Skunk cabbage: an antidote for all seasons

Winter scene: Stewart Park, Ithaca, NY, looking north.

On March 14 I joined my daughter Charlotte and four-year-old grandson Henry for a walk in Stewart Park. A chilly wind had blown most people away. The water was jade green, and the lake’s surface was ruffled with frothing white caps rapidly heading for shore. To the north there was a fairytale view of hills, in delicate shades of gray, blue, and pink, sloping down to the lake’s edge. Henry was tiptop with zest, but my daughter and I were silent with unspoken thoughts about the pandemic. 

Stewart Park’s willows.

After checking out the playground, some parts under renovation, we meandered over the bridge to the inlet and sat on a bench while Henry tested his dinosaur boots in the mud and threw pebbles and rocks of different sizes into the water, analyzing plopping sounds, so satisfying even in troubling times. Seeking shelter from the wind, we decided to head into a remnant of forest between the train tracks and the park. Though they had not leafed out, the trees offered protection and companionship. In general, though, except for startling patches of emerald green moss, the forest floor was grey brown with matted leaves. In other words, there were no signs of life, or so it appeared.

Thing One and Thing Two.

We were following the blue-blaze path, which intrigued Henry. Sometimes he could see four blazes ahead and that kept him dancing forward while brandishing sticks, etc. But, looking at my feet, I saw a raised tuft of dead leaves with a hint of something maroon poking out. Aha! Of course! It was one of the first signs of spring, often missed because so early and relatively camouflaged. A skunk cabbage “flower.” Most people know the giant green leaves of skunk cabbage, which unfurl three feel or more in height in swampy, moist places, but these leaves arise much after the flowers when the weather has truly warmed up. They are hard to miss, because the leaves are so big and green and because skunk cabbages are so social. You rarely just see one. Like people, they prefer to congregate.

A vegetable penguin?

It turned that we had completely missed all the signs of life in the forest floor. There were hundreds of emerging “flowers,” little snouts poking out of dead leaves. The skunk cabbage “flower” is a composite structure known as the spathe and spadix. The spathe is a hood with a distinctive point, either left leaning or right leaning (a feature that is genetically determined), while the spadix is a yellowish, vertical column of male and female flowers inside the spathe. The spathe shelters the spadix, which is capable of elevating the ambient temperature around the flowers by as much as 77 degrees F*, which promotes the release of volatile oils that attract pollinators. 

Mahogany with dashes of gold.

Our walk had turned into an adventure. Watching our feet carefully, we investigated tuft after tuft of raised leaves while ooh and ahhing over new features of each new spathe. In most individuals, the maroon spathe was streaked with green and brown, sometimes a hint of gold. Some were taller, and some were rounder, each twisted in a gnomic fashion, fancifully odd. Inspired by these abundant signs of life, the sense of discovery, and the fact that buried treasure emerges when we least expect it, I said good-bye in much better spirits than when I arrived. 

On the way home I remembered that Thoreau often took note of skunk cabbage in his rambles around Concord, Massachusetts, though “rambles” is absolutely the wrong word. He was a documentarian of every detail of nature’s news, with a sharper focus than any wildlife photographer. When I was 16, my parents gave me the Dover edition of his journals, 14 volumes that spanned the years 1837 to 1861, totalling 1804 pages in Dover’s 2-volume edition, every page of which displays facsimile copies of four journal pages, so approximately 7000 pages in total!  Fortunately, the Dover edition has an Index, so I was able to read every passage, 42 of them, in which he discusses skunk cabbage.

Dover’s two-volume edition of Thoreau’s Journals containing about 7000 facsimile pages.

Throughout the year, he observed the progress of skunk cabbage, from the first tip of a spathe appearing in late February/early March to the dissemination of the nutlets (seeds) in the fall. His favorite locality was Clamshell, near the mouth of Swamp Bridge Brook along the Sudbury River, now the site of the Emerson Hospital apparently. He often remarked how numb his fingers were on the mornings he took notice of their doings, but his greatest sympathies were with the skunk cabbages themselves, which he often found blackened by frost damage, their mandate having been to emerge whatever the consequences.

“Vegetable shells”

In 1852 , he asked, “What a conspicuous place Nature has assigned to the skunk-cabbage, first flower to show itself above the bare ground! What occult relation is implied between this plant and man?” (Journal III, p. 437). The appearance of the spathes is surprising—like a magic trick done by a wizard or wizardess. Only close examination and even touching proves the reality of the situation. Like us, Thoreau was intrigued by the unusual color—the color word he most often uses is “mahogany,” but he also describes the streaks in various shades of yellow and green and how the colors change over time. The shape of the spathe seemed to entrance him. He describes the shape in various ways—often as “spear-heads,” other times as “vegetable shells,” or as “a little crypt or shrine for the flower.” The sinuous curvature compelled comparisons to “cows’ horns” and “the beak of a bird.” He marvels at how much “protection” they offer and how “roomy” the chamber is. It is instructive, companionable, and fun to accompany Thoreau on his skunk cabbage rounds. 

Skunk cabbage at Cornell’s Sapsucker Woods, seen on March 17, 2020.

He also asks questions for which he has no answers, just as we did: “I find that many of the most forward spathes, etc., have been destroyed since I was here three days ago. Some animal has nibbled away a part of the spathes (or sometimes only a hole in it)—and I see the fragments scattered about—and then eaten out the whole of the spadix. Indeed, but few forward ones are left. Is this a mouse or musquash? Or a bird? The spadix is evidently a favorite titbit to some creature” (titbit is his spelling). We noticed some nibbles and wondered about which predators were afoot. Skunk cabbage are members of the Araceae family, which contains several kinds of calcium oxalate crystals that cause , when ingested, burning, swelling of the throat, and inability to speak. Carol Gracie, author of a wonderful book called Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast: A Natural History (2012), advises against eating any part of skunk cabbage even after boiling. 

A page from the Dover edition, showing the arrangement of the facsimile pages from the original edition of Thoreau’s journals.

After years of gathering detailed observations in the field, Thoreau broadened his message on October 31, 1857. The occasion was noticing the resting buds of skunk-cabbage, already formed to spearhead their way up at the first sign of warmth in spring:

If you are afflicted with melancholy at this season, go to the swamp and see the brave spears of skunk-cabbage buds already advanced toward a new year. Their gravestones are not bespoken yet. Who shall be sexton to them? Is it the winter of their discontent? Do they seem to have lain down to die, despairing of their skunk-cabbagedom? “Up and at ‘em,” “Give it to ‘em,” “Excelsior,” “Put it through,” –these are their mottoes. Mortal human creatures must take a little respite in this fall of the year; their spirits do flag a little. There is a little questioning of destiny, and thinking to go like cowards to where the “weary shall be at rest.” But not so with skunk-cabbage. Its withered leaves fall and are transfixed by a rising bud. Winter and death are ignored; the circle of life is complete. Are these false prophets? Is it a lie or a vain boast underneath the skunk-cabbage bud, pushing it upward and lifting the dead leaves with it? They rest with spears advanced; they rest to shoot! I say it is good for me to be here, slumping in the mud, a trap covered with withered leaves. See those green cabbage buds lifting the dry leaves in that watery and muddy place. There is no can’t nor cant to them. They see over the brow of winter’s hill. They see another summer ahead.

