Almanack Contributor Ellen Rathbone

Ellen Rathbone

Ellen Rathbone is by her own admission a "certified nature nut." She began contributing to the Adirondack Almanack while living in Newcomb, when she was an environmental educator for the Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Centers for nearly ten years.

Ellen graduated from SUNY ESF in 1988 with a BS in forestry and biology and has worked as a naturalist in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.

In 2010 her work took her to Michigan, where she currently resides and serves as Education Director of the Dahlem Conservancy just outside Jackson, Michigan.

She also writes her own blog about her Michigan adventures.



Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Black Knot Fungus – Scourge of Adirondack Cherries

Nature is constantly at war with itself. Romantics tend to see nature as colorful sunsets, fox pups playing around their dens, and bluebirds feeding their young. People with a more utilitarian outlook see nature as either a source of food (deer, turkeys, blackberries), or something to be conquered at all costs (human needs come first). There is truth in all views, but not one of them is exclusively “correct.” Nature has its warm fuzzy moments, but in reality, it is, as the saying goes, “red in tooth and claw.” This holds true for plants as well as animals.

Sometimes I think it’d be kind of nice to come back as a tree. Trees can live a long time. They provide food and shelter for birds and other wildlife. They help pull pollutants from the air and make oxygen for us to breathe. But they are also food and shelter for insects and fungi and myriad other pathogens. And then there’s the weather: wind storms, ice storms, lightning – these can all take their toll.

Not far from my house there’s an area that was once cleared and is now rapidly returning to a cluttered, tree- and shrub-filled tangle of growth. Certain species dominate the growth, and in the shrub department it is blueberries, chokeberries, and choke cherries.

Choke cherries (Prunus virginiana) are a native shrub that can grow to 30 feet in height. Around here, however, every specimen I’ve seen has been shorter than I, courtesy of the local pruning service: Odocoileus virginiana, the white-tailed deer. The berries are full of antioxidants and are edible by people (best in jams and syrups, where you can counteract their astringency with a good dose of sugar). Keep in mind, though, that the plant is toxic to horses.

Choke cherries, like other cherries and plums, are susceptible to a native pathogen called Black Knot Fungus (Dibotryon morbosum). The patch of choke cherries that I visit weekly is riddled with this fungus. It looks like someone has stuck a bunch of burned corndogs on the branches. This time of year the blackened growths are as obvious as the nose on your face, but when the disease is in its earliest stages, it can be very difficult to detect. If you are growing cherries or plums commercially, or even for your own enjoyment at home, you will want to know how to detect this virulent pathogen as soon as possible.

Black knot begins its colonization when spores are released from the parent fungus. The spores come in two varieties. The first are asexual, called conidia, and they appear as an olive-green, velvety growth on the black knot cankers in their second spring of growth. From early spring to early summer, wind and rain break off the conidia and spread them to new infection sites. The second kind of spores are ascospores, and these are formed sexually through the fruiting structures of the fungus, which are found on knots that are beginning their third year of growth. Like the conidia, they are spread by wind and splashing rain from early spring to early summer.

Once the spores are airborne, either blown or splashed, some will land on young wood, such as twigs and branches. Here the spores settle in for the long haul, either entering the plant via wounds or directly inserting themselves through the bark. Often entry is at the crotch of the twigs and branches. If the weather is wet (wet being a relative term, for it only needs to be wet for a few hours), and the temperature is between 55 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit, conditions are ripe for infection.

So, the spores start to grow. Mycelium snake their way into and all along the wood of the tree/shrub. During the first year of growth, a small brownish blob may appear on the infected stem. It’s not terribly noticeable, which is why the disease is easily overlooked until it is well-established. Year two rolls around, and now the knot grows rapidly. At first it is soft and develops a greenish-brown color: this is the sign that the conidia are developing. As summer number two progresses, the knots, which are now rather large (they can grow up to a foot in length over time), start to harden and turn black.

Eventually the knots can encircle the twig/branch on which they are growing, effectively girdling it. The end result is a dead twig/branch above the knot. And even though the knot is now hard and crusty, its edges can continue to grow. Eventually, the oldest parts of the knot will break down, and this opens them up to invasion by boring insects (not insects that are dull conversationalists, but insects that will chew their way into the woody tissue of the plant, potentially bringing with them a whole new set of pathogens).

Some authorities consider black knot to be a minor disease, while others call it a serious problem. The latter are probably involved with commercial fruit growers, for whom black knot can indeed be a serious problem. But even if you only have a single cherry or plum, you want to know how to deal with this fungus, for if left untreated, it will work its way through the cherry and plum population, eventually killing off all the trees.

The first thing to do is routinely inspect your trees. You want to nail the fungus as early as possible, so know what the first summer’s growth looks like. If you miss it, and you don’t notice the knots until they are well-formed, it is still not too late. Grabbed your pruners and cut off the offending branch(es). You want to cut about eight inches below the canker to ensure that you are getting most of the mycelium inside the wood. Gather all your prunings and burn them. Or bury them deep in the ground.

