Posts Tagged ‘native plants’

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Overlooked Adirondack Grasses, Sedges and Rushes

Birders love their birds, and botanists love their flowers; rock-hounds love their rocks and minerals, and entomologists love their insects. But who loves the grasses, sedges and rushes? Even though some members of this group of plants have become global celebrities (wheat, corn, rye), most are overlooked by the majority of people, or at least they are in this country, where the knowledge of local plant life is no longer vital to our daily survival.

Those who took a basic botany course in college probably learned some version of the rhyme “Sedges have edges and Rushes are round; Grasses have joints where elbows are found,” an amusing bit of poetry designed to help students learn which of these plants were which. As with all such things, there is an element of truth in it, but every rule has its exceptions.

Learning to tell grasses from sedges from rushes can be a challenge and one that not too many are willing to tackle. We like grass in our lawns and not in our gardens (unless it is ornamental), but there our knowledge ends. In an effort to try and stimulate a little interest in these seemingly “boring” plants, let me share some quick descriptors from Grasses, an Identification Guide, by Lauren Brown.

We’ll start with grasses. Grasses have (usually) round stems that are (mostly) hollow, and long narrow leaves with parallel veins. When you get to the part of the stem where the leaf is attached, the stem is solid and a little node or joint is formed. The base of the leaf (called the sheath) wraps around the stem at this joint. On grasses the sheath is split open along part of its length. When a grass blooms, its flowers grow in two rows along the stalk. The base of the flowering portion of the plant has two empty scales (no flowers inside).

Sedges can look a lot like grasses to the untrained eye. Keep in mind, though, that they have solid stems, and their stems are often, but not always, triangular (hence, they have “edges”). The leaves, which are also long, narrow and have parallel veins, wrap around the stem, too, but their sheaths are entirely closed. The flowers grow in a spiral around the stalk, and there are no empty scales at the base of the flowering section. You will tend to find sedges in cooler and wetter areas than grasses.

This brings us to rushes. Rushes are round (but then, so are most grass stems). Their leaves are also similar to those of the grasses and sedges: long, narrow, and with parallel veins. Their stems can be solid or hollow. Unlike the grasses, however, they don’t have nodes/joints. And unlike the grasses and sedges, their flowers are terribly tiny and occur in a circle at the very tip of the stem. Described as lily-like, the flowers have three petals and three sepals. Like the sedges, rushes prefer cool, damp habitats.

Recently a friend and I were out exploring the Ice Meadows of the Hudson River, just outside Warrensburg. This is a special habitat that runs for about 16 miles along the course of the river, where the heavy snows and ice of winter collect to depths often in excess of ten feet. Spring thaws send these small glaciers grinding along the river, scouring the cobble-strewn shore and rocky upthrusts of all but the most tenacious of plants. Anything tall and resembling a shrub stands very little chance of surviving the seasonal onslaught. The end result is one of New York’s few native grasslands. But don’t expect to find something that looks like the prairies of the Midwest. These grasslands would probably be better named “rocklands,” but the term Ice Meadows suits.

Our goal this particular morning was to find and photograph dwarf sand cherry (Prunus pumila var. depressa), a lovely sprawling plant that is on the state’s protected species list. We found it blooming in all its glory and immortalized it in pixels. The highlight of the walk for me, however, was a sedge.

Like most folks, I haven’t taken the time to try and learn many grasses, sedges or rushes. Oh, I have a of couple books, and on more than one occasion I have declared I’m going to learn them, but soon they seem overwhelming in their similarity and difficulty to ID. In truth, however, there are plenty of differences if we just take the time to learn them.

This particular plant caught my eye because of its lovely colors (see photo above). I had never seen such a grass (which I incorrectly thought it was) before. The black and green striped scales were stunningly beautiful. I was seized by its splendor like a teenager dazzled by a movie star.

My botany buddy told me that it was Buxbaum’s sedge (Carex buxbaumii), a threatened species in New York State. This was another target species for our trip here, although admittedly it was secondary to the dwarf sand cherries. Most of them weren’t blooming yet, but that was fine by me, for it was the bicolored pistallate scales that had me enthralled.

It turns out that Buxbaum’s sedge, also called brown bog sedge, is a circumpolar species that has a global status of G5 (secure), while in NY its abundance is listed as S2 (imperiled). It was named after Johann Christian Buxbaum, a German botanist who lived from 1693 until 1730. I’m not sure if he “discovered” this plant or not – sources have not been forthcoming on this point. As for the label “brown bog sedge”, well, it likes wet, boggy areas, and the stripes on its scales are actually brown, not black.

The delightful discovery of this unassuming plant has renewed my interest in learning my grasses, sedges and rushes. A daunting task, perhaps, but not impossible. With the added incentive of hanging out with other amateur botanists whose knowledge of plants is nothing short of impressive, I feel pretty confident that this summer I will master at least a few of these treasures that are hidden in plain sight.


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Pin Cherry: An Overlooked Adirondack Native

A little bit of sunshine, a little bit of rain, and suddenly the trees are in bloom. It starts off slowly, with our friend the shadbush, but before you know it, white blossoms are springing forth from trees and shrubs all around us. In just a short amount of time, the novelty of delicate white flowers can become mundane, as one flowering shrub starts to look like the next. Add to this some similarity in names, and it is not surprising that many of our native shrubs are unknown or misidentified. In an attempt to shed some light on this confusing subject, today I give you the pin cherry (Prunus pennsylvanica).

