives. Since we have no snow in Keene I assumed there would be no snow there, but I was wrong. It was another one of those “what was I thinking?” moments.

But all in all the trail wasn’t bad because it was snow instead of ice. I stopped to get a photo of target canker on a red maple (Acer rubrum.) If I understand what I’ve read correctly red maples are the only trees that get this canker. It makes the tree’s bark form bullseye shaped raised plates that look like a target, but it doesn’t really hurt the tree. The circular plates are the tree’s response to a fungus that invades the healthy bark and kills it. During the next season the tree responds with a new layer of bark and cork (callus) to contain the fungus. In the next dormant season the fungus again attacks and kills more bark and on it goes, a seasonal alternation of pathogen invasion and host defense response which creates concentric ridges of callus tissue; a target canker. Finally the fungus gives up or dies off and the tree grows on. Red maples have beautiful deep red flowers and the trees often grow in large colonies, so I was hoping to see huge swaths of red from the summit.

I also stopped to see a striped maple (Acer pennsylvanicum) that grew along the trail. The two large terminal bud scales had started pulling apart to reveal the bud within, just like they were doing 25 miles and over 1,600 feet lower in Keene. The pink and orange fuzzy buds are very beautiful and I’m getting anxious to see them. It won’t be long now.

I had to stop at one of my favorite places, which is the pasture about half way up the trail. I always imagine doors being thrown open and a great whooshing sound when I see this view because it’s so expansive compared to the close woods where I spend most of my time. It’s a peaceful, simple place with just the earth, sky, and you and you can step outside yourself for a while here.

The trail takes a turn after the pasture and gets steeper and rockier as it follows it uphill. On this day I had a choice; mud on one side or snow on the other. I chose the snowy side.

There is a fairly good view of Mount Monadnock from this leg of the trail but low haze often spoils it. It wasn’t too bad on this day.

There is a lot of black knot disease on the black cherry trees (Prunus serotina) here and I stopped to look at an example. Black knot is caused by the fungus Apiosporina morbosa which can also attack plums, peaches, and apricots. Spores from the fungus are spread by rain or wind and typically will infect trees from April through June on new growth. Infected stems swell up and produce hard black knots like those in the above photo. The disease can eventually kill the tree so infected limbs should be pruned off 2-4 inches below the knots and buried or burned before bud break the following spring.

This is what black knot can do to a fully grown black cherry. This is a wound that never heals and on a tree this age and size the disease is impossible to control and the trees should be destroyed so the fungus can’t release anymore spores. If this photo looks a little strange it’s because I had to use the flash because it was so shady here.

You can get a glimpse of the fire tower from a good distance away before the trees leaf out, but the glimpse signals the start of the steepest part of the climb. The trail had a little snow on it but the summit was snow free, bare granite as usual.

The old forest fire warden’s cabin still stands but each year it seems to lean into the mountainside just a little more. Staying up here must have been hard work no matter what time of year it was.

Pitcher Mountain is one of just a handful of places I know of where Mountain ash trees (Sorbus americana) grow naturally. These trees are easy to identify when they don’t have leaves by their big black buds. This example was just starting to turn green. Mountain ash is used ornamentally because of its white flowers in late spring and bright orange berries in the fall, but it is a native tree. Native Americans made a tea from the bark and berries of this tree to treat coughs, and as a pain killer. They also ate the died and ground berries for food, adding them to soups and stews. The berries are said to be very tart and have an unpleasant taste when unripe.

The fire tower was unmanned and so was the summit so I had the whole rock pile to myself, which is a very rare thing. You find people on most mountaintops in this area and popular ones like Mount Monadnock can at times seem as busy as a Manhattan sidewalk. I call the fire tower on Pitcher Mountain a monument to irony because the original wooden tower built in 1915 burned in April of 1940, in the most destructive forest fire to ever strike this part of the state. Twenty seven thousand acres burned, including the tower and all of the trees on the summit.

A couple of weeks ago we had strong winds with 60 mile per hour gusts and a lot of trees fell in certain areas, so it’s probably a good thing that the fire tower is fastened to the granite of the summit with several stout cables. The wind that day must have made it impossible to stand on the summit. I can imagine the cables vibrating like violin strings in weather like that.

The hill that I call the near hill might be the closest but it would still be quite a hike to reach it. I was surprised by the amount of snow still on it.

I love seeing the blue hills off in the distance and though I don’t climb for the view they do make it much more enjoyable. In case you’re wondering about my not climbing to see the view, if I did I’d be disappointed probably 80% of the time because you never know what haze, humidity, or weather in general will do to it. For instance on this day, though it looks like I could see clear to California, I couldn’t see the windmills over on Bean Mountain just a few miles away.

But I could see the shading on the hills and this is something I find very pleasing. I sat and admired them for a while.

I could also see ski areas on several distant mountains, none of which I know the name of. Skiers must be enjoying some fine spring skiing this year.

Common goldspeck lichens (Candelariella vitellina) grow profusely all over the bedrock up here. This crustose lichen is very granular and is often busy producing spores, but I didn’t see any of its fruiting bodies (apothecia) on this day. These lichens were once used to dye wool in Sweden but I can’t imagine how they got them off the rocks. Crustose lichens usually can’t be removed from the substrate they grow on without damaging it in some way.