If cankers have formed on the trunk of your tree (not as common, but still possible), dig them out with a knife and chisel, taking an additional inch of wood all around. If the resulting hole is greater than two inches across, paint it with shellac and cover with tree-wound dressing. You will also want to destroy all affected wild trees/shrubs in the immediate area. The recommended distance is 600 feet. If you have an orchard you need to protect, contact your local extension office to find out what dormant sprays and fungicides are recommended.

It’s a war zone out there. Fungi, insects and other pathogens are attacking trees and shrubs; trees fight back with sticky saps and toxic chemicals. Some plants call in the cavalry, in the form of insects that will attack the offenders (such as ladybugs vs aphids). The next time you go for a walk in the woods, think about this. Take a look around. See if you can find some evidence that all is not as calm as it seems.


Saturday, November 21, 2009

Adirondack Tree Identification 102


Now that we’ve mastered the trees with opposite branching, it’s time to turn our attention to those whose branches alternate from left to right (more or less). There are many species of trees that fit this category, and many of them exist here in the Adirondacks. To write even a quick ID guide for all of them would take more space than we have here, so I’m only going to touch on those that are most commonly found.

So there you are, staring at your mystery tree. You’ve determined it’s not a conifer, and its branches sprout in an alternate fashion, one to the left, one to the right, etc. It is autumn, or perhaps winter, so leaves have fallen off the majority of the deciduous trees. Perhaps, however, your tree is still hanging on to its leaves. The leaves are tan in color and they have a crinkly, papery feel to them. If you look at the buds, they look like tiny cigars: long and pointy. In fact, if you poke the bud into your finger, it might even hurt, like you pricked your finger with a needle. If your specimen is a young tree, the bark is likely a smooth pale grey. Older specimens, while historically also a smooth pale grey, today look worn and tired. The bark seems to have slumped; it is cracked and may even be falling off, a victim of disease. Your tree is the American beech, once one of the grandest trees in our northern forests, and a staple in the diets of many animals, from turkey and bears to squirrels and deer. The big clue for beech is the leaves (I know, I wasn’t going to dwell on leaves, but there’s always the exception). Beech leaves persist throughout the winter, making this tree very easy to identify in the snowy woods.

Let’s say, instead, that your tree has bark that is peeling off sideways. Ah-ha! Birch, you say. Yes, but which birch? In youngish specimens, it is easy to tell white birch from yellow, but sometimes older specimens have darkened with age and suddenly it’s no longer so easy to tell them apart. White, or paper birch, typically has bright white bark, the underside of which is a pinkish color. When it peels, the strips are fairly wide, and thick. Yellow birch is more bronze in color, and its bark tends to peel off in thin papery ringlets. A really big clue that you can use to tell white birch from yellow is smell. If you can find a small twig hanging from a branch low enough to reach, scrape a short section with your fingernail and give it a sniff. Does it smell like wintergreen? If so, you have a yellow birch. And yes, black birch (aka: sweet birch) also produces this aroma, but it’s not as common around these parts as the yellow. In fact, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a black birch. As for grey birch, well, in the Adirondacks that’s strictly an ornamental tree, found in yards. It’s easily recognized by the black “moustaches” that decorate the bark where every branch sprouts from the trunk.

If you are lucky and have musclewood/ironwood/blue beech/American hornbeam, you will be able to recognize it in a heartbeat, for the trunk of this smallish tree resembles a forearm that is bulging with muscles. There’s nothing else like it.

American hop hornbeam is another one of our smallish trees. The fruits look like hops – layered, papery scales. The bark is also quite distinctive; it looks like many narrow rectangles stuck lengthwise to the side of the tree, some of which are peeling up from the bottom.

Believe it or not, we have quite a number of American elm trees around. Large, mature specimens, while not common, are easily identified by their classic “vase shape”. If you find a small one with leaves, you’ll note that they are asymmetrical in shape and feel like sandpaper. The bark, however, can come in two different varieties: smooth (not smooth like a beech, but more like it once had ridges that were then flattened), and furrowed (narrow ridges that weave in and out of each other, much like the white ash, but not corky in texture).

And then there’s my old friend the black cherry, the bane of my college dendrology days. I finally came to the conclusion that if I was facing a tree that I could not ID, it must be a black cherry, and this actually worked pretty well, but it’s a lousy way to identify something. Today I can give you a much easier, and more accurate, way to identify this tree: the bark looks like burnt cornflakes. You can’t miss it! Black cherry bark is probably one of the easiest to identify off all the trees. Even kids in first grade can easily learn this tree. Burnt cornflakes = black cherry. It doesn’t get much easier than that.

Learning to identify trees can be a lot of fun, but you don’t want to tackle them all at once. Start with something easy, like the conifers. Then work your way through those with opposite branching, and finally take on the alternates. Try to learn the distinctive characteristics of each. In some it might be the leaves, in others the bark, the buds, or even the fruits. Remember that seedlings and saplings often look a lot different from mature specimens. And location, location, location: you won’t find a sugar maple in a swamp, and likewise you won’t find a black spruce where the soil is rich and loamy.