The pin cherry is a small tree, or a large shrub, I suppose, depending on how you look at it. Further south, in the Great Smokey Mountains, it can reach heights of 30 to 40 feet and a diameter of 20 inches. Around here, however, I’ve only seen it as a fairly small tree – a giant if it reaches ten feet. This could be because the deer browse it heavily in winter, preventing it from gaining much height. What it lacks in stature, however, it seems to make up for with stems – instead of a single trunk rising serenely above the surrounding vegetation, it grows into rather dense copses, sometimes mixed in with its relatives the choke cherries (P. virginiana), black cherries (P. serotina), and the look-alike choke berries (Aronia sp.). And when they all come into flower, they can be difficult for the novice to tell apart, especially at a distance.

Pin cherry, also called fire cherry, bird cherry, wild cherry and red cherry, has long, narrow, dark green leaves that are very finely toothed along the edge. The delicate white flowers grow in clusters from single points along the branches, much like the needles on a white pine or larch. Each flower blossoms at the end of a long stem. When the flowers become fruits, they resemble large-headed pins, like the hat pins used by women long years ago. Today we might liken them to corsage pins.

The other common names are equally easy to interpret. The birds (and other wildlife) happily feed on the wild red fruits in fall. When a disturbance, like fire, moves through the forest, this pioneer species is one of the first to produce seedlings in the newly opened spaces. This is because the seeds can remain viable in the soil upwards of a hundred years! Just add sunshine and voila!

Insects also delight in this unassuming shrub. Spring brings bees and flies galore to sup at the flowers, making the whole plant buzz with life. Come summer, look for white trails on the leaves – these are the mines made by the larvae of a small moth known only by its scientific name: Bucculatrix copeuta. This moth is a true specialist, for its larvae feed on nothing but pin cherry leaves.

While a boon to wildlife wherever it grows, and a delight to the eye in the spring with its froth of flowers and in the fall with its glowing-coal-red leaves, to the logger pin cherry is naught but a weedy thing, a tree with no timber value. Reading through Donald Peattie’s A Natural History of Trees one can tell that this is a species for which the author has little regard, which is surprising considering the elegant prose and great praise he provides across most of the pages of this book.

Still, the fruits are edible by people as well as wildlife. I found a couple recipes online for pin cherry jelly and pudding. The important thing to remember is that the seeds/pits (as well as the leaves and bark) do contain hydrocyanic acid, which is toxic, so be sure you only eat the flesh of the fruit.

Last spring I planted a row of native shrubs/trees along the border of my property. Two of these plants were pin cherries. While each of the thirteen new shrubs was barely more than a stick with roots when placed in its new home, the pin cherries burst forth with blossoms this year. What a pleasant surprise when one isn’t expecting anything more productive than leaves for the next two or three years. I’m sure the birds will also appreciate the earlier-than-expected fruits when fall returns in a few months’ time.


Saturday, May 1, 2010

American Fly Honeysuckle: A Sweet Adirondack Native

In today’s world, the word “honeysuckle” is bound to get mixed reactions. To some people, it brings back memories of childhood, when they would gather the flowers and suck out the sweet nectar. To others, it conjures up olfactory reminiscences of the air filled with a sweet, sweet scent. In these days of invasive species of awareness, a good number of us think of honeysuckle as an evil, aggressive invader, taking over yards, fields, wetlands and forests. And all of these opinions would be correct, for there are about 180 species of honeysuckle in the genus Lonicera worldwide (all within the northern hemisphere), and each has its rightful place on the planet and in our memories.

Here in the Adirondacks, we are lucky to have several species of native honeysuckle: American fly (Lonicera canadensis), wild/glaucous/smooth-leaved/limber/mountain (L. dioica), hairy (L. hirsuta), swamp fly (L. oblongifolia), trumpet/coral (L. sempervirens), and waterberry/mountain fly/northern fly (L. villosa). None are considered rare or of special concern, and yet how many of us have, knowingly, encountered them?

Personally, I can only claim having come face-to-face with one of these shrubs, and that is the American fly honeysuckle. Usually blooming in the central Adirondacks in May, this year it began putting forth its twin, pale trumpets in mid-April. These delicate yellow flowers, sometimes tending towards a greenish-yellow, dangle almost completely hidden beneath the plant’s leaves. As you can see in the photo, I lifted the leaves for a better view. Later in the summer, these flowers are replaced with bright red fruits, paired, looking kind of like miniature glossy red mustaches.

Like all good honeysuckles in the family Caprifoliaceae, the American fly sports opposite branching. The leaves, growing in pairs on opposites sides of the branch, are oval-shaped, and if you look very closely at the edge of a leaf (you need a good handlens), you will see a fringe of hairs. Do these help protect the plant in times of cold weather? I have my doubts, since they are not terribly thick and woolly, and they only occur on the margin of the leaf. Still, they must have some significance, even if the world of science hasn’t discovered it yet.