I’m not sure what it was but the sun brought out golden highlights in this tiny insect’s wings. It was hanging on desperately trying not to be blown away in the strong wind, so I was able to get a shot of it. I’d guess that it was hardly more than a quarter inch long.

Tile lichens are areolate lichens, which are made up of many little lumps or islands. In the example above the black parts are its apothecia and the white parts are the body (Thallus.) The apothecia are even with or slightly below the surface of the thallus. Tile lichens grow on exposed rock in full sun and will even grow in winter if the temperature is slightly above freezing. I think this one might be Lecidea tessellata but with 136 species of tile lichens I could easily be wrong.

The natural depressions in the bedrock that I call birdbaths always have water in them, even when we had a drought two years ago, and that seems strange to me. What I think doesn’t matter though, because the birds do use them; last year I watched a dark eyed junco bathe in this small pool. I was a little disappointed at not seeing the large swaths of flowering red maples that I hoped to see from up here but even so I saw plenty of other beautiful things, and it was a great day for a climb.

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

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Quite often I get an irresistible urge to be in the woods and, since I’m lucky enough to be able to find woods in any direction I travel, getting there is no work at all. The thought hit me the other day that I hadn’t been to Goose Pond in Keene since last year, so that’s where I went last Sunday. I also wanted to see how deep the snow was in the woods and since this is a five hundred acre wilderness area I would certainly be able to see plenty of woods. As the above photo of the trail to the pond shows, there was no snow in this area.  Odd since Goose Pond isn’t that far from Beaver Brook, where I saw plenty of snow in the woods just the day before.

The pond was still mostly frozen over. It’s interesting how ponds and lakes start melting at the shore and work toward the middle, and rivers start in the middle and work toward the shore.

Goose Pond was called Crystal Lake and / or Sylvan Lake in the early 1900s. The pond was artificially enlarged to 42 acres in 1865 so the town of Keene would have a water supply to fight fires with. Wooden pipe fed 48 hydrants by 1869 but the town stopped using the pond as a water supply in the 1930s, and in 1984 it was designated a wilderness area. The vast forest tract surrounding the pond has been left virtually untouched since the mid-1800s. The deciduous trees over on the left shoreline are red maples. You can just see some red in the branches from the opening flowers.

Even in the winter the trail darkens quickly due to all of the pines and hemlocks.

There are stone walls here and there along the trail around the pond. They tell the history of the place. It’s hard to believe that much of this land was cleared for sheep pasture by the early 1800s, but it was. These walls have most likely been here for over 200 years.

I’m reading the book The Hidden Life of Trees and in it author Peter Wohlleben speaks of how much strain a tree that is bent like the one in the above photo is under. As he explains it a curved trunk has trouble simply standing upright because “The enormous weight of the crown isn’t evenly divided over the diameter of the trunk but weighs more heavily on the wood on one side.” He also explains that “Evenly formed trees absorb the shock of buffeting forces, using their shape to direct and divide these forces evenly throughout their structure.” If you are interested at all in trees, this is the book for you.

I saw lots of trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens) along the trail. This creeping evergreen is also called Mayflower, though it often blooms earlier. It was one of my grandmother’s favorite flowers.

Some of the trailing arbutus plants were well budded. These small white flowers are extremely fragrant and were once collected nearly into oblivion for nosegays. It is one of those plants that has a close relationship with fungal hyphae in the soil and will not grow unless the fungus is present, so digging it up to transplant somewhere else is a waste of time. It’s also illegal in some areas.

There are many streams flowing down off the surrounding hills to the pond and in two spots there are bridges, but in many places you have to cross by hopping from stone to stone or simply walking through the water. I always wear good water proof hiking boots when I come here. On this day I saw some college age people going down the trail wearing bright white sneakers. I can guarantee that they weren’t white when they came out of the woods, and they probably weren’t dry either.

This bridge was chained to a nearby tree, not against theft but flooding. There has been severe flooding here in the past. It would be an awful lot of work hand carrying enough lumber to build a bridge all the way out here so I don’t blame them for not wanting to have it washed away and smashed on the rocks.

I could have sat here all day just listening to the chuckling and giggling of the stream and the joyous, excited birdsong but it wasn’t warm on this day and there was a stiff wind coming off that ice, so I had to move on after too short a time.

I saw the pine tree that was hit by lightning last year. The bolt blew the bark right off the trunk in strips, and pieces of the strips still lay by its roots. It also followed a large root right into the ground, leaving the same trace on it.

A birch polypore (Formitopsis betulina) was coated with ice. Someday I’m going to try drying one of these mushrooms and sharpening a knife with it because another name for it is the razor strop fungus. Even more useful than its ability to sharpen a knife though, is its antiseptic, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. It contains betulinic acid, which is a compound that has shown to also promote the death of cancer cells. It has been used medicinally for thousands of years.

Soon the island will be surrounded by water again instead of ice. I’d love to be able to explore it to find out what kind of plants grow there. I’m guessing that they aren’t much different than those that grow here on shore, but you never know.

Great long ice crystals grew in the cold night and were melting now. That’s how this entire winter has been; cold enough to snow one day and then warm enough to melt it all over the next few days. Then comes another storm, but that cycle seems to have finally been broken now.