Once you learn your trees, the forest becomes just that much more familiar. The next thing you know, you’ll be learning to identify the other plants that keep the trees company. And then you just might find yourself wondering “I wonder what this plant can be used for?” That’s when plant ID ascends to a whole new level and things become really interesting. So, give it a go…you never know where a little bit of knowledge might lead you.


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Adirondack Tree Indentification 101

I was a Stumpy – a student at the College of Environmental Science and Forestry. While an undergrad, I was enrolled in the Dual Program: Resource Management (forestry) and Environmental and Forest Biology. A required course for forestry majors, as you might well imagine, was dendrology, or the study of trees, and a huge part of dendro was simply learning to identify one species of tree from the next.

Looking back at my dendro class through the lens of time, I am constantly amazed at how difficult I found tree ID. The tree that gave me the worst trouble was the black cherry, which today I could almost identify blindfolded, standing on one foot, and with both hands tied behind my back. I suspect it was the leaves.

When most people learn to identify trees, they try to learn the leaves, but for the novice, one lobed leaf looks much the same as the next. Red maple or sugar? Maybe it’s striped maple? A serrated, or toothed, leaf looks like any other serrated (or toothed) leaf. Aspen? Cottonwood? Elm? Hophornbeam? Birch? And then what do you do when fall has wreaked its havoc on the trees, leaving the forest naked? How in the world are you supposed to know which tree is which now?

Over the years I have refined my tree ID skills, and today when I teach tree ID, I may touch on leaf shape and form, but I spend more time looking at those parts of the tree that are visible year round: the bark and branches. In fact, I’ve boiled the whole subject down to a series of simple questions that even kids as young as ten are able to follow.

First, take a look at your tree. Is it a conifer (does it have needles) or a hardwood (does it loose its leaves in the fall)? If it is a conifer, we next address the needles and bark. Do the needles turn yellow and fall off in the fall (larch)? Does the bark have blisters that ooze a sticky aromatic resin when punctured (balsam fir)? Are the needles attached to the tree via small “pegs” (spruces)? Maybe the needles flattened and scale-like and the bark looks like a cat’s been using it for a scratching post – that would be a cedar. If you crush the cedar’s needles, they have a beautiful citrus-y scent that is very distinctive.

If said tree is not a conifer, it must be a hardwood (or deciduous). So we look at how the branches are arranged on the tree: are they opposite (like my arms) or do they alternate (like my left arm and right leg)? Very few species of trees here in the northeast have opposite branching, and they are easily remembered by recalling the phrase MAD Cap Horse. MAD stands for Maple, Ash, Dogwood; Cap refers to the family Caprifoliaceae, which are the honeysuckles; Horse is simply horsechestnut. Since honeysuckles are really more shrub-like than tree-like, I usually ignore them as a category. Here in the central Adirondacks we don’t have horsechestnuts, so I delete them as well. This leaves us with MAD.

Around Newcomb, we have only a few species that we can squeeze into the MAD classification. Maples: red, sugar and striped. Ash: white. Dogwood: grey-stemmed, red-osier, alternate leafed.

The dogwoods we have up here are pretty small trees, barely more than shrubs. Their buds look like onions, or the domes of eastern orthodox churches seen in photos from Russia and the Ukraine (well, sort of; flowering dogwood, which we don’t have, has onion-shaped buds, and red-osier sort of does; with a little imagination, so does the grey-stemmed). If you take a look at their leaves, the veins are curved, or arched (arcuate). But if you’re standing in the woods craning your neck upwards to figure out what the leaves look like, you aren’t looking at a dogwood, and so, like the honeysuckles, we can easily eliminate dogwoods from consideration.

The process of elimination as brought our opposite-branched trees down to two possibilities: maples and ashes. If the leaves are still on the tree, and you can see them, this can be a clue. Ashes have compound leaves: each leaf is composed of multiple leaflets. Maples have simple leaves with three to five lobes. But suppose the leaves have fallen off and all you can see is the bark. Not a problem. Take a good close look. Feel the bark. Is it kind of corky? Can you easily stick your thumbnail into it? Does it look like many small ridges that weave in and out of each other? If so, you are looking at the white ash, the tree that sportsmen love, for its wood has been the primary source of such sports equipment as tennis rackets and baseball bats.

But suppose it’s not a white ash that you are staring at. If the branches are opposite, and you’ve eliminated all but the maples, then it must be a maple. Striped maple is easy to identify, for it rarely gets larger than three or four inches in diameter. I’ve seen some specimens that push a six inch dbh (diameter at breast height, which is measured at 4.5 ft. above the ground), but they are not common. Striped maple, true to its name, has white-ish stripes on its smooth greenish bark. Its leaves are large and look a lot like goose feet.

Red maple, well, that’s a tree that likes to have its feet wet. If you are in a lowland area, near a marsh or other wetland, and you see a tree with opposite branching, it is likely a red maple. Its leaves, if you can find one, have three distinctive lobes, all with sharply pointed teeth. The sinuses, or dips between the lobes, are also pointy, forming a nice sharp “v”.

