Archive for the ‘wildflowers’ Category

Aptronym

May 23, 2012

American Lady Butterfly
credit: T. Moore

The other day I lay in the grass and searched for butterfly eggs among the Pussy Toes plants.  It was a glorious day, sunny, with gentle breeze and warm earth which felt just right beneath me. I happily spied on the American Lady butterflies as they lit and clambered over the wildflower to find the right places to lay eggs. When I could tell they’d done the deed I’d inch over and, placing my hand lens to my eye I scanned each tiny leaf to see if it sheltered an egg.  I am sure if I hadn’t  seen them ovipositing I could never have found the eggs, since they are not even a millimeter around. Sitting on a leaf they look like translucent, green-tinged tuffets such as might be pulled up to a fairy’s armchair. Minuscule “seams” radiate from a central point at the top and gather on the bottom.  They put me in mind of a pincushion my mother once had, but hers was red.

egg

When you see something like that it makes you realize how much there is around you that you can’t or don’t notice. The American Lady butterfly itself is a lovely creature, and we are fortunate to have them come through this area during their annual migration. The size of the migrations vary widely, so some years just a few flutter through and other years like this one they pour through New England in overwhelming numbers.  I don’t mind a bit being inundated with butterflies.  Who would?  A cousin of the American Lady Butterfly, the Painted Lady,  comes this way too.  Sunny days with a little breeze for lift have made the Hill-Stead meadows seem like a colorful insect freeway.  We have quite a bit of Pussy Toes, a preferred host plant, as well as Pearly Everlasting-related to Pussy Toes and just as relished by the American and Painted Lady butterflies.  So they are out there in colorful multitudes.  They are hard to tell apart-it’s only a matter of a couple of extra dots and they might easily have been classified under one name, with the “extra dot” ones considered a variation.

With names like “American” and “Painted Lady” it sounds as though one bug were upstanding and the other morally derelict.  Since Linnaeus’ time, we’ve had various reasons for the naming of things and before that the Greeks and Romans had their methods.  Darwin’s discoveries threw a wrench into Linnaeus’ system, and Cladistics is a newer game still.  So there is a continuum of naming the more we learn about our world.  Some might say it doesn’t matter, a “rose by another name would smell as sweetly.”  But I’ve noticed that as children grow they like to try on different nicknames like different clothing,experimenting with how a certain identity makes them feel. So names matter.  My husband spent some time as “Jack Blackthorn”, which as a child he thought had a brave and rakish air. But my daughter, who started life with a Chinese name meaning “good luck” and “jade” has not yet made an effort to discard the name we gave her. We chose her first name because we just loved it.  Many parents of Chinese daughters leave the Chinese name in place as a “middle” name, but we didn’t.  Her second name is for my mother, who died shortly before she was born and who would have been besotted with her.  We wanted not to disrespect her origins, but to embrace her entirely as a member of our family as certain as she had come to us “the old-fashioned way”.  We use her Chinese name as a nickname, as it is as surely her name as much as the others.  I love that name too-I used it when we were first together and I snuggled her against me so she would know the love was for her and no one else-days of sharing the caregiver with a dozen others were over. Perhaps at some point she’ll want us to call her something else, or she’ll decide to use her Chinese name.  You never know what kids will do.  I hope I have the sense and good grace just to swallow and use the tag she wants instead of making it all about me.  Giving names is one thing, and accepting them is another.  Unlike plants and bugs, we have some choice in the matter.

Theodate named her house Hill-Stead.  As a name it perfectly conveys the two most important elements in the Hill-Stead backstory, specifically that she was deeply concerned with and connected to the land the house sits on.  The home was sited at the top of a hill with the help of the landscape architect, exploiting the natural features so that each window framed a perfect landscape. They could have sited it in many places on over 250 acres of land, but they faced it toward the Barn Door Hills.  Of equal importance is “Stead” meaning steady, rooted home.  Theodate was determined to create a secure and anchored place for her family to live, underscoring her need for hearth and home to be rooted in the land and nature.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker
Estate Naturalist

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All Fixed Up

August 4, 2011

If I see another kid stomp on a bug during a nature walk, or scream and flail his arms around when he sees a bee I will lose my mind.  And that’s only the children.  You’d never believe some of the wacky things adults do on nature walks, like the school teacher who screamed and ran away and out of sight leaving 25 astonished third-graders with me and a sleeping garter snake we had just found under a bug board.  Or the dozens of people you see going down into the Grand Canyon in high heels.  But it’s little wonder when you consider how disconnected from life in the outdoors we are.  Most people who attend nature hikes are unschooled in basic natural science and history.  Many parents view nature hikes as strictly an entertainment for children, or for a springtime “science-lite” field trip from school with a hidden hijinks agenda.