Last night I looked through all my plant books (and that’s a good number, with volumes dating from the late 1800s right up to modern times) for some nifty information about American fly honeysuckle, but found nothing. Eventually I decided I’d settle for any lore about any of the honeysuckles. The world of botanical literature has let me down. The most interesting thing I could find was that the genus (Lonicera) is named after a 16th-century German botanist: Adam Lonicer (1528-1586). Reading up further on this fellow, I found that he was rather quite accomplished. He received his Master’s degree by the time he was sixteen-years-old. He went on to become a medical doctor, a mathematics professor, and quite the herbalist. Apparently his passion was in plants. His is most noted for his revision of Eucharius Rosslin’s herbal (book) in 1557. He called his herbal the Kräuterbuch.

Many of the Eastern Woodland natives knew that honeysuckles had some medicinal properties, too, for Native American Ethnobotany lists several of our native species, American fly among them. While treatment for various venereal diseases was a biggie in the lists, it seems that an infusion of the bark was equally important for calming children who spent the night crying – it is a sedative.

American fly honeysuckle is listed as an important nectaring plant for hummingbirds. Hm. Looking at the state of the flowers in the woods here, I’m thinking those hummers had better show up pretty soon if they want to take advantage of this food source, for many of the blossoms are looking rather past their prime. This could be a side effect of the recent snow, however, for I also saw a number of flower buds. Even so, hummingbirds usually don’t arrive in Newcomb until almost the second week of May. It seems we have another example of seasonal shifts and their effect(s) on wildlife.

If you should decide that you want to plant honeysuckle around your property, please take advantage of our native species. Some can be quite lovely, with flowers of yellow, orange and even red. Believe it or not, the red trumpet, or coral, honeysuckle, which is a vine, is native. So go ahead and put this in your gardens – the hummingbirds will love you for it. And forget the Japanese and tartarian honeysuckles. While beautiful, sweet, and full of bees when their blossoms open, they are “vigorous growers,” a gardening euphemism for aggressive invaders. Instead, support your local wildlife by supporting your local native plants.


Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Ellen Rathbone: Bee Watching

Anyone who has read my nature blog lately has probably noticed my current preoccupation with bees. This is likely due to several things, such as the fact that the most visible and approachable wildlife around my yard right now is the bees busily visiting my giant pussy willow shrub, which is blooming with great profusion thanks to the recent heatwave. A variety of insects are obsessed with this shrub, for it is one of the earliest flowering plants up here, and these newly awakened insects are in need of sustenance. QED. But my interest is in the bees, mostly, because native bees are generally given short shrift by people. If it isn’t a honey bee, then it’s not worth knowing. In some circles, this is considered “job security” for people the likes of me because it provides grease for the educational wheel. So, with this in mind, let’s take a look today at some of our native bees.

We will start with basics. Honey bees are not native. Honey bees were brought to this country over three hundred years ago as indentured servants: they made honey and we wanted it. Additionally, colonies of honey bees were established in (and later moved among) orchards and other crops, where their penchant for pollinating was exploited by the agriculture industry. This is all very well and good, but we also need to recognize that North America is home to several hundred species of native bees, most of which are solitary rather than colonial, and most of which are important pollinators in their own right, even if they are overlooked by the bulk of humanity.

The majority of native bees in New York State are solitary ground-nesters. In fact, these fuzzy little bundles of energy make up about 60% of all NY bees. That’s an impressive amount. I first became aware of these little bees just about a year ago when I stumbled upon a group nesting site in the dusty, sandy margin of the road while I was picking up trash. It was fascinating to watch as the bees flew in and out of their pencil-sized holes in the ground. Curious, I had to know more.

My investigations into the identity of those ground bees suggest two possibilities: mining bees (Adrena) or digger bees (Anthophora). The individual in the photo above (a visitor to my willow) has been identified as Adrena frigida. Nationally, there are something like 1200 species of Adrena; New York is home to 112 of these, which account for about 23% of all NY bee species.

Adrena are non-aggressive little bees, measuring a little over a centimeter in length, and are one of the first bees to emerge in the spring, foraging for pollen among early flowering plants like willows. As soon as there is pollen to be had, these bees head for the blooming larders, the females collecting pollen on the fuzzy hairs that cover their bodies. Later, they’ll remove the pollen and store this protein-rich food in the brood cells they build, one at a time, underground. Here they lay their eggs, one per cell, each cell stocked with enough food to see the larva through to adulthood. Unless…

Another early springtime bee I’ve seen around my shrub is a cleptoparasite from the genus Nomada. These little bees are hairless, making them look more like wasps than bees. While they may be gathering some pollen and nectar for food, they are not collecting it for their offspring. Nope, these little bees seek out the burrows of our friend Adrena and lay their eggs in Adrena’s nests, kind of like a cowbird laying her eggs in a robin’s nest. When the Nomada larvae hatch, they eat all the stored food, either starving the Adrena larvae or outright killing them. What emerges later in the season are not happy little Adrena bees, but new Nomada bees, and the cycle begins again.

It’s a bee eat bee world out there.