Sugar maple, that tree adored by leaf peepers and pancake-lovers alike, prefers to live on rocky slopes, with its feet away from the water. The bark on a mature specimen is pale grey and kind of looks like it is made from plate armor (sometimes you need to apply a little imagination). Some of the sides of the plates may be peeled away from the trunk of the tree. If you find a leaf still attached to the tree, you will note that it has five lobes, and instead of sharp pointy teeth, it has gentle swoops. The sinuses between the lobes are u-shaped, as opposed to the v-shape of the red maples.

When it comes to the trees that are alternately branched, we are facing a larger selection of species, and I’ll write about them next time. In the meantime, take the information I’ve given you here, grab a kid or two, and head out into your yard. See if you can find some trees with opposite branches and try your hand at identifying them. The next time you go for a hike, see how many opposites you can find. Do they like each other’s company? Can you ferret out other clues that you can add to your ID arsenal?

Once you start to recognize tree species, you will begin to notice other plants (and animals) that associate with them. Forest communities will become apparent. Before you know it, the trees of the forest will seem like old friends, familiar faces you can recognize in any crowd, and I find that hiking with friends makes being outside that much more pleasurable. Perhaps you will, too.


Saturday, November 14, 2009

Porcupines: Armed and Dangerous

At the mention of the word “porcupine” most of us conjure in our minds the image of a medium-sized brown animal covered with long quills. But beyond this, I’d be willing to say that the average person knows very little about our second largest rodent, a relatively shy animal with poor eyesight, little muscle tone, and a fondness for salt. So, I thought I’d look into the cultural and natural history of the porcupine and see what interesting tidbits I could come up with to expand the average person’s knowledge of this denizen of our Adirondack forestlands. What I found was really quite interesting. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

November in the Adirondacks

November often seems like the most barren time of the year. The bright colors of autumn have passed, leaving a world of greys and browns behind. Lawns may still be green, but it’s a dull green that’s slowly turning brown. The days are shorter and more chill, and we reach for our sweaters and blankets. Woodstoves are fired up, and the tang of woodsmoke fills the air. People seem to be preparing for hibernation.

But the curious naturalist doesn’t go into hibernation. For many nature nuts, November is the time when secrets are revealed. With leaves off the trees, new woodpecker holes are visible. The line of sight through the forest no longer stops about three inches into the woods. Dens in rocks begin to look lived in, and beaver activity becomes quite pronounced. Signs of feeding, be it bears or squirrels, moose or chickadees, can be found with very little effort.

November is the time to explore. There are fewer distractions now that flowers are not blooming and insects are not buzzing. Everything seems to have been distilled to its essential nature. No more lazing around – it is time to get down to the business of survival, for winter is not far off.

Galls, as mentioned in previous posts, are highly visible in this time between the seasons and make perfect objects for nature studies. Dried flower heads (weeds, to some people) stand out with their own stark beauty and are ideal candidates for winter floral arrangements. In fact, there is at least one book out there to help you identify these ghosts of flowers past: Weeds in Winter, by Lauren Brown.

Many mornings are now kissed with frost. Few things are as beautiful as Jack Frost’s artwork, especially in the early morning light. From spears of ice lining late autumn leaves, to feathers and swirls on frozen puddles, these ephemeral gifts of the season presage the coming winter.

And just when you think it is time to pack away the t-shirts and shorts, Mother Nature throws us a bone with a glorious day of sunshine and warmth. Moths and flies dart around in hopes of finding a pre-winter snack, and last minute outside chores are hastily done. Sure, November can be gloomy if you don’t know how to appreciate it, but take a page from the naturalist’s book, and you will soon find yourself looking forward to the month that hangs in the cusp between autumn and winter.


Saturday, November 7, 2009

In Newcomb: Identifying Roadside Roses

Perhaps November is really not the time of year to try to identify roadside roses. Sure, the hips are lovely, and they certainly look as though they should be distinctive. Lots of trees are easily identified by their fruits alone, so why not roses? How difficult could it be?

I confess right up front that while I appreciate roses as much as the next person, I am not a rose aficionado, one of those people for whom roses are the sole reason for existing on this planet. I enjoy their colors, their fragrances, and their abundance of brightly colored fruits in the fall, but I don’t dedicate my life to their propagation. Perhaps if I spent a little more time among the roses, however, I wouldn’t find myself in my current predicament.

Last month I took some nice photos of some of the rosehips I found growing along Route 28N. It was early morning, there had been a crisp frost overnight, and I had my new lens to play with. I ended up with a nice image or two, and all was fine…until today, when I decided to write up an article about our local roadside roses. I mean, if you are going to write about something, you really should be able to identify what it is, beyond the obvious (rose). It turns out that sometimes this is easier said than done.

I started where I always start when trying to identify plants: my Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide. It listed several species, and had color illustrations of flowers, leaves, and even some of the hips. But since all I had to go by were some photos of the hips, I thought I should try to narrow the field by finding out what species actually grow in New York.

According to the Revised Checklist of New York State Plants, by Richard S. Mitchell and Gordon C. Tucker, New York is home to no less than twenty-eight species of roses, seventeen of which are non-natives, and two of which are endangered. Unfortunately, this checklist is just that: a checklist. It doesn’t give tips for identifying the plants it lists, nor does it provide a list of plant locations.

