Some 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.
The woods have become relatively quiet in the last few weeks. A majority of songbirds have mated and nested, so there is no need to reinforce pair-bonding with song. However, some late nesters, including the Hermit Thrush, are still on eggs and the males are still singing.
The Hermit Thrush makes up for its rather drab appearance with its melodious, haunting, flute-like song. The Hermit Thrush’s song is similar to that of its close relative, the Wood Thrush, but it starts with a single, clear note which the Wood Thrush’s song lacks. The Hermit Thrush doesn’t sing during migration or on its wintering grounds, so we are now privilege to its last lyrical songs of the year. To hear a recording, go to http://langelliott.com/mary-holland/hermit_thrush_by_Ted_Mack_Adirondacks_1994.mp3. (Sound recording © Lang Elliott – langelliott.com & miracleofnature.org)
After the spathe (hood) dies back, Jack-in-the-pulpit fruit is more obvious, especially as the green berries turn brilliant reddish-orange at this time of year. Eventually the stem withers and the seed head falls to the ground. The tissues of Jack-in-the-pulpit, particularly the roots, contain high toxic levels of oxalic acid. The berries, if eaten, cause a burning sensation in the mouth and throat due to physical cuts caused by the crystals of calcium oxalate. Although cattle, goats, pigs and sheep are susceptible to the toxin, white-tailed deer, wild turkeys and wood thrushes appear to consume them without distress. As is obvious from this photograph, though, the berries are not in high demand.