They may not be sweet, plump and juicy, but the fruits of staghorn sumac play a crucial role in the lives of many birds that overwinter in New England. True, they’re not a preferred food for these birds, but because they persist through the winter, these fuzzy fruits are an important source of food in late winter and early spring, when very little else is available. Ruffed grouse and wild turkeys rely on sumac fruit as a source of food throughout the winter, and bluebirds, robins, cardinals, mockingbirds and starlings are frequent visitors to staghorn sumac shrubs this time of year.
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.
Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is in flower, one to two weeks early this year, just as last year’s fruit is mature and ready to explode, sending seeds flying. This shrub may have gotten its name from its association with dowsing, which was once thought to be a form of witchcraft. (Witch hazel’s branches were once the wood of choice for dowsing rods, whose purpose is to locate water, or “witch” a well.) The bark, leaves, and twigs of witch hazel are all high in tannins, giving this plant astringent properties. It has also been used for any number of medicinal purposes, from treating hemorrhoids to laryngitis.
Many shrubs really come into their own in the spring when they flower — not necessarily big, flashy flowers, but more subtle and delicate blossoms, with beautiful colors and designs. Beaked Hazel (Corylus cornuta) is such a shrub. Its female flowers are now blooming – exquisite little maroon flowers with magenta highlights and pistils that curl this way and that in hopes of catching pollen. One advantage to flowering before leaves are out is that there is less interference with pollen dispersal. The entire flower is less than 1/4” in diameter.
Speckled alder’s flowers are one of the first flowers to open in the spring. Look for this shrub near streams and ponds. One of its most distinctive features at this time of year is the presence of last year’s fruit, which look like miniature woody cones. Also present through the winter, but opening now, are male and female flowers, or catkins. The pendulous male flowers open and extend when their pollen is ready to be dispersed. Above them are the tiny, maroon female flowers, which are exquisite when viewed through a hand lens. Even though they flower at the same time on the same shrub, the position of the female flowers above the male flowers discourages self-pollination and encourages cross-pollination in this member of the Birch family.