The Not So Lonesome Pine

As the fall foliage nears its peak of color here in southern New England, I can’t help but notice changes in those “evergreens.” Many trees we call evergreen are not. They actually lose some of their leaves in the fall, or replace them gradually over time. The Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus) is one of these. Its leaves, or needles, usually last about three years and two winters before they turn yellow and fall off. The older leaves are usually closer to the trunk, and newer, younger growth is found on the outer twigs.

Those yellow leaves on White Pines does not mean the tree is sick. The trees lose some of their leaves every fall. Photo by the author.

White Pine can be told apart from other native pines by its five leaves per fascicle, or bundle. An easy way to remember this is “five needles per bundle, five letters in the word white.” The flexible, silky needles are usually about 5 inches (13 centimeters) long. From a distance they look full, soft, and “fluffy.” White Pine branches form whorls that arise from the same point, and each whorl represents one year’s growth. So, you can roughly tell the age of the tree by counting the number of whorls.

White Pine is one of the few trees that you can roughly age by counting the whorls of branches. Each whorl represents one year of growth. Photo by the author.
An easy way to identify White Pine from other native pines is that there are five needles per fascicle or bundle. Photo by the author, hand by Willow Ann Sirch.

White Pine is monecious, with male and female flowers on the same tree. Fertilized female flowers become long, easily identifiable cones up to 8 inches (20.32 centimeters) long that hang downward from the tips of branches.

Here are immature and mature white pine cones. Photo by Famartin, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

The Haudenosaunee confederacy of northeastern North America chose the White Pine as its “Tree of Peace.” The five leaves symbolize the joining of the five founding nations—Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca—that made up what the English called the Five Nations Confederacy and the French termed the Iroquois League. The Haudenosaunee confederacy was founded by the Great Peacemaker sometime between 1450 and 1660. Legend has it that its leaders met under a large White Pine.

Early New England colonists encountered very large White Pines. Often these stands of straight, old growth trees towered around 150 feet (45 meters) or more and were over 200 years old. In the 1980s a tree growing near Syracuse, New York, was determined to be 458 years old.

Some old growth forests before European settlement contained giant White Pines standing over 150 feet (45 meters). Photo by Nicholas A. Tonelli from Northeast Pennsylvania, USA, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

These large trees were perfect for building ships. Their tall, straight trunks were made into masts for the British Royal Navy. The light, strong wood was used for frames and planking. In 1772, Great Britain’s King George III decreed that all trees over 12 inches (30.5 centimeters) in diameter were reserved for his use only. British surveyors marked these trees with the King’s Broad Arrow. Fights broke out between the colonists and surveyors, and the Pine Tree Riot of 1772 was a precursor to the War of Independence. Some colonists flew a flag with a White Pine on it.

King George III’s Broad Arrow mark on White Pines reserved the trees for British ship building. Photo by Bill Cullina.

A photographic reproduction of the painting “The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775” by John Trumbull, 1786, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Notice the flag in the upper left corner which has a White Pine on it.

I love the sound of the wind blowing through a grove of White Pines. Many describe this as a lonesome sound, often expressed in folk songs as “the cold, lonesome pines” or “the trail of the lonesome pine.” But pines are far from lonesome. They are full of life. According to entomologist Doug Tallamy, White Pine is a larval food plant for more than 230 species of butterflies and moths. Lots of caterpillars mean lots of food for birds like the Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus).

The Eastern Panthea Moth (Panthea furcilla) is one of over 200 species of butterflies and moths who use White Pine as a larval food plant. Photo (c) Troy Bartlett.

The Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis), Pine Warbler (Setophaga pinus), Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina), Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula), and crossbills (Loxia spp.) all feed on White Pine seeds. This seed is also a food source for the Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus), Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), Northern and Southern Flying Squirrels (Glaucomys sabrinus and G. volans), White-footed Mouse (Peromyscus leucopus), and Southern Red-backed Vole (Myodes gapperi).

White Pine’s thick branches provide important winter cover for a variety of birds and mammals. Larger branches are nesting sites for Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus), Cooper’s Hawk (A. cooperi), Northern Goshawk (A. gentilis), Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus), and the Common Raven (Corvus corax). Pileated Woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus) often excavate their large rectangular nesting cavities in White Pines and search for carpenter ants (Camponotus spp.), their favorite food, within the trunks.