Although Adrena are solitary bees, they often nests in communal aggregations, like the one I saw last spring along the roadside. This is because good nesting ground is at a premium. Go outside and take a look around. How much bare ground do you see? Odds are that unless you live on a construction site it isn’t much. Most ground is covered with pavement, grassy lawns, fields or forest, depending on where you live. Therefore, when bare patches are found, these bees move in. Sandy slopes are likely to be peppered with many bee nests (upwards of 100 nests per square meter), each with a pencil-sized opening. If you sit and watch for a while, you’ll see the busy little females zipping in and out of the holes, bringing in pollen to fill the larder, laying eggs, or putting the final touches on a brood cell.

Why should the average New Yorker care about Adrena? Based on this article, you might think that all they do is pollinate willows. Well, willows only bloom in the spring; therefore, these bees visit other flowers as spring turns into summer and summer progresses towards fall. If you like apples, which are a major crop in New York State, then you must tip your hat to Adrena and our other native bees. Cherries are also popular with little Adrena and her solitary cousins.

Colony collapse had been in the news for a few years now – a mysterious disorder that had resulted in massive die-offs in honey bee populations. Scientists studying colony collapse are also interested on the effects it might have on populations of native bees. Native bees are also being looked at as possible replacements for honey bees in the agriculture pollination game. One of the big problems with using native bees is that they simply do not live in colonies composed of thousands of workers, like honey bees do. Bumble bees, our native social bee, may have a few hundred workers at most in a colony – not as conducive to industrial agriculture as the honey bee.

But native bees should not be discounted just because they are more individually oriented. In fact, many a home gardener should do everything possible to make his or her yard appealing to our native bees, many of whom are also facing a population decline. Native bees evolved with native vegetation. As people spread across the country, they brought non-native plants with them – from flowers to food crops. While native bees have adapted to many of these foreign foods, they still only thrive on the plants with which their species developed. So how can we help? By planting native plants and cutting down on non-native varieties.

So, head outside and take a seat in a nice sunny spot. Start watching for bees. See if you can make out more than one species. Are they patrolling the grass, maybe looking for a good nesting spot? Can you determine which plants are frequented by which bees? Are they visiting your flowers beds or your veg gardens? Perhaps they are enjoying a wee dram at your hummingbird feeder. Bee watching can be a lot of fun. Mark my word: bee watching will soon be the latest thing, right up there with butterfly and dragonfly watching.


Saturday, April 17, 2010

Stinking Benjamin:A Trillium That By Any Other Name Would Still Smell as Sweet

You know spring has truly arrived when the trilliums are in bloom. Around these parts, the trillium that first appears is usually Trillium erectum, known to the layman as purple or red trillium, wake-robin, or stinking Benjamin. This deep red flower, almost burgundy in color, graces our woodlands usually by the end of April and early May. This year I expect we may see its richly colored blooms earlier than usual.

One of the things I like best about studying plants is learning what our ancestors thought of them. Those plants that came over with the colonists, intentionally or not, have written histories going back sometimes to the days of the Roman Empire. Others we only find in records dating back to the Middle Ages. Reading through some of the accounts of Nicholas Culpepper or Pliny the Elder can be alternately enchanting and humorous. But when it comes to our native plants, like the red trillium, our histories can be Spartan.

Books that describe the uses plants were put to by the various native peoples often tend to be no more than lists (diuretic, emetic, febrifuge, treatment for coughs, treatments for skin ailments, dye, cordage, etc.) . In one sense it is informative, yet in another it is lacking in detail.

So, unless we have personal connections with native people who have retained their ancestral knowledge of medicinal, edible, and otherwise useful plants, we find ourselves having to rely on plant lore that may date back only a couple hundred years. Thank goodness for the Victorian era when the study of plants (among other things) was “in.” Interest in plants and their uses continued to be popular among the laypeople up through probably WWII, after which industry and a keen interest in all things mechanical took over in the mind of John Q. Public, where we most of us remain mired to this day.

But I digress. Back to our friend the trillium.

Sometimes with plant names, their origins are obvious. Red trillium is red in color. Or purplish, hence the alternate name purple trillium. But how in the world did it end up called Stinking Benjamin or Wake-Robin? Let’s look at the more obvious one first: Wake-Robin. This fanciful name is applied to many flowers of the genus Trillium, not just the red ones, and they were dubbed thus because the flowers traditionally bloomed about the same time that the first robins of spring were sighted.

Ah, but Stinking Benjamin – surely that is a name behind which a good tale lies. Sadly, no. It turns out that it, like so many words in our language today, is a corruption of something else, in this case the word benzoin, which itself was a corruption of the earlier word benjoin, an ingredient derived from plants from Sumatra and used in the manufacture of perfume. Our trillium, however, does not smell sweet or spicy, hence the tag “stinking.”

Go out this spring and find yourself a red trillium and take a sniff. You may discover it smells a bit like rotting meat. Mmmm. This aroma, however, serves a purpose, which goes hand-in-hand with the flower’s rather raw-fleshy coloration, and that purpose is to attract pollinators. In this flower’s case, though, the pollinators are green flesh-flies who are out in search of rotting meat on which to lay their eggs. Instead of finding the perfect nursery, however, they end up assisting the plant in its procreative efforts. And you thought plants were boring! These flies aren’t left without any reward though, as some insects are when they are deceived by other plants. No, as payment for their services, they are rewarded with a meal of pollen – the flowers produce no nectar (which is probably another reason why bees don’t visit them).

