An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Shrubs

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.

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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.

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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.


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