In the landscape, White Pine is best planted away from the house, as limbs weighed down by snow and ice can break rather easily. Although a large tree, it can be planted as a hedge if pruned regularly to control growth. With its wildlife-attracting abilities, lovely form, and year-round greenery, White Pine makes a wonderful specimen tree. One that is not lonesome at all.

The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful

Sirch Beyond Your Back Door Blog     10/7/21

Poison Ivy: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful

Neotropical birds are migrating south now. Recently, a cold front brought winds from the north. On one evening BirdCast predicted that 300 million birds would fill the night sky.

What do these birds eat to fuel their journey? Many insect-eating birds add fruit to their diet when insect populations decline in the fall. Native herbaceous plants, shrubs, trees, and vines have evolved to be fruiting just at the right time. The birds eat, eliminate, and spread the seeds to new locations with a bit of fertilizer added for good measure!

One such plant is Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans). Despite its effects on us, Poison Ivy is actually a great native plant for wildlife. A woody, deciduous vine, its white berries are ripe right when its leaves turn a brilliant scarlet. Some botanists think the beautiful fall color is a signal to birds, called foliar fruit flagging. I have seen tourism ads, encouraging leaf peepers to travel to New England, that feature Poison Ivy in their colorful photography.

Poison Ivy’s colorful fall foliage varies from yellow to bright scarlet. Photo by Famartin, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Other than being food for some neotropical migrants, Poison Ivy berries are relished by more than 60 species of birds that overwinter here or that are permanent residents, including the Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos), Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus), Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor), Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus), Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula), Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata), White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis), Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus), Red-bellied Woodpecker, (Melanerpes carolinus), and Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens). Some mammals also eat these berries, including White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus), the White-footed Mouse (Peromyscus leucopus), Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus), and Black Bear (Ursus americanus).

The berries of Poison Ivy are relished by over 60 species of birds. Photo by Sam Fraser-Smith from Brisbane, Australia, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Poison Ivy is adaptable to sun or part-shade and prefers a woodland edge. It can grow as a sprawling ground cover, a thick brown wooly vine with aerial rootlets up a tree, and even as an upright shrub, particularly along the coast. You have probably heard the warning rhymes “leaves of three, let them be,” “berries white, take flight,” and “hairy vine, no friend of mine.” The plant has compound leaves (those three leaves are actually leaflets). Its leaves can be shiny or dull, and either toothed at the edges or smooth-edged. One field mark is that the middle leaflet has a longer petiole (the leaf stalk that attaches to the stem) than the other two leaves.

A species similar to Poison Ivy found growing in Connecticut is Western Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron rydbergii). It grows in forests and as a small shrub on cliffs, ledges, and rocky slopes. It can be distinguished from Poison Ivy by its smooth, white berries, unlike Poison Ivy’s slightly hairy, white ones. Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) is a tall, upright shrub with compound leaves and upright panicles of white berries. It is found ringing the edges of freshwater swamps and bogs.

Western Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron rydbergii) is usually found as an upright shrub growing on cliffs and ledges. Photo by Dave Powell, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org (cropped by the uploader), CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

The explorer Captain John Smith provided the first written account of Poison Ivy in 1624, writing that “the poisoned weed is much in shape like our English Ivy, but being touched, causeth rednesse, iching, and lastly blisters.” Urushiol (pronounced “yoo-ROO-she-ol”) is the allergen in Poison Ivy that causes contact dermatitis (the rash). It is named for Urushi, the highly prized Japanese lacquerware that has been made from the related Japanese Lacquer Tree (Toxicodendron vernicifluum) for centuries. All members of the genus Toxicodendron are in the mango, or cashew, family, the Anacardiaceae. Some people who are allergic to Poison Ivy also have a reaction to eating mangos and cashews.

Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix), with its compound leaves, resembles many other sumacs, but its white berries will help identify it. It prefers to grow in wetlands as well. Photo by Freekee, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Urushiol is an oily substance found on all parts of the plant at all times of the year. You can get oil on you from touching a brown mature vine in the middle of the winter or even dead leaves in your compost pile. The oil can be transferred to your body and face from clothing, pets, and tools, or from direct contact with the plant. The colorless, odorless chemical is quite stable and can be viable for years. Increased carbon dioxide levels as a result of climate change are causing an increase in Poison Ivy’s growth rate as well as more potent urushiol.