But we have some little successes.  Two weekends ago I had a completely bug-phobic mother bring her children to “moth night”, our annual evening event when I bait trees and set up black lights to bring in moths and other night insects so they can be seen up close.  You have to love a heroic parent like that, but to her surprise and mine she had a blast.  Last weekend, I had kids and adults out in our meadow munching like happy cows on Queen Anne’s Lace roots, and arguing over the last bits.  Just in case you aren’t on any of the very worthy survivalist list serves around, Queen Anne’s Lace is the cousin of the carrot and the roots smell quite alike.  In darkness you’d be hard pressed to tell them apart.  But the QAL tastes like an old, woody carrot, not a fresh one.

Looking over our meadows at Hill-Stead there are loads of wildflowers keeping Queen Anne and her lace company right now.  Joe Pye Weed and Goldenrod are starting up, Black-Eyed Susan and Milkweed have been around a few weeks. The clover has been blooming for months.  Clover, a member of the pea or legume family, grows in white, pink (often called “red”), and yellow (called “hop”), as well as a fuzzy, ochre-colored one called “rabbit’s foot”. If your yard had clover, a “good” yard service would advise you to eradicate it with pesticides. Aside from the pretty colors and the near continuous blooming habit, here’s why you might consider a stay of execution.

Nitrogen. Essential for life, it’s in about 80% of the air you breathe and is called “free nitrogen”, though it’s anything but free to us since we can’t directly use the airborne variety.  Only “fixed nitrogen” is available to animals and plants.  Where do we get it? Plants need nitrogen in the form of either nitrates or ammonia.  These come from the soil, where they are dissolved in soil water, are taken up by the roots of the plants and start wending their way through the food chain.  But, how do the nitrates and ammonia get into the soil? Nitrogen is “fixed”, or converted from free nitrogen in the air to nitrates (or ammonia) in various ways. Of course, people can add nitrogen to soil in the form of fertilizer.  And lightening can cause reactions which result in the creation of nitrates.  There is also “nitrogen fixing bacteria” that converts free nitrogen from the atmosphere into a useable form. The bacteria have enzymes that cause the change. Here’s where the clover comes in. The bacteria live in nodules on the roots of leguminous plants,-yes! Plants like clover, with both good looks AND talent.

In short, clover unlocks a key to the entire food chain.  I love it, and I keep what I have growing in my yard.  Our meadows here at Hill-Stead are filled to the brim with clover-fixed-nitrogen and the food chain to go with it.  I love showing it off to visitors.  I don’t think that nature walks need to be treated as just a Sunday afternoon diversion for the kids, yet I don’t need everyone to be a citizen scientist, either. I would like for guests to come away from our programs with a fresh understanding of the outdoors, one that sees the human individual as part of the natural continuum, a steward and caretaker and, in fact, a party to the food chain itself. You don’t have to know the ins and outs of the nitrogen cycle for that.  But you do have to go outside once in a while and look at the clover.

If You Plant It, They Will Come

March 27, 2011

Some of my friends are on a “cleanse”. You need the book  to participate- $9.16 on Amazon.com.  You give up “obstacles to digestion” which apparently include eggs, nuts, dairy, tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes, peppers, meat, soy, cheese, wheat, and coffee.  Since this doesn’t leave a lot you can actually eat, there is a line of shakes and supplements, $425 for the most popular package.  Evidently people are contaminated with poisons from  a diet which presumably includes tomatoes and peppers (see above list for other possibilities), and it is recommended that the cleanse continue for at least a month.  If you have had the habit of eating any “allergen, mucous-forming or inflammatory” foods (see above), then you need to take and stay on a pre-cleanse program for a time before you can get into the actual cleansing. The more poisonous your previous diet, the longer the pre-cleanse.  Then comes the gastrointestinal scrubbing during which you will need to take pills with names like Clear, Equilibrium, Pass, Ease and so on. The image I got when I heard about these wasn’t good at all, especially “pass” and “ease”.