There are many side trails here and some are very easy to get onto without realizing it, but it would still be hard to get lost if you pay attention and stay on the trail that circles the pond. If the pond is on your right when you start it should be on your right all the way along the trail until it ends, because you have just walked in a circle. Maybe it took you a while to do it but it’s still just a big circle. Even so I have met people here that seemed to have no idea where they were or which way to go. It just goes to show that what seems simple to some of us might not be so simple to others. I’ve been lost in the woods before too, and it can be unsettling, to say the least.

I knew right off what the small black lumps all over this beech stump were.

Annulohypoxylon cohaerens fungus forms hard black lumps on beech bark. The fruiting bodies seen here are “cushion like round or flask shaped masses of fungal tissue with nipple or pustule shaped pores.” Each body is very small; less than half the diameter of a pea. They usually grow on fallen beech logs but these were on a standing stump. It originally took me three years to identify them.

The trail had ice on it here and there but this is mostly level ground so it wasn’t bad. Next winter I’ll have micro spikes, hoping all the while that I don’t need them.

I saw the unnatural stone that lives in the middle of the trail, toward the end if you go clockwise around the pond. Of course I can’t prove it isn’t natural but I’ve worked with a lot of stone and I’ve never seen such a perfect 90 degree angle and such smooth faces on a natural stone. I can’t imagine how it got way out here or why.

This is a special place for several reasons. First is because it’s the only place I know of where you can actually get a photo of the woods while you are in them. An old pine fell and opened a hole in the canopy and that lets in enough light for a shot of something I am rarely able to get on film. Taking a photo of a forest while you’re in it is a lot harder than you might think, because of all the trees. Another reason this spot is special is because the only example of a northern club spur orchid I know of grows here. I found it about 4 years ago and hope to see it bloom again in July. The final reason this place is special to me is because it’s so beautiful and peaceful here. If you feel the need to just sit and “soak” in the woods this is the place to do it. I hope you have a place like it.

It is very important to go out alone, to sit under a tree—not with a book, not with a companion, but by yourself—and observe the falling of a leaf, hear the lapping of the water, the fishermen’s song, watch the flight of a bird, and of your own thoughts as they chase each other across the space of your mind. If you are able to be alone and watch these things, then you will discover extraordinary riches which no government can tax, no human agency can corrupt, and which can never be destroyed. ~ Jiddu Krishnamurti

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I know this photo of Mount Monadnock doesn’t look very spring like but we got a dusting of snow Friday and I wanted to see how much fell in other places. They got about 3-4 inches in Troy where this was taken, but I’d guess there is a lot more up there on the mountain. I climbed it in April once and in places the snow was almost over my head. It was a foolish thing to do; I got soaked to the skin.

In lower altitudes flowers were blooming in spite of it being a cold day and I finally found some coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara.) The flowers on coltsfoot plants come up before the leaves show so there is no hint of when it will appear. You have to remember where you’ve seen it last year and revisit the places the following spring. This was taken last Saturday and I’m guessing that there are a lot more blooming now, so I’ve got to get back there and see. Coltsfoot is native to Europe and Asia and was brought here by early settlers. It has been used medicinally for centuries and another name for it is coughwort.

The male catkins of American hazelnut (Corylus americana) have lengthened and turned golden, and that’s a sure sign that they’re almost ready to release their pollen.

It wouldn’t make sense for the male hazelnut catkins to release their pollen unless the female blossoms were ready to receive it, so when I see the male catkins looking like those in the previous photo I start looking for the female blossoms, like those pictured here. If pollinated successfully each thread like crimson stigma will become a hazelnut.

Female American hazelnut flowers are among the smallest flowers that I try to photograph but size doesn’t always come through in a photo, so I clipped a paperclip to the branch to give you an idea of scale. That isn’t a giant paperclip; it’s the standard size, so you have to look carefully for these tiny blooms. Male catkins and female flowers will usually be on the same bush. Though the shrubs that I see aren’t much more than 5-6 feet tall I just read that they can reach 16 feet under ideal conditions. The ones I see grow along the edges of roads and rail trails and are regularly cut down. In fact I had a hard time finding any this year. I went to one spot near powerlines and found that hundreds of them had been cut.

A week ago I saw 2 dandelion blossoms. This week I saw too many to count and some had insects on them, so it looks like we’ll have a good seed crop before too long.

Each stalked brownish-purple bud scale on a male speckled alder catkin (Alnus incana) opens in spring to reveal three male flowers beneath, each with a lobed calyx cup and three to five stamens with anthers covered in yellow pollen. The flower parts are clearly visible in this photo but even though it is heavily cropped they are still tiny. The entire catkin is only about 2 ½ inches long.

Just like with the male American hazelnut catkins we saw earlier, when I see the male catkins open on alders I start looking for the female flowers. In this photo the tiny scarlet female stigmas poke out from under the bud scales on all sides of the catkin. The whitish material is the “glue” the plant produces to seal each shingle like bud scale against the wet and cold winter weather. If water got under the bud scale and froze it would kill the female blossoms. When pollinated each thread like female stigma will become a small cone like seed pod (strobile) that I think most of us are used to seeing on alders. These female flowers aren’t much bigger than the female hazelnut flowers we saw earlier so you need good eyes. Or good glasses.