More than 70% of people are allergic to urushiol. It can penetrate the skin within 10 minutes of contact, so it’s best to scrub right away with cold water and dishwashing liquid or rubbing alcohol. You also can use special soaps and treatments from your pharmacy that are recommended. The rash can appear in as little as four hours or as long as two weeks after exposure. Never burn Poison Ivy, because the oil can become airborne, get into the lungs, and cause a serious reaction.

You can control Poison Ivy in your yard by repeatedly mowing over the leaves, which will keep the plant from growing new leaves and so sap the roots of stored carbohydrates. Another method is to cut the leaves and then cover the area with wet cardboard, followed by 12 inches (30.5 centimeters) of wood chips.

Despite our efforts to control it, Poison Ivy plants often seem to grow rampantly around the edges of our landscapes. Perhaps the food it offers wildlife can be seen as one thing in its favor.

You Won’t Sneeze with These

It’s the beginning of autumn, and the fields and forest edges are now draped in a golden cloak. The goldenrods (Solidago spp. and Euthamia spp.) are coming into their peak of flowering just as Monarch (Danaus plexippus) butterflies need them to fuel their 3,000-mile (more than 4,800 kilometers) journey to winter in the mountains of Mexico.

Goldenrods are pollinator powerhouses, and an important food for migrating Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus). Photo by U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Northeast Region, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

There are 26 species of goldenrods in Connecticut. Although the British have many American goldenrods in their gardens for decades, here in the states we have only recently realized how important these native plants for are pollinators in our gardens. Other than cultivars, there are now even a few species that can be found for sale in most nurseries.

According to Jarrod Fowler of the Xerces Society and Sam Droege of the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, more than 10 species of native, pollen-specialist bees depend on goldenrods for food and to raise young. A big reason beekeepers can continue to gather honey in the fall is because honeybees really love the nectar and pollen late season goldenrod blooms provide.

Goldenrods are members of the aster family (Asteraceae), one of the largest plant families in the world. Their small, yellow flowers usually grow in a group, called an inflorescence.

Goldenrods are highly adaptable and are found from bogs to sandy seashores. Are you looking for a plant that will grow in dry shade? There’s a goldenrod for that. Try Wreath or Blue-stemmed Goldenrod (Solidago caesia). It doesn’t always show blue stems, but its bright, yellow blooms are right along the arching stem, looking like a wreath. I found it growing wild in my yard, propagated it from seed, and placed it in other areas. It’s one of my favorites.

. Wreath Goldenrod (Solidago caesia) has flowers all along it stems. It can grow in dry shade! Photo by Eric Hunt, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Zigzag Goldenrod (Solidago flexicaulis) is another species that will grow in shade, although it likes slightly more moist conditions. It gets its name from the way the stem zigs and zags between each set of leaves.

Zig Zag Goldenrod (Solidago flexicualis) is named for the stems which “zig” and “zag.” Notice its broad, toothed leaves too. Photo by R. A. Nonenmacher, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Seaside Goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens), which grows along the shore, is sometimes offered for sale. It is a tough plant for sandy soils and is tolerant of salt spray.

Seaside Goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens) found growing in sand dunes at Barnegat Light in New Jersey. Photo by Famartin, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Like the scent of licorice? Smell the leaves of Licorice-scented Goldenrod (Solidago odora). It likes sunny sites.

Goldenrods get bad press for being thuggish and spreading through rhizomes. All the above species, however, are clump-forming and usually won’t spread throughout garden beds. They can increase through seed. That’s not a bad thing. When you plant for pollinators, plant in large, three-foot (one square meter) squares, because bees and butterflies home in on color.

Downy Goldenrod (Solidago puberula) is found in sandy barrens in New England. In this photo, it was found growing in the thin soil at the side of an old road in West Rock Ridge State Park in Hamden, Connecticut. Photo by the author.

Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) is an exception. It spreads by underground runners and may not be appropriate for your site. It is the species that you see in fields and meadows. And a native plant that can compete and hold its own against invasive Mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris) is not a bad thing either!

Fields of goldenrod usually include Canada Goldenrod (Solidago candensis), which is introduced and invasive in Europe. Photo by Leonora (Ellie) Enking from East Preston, United Kingdom, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Other than being powerhouse pollinator plants, goldenrods are important ecologically in many other ways. Caterpillars that feed on them are in turn eaten by birds. The American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis), among many other birds, feeds on the seeds. The White-footed Mouse (Peromyscus leucopus) and Meadow Vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus) also feed on the seeds. They then are food for the Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis).