When you complete the tour of duty, you will feel energy and clarity, and be at least $434.16 lighter.  Starvation for the privileged.  But if you want to be on the cutting edge of weight loss fashion, look no further.  The book alone is a runaway bestseller.

I am polite about all this.  But I shudder at the frivolity while people the world over could eat for months on $425 and feel overfed.  Being riven with hunger is torture. Real starvation means the Cheezits aren’t six feet away in the cabinet if you tire of it.  The price of such hunger far exceeds $425. It is known, tragically, by millions.

On another plane, but no less pitiable is the deprivation known this winter by animals and birds throughout our area.  As the snow melted here at Hill-Stead I sadly found quite a number of bird and animal corpses.  In a harsh winter, hunger is a ruthless creditor.

This year birds gobbled up late summer berries like wild grape, pokeweed, poison ivy and blueberries before the fall was even over, so they had to start in on winter berries early.  Winter berries include cedar, sumac and winterberry.  They were in turn eaten up early. Starvation set in and with no other crop to draw from, many birds switched to eating alien and ornamental plants like multiflora rose and bittersweet. Without these foods as sustenance, I would  have found quite a few more corpses during my springtime wanderings. This got me thinking.  Because the birds had to switch over to eating invasive plants , it may mean that invasives will spread more than usual when spring warms up and the seeds dispersed by the birds begin to grow.

I began to consider the further effect of an increase in alien plants. I’ll use Hill-Stead’s experience with a butterfly, the Baltimore Checkerspot, as the perfect example. This insect has a favorite food.  And like a picky child, if the favorite food is unavailable it simply won’t eat.  But the bug has more gumption than most children, and it dies out in places where its’ preferred plant has died out.  No plant, no bug.  In this way, once common insects become more local then gradually go extinct.  Hill-Stead used to be a last gasp location for the Baltimore Checkerspot since we had quite a bit of turtlehead, the favorite plant. But the meadow began to be mowed in wider and wider margins, and the turtlehead went.  It was long before my time and anyone else here now. But the butterfly census folks still shake their heads, and so do I.  The Baltimore Checkerspot is not unique in its stubbornness. Every single insect is the same.

But here’s the thing: 96% of terrestrial birds (as opposed to sea-going birds, for example) feed their babies on insects and spiders. What determines how many and what kind of insects are around?  Plants! So, if we keep creating scenarios where invasives multiply, we will continue on a crash course with insect extinction and by extension bird extinction and by further extension, well, you get the idea.

Eastern Redbud (native)

Now it probably isn’t anyone’s specific fault that we had a bad winter and the birds had

Serviceberry (native)

to resort to eating multiflora rose hips.  But it is our fault if we fail to increase our use of native species when we plant around our homes, parks and ornamental gardens.  In this way, the birds and insects and everything that depends on them will have a leg up by having the proper food to eat. More native plants, more insects, more birds. More, please.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker
Estate Naturalist

Scrambling for Serenity

March 30, 2010

I’d like to tear the Japanese Barberry out with my bare hands.  Why is it that so many of the “problem” plants that now grow in New England green up and get going before the native plants? If I didn’t know any better, I’d be thrilled to see things growing and leaves unfurling.  It isn’t as though I don’t appreciate the change in seasons, but when all I can see when I look along the Woodland Trail is Japanese Barberry ad infinitum, I get angry. Nature is all about competition, who gets eaten, who gets to eat.  It isn’t any different among plants or animals, they are all the same.  If you live long enough to pass on your genes, you carry the day. The more genes passed on, the bigger the winner. And barberry is triumphant.

It’s galling to see bullies prevailing. Invasives are plants or animals not native to the region where they are found.  In certain cases, like Multiflora Rose, Japanese Barberry and Asiatic Bittersweet, we planted them deliberately. Brought from other climes by well-meaning garden enthusiasts, they were cultivated and treasured as plants to spice up our landscape with their exotic shapes and colors. Who knew we planted in our perennial border a floral Trojan Horse? Other plant interlopers arrived entirely against their will, in a mattress, on the bottom of someone’s shoe, in the unwitting ballast of a ship. In a way, it’s natural, part of the warp and weft of the world, but there’s a certain bitterness in it.

Non-native plants may die in an unfamiliar climate, if their needs are too specific.  But less picky plants, happy to put down roots without particular regard to soil, sun or even rainfall, run riot over everything, choking the life out of native plants and animals. In time, ecosystems fail under the unnatural competition from the invasive plant.  After habitat loss due to human disruption, habitat loss due to the effects of invasive species is the largest cause of animal and plant extinction.