Thoreau’s negative opinions about some aspects of human culture and society often drew criticism and still do—but no one is better than he is at encouraging us to be our best, to be “transfixed” with hope rather than its opposite. Few writers could write so beautifully about an “occult relation” between skunk cabbage and people. He earned the right to eloquence, having put himself in just such a close relationship season after season, year after year, and word after word–through close observation. 

*see Gracie, p. 157.

A buttercup-petaled snapping turtle

Snapping turtle head

Harry the snapping turtle or…is it Harriet?

The other day as I was driving on a country road outside Ithaca I saw an impressively large snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) poised on the verge, head high as if looking both ways in order to cross. A bright buttercup petal lay plastered on the weathered shell. I was smitten.

Snapping turtle with buttercup petal 2

Remembering stories of drivers running over reptiles on purpose, out of fear or cruel impulses, I parked my car by the side of the road with flashers on, got out and approached the beast to assess the responsibilities of an amateur naturalist. Even though I kept at a discreet distance the turtle quickly sensed my presence and froze. This was a good opportunity for observation.The tail had matted strands of dark-green algae entwined on the spines.

Snapping turtle algae on the tail

 

The neck had numerous folds, ornamented with warty bits called tubercles. The claws were impressive. The whole appearance suggested the muddy depths whence they come.

Snapping turtle profile

I retreated. The turtle then reversed headlong into the ditch, traveled along it at a fast clip away from me, only to emerge ready to head back across the road as originally intended. Meanwhile the owner of a house on the far side of the road  (I call him the resident hereafter) walked over to see whether there was an emergency. He said that the turtle had lived in the pond behind his house since 1989 and his family had named him Harry.

snapping turtle on the move in the ditch

Harry on the move away from me.

One does not pick up a snapping turtle without extreme care. Recently the Boston Globe ran a story titled “People keep spotting huge snapping turtles in the middle of the road. Here’s why”  warning motorists to beware snapping turtles on the move. The resident said that his wife had assisted Harry across the road with a broom on occasion. One website recommends using a shovel to lift a turtle across the road. That would have been a disaster with Harry. The resident said he had tried to pick him up once and it had the opposite result. Harry was able to lash his tail and move all four legs and snapping head so vigorously that he had to drop him immediately. I left Harry in the care of the owner of Harry’s pond.

But I began to wonder about Harry’s habits and set off on a trek through the literature of snapping turtles, the results of which lead me to think that Harriet would perhaps be a better name. It is hard to distinguish males from females without having them side by side on their backs, which is almost impossible when they are alive. Snapping turtles are reserved in the water, but pugnacious on land, despite the fact that mature individuals are almost predator free. No one wants to mess with the rough-edged jaws of a snapping turtle’s head, which has a far reach.

The top shell of a turtle is called the carapace, and the bottom shell is called the plastron. Males have modifications of the size and shape of the plastron that make the mating ritual more feasible, morphologically speaking. A wikihow article indicates that the size of the claws is a helpful indicator. I would say that Harriet is the better name from that point of view.  Like most reptiles, snapping turtles do not pair bond, and in a marvelous feat of evolutionary sleight of hand, one might say, females can store sperm from several male partners for long periods of time, even several years, before egg laying. Most accounts suggest that the majority of snapping turtles seen crossing roads are females  in search of nesting sites on land–sometimes as far as a mile from their pond of residence. When I went back to the owner of Harry’s pond to query why he chose the name Harry, he said he had no idea whether it was male or female–could snapping turtles be hermaphrodites he asked (in general the answer is no, but see below)–and proceeded to show me two places in the gravel around his car where Harry had been digging, presumably to lay eggs. Road embankments, lawns, gardens, muskrat homes–the perfect spot is a work of trial and error apparently.

snapping turtle book

Trailing around after female snapping turtles in the wild to ascertain egg-laying habits is not easy. They can move surprisingly quickly through places that are uncomfortable for humans. An account reported in 1911 by Professor J. W. P. Jenks and archived, in the words of Dallas Lore Sharp, in the book pictured above (pp. 29-30) by Harold Babcock, goes this way:

Leaving my horse unhitched, as if he, too, understood, I slipped eagerly into my covert for a look at the pond. As I did so, a large pickerel sloughed a furrow out through the spatterdocks, and in his wake rose the head of an enormous turtle. Swinging slowly around, the creature headed straight for the shore, and without a pause scrambled out on the sand.

She was about the size of a big scoop-shovel; but that was not what excited me, so much as her manner, and the gait at which she moved; for there was method in it and fixed purpose. On she came, shuffling over the sand toward the higher open fields, with a hurried, determined seesaw that was taking her somewhere in particular, and that was bound to get her there on time.

I held my breath. Had she been a dinosaurian making Mesozoic footprints, I could not have been more fearful. For footprints on the Mesozoic mud, or on the sands of time, were as nothing to me when compared with fresh turtle eggs on the sand of this pond.

But over the strip of sand, without a stop she paddled, and up a narrow cow-path into the high grass along a fence. Then up the narrow cow-path on all fours, just like another turtle, I paddled, and into the high, wet grass along the fence.

I kept well within the sound of her, for she moved recklessly, leaving a trail of flattened grass a foot and a half wide. I wanted to stand up,–and I don’t believe I could have turned her back with a rail,–but I was afraid if she saw me that she might return indefinitely to the pond; so on I went, flat to the ground, squeezing through the lower rails of the fence, as if the field beyond were a melon-patch. It was nothing of the kind, only a wild, uncomfortable pasture, full of dewberry vines, and very discouraging. They were excessively wet vines and briery. I pulled my coat-sleeves as far over my fists as I could get them, and with the tin of sand swinging from between my teeth to avoid noise, I stumped fiercely, but silently after the turtle.

She was laying her course, I thought, straight down the length of this dreadful pasture, when, not far from the fence, she suddenly hove to, warped herself short about, and came back, barely clearing me, at a clip that was thrilling. I warped about, too, and in her wake bore down across the corner of the pasture, across the powdery public road, and on to a fence along a field of young corn.

I was somewhat wet by this time, but not so wet as I had been before wallowing through the deep, dry dust of the road. Hurrying up behind a large tree by the fence, I peered down the corn-row and saw the turtle stop, and begin to paw about in the loose soft soil. She was going to lay.

I held on to the tree and watched, as she tried this place, and that place, and the other place–the eternally feminine. But the place, evidently was hard to find. What could a female turtle do with a whole field of possible nests to choose from? Then at last she found it, and whirling about, she backed quickly at it, and tail first, began to bury herself before my staring eyes.

The account ends here. I am prepared to forgive Professor J. W. P. Jenks his comment about “the eternally feminine” since he had such a difficult time with all that wallowing and warping about in briery and dusty places, but I am not prepared to forgive him if he took her eggs.  Why was he carrying a pail  of sand between his teeth?