The biggest bad rap I still hear today is that goldenrods cause allergies. Not true! Goldenrod depends on bees and other pollinators to spread its heavy and sticky pollen. The allergy culprit is Common Ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia), which is in flower at the same time. Its tiny, airborne pollen is spread by the wind.

There’s no excuse not to get on the pollinator pathway bandwagon and enhance your garden or local preserve with goldenrods. The bees will thank you.

A Murder Hornet It Isn’t

I recently heard from an agitated homeowner who thought she had seen a “murder hornet” in her yard. Are these insects in Connecticut? She hadn’t and they’re not. Before you reach for a can of insecticide, know that what she saw was an Eastern Cicada Killer (Sphecius speciosus), a type of digger wasp. Although it too has a scary name, this wasp is actually a “gentle giant” and a native Connecticut insect.

This female Eastern Cicada Killer has just stung and paralyzed its prey. She will bring the cicada to her underground nest and lay an egg inside it to provide food for her young. Photo by Judy Gallagher, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Asian Giant Hornet (Vespa mandarinia), the world’s largest wasp, is native to northern India and eastern Asia. It was discovered on Vancouver Island, Canada, in late 2019, and in Washington State shortly after that, where this year a second nest was recently eradicated. It has been nicknamed the “murder hornet” because it enters hives and decapitates the worker bees. Murder hornets pose a serious threat to the Honey Bee (Apis mellifera). These hornets can destroy a hive in just a few hours.


An Asian Giant Hornet (Vespa mandarinia japonica) queen. Notice her bright orange head and alternating bands of orange and black on her abdomen. Queens can grow to be over 2 inches (5 centimeters) long. Photo by Yasunori Koide, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The United States Department of Agriculture, in cooperation with the Washington State Department of Agriculture, developed an ingenious way to find murder hornet nests. By trapping and hooking up a hornet with a transmitter, the scientists are led to its nest.

Comparison between the Asian Giant Hornet and Cicada Killer. Graphic by Katherine Dugas, Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station.

The Eastern Cicada Killer uses cicadas as food for its young. After mating, a female digs a tunnel in a loose, sandy patch of soil. Digging begins at the end of July in Connecticut and ends in mid-September. She flies into a tree, finds a cicada, and stings to paralyze it. It’s quite a chore for her to then take the cicada to her burrow, because her prey weighs almost twice as much as she does. She’ll climb up a tree to get some height and fly with the cicada as far as she can, often repeating this to reach her tunnel. There she will lay an egg inside it, and the cicada will become food for her offspring when it hatches. Research has shown that a paralyzed cicada actually lives longer than an unstung one!

A female Cicada Killer wasp hauling two paralyzed cicadas up a tree to get some height in order to fly to her nest. She will use two cicadas for the female egg instead of the male egg’s one cicada, as the female grows to be larger and needs more food. Photo by Larcolt, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Unlike murder hornets, which like Eastern Yellow Jackets (Vespula maculifrons) are social, colonial insects whose workers can sting repeatedly when their colony is threatened, Cicada Killers are solitary nesting wasps that don’t want to sting unless handled or stepped on. Even though solitary, these wasps will sometimes dig holes near one another in loose, dry soil they like. I once found five active tunnels in the sandy soil on the Yale Peabody Museum’s Horse Island in Branford, Connecticut. I was able to walk next to them with the insects flying around me. I wasn’t stung.

Japanese forest researcher Shunichi Makino described being stung by a murder hornet as “being stabbed by a red, hot needle.” For physiological ecologist Joe Coelho of Quincy University the sting of a Cicada Killer is “very mild, like a mere pinprick, and hurts less than the sting of a small sweat bee.”

Eastern Cicada Killer wasps are a part of our local ecosystem and help control cicada populations. Just let them be.

A Tornado of Birds

Along the Connecticut coast, birds are now gathering in large flocks as they get ready to fly to southern climes. Among them is the Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor). By September, flocks of Tree Swallows will build into the thousands, called staging, before flying south.

A male Tree Swallow during migration. Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

This is a special event in nature’s seasonal calendar. At dusk along the lower Connecticut River in New England, Tree Swallows gather into large flocks, often flying in from upriver. I was privileged to witness this firsthand. Birds flew all around me and I watched them skim across the water to bathe and drink. As many as one million birds may funnel down like a tornado to settle for the night among Phragmites grasses on one of the islands in the river, in what legendary artist and ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson called “one of the great ornithological wonders of the world.” At a certain point at twilight you will see and hear thousands of birds spinning and swirling downward and, a few minutes later, all are quiet and still for the night. Local tour boats schedule their cruises to coincide with this amazing event (search “Connecticut River swallow cruise” in your browser).

