I’m not talking about chocolate, a musical group or a pastry shop.
At this time of year, with deciduous leaves not obscuring your view, and the woods and thickets kind of drab and colorless, you can find a bittersweet vine readily in the northeastern US. Its bright orange/red berries framed in bright yellow bracts stand out and look rather beautiful in the dreary roadside woods.
There is an American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens), the native “good” bittersweet, and Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) the troublemaker. They are much alike in their twining habit, except that Oriental bittersweet is the more aggressive, making American bittersweet less and less common.
Close examination can tell them apart most of the time. Oriental bittersweet has nearly round leaves, and the flowers and ensuing fruit are borne in axillary clusters. American bittersweet’s leaves are longer than wide and taper to a point at the end. The flowers and berries grow at the end of a stem, not at the leaf axils. Trouble is, the two plants hybridize, and the offspring can be a little of both.
Both C. scandens and C. orbiculatus twine around trees but the exotic one can trounce through a woodland and take over the place. If it doesn’t strangle its host tree by twining around its trunk, Oriental bittersweet can overtake it and shade it out. Either way, tree loses.
Birds, rabbits, grouse, squirrels, voles and other rodents eat bittersweet. Although they look beautifully tempting, the berries are not edible for humans. Even if you manage to choke down the horribly bitter-tasting berries, they’ll probably make you sick. Leave them for the wildlife.
Thinking about upcoming holidays? Why not decorate with bittersweet? Because of their bright color, floral arrangements, basket decorations and other floral activities make use of sprigs of berries. You too may be inspired like me, to a “Martha Stewart Moment” and collect a few twigs for bringing some color into the house. I cut some branches and used them to revitalize my wreath as well as decorate a basket.
Be extra careful however, in keeping track of the berries. Don’t inadvertently aid in the spread of this invasive plant. I worked on newspaper, and made sure that any wayward and unused berries got put in the trash – not dumped in the woods or compost pile. Better yet, burning them would have been a better idea.
So get outdoors, and look for the brightness that is there for the finding.
Driving in downtown Springfield yesterday I was stopped at a light, city library to my right, city school administration building to my left. I had to do a double take as I saw something starting to cross the road in the crosswalk. Not a person, not a dog, but a big fat raccoon. He sauntered across almost mid way when the light changed, and the car he was approaching started to move. The raccoon quickly realized he was too late, did an about-face, and skedaddled back to the curb and up the nearby steps of the building.
I felt bad for the little guy – being stuck in this concrete jungle. Cars to avoid, people and dogs to contend with. How’s he going to get something to eat, much less navigate in this foreign land? How did he get here? Should I call animal control? I plucked out my phone and turned it on. He’d be better off in Forest Park, the nearby city park.
I reluctantly had to drive onward, looking immediately for a way to turn around and head back to follow my brave friend. While doing that, second thoughts gripped me. I thought about how city savvy that raccoon seemed to be. He knew just what to do to avoid getting squashed by a car. He knew the difference between sidewalk and street. Maybe he’s not so much of a newcomer around here. He didn’t even jaywalk.
When I managed to swing around and head back up the road, I looked for him. No sight of him either walking around or flattened in the road. There were, I noted, quite a number of dumpsters in the area. Maybe that fellow was taking advantage of all the trash. He was a rather chunky looking rascal after all. Instead of a poor displaced raccoon, perhaps he was quite the city slicker.
Yes, if he could find his way in, he could find his way out I reassured myself. Matter of fact – the next time he tries to cross the road, he’ll probably be pushing the “walk” button.
I sit here listening to the buzzing whirr of the power sprayer on the roof. With each zing and buzz, a little more moss is dislodged. My husband is out there rigged up in his climbing harness and tied via climbing rope to a big ash tree on the opposite side of the A-frame house. The rope comes over the peak and holds him in a rappelling position as the pitch of the roof makes it impossible to stand on. The power sprayer sits atop scaffolding erected on the front porch. Two lengths of hose and extension cord help it reach the top of the fourth level. Quite the operation; not something we want to do every year. As I watch the many bits and pieces of moss get flung off, I think about why the shingles on our shady north side are so conducive to the growth of moss.