Why am I filled with petulant spleen to see these barbarries colonizing our wood?  Isn’t it all part of nature? Surely the cross-pollination of certain plants and the failure of others is part of our advancement? Perhaps,but I see the invasives leading us away from balance. I cannot see the end around the bend, and I am angry at the changing landscape.

Japanese Barberry is hard to erradicate and reproduces obscenely. Elimination has to be done painstakingly, one plant at a time. Left alone barberry will render areas completely impenetrable and it has done so here, keeping me perhaps from discovering vernal pools, bear dens, coyote families, rare butterflies, a lost race of birds. I can only speculate and seethe.

But I know this: As I churn over the barberry, spring ephemerals- hepatica, trout lily and the beginning of corydallis, are popping up.  I should focus on them. They bloom from barely warmed soil, and only until the trees begin to leaf out.  You might never know they were there at all, they bloom so briefly and die back so completely, like something of a woodland secret. Yet I smolder with regret at the Japanese Barberry, quite literally grinding my teeth over them. I wonder if I could burn them out, literally a crazy idea, with a home listed on the National Register not a quarter of a mile away. There is nothing reasonable to be done, for the moment.

Emerging Trout Lily

I am very bad at deciding I am powerless. But there it is. I can only accept, look with curiosity to the future and keep my eyes open for Trout Lily.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

Hope Springs Eternal

February 9, 2010

My mother had a saying for everything. Her speech was fashioned by the linguistic effects of verbally colorful Anglo/Irish parents, and from living in Guam after World War II soaking up the Southern and Western cadences of American servicemen. She spoke in a patchwork of literary references and colloquialisms, and until I began school I had no idea that not everyone spoke like that. She was full of song lyrics, too, and would break out singing if the words applied to the situation.  Some favorite expressions came from poetry, but I’m not sure to this day the derivation of many of those funny, perfect remarks.

A useful motherly comment was, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing; drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring”.  This was for when you didn’t know what you were talking about. Another was “Hope springs eternal in the human breast”, which she would say brightly if you asked for something and which meant, “we’ll see”.  It was oddly soothing and perhaps the simple addition of the word “hope” introduced a more positive flavor than the flat “we’ll see”, which every child knows is just a stalling tactic for an eventual “no”.

When the world is windy and frozen as it is in February, hope is a good arrow to keep in your quiver. I always give the same advice for cases of late winter doldrums, as I am nowhere near as clever as my mother.  I tell everyone who is down and dragging to get out and take a walk.  For starters, you need your sunlight and vitamin D to keep you on an even keel, and there’s nothing like some fresh air to improve your attitude.  And nothing reminds you more of hope springing within you than a look at a skunk cabbage as it begins poking through the frozen earth.  The only way to see that is to go for a walk in February or March!

Despite its repellant name, skunk cabbage is a wonderful thing.  One of the very earliest flowers, it has a remarkable determination to bloom.  If skunk cabbage competed in the Miss America contest, its “special talent”  (rather than baton twirling) would be its uncanny maintenance of an internally controlled heat from within, a sort of natural furnace. It runs approximately thirty-six degrees above the ambient temperature. This enables it to “burn” through frozen earth and even ice in an inexorable penetration of the surface of the ground.  As it breaches that surface and becomes visible it has a dramatic mottled purple hood called a spathe curled around an odd little flower that resembles nothing so much as a tiny morningstar (that round-headed medieval weapon with all the pointy things sticking out of it).  This is the spadix, and the little pointy things are the flowers.  You see this same configuration on many species of the lily family including calla lillies, peace lillies, jack-in-the pulpit and many others.  At the right point in early spring if you walk through a wetland carpeted with skunk cabbage, you might smell a sort of funkiness in the air. That smell draws little bees, flies and early bugs of every kind to come and nectar at the cabbage flowers, sustaining the insects and enabling them to get started on nests and procreation.  In a way, skunk cabbage is one of the mothers of spring itself, with its certain internal warmth giving way to the fecundity of an entire season.

