A Halloween Plant

I smell the spicy fragrance of your pale yellow, spidery flowers just as leaves change color and fall to the ground in late October. On some bare twigs where flowers ought to be are weird spiky sputniks. These light green protuberances are shelters for the spiny witch hazel bud gall aphids, Hamamelistes spinosus, whose name is as bewildering as a spell might be. These are formed as your bud tissue is enticed to envelope a feeding, sucking aphid as she nestles on your branches in springtime. The resultant gall is food and shelter for her and her brood throughout the summer. 

Ants climb all over your galls looking for honeydew, which is exuded by the developing aphids. An age-old trick if ever there was one! Ants will milk for a sugary treat and defend an expanding colony of aphids in return. Eventually, the spiny galls turn brown and crack open to release mature aphids, which fly off to form further galls, as warty bumps on the leaves of a birch tree.

Mystery abounds over which insect is the likely to pollinate your strange strap-like flowers so late in the season. Happenstance is that owlet moths visit you under the cover of dusk. They arise from their daytime refuge in fallen leaves to feed, keeping themselves warm in the cold evening air by rapidly shivering and thus distributing pollen. 

Your fruit is a hard gray capsule, from which you exercise your potency by forcibly expelling shiny black seeds to a distance of 20 to 40 feet.

For centuries you have been known for your medicinal powers. Potions made from your bark and leaves are used as a mild antiseptic, astringents and toners for the skin. 

Your common name is derived from the Middle English word “wiche”, meaning pliable. Your bendable stems are still used to this day as water divining or dowsing tools to find underground sources of water. Another name for this ancient practice is water witching.

You are witch hazel. 

Hamamelis virginiana.

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A Season for Living in the Present

It’s hard not to live in springtime’s present. Anticipation has me observant of the greening; to see if maple twigs have swelled for a blush of red against the sky; to hear the increased urgency in birdsong.

 

On warmer days I cannot stop myself from heading outside with a fine-tined rake to gently brush away the thick layer of leaf litter from garden beds. There are signs of life amongst the brown and the dead.  A greyed stem of Joe Pye weed, perforated with small round holes is evidence of life in winter’s debris. A bird must have probed this stalk with its beak for overwintering insects.

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The discovery of pink shoots of Solomon’s seal, tender green leaves emerging around dried plant stalks, the buzz of ground-nesting bees. All heighten my awareness that spring is well on its way.  Growth is fast this time of year. Nubs of cinnamon fern by the pond have shot up in the past few days. Now they are erect, fuzzy stems bearing fiddleheads that demurely touch each other as they wait to unfurl.  Moss has greened rocks around the pond all winter. But now the green hue deepens and the moss softens, covered with a fine fuzz of sporophytes. Pairs of the first leaves of jewelweed seedlings have appeared at the water’s edge.

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Early spring has signs that are eagerly awaited and thus easy to follow. Later in the year we tend to take it all for granted, making it hard to embrace the minutiae of nature. But I strive to find joy from quiet observation in the present, whatever the season, in my garden designed for wildlife habitat.

At Peace With Squirrels

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Today is National Squirrel Appreciation Day, a day to dispel the bad rap so often given to these ubiquitous critters. I have come to terms with the resident eastern grey squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) in my garden by installing a cone of black metal that baffles them from eating all the seed from the winter bird feeder. Now, instead of cursing them, I enjoy watching their antics as they dash up and down tree trunks, use twiggy branches as springboards up in the bare canopy and, as indeed they do, try to get around the baffle. When they sit still, for perhaps a moment, I see how endearing they can be. Front paws curled under as if in a muff, tail ornately curled, and a twinkle in a mischievous eye.