Tree Swallows are found in open and partially open habitats, meadows, grasslands, and brushy areas, particularly near water. They favor areas that provide lots of flying insects and hunt for them over both water and fields. Swallows have also been known to grab insects off the water’s surface.

As secondary cavity nesters, Tree Swallows often use holes in standing dead trees that were previously excavated by other birds, like woodpeckers. People who have helped bluebird populations by putting up nest boxes and discouraging the aggressive, introduced House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) from using them have also helped the Tree Swallow, which nests in boxes with the same size hole and in the same habitat.

A Tree Swallow chick waiting for the next food delivery in a nest box at Sherwood Island State Park in Westport, Connecticut. Photo by Rhododendrites, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

The female Tree Swallow will lay four to seven eggs in the nest cavity and incubate them for about 14 days. Both parents feed nestlings and the young leave the nest about 20 days after hatching. Their diet is mostly insects, including flies, beetles, winged ants, and mosquitoes. But during the colder months, when it is in its wintering range, a Tree Swallow will often switch up to 20% of its diet to fruits such as Southern Bayberry (Morella cerifera), as does the Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) and Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus). A diverse, omnivorous diet allows these birds to stay longer on their breeding grounds, migrate shorter distances, and return to their nests earlier in the season, thereby decreasing competition for nesting sites.

Northern Bayberry (Morella caroliniensis) is found along sandy coastlines in the Northeast. Its gray fruit, called a drupe, is an important food for fall migrants. The fragrant fruit has also been used in candle making. Photo by Famartin, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Tree Swallow is a very vocal species and often “chatters” away with bubbly gurgles, whining sounds, and chips. Both males and females sing both in flight and from perches.

Although overall Tree Swallow populations seem to currently be stable, as insectivores they are vulnerable to the continued use of pesticides. Also, in the last hundred years many dead trees in yards and woodlots have been cut. Try to phase out your pesticide use and consider leaving snags, standing dead tree trunks, in your yard. When I need to take down a tree, I just have the tree service leave about 20 feet (about 6 meters) of the trunk.

You can also add an Eastern Bluebird (Sialis sialis) nest box to your yard, thereby attracting Tree Swallows. Don’t forget to add native, berry-producing shrubs such as Bayberry to your yard. With your help, we’ll be able to see these whirling bird tornados for years to come.

Poking Up Here and There

Growing in the wilder, unkempt edges of my yard are large bush-like plants with giant, red-stemmed stalks and bright green leaves. This is Pokeberry or Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana). Several have reached 8 feet (almost 2.5 meters) in height. Their greenish white flowers are now becoming reddish purple berries. Pokeberry is native to eastern North America with scattered populations in the West. It is usually found in fields, on roadsides, and along forest edges, not to mention backyards, and grows from 4 to 10 feet (about 1 to 3 meters) high.

Pokeberry is easily identified by its bright red stems and flower stalks, as well as deep purple berries. Photo by Chris Light, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

“Poke” is from puccoon, pocan, or poughkone, the Algonquin name for this native, perennial plant. The scientific name for the genus, Phytolacca, is from the Greek phytus, meaning “plant,” and lacca, meaning “crimson lake,” a reference to its deep reddish purple fruits. Both its stems and fruiting stalks are bright scarlet as well.

Pokeberries have been used to make ink and Inkberry is another of the plant’s common names. During the Civil War, when writing materials were in short supply, soldiers were known to write home using a Pokeberry dye and quills made from wild turkey feathers.

The stem, roots, leaves, and fruits of Pokeberry are poisonous to humans, dogs, and livestock. Among other toxic chemicals, Pokeberry contains phyolaccine, which causes severe gastrointestinal symptoms or worse. Eating large amounts of the plant can cause convulsions, respiratory failure, and even death. This plant should not be grown where young children might eat the berries.

Yet, there are folk recipes from Appalachia and the rural American South that use the new leaves from this toxic plant, after boiling in many changes of water. There are even poke salad, or “poke sallet,” festivals celebrating this tradition, although none now feature eating poke greens. One is the Poke Sallet Festival in Harlan, Kentucky. There is also a 1969 pop music hit, written and performed by Tony Joe White, called “Poke Salad Annie.” Eating Pokeberry leaves is not recommended though!