Red elderberry buds (Sambucus racemosa) often break quite early as this one has, and they often pay for it by being frostbitten. But, though it was 18 degrees F. the night before and this one had ice on it, it looked fine. Each small opening leaf looked great all the way to the tip with no damage.

Many of the red maple (Acer rubrum) female blossoms in this area are fully opened now, so from here on it’s all about seed production. I’m looking forward to seeing their beautiful red samaras. The male blossoms have dried and will simply fall from the trees once they have shed their pollen. Sugar maple buds haven’t opened yet that I’ve seen.

At a glance the buds of striped maple (Acer pennsylvanicum) don’t look like they’ve changed much since January, but you have to look a little closer to see what’s going on.

Once you turn the buds of striped maple sideways you can see that the bud scales have come apart, revealing the bud inside. These pink and orange fuzzy buds will be some of the most beautiful things in the forest in a while and I’d hate to miss them. That’s why I check them at least weekly, starting about now. These buds illustrate perfectly why you have to be willing to touch things in nature and bend or turn them whenever possible so you can see all sides, otherwise you can miss a lot of beauty.  When I take photos I try to get shots of all sides, and even under the caps of mushrooms when possible. Most of them are never seen by anyone but me but I can choose the best ones to show you.

From a distance I couldn’t see any yellow flowers on the willows but my camera’s zoom showed me that there were plenty of them. It was one of those sun one minute and clouds the next kind of days, with a blowing wind.

The bees will be very happy to see these blossoms, which are some of our earliest to appear. Willow bark contains salicin, a compound found in aspirin, and willows have been used to relieve pain for thousands of years.

Last week the tiny white flowers of what I think are hairy bittercress plants (Cardamine hirsuta) were ground hugging, but this week they stood up on 4 inch tall stalks. That’s a lot of growth in a week. I’ve read that the seed pods are explosive, so having them as high up as possible makes perfect sense.

Out of a bed of probably 50 hyacinths a single one is about to bloom. Most have buds that have just appeared and aren’t even showing color yet, but this one just doesn’t want to wait. I hope it knows what it’s doing. It’s still getting down into the teens at night.

The daffodil bud that I saw last week and thought would be open this week was not, but it had a visitor. Some type of fly I think, but I’m not very good with insects. It’s not a great photo but it does show that there are indeed insects active. I also saw a hoverfly but I haven’t seen a bee yet.

In spite of it being a sunny day all the crocuses had closed up shop but the reticulated irises (Iris reticulata) were still open for business. They’re beautiful little things.

The tiny ground ivy flowers (Glechoma hederacea) are still showing on a single plant that is surrounded by hundreds of other plants that aren’t blooming. It’s clearly working harder than the others. It must have had ten blossoms on it.

So the story from here is that though spring is happening winter hangs on as well. The last snowstorm dusted my yard with snow that looked like confectioner’s sugar and it melted overnight, but just a few miles north at Beaver Brook the hillsides got considerably more. Chances are it is still there too, because it has been cool. Sooner or later it’s bound to warm up and stay the way. The weather people say there’s a chance we might see 50 degrees today and 70 degrees by Saturday. We’re all hoping they’ve got it right.

The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day.

~Robert Frost

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Keen observers of the flowers that bloom in spring probably noticed that there weren’t any coltsfoot flowers in my last post. That’s because I hadn’t seen any yet, even though I had been to every place I knew of where they bloom. Except one, I remembered; the deep cut rail trail in Westmoreland that the ice climbers call the “Icebox” has a lot of coltsfoot plants along the trail. So, though I wasn’t sure what I’d find, last Sunday off I went. What I found was where winter has been hiding. As the above photo shows there was still plenty of ice clinging to the man-made canyon walls.

But the ice was rotten and melting quickly. Ice this big can be very dangerous when it falls, so I don’t get near it. I thought it had been warm enough to melt all the ice and snow here but obviously I was wrong.

The opaque gray color is a sure sign of rotten ice. Ice is rotten when the bonds between ice crystals begin to break down because of air and dirt coming between them.

Water was literally pouring from the walls. The groundwater always seeps and drips here but on this day it was running with more force than I’ve ever seen so I think it was meltwater.

And then I saw this fallen ice column. It looked like a boat and was as big as one that would fit 5 people. If this ever fell on a person it would crush them, so I decided to turn back and get out of here.

The view further down the trail didn’t look safe at all with all the ice columns melting in the sunshine, and there was what looked like a pile of ice down there.

That’s what it was; a pile of huge ice chunks all across the trail. I know it’s hard to judge the scale of things in a photo but these ice columns are as big as trees. Actually there is a fallen tree over on the left.

Here’s a shot of some ice climbers taken in February to give new readers an idea of the size of this ice. Some of it is huge.

I think that part of the reason the ice columns fall like they do is because the water in the drainage ditches along the side of the trail erode their bases away, as can be seen in this photo.

Ice isn’t the only thing that falls here. Stones fall from the ledges regularly and I saw at least three fallen trees on this day. I’m reminded each time I come here how dangerous the place can be, but it is also a place where I can see things that I can’t see anywhere else.

One of the things I can’t see anywhere else is the great scented liverwort (Conocephalum conicum.) They grow here by the thousands and I’ve learned to expect them to look a little tattered and worn in spring, because most are covered by ice all winter. By June though they’ll all be a beautiful pea green. Another name for the plant is snakeskin liverwort, for obvious reasons. Its pores and air chambers our outlined on its surface, and that gives it a very reptilian look. In my opinion it is one of the most beautiful of its kind.