Here are a few other monikers that are listed for Trillium erectum that I find amusing or interesting: nosebleed (it was apparently used at one time to help staunch the flow from a damaged schnozz), trinity lilies (anything with three parts was attributed to the Christian idea of divinity, and they are part of the lily family), and true love (awwww). How about this one: birthroot – for the native people taught early settlers to use it to stimulate birth.

While today many of the medicinal uses to which this plant was put (treatment for gangrene and tumors, heart palpitations and hemorrhages) are debated among herbalists, we can still enjoy it for the way it lifts our spirits every spring. Here in Newcomb I’ve encountered both the red trillium and its cousin the painted trillium (T. undulatum). Further south in the Saratoga region I’ve heard tales of snow trillium (T. nivale – also called dwarf white trillium) and I’ve seen the giant large-flowered trillium (T. grandiflorum), which is also pure white.

Already in those more southern climes the trilliums have come into bloom, but plant enthusiasts can still get their fill of these delightful harbingers of spring here in the North Country, where they have yet to show their faces. But keep your eyes open, for I suspect they will open sooner than usual this year. And remember, they are on New York’s list of protected native plants. Look, sniff, photograph, but do not pick or remove. If you want trilliums for your garden, find a nursery that specializes in native plants – leave the wild ones in the wild for all to enjoy.


Saturday, April 3, 2010

Ruminations on Rock Tripe

One of the popular features along the Rich Lake Trail is our glacial erratic, an enormous boulder left behind by the glaciers over 10,000 years ago. Kids love it because it is huge and easily accessible. Adults love it because it is huge and impressive. Naturalists love it because it is covered with wonderful plant communities, each occupying a niche that meets its specialized needs.

For example, on the western face of the rock there are assorted mosses and liverworts. On the top of the rock, looking rather like a crewcut, is a healthy population of polypody ferns and even a small balsam fir seedling. But along the shady eastern face, ah, one encounters these crazy flat, flappy growths of significant size: rock tripe.

Rock tripe are a kind of lichen, and there are many species of rock tripe around the world. The species that graces our glacial erratic is Umbilicaria mammulata, the smooth rock tripe. Probably the most common rock tripe in the northeast, it can reach diameters upwards of 30 cm – this is a lichen of some significance.

Let’s start our investigation of smooth rock tripe with a look at the name. According to most sources, the English name “rock tripe” comes to us via France, where it is called tripe de roche, literally “rock guts.” I am not a speaker of the French language, but even I can deduce that roche is rock, which means tripe must translate as gut. Some further digging proved me right, for “tripe” is the word used to describe the tissue from the stomach of a ruminant animal (a cow, for example), which is used for food (mmmmm). I grew up with the phrase “tougher than tripe” peppering the family’s lexicon, so I can only imagine that eating real tripe is an exercise in developing the muscles of the jaw. This does not bode well for the edibility of this lichen.

Yet, it turns out that rock tripe is indeed edible. Of course, the palatability no doubt depends on the species in question. For example, in many Asian countries, rock tripe is considered a delicacy and is much sought by connoisseurs. On the other hand, the Inuit consider rock tripe to be a starvation food, eaten only as a last resort. The Cree, however, ate rock tripe as a regular part of the diet, often using it as a thickener for fish broth. Each of these peoples is eating a different species, which one should keep in mind if one is deciding to give rock tripe a try.

Reading through the history of the use of this lichen, I’ve come to the conclusion that the description of the Inuit’s rock tripe best fits smooth rock tripe – a starvation food that you’ve got to be pretty desperate to eat. George Washington’s men filled their bellies with it at Valley Forge in the winter of ’77 – they lived, but didn’t thrive. This could be in part because the lichen can act as a purgative. Or it could be because it’s not terribly nutritious – it will fill you up, but your body won’t get much from it.

Eating rock tripe is not something to be undertaken lightly. For one thing, it is full of bitter compounds and therefore must be soaked and boiled in several washes of water to render it edible. What is often left is this rather slimy mass. Good for thickening broths. It can be roasted, or fried. Personally, I think I’d have to be pretty darn hungry to give it a try.

Let’s revisit the name once more, this time looking at the genus, Umbilicaria. If it looks familiar, it should – think of umbilical cord. See the similarity? Both are derived from the Latin word umbilicus, which means navel – the point at which the umbilical cord attaches. If one takes a close look at rock tripe, one sees that it has a navel, too – right about at its center. It is from this navel that the lichen attaches itself to its rocky home.

I love visiting our rock tripe colony at various times throughout the year, because as the weather changes, so does this lichen. When times are good and there is plenty of moisture, the lichen is soft and pliable, like a piece of good leather. In times of drought, it becomes quite brittle, shriveling up a bit and prone to damage. When it’s in this brittle state, it is somewhat less impressive to the casual visitor, but even so, it is worth checking out.

If you are checking it out on our glacial erratic, please do not pull it off the rock, for, like all plants and animals at the VIC, it is protected. But once you know what it looks like, you can head out and look for rock tripe on the rocks on your own property. And if you decide to sample it, stop on in and let me know what you thought – starvation food or culinary delight.


Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Viper’s Bugloss: An Adirondack Roadside Attraction

When summer is in full swing, it is to the meadows and fields that we must head to feast our eyes on the riotous colors of the season. Wildflowers fill the open spaces where sunlight reaches the ground. In many places within the Adirondack Park, however, the only open spaces are the shoulders of the roads. Fortunately, many plants colonize these precarious environs, their tastes turned to harsh soils and microclimates. Among summer’s roadside colonizers we find viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare), a plant that brings a bit of the sky to earth.

Viper’s bugloss (aka: blueweed, snake flower and blue devil) is one of the more attractive flowers gracing our barren roadsides. Growing upwards of a meter in height, its stem is topped with a spire dotted with many blue-pink blossoms, which open sequentially throughout the season. When the flowers first open, they are a bright rosy pink; as they age, they turn a beautiful sky blue. The long stamens, which protrude beyond the flower’s petals, remain a deep pink, giving the blossom an eye-catching “sky-blue-pink” coloration.

Most wildflowers we find blooming along our roadways are non-natives, plants that either came over with early colonists as food or medicine and later escaped from their gardens, or plants that snuck in on the shoes, clothing and other belongings of settlers from across the sea. Viper’s bugloss (pronounced BEW-gloss, by the way) falls into the former category. Back in the “old country,” which in this case is most of Europe and much of Asia, it was revered as a cure for many poisons and snake bites. The logic behind this attribution harkens back to the Doctrine of Signatures, a philosophy that declared that if a plant had a part that resembled a part of the human body, then it must be a cure for ailments of said part. With the plant in question, the seeds apparently look like snake heads, and therefore the leap of logic was that it could be used to treat snake bites.

I have a better theory. If one takes a close look at this plant, one sees that it is covered with many small hairs. These hairs are not soft and cuddly; instead, they are sharp and prickly. If grabbed with a bare hand, the plant can “bite” back, impaling its antagonist with its irritating hairs. It is possible this could feel like one has been bitten, and what would be lurking around plants in dry, barren places but venomous vipers! If one’s going to jump to conclusions, at least this one makes (some) sense.

Modern day practitioners of herbal medicines make an infusion from the leaves of viper’s bugloss to treat inflammation and melancholy, as well as to reduce fevers and relieve coughs. However, the plant is known to contain pyrrolizidine alkaloids, chemicals that if consumed in enough quantity can cause liver failure. In fact, the ASPCA lists viper’s bugloss as a serious toxin for horses, which will eat it if nothing else is around (so much for the deterrent quality of the prickly hairs).

Nevertheless, the plant has some redeeming qualities. In Europe Echium is harvested as an oilseed crop (technically, it is E. platagineum, not E. vulgare, that is harvested for this oil, but let’s not quibble). Apparently the oil is full of omega fatty acids, specifically gamma linoliec acid (GLA) and stearidonic acid (SdA). These two fatty acids are essential to the human body, and yet the body does not produce them; they must be acquired from outside sources.

Bees and butterflies frequent the plants, seeking the nectar within each semi-tubular bloom. I’ve watched many a bee happily bumbling along from blossom to blossom, oblivious to my curious eyes. Not only does the plant appeal to bees, but a quick scan online turned up a couple sources that sell viper’s bugloss honey, claiming it is tasty with a chewy consistency.

A member of the borage family, viper’s bugloss shares many of the same qualities of borage, including the light blue flowers, and the rapidity in which it spreads (the plants readily reseed themselves). The flowers of both are also edible: it is not uncommon for them to be crystallized and tossed in salads.

For the hobbyist who likes to try her hand at natural dying, the root is known for producing a red dye for fabrics.

Still, we must remember that this plant is not native, and thanks to its reseeding capabilities, it can spread with relative ease. As such, viper’s bugloss is considered a noxious weed in many states and eradication programs are in place to eliminate the plant where it has taken hold. I’ve checked various invasive plant lists for New York, and viper’s bugloss is not listed on any of them. So, enjoy the plant when you see it along the roadside. Take some photographs, dig up a root or two and tie-dye a t-shirt, toss some flowers in your salad, but don’t plant it in your gardens at home. Leave it along the roadside, where it can wave at passersby with its cheerful blossoms.

For some truly stunning photographs of this roadside plant, visit: http://www.microscopy-uk.org.uk/mag/indexmag.html?http://www.microscopy-uk.org.uk/mag/artfeb04/bjbugloss.html


Saturday, February 13, 2010

Nut Trees: Hazelnuts in the Adirondacks

Several years ago, I received three little hazelnut trees from the Arbor Day Foundation. I don’t recall actually ordering them, but there they were in the mail one day. I planted them and waited to see the results. A couple years later, three more hazelnuts showed up in my mailbox. Those, too, went into the ground. Over the years they’ve moved about the yard (not under their own steam), finally coming to rest along the southwestern boundary. Every summer and fall I look at the four remaining shrubs and ask “where are the nuts?” No answer has been forthcoming.

