An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide – maryholland505@gmail.com

Shrubs

Red Elderberry Attracts Wildlife Year Round

The pollinated and fertilized white flowers of Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) have recently developed into the red fruit for which this plant is named. Many people are familiar with its relative, Common Elderberry (S. canadensis), which produces dark purple fruit that is used to make jams, jellies, pies and elderberry wine.  While Red Elderberry fruit can be used to make all of these, its raw berries are toxic.  Red Elderberry’s popularity is greatest with pollinators, birds and four-footed mammals.

The cyanide-producing toxins in its flowers, (raw) fruit, stems, bark, leaves and roots do not seem to discourage wildlife’s attraction to Red Elderberry.  The odor of its flowers, its nectar, and its highly nutritious pollen attract many ants, bees, wasps and flies.  At least 50 species of songbirds eat the bright red fruits, including red-eyed vireos, ruffed grouse, song sparrows, gray catbirds, brown thrashers, and thrushes. Squirrels, mice, raccoons, and black bears also eat the fruit. Porcupines, mice and snowshoe hares eat the buds and bark in winter. The foliage is usually avoided by herbivores, although white-tailed deer and moose browse on it occasionally.

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Beaked Hazelnut Flowering

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Some of the most dazzling flowers this time of year are easily overlooked due to their diminutive size and the fact that they are not found on the ground. The flowers of Beaked Hazelnut (Corylus cornuta), a native shrub, are in this category. The shape and position of the male and female flowers illustrate their respective strategies for successfully producing seeds.

The female flower, located at the tip of the branch (where other branches don’t obstruct it) extends its tiny, star-like pistils into the air in several directions so that they easily collect pollen.

Down below the female flowers hangs the pendulous male catkin, dangling its pollen-laden stamens so that the wind can easily disperse the pollen. Because it is positioned below the female flower, there is a reduced likelihood of self-pollination.

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Beaked Hazelnuts Maturing

8-14-17 beaked hazelnut IMG_2015Beaked Hazelnut (Corylus cornuta), a multi-stemmed shrub, is named for its fruit — a nut with a tubular husk (a modified leaf known as an involucre) that extends at least an inch beyond the nut, resembling a beak. The surface of the involucre is covered with fine filaments that can irritate the skin. The fruit grows individually as well as in clusters. There are two species of hazel in the Northeast. The other, American Hazel (Corylus americana), lacks the prolonged husk and instead has a short involucre with fringed edges.

The nuts of Beaked Hazelnut may be roasted and eaten — they ripen in August and September. One must be quick to harvest them, however, as they are highly sought after by Ruffed Grouse, Hairy Woodpeckers, Blue Jays, White-tailed Deer and squirrels, due to being rich in protein and fat. Most (99 percent) of the hazelnuts consumed by the U.S. are from a European species of hazel and are grown in Oregon.


Buttonbush Flowering

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At this time of year Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) is studded with one-inch diameter white or pale pink globular flowerheads. Each “button” consists of many individual flowers, each of which has an extended pistil, giving the flowerhead a starburst appearance, and a striking resemblance to a pin cushion. Bees, hummingbirds and butterflies all flock to this bountiful nectar provider. Once seeds have formed, waterfowl and shorebirds feed on them.   Often found near swamps and wetlands, Buttonbush’s mid-summer flowering period lasts for about a month.


Leatherwood Flowering

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Leatherwood (Dirca palustris) is a slow-growing, deciduous shrub that is present but relatively uncommon in the Northeast. In the spring, as early as March in southern New England, its tiny, bell-shaped yellow flowers burst into bloom. The leaf buds have yet to open when this happens, so even though the flowering season is short, these shrubs and their flowers are very noticeable.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Leatherwood is its tough, elastic, and very strong bark for which it was named. Its twigs are pliable to the point where you can almost bend them in half without breaking them. Native Americans recognized these qualities and used the bark for making bow strings, baskets, fishing line and rope.

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Sweetfern’s Buds Set

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Although its name implies otherwise, Sweetfern (Comptonia peregrina) is not a fern. Rather, it is a flowering shrub in the Bayberry family, Myricaceae, whose leaves bear some resemblance to fern fronds. It does deserve the other half of its common name, however. When Sweetfern’s aromatic leaves are crushed (or just brushed against) a sweet, spicy fragrance can easily be detected.