Snapping turtle with snail

A snail grazes on the moss and plant debris adhering to the top shell (carapace). Head to left.

 

Once the laying is over, females return home, never to know their offspring or their fates, which is a good thing. There is 90% predation of the eggs and hatchlings, which are only an inch long, from many predators–crows, raccoons, snakes, foxes, the list is long. However, this high infant mortality is balanced  by the well-defended morphology and contentious attitude of the mature snapping turtle, which is an evolutionarily successful organism, adaptable to human disturbance.  Interestingly, sex determination is temperature-dependent in turtle species. Snapping turtle eggs maintained at 68 degrees F yield only female hatchlings, while those maintained at 73-75 degrees F yield only males. A mix of the sexes is produced at 70-72 degrees F. In green sea turtles the opposite is true; the higher temperature range produces females only–and intersex hatchlings can appear at intermediate temperatures!

While scientists use clinical terms like  “reproductive biology” and “the mating strategies” of organisms, nonspecialists form descriptions using casual words that apply to humans as well. It is rare to have the chance to observe snapping turtles in the act of love-making because they are nocturnal, though females search for nest sites in daylight,  and copulation is an aquatic activity. The sitio tiempo press blogger in an essay titled “Summer, snapping turtles’ mating dance, and the glory of life” writes of feeling a  “common humanity”  after observing mating turtles and a writer for the Pittsburg Post-Gazette  in a piece titled “Outdoors: Snapping turtle courtship unusual shell game” shows near reverence for the “reptilian rapture” he observes. Both writers enhanced my perception of snapping turtles and caused me to wonder about the evolutionary history of love-making. I have a book waiting to be read titled The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World–and Us by Richard O. Prum, an ornithologist. It appears the thesis focuses on the importance of beauty in pair-bonded, nonreptilian organisms. Tank-like and unfeathery, except for that buttercup petal on Harriet’s shell, snapping turtles are not beautiful, like almost all birds are, but they seem to be good lovers.

My last sight of the snapping turtle was a steady, unblinking eye peering at me through the vegetation of the ditch as she plotted a return home.

snapping turtle eye in grass

 

 

 

Watching Winter Aconite, a Spring Ephemeral

In March, here in Ithaca, NY, spring is a pop-up affair. Bright yellow winter aconite suddenly illuminate muddy earth and sludgy leaves. Spring ephemerals, winter aconite vanish as soon as they have finished their work, so it is best to watch their behavior carefully while you have the chance.

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Winter aconite remain closed on rainy, gray days.

When the sun is out, and I can’t resist being out also, there they are: golden bowls lifted off the ground on short but sturdy stalks,  embellished by a distinctive green ruff. The flowers open and close depending on temperature and light conditions.

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It’s a sunny day!

Winter aconite flowers benefit the first pollinators of spring. Each flower is a “goblet” offering sugary nectar and pollen, vital food for the first foraging bees of the season.

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A whorl of anthers sit above a whorl of funnel-shaped nectaries. Greenish  carpels (ovaries) are visible at the center, tilted to the right.

Polish researchers Krystyna Rysiak and Beata Żuraw discuss many aspects of the flowers in their study “The Biology of Flowering of Winter Aconite.” Like the hellebore, their close relative in the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae), winter aconite guide honey bees to their pollen and nectar through scent and the reflection of UV rays. Each flower has on average 29 stamens, which shed pollen copiously for only 2-3 days, so the bees have to watch for visiting opportunities, and 3-6 funnel-shaped nectaries, which produce on average 1.23 mg nectar per flower. The concentration of sugars in the nectar averages 72.11%.  In the 75 or so open flowers I observed on the one sunny day this week, I only noticed one bee. I went inside to get my iPhone and when I came back it was gone and did not return. It was a sunny but windy day. According to the Polish researchers, honey bees prefer sunny windless days.

Botanically, the winter aconite flower is not what it appears. The yellow “petals” are actually sepals, having become petal-like,  and the nectaries are considered modified petals. The “Elizabethan” ruff leaves are considered “stem” leaves, while “true” leaves emerge after flowering.

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The funnel-shaped nectaries are clearly visible in this photo.

Once the bees have been fed, the flowers complete their reproductive cycle, offering up seeds when mature in lacily veined  “chalices” (carpels or ovaries), to continue the goblet metaphor.

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Mature carpels (ovaries) open to release seeds. Photographer: Rüdiger Kratz (Wikimedia Commons).

Botanical illustrations often clarify the confusing relationships of floral parts seen in photographs. The floral diagram (number 7 in the image below) shows five carpels (ovaries) surrounded by many anthers (two circles end to end). The outer ring of heart-shaped symbols represents the nectaries.

Illustration_Eranthis_hyemalis0

Original book source: Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885, Gera, Germany
Permission granted to use under GFDL by Kurt Stueber
Source: www.biolib.de

In Lublin, Poland, the flowering period recorded during Rysiak and Żuraw’s study lasted from February 5th to March 22nd. This is a good long spell for foraging bees. Here in Ithaca I suspect the duration of flowering is much shorter, but I will have to record dates.  The researchers noted that snowfall did not injure blooming buds.

Eranthis_hyemalis_-_ozimnica

This flower will reopen when conditions improve. [By Goranpavic (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons]

Winter aconite has been cultivated since 1570, and its small tubers are readily available in bulb catalogues and garden centers for fall planting. They also naturalize by seed, creating cheerful, golden patches that are good for us and the bees. They are the gardener’s friend for two reasons: they repel deer and they can colonize under black walnuts, whose secretions of allelopathic chemicals deter many species from growing within their root sphere.

There is one very large patch in Ithan Valley Park (Radnor Township, Pennsylvania) that horticulturalist Carolyn of Carolyn’s Shade Gardens calls “a wonder of nature.” Carolyn writes that “There is so much yellow that I think it must be visible from outer space.” Be sure to scroll all the way down to the end of her post. The patch was originally part of an arboretum belonging to botanist John Evans (1790-1862). The biographical entry in the History of Delaware County, Pennsylvania, From the Discovery of the Territory Included within its Limits to the Present Time, With A Notice of the Geology of the County AND Catalogues of its Minerals, Plants, Quadrupeds and Birds, Written under the Direction and Appointment of the Delaware County Institute of Science (1862) by George Smith, M.D., portrays a lovely man who earned his living in the milling business while pursuing horticulture and natural history as an avocation:

Being almost shut out from social intercourse, our young miller, after having attended closely to his business on week days, spent much of his time on Sundays, in rambling over the wild and romantic country that surrounded his mill–in traversing its streams and in scaling its precipices. It was in this state of isolation from civilized society that the habits and tastes of John Evans underwent a change. It was in these solitary rambles that he laid the foundation of his character in after life. Here he became a devoted lover of nature, acquired the habits of close observation, and fitted himself for the successful study of the natural sciences.