I decided to look a little closer at areas with no ice or leaning trees nearby and I’m glad I did because I saw many interesting things, like what I believe is yew leaved pocket moss (Fissidens taxifolius.) This little moss grows in very wet places on the ledges where water drips on it almost constantly. Pocket mosses get their common name from the way the lower lobe of each leaf curls around its stem to form a pocket. This example was a little beat up because it has also most likely been under ice all winter.

Grasses were just coming up in the drainage ditches that follow along each side of the trail. The beech leaf in the foreground will give you an idea of their size.

I saw a large patch of moss on part of a ledge.

It turned out to be Hedwigia ciliata, which is a very common but an uncommonly beautiful moss. It’s also called white tipped moss because its branch tips are often bright white. I usually see it on stones in full sun.

Seedlings were coming up among the mosses. I’m not sure what they are because they had no true leaves yet but I do know that Jack in the pulpit plants grow all along this section of ledge. Many different species of aster also grow on the stone. It reminds me of a radish seedling.

I found that green algae (Trentepohlia aurea) darkens when wet. This hairy alga is orange because of the pigment beta carotene hiding the green chlorophyll. It grows out of direct sunlight on the damp rock walls.

I thought I’d practice my photography skills by trying to get a shot of a stone filled with mica. It isn’t as easy as it sounds because each piece of mica is like a tiny mirror that amplifies the sunlight.

If I could have gotten closer to the ice columns I would have shown you that the ice comes in many colors here. One of the colors is a reddish orange and I believe that it comes from iron leaching from the soil and stone. The above photo is of a spot in the woods where a pool of water was. When the water evaporated it left behind the minerals it carried, in this case probably iron.

I saw this bubbly mass in one of the drainage ditches. I’m not sure but I think it’s some type of algae. It reminds me of the spyrogyra algae I saw a few years ago. That example was on a very wet stone outcrop and this one was in water. I’ve read that it is most abundant in early spring and that the bubbles come from trapped gasses. It isn’t something I see regularly.

I never did find any coltsfoot flowers to show you but there were plenty of other interesting things to see. I also never made it all the way to the old lineman’s shack because of all the fallen ice, but I did see a piece of it; this plank from it was being used as a bridge to cross the drainage ditch. I wish people wouldn’t keep pulling the old shed apart but I don’t suppose anything can be done about it.

Nature is never static. It is always changing. Everything is in a constant state of flux. Nothing endures. Everything is in the process of either coming into being or expiring.
~Kilroy J. Oldster

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I’ve seen reticulated iris (Iris reticulata) blossoms with snow on them in early March. They are usually our earliest garden flower but this year they decided to wait a bit. I like the dark orchid one on the right. This little iris does well in rock gardens and looks good along with miniature daffodils like tete-a-tete. They originally came from Turkey, the Caucasus, Northern Iraq and Iran. The reticulated part of their name comes from the net like pattern on the bulbs.

I love this color too but I’m not sure it works on these small irises.

Like someone flipped a switch all of the sudden there were flowers, including crocuses. These yellow ones were a photographic challenge in bright sunlight.

These purple crocuses were being blown about by the breeze. I wondered if that was why I didn’t see any bees on them even though it was a warm day.

My favorite flowers on this day were these beautiful crocus blossoms. I love the shading on the inside of each petal. There are about 90 species of crocus and each spring it seems like I see one that I’ve never seen before. They are in the iris family and originally came from Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. They grow naturally from sea level all the way to Alpine tundra, so they’re tough little plants. Though they’re not native to the Netherlands they’ve been grown there since about 1560.

I just missed the first daffodil flower.

There is a bulb bed at the local college that I’ve been struggling with since the snow melted. I remember last year kneeling before it to smell the hyacinths that grew there but this year all I saw were tulip leaves. Somehow I convinced myself that the tulip leaves must be hyacinth leaves, even though they don’t look at all alike and I knew better. The answer came with this budded hyacinth flower head when I realized that there are both tulips and hyacinths growing here. I think what confused me were the early tulips. I saw tulip leaves even before crocus or reticulated iris leaves, and that’s very early.

What I think is bittercress was 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 (Cardamine hirsuta) is a common lawn weed that stays green under the snow and blooms almost as soon as it melts. The 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.

Snowdrops were living up to their name on this day.

But just a few days later all the snow had gone and there were snowdrop blossoms instead of buds. This is a flower I rarely see. It seems to be rarely used here and I’m not sure why. The flowers are beautiful, especially when seen in large drifts. As well as the snowdrops, this photo shows that my macro camera isn’t very good with depth of field. It would have been a better shot if all the trailing blossoms were in focus as well.

All that melting snow and a day or two of rain have pushed the Ashuelot River to bank full again. I hope all of those April showers come in the form of a gentle drizzle. I wondered if the Canada geese had their new nests flooded; though I’ve seen them in this spot for the past several weeks there was no sign of them this day.

I think I must have been a half mile downwind of these vernal witch hazel shrubs (Hamamelis vernalis) when I first smelled them, so powerful is their fragrance. This year they’ve bloomed steadily for over a month, through four nor’easters and bitterly cold nights, so they’re very hardy. In fact I think the cold must prolong their bloom time, because I’ve never seen them bloom for so long.