Male and female Sweetfern flowers are formed separately. At this time of year, the male flower buds, or catkins, running along the stems are very evident, although they become more so in the spring when they expand and dangle in the breeze, distributing pollen (see insert).

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Red-osier & Silky Dogwood Fruits Ripening

10-6-15 silky dogwood 291Some of the most prolific flowering shrubs in the Northeast are dogwoods. In the spring, their flowers attract attention and at this time of year their colorful fruit stands out. There are many species of dogwood, two of which are Red-osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea) and Silky Dogwood (Cornus amomum). These two shrubs can be hard to tell apart, as they both have white flowers, red stems and similar foliage. In the fall, however, the color of their fruit differs, as does their pith, or central stem tissue. The mature berries of Red-osier Dogwood are dull white and its pith is also white. Silky Dogwood’s blue berries have white blotches, and its stem and branches have a salmon-colored pith.

The fruit of these dogwoods and others is an extremely important source of food for many migrating songbirds, as well as resident birds. Wood ducks, Northern Cardinals, Eastern Bluebirds, Gray Catbirds, Purple Finches, Evening Grosbeaks, American Robins, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Wood and Hermit Thrushes, Red-eyed and Warbling Vireos, Cedar Waxwings and Downy Woodpeckers all consume dogwood berries.

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Buttonbush Seeds Maturing

9-17-15  buttonbush flowering IMG_2573During the summer, Buttonbush’s one-and-a-half-inch-diameter, white flower balls can be spotted along shorelines and in wetlands. The fragrance of this shrub’s flowers attracts many pollinators, especially bumblebees and butterflies (their tongues are long enough to reach the deep nectaries). After pollination, the 200-plus flowers on each head of this member of the Coffee family produce small nutlets that are dispersed by water and consumed by waterfowl (particularly surface-feeding dabbling ducks), American Bitterns, rails and Northern Bobwhites. (photo: buttonbush seed head)

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Beaked Hazelnut Flowering

beaked hazelnut 400The blossoms of many shrubs are not necessarily big, flashy, strong-scented flowers, especially if they are wind-pollinated and have no need to attract insects. Beaked Hazelnut’s flowers are now blooming – pendant male catkins loaded with pollen and ¼ “- diameter female flowers. The female blossoms should be examined through a hand lens – they are exquisite little maroon flowers with magenta highlights and pistils that curl this way and that, in hopes of catching pollen grains. One advantage to flowering now, before leaves are out, is that the wind-dispersed pollen has fewer obstructions.

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Pussy Willows Emerging

2-12-15 026Even with sub-zero temperatures and feet of snow on the ground it is possible to find signs, such as pussy willows, that spring really is around the corner. What we call pussy willows are, in fact, the soft, silvery hairs that insulate the emerging spike of flowers, or catkin, within a willow flower bud. A willow catkin consists of all male or all female flowers. The first catkins to emerge in the spring are usually males. The hairs, or “pussies,” that emerge when willow buds first open trap the heat from the sun and help warm the center of the catkins, where the flowers’ reproductive parts are located. This trapped heat promotes the development of the pollen (or in female flowers, the ovules) of the flowers deep within the hairs. Eventually the reproductive parts of the willow flowers – the stamens and pistils – emerge, but until they do, we get to enjoy their silvery fur coats.

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Speckled Alder in Winter

2-3-15 speckled alder 166Speckled Alder is a shrub in the Birch family that is found growing in wetlands. It is named after the “speckles” on its bark — horizontal lines or lenticels (spongy openings for the transfer of gases). In winter, Speckled Alder branches are distinctive because they carry two kinds of buds as well as last year’s fruit. The male flower buds are in the form of inch-long catkins which appear reddish in winter. They begin to turn yellow in March just before they extend into long, yellow pollen-bearing flowers. The female flower buds are small and drooping just ahead of the catkins on the branch. They look like miniature unopened versions of the seed-bearing fruit they’ll become. Last year’s woody fruit, or “cones” are also present, having opened and had their seeds, or winged nutlets, dispersed by the wind last fall.