Evans  became a well-respected amateur botanist, maintaining an extensive correspondence with like-minded people in Europe, including Sir William J. Hooker, Director of Kew Gardens. In exchange for American plant material, he received European material from Sir William. Perhaps tubers of winter aconite, considered native to southern Europe and east to Asia, were included in these exchanges.  Plant hunter Joseph D. Hooker, Sir William’s son, shared seeds from his Himalayan expedition of 1847-1851. Evans was interested in local flora as well and traveled extensively in the United States on collecting trips. A devoted horticulturalist, Evans used saw dust from his mill to mulch his extensive collection of local and exotic plants and is described as dying somewhat prematurely from a “consuming disease” after too much “exposure” in his garden.

Because winter aconite are so agreeable, they get a fair bit of press. The Guardian featured the winter aconite in their  Plant of the Week column in 2017. The column offers useful horticultural advice and a lively Comment field. ‘HumptyDumpty’, the first to comment, offered this story:

The novelist Anthony Powell was once at Buckingham Palace receiving some medal or gong, and when he went into the investiture room where the Queen awaited him, gong/medal in hand, she wished him a good February morning, enquired where he lived (“in the country, your Maj, near Frome)”, and she then asked:

“Do you have aconites?”

AP, wondering what the bloody hell they were, decided they must be some unpleasant but not fatal medical condition, possibly related to piles, so answered:

“not as yet, your Majesty, although at my time of life I find a careful diet is advisable”

A careful diet should include the omission of winter aconite. Closely related to the beautiful but deadly garden plant monkshood (Aconitum sp.), they are full of cardiac glycosides. ‘Wolf’s bane’ and ‘queen of poisons’ are some of the common names for monkshood.

As I watch winter aconite responding to the vagaries of late winter-early spring weather, open and closing with the changes in temperature and sunlight, I become more attuned to changes everywhere. I also realize how much weather can influence a successful relationship for the winter aconite and the honey bee. When the weather is bad, as it has been all this week, the flowers are closed and the bees are absent. (I need to find out more about how the bee benefits the winter aconite. It seems probable that they can self-pollinate, but cross-pollination is always a good thing.)

I am happy with my small patches of winter aconite. They are close at hand where I can keep my eyes on them–right by the back door (which I use as the front door) and by the driveway where I can see them as I come home. If the flowers are open, it’s a sign to go outside. By “outside” I mean “Outside” in the John Muirean sense:

I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.

–John Muir (John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir)

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Neerland’s Plantentuin : Afbeeldingen en beschrijvingen van sierplanten voor tuin en kamer by Oudemans, Cornelis Antoon Jan Abraham, 1825-1906; Glijm, C (Biodiversity Heritage Library)

p.s. Today, March 31, 2018, is sunny, 51degrees F, with a slight wind chill. The winter aconite have opened and the solitary bee who visited the front-of-the-house patch last Tuesday, is back. (Of course, it could be a different bee, but it seems likely the same bee has come back, as honey bees are known to be repeat visitors.) Here is a video of today’s visit.

The New Year, 2018, Begins in Vinegar Hollow

It looks like my New Year’s post from Vinegar Hollow is going to be an annual event. What new is there to say one might ask? I am different, the land is different, the weather is different–more wear and tear in general–not that these are necessarily bad things. Some wear-and-tear is simply polishing. In the hollow I never tire of looking at the trees

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View from apple orchard to old barn (center) at the Big Meadow.

 

and the hills and the play of light, and I always see new designs and colors in the landscape. The snow illuminates the hoof-marked cow trails, while Mike’s tractor, which delivers hay morning and afternoon to the

This, the old locust grove, is where the cows prefer their hay. The little barn is more visible.

 

cows, uncovers grass still green. Yesterday Mike and I had a talk about the cows’ preference for the locust grove  this time of year. He is surprised they are not out in full sun on these cold days and observes that this is their favorite spot. They are reluctant to move around when he delivers hay elsewhere, which is fine with him  because when he leaves hay near the barn, they stomp around and unplug the automatic timer to his tractor. Which is not good, because then on these cold mornings, some below zero, he can’t get the tractor started.  (The timer activates the heating of the engine oil so it is not too sludgy on a bitter cold morning.) He thinks the cows prefer the locust grove because it is their shady home place of summer.

Tractor ready to distribute hay bales for the next feeding.

Cows have memories he says. When it is time for a twice-bred cow to go into the barn to calve, he just opens the door and she heads straight into the stall she had the year before. If there is a cow in there already, there is sure to be a terrible fight. On the other hand, getting first-time mothers into the barn presents a problem. Mike has tender feelings for his cows in the winter when he is out feeding no matter the weather and his bad knee. Cows can withstand the cold if all their several stomachs are full. The gut bacteria create a literal fire in the belly. It’s freezing rain that causes Mike to tighten his lips and shake his head about the suffering of domesticated animals.

On a clear day when the sun reflects off a layer of snow, it’s hard to notice anything but a beautiful dazzle.

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Looking south to Stark’s Ridge.

Farms have a lot of fences and gates that create intersecting shadows. Because of some construction going on at the old house, there is provisional wire fencing adding to the complexity of the design above.

The fence in the center divides the orchard (very few trees left) from the orchard meadow. A few small sinkholes are visible in the ground that rises to the hillside.

On a day when the sun is wan, the colors of a winter landscape become subtle. I notice the soft brown of frozen mud, the pale russet of dried sage grass, and snow poked through with a thousand blades of grass. Tree branches are witchy, twitchy, sometimes ungainly, and always beautiful against the sky.

The side of Stark’s Ridge with tree branches against a wan sky.

I walk around the farm looking at everything, trying to understand placement of objects, natural and unnatural, how a landscape becomes what it is.

Layers of limestone that have heaved and broken apart provide dens for foxes.

 

A cattle chute with rusty chains.

Maybe I have a memory like the cow going into the stall where she has been before. Since brought home to the farm at birth, I always return, amazed at how much more there is to see and think about. When I visit Roy, my neighbor, who will be 94 on January 24 of this new year, we deconstruct  the history of the hollow, no moment or detail too small for discussion.  He lives alone with his cat Big Red, who for the first time deigned to sit in my lap before jumping, somewhat gracefully for a big cat, from the kitchen counter to a perch on top of the refrigerator. Mike checks on Roy every morning and the driver of the woman who cleans his trailer brings two apples each week for his old, long-legged donkey.

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Roy’s mailbox. The road at the upper right winds around to his home. Cow in front of the old barn seen from a distance in the first photo.

Roy only needs one meal a day now he says–two fried eggs, two pieces of toast, a rasher of sausage, and a cup of coffee. He fixes it himself even though his hands are almost curled shut with arthritis. I took him two bite-size mincemeat pies made by my English friend who makes wonderful pie crust. That’ll be dinner he said as I set them by his easy chair. The thing I puzzle about is that Roy even in midwinter, when he can’t sit outside on the top step to his trailer, seems to know what is going on in the hollow. It’s as if he is now not bounded by walls and poor vision (he lost sight in one eye as a child) because he is so attuned to the hollow. “You should see Mike’s dog running after the tractor. Down the road and back up the road these cold mornings. You should see that,” he tells me. I have seen that but I wonder when he has.

A paper wasp nest dangles from the copper beech branches in the foreground; Stark’s Ridge in the background.