So, I next turned to the state’s new on-line nature information website: New York Nature Explorer (http://www.dec.ny.gov/natureexplorer/app/). It’s supposed to be your one-stop-shopping location for identifying and learning about the plants and animals of our fair state. I typed in “rose” and hit “search.” It turned up exactly one rose in the entire database (although it also listed things like rose pagonia – an orchid— and rose-breasted grosbeak—a bird). What happened to the other twenty-seven?

Not to be discouraged, I went to Google and ran searches for each rose on the checklist (it’s been a long morning). I found lots of photos of flowers, but few of hips. And none seemed to match mine. The light at the end of the tunnel was getting further and further away.

Turning back to Newcomb’s, I counted nine species of roses, all of which occur in New York. The other eighteen from The Checklist that were not listed are all non-natives, apparently garden types that jumped the garden wall. I figured that I had found my best possible source for ID help. Ironically, it was where I had started about four hours ago.

A couple, like the swamp rose (Rosa palustris), were easy to eliminate from my search – they require wetlands, or at least habitats that are more amenable than the dry, salty side of a highway. Smooth rose (R. blanda), as you might guess from its name, is a relatively thornless species. Looking closely at mine, it didn’t qualify. Not only was the stem covered with thorns both large and small, but so were the stipules at the end of the fruit.

The fruit of Rosa rugosa, a common escapee, look like balls that have been flattened on both ends. The fruits on my specimen do not fit this mold. I was ready to settle on it being a pasture rose (R. carolina), but all photos and drawings I found of this species were nowhere near as thorny as mine. My hopes of success were now pretty well dashed.

But that’s the great thing about being a naturalist—I have an undying curiosity to know the answer. I may not learn the identity of these roses today, tomorrow, or even this year. But you can rest assured that come summer next year, when the roses bloom and fill the air with their perfume, I will be out there with my field guide (and camera) in hand, determined to identify these plants. Even if I have to send specimens to the authors of The Checklist.


Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Wild Clematis of the Adirondacks

Any stroll along a damp patch of land, be it river or stream, canal or marsh, is bound to yield discoveries to delight the senses of any curious person. One of my favorite finds, and one that is gloriously obvious at this time of year, is Old Man’s Beard, or Wild Clematis (Clamatis virginiana).

Perhaps this fluffy tufted plant has a warm place in my heart because it was one of the first plants I learned as a naturalist intern fresh out of college. Or maybe it’s because the seedhead resembles, in miniature, a Truffula Tree. A Truffula Tree? Could it be that you don’t know about Truffula Trees? Horrors! Should your literary knowledge be lacking in this respect, then you must immediately get to a library and read a copy of Dr. Seuss’s classic book The Lorax. To quote but one passage: “Those trees! Those Truffula Trees! All my life I’d been searching for trees such as these. The touch of their tufts was much softer than silk. And they had the sweet smell of fresh butterfly milk.” Those in the know will probably nod their heads sagely, immediately seeing the similarity between the feathery grey-white seedheads of the wild clematis and the puffy, colorful tufts of Seuss’s fictional trees.

Wild clematis, also known as Virgin’s Bower and Devil’s Darning Needles (among many other names in a rather long list), is one of our native vines. While I never saw it while growing up, I find it is quite common up here in the North Country, where it clambers and sprawls over trees and shrubs along many of our waterways. I’ve encountered it along roadsides while strolling with the dog, and I’ve paddled wetlands where it looked like it was choking out all the other vegetation as it groped its way heavenwards reaching for the sun.

To the novice, and when not in bloom or holding forth its seedheads, wild clematis looks a lot like poison ivy. It’s the leaves. Like poison ivy, it has three leaflets making up each leaf, and they are a bit on the toothy side. Unlike poison ivy, however, wild clematis leaves are opposite: they are arranged in pairs as you look at the stem of the vine. Poison ivy leaves alternate up the vine: left, right, left, right, left, etc.

If you encounter wild clematis in bloom, you will likely be surprised to learn that it has essentially no petals. What nonsense, you might say, as you point to the four white “petals” that surround each bloom. Sadly, you are mistaken, for like bunchberry and poinsettias, these are the sepals, not petals, of the flower. Sepals are modified leaves, usually green and seen at the base of flowers (picture a rose, for example). Some flowers, like the aforementioned bunchberry, poinsettia and clematis, have colored sepals (red, white, pink) that look to the average Joe like petals. It may be only a technical thing, but it’s always nice to have your terminology correct.

I have frankly never noticed the flowers of the wild clematis. I’ve seen photographs that show the vines so loaded with blooms that you’d have to be practically blind to miss them, and based on the number of seedheads I see in the fall, it seems that my vision must indeed be turned inwards when I walk by the vines between July and September when they bloom. Nope, I rarely see the plants until fall, when the wispy, feathery seed tufts appear. And when the sunlight of early morning or late afternoon strikes the tufts and lights them up with a blinding glow, my mind clambers “Those seeds! Those clematis seeds! All my life I’d been searching for seeds such as these.”

