An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Conifers

Yews Fruiting

10-5-18 yew_U1A0321Unlike many other conifers, Yew does not actually bear its seeds in a cone. Botanically speaking, a modified scale wraps around a single seed and forms a fleshy, red fruit called an aril. Both the seed coat as well as the foliage of Yew contain toxic alkaloids.  Birds’ digestive systems do not break down the seed coats on the seeds so they are unharmed by eating the berries, seed and all, but the human digestive tract begins to break down the seeds and toxins are released.

For hundreds of years, people used Yew alkaloids as both a method of suicide and a chemical weapon during hunting and warfare. Even sleeping beneath the shade of a Yew bush was once considered dangerous. Today paclitaxel, a plant alkaloid derived from Yews, is used as an anti-cancer chemotherapy drug (Taxol is one of its brand names).

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to https://naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.

Advertisements

Rolling White Pine Cone

2-9-18 white pine cone 049A2427

Leave it to NC readers to recognize yesterday’s Mystery Photo! I was impressed with the fat tire track guesses – something I would never ever recognize! With the help of the wind and a gentle slope, a White Pine cone rolled down a hill, leaving the imprint of its spirally-arranged scales in a repetitive pattern. The fall cone crop of many conifers this year was extreme, so your chances of coming across this track are great this winter.

All species of pines produce cones with scales that overlap each other like fish scales. During cold, damp weather, these scales close tight to protect the seeds within them from bad weather and hungry animals. When the weather is conducive to germination (warm and dry) the scales open, allowing seeds to escape. Even after cones fall from the tree, their scales can still open and close.

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to https://naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.

.

 


Bumper Cone Crop Year

11-17-17 spruce cones 049A7815

There is no denying that this year’s cone crop is a bumper crop. Just look up at the tops of conifers or down on the ground beneath them and you will see a plethora of cones. This may be the best overall cone crop in five years, and the best spruce cone crop in more than a decade in the Northeast.

Conifers produce cone crops erratically; some years are bountiful, and others are minimal. Part of the reason for this may be that in a year with a bumper crop (mast), predators can’t possibly consume all of the seeds produced, and thus the opportunity for conifers to have their seeds dispersed and germinate is markedly improved. In addition, erratic production may have partially evolved as a strategy to combat insect damage. An unpredictable cycle makes it much more difficult for insects to become a pest.

As to why some years are so productive, weather conditions are certainly influential. Often times people look at the most recent summer’s weather as a forecaster of the coming fall’s hard mast crop (nuts, cones). Although most conifer cones develop in six to eight months, not all do. Most conifers in the family Pinaceae take this amount of time, but cedar cones take a year to mature, and most spruce and pine cones mature in two to three years. Thus, the cone crop we are having this year may in part be a reflection on this year’s weather, but, depending on the species, it could have been influenced by last summer’s weather conditions or even the summer before last.

Regardless of why some years are lean and some plentiful, when we have a bumper cone crop such as this fall’s, the impact is felt far and wide by wildlife. Red squirrels, voles, waxwings, chickadees, nuthatches, grosbeaks, crossbills and siskins reap the benefits. Their resulting reproduction rates soar, and the ripple effect continues to be felt throughout the food chain.

In some circumstances, the ramifications of a bumper crop are evident before the crop even matures. It appears that red squirrels can predict when there is going to be a huge spruce cone year and produce a second litter to take advantage of the large food supply when it matures. It may be that when the squirrels eat the buds of a spruce tree the summer before cones develop (spruce cones take two years to mature — cone buds are produced in the first year and cones develop and mature in the second year) they can discern which buds are going to produce cones and which are destined to produce branches. An abundance of cone buds may be the clue that triggers their extended reproductive activity. (Photo: Red Spruce cones)

 


Tamarack Cones Maturing

6-9-17 larch cones 211Tamarack (Larix laricina), also commonly called Eastern or American Larch, grows and drops a new set of leaves every year, just like maples, birches, or other deciduous trees. Found in many bogs, it  is the only native deciduous conifer in the Northeast and is known for its green needles which turn a showy yellow in the fall before falling to the ground as winter approaches. Equally dramatic, however, are its seed cones. They are the smallest of any larch (1/2” to 1” long) and have only 12 to 25 scales. At a certain point (right now) in their spring growth they are bright maroon and resemble tiny roses. They eventually turn brown and open to release the seeds, four to six months after pollination.

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.

 


Moose in Winter

1-26-16  moose scat IMG_6307Moose are in their element during northern New England winters. Their bodies are built for snowy, cold conditions. Moose lose relatively little heat due to their large body which gives them a low surface area-to-volume ratio. Long legs enable them to travel through deep snow. However, when the snow gets to be more than 28 inches deep, the energy expended to find food is not worth it. Under deep snow or crust conditions, moose often seek shelter in stands of conifers where the snow is not as deep and where browse is available.

Conifers are beneficial to moose in yet another way. Moose are able to withstand very cold temperatures –in fact, they become uncomfortable (and have been known to pant) when winter temperatures are higher than 23°F. Their coat consists of long, hollow outer hairs and a dense soft undercoat. Our winter temperatures can be quite variable and moose depend on the shade of coniferous cover to keep them cool during our warmer winter days.

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Blackberry Psyllids Heading for Conifers

11-9-15 blackberry psyllid 101Occasionally you see a wild Blackberry bush with leaves that have stunted growth and are often curled up. This malformation is due to the Blackberry Psyllid (Trioza tripunctata), also known as the Jumping Plant Louse. Closely related to aphids and scale insects, psyllids are plant-feeding bugs which typically have one specific host on which they feed and lay their eggs. Blackberry Psyllids, small, cicada-like insects that hold their wings tent-like over their body, feed only on Blackberry and in so doing, cause this leaf distortion.

Blackberry Psyllids have one generation per year. The adults mate and lay eggs (39-202) on Blackberry bushes in early summer. The nymphs, small and wingless, also feed on the sap of Blackberries. They are often found inside the curled leaves during the summer months where they secrete several types of waxy structures as they feed. In the fall the nymphs mature and overwinter as adults in conifers (pines, spruces and cedars) prior to returning to Blackberry bushes in the spring. If Blackberries are one mile or more from conifers, no psyllid damage will be found; those growing within one-eighth of a mile from conifers are at the greatest risk of psyllid damage.

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Eastern Tamaracks Turning Yellow

TAMARACK 050Eastern Larch, Larix laricina, is also known as Tamarack, the Algonquian name for the species which means “wood used for snowshoes.” This tree strongly prefers moist to wet sites in acidic soils and is a common sight in northern New England bogs. Eastern Larch is the only species of conifer in New England that drops all of its leaves/needles every year. The needles are borne on short shoots in groups of 10–20 and prior to falling off, they turn a beautiful golden color.

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.