On the long drive from Ithaca to Mustoe, we listened to the audio version of La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman. As a frontispiece he  quotes a few lines from Irish poet Louis Macneice’s  “Snow” , a poem about how much lays before our view– how “the world is suddener than we fancy it.” The hollow has always looked “sudden” to me. Now it’s time to say good-bye again; I have had my reset for the New Year!

Teasel time in Virginia and West Virginia

 

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A white teasel (Dipsacus laciniatus)  photographed near Churchville, Virginia.

 

I have brought rain to Vinegar Hollow in Mustoe, Highland County, Virginia, it seems. For the last two months in Ithaca, NY, we have had almost daily deluges, rains that you can’t see through. I arrived Thursday evening, July 27th, 2017, with drizzle, and it  continued through Saturday morning, amounting to more than a half an inch. I came with Belle the dog and Rex the cat for a writing retreat, to complete crunch-time revisions on my primrose book for Reaktion’s Botanical Series.

 

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White teasels are stately plants.

Technological difficulties soon plagued me. The internet wouldn’t work. A swift intervention by HTC (Highland Telephone Cooperative) gave me a new modem by early afternoon Friday. But then suddenly my cell phone refused to charge.

I do not like my cell phone being dysfunctional even though I cannot use it to call from the hollow, but I can message my children and take photos. I troubleshooted and found a youtube video about charging a cell phone without a charger. I had a cell phone charger, a car charger, and an iPad charger, but each charger kept slipping out. Although the youtube video helped me get the cell phone from 1% to 4% in one minute without a charger, I decided to seek professional help.

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Teasels are “cup” plants, in that the bases of the leaves are perfoliate, encircling  the stem. The “cup”is said to serve a carnivorous function like that of the pitcher plant (insects fall into the water, drown, and their nitrogenous compounds are absorbed by the plant).

 

I hate leaving the hollow once I arrive, but Saturday morning I drove two hours to IphoneRepair in Harrisonburg. The gps took me a new way to Harrisonburg. I turned right off 220 North onto Moyers Gap Road (Route 25) just before Franklin. It went over hill and dale, through twisty valleys and tucked away homesteads, places seldom seen I thought. An indigo bunting flew down to the side of the road on one curve where I had pulled over to investigate a rampant white morning glory that had magenta stripes radiating from the center of the flower. Its coloring was the opposite of flowers of the wild field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis, one of whose common names is “Devil’s guts”). It could have been a garden escape; unfortunately I could not photograph it.

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I thought at first the gps had a sympathetic sense and didn’t want to subject me to steepness and curves, but it did finally send me over Shenandoah Mountain, which was wrapped in heavy fog and drizzle. It was hard to believe I would find an IphoneRepair shop at the end of this mysterious journey. When I neared Sugar Grove, site of a strange NSA compound,  I found flat bottomland where both sides of the road were flanked with white teasel, tall, abundant, and lovely, almost like armed guards. There had been no teasel on the mountain.

Teasel is a valuable alien species whose spiny flower heads have long been used in carding, a term that can be used to mean aligning raw fibers or raising the nap on woolen fabric, a form of carding.   Teasel heads seem to have been used for both purposes from Medieval days to the present. I remember seeing a few years ago an ad showing a Scandanavian carding machine, which consisted of row upon row of teasel heads on a vertical frame. This teasel card is a replica of one used at La Purisima Mission near Lompoc, California founded in 1787. Franciscan missionaries thought the Native Americans, Pueblos, underdressed and set up carding quotas to supply straightened sheep fibers for making woolen cloth. In Scotland up to 3000 teasel heads were used in gigs to raise the nap in velvet. The website Grow Wild: Flowers for the People has a blog by Claire Bennet, Scotland Partnership Manager and owner of Hook and Teasel, about teasel and carding, where if you scroll down, you will find a photograph showing a teasel carder used at the Knockando Wool Mill, in Speyside Scotland.

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Teasel heads dry quickly right on the plant (lavender teasel, D. sylvestris).

In Harrisonburg the nice young man at iPhone Repair identified with some dismay a hefty bug and other debris in my cell phone charger port. (I don’t think it was a bug, but rather a portion of a locust rail with lichen where I rested my cell phone to photograph some land snails.)

When I returned to Highland County, in Virginia, I noticed that there was no white teasel to be seen along the roadsides, only the lavender teasel, Dipsacus sylvestris. There must be a reason for this sudden change in distribution pattern. D. sylvestris is apparently the main species used for carding; the Latin name is a synonym for D. follonum.

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Lavender teasel (Dipsacus sylvestris) near the livestock market between Monterey and Mustoe, Virginia.

Lavender teasel, also a striking, martial-esque plant, well-defended with spiny projections surrounding the flowering head and elsewhere, though not quite as tall or robust as the white teasel, attracts plentiful butterflies, bees, and beetles.

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At least four insects (notice the three beetles on the lower edge) are working this teasel.

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Graceful, scimitar-shaped bracts surround the floral “head” of teasel (D. sylvestris).

Once back in the hollow on Saturday night, I found the sun. Butterflies and goldfinches were still visiting the thistles at 7:00 pm, glad that the prolonged drenching was over. It was blanket weather for sleeping.

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Teasel in Highland County, VA, near the Jackson River and Lamb Hollow Road.

I woke up to a Sunday morning in the 50s, bright sun, and no technological problems. The writerly problems of revision remained, however. Some of these problems can be technically difficult, like styling endnotes!

Outside with Henry: Looking for Pill Bugs

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This spring and early summer I have been looking for pill bugs with Henry, my 20-month old grandson, who lives in Ludlowville near Ithaca. Henry is happiest outside, looking for bugs. “Outside” was his first peremptory command.

This is the way it works with pill bug exploration. We turn over a rock and Henry squats with the intensity of a prospector looking for gold. There are always pill buggies. He carefully picks up one between thumb and forefinger. His parents have encouraged him  to be gentle with everything. He passes it to my palm—saying “pill buggy.” I watch as the pill bug unrolls and starts to roam the palm of my hand, its touch imperceptible. According to Henry’s wish, I then transfer it to an area where it can go home to do “booby.” If it is large, it is a mommy; if it is small, it is a baby. In either case, there is a need for nursing, i.e., doing booby.

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Selfie with pill buggy.

As it turns out Henry is intuitive about the family life of pill bugs. The females are “maternal” and the males “paternal.” The female carries eggs in special fluid-filled pouches. Pill bug families live in burrows, and males and females raise their young together. Cleaning the burrow is a communal activity. In time young adults move out, find mates, and establish their own burrows. Individuals can live for up to five years.

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I remember now that when I was a teaching assistant in General Biology at UT-Austin, pill bugs were used in exercises demonstrating responsiveness to stimuli. The lab technician had a cage of tarantulas next to the pill bug terrarium. He told me that tarantulas were as inoffensive as pill bugs, and tried to persuade me to let one crawl up my arm, but I resisted. Like Henry, I find pill bugs perfect companions.