So recently I went on-line to see if I could find out any further information about hazelnuts. Where are they native? What do the flowers look like? How do they pollinate and produce nuts? The Arbor Day Foundation was a good source of info, and it should be, considering it has been in the hazelnut business for several years, trying to produce a hybrid hazelnut that will thrive throughout the United States, whereas the native species were historically only found in the northeastern US and southeastern Canada, and into the prairies. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Adirondack Naturalist’s Backyard

Over the years, I’ve slowly been converting my backyard into a little oasis for wildlife. This may seem like a rather odd thing to do in the middle of the Adirondack Park, where wilderness areas surround us on all sides. After all, it’s not like the wildlife is hurting for natural foods in our area. My goal, however, has been to change my yard from a barren wasteland (a carpet of perfectly weed-free grass) into a diverse habitat composed of native vegetation.

First I added some free-form gardens, floating in the middle of the yard. Admittedly, these gardens are not hosting many native plants, but I do try to avoid those species that are aggressive invaders. The primary goal of these gardens was to provide some color and relief to an otherwise blah yard, but I also wanted to provide nectaring areas for bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, and winter seed sources for chickadees and finches. One of our native plants fills this bill very well: bee balm.

Then I started to remove the invasives that dotted the property, like honeysuckle. All around the yard I have replaced these aliens with a variety of native shrubs: nannyberry, native hawthorn, pin cherries, sumac, dogwood. These plants, after they out-grow their twiggy sapling stage, will create a hedge full of shelter and food for birds and insects. I’m hoping their growth is rapid, for the yard looks empty without the honeysuckle border, and I’ve lost some significant shade.

And then there are the birdfeeders. Some naturalists prefer to go the route of providing strictly native food sources and forego artificial food stations. This is very noble and I salute it. However, in my yard it will be a while before the native vegetation starts producing. The crabapples were a hit for a while, but now they are slowly rotting away on the tree. And besides, I like watching birds as they visit my feeders, so I join the millions of other Americans who put out food for our feathered friends.

It is so easy to get sucked into the latest and greatest at the birdfeeding store: feeder pole “systems” that you can build upwards and outwards to accommodate a glorious variety of feeders; bird baths (regular for summer, heated for winter); squirrel deterrents (baffles of all shapes and sizes; feeders that fling squirrels into the air or bounce them up and down at the end of a bungee); misters (for those birds that prefer a shower over a bath); suet; peanuts; mealworms; mixed seed; gourmet seed…the list goes on and on.

But my favorite part of the wildlife-friendly backyard, however, are the homemade bits, like the feeder pictured at the top. This was a gift I received this winter, and it is one of the coolest things. The woman who made it apparently was looking for something to do with her juice bottle caps. She cut a triangle from a piece of scrap wood, nailed the caps to it, on both sides, added a few small dowels for perches and a larger dowel at the bottom for a “trunk,” painted the whole thing and put a string at the top. Voila! A nifty homemade feeder! With a little ingenuity, not do we have a cool suet-type feeder, but we’ve also managed to keep some stuff out of the landfill; you can’t get much more wildlife-friendly than that.

About the only thing my yard is missing is a water source, a pond or stream that would attract frogs, dragonflies, and assorted other water-loving creatures. The ideal aqueous feature would have a shallow bit where birds could bathe without worrying about drowning, and a deep area where tadpoles could shelter in the winter. It would have cattails, duckweed, pickerel weed, native floating heart. It wouldn’t have to be large, but it should circulate, getting a constant source of oxygen and keeping the mosquitoes to a minimum. A little waterfall would be nice.

Of course, when you strive to attract wildlife, you must accept it when wildlife avails itself of your offerings, and this includes deer. I must confess that deer are not ranked high on my list of backyard desirables. I have a five-foot fence surrounding my yard, which is there to keep the dog in, but it also serves to keep the deer out, most of the time. It won’t do much if a deer is determined, though. Or a bear. The downside of this fence, however, is that I don’t get foxes, coyotes, or snowshoe hares. Weasels can get through, but they usually don’t visit.

Wildlife friendly yards don’t have to be a drain on the wallet. The biggest key is to stick to native vegetation. Remove invasives and non-natives. Provide diversity in species and structure. Have food, shelter and water readily available. Most of your investment is likely to be in sweat and elbow grease. In the end you will have a little piece of paradise that you and your wild friends can all enjoy.


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Crazy About Ferns in the Adirondacks

In the 1840s, a new fad was sweeping the British Isles: Pteridomania, the fern craze. People of all ages and social groups were flocking to forests and fens to gather ferns as herbarium specimens. Special glass boxes, known as Wardian cases and looking a lot like little greenhouses, were built to provide perfect microhabitats for these sometimes fussy plants. The desire for all things ferny took over home décor: garden benches, planting pots, wood carvings, stencils, wallpaper, plant stands, fabrics – you name it, someone one decorated it with a fern. And while this craze lasted for about fifty years, it somehow never made it to the states.

Sure, a few fern-o-philes turned up on this side of the pond, and 1895 even saw the founding of the American Fern Society (which is still active today). For the most part, however, the natural history obsessions of this country seem to have turned towards wildflowers, birds and mushrooms.

As a generalist type of naturalist, I’ve always been kind of fond of ferns. They have a delicate wispiness about them that I find rather appealing. Well, at least some do. Some ferns are rather sturdy-looking, like sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis). Others, like the non-native Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum), sport beautiful two- or three-colored fronds. Northern maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum) breaks the rules by growing in an almost circular fashion. Some ferns seem to be able to grow just about anywhere and are thus quite popular in gardens (ostrich ferns – Matteuccia struthiopteris), while others are pretty reclusive, their tastes limiting them to limestone cliffs (slender cliffbrake – Cryptogramma stelleri – found only at Ausable Chasm).