Female red maple flowers (Acer rubrum) have almost fully opened now. The scarlet stigmas will grow longer before becoming pollinated and turning into winged seed pods (Samaras.) Each bud is about the size of a pea and holds several female flowers which are about the same diameter as an uncooked piece of spaghetti. Sugar maple flowers haven’t opened yet but it shouldn’t be too much longer.

The male red maple flowers aren’t as pretty as the female flowers but their pollen is important because without it there would be no viable seed. Mature red maples can produce nearly a million seeds in a single season. They are also called soft or swamp maples, even though silver maples are usually found in the wetter spots.

Grasses and sedges have started growing in areas that are wet in spring. By June this spot will be dry and the waist high grasses will have stopped growing.

Since the skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) have been blooming for about a month I thought I might see some leaves appearing but apparently the cold and snow has held even them back. Many of the mottled spathes had softened and darkened signaling the end of their bloom period, but a few still looked fresh like these two. I’m guessing that their leaves will appear soon. The new spring leaves are the only part of the plant that actually resemble a cabbage, and then only for a very short time.

One reason invasive honeysuckle shrubs are so successful is because they grow leaves and begin photosynthesizing weeks before most of our native shrubs. We have 3 invasive honeysuckles here in New Hampshire. Bell’s honeysuckle (Lonicera x bella) has whitish to pink flowers that fade to yellow, along with slightly hairy stems and leaf undersides. They are very common. Morrow’s Honeysuckle (Lonicera morrowii) also has whitish pink flowers but they’re on long, slightly hairy flower stalks. The leaves are also slightly hairy on the underside. Tatarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica) is the prettiest among the invasives, having pink or red flowers on long stalks. Its leaves are hairless on the undersides. Stems of all three shrubs are hollow while native honeysuckle stems are solid. It is illegal to sell, propagate or plant these shrubs in New Hampshire.

The willows still haven’t produced flowers but the fuzzy gray catkins are much bigger now than they were just a week ago, so I decided to look a little closer.

In the right light I could see the yellow willow flower buds just under the gray fuzz. Any day now there should be bright yellow flowers on this bush.

I’m finally seeing robins and I watched this one pull a worm out of the lawn he was on and gulp it down. That means the soil is well thawed, so the spring explosion of growth is right on schedule in spite of the wintery March. Nature always seems to balance things out somehow.

It was such a spring day as breathes into a man an ineffable yearning, a painful sweetness, a longing that makes him stand motionless, looking at the leaves or grass, and fling out his arms to embrace he knows not what. ~ John Galsworthy

Thanks for coming by.

 

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Last weekend I decided to go and see a bridge I wrote a post about in January of 2017 called Bridging a Dangerous Crossing.  They were still building it then but have since finished it, so I thought I’d go and see what crossing it was like. It just happens to be on the same rail trail that I grew up walking as a boy so not only would I see the bridge, but I’d see pieces of my past as well.

Back then the rail trail was a working railroad with Boston and Maine trains passing my house twice each day. I used to play in the cornfield in the above photo, which runs alongside the trail. There were lots of crows in it on this day and you can see a couple of them flying there on the right. In the fall after the corn is harvested hundreds of Canada geese also visit these fields. They’ve been doing so at least as long as I’ve been around.

If you know where to look there are good views of Mount Monadnock along the rail trail. When I was a boy it was my favorite mountain because it was always just over my shoulder no matter where I went. When I was still quite young I foolishly came up with the idea of cataloging all the plants on the mountain. In my teen years I still had the dream but I was sure someone else must have already done it. Sure enough, Henry David Thoreau had started an inventory of the mountain’s plants and it was fairly extensive, and that’s how I first discovered Henry David Thoreau. When I found that we seemed to think a lot alike I immediately read everything I could find that he had written. But I never did catalog the plants of Monadnock. The closest I came was helping the ladies of the Keene Garden Club plant wildflowers on its flanks. I wouldn’t dream of doing such a thing today but at the time it seemed the right thing to do.

Along these tracks is where my curiosity about the things I was seeing in nature grew until I couldn’t stand not knowing any longer, so I began reading to find answers to the many questions I had, like why is a young black raspberry cane blue? The answer is the same waxy “bloom” found on plums, grapes, and other fruits and plants. They and other plants along these railroad tracks were what prodded me into reading books like “Grays Manual of Botany.” Easily the driest book I’ve ever read, but I learned a lot from it. I began to visit used book stores and usually spent any money I earned on botany and gardening books, and that and a plant loving grandmother is what started me on the path to professional gardening.

I didn’t always have my nose in a book; somewhere along this rail trail my own initials are carved into the bark of a maple, much like these are.

In no time at all here was the bridge, open at last. The arch of the thing was startling because from the side it looks almost level.

Here is the bridge from the side in a photo taken in January 2017 as the concrete deck was being poured. This is why the arch in the previous view was such a surprise; I’m not really seeing such a pronounced arch from here.

Here it is again, closer to the center of the span. It’s very strange that it could look so level from the side.

Up here I was closer to the red maple (Acer rubrum) buds; thousands of them, just starting to open. If you’re looking for red maple flowers as I do each spring, look for a maple with these kinds of round bud clusters on its branches.