The squirrels I get to see up close seem relatively healthy. They are not suffering from a lack of black sunflower seed in their diet. They must be relying on caches of acorns and nuts gleaned in warmer months. A keen sense of smell and a good spatial memory aid them in the recovery of hundreds of caches. They employ an anti-theft device against onlookers and clever blue jays by digging fake holes and reburying vulnerable food. Uncovered caches, twenty per cent or so, contribute to new oak forests. Another favorite food of squirrels grows in my tangled wood, namely, black walnut. Squirrels are well equipped with four sharp incisors to break through the bright green outer husk of the fruit. That gnawing sound often accompanies me as I garden on a warm fall day.

As well as planting forests these busy, scurrying animals provide other benefits for our environment. All of their digging and burying aerates the soil. Squirrels build a lot of nests using leaf litter and twigs sturdy enough to withstand winter storms. In severe cold spells they nest together in tree cavities. Birds and other animals often use any of these nests that go unclaimed. Squirrels are omnivorous and will eat tree-infesting beetles as well as lawn grubs. In turn, squirrels are an important food source for birds of prey.

So as an arctic blast of air sends wind chills plummeting, I am hoping that habitat in my garden provides a warm place for squirrels to hunker down and their stores of food will last until warmer days when I’ll hear their little barks and see the flick of that incomparable fluffy tail.

For the Birds

This past fall I enjoyed the migrant birds in my garden. I watched sparrows (white-throated and song) return along with yellow-rumped warblers. Flocks of golden-crowned kinglets perched on branches and flower stalks to glean tiny insects. They seemed fearless and allowed me to get quite close to them. One day I was thrilled to observe a group of northern parulas bathing in the pond. Amongst them was a further surprise - a lone Canada warbler identified by a dark grey necklace on its bright yellow breast.

However, I was alerted to a hazard for these birds when I kept on hearing the sound of dull thuds against my picture windows, from which I have a beautiful view of surrounding trees. Reflections of this canopy in the glass were proving to be deadly. So I used some specially designed bird tape from the American Bird Conservancy to prevent further collisions. Now my windows have arrays of 3” squares of opaque tape. There is still a view from within, the birds can sense there is no way through and this arrangement is proving to be quite decorative. The squares sometimes shimmer with shadows and light.

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The meadow looks wonderfully disheveled and fertile with seed. Moleskin pods of butterfly weed have wrinkled and split to release their contents. Dark brown seeds attached to a downy parachute spill out and accumulate around the pods until a breeze teases them away. Common milkweed released its seeds in August and American goldfinches line their nests with those silky tufts. Next spring orioles can use the strong, flexible fibers in milkweed plant stems to weave their hanging sock-like nests.

Little bluestem has many fall hues and it catches the sunlight in its fluffy seeds. It will turn all gold and provides winter interest and food and shelter for the birds. Along with other native meadow grasses it is the larval host for skipper butterflies, which overwinter as a chrysalis in nearby leaf litter. Golden pompoms of Maryland golden aster, towering spires of Joe Pye weed and New York ironweed, and thistle heads of rudbekia and purple coneflower provide copious amounts of seed for chickadees, cardinals, titmice and juncos. And I love to watch the little hop-skip-jumps of the white-throated sparrows as they scratch at the ground to find fallen seed. Needless to say, I do not cut back the meadow until late winter. Leaf litter is allowed to remain wherever it falls off the garden path because it is a valuable resource. It is a layer where butterflies lay their eggs, where spiders haunt and where many other invertebrates live or seek shelter. Food for many an avian visitor can be found here in winter and in the spring to come.

Winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata) has large clusters of shiny red berries. They may persist well into winter and cheer the snowy landscape while providing sustenance for the northern mocking bird, the American robin and the brown thrasher. The flowering dogwood tree (Cornus florida) also produces brilliant red berries, which will feed the northern flicker, the yellow-bellied sapsucker and the eastern towhee. Red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) produces tiny little red apples. This is a very tart fruit, which will persist on the shrub before becoming palatable enough for a late winter feast.

Snow will eventually cover the bounty of this late season. But I stock up the feeders and melt ice on the pond. Dried stalks in the meadow, evergreens and thickets of shrubbery provide shelter. All will be ready against the ravages of winter when I can still enjoy watching birds in the garden.