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Trees

Bigtooth Aspen Male Catkins

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Aspens, cottonwoods, poplars – all are names for certain species of trees in the genus Populus. These trees, as well as birch, hickory, oak and willow trees, produce their flowers on spikes called catkins. Telling the catkins of these trees from one another is challenging, to say the least, yet some of NC’s readers correctly identified the catkins in the photograph as those of Bigtooth Aspen, Populus grandidentata. This tree blooms for one to two weeks in the spring and its mature male catkins open and extend to two to four inches in length. The wind, as opposed to insects, disperses the light, fluffy yellow pollen as the catkins dangle in the breeze. Some of the pollen remains intact even after the tree has shed its spent catkins onto the ground.

Because Bigtooth Aspen, and most species of Populus, are dioecious (male and female flowers develop on separate trees), there are only male flowers in this photo and beneath this tree. After fertilization, female flowers remain on the tree and form capsules which contain several small seeds embedded in tufts of fine, white hair. They will fill the air in several weeks looking like bits of floating cotton.

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Red Maples In Bloom

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Red Maples (Acer rubrum) are celebrated in the fall for their vibrant colors, but they produce equally vibrant reds and yellows in early spring when they are flowering. Most Red Maples have dense clusters of either male flowers or female flowers (dioecious), although some have both male and female flowers (monoecious). Under certain conditions, a Red Maple tree can sometimes switch from male to female, male to both male and female (hermaphroditic), and hermaphroditic to female.

The showier male, or staminate, flowers contain between four and twelve stamens, with long, slender filaments and red (young) or yellow (mature) anthers at their tips. Both red sepals and petals can be seen at the base of the stamens.  A staminate Red Maple in full bloom is a blaze of gold and red. (Photo: mature staminate Red Maple flowers)

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Eastern Cottonwoods & European Honey Bees

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One species of tree you might encounter if you’re in a floodplain is the Eastern Cottonwood (Populus deltoids), a member of the Willow family and the Poplar genus. Because it can tolerate flooding, it often grows near river banks and disturbed wet areas. The buds of Eastern Cottonwood are large and somewhat sticky, due to the resin that they contain. Resin exudes from the buds during the fall as well as the spring, and is evident even in winter when you see it frozen in droplets on the buds (see photo). In trees, resin serves to seal wounds and defend against bacteria, fungi and insects.

European Honey Bees discovered that the properties of cottonwood resin which benefitted cottonwood trees could also benefit them. They collect the resin from the outside of Eastern Cottonwood buds, mix it with wax and apply it to the walls of their nest cavity. This “bee glue” is referred to as propolis, and, as it turns out, serves as an antimicrobial barrier as well as a sealant. Various bacteria, fungi and other harmful microbes are kept at bay by the resin contained in propolis. It also directly reduces two diseases of Honey Bees, chalkbrood and American foulbrood.

Interestingly, if a mouse or small rodent happens to die inside a hive, and the bees can’t remove it through the hive entrance, they often seal the carcass inside an envelope of propolis.  This prevents the hive from being affected by the mouse’s decomposition.

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Distinguishing the Hornbeams

1-23-17-hophornbeam-img_5028There are two trees, both in the Birch family, which, due to the similarity of their common names, are occasionally mixed up with each other. One is known as American Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana) and the other as American or Eastern Hophornbeam (Ostrya virginiana). Due to the hardness of their wood, they also both go by the name Ironwood, adding to the confusion. A perfect example of when Linnaeus’s binomial system, which gives each species two scientific names, one of which is unique to each species, is helpful.

While the fruits and leaves of both species are superficially similar, their respective bark is very different. Carpinus caroliniana’s bark resembles flexed muscles (see   https://naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com/2012/10/30/american-hornbeam/ ), earning it yet another common name, Musclewood, while Ostrya virginiana’s bark (pictured)  has a “shreddy” appearance, with the bark broken into small, narrow plates which curve away from the trunk. Look for C. caroliniana in valleys and along streams, and O. virginiana on well-drained slopes and ridges.

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Black Cherry Gum

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When the inner walls of cambium cells in a Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) tree (and other members of the Rosaceae family) are damaged by insects, enzymes can break down pectin, producing jelly-like lumps of clear sap that appear from beneath the bark. This “gum” is often the result of aborted attacks by bark beetles, particularly the peach bark beetle, for the tree uses it to seal off infection. Both direct feeding by insects as well as the process of egg-laying can cause this phenomenon called gummosis. Other factors, including fungi, stress and physical injury to a tree, can produce this reaction.

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Witch-hazel Cone Gall Aphids Laying Eggs

10-26-16-witch-hazel-gall-s20161017_5388At this time of year there is a species of aphid, Hormaphis hamamelidis, that is laying eggs on Witch-hazel branches. Next spring female aphids will hatch out of these eggs and begin feeding on newly-emerged Witch-hazel leaves. The aphids inject the leaf with a substance that causes the leaf to form a cone-shaped growth, or gall, around the insect, providing it with both food and shelter. The galls are hollow, and have openings extending out through the leaves’ lower surfaces. Within the galls the unmated female aphids produce 50 – 70 young. Eventually the galls fill with winged female aphids which emerge through the cone openings, disperse, and repeat the process. The third generation of aphids consists of both males and females which mate and lay their eggs on Witch-hazel. The aphids that hatch from these eggs create the conical galls found on Witch-hazel leaves.

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Abscission Layers Forming

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As the days grow shorter and the nights longer, cells near where a leaf’s stem joins a tree’s branch start to divide rapidly. This is the start of the creation of the corky layer of cells known as the abcission layer.

The annual growth of a tree ends with the formation of the abcission layer. This layer prevents the transport of materials such as carbohydrates from the leaf to the branch and it blocks the flow of minerals from the roots into the leaves. Chlorophyll, critical to the process of photosynthesis, breaks down with exposure to light and is replaced continually by the leaves during the summer. When the abcission layer forms, this is no longer possible.  The chlorophyll slowly breaks down and disappears, revealing the underlying xanthophylls (yellow pigments) and carotenoids (orange pigments) that the chlorophyll was masking. These pigments, in addition to the red pigments (anthocyanins) that are manufactured from sugars trapped in the leaf, provide us with our brilliant foliage.

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