Red maples can look a lot like silver maples (Acer saccharinum) but if I understand what I’ve read correctly, only red maples get target canker, which causes platy bark to appear in circular target-like patterns like that seen here. Silver maples prefer damp swampy areas while red maples are more likely to grow in drier places.

The bridge was built so local college students could cross this very busy highway safely. They walk through here constantly to get to the athletic fields which lie beside the rail trail. There is a sister bridge that crosses another nearby highway, and that was originally built because someone was killed trying to cross that road. Nobody wanted to see that happen here so it was agreed that another bridge should be built. These days traffic is very heavy and I’ve waited for quite a while trying to get across. When I was a boy I could walk across this road without having to hurry at all because on many days there was hardly a car to be seen.

Once you’ve crossed the new bridge you come to the old Boston and Maine Railroad trestle. When I was a boy you could sit here all day and not see a soul, but now there’s a steady stream of college students walking across it so it took a while to get shots of it with nobody on it. When this was built there was nothing here; it was just another trestle in the middle of the woods, but now it has all grown up and there’s a huge shopping center just behind and to the left of this view. The college takes up all the land to the right, and if you follow the rail trail straight ahead you end up in downtown Keene. These days this is a very busy spot.

The railroad tracks are gone now and this portion of the rail trail has been paved, and it even gets plowed by the looks. Up just a short distance to the left is the house I grew up in, built in 1920 and changed many times since. Pass that and cross a street and you would have been at my Grandmother’s house, which is now a parking lot. Back in the film camera days when I used to sell photos I always heard that you needed the owner’s permission to publish a photo of a residence so I didn’t take a photo of my old house, but I saw that the box elder tree that I planted when I was about 10 years old is still there. It’s huge now and still shades the porch, just like I planted it to do.

This side view of the trestle shows the wooden rails that have been put up on most of these trestles by snowmobile groups. You wouldn’t want to drive a snowmobile off the edge of a trestle. This view also shows how much land the trestle covers on each end. That’s because this area floods regularly and I’ve seen the Ashuelot River rise almost to the bottom of this bridge many times.

This is “my view” of the river that I grew up with. It looks placid now but when it floods the river can swallow the land seen on the left. The local college foolishly built a student parking lot there and I’ve seen cars floating there in the not so distant past. It’s hard to tell from the photo but the land on the right where my old house still stands is slightly higher than the land on the left, so the flood waters never reached the house that I know of. The cellar sure got wet in the spring though.

Seeing this granite abutment almost completely underwater and the river pouring over the land beyond was a scary thing to a boy living just feet from the river and it has stayed with me; I still get a bit nervous when I see high water, even in photos. The granite in the abutment was harvested locally, most likely in Marlborough, which is a small town slightly west of Keene. It was brought here and laid up dry, with no mortar. It has stood just as it was built for nearly 150 years.

I spent a lot of time under the old trestle as a boy and this view looks up at it from the underside. You can see the original wooden ties, now covered by boards. When I was small I was afraid of the spaces between the ties but before too long I could almost run across, even in the dark. In fact this is where I learned that darkness comes in different shades.

I spent a lot of time sitting and watching the river from this spot beside the old trestle. It might not look like much but it was a wonderful, magical place to grow up. I was lucky that my father let me run and explore and explore I did, and I learned so much. My early years here were so enjoyable; if I had a chance to go back to any time and place I would choose this place in my childhood years, without a second thought. I hope readers with children will please let them explore nature as well. It’s what childhood should be all about.

I was surprised and happy to see that the old path from my house to the rail trail was still there and still being used, apparently. I would have given anything to have followed it home but I know that this home exists only in my memory now.  And what a memory it is. I hope you all have such great memories.

I hope you didn’t mind this little diversion from the botanical to the mechanical. I don’t mention it often but I’m a mechanical engineer as well as a gardener, so bridges and such things can give me a thrill. No thrill is as great as the one that comes with spring though, and I’ll get back to it in the next post.

Just imagine becoming the way you used to be as a very young child, before you understood the meaning of any word, before opinions took over your mind. The real you is loving, joyful, and free. The real you is just like a flower, just like the wind, just like the ocean, just like the sun. ~Miguel Angel Ruiz

Thanks for stopping in. I hope everyone has a happy Easter!

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I saw a dandelion in full bloom Saturday even though it was a chilly, blustery day. Call it a weed if you will but to me it was as beautiful as any orchid and I was very happy to see it. Oddly enough though I went looking for coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara,) which is a dandelion look alike that blooms in very early spring, I didn’t find a single one.

Actually I saw a dandelion and a half. I can’t explain the half.

I’ve been watching the American hazelnut catkins (Corylus americana) closely and have finally seen some signs of life in them. In winter they are short and stiff, but as they move into spring they lengthen and become more flexible and blow about in the wind. Since hazels are wind pollinated this is all part of The Plan.

Male hazelnut catkins (and most catkins) are really just a long flower head. The bud scales can be clearly seen in this photo as they spiral around the center stalk of the catkin. Under each bud scale is a male flower loaded with pollen ready to be released to the wind, but for the bud scales to open they have to make room by pulling apart, and this is how the catkins sometimes double in length. As they pull apart and open they also change color and become golden, and that’s because we see the golden pollen rather than the bud scales. The bud scales, I’ve noticed, have just began to pull apart and that’s my signal to begin looking for the tiny crimson, thread like female flowers. It won’t be long now.