Each Pokeberry fruit has about 10 seeds. Several years ago, before I was making my own compost, I bought a bag of compost. Up sprouted Pokeberry seedlings! I wondered whether the compost hadn’t been heated (now required by law) or just that the seeds survived the heat treatment! Pokeberry seeds have an extremely hard coat and can last for 40 years in the soil’s seed bank. I am still seeing seedlings pop up from that commercial compost, but I think it is where I disturbed the soil.

As it matures, Pokeberry develops a large white taproot. Unwanted seedlings, which have a small taproot, can easily be pulled up. You might need to dig out the roots of a larger plant. Why would you let this plant, which most of us think of as a weed, grow in your yard? Pokeberry really is attractive and, unlike here in the United States, in Britain many gardeners are including it in their landscapes as an architectural statement.

A Giant Leopard Moth larva or caterpillar feeds on Pokeberry leaves. After resting as a pupa or cocoon, it will eclose or hatch into this beautifully patterned adult. Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

In these days of habitat and species loss, as well as climate change, we not only need to think about how a plant looks in our yards, but also what service it provides to the ecosystem. Pokeberry is one of the larval food plants for the Giant Leopard Moth (Hypercompe scribonia).  Although Pokeberry is toxic to mammals, it is not poisonous for birds and is in fact relished by them. It is an especially important food for fall migrants. Because of this plant, you might even get bird species you don’t normally see in your yard. Pokeberry is a superfood for the Gray Catbird, Northern Mockingbird, Brown Thrasher, Cedar Waxwing, Red-belled Woodpecker, various thrushes, and many more.

Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) are just one of the many bird species which feed on pokeberries. These birds have been know to pass food to one another so that all will get an equal share. Photo by Alan Rice, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

So, if it is safe for your family, let a few plants poke up here and there and keep some in your yard for birds. It is a plant you don’t have to go out and buy. You probably already have it in your soil’s seed bank!

There’s a Fungus among Us

A few weeks ago, we got 4 inches (10 centimeters) of rain followed by temperatures in the mid-90s (around 35 °C). Perfect conditions for the growth of fungi. In a nearby school ball field next to a woodland, I spotted a small Giant Puffball (Calvatia gigantea) among many other kinds of mushrooms.

A Giant Puffball from Darien, Connecticut. In comparison to a human head, you can see how large Giant Puffballs can get. And, they can get much larger! Photo by Nowa, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Puffballs get their name from the habit of the mature fruiting body, the mushroom, to release clouds of brown spores when it is struck or bursts. There are several genera, including Calvatia, Calbovista, and Lycoperdon, that are known as puffballs, all in the division Basidiomycota. They are all grouped polyphyleticly, meaning that they share similar physical characteristics rather than a common ancestor.

Unlike most mushrooms, puffballs don’t have an outer cap of spore-producing gills. Instead, its spores are inside a round fruiting body called a gasterothecium (gasteroid means “stomach-like”).

The Giant Puffball is a saprotroph that feeds on non-living organic matter. It is more often found in meadows, grasslands, and forest openings, rather than in deep woods. It is seen throughout the eastern United States and Canada as well as throughout temperate Europe.

The species name gigantea is an apt description. Giant Puffballs have been known to grow to 59 inches (150 centimeters) or more in diameter! Typically, they can be from 4 to 27 inches (10 to 70 centimeters). Immature specimens are bright white. When seen from a distance they have been mistaken for soccer balls, and even sheep!

A mature Giant Puffball can contain trillions of spores—a 24-inch (61-centimeter) specimen can have 7 trillion! Why evolve to have so many spores? That amount ensures that at least a few germinate and grow to maturity. Imagine if each spore reproduced successfully. If one spore produced 12-inch (30-centimeter) offspring that all reached maturity, the resulting puffballs lined up would reach much more than the distance from the earth to the sun and back! Fortunately, that is impossible.

As a Giant Puffball matures, it develops cracks to release all those spores. Photo by Doug Bowman from DeKalb IL, USA, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

As it matures, a Giant Puffball develops cracks through which spores are released by the wind or by being stepped on by an animal. Other types of puffballs develop a hole at the top. The wind will suck out the spores like smoke from a chimney or spores can be forced out when the puffball is hit by raindrops.