While contemplating this article, I searched high and low for interesting tidbits and morsels of folklore that would tantalize even the most laidback of readers, but to no avail. How is it possible that such a visually fascinating plant, which climbs its neighbors by wrapping its leafstalks around them, has no “background color” for the eager nature-writer? The only thing I could find was the warning that the plant is toxic. It contains glycosides, which can cause a severe irritation to the skin (it is in the buttercup family, after all, and this is a trait of most, if not all, buttercups). Even so, many native peoples did use the plant for assorted medicines and ceremonial functions.

Like many native plants, wild clematis has beneficiaries among the local wildlife. Because it blooms late in the season, its blossoms are welcome food sources for many critters, including hummingbirds, butterflies and bees. Bees also find it a good source of late season pollen.

Now that November is here, and our world has turned from the fires of autumn to the greys that presage winter, we can find some solace in the whimsical seeds of clematis, especially in the low slanting light of early morning or late afternoon. If the sun is out and you find your spirits in need of a lift, seek out these plants at the ends of the day, and I guarantee that you will find yourself smiling.


Saturday, October 31, 2009

Galls Revisited: It’s Not Hard to Be Humble

When one is a practicing naturalist, one must always be willing to say two things. One, “I don’t know.” And two, “Hm…I guess I was wrong.” Y’see, Mother Nature is always ready to send you down the wrong path by making some identifications tricky. And, let’s face it, we can’t all be experts at everything. In fact, as a friend of mine once put it, I don’t consider myself to be an expert at anything, for an “ex” is a has-been, and a “spurt” is a drip under pressure. So, I’m admitting here and now that I stumbled and fell on the ID of the makers of the cottonwood galls posted 24 October. In fact, thanks to a recent post I read elsewhere, these cottonwood galls are caused by the Poplar Vagabond Gall Aphid (Mordwilkoja vagabunda). So, let’s revisit this post and set the record straight.

The clue I should’ve seen right away is that the galls made by the eriophyid mite occur along the affected stem as well as at the tip of the branch; those created by the Poplar Vagabond Gall Aphid (henceforth referred to as the vagabond) are located only at the tip.

The vagabond actually uses multiple hosts over its lifetime. Its life begins as a black egg, which the female has laid either in old galls or in the crevices of the poplar’s bark. Apparently the females have a preference for trees that already have galls on them, a likely indication that these trees are good hosts.

Eggs remain in situ throughout the winter. When spring rolls around, they hatch and the tiny wee nymphs migrate to the tips of their twigs, where new growth is starting to emerge. Here they pierce the tender plant tissue and commence feeding, sucking out the plant’s juices as only aphids can. It is this feeding action that ultimately results in the creation of the distorted hollow “thing” that would’ve normally been new leaves. The nymphs move into this newly formed gall and take up residence while waiting to mature.

Maturation comes with summer, and the now fully-grown adult aphids leave their snug home for greener pastures. While confirmation is still in the wings, scientists think that these aphids possibly spend their summer feeding on the roots of certain grasses. Fast-forward to autumn, and the aphids fly back “home”, taking up residence once again within the hollow chambers of the gall.

Some mating must take place here, because soon wingless females are born inside the gall, and by early November the males appear. But perhaps these two generations are produced via parthenogenesis (females reproducing without the aide of males – it’s more common than you think). I haven’t found any data to confirm either mode of reproduction. Regardless, once we have these wingless females and the males, mating takes place (again?) and little black eggs are once more laid in old galls and the crevices of the tree’s bark. The cycle continues.

When the rumply galls are first formed, they are green, no doubt the result of their original goal in life of being leaves for the tree. By winter, however, they have turned brown and are quite hard. These galls persist on the trees for many years, becoming obvious to the eyes of the curious as autumn claims the tree’s leaves.

The next time you are walking near some cottonwoods, or quaking aspens, or some other member of the poplar family, keep your eyes peeled. You might even bring a gall or two inside for the winter and see if anything emerges come spring (I’d suggest keeping it in a jar, with a lid). Gall watching can be a fun and interesting experiment for the whole family.


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Conifers Have Pine Cones: What’s That On My Willow?

About three years ago, while walking the dog along the Hudson River up here in Newcomb, I came across a beautiful pale green cone-shaped growth at the end of a willow twig. I didn’t know what to make of it at the time, since I knew that willows do not produce cones. Cones are found primarily on conifers (“cone-bearing trees”), but I know of at least one hardwood that has cone-like structures: alders. This was no alder; what could it be? A little research turned up the answer: a pine-cone willow gall.

Like galls found the world over, the pine-cone willow gall is the by-product of an insect-plant interaction. The insect in question is Rhabdophaga strobiloides, the pine-cone willow gall midge, and the plant, obviously, is a willow. Although these midges are found everywhere a willow grows, it is not likely you will ever actually see one, for they are rather small. Or perhaps you might see one and mistake it for a small mosquito, for it is often described as closely resembling one.

As with other galls, the growth’s formation begins when the adult female selects a suitable place in which to lay an egg. In this case, the mother-to-be chooses a terminal leaf bud on a willow. She deposits her egg in the early spring and then nature takes over. When the larva hatches, it exudes a chemical that disrupts the normal growth of leaves and branches, resulting in the creation of a cozy home that to you and me looks like a pinecone. The larva, a little pink grubby thing, takes up residence in a chamber in the center of the gall, where it eats its fill and then waits for winter to pass.