Moss is a non-vascular plant, meaning it lacks the vessels for transport of water and nutrients. Therefore, by necessity moss stays small and grows close to or within a ready source of water. So shady places, damp places, near streams and water sources, wooded areas are all likely places for moss to inhabit. Acidic soils and surfaces are its preference.
Moss has a rather involved life cycle, involving a haploid stage and a diploid stage, so I’m not going to get much into it here. However, the spores resulting from its reproductive cycle are masters at dispersion. They can ride the wind or get tossed by rain and be flung far and wide. Not only that, the spores can start growing pretty much anywhere they land, given enough moisture. Wood, brick, coarse rock surfaces, soil, cracks between cement and asphalt and yes, roofing or anything that is porous or moisture retentive or has a rough surface are subject to moss growth. Once established, moss is super great at retaining water and which not only greatly reduces the lifespan of roofing, but aids in breaking down solid rock.
Getting rid of moss where you don’t want it takes eliminating one of its requirements for survival. Depriving the area of moisture by allowing more direct sun to hit the surface or by creating a drainage system will help. Heavy traffic will also eventually discourage it. Changing the pH of the substrate will also do the trick. This is the logical solution for our roof, as I don’t want to eliminate the beautiful big oak tree on the north side of our house that is the primary shade producer. Strips of copper installed within the rows of shingles on your roof do a great job. As rain falls on the exposed copper and rolls down the roof, it makes for very unsuitable conditions for moss or algae to grow. Any homeowner advice store or website will have more on this.
Aside from my roof, I love moss. To find a big bed of cushy moss on a hike is an invitation for a rest and maybe a quickie nap. Sticking your hand in a thick matt is simply luxurious. With about 12,000 species of moss growing in nooks and crannies all over the world, I think it goes unappreciated and is vastly overshadowed by those showy flowering plants. So, next time you are out and about in your own backyard, bend down, or look up at your rooftop, and take notice of this ubiquitous little survivor.
Yesterday, several people were washed out to sea near Thunder Hole in Acadia National Park. Tragically, a young girl of 7 years old died. Others were hospitalized with broken bones and hypothermia. They were observing the effects of Hurricane Bill. Thunder Hole is a unique place to watch the effect of waves, but care must be taken.
Thunder Holeis a “must” stop along Ocean Drive. Try to arrive several hours before high tide and if possible just after a storm has passed out to sea. This may be asking a lot but when the surf is high and the tide is right, Thunder Hole and all of Ocean Drive can be the most dramatic experience in Acadia National Park.
Thunder Hole is a narrow chasm with a small cave at the end. As the waves rush in, air and water are compressed and forced out and up with a thunderous roar. Rounded boulders inside the cave add to the sound but it’s the water that is responsible for the thunder. At its most dramatic the surf is mesmerizing but you must remain aware of where you’re standing. When wet the rocks can be extremely slippery and occasionally rogue waves will wash high onto the shore. Those in their paths can be pushed onto the rocks or worse yet drawn into the surf as we saw yesterday.
Find out more about the natural marvels and dangers at Acadia National Park from the Acadia National Park NaturePod
As always, be responsible for your own safety while exploring and enjoying our wild and unpredictable wonders of nature.
My prayers and best wishes go out to the families and victims of this frightening incident.
President Obama is now vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the southern coast of Cape Cod in Massachusetts. These beaches have attracted vacationers and artists for many years. The constant surf, changing landscape, and persistence of life amid the harsh conditions of beating surf are indeed a wonder and a long attraction for those tending toward contemplation and inspiration.
A visit to any of Cape Cod’s or Martha’s Vineyard’s many encompassing beaches may inspire you to take up journaling, sketching a landscape, or composing a poem. You are not alone. Citizens and visitors to the Cape encompass a long history of artistic endeavor. Some Cape Cod artists have acquired international fame.