Many species of puffballs develop a hole at the top for spores to be released. Photo by Kalyanvarma, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Puffball spores have been used medicinally. The Lakota peoples of western North America have used the clean, dry spores to pack wounds. The spores act like a coagulant to slow or stop bleeding and prevent infection. In the 1960s, researchers isolated clavacin from the Giant Puffball, one of the first substances developed from a mushroom to have anti-tumor properties.

The next time you see a sheep on the hillside, better look twice.

A Woody, Wee One

If you find yourself walking through open hemlock or pine woods, there is a good chance that you will come upon a small, woody, evergreen vine with shiny, bright green leaves—Partridge Berry (Mitchella repens). It has almost finished blooming now. But it is still possible to find both last year’s persistent bright red fruits and this year’s white flowers at the same time.

Partidge Berry in flower and fruit. Notice the two “dimples” where both ovaries fused to form one fruit. Photo by
Fritzflohrreynolds, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

The 18th-century botanist Carl Linnaeus first described Partridge Berry, one of many North American species he named. Its species name, repens, means “creeping,” an apt description. This is a non-climbing vine no more than 2.5 inches (6 centimeters) tall and 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 centimeters) long. Partridge Berry is in the Rubiaceae family, which includes coffee, bedstraw, and madder.

The small, trumpet-shaped, pubescent, bright white flowers of the Partridge Berry are most fascinating. They are always produced in pairs, with both flowers arising from one calyx. On each fragrant flower there are four white petals, one pistil, and four stamens. The flower arrangement, however, is different on each plant. One plant can have flowers with a short pistil and long stamens, called the thrum form. Another plant can have a long pistil and short stamens, called a pin form. This prevents self-fertilization and encourages cross-pollination. These plants are often pollinated by bumblebees. When both flowers are fertilized the ovaries fuse to form a bright red, oblong fruit. You can see two dimples on the fruit where the ovaries are fused.

The fruits are eaten by partridges (better known as Ruffed Grouse [Bonasa umbellus]), wild turkeys, mice, foxes, and skunks. I find it interesting that this plant is named for a bird now uncommon in Connecticut. This is partly due to changes in our forests. Although our state is 60% forested, these lands are largely made up of mature trees. Ruffed Grouse likes secondary successional habitats—diverse environments with shrubby areas, trees of different ages, and forest openings.

The shiny, green leaves of Partidge Berry are opposite on the stem. Each leaf is about 1/2 inch (1.75 centimeters) long. Notice the white vein through the center of each leaf. The leaves in this photo are very shiny because I think it is raining! Photo by David J. Stang, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Partridge Berry makes a great, evergreen groundcover under trees in your garden. Of course, never collect plants from the wild. It is best to get them from a local native plant nursery or from friends. It is relatively easy plant to propagate from one-year-old cuttings or by division. Then, come winter, go and check out the enticing flash of green and red on gray, cold days.


There’s a Buzz in the Air

There was lots of press coverage recently about Brood X, the 17-year periodical cicada emerging by the millions from the ground in 15 states, including Maryland, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Georgia, and elsewhere. The males of these harmless insects can make a whole lot of noise when they call together to attract females. Their “wee-oh” calls remind me of a sci-fi movie scene when aliens are attacking!

The Decim Periodical Cicada (Magicicada septendecim) is characterized by reddish eyes and wing veins, a black. thorax and broad orange stripes on its abdomen. Photo by U.S. Department of Agriculture.

There are three species of periodical cicadas. In Connecticut we have the largest, which is the Decim Periodical Cicada or Linnaeus’s 17-Year Cicada (Magicicada septendecim). This brood, Brood II, last hatched in 2013 and won’t be hatching here again until 2030.

This map shows the various periodical cicada broods. Notice Brood X in yellow, which recently emerged, and Brood II in red, which won’t be emerging until the year 2030. Image by the U.S. Forest Service.

A periodical cicada spends either 13 or 17 years below the ground as a nymph sucking on juices from the roots of trees. Trees usually are not harmed by this feeding. When it is their time, the insects emerge en masse. Some scientists theorize that they do this to overwhelm predators such as amphibians, birds, and raccoons. Cicadas provide a good amount of high protein food, but with so many emerging at once many escape being eaten to carry on the species.

Cicadas emerge when the ground temperature reaches 64 °F (18 °C) at a depth of 8 inches (20 centimeters). The nymphs emerge from the soil and crawl up a tree or shrub. Then their nymphal “skin” cracks down the middle and the adult emerges.

Some call these insects 17-year locusts, which is a misnomer. Locusts are a type of short-horned grasshopper from the order Orthoptera. Cicadas are members of the order Hemiptera, the true bugs. They are closely related to leaf hoppers and plant hoppers.