Pill bugs are blue-blooded, a quality they share with their fellow crustaceans the lobsters. Lacking wax on their exoskeletons like insects, they need at least 50% humidity to survive on land. A list of 10 Fascinating Facts about Pill Bugs reminds one that small, drab-looking bugs should not be underestimated. Although called woodlice and pests, their ability to detoxify soil outweighs a little minor nibbling on plant material. Their capacity for rolling into a ball, termed conglobulation, inspires one of their other common names, roly-polies. Their Latin name, Armadillidium vulgare, references their armadillo-like appearance.

A serious recycler, Henry also has an eagle eye for cigarette butts and bottle caps, which he also routinely hands to me for better disposal than on the Earth. Now on my morning walk around the block with Belle the dog in my neck of the woods, I see pill bugs where I have never noticed them before–and cigarette butts. While they are said to be nocturnal, Henry and I have observed a lot of pill bug activity during daylight hours.

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I love watching Henry pick up pill bugs and witnessing his intuitive understanding that all living creatures belong to one family. I think he’s a naturalist. Soon Henry will be moving from Ludlowville, but fortunately there are pill bugs everywere.

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May 18th: A Celebration of “International Fascination of Plants Day”

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Flowering crabapple trees at Tower Hill Botanic Garden May 6, 2017.

Dipping into Twitter last week to check on the latest natural history news from around the world, I came upon an announcement of “The International Fascination of Plants Day” by the Linnean Society of London. The official date is May 18th, 2017, but events are scheduled throughout the year.

I decided to ask a few people what they would describe as the most fascinating quality of plant life. The first person immediately said photosynthesis, the process by which plants, using the green pigment chlorophyll, make food (carbohydrates) from carbon dioxide, water, and light, during which oxygen is produced. We breathe and eat courtesy of plants. This was a fast start.

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Gunnera leaf taken at Trebah Garden, Cornwall, UK.

The second person praised the way in which trees, shrubs, and understory plants layer their branches and leaves in a forest to catch flecks of sun. The aim to maximize light-capturing efficiency becomes so artful. Human beings receive untold benefits from wandering among the layers of leaves. In Japan it is called shinrin-yoku, forest bathing. Japan has 48 official Forest Therapy trails, and conducts studies to document specific aspects of wellness enhancement during walks. It is thought that even cognition improves after forest-bathing.

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Entrance to forest in Enfield, Ithaca, NY>

A third person thought a bit and then said “spring.” We talked some and came to the conclusion that plants are spring–their capacity for regenerative burgeoning, the leafing out, the opening of buds. This brings us to flowers, an “abominable mystery” to use Darwin’s phrasing. Would we have the word “bloom” without plants? Middle English adapted the word from the Old Norse “blómi” for flowers, which also came to mean prosperity. What would we do without the verb “to bloom” and the noun “blossom,” which when transferred to a person came to mean “a state of great loveliness.”

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A tulip blossom.

 

The fourth person I asked referred me to this clip, BBC Life: Plants. 6 month time lapse in one minute, narrated by David Attenborough. A group of us clustered around the family dinner table watching it on her cell phone in wonder.

I am fascinated that the organizers used the word “fascination” rather than a word like “importance” or “recognition.” It is the right word to describe the botanical bent of my life. It began at a young age when I explored the farm in Virginia where I was born. I am not sure why I bonded with plants. It was instinctive or became instinctive. We had no television, radio, or phone and no neighbors in sight. Perhaps I became biophilic. “Biophilia” is naturalist E. O. Wilson’s term (and title of a book by him), first introduced by psychologist Erich Fromm, for the idea that human beings have an innate tendency to affiliate with other species. He believes that these bonds affect mental development.

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E. O. Wilson’s book published by Harvard University Press in 1984.

Here in Ithaca, NY, on May 18th, organizers (Cornell Botanic Gardens, Cornell School of Integrative Plant Science, and Cornell Department of Natural Resources) are holding an inaugural forum for the new Biophilia:Ithaca Chapter, modeled on one begun in Pittsburgh.  The first featured speaker is local metalsmith artist Durand Van Doren. It will be held 5-7 pm in the BorgWarner Room of Tompkins County Public Library.

The goals of Biophilia:Ithaca can be found on the Cornell Botanic Gardens website. In summary, it is an effort to awaken, acknowledge, and encourage biophilia in people, a suitable tribute for the 2017 International Fascination of Plants Day.

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Emerging leaf and/or flower bud  from an amaryllis bulb.

The Small Stoneflies of Ludlowville Falls

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Ludlowville Falls January 2017 where stonefly nymphs live (Photo credit:  Charlotte Whalen).

We, two grandmothers, two mothers, and two toddlers, were walking in the snowy playground overlooking Ludlowville Falls on Salmon Creek in Lansing, NY last week. The falls had thawed from their frozen state of January (shown above) and spumed forth vigorously. The snow was crusty and the sun bright. As we moved closer to the edge of the overlook, we noticed tiny bugs dispersed evenly over the surface of the snow. It was hard not to step on them. Although minute, their dark grey-brown bodies were starkly visible against the snow.  They moved slightly. We were all intrigued, even the one-and-a-half year olds, and we wondered how they could stay “warm” on the snow.

I thought to myself that they looked familiar.  One of the stranger insects that I studied in Entomology at Cornell was the stonefly, a member of a genus called the Plecoptera. It is one of those aquatic insects, like the mayfly, that devotes its entire terrestrial existence to mating, barely or never eating. The last stonefly that I encountered was a rather large one that crashed a party of ladies drinking wine near a stream.  We decided that it was a “stoned” stonefly. Rarely flying even though they have prominent transparent wings,  they have a still and somber presence. The name derives from the Greek, meaning “braided wings.” They are sometimes called “snowflies.”

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Stonefly near Ludlowville Falls 17 Feb 2017 (Photo credit:  Charlotte Whalen).

I went home and googled “minute stoneflies in winter.” The first entry titled “Winter stoneflies sure are supercool” confirmed identification and answered questions about their lifestyle. Posted February 24, 2011, on the Scientific American website by Guest Blogger Holly Menninger, it describes the author’s visit to Taughannock Falls in Ithaca, NY, just a few miles from Ludlowville Falls, where she also encounters tiny stoneflies on snowy ground. She explains that winter stoneflies combine several strategies for avoiding internal freezing–through the phenomenon of supercooling and production of antifreeze compounds. Very small volumes of water, like a raindrop or cells in a stonefly, will remain liquid well below zero. The addition of antifreeze compounds in intercellular spaces prevents ice crystals forming and breaking into cells. Further, Menninger writes that “by walking about on the tips of their feet, the adult stoneflies avoid the hazards of external ice crystals potentially invading their bodies and inducing inoculative freezing.”

The presence of stoneflies is a good sign. Aquatic insects such as the stonefly have two life stages–the aquatic nymph, which may last for several years, and the terrestrial adult, which is very brief. Nymphs live in streams and require well-oxygenated water. Pollutants are known to deplete oxygen levels. So, the presence of the adults on snow indicates that nymphs prospered in pollution-free conditions. We marvel at the adults out so early in February, but how the nymphs survive in Salmon Creek near the frozen falls is even more astonishing. They find small pools of water insulated by ice. It all seems precarious. Thus, adults have just one goal–to mate. Females of some stonefly species can produce up to 1,000 eggs each. Winter stoneflies belong to the Capniidae family, which includes about 300 species.

