Red-osier dogwood (Cornus sericea), as its name implies, lends color to wetlands year-round, but it really comes into its own at this time of year. In early spring this shrub is especially noticeable, as its red bark becomes much more vivid due to anthocyanin pigments which are affected by light intensity. Although it can tolerate light shading, the stems and branches in shaded sites tend to be greener. Native Americans utilized every part of this shrub,especially the stems and shoots. Inner bark was used in tobacco mixtures during the sacred pipe ceremony, branches and shoots were made into baskets, dreamcatchers, bows and arrows, and peeled twigs were used as toothbrushes for their whitening effect on teeth.
Silver maple (Acer saccharinum) is second only to skunk cabbage when it comes to early spring flowering. Even with our nights still well below freezing, silver maple trees are bursting with blossoms. This close relative of red maple bears its male (pictured) and female flowers separately, sometimes on the same tree and sometimes not. Silver maple’s sap can be tapped and boiled into syrup, but the yield is much less, and it’s only about half as sweet as that of sugar maple.
American Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana) goes by many names, including Musclewood, Bluebeech and Ironwood. Its smooth, gray bark that appears twisted and somewhat muscular is very distinctive. This member of the Birch family usually has several trunks, and is usually less than 30 feet tall. Its fruit is in the form of clusters of small nutlets, each attached to a papery bract. A good seed crop is produced every three to five years, at which time it benefits ruffed grouse, cardinals, evening grosbeaks and American goldfinches, all of whom prefer it over many other seeds.
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.
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.
Many plants practice “delayed greening” of their leaves, including this Red Maple (Acer rubrum). An initial lack of chlorophyll prevents the leaves from photosynthesizing and making food, which means they have little nutritive value, and thus, appeal, to an herbivore. Most plants that delay greening have reddish leaves due to the presence of anthocyanin, a pigment which appears reddish. A majority of herbivorous insects and invertebrates cannot detect colors in the red range of the color spectrum. Young leaves suffer the greatest predation from invertebrate herbivores. Red leaves would be perceived by these leaf eaters as somewhat dark and possibly dead – not a choice food material. It is possible that the red coloration of new leaves allows the plant to make them unappealing to the herbivores that would otherwise eat them.
2-29-12 Beaver Sign of Spring
Anyone who buys and consumes the pale, relatively tasteless, store-bought tomatoes in the winter, and then, finally, can eat their own garden tomatoes right off the vine, will identify with the winter and spring diets of beavers. While they are locked under the ice, the beavers’ entire winter supply of food is a pile of branches they store at the bottom of the pond near their lodge. Once the ice on the pond begins to melt, beavers take immediate advantage of any escape holes, enlarging them if need be, in order to make their way to fresh, nutritious food. While their preferred spring food, herbaceous plants, are not yet up, the fresh cambium of living trees is most likely a welcome change from their water-logged winter food. It is always fun to come upon signs of their activity when there’s still snow on the ground – it’s one of my favorite signs of spring.
When a white pine has been infected with white pine blister rust (a fungus), cankers appear on the branches and sometimes the trunk of the tree. A large amount of sap-like ooze flows from the cankered areas, sometime drying and resembling a sugary-looking crust or film. These areas are, in fact, high in sugar content, and rodents frequently chew them. It’s likely that a red squirrel visited and sampled the infected white pine in the photograph, leaving a freshly-gnawed patch in the bark.
Bark, silhouettes and buds are the three keys to identifying trees in winter. My preference is buds, as they are so distinctly different from one species to the next. American basswood, or linden (Tilia americana), is a favorite. Its plump, oval, asymmetrical red buds, bearing only one or two bud scales are unmistakable.
Anyone familiar with the beautiful, smooth, gray bark of American beech is well aware that the forest landscape is changing, in part due to the disease that is affecting American beeches. Beech bark disease is caused by not one, but two, agents – an insect and a fungus. The bark of an American beech is initially attacked and altered by the soft-bodied scale insect, Cryptococcus fagisuga, after which it is invaded and killed by fungi, usually Nectria coccinea var. faginata or N. gallegina. This scale insect was accidentally introduced to Nova Scotia around 1890 and since then has spread far and wide, affecting large American beech trees (over 8 inches) the most. Pale yellow eggs are laid by the yellow female scale insects (there are no males – they reproduce through parthenogenesis) on the bark of beech trees in mid-summer and hatch in the late summer or fall. Larvae begin to feed on the bark until winter when they transform into a stage that has no legs and is covered with wool-like wax. The white wax secreted by beech scale insects is the first sign of the disease – heavy infestations of beech scale can cover tree trunks with white wax. Serious damage results only after the invasion of the bark by either one of the fungi mentioned, presumably through injuries made by scale feeding activity.
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.
Because tree buds tend to swell and increase greatly in size in the spring, this is often the season when we first notice them and assume that this is when trees produce them. If you look in the axils of leaves on any tree right now, you will see full-size buds that were formed this summer. These little packages of miniature leaves, branches and sometimes flowers, will remain on trees all winter, tightly closed and often protected from the elements by modified leaves called bud scales. Come spring, when trees are once again taking up quantities of water, their buds will swell, scales will fall off (leaving bud scale scars), and tiny, pristine leaves will appear. (Photo is of American beech, Fagus grandifolia, bud.)
Black walnut (Juglans nigra) is one of the most sought-after native hardwoods. It has been heavily logged for its fine, straight-grained wood which has been used to make furniture, gunstocks and flooring. Because it is becoming increasingly rare, black walnut today is used primarily for veneer. The fruit of this tree is also highly prized, both for its meat as well as its shell, which is extremely difficult to crack, as anyone who has tried to do so by hand knows well. Because of this hardness, the shell has a number of commercial uses, including metal cleaning and polishing, oil well drilling, paints, explosives and cosmetic cleansers. If you would like to sample the sweet nut inside this shell, and are fortunate enough to know the location of a fruiting tree, the trick is to beat the squirrels to the nuts. After the first hard frost, collect the nuts. Eventually the green husks turn black and soften. After rinsing the nuts under water to remove the husks (beware that the husks are a natural dye and will stain your fingers), keep the nuts dry in a cool spot. The biggest challenge comes when you wish to extract the meat – commercial production involves running the nuts between two steel wheels. Barring that method, a hammer seems to do the trick.
Birds and mammals that rely on beechnuts as a staple of their diet include black bears, white-tailed deer, fishers, porcupines, wild turkeys, ruffed grouse, wood ducks, tufted titmice, and numerous small rodents, to name but a few. There is a good reason for this – beechnuts have about the same protein content as corn, but five times the fat content. Beechnuts also have nearly twice as much crude protein and twice the fat of white oak acorns and about the same fat content as red oak acorns. Given the number of husks and nuts that are on the forest floor this fall, it appears that this is a good year for beechnut mast, or seed production. Research has shown that high beechnut production in the fall is correlated with a high percentage of reproducing female black bears in the coming winter.
Beechdrops (Epifagus virginiana) are parasitic plants which obtain nutrients from the American beech tree. They insert a root-like structure called a haustorium into a beech root, absorbing enough nutrition to sustain themselves and produce flowers between August and October. Beechdrops belong to a family of plants (Broomrape), all members of which live as root parasites. Being annuals, beechdrops don’t live long enough to damage their host trees. Because they lack chlorophyll and obvious leaves (their leaves are scale-like and pressed flat against their stem), beechdrops are easily overlooked. Keep an eye on the base of American beech trees for these 5 – 18-inch plants which are flowering right now.