Spring rolls around and the larva pupates. Before long the pupal skin splits open and out crawls the adult gnat (or midge, depending on who you read). Soon it will be off to find a mate and continue the cycle, ad infinitum.

Now, if you are looking for an interesting project to entertain some kids, or even yourself, collect a pinecone willow gall or six around about March. Bring them inside. Using a sharp knife, slice the gall in half, lengthwise, just off-center. If you do it right, you will expose the little pink larva in its cozy chamber. If you do it wrong, you will slice the larva in two (or, more likely, mash the larva). Assuming you’ve left the larva unharmed, place the gall (with its larva) in a jar with a bunch of wet cotton – this will keep the larva from drying out and dying. Put a lid on the jar. Now you can watch as the larva changes to a pupa, and a week or so later into an adult. Pretty cool

Meanwhile, stick your remaining galls into another jar with a wad of damp cotton. You might want to pin them to a piece of cardboard or Styrofoam to keep them upright and off the soggy fibers. Wait and see what emerges. You may get our friend the gnat, or you may get a variety of other insects, from parasitic wasps, to other species of gnats, or even juvenile grasshoppers! I suggest you keep a lid on this jar, too.

Fall and winter are prime times to look for galls, for now the braches and twigs of trees and other plants are exposed to the elements. Some galls are round like gobstoppers, others football shaped. Some have shapes that defy classification. You can find them on goldenrod, willows, cottonwoods, oaks, spruces, and blueberries, to name a few of our native plants that are likely to sport these growths. Take along a sharp pocket knife and slice a few open to see what is living inside. If you find a gall with a hole on the outside, it’s possible a bird beat you to the hidden morsel inside! Gather a few and bring them home; a collection of galls is a wonderful addition to any naturalist’s stash of nature’s endless treasures.


Saturday, October 24, 2009

Cottonwood Galls: Aesthetic Eyesore or Fascinating Formation?

I was out exploring a nature trail with a group of young students recently. We gathered acorns and their caps (they make great whistles), milkweed pods, dried rabbit-foot clover flowers (they are so very soft), and collected bunches of flowers to take home. It seems like everything that could be picked or picked up was. Most of their findings I could identify with relative ease, but there was one item that left me wondering.

Freddy (not his real name) brought me a stick with this wrinkly dark brown thing attached to the end. Since there were some gardens nearby, I thought it was an old dried-out cockscomb flower, but the stick was all wrong: it wasn’t a flower stem, it was a twig. I looked closer and said, “Hm. It’s a gall of some kind.” I glanced around, saw a couple cottonwood trees, and, based on the twig, determined they were the source of the sample. Beyond that, I had no idea, for it was a new gall to me. By then several of the kids had found sticks with wrinkly galls on them. I told them I would look it up when I got back to work and let them know what I found out.

It took some searching, but it turns out it is indeed a cottonwood gall of a type made by cottonwood gall mites (Eriophyes parapopuli), aka: poplar bud gall mites. These mites, which are so tiny that it would take five, lined up end to end, to stretch across a 12-pt. period, can be found on other members of the poplar family, too, not just cottonwoods. One of the things that I discovered in my research that I thought was rather interesting is that these mites, unlike the overwhelming majority of mites and spiders, have only four legs. Not four pairs of legs (spiders and mites), but four legs…period. That’s just wrong. Despite their small size, and obvious lack of appendages, these miniscule pests travel very well, thank you. How do they get around? By wind, water, insects, birds and yes, even people. They are extremely fertile, producing up to eight generations in a single year (thank goodness they only live about a month as adults).

There are hundreds of species of these eriophyid mites, each causing its own form of damage on plants, from stem and bud galls, to rusts and blisters. These wee pests are very host specific, not only to the plant they feed upon, but also which part of the plant they choose. Some species prefer leaves, others buds, and others stems or flower petals. But in the end, they all do the same basic kind of damage: they enter the plant’s cells and suck the life out of them. Literally. They suck up the cell’s contents. It’s the plant’s reaction to this attack, however, that creates the gall, or blister, that you and I see.

When galls are formed, the plant is reacting to growth regulators that the mites injected into the plant’s leaf or stem tissues. These growth regulators stimulate the tissue into abnormal growth patterns and rates. The end result is a pocket formed around the mites, in which they happily feed and reproduce.

Cottonwood gall mites take up residence at the base of a bud, preventing the development of normal leaves and stems. Instead, these wrinkly, lumpy, irregular growths appear on one side of the twig, eventually covering the entire base of the bud or shoot. At first the galls are green, for they are fresh and new. As they age, they turn red, then brown, and overtime they end up a grey-black color. If you look closely, you can see the holes through which the adults emerge when they are ready to move on to a new host.