I have been wanting to say a few complimentary things about winter. The stoneflies’ hardiness pushed me to take pen in hand. I profit from winter’s quietness, its testing of my own cold hardiness, and its artistry. Obliterating color and brush stroking every form, snowfalls  highlight architectural elements of garden plants and trees. Caps appear on the buds of the star magnolia. I see twigs that I have never noticed before. I see the structure of the long, feathery red spruce branches. Even an old rusty garden urn takes on an enhanced appearance and reveals visitors.

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Notice bird footprints on right corner of uppermost layer of pedestal. Primrose (Primula carniolica) in clay pot has nice snow cover.

Snow is fun.

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Snow offers new possibilities. (Photo credit:  Charlotte Whalen)

And a winter walk in the forest presents a minimalist landscape, a retreat from overstimulation.

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Enfield, New York.

About 10 days ago a huge flock of robins appeared in our neighborhood. They were animated, dashing back and forth from the sycamore to the tulip tree to the walnut to the honey locusts, never settling, chattering like magpies! A cheerful commotion for sure. That night it snowed, about 3-4 inches of light, crystalline flakes. There was artwork everywhere the next day. The robins, who had roosted overnight, seemed undaunted in the morning. Just as much chatter and commotion but they left by mid-afternoon. In Highland County the first snow after robins return is a called a robin snow. The implication of the folklore surrounding the name is that the robins bring the snow. There are several named snows in Appalachia. I experienced a robin snow on the way to Vinegar Hollow once. We had stopped at Seneca Rocks in West Virginia and became engulfed in a snowfall that was full of robins, hundreds of them. It was an exhilarating sight, one that could not be photographed. The grey wings of the robins appeared and disappeared, shuttling through the slanting snowfall at great speed.

Today, February 22, it’s 61 degrees F. Winter is elsewhere, but it will return, and I will keep looking for good signs.

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Rainbow at Ludlowville Falls in autumn 2016. (Photo credit: Matthew Slattery).

Visitors in Vinegar Hollow: Bee and Bear

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Vinegar Hollow on a late July morning.

 

I am back in the hollow and there is ongoing news as usual. For me, it is a self-imposed writer’s retreat with the dog and the cat as I rework a book on primroses and nurse a collapsed ankle. The latter is good for the book and, as it turns out, natural history observations.

Sitting on the terrace with a cup of tea near the end of the first day of my visit, I heard a busy buzzing at my left elbow. My tea cup was to the left on a low stone wall that separates the terrace from an overgrown garden bed. The buzzing came from a straggily maple sapling that loomed over my tea cup. It was a compact bee, with yellow markings, its wings about as wide as the length of its body, not one that I recognized. It had business with the maple sapling. It buzzed away abruptly but in a minute or so was back and I watched as it snipped a piece of leaf from the edge of a maple leaf. Years ago I had seen leaf cutter ants marching across the jungle floor in Panama, snippet of leaf overhead like a sail.

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Leaf cutter bee at work just left of center.

There were five visits that day. The bee fell onto the surface of the leaf on two visits but mostly worked quickly and efficiently. Each snippet had a smooth, tidy edge and was about the size of the bee, though there was variation. The bee would zoom off to the left with the snippet held underneath the body. That night I was looking at natural history sightings on my Twitter feed, and there from @GranthamEcology was the report of a leaf cutter bee in the UK. I had never heard of such a bee, but soon was reading online about the Megachilidae, a group of solitary bees that includes the masons and the leaf cutters. Masons use soil and the leaf cutters use leaves to line their nests. The Megachilidae are said to be “gentle” and “charming,” qualities that I felt instinctively. I was inches away and the bee attended to its purpose calmly and industriously.

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View of maple sapling from above. Leaf cutter work somewhat camouflaged.

I kept a log of the bee visits for several days. On July 28:

5:25 the bee is back, 2 visits with no snip

5:28 the bee is back but buzzes off quickly; thunder

5:29 back but off quickly

5:30 back but off quickly; more thunder.

I couldn’t decide whether the thunder or the shiny lid of my laptop distracted the bee from its leafcutting. In the past tens days I have observed that the bee visits from noon on and the leaves of the maple now look like the crafting of a fanciful cutout artist. One website has posted videos of a leaf cutter bee at work.

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Maple leaves showing leaf cutter activity.

Solitary bees receive more attention these days because they are efficient pollinators. One alfalfa leaf cutter, for example, can do the work of 20 honey bees. With honey bee populations struggling, it’s important to encourage solitary bees by placing a bee hotel or two on one’s property. There are a number of models available. In nature, leaf cutter bees nest in hollow cavities, so placing hollow canes or logs with holes in the garden may attract them. @GranthamEcology says that leaf cutter bees are known to like rose leaves. In rural settings there are many nesting sites, but not so in more suburban, manicured yards. Dr. Bryan Danforth of Cornell University has ongoing research projects devoted to the Megachilidae. One project involved asking sponsors, friends and relatives (like me, a second cousin), if he could place bee hotels for solitary pollinators in their yards and check how readily they attracted residents. At the time I didn’t realize how appealing solitary bees can be.

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Lifecycle of a leaf cutter bee. (Lydekker, R. 1879. The Royal Natural History. Volume 6. Frederick Warne and Co. [from http://www.archive.org]). (Public Domain, wiki).

 

As for the bear, when I first arrived, I found a puddle of butterscotch kittens curled up by the back door of the “new” house, which is where I was going to park. Luckily I hadn’t driven in. There was a gate to open. I called Mike because he feeds the barn cats and knows their ways and I was worried that handling the kittens might cause the mother cat to abandon them. Mike said that mother cat had probably brought them out from a hiding place to get some sun. He picked each kitten up by the nape of the neck and placed him/her in a box I provided. On the way to the barn we skirted a prominent bald-faced hornet’s nest hanging at eye level in a window frame. Mike said that he would spray it the next day. I nodded. The hornets had clearly taken control of the walkway. Having been stung multiple times on the face by bald-faced hornets, and greatly incapacitated, removal seemed a good plan. By the next morning mother cat had removed all the kittens from the box and placed them in hiding again.

A few days later as I set out with Belle the dog for our morning walk, I met Mike getting the cats’ morning ration of dog food from the old house. Half of the hornets’ nest was the ground, its streaked gray and white paper shredded.

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Mike looked surprised.

“Did you do that?”

“Me? No!”

I must have looked even more surprised. Mike started examining details of the “crime scene.” As a former game warden, he is very knowledgeable about wildlife and is an excellent tracker.

“It was a bear,” he said.

“Gee.”

I was taken aback that a bear was prowling around the garden and glad that I hadn’t gone out to look at the stars at midnight.

“The bear was after the grubs in the nest,” he said.

“It seems like dangerous work for a small meal,” I said.