My mother wouldn’t have touched a skunk cabbage with a ten-foot pole.  I’m pretty sure she never even saw one.  But, as a mother, she knew all about warmth, perseverance, and hope. It is remarkable at every level how our personalities are reflected in the natural world around us, though we often miss the connection. Mothers, of course, do not have a monopoly on the excellent qualities they share with the skunk cabbage, nor indeed, does every mother have them.  But there is no separating the characteristics of animals and plants from our own.  The world is a continuum.

It turns out actually, that hope DOES spring eternal for many people, and needs to.  Optimistic thoughts stimulate the amygdala, a powerful area of the brain that affects emotion.  It is biologically important to have a positive outlook.  Not everything in life will turn out perfectly, but if you thought things would always go badly, you’d never do anything.  So go out and take a walk.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

The Remains of the Day

October 22, 2009

 

I get a sinking feeling when the year winds down.  As the old song says, “the days grow short when you reach September”.  I have the emptiness that comes with leaving and with loss.  It’s a little like moving day when you look around at the boxes and the spaces on the walls where your pictures used to be.

Not that fall is complete misery. It’s just time to move on. The crackle of leaves is pleasant, the misty mornings and the ambiguous nature of the weather has a certain joie de vivre.

IMG_1078Our meadows are mowed, well after insects need them and way after any nesting grassland birds have moved on.  We follow a plan recommended by the USDA and our state DEP, hoping that proper management will encourage decling species to keep a foothold here.  We do everything we can with our meagre resources, and try to be conscientious.

It’s a different landscape without the rippling grasses and wildflowers.  The crickets are still singing day and night.  But the walking is crunchy now with a little frozen dew in the morning.  It isn’t really a frost, but it brings frost to mind.

IMG_1079I had just finished a walk the other day, in freakishly chilly, drizzling weather when a few snowflakes fell.  I wasn’t ready for that.  All was well again two days later, with waves of chirping sparrows coming through and the crickets back at their singing.  You can’t deny the foreshadowing though.

burrAutumn is the season of dispersal as well as hunkering down.  Flowers have gone to seed, and you aren’t worth a toss as a naturalist if you don’t come back from a walk with a few “hitchiker” seeds sticking to your sweater.  I pull the burrs from the burdock and give them to my little daughter.  They are “nature’s jewelery” when you stick them on yourself.  Several together can make a stunning brooch.  Some say burdock was the inspiration for velcro, since it has a sort of hook-and-eye construction, but I think this may be more country legend than truth.  Tickseed can make a real mess for you to painstakingly yank out when you get home, and there are loads of other flower seeds that like to take a ride when they can to travel somewhere new to grow.

There are so many ways for a plant to get around.  Hitchikers are one, but I favor the seeds who take to the air.  Except for being afraid of heights, balloon travel has always appealed to me, so maybe that’s the reason.  In spring, who doesn’t enjoy blowing the seeds off a dandelion clock with a big puff of air?  In fall I’d have to say that milkweed might be my favorite, with it’s silky strands that really seem  like parachute material holding on to the seed at the bottom.  The seed is the balloon’s basket, of course.  The whole affair is enclosed in a sort of warty-looking pod.  It’s shaped like an elfin ear.  When they are green you can split them open and yank out the silk and the seed.  The inner wall of the pod is smooth and soft.  When fall deepens, the pod gets brown and breaks open on its own, freeing the silken seed parachutes to fly far and wide on the breezes.  I cheer them on, hoping that every single one will yield a plant.  It’s a vain hope, but of course that is the nature of hope overall. Still, it would be nice.  Milkweed is the foundation of life for the Monarch Butterfly, who eats and lays eggs exclusively on this plant.  The milky latex sap of the milkweed also confers bitterness on the bugs, so that birds who try to eat them only try it once.  It cuts down on mortality quite a bit.   Lose your milkweed and lose your monarchs-it’s simple.

Some plants just hunker down right where they are.  After pollination seeds form and just drop right there.  It doesn’t always happen right away.  Many of them drop their seeds over the winter.  Nature has it timed so that they get moisture and light just right for them to germinate properly.  During the fall you can see them all clustered up, waiting for a good, stiff winter wind.

Queen Anne’s lace puckers up its umbel into a neat package, a lucky haven for many insects.  A great walk is to go from plant to plant gently teasing open the umbel skeleton to see if something is tucked up in there to pass the winter.  Crab spiders can often be found, and others who spin tiny webs inside the umbel, a shelter within a shelter.  Little beetles and weevils lurk in there, too.  You never know what you’ll find.  It’s a world in a wildflower.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist