Category Archives: Botany

In Search of New England’s Sequoia

By Sam Talbott

Photo page 2I inherited many things from my dad: blue eyes, an affinity for two-cylinder engines, and a passion for woodworking. A set of long-handled carving tools made the journey north from Massachusetts to Vermont with me. I left behind a stout wood lathe, a former resident of the local vocational high school. Between its dark-green metal housing and the exposed 2×4’s of the garage is a well-kept pile of saw dust and wood chips.

If you were to plunge a soil auger into this pile, you’d see a resemblance to “varves” left behind by freezing and thawing cycles of glacial Lake Vermont. Large wood chips give way to fine sawdust—evidence of increasing from 60 to 400 grit sandpaper. The red layers are not redoximorphic reactions, but rather the presence of redwood, Honduran rosewood, and other species not found in the typical New England northern hardwood forests.

Photo page 1The redwood (suspected to be Sequoia sempervirens) made a clandestine trip eastward after being salvaged in the early 1980’s. Large blocks of this wood have been situated around my mom’s house, purporting an insipid appearance. It wasn’t until recently that I discovered the splendid inner grain hidden behind a weathered exterior. Using one of my dad’s bowls as a template, I attempted to turn a nine inch diameter round.

A common theme lurks among my personal ventures: I have no idea what I’m doing. Sometimes the engine starts first kick, other times it takes me 4 hours to realize the fuel switch is off. With woodworking, it is all up to the potential hidden behind layers of bark and cambium. The finished products of Redwood (and similar species) speak for themselves, regardless of form or function. Whittling down a block into two chopsticks would furnish a pair of beautifully extravagant eating utensils.

I speak highly of foreign timber, however Vermont’s forests contain an arguably greater potential than the aforementioned exotics. The gnarliest of trees can have the greatest capacity for charming grain. Burls, or stress-induced growths on trees, are a perfect example of this conjecture. Although challenging and dangerous to turn, the results are worth it. Another woodworking project is borne out of reaction wood—the formation of a hardened elbow along the bole of a tree in response to natural disturbance. These make perfect walking sticks or wooden canes with limited input from the craftsman/woman.

There are approximately 4.46 million acres of forest in Vermont, each one hiding infinite potential for bowls, spoons, and cutting boards. I urge you to go out and salvage from fallen logs and limbs, only a sharp knife and 100 grit sandpaper is required.

Photo page 3

Zombie Aspen Leaves

populusleaves-550x410By Bryan Pfeiffer

Rotting and fallen to earth, they might appear dead. But they are not quite dead. They are the undead: zombie aspen leaves.

Find them as you walk the brown autumn paths – yellow leaves with a patch of green tissue radiating from the base of the midrib. Here in Vermont, these are mostly quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides), but I also find the green on big-toothed aspen (P. grandidentata) and, rarely, eastern cottonwood (P. deltoides).

When a friend and I first encountered these some years ago, I collected a few and queried a handful of smart botanists for answers. Many had theories; none had an explanation. It wasn’t until I put a leaf under a dissecting microscope that I found the explanation to be less zombie than something from the film “Alien.” The beast lies within.

populus-caterpillar-moth-550Residing in a tiny pocket of tissue near the base of the green patch is a translucent caterpillar not much more than 2 millimeters in length. It’s feeding in there; I could see the frass (caterpillar poop). With help from Dave Wagner, the renowned entomologist at the University of Connecticut, our critter turns out to be a moth in the family Nepticulidae, probably Ectoedemia argyropeza or most certainly a member of that genus.

“The really cool thing is that the larva secretes an anti-senescent substance that keeps part of the leaf alive – probably a cytokinin,” Dave wrote in an email. Cytokinins are plant hormones that promote cell division. In this case, it seems, the caterpillar keeps part of a leaf alive so that it can keep eating.

This moth is also parthenogenetic; females can produce fertile eggs without help from males, which, as it turns out, are quite rare.

For now, however, the caterpillar will continue to dine in the verdant patch of an otherwise dead leaf. It will pupate for winter. And the tiny adult will emerge to fly in spring. Many species in this genus are black and white with orange scales around the head. But don’t expect to find one. Your best bet for discovering this animal is to watch the trail for patterns in poplar leaves this fall.

And if you’re raking them up, please note that some of those leaves, well, they could be saying, “I’m not dead.”

The Paradox of Sugaring

By Laura Yayac

saptap (1)It flavors creemees, cotton candy, and liqueurs. It’s poured over pancakes and snow, and is used in countless recipes. And right now, the raw sap is running from trees into buckets and webs of tubing then onto sugarhouses, where it’s boiled into maple syrup in all its amber glory.

Sap runs when the nights are cold and the days warm, but something about this does not make sense.

Before I get to that, though, a bit of history. European settlers learned about maple sugaring from native tribes, who in turn have a variety of legends as to how they discovered that maple sap could be boiled into a liquid sugar. Written accounts of maple tapping date from the 1550s, and it isn’t just people who love maple syrup. One of the explanations for human discovery of syrup is watching red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus). These critters have been documented using their teeth to cut into sugar maples, then returning over the next few days, after much of the water has evaporated, to lick the sweet blobs that are left behind. Continue reading

Winter Blooms

By Matt Pierle

DSCN8329

Cabin fever have you ready to see flowers again? If so, you’ve got options: Brazil and Bali are nice this time of year. Or seek out plants at a world-class botanical conservatory in, say, Montreal, London or San Francisco.

If you’re short on time or prefer shoestring travel though, you could do what I did over spring (technically late winter) break and book a $26 ticket on the Megabus from Burlington to Boston. From South Station Boston walk north to Chinatown, through Boston Common, past the frozen Frog Pond, to the Longfellow Bridge, over the Charles River to Cambridge and kick it up Broadway to Harvard Street. Continue north all the way to the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

In bloom you’ll find the extensive Ware Collection of Glass Models of Plants created by Czech born Leopold Blaschka and his son Rudolf. Most people simply call the collection “The Glass Flowers.” You read that right. This collection is not of flowers under glass, it is of flowers made of glass.

These life-size and larger-than-life specimens are more than impressionistic representations of garden blossoms; they are über-accurate botanical sculptures of a diversity of wild and cultivated plants. The pieces will challenge your powers to believe that something so realistic could be made from inert, colored sand. Continue reading

Beyond a Collection of Facts

By Clare Crosby

mtnlaurel

I spent my childhood hosting acorn cap tea parties for fairies, scurrying on calloused feet to collect eggs from the chicken coop, and reenacting Little House on The Prairie in the meadow behind my house, just east of Austin, TX. I did not suffer from “Nature Deficit Disorder.”

But as I grew, my interests shifted. I traded the meadow for well-manicured athletic fields and our old pond for swimming pools. My interest in my Central Texas natural surroundings paused around 8 years old. I never figured out what species of oak provided teacups for my parties, only that the caps were nicely proportioned for fairies. Neither did I learn what type of moss my fairies used for seat cushions, only that it opened into minute stars under sprinkled water.

I’m embarrassed now, as a naturalist, to admit that I don’t know even some of the most common species of my home state. This lack of knowledge, however, offers opportunity when I return to Texas from Vermont, the home of my formal ecological education. As I walk old trails and come across a familiar (yet unknown) tree, my inclination is to turn to field guides or a trusted expert to tell me what to call it, who eats it, and what it might reveal about the soil beneath it. In Vermont, I have had a string of wonderful professors and peers to teach me about the natural world, assisted, of course, by an ever-growing library of field guides. I hope to be so lucky again in Texas. Continue reading

Roasting (and Restoring) Chestnuts

By Kat Deely

320px-American_Chestnut“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.
Jack Frost nipping at your nose….” 

These words invoke every shiver of childhood anticipation for Christmas morning. Family time, feasting time, vacation time, and of course, presents time. I’ve been hearing these words sung every holiday season since before I can remember, and they have magically dropped me into a snow-globe world. So, it is with a bit of humility that I must admit something. I’ve never roasted chestnuts on an open fire. I’ve never roasted chestnuts on anything. I’ve never eaten a chestnut! And I bet I’m not alone. So how is it, this iconic Christmas classic’s first line is complete balderdash to the holiday seasons we know today? Continue reading

A Prayer for Monarchs

milkweed-600

By Rob Rich

The flaring wings or the breezy wisps of aspen and birch are few today. Gone are the flights of spring, but at Mobbs Farm in Jericho autumn is in flight. Apples and acorns plunk down with minimal elegance, but the swirling leaves trade the birds for brightness in the distant wood. And across the rusty meadow, others waft down lightly before winter. This is a day for milkweed, hinting at flurries to come.

They glide with a powdery lift by a pappus – the Greek for “old man” – providing cottony parachutes for each kernel. Soft, green pods once held them moist and tight, but now they are freed as they crack in the crisp, dry wind. The pods tear apart, opening for each white pappus to glisten like eyes in the gaze of the sun. They lift with a grace that seems to laugh at gravity. But failing to plant in the sky, they finally fall. I wantonly tear at some unopened pods, eager to help the silky strands find a resting place on earth.

Continue reading

Apples Right Side Up

By Kelly Finan

In the fading light of mid-October I’m suffering from apple exhaustion.

Apples floated before my eyes as the first fallen leaves dusted my route from Vermont to Pennsylvania. I raided my father’s apple tree with such tenacity that he demanded I wear a helmet, then I attacked the neighbor’s trees. I made applesauce until I ran out of mouths to feed and canning jars to fill. Bursting with pride (and applesauce), I shuttled the remaining fruit back to Burlington, where it became the star of a dessert for the season’s first potluck.

Upon arriving at the event, I unveiled my creation and placed it among the other dishes. It accompanied…

…three apple pies. And nothing else.

The potluck’s four guests ate only apple desserts. In true Burlington spirit, someone arrived with a quinoa dish, but the damage was done. I was sick of apples.

But like a true naturalist, when I’m sad, I look to botany for comfort. I harkened back to a time when fruit was a buffet of discovery, not a monoculture of boredom. And I remembered this:

An apple, right-side-up

From a botanist’s perspective, I had been looking at the apple upside-down. Continue reading

Projectile Cucumbers

By Laura Yayac

wild-cucumberThe orbs dangle, pale green with darker stripes, like adorable baby watermelons on a vine of curls. Each one rests under its own leaf awning. Get closer, though, and you’ll see that this is no ordinary miniature fruit. Covered in spikes and ready to impale, it is at once magical and ominous. And that’s not the last of its tricks.

My encounter with the wild cucumber (Echinocystis lobata), a cousin of the ordinary garden variety, released my inner nature nerd. Are the wild cucumber fruits edible? If many plants rely on animals to eat their fruit and disperse the seeds, why the thorns on this fruit? How else would the seeds spread? I watched the crazy fruit over several weeks as it opened and split at the bottom – what triggered that process?

The answers were fittingly stellar for such a spectacular fruit. Continue reading

Hobblebush on Fire

Viburnum alnifolium

 

By Bryan Pfeiffer

An entire season of fall foliage flares from a single plant. Find your fireworks on Hobblebush (Viburnum alnifolium). This understory gem may be the perfect shrub. It adds food and habitat diversity – for nesting birds and other wildlife – beneath forest canopy. And its blooms play a crafty game of deception each spring. Continue reading