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Bear’s paw print  (with author and her iPhone visible above).

Mike pointed out that most forms of wildlife barely eke out a living.  The garden is on the foraging path of both bears and coyotes. On cold winter mornings he finds the tracks of coyotes leading to the yard. They look for frozen songbirds that fall out of the overgrown boxwoods onto the lawn. I said the bear’s visit made me feel a little uneasy. He said that where he and his wife live down the road on 220, a bear visits the pear tree right next to their bedroom window. The bear grabs entire branches that then rattle against their bedroom window. Exasperated, his wife asked him to get his gun. Mike refused. “No, I’m not going to kill a bear for a pear,” he said.

North on 220 I talked with some friends who also had a recent bear experience. Their neighbor called them one morning to say there was a bear heading their way and to get prepared to shoot it. Jerry grabbed his groundhog-shooting gun and opened his back door. There he found himself face to face with the bear. A very large bear. He looked at his gun and said to himself, “I don’t have enough gun for this bear.” He turned around, went in, and shut the door. The neighbor upon finding out that the bear had not been shot, asked for directions. Jerry’s reply was, “If you want to shoot that bear, you’re going to have to find it yourself.”

Long live bees and bears!

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The way out of the hollow.

It’s hard to leave Vinegar Hollow. There’s so much going on!

 

 

 

 

 

Primrosing at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden

 

It’s primrose time, so last weekend I drove from Ithaca, New York, to Boston, Massachusetts, to attend the annual Primrose Show organized by the New England Chapter of the American Primrose Society.

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Informative poster at the Primrose Show at Tower Hill Botanic Garden.

 

Primrose is of course a noun, the name of a small, compact perennial much beloved of gardeners. But primrose can be used as a verb, to primrose. One can go primrosing, as I did at the show, and one can be primrosed, which can also occur as I came home with four flats of plants.

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First-place winner in the “5-Mixed” category.

The organizers of the show hoped to inspire interest and enthusiasm for all members of the genus Primula, commonly known as primroses or primulas. The events included a display of prize-worthy specimens, a coloring table for children, a sale of plants from plant nurseries as far away as New Brunswick, and lectures by a Scottish nurseryman, Ian Christie of Kirriemuir, south of Aberdeen. Shows direct attention to details of a plant that even gardeners, distracted by the overall scene of their garden, might never notice. I remember as a young horticulture student attending my first Royal Horticultural Society Vegetable Show. I came to a standstill, shocked before a display of carrots draped over black velvet. My attention was riveted. I remember the carrots.

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Polyanthus (primrose) showing lovely floral palette.

The primroses at this show were demure by contrast, simply presented in clay or plastic pots on tables without velvet. One young couple with a child in a stroller paused before the first-place winner in the auricula category. After looking very closely, he said to his wife, “I get it. It’s all about the flowers.”

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An auricula (primrose) flower.

He did get it. Auricula flowers are some of the most unusual in the plant kingdom. Then there was a woman who rested her flat of purchased plants on the table with posters explaining the different kinds of primroses. She looked at the posters and looked at her plants. Then she asked her friend, “Did I buy any primroses?” Her friend said, “No, you didn’t.” “Really, no primroses?” The friend said very definitively, “You didn’t buy any primroses.” The woman sighed and said, “Oh well, next year.” Choosing among an array of beautiful spring flowers for sale can be bewildering despite informative posters.

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The common primrose (Primula vulgaris) probably colored by a member of the New England Chapter of the American Primrose Society.

To attract the youngest and most impressionable members of the public, primrose society members set up a coloring table with crayons and colored pencils and drawings of different kinds of primroses. The young colorers received a free polyanthus, a kind of hybrid primrose. The plants given away had nodding flowers in shades of yellow and orange and red. I watched as a child protectively clutched her polyanthus primrose as her mother pushed the stroller away from the coloring table. Later I met them outside in the garden and the little girl was still holding the pot.

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Formal planting at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden with woodland walk at the far right.

Outside I found that Tower Hill Botanic Garden had a woodland walk designed to engage their youngest visitors. There were pictures of illustrations from a classic children’s book published in 1906, When the Root Children Wake Up. In the story the Earth Mother comes to wake the root children, who will animate the Spring. She gives the little root girls pieces of colored fabric to make dresses to match the spring flowers they will carry to the Earth’s surface, while the little root boys are sent off to wake up the ladybugs and beetles and bumble-bees and other insects.

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Illustration from When the Root Children Wake Up. It’s time for Spring.

It was written and illustrated by Sibylle von Olfers (1881-1916) who was born into a large family that lived in a castle near Konigsburg. She wrote and illustrated her fanciful children’s books for a younger sister. After becoming a nun in 1906, she worked as an art teacher. Ten years later she died of lung disease.

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The boys dust off the bugs.

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The girls carry up the flowers. Primrose follows Daisy at the right.

The botanic garden decorated the woodland walk with small houses of the sort that little fairies and gnomes might like. One young couple without children paused in front of one of these charming structures. The man who was wearing a black leather jacket pulled out a camera and took a photo, saying to his girlfriend, “This is adorable.” We all appreciate visions of other realms.

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Dwelling for woodland  fairies.

Among the primroses that I brought home was Primula carniolica, commonly known as the Slovenian primrose. Having lost a seedling of this last year in my unruly garden, I was anxious to try again. This specimen is robust, so I will not lose it. The Slovenian primrose is endemic, meaning native, to a very small area in the Slovenian Alps. Found in grassland, woodland, and high cliffs, it prefers a limestone substrate, summer moisture, and shade. When you grow a plant from a faraway place, you feel connected to its exotic geography and try very hard to mimic its desired conditions. It is considered scarce—in the wild and in cultivation, all the more reason to strive to do one’s horticultural best.

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Robust leaves of Slovenian primrose.

 

My seedling had not flowered so I was not prepared for the beauty of the small blue flower. The “body” of the plant is sturdy rather than graceful. The leaves are smooth and hooded, arranged in an off-center rosette.  Elevated on slender stalks well above the stout plant, the flowers create a very different effect. They have an exquisite necklace of farina (a powder) circling the base of the petals and the cream-colored throat glistens, pearl-like. Many of the alpine primroses have a dusting or even a heavy coat of farina, which is thought to protect against cold and intense irradiation. The observer of primroses finds extraordinary details.

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Close-up view of the flower of the Slovenian primrose. It looks pinkish here, but bluish “in person.”

Primroses have a long history of medicinal use. Two common species, the English primrose (Primula vulgaris) and the cowslip (Primula veris), have sedative/narcotic constituents in the flowers, leaves, and roots. The Benedictine mystic Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) wrote in her Physica that the primrose was a powerful cure for melancholia:

A person whose head is so oppressed by bad humors that he has lost his senses should shave his hair and place primrose on top of his head. He should bind it on and should do the same thing to his chest. If he leaves these bindings on for three days, he will return to his senses.

Fortunately, most people, rather than wearing primroses on their heads, just have to look at them to receive some benefit. However, the greatest reward is found in growing primrose plants, as this Primrose Show at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden hoped to demonstrate.