After studying impressionist painting in New York, Charles Webster Hawthorne traveled to Holland and discovered painting en plein air – a style of using outdoor light and color. He returned to the United States to start the Cape Cod School of Art in Provincetown in 1899. Provincetown is known for its light, and Hawthorne inspired many artists to take advantage of it.
Another artist who found nourishment in Provincetown was Eugene O’Neill, playwright. After a rough early life, involving depression and alcoholism, O’Neill recognized a love for the sea. He spent several years on the ocean, and based many of his later plays on these experiences. He began spending summers in Provincetown in 1916, and the Provincetown Players performed his first play, Bound East for Cardiff, a sea story. O’Neill purchased the old Peaked Hill Lifesaving Station, and lived there with his wife for several years. Here he found an inspirational place for writing.
O’Neill’s presence drew other artists to the nearby dune shacks, rustic buildings originally created for members of the lifesaving service. Artists discovered the dune shacks and moved in. In their artistic heyday of the mid-twentieth century, the shacks are said to have housed the poets Harry Kemp and E.E. Cummings, painter Jackson Pollack, and writers Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer.
The shacks are now part of an historic district that recognizes the area’s historic association with the development of art and literature in America. They continue to beckon artists, writers, naturalists, solitude-seekers, and all who draw inspiration and renewal from the dramatic dune environment.
Been getting enough sleep lately? Chances are, those 8 recommended hours are elusive at times, if not frequently unobtainable. The other night while I lay awake, unable to stop those chugging brain cogs, I wondered about the sleep requirements for other members of the animal kingdom. Do other animals require so much sleep? How do they sleep? Do they dream?
The next day I perused a book called, “Sleep and Rest in Animals” by Corine Lacrampe. It is not an in-depth comprehensive approach to the subject, but rather gleans some scientific results and lays it out for recreational reading. It has a beautiful collection of sleeping animal photos too. From it I gleaned some curious tidbits you may find interesting to contemplate the next time the sandman eludes you:
* Perching birds have a mechanical locking system to stabilize them when asleep. Tendons cinch toes closed and the femur connects with the pelvis to lock legs in place so they don’t fall off their perch.
* Birds, like humans, experience REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, indicating dreaming is going on. No REM sleep has been observed yet in reptiles or amphibians.
* Some birds can rest one of their two brain hemispheres at a time. Half the brain gets deep sleep and the corresponding eye is closed (the eye on the opposite side of the head), while the other half of the brain is alert to danger with an open eye.
* Of the birds studied for sleep, very short REM cycles are recorded, mostly 10-20 seconds; but many throughout the day – as much as 200 in a 24 hour period.
* Swifts are one of a few birds that can catch a few winks while on the wing. Getting 3,000-6,000 feet above a pocket of warm air, a swift flaps roughly every 4 seconds, then glides for 3 seconds as it snoozes. Penguins also have been found to sleep in brief stints while they swim during long migrations. They wake regularly to breathe at the surface.
* Crocodiles sometimes rest with open mouths for heat regulation. Vessels there are nearer the surface. Letting the sun shine in makes for faster warming if it is cool and sunny. If the croc is too hot, it allows heat to dissipate quicker.
* Sea turtles sleep, eyes closed, head rested for brief periods of time on the seabed. It must wake to come up for air.
* Outside of brumation (reptilian hibernation) it is hard to say if snakes sleep. But they sure can sit perfectly still for many hours at a time.
* Sharks sleep. Contrary to popular belief, they can lie motionless on the ocean floor for a time. Divers have even reported gently touching them without waking them.
* Tree frogs sleep. The green treefrog turns a tan color when napping.
* Insects don’t experience the same type of sleep mammals and birds do. They do however rest in various ways. The jewel wasp naps, with head folded and antenna tucked. Moths wait out the day motionless on trees, to which they may be quite camouflaged.
* Koalas are super sleepers. They snooze about 18-20 hours per day tucked up in the branches of a tree digesting eucalyptus leaves.
* In relation to some other primates, our requirement for sleep is small. But like us, our closest relations sleep in one long stretch at night. Baboons and chimpanzees average about 10 hours of sleep; gorillas about 12 hours and orangutans get about 14 hours of sleep each night.
* Many mammals don’t sleep in one long stretch like us. The elephants’ daily cumulative sleep is about 4 hours; Giraffe, 2 hours; Okapi only 5 minutes of sleep per day.
* The dolphin sleeps for 7 hours, but like birds, only one hemisphere at a time. In this way it can keep swimming and coming to the surface to breathe while it is sleeping. Unlike birds and most mammals, no REM sleep has been detected in the dolphin.
No, I’m not writing about any burglary or deceitful thing someone was hoping to keep secret. I want to share a picture of a dragonfly emerging out of its larval exoskeleton.
Nyaids, or the larval stage, of dragonflies are aquatic. They go through 10 to 15 instars (or molts) before reaching the point at which the land-dwelling adult emerges. Depending on the species of dragonfly it may live a number of weeks or up to five years in this nymph stage. During this time, the dragonfly breathes through gills in its abdomen and preys upon insects, tadpoles, or whatever it can manage in its calm water habitat.
When it is time, the nymph will crawl out of the water onto the leaf of an emerging plant. The back of the exoskeleton will split as it sucks in air. Soon the adult will crawl out. After a bit of time getting strength to its legs, it will pull itself free of its “former self” and spend a few hours pumping blood throughout its body. Everything gets bigger, even its eyes. It is very vulnerable at this time and hopefully it is sufficiently hidden from predators. Eventually its transparent wings are fully unfurled and it will fly off. The next, and last 2 or so months of its life, are spent seeking a mate and making the next generation. Dragonflies do not over-winter as adults. They over-winter as nymphs in the water.
I did not accomplish this little find myself. I was teaching a class of 4th graders from Glenwood School in Springfield, MA and Alex excitedly brought this to me during our pond study. He didn’t know what it was, but soon learned. Those kids can surely find some wonderful stuff!
This fellow perhaps got caught in mid-act by a cold snap. Just a conjecture, but reasonable since oftentimes it is evening when nymphs crawl up out of their pond to begin the transformation to adulthood.
I went for a hike this morning along one of the Hilltown Land Trust’s beautiful trails in my area. The Steven’s Trail is fairly new. Some limb clearing had to be done, but the trail was well marked and easy to follow. It went from dark hemlock stands to lighter hardwood forests, winding around boulders of granite covered with moss, lichen and rock tripe. Great hike.
Where beeches were prevalent, beechdrops were growing at their feet. Beechdrops are an interesting plant. Totally parasitic, they contain no chlorophyll so have no green color. They obtain their nutrition from the roots of their host tree: American Beech. Their leaves are not readily noticeable; they are little scales along the branching stems. The curved trumpet-like flowers, which may be reddish/brownish/yellowish stick out all along the branches. Beech drops have only since August become large enough to be noticed and are blooming now. At any given time, only some of the many flowers along the branches are in bloom. Other flowers are in bud while others are finished blooming and working on their seeds if they’ve been pollinated.
Beech drops are a plant of eastern US, from as far north as the Gulf of St. Lawrence down to Florida, and west as far as Louisiana.
What a banner year for acorns. My red oak has been pelting my house and deck for a good couple of months now. Little bombs catapulting downward point-first made it dangerous to be underneath that towering red oak. As of today, most acorns have been dropped. They are covering my lawn and stuck in between the decking planks. There are so many I am tempted to do something with them.
Squirrels, deer, bears, chipmunks, turkeys, weevils and other animals will do well this year. High in fat and carbohydrate, acorns are important if not vital sources of nutrition for many animals. The number of cubs a female black bear gives birth to this spring is in direct relation to how much fat she has put on in the fall eating acorns. (Black Bears of the Southeast NaturePod)
As for us humans, acorns certainly have their attributes and many foods have been made from them. Acorns are high in vitamin B and protein, but because acorns – particular those from the red oak group – are high in tannic acid, preparation is key. Tannin can cause anemia and impede growth when too much is consumed, plus, it just plain tastes bad.
