Common Juniper (Juniperus communis) is one of the few evergreen shrubs in New England and has one of the largest ranges of any woody plant. You often find it in old pastures and meadows, where its sharp needles protect it from most herbivores. It is a member of the Pine family, and even though its fruits look like berries, structurally they are cones (with fleshy scales). Whereas most of the cone-bearing members of the Pine family disperse their seeds in the wind, Common Juniper uses birds and mammals to do this deed. Cedar waxwings, evening grosbeaks and purple finches consume quantities of juniper fruit, and many other songbirds are frequent visitors. White-footed mice and white-tailed deer occasionally eat the fruit as well. While not aiding the dispersal of seeds, humans do use the fruit to flavor gin.
Even though a late spring frost may have reduced this year’s crop of Black Walnuts (Juglans nigra), and even though the few that made it haven’t started falling on the ground yet, squirrels have already located and started consuming this nut’s fatty meat. Inside the green husk is the actual nut, and if you look closely at the edges of the chewed hole as well as the inner surface of the nut, you will see tiny incisor marks, most likely left by red squirrels. This particular rodent typically chews a hole on both sides of the nut, so that it can gain access to both halves of the meat.
After the flowers of Skunk Cabbage, located on the knob (spadix) sitting inside a modified leaf (spathe), have been pollinated and fertilized, the fruits begin to mature. The spathe withers and dies, and the stalk that carries the fruit head elongates, growing along the surface of the ground. Initially the fruit head is green and dark purple, measures 2-3” in diameter, and has a convoluted exterior resembling that of a brain. Inside this compound fruit a circle of 10 to 14 seeds lines the periphery. By August the fruit heads will have fallen apart, and the seeds will lay on the ground where they will likely germinate or be eaten by squirrels, ruffed grouse or wood ducks. (Congratulations Liz, Josh and Deb on correctly identifying yesterday’s Mystery Photo!)
If you pull apart a red, fuzzy seed head of Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) this time of year, you will find, in addition to a multitude of seeds, a profusion of scat in the shape of miniscule round, grey balls. If you’re lucky, you’ll find the larval insect that produced this scat. Chances are, according to Charley Eisman, author of Tracks and Sign of Insects, that many of the resident insects are in the Gelechioidea family of moths. The larvae of these moths are consumers of Staghorn Sumac seeds, and judging from the amount of scat usually present, they spend a considerable amount of time inhabiting the seed heads. It’s likely that Black-capped Chickadees and other birds you see gleaning sumac fruit are actually there for the larvae as much as the seeds.
The fruits of the Hophornbeam tree (Ostrya virginiana), also known as Ironwood for its strong,hard wood, are drooping clusters of papery, bladder-like sacs each containing a nutlet. The “hop” portion of its name refers to the resemblance of its fruits to those of true hops that are used in the production of beer. Hornbeam refers to a related European tree whose wood was used to yoke oxen; therefore, its American counterpart wood was also used as a “beam” with which to yoke “horned” beasts of burden.