Individually these galls are merely an aesthetic problem, but if enough of them form on your tree, the tree could become rather stressed, making it susceptible to other problems. But in general, they are not considered to be a serious problem. If you keep a close eye on your plants/trees, you can detect deformities before they get out of control. Look for discoloration or swellings at the base of leaves and buds. Just prune off the infected twigs and leaves. These can then be burned or bagged and taken to the dump. Pruning, by the way, is best done in the spring before the tree breaks dormancy. If you have a heavy infestation, you can try applying horticultural oils right after the buds break in the spring. This won’t get rid of existing galls, but it may prevent the spread of the mites and development of future galls. Alternatively, you can consider the galls to be interesting modern art, courtesy of Mother Nature.


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Natural History Along the Hudson River

For several years I have been a contributor to the Hudson River Almanac, a publication put out by the Department of Environmental Conservation’s Hudson River Estuary Program that follows the changes of the seasons all along the 315 miles of the Hudson River, from its headwaters here in Essex County to the Atlantic Ocean. It’s an impressive collection of natural history observations made by scientists and laypeople alike. For a naturalist, this is a fascinating journal. If these waters could talk, what a tale they could tell! » Continue Reading.


Monday, October 19, 2009

More Moose in the Adirondacks

Moose are becoming increasingly common in the Adirondacks. An Adirondack Almanack post dated September 2006 stated an estimated population of 200-400. The latest statistics show the population at roughly 500 for the state park. The number of resident moose is growing and, according to some, reaching a stage at which they may increase more prolifically. Whitetail deer and turkey enjoyed the same numeric spike in recent decades.

Some accounts have placed sightings near Copper Kiln Pond and along the Hardy Road in Wilmington. The northern section of the Northville Placid Trail to Duck Hole and beyond harbors moose as well, based on moose droppings spotted along the trail. Reports also placed a moose and calf along Route 73 between Lake Placid and the Cascade Lake area. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, October 17, 2009

A Look at the Shrews of the Adirondacks

On Wednesday I promised you a future with shrews it in, so we’ll take a look at shrews today. Shrews are another member of the Order of mammals known as Insectivora, which is a reflection of their diet: they eat a lot of insects. Much like their mole cousins, shrews spend a good portion of their lives underground, and as such, like moles, they have no (or nearly no) external ear flaps, weeny little eyes, and non-directional fur. Their bodies are also rather long and cylindrical, which helps them move easily through tunnels.

Six species of shrews call the Adirondacks home: the masked shrew (Sorex cinereus), the water shrew (S. palustris), the smoky shrew (S. fumeus), the long-tailed or rock shrew (S. dispar), the pygmy shrew (S. hoyi), and the short-tailed shrew (Blarina brevicauda). Most of these you will never see, for they are rather secretive animals, but one, the short-tailed shrew, is quite common and frequently found in houses, so we’ll start with that one. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Mouse, Mole or Vole? Learning Your Adirondack Small Mammals

star nosed molePeople in any field (medicine, education, engineering, archaeology, etc.) become so used to their chosen area of expertise that they soon come to believe that certain things are universal knowledge, even if they aren’t.

Natural history is no exception. Sure, we naturalists figure that most people know a tree from a shrub, but we also expect they know the difference between a mouse and a vole. After twenty years in this field, however, I’ve come to accept that what is obvious to me may not be obvious to everyone else. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Musings on an Adirondack Autumn

“When will the colors be at peak?” Every year, starting in early August, we get asked this question countless times. We are tempted to give answers like “September 26th at 4:43 PM,” but in truth, one can never know. Predicting the fall colors is about as reliable as predicting the weather – you can only know for sure when it is happening.

Around here, colors start to change in July. Many folks gasp when I tell them this. Isn’t that a bit early? No, not for us. The central Adirondacks have a very short growing season, and as such our springs arrive later and our falls arrive earlier. For those who have a hankering for a spot of color early in the season, the central Adirondacks is the place to be. Want to wait for peak color? Then schedule your trip for late September or early October; if you are lucky, you will catch it in time.

From year to year, the fall color show can be a surprise. Some years the colors are simply stunning – reds and oranges set the hillsides a-glow like so many embers fanned by the wind (this is one of those years). Other years the colors are just “okay.” And then there are the years that are complete duds. Fortunately, the latter are few and far between. We had a dud a couple years ago. The colors were not spectacular, and then the leaves dropped suddenly, all at once. It was a real disappointment for the leaf peepers.

Leaf peeping, as you can probably imagine, is one of the big tourist draws for the Adirondacks, and one of the many things I do is provide Fall Foliage reports for the central Adirondacks. Once a week I send in my report, rating color, guessing percentage of change, and trying to select the best viewing spots. It can be tricky, for it often depends on where you stand. It might be only 50% out my window, but two miles to the east the forest could be 90% changed, while two miles to the west it could be only 30%. Not only that, but what may be 20% when I send in my report might be 70% before the week is out!

How can you tell if it is a good year? I think dark, cloudy days are the best indicators: if on these days the mountains still glow, you know you have a great season on hand.

If you are looking for a good leaf peeping experience, you can’t miss right now if you drive through the central part of the Adirondack Park. Most of the hillsides are very colorful, creating some wonderful reflections in our many lakes and ponds. Once you hit the lower elevations, though, colors are not quite “there” yet. Give them a couple more weeks and they should be pretty good.



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