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Winterberry Fruit Brightening the Landscape

11-17-14 winterberry IMG_5797Winterberry (Ilex verticilatta) fruits mature in late summer and early fall, but they are much more evident now that most of the leaves have fallen off this deciduous member of the Holly family. Because these shrubs are dioecious (male and female flowers appear on separate plants), only the female shrubs bear fruit. The bright red berries often persist through the winter and provide cedar waxwings, bluebirds and robins with food long after most fruit has disappeared.

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Japanese Barberry Invading

Japanese barberry IMG_5518Japanese Barberry, Berberis thunbergii , is very much like the shrub Burning Bush, Euonymus alatus – it comes into its own in the fall, turning many shades of red and orange, and thus has had great appeal as an ornamental. Birds, including turkeys, grouse, mockingbirds and waxwings, find the fruit of this woody shrub irresistible, and spread the seeds far and wide – a bit too far and wide, in fact. Like Burning Bush, Japanese Barberry has escaped from cultivation and is established and reproducing in the wild so successfully that it is classified as invasive. It is a particular threat to open and second-growth forests. An established colony can eventually grow thick enough to crowd out native understory plants, reducing wildlife habitat and forage, thereby increasing pressure on native plants by white-tailed deer and other herbivores. According to Pennsylvania’s Dept. of Conservation and Natural Resources, Japanese Barberry also acts as a nursery for deer ticks, which can transmit numerous diseases.

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American Elderberry & the Elderberry Borer

9-9-13 American elderberry 183Interestingly, while the ripe fruit of American Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) is used in the production of wine, pies and jelly, the leaves, stems, roots and unripe fruits of this plant are poisonous, due to the presence of calcium oxalate crystals. Elderberry Borers (Desmocerus palliates) seem immune to these crystals, however. They lay their eggs at the base of the plant, and the hatching larvae then burrow their way into the stems and eat tunnels into the roots of the plant. Adult beetles that emerge and are present through the summer are hard to miss, with their shimmering blue and yellow/orange outer wings, or elytra.

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.


Spiny Witch Hazel Galls

8-26-13  spiny witch hazel gall 045Aphids are responsible for the formation of two different galls (abnormal plant growths caused by insects, fungi, bacteria and viruses) on Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana). A cone-shaped gall forms on leaves and a second type of gall covered with spiny points grows from branches. The latter gall, referred to as the Spiny Witch Hazel Gall, provides many aphids (Hamamelistes spinosus) with both food and shelter while they are developing inside the gall. (Their two-year life cycle involves birches as their next host.) The pictured Spiny Witch Hazel Gall has split open enough to allow ants to discover and have access to the aphids. Once the ants enter the gall, they stroke the resident aphids with their antennae, stimulating the aphids into producing droplets of tasty “honeydew” from the tips of their abdomens, which the ants find irresistible. In return, the ants protect the aphids from predators.

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.


Staghorn Sumac to the Rescue

3-5-13 A. robin eating sumac IMG_4893They 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.


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.


Witch Hazel Flowering

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.


Beaked Hazelnut

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The shrub Beaked Hazelnut (Corylus cornuta) is named for its fruit – a nut with a tubular husk that resembles a beak. The surface of the husk is covered with fine filaments that can irritate the skin. Rich in protein and fat, the hard-shelled nuts are a preferred food of Ruffed Grouse, Hairy Woodpeckers, Blue Jays, White-tailed Deer and squirrels. Beaked Hazelnut, a member of the Birch family, is quite versatile. Native Americans found many uses for its nuts – they ate them roasted and raw, pounded them for use in cakes, and used their oil as a cure for coughs, and colds, as well as an astringent. The wood of Beaked Hazelnut was carved into arrows, hooks and spoons, while the long, flexible shoots were twisted into rope. A European species of hazelnut is used for commercial production of hazelnuts (also called filberts) in the U.S.. The nut in this photograph has not matured and developed its hard shell, but I wanted to beat the squirrels to it!


Beaked Hazel in Flower

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 Flowering

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.