Soaking shelled acorns in several changes of hot water can leach tannin out. Alternatively, soaking for at least 12 hours in a solution of baking soda has also proven successful. Historically, grinding shelled acorns and pouring hot water over them was the technique used by Native Americans in California. Soaking in brine or lye as pickles and olives are, can also serve to flush out the bitter tasting tannic acid from acorns. Once the tannin problem is solved, several options are available.
*Flour: With the tannin removed, one can use the pounded acorns for flour in baking just as wheat flour is used. Let the pulverized acorns dry thoroughly and then use it in cakes, muffins, pancakes, breads or as a supplement.
*Salad toppings: Acorn chunks can be eaten as salad toppings or in baking as chickpeas or peanuts might be used.
*Oil: Because of their high fat content, some acorns have been pressed to produce oil. Some species of acorns yield up to 30% fat content. The resulting oil is equivalent to olive oil and can be used in baking and cooking.
*Coffee: Dried and roasted meats of acorns can indeed make a brewed coffee, but due to the bitter taste, it is not really worth the effort. As for wild coffees, chicory, a common roadside plant with blue flowers makes a much better tasting brew.
*Indirectly: Reaping the benefits of acorns further along the food chain is another option. Early American settlers let their pigs wander the woods fattening up on acorns and chestnuts just before butchering time. Turkey and deer also will bulk up well this year, and those who hunt will unknowingly be eating acorns once removed.
I’ll probably see about making flour out of my abundance. Check out later posts.
The air is crisp. Apple crisp is baking in the oven. Leaves will soon be crispy underfoot in the deciduous forest. For now, the color show marching southward from Acadia National Park along the Appalachian chain, through Shenandoah National Park and on into the Smokies offers us an effective diversion from thinking about the impending crisp winter weather to come.
Some years here in New England, the show is simply acceptable, and others, absolutely spectacular. Those trees that turn yellow seem to do so fairly regularly with not much of a yearly alteration. Red trees on the other hand, seem to make all the difference. What causes trees to turn red at this time of year?
Without getting too technical it is fairly straightforward to explain. For those who like technical, the pigment compounds are termed as follows: anthocyanin for red and purple plant pigmenst; carotenes and xanthophylls for those pigments that are orange and yellow respectively; and chlorophyll for green pigment.
At this time of year green plant pigment is dying off faster than it is begin replaced. Heartier yellow and orange leaf pigments that were masked by the green are now being revealed. The effect is stunning on birch, hickory, maple, witch hazel, willow and many other trees that typically display yellow.
Red pigment, on the other hand, is produced at this time of year. Sugar maple, red maple, sumac, burning bush, red-osier dogwood, red oaks, pin oaks and others typically showcase red. The brightness and amount is dependent upon various environmental factors that change from year to year and one location to another.
As deciduous leaves stop photosynthesis in the fall in response to changing day length, sugars begin to accumulate. These sugars combine with a compound to make this red pigment. Several conditions, when combined together at this time of year can serve to make that pigment bright and showy.
*Acid sap: If the tree is located in acidic soil making its sap on the acid side, bright red leaves result. Alkaline sap tends to mute the pigment into more of a purple color.
*Dry weather: Lack of water getting through to the leaves tends to make the red even redder. Rainy falls find trees still turning red, but not quite as bright.
*Light: Our days are getting shorter at this time of year here in the northern hemisphere, but the earth is getting closer to the sun. Bright sunny days will produce bright red moreso than overcast days.
*Low temperatures: Nighttime temperatures that hover just above freezing kill off that chlorophyll at a faster rate and enhance the formation of the red pigment.
So keep an eye on the weather and the autumn colors and see what correlations you can make.
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