Males attract females with their calls, which they make by contracting muscles in their abdomens. These muscles cause a tymbal membrane to buckle and make a clicking sound 300 to 400 times a second and as loud as up to 100 decibels!

After the winged adults mate, the female deposits 300 to 400 eggs in a slit she cuts in the bark of a twig or branch. A large swarm can damage a small tree by this egg laying and by the adults feeding on sap, but larger trees are not harmed. After the eggs hatch, the larvae drop from the tree and burrow into the ground. The adults die four to six weeks after mating.

A periodical cicada brood’s simultaneous hatches, with the males’ loud calls, are an amazing event in nature. But what most of us hear every summer are the annual cicadas. Like the periodical cicadas, the annual cicadas have nymphal stages that spend multiple years underground, although some species hatch every year.

The Dog Day Cicada (Neotibicen canicularis) is mostly black with green or greenish markings on the head and thorax and a black area on the central part of the abdomen beneath. Photo by Nadiatalent, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

There are about seven common species of annual cicadas in Connecticut. Last week I heard the Dog-day Cicada (Neotibicen canicularis). I’ve often heard this species in pine and mixed conifer woods. It sounds like someone sharpening a tool on a grinding wheel. The most common species found in the eastern United States, and the one most of us hear, is the Morning or Swamp Cicada (Neotibicen tibecen). It’s hissing “shish” call rises and falls in intensity.

The Morning or Swamp Cicada (Neotibicen tibicen) is our most common species in Connecticut. Photo by xpda, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Any species that spends multiple years underground and out of sight can, through time, be threatened by development. Many local broods have become extinct, such as some of Brood X on Long Island, when their resting places are paved over and built on. Thanks to the foresight of the late Yale entomologist Charles Remington, a section of land near Sleeping Giant State Park in Hamden, Connecticut, has been preserved as a cicada sanctuary. I look forward to 2030 when this amazing natural event returns to our area.

They Walk on Water

It hasn’t rained that much this month. Streams are very low, and fish and tadpoles are concentrated into smaller, deeper water, leaving a bonanza of potential food for Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias) that are hunting. On a walk recently along a quieter, calmer streamside area, movement caught my eye. Lots of water striders were practically bumping into one other as they skimmed across the water’s surface. I made a video of their activity.

Common Water Striders (Aquarius remigis) stay buoyant through tiny hairs on their legs and “feet” that capture bubbles of air and are water-repellent. Photo by Mike Boone https://bugguide.net/node/view/23580.

These water striders have been here since the beginning of April, when I was rather surprised to see them out so early. Because they overwinter as adults, those had probably just emerged from dormancy and had spent the winter in nearby leaf litter. Many of the water striders that emerge now are wingless and so unable to fly. But those that hatch in late summer and fall have wings and can fly back to their overwintering sites.

Water striders show polymorphism, meaning “many forms.” If their pond or stream begins to dry up for the current, wingless generation, the next generation will have wings, enabling them to colonize new, more suitable habitat.

The insects I saw are probably the Common Water Strider (Aquarius remigis), a species found throughout North America. The scientific name translates very aptly as “water rower.” It is a member of the family Gerridae, one of over 1,700 species worldwide, and in the order Hemiptera, the true bugs.

Water striders are known for their ability to walk on water, hence the nickname “Jesus bug.” They do that by using the high surface tension of water combined with long, hydrophobic legs to distribute their weight. Their legs and “feet” are hydrophobic because they are loaded with tiny, water-repellent hairs. These hairs also capture tiny bubbles of air which help them float. There are also fringed hairs along their middle legs that thrust the water strider forward. The back legs help to steer and brake. This buoyancy allows them to skim across the water’s surface at relatively fast speeds for their size.

You can see in this photo of another water strider (Gerris spp.) how its long legs help to distribute its weight, making it easier to be buoyant. Photo by
TimVickers, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

A water strider is a highly efficient predator. Its front legs can sense vibrations that prey make in the water, such as the “snorkel” of a mosquito larva poking through the surface to breathe. It will then grab the prey with its front legs. Like all members of the Hemiptera, water striders have piercing, sucking mouthparts. Digestive enzymes break down prey into a liquid and the water strider then sucks up the juices. This efficient insect predator does its part in the balance of nature. And for some of us, anything that eats mosquito larvae can’t be all bad.