Any walk through the Adirondacks is bound to turn up at least a couple ferns. In just about any wetland area you are likely to find two very common ferns: royal (Osmunda regalis), and cinnamon (Osmunda cinnamomea). And while these two really do look nothing alike, for some reason I’ve developed a mental block with them, causing me to cross-identify them most of the time. Royal fern is very open and airy, with wide-spaced leaflets, which look a lot like the leaflets of the locust tree. Cinnamon fern, on the other hand, is typically ferny in appearance, but its fertile fronds are a wonderful cinnamon color (hence the name).

Hay-scented ferns (Dennestaedtia punctilobula) have been accused of being invasive, using chemicals (allelopathy) to prevent the regeneration of other forest plants (namely trees that are valuable in the timber market). And it is true that in areas where hay-scented fern occurs, it often grows in massive solidarity with itself. I read a couple studies, however, that stated that it wasn’t allelopathy that was preventing forest regeneration, rather it was simply the aggressive nature of the plant. When a bit of forest has been opened up, the extra light reaching the ground is a godsend to the ferns. They start to grow like crazy. If deer or other herbivores come in and browse the area (deer tend to not like hay-scented ferns; they’ll browse down the other understory vegetation), the ferns send out new growing bits to fill the voids, thus increasing their reach. In the end, it is the shade caused by the dense growth of ferns that prevents the regeneration of tree seedlings, not allelopathy.

A fern that delights me to no end is blublet fern (Cystopteris bulbifera). This nifty fern (see photo above) develops little green ball-like growths on the backs of the leaves. When mature, these balls drop from the leaves and if they land in a favorable location, they produce a new fern. Ferns in general reproduce via spores, much like mushrooms, mosses and lycopodiums. Bulblet fern also produces spores, but it goes above and beyond in its reproductive duty with the additional boost is gets from its bulblets.

A couple years ago I was thrilled to find rattlesnake fern (Botrychium virginianum) along one of our trails. The three triangular-shaped leaves circle the stem, and from their center rises the fertile frond, which the namer apparently thought resembled the tail-end of certain venomous serpents.

We have a giant glacial boulder on the property that looks a lot like a huge human head, and on its top, like a green buzzcut, is a healthy population of common polypody fern (Polypodium virginianum). When I stop to talk about this fern, I love to tell visitors that at one point in time people believed that if they carried polypody spores in their pockets they would be rendered invisible. Of course, this only applied to polypody of oak, and this was during the Middle Ages in Europe, when people believed all sorts of odd things about plants. Needless to say, it doesn’t work with our common polypody.

Within New York State, all ferns but three are protected by law. Those three are sensitive, bracken (Pteridium aquilinium) and hay-scented. With these exceptions, it is illegal to collect our native ferns, not that there is probably too much worry about this. I can’t see Pteridomania sweeping the state any time soon. Even so, for those of us who are plant enthusiasts, we should limit our collecting to specimens caught on camera, or those purchased from legitimate nurseries.

Probably because ferns are not terribly popular in the ID department, there are only a handful of useful fern ID books out there. Some were written by scientists for scientists, but there are a couple pocket-type guides that make fern identification fairly easy, such as the Fern Finder by Ann and Barbara Hallowell. If you think you might like to try your hand a learning your ferns, pick up one of these guides. You won’t be disappointed.


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Taking A Closer Look: Blueberry Stem Gall

One of the plants that make the Adirondacks special is the blueberry, which likes to grow in, or alongside, a variety of wetlands. I recall one of the highlights of summer camp was when the nature counselor made her blueberry fritters. Campers and counselors alike would flock to her nature room as the rumor of fritters spread like wildfire. Her “Live off the Land” camping trips were never complete without blueberry fritters for breakfast.

But blueberries aren’t just special to people; lots of wildlife benefit from the fingertip-sized fruits, not least among them birds and bears. Not all blueberry fanciers are after the fruits, though. The blueberry stem gall wasp (Hemadas nubilipennis) is more interested in the stems of the plant. Highbush, lowbush, the variety probably doesn’t matter, not when reproduction is on the line. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A Dearth of Adirondack Oak Trees

Oaks are one of those trees for which we have an almost visceral attraction. They symbolize strength and permanence; they almost ooze power. Native peoples used the nuts for food (you really have to blanch them first, though, or else they are very, very bitter) and for dye (I’ve made a lovely soft grey dye for wool from white oak acorns). When the first settlers came to this new world, they were impressed (especially along the coast of Maryland) by the vast quantities of oaks. Back in the motherland, however, our oaks were considered inferior to English oaks, but in reality, if cured correctly, American oaks were every bit as durable as those from the British Isles. Used for everything from ship-building to cooperage (making barrels), flooring to firewood, oaks played a major role in the expansion of the human race, at least in the western world. And yet, here in the central Adirondacks, we find ourselves facing not just a scarcity of oaks, but a downright lack of these mighty trees. Why is that? » Continue Reading.


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 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.



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