An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Conifers

Male and Female Tamarack Cones Maturing

Tamaracks, or American Larches (Larix laricina) are non-flowering plants (often found growing in bogs) that reproduce using seeds that are borne on the woody scales of cones.  Conifers (Tamarack is one of about 20 deciduous conifers, but the only one in New England) have both male and female cones.  The male cones produce pollen which is distributed by the wind and the female cones contain ovules which, when fertilized, develop seeds.

The male (pollen-bearing) cones look like little, round buttons (less than 1/5th of an inch wide), and consist of brown to yellowish pollen sacs with papery scales at their base. After maturing in early spring, they shed their pollen and then wither. The female cones of Tamarack are also small – less than ½ inch – and initially resemble tiny, maroon roses.  As in all conifers, the scales open temporarily to receive pollen, then close during fertilization and maturation, and then re-open again at maturity to allow the seed to escape.

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.


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.


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.


Pine Pollen: Nature’s Testosterone

6-12-14 pine pollen  100If you’ve noticed yellow clouds near pine trees recently, or a layer of yellow “dust” on your car or pond, you’ve witnessed the annual dispersal of pollen by male pine cones. Light and fluffy so as to be easily distributed by the wind (rather than insects), these minute pollen grains containing sperm cells can be found just about anywhere this time of year, including the nostrils of humans. All pines have separate male and female (seed) cones on the same tree. Male pine cones, which produce pollen, are much smaller, occur in clusters, are more papery, and remain on the tree for a much shorter period of time than most female pine cones. (By July they will litter the ground beneath pines before they quickly disintegrate.) Although it may mean a brief period of sneezing has to be endured by those allergic to it, this “golden smoke” not only creates beautifully intricate patterns for us to enjoy and makes it possible for pine trees to make the next generation of seeds, but it is also touted as an agent of increased testosterone and strong sexual libido, anti-aging, skin rejuvenation and improved immune systems for humans. Haste ye to a natural food store (or the closest pond!). (photo – Red Pine pollen & male cones)

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.


American Yew Female Cones

12-20-13  American Yew female cones IMG_6118Being a gymnosperm (its seeds are not enclosed in an ovary), American Yew, Taxus canadensis, lacks true flowers or fruits and possesses separate male and female (seed) cones. Each male cone produces up to 100 pollen sacs or more. The modified female cones do not resemble the typical woody cones of evergreens. Yews are the only conifers that produce seed cones that consist of a fleshy (and mucilaginous), scarlet, cup-shaped structure called an aril, each of which holds one seed. The seeds (not the aril) are poisonous to humans, but thrushes, waxwings and other birds consume them and aid in their dispersal.

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.


White Pine Cone Growth

11-25-13 white poine final seed cones 007The female, or seed, cones of most pines take two seasons to mature, and the cones of White Pines are no exception. While their tiny male cones live only a few months in the spring, until their pollen has been dispersed and they drop to the ground, White Pine seed cones develop over two summers. This means that both last year’s cones as well as this year’s can be seen on a White Pine right now. After the seeds in last year’s cones have been dispersed (some time this fall or winter), the cones fall off the tree. In late winter, you will find mostly year-old cones on White Pines; new cones will develop next summer to replace the cones that fall off the tree this winter.

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.


Did you know…

11-20-13 black-capped chickadee IMG_0107Black-capped Chickadees actually refresh their brains once a year. According to Cornell’s Laboratory of Ornithology, every autumn Black-capped Chickadees allow brain neurons containing old information to die, replacing them with new neurons so they can adapt to changes in their social flocks and environment.

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.


Beavers Refurbishing Lodge

10-14-13 refurbished beaver lodge 248This is the time of year when the industriousness of beavers can determine whether or not they survive through the winter. There are three major tasks for a beaver colony to tend to in the fall: refurbishing their lodge; strengthening and repairing their dam; and cutting and storing their winter food supply. They tend to perform these tasks in this sequence, tackling the lodge first. If the water level is high, the beavers will raise the floor of the lodge and the roof of the sleeping chamber. Every fall they add new material to the exterior of the lodge to strengthen the entire structure – typically sticks intertwined that create walls two feet thick or more. At this point the beavers coat the lodge with mud that they dredge up from around the base of the lodge (which greatly increases the depth of the water near the lodge). The apex of the lodge is not coated, allowing fresh air to filter down into the sleeping chamber. Once cold weather arrives, the mud hardens to the consistency of concrete, making the lodge is impenetrable to predators that can approach the lodge once the pond freezes. (In photo, note the fresh eastern hemlock branches and mud that have recently been added to the lodge.)

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.


A Great Christmas Present!

If you’re looking for a present for someone that will be used year round, year after year, Naturally Curious may just fit the bill.  A relative, a friend, your child’s school teacher – it’s the gift that keeps on giving to both young and old!

One reader wrote, “This is a unique book as far as I know. I have several naturalists’ books covering Vermont and the Northeast, and have seen nothing of this breadth, covered to this depth. So much interesting information about birds, amphibians, mammals, insects, plants. This would be useful to those in the mid-Atlantic, New York, and even wider geographic regions. The author gives a month-by-month look at what’s going on in the natural world, and so much of the information would simply be moved forward or back a month in other regions, but would still be relevant because of the wide overlap of species. Very readable. Couldn’t put it down. I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about the natural world, but there was much that was new to me in this book. I would have loved to have this to use as a text when I was teaching. Suitable for a wide range of ages.”

In a recent email to me a parent wrote, “Naturally Curious is our five year old’s unqualified f-a-v-o-r-I-t-e  book. He spends hours regularly returning to it to study it’s vivid pictures and have us read to him about all the different creatures. It is a ‘must have’ for any family with children living in New England…or for anyone that simply shares a love of the outdoors.”

I am a firm believer in fostering a love of nature in young children – the younger the better — but I admit that when I wrote Naturally Curious, I was writing it with adults in mind. It delights me no end to know that children don’t even need a grown-up middleman to enjoy it!


Common Juniper

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.


White Pine Blister Rust Attracts Rodents

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.


Mystery Track Identification

Congratulations, Pat and Cindy!


Naturally Curious wins National Outdoor Book Award

I am delighted to be able to tell you that this morning I learned that NATURALLY CURIOUS won the Nature Guidebook category of the 2011 National Outdoor Book Awards.  I’m honored and humbled by this recognition.   http://www.noba-web.org/books11.htm


Balsam Fir Cones

Balsam fir’s (Abies balsamea) cylindrical cones are very distinctive, in that they stand erect on year-old branches at the top of the tree, and are not pendant, like the cones of many conifers.  They differ in another way as well, for after the seeds mature and the cone opens to release them in the wind, the cone disintegrates, with the scales falling to the ground, leaving candle-like spikes on the tree. Some historians think that these spikes, when snow-covered, inspired the Germanic people to decorate trees with candles or lights.