This shot of a Cornelian cherry bud (Cornus mas) shows maybe an easier to understand example of how bud scales pull apart to reveal the flower buds they’ve been protecting all winter. The same thing happens on the hazel catkins, but in a slightly different way. Cornelian cherry is in the dogwood family. Its common name comes from its small tart, cherry red fruit which man has eaten for thousands of years, especially in Mediterranean regions. It is one of our earliest blooming shrubs, but the buds are opening slowly this year.

My biggest surprise on this day was finding ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) in bloom because I’ve never seen them bloom so early; they usually bloom in May. This wasn’t just a one flower fluke; there were a few blossoms in a sunny spot on a lawn and they were another example of how topsy turvy this year has been. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen dandelions and ground ivy bloom before spring bulbs, but the bulbs seem to be very stubborn this year. Even the reticulated iris and snow drops which are often the first flowers seen, are barely out of the ground.

You might think that this little flower is calling to insects that aren’t there but I’ve seen a surprising number of them out and about, in spite of the cold.

The daffodils are coming up by the hundreds, but I haven’t seen a single blossom yet

These are the daffodils that I was sure would be blooming on this day but they decided against it, and that was probably a good thing because nights are still falling into the 20s.

This photo of a mallard in ice shows how cold it has been but the thin ice along the river banks didn’t seem to matter to the ducks; they just kept on feeding. I also saw a great blue heron but didn’t get a photo of it.

I was hoping to show you at least one photo of a robin but though I’ve searched for days I haven’t seen a single one, so these tracks will have to do. Were they made by a robin? I have no idea but I found them in a known robin hangout. One day several years ago I was admiring some red maple buds in this spot and a male robin flew right down beside me and began kicking and scratching up leaves while looking right into my eyes and giving me a severe stare the whole time. I’m not sure what it was all about but we parted on good terms, I think.

I admired these red maple buds (Acer rubrum) again just as I had on the day of the robin years ago. The female blossoms had opened and were showing their sticky scarlet stigmas. These tiny flowers look a lot like American hazelnut female flowers, but hazelnut blooms are much smaller. Before long the forests will be a sea of scarlet haze for just a short time, so I have to make plans to climb soon.

Red maple trees can be male or female, or sometimes have both sexes on one tree as this one did. On this day the male flowers had also appeared and were loaded with pollen, as can be seen in this photo. The male flower stamens are actually pinkish red but the abundance of pollen makes them appear yellow green. If the wind does its job before too long each female blossom will become the winged seed pod (samara) that I think we’re probably all familiar with.

Here’s a closer look at the male stamens there in the lower right center, just poking out of the bud scales and as yet pollen free.

I’m guessing that the return to winter in March has extended the maple sugaring season, but the red maples beginning to flower signal the end is near. When the trees begin to blossom the sap can get bitter, but red maples bloom before others. I’ll have to look at some sugar maple buds and see if they’re opening too.

The buds of another member of the maple family, box elder, haven’t seemed to respond to spring just yet. The buds didn’t seem to be doing much but that was okay because I like to look at them for their beautiful whitish blue color. The color is caused by tiny wax crystals, there to reflect and protect the new twigs from harsh sunlight until they toughen up. At that stage they will be reddish. The waxy, dusty coloration rubs right off like it does on grapes, plums, and other fruits. Box elder (Acer negundo) has a special place in my heart because it was the first tree I ever planted. I must have been about 8-10 years old when I pulled a three foot seedling up by the roots at my grandmother’s house and stuffed it into a hole at my father’s house. It grew like there was no tomorrow and shaded the front porch perfectly, which of course was what I had planned all along. Why I was thinking of such things at such a young age is beyond me but there you go; sometimes we just have this inborn itch.

I don’t have any real history with magnolias because nobody in my family ever grew one, but I’ve always loved them just the same, especially the fragrant ones. The bud scales on magnolias are made up of a single furry cap with a seam, and on this example the bud scale edges were beginning to curl. This is a sign that the flower bud inside is swelling and pushing the bud scale off, so it shouldn’t be too long before we see these beautiful flowers again. I hope they don’t blossom too early though; the flower petals often get frost burned and turn brown.

The story of the ugly duckling always comes to mind when I look at shagbark hickory buds (Carya ovata) at this time of year and that’s because most people would probably wonder why I would even bother to take the time to photograph something as plain as this. I do it because these buds have a beautiful secret and I want to be sure I know when it will be revealed so I don’t miss it.

The “it” that I don’t want to miss is the breaking of shagbark hickory buds, because for a short time in mid-May they are one of the most beautiful things to be seen in the forest. I sometimes have to remind myself to breathe when I stumble upon a tree full of them because it’s a sight so beautiful it can take your breath away. This is just one reason of many why spring is my favorite season; the anticipation that comes from knowing that I’m living so close to seeing something so beautiful. “Any day now,” I tell myself as the excitement builds.

If a tiny bud dares unfold to a wakening new world, if a narrow blade of grass dares to poke its head up from an unlit earth, then surely I can rise and stretch my winter weary bones, surely I can set my face to the spring sun. Surely, I too can be reborn. ~Toni Sorenson

Thanks for coming by.

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