Wednesday, September 30, 2009

World-Record Kite Event

"The New England Children’s Foundation (NE Children’s Foundation), bringing the technology community together to raise funds for grassroots charities benefiting the children of New England, today announced an officially-sanctioned attempt at breaking the Guinness world record for most kites flown simultaneously. The goal of the fundraising event is to simultaneously fly 1,000 kites, to break the current Guinness World Record of 967, established in Germany during August 2008.The family-friendly event will be held on October 11, 2009 and hosted by Patriot Place."

Upcoming Lecture on Invasive Plants

"October 28, 2009, 7:30 p.m. Botanist Ted Elliman will discuss invasive plants at the Fiske Library. The lecture, entitled The Invasion Has Begun! Invasive Plants Must Be Stopped!, will discuss the impact invasive plants have on natural vegetation, animals, and what can be done to stop them. The event is sponsored by the Wrentham Open Spaces Committee."

Falconry Demonstration in Wrentham

"October 3, 2009, 10:00 a.m. A falconry demonstration will be given my wildlife expert Marla Isaac on the softball fields at the Wrentham Developmental Center. Isaac will bring hamks [I'm sure they meant to type "hawks"], vultures, and owls to her presentation. Please, no dogs. The event is sponsored by the Wrentham Open Spaces Committee. "

As Chris said when I brought this to his attention: OMG OMG OMG OMG!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Dacey Community Fields

When I first drove into the Dacey Community Field park in Franklin, I was struck by the utter boringness of it. Baseball fields, soccer fields with emrald-green, weed-free grass; playground equipment that was large but bland. Even the dedication sign looks like a tombstone. I hope this family wasn't memorialized because they all perished in a tragic accident. . . but I think that's what this means. How awful.

I was most interested in the edges of the park, and what was growing there. On my first trip I couldn't see past the buckthorn and other invasives. That quick trip left a bad taste in my mouth. But I figured it was worth a second look. There are some natural features about that break up the manicured grass monoculture blandness.

Every child needs a rock to climb on.

Behind the playground there are a few paths leading out into wild areas. Having Gabe with me in a stroller, I didn't get to explore down them, but this one in particular looks promising. Notice the purple flowers on the lower left.

That's New England Aster, Symphyotrichum novae-angliae, a fantastic purple purple purple native. This is the first time I have seen it growing abundantly in the wild. I will have to return for seeds.

Pokeweed, Phytolacca americana, looking gloriously pink.

The ubiquitous and lovely goldenrod.

More asters of some sort, in a wonderful dense drift.

There were many happy bees lolling about in this plant.

Hey, I recognize this fly. It's the first one I've seen that hasn't been nauseatingly glued to a leaf by fungus.

I'm glad to see that this part has some redeeming qualities, because it's only a couple of miles from home.

Open Space

The next stop on my tour of Franklin parks was this little spot, which I have been meaning to visit for a year now.

I don't yet know the history of Mr. DelCarte's Open Space, but it includes a lovely pond.

Please excuse my awful photos. I wrangled a stroller (baby included) down a muddy, rooty, steep path to get this far. Plus, it was raining.

I didn't want to put Gabe through the torture of bumping along the path that turned to follow the banks of the pond, so I didn't see much aside from the soggy Autumn view. However, one plant did catch my eye:

I'm pretty sure it's an American chestnut, Castanea dentata. That dark mass at the bottom of the second photo is a stump. Between fifty and a hundred years ago, this tree was reduced to a stump by the chestnut blight. It still lives, but like almost all of that last generation of American chestnuts, it will never produce offspring.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Some Nearby Finds at Franklin State Forest

I have made it my goal to find and visit every park in my area. To start, I pulled up my town on Google Maps, and looked for areas marked in green. And guess what? My town has a State Forest!

I didn't get very far before I spotted this amazing pink cluster. This appears to be pinesap, Monotropa hypopitys, a member of the Indian pipe family. It looks just like Indian pipe, in fact, except that each stem has multiple flowers, and the plant is bright pink.

This plant is native to most of the continent, but is rather rare, as well as being difficult to find, because for most of the year it lives entirely below ground. Like Indian pipe, it gets its energy from a parasitic relationship with a fungus.

I'm still rather a poor photographer, even with a tripod. So, this is a blurry example of the plant when it first emerges from the leaf duff.

My god they're beautiful.

Other plants I spotted beneath the forest canopy included Indian pipe, sassafras, sasparilla, striped wintergreen, poison ivy, club moss, and this:

This time, I know for sure I've found Indian cucumber root, Medeola virginiana!

As I learned from my previous incorrect identification, there is a similar plant called starflower that looks like the lower tier of this plant. However, there is no mistaking the top trio of leaves with those googly-eye berries.

The root of this native plant is edible, but small, and harvesting it of course kills the whole plant. I saw perhaps fifty of them growing along one short section of trail, and I could easily imagine that patch eradicated by one person harvesting enough roots for one meal. This plant is quite rare now, from what I understand.

This googly-eyed mutant had a small fourth leaf on its upper tier.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Goldenrod Season

Autumn officially started this past week, but chilly nights and the turning of the leaves began weeks ago, and the goldenrod has been in full force. Some of it is starting to go to seed already, but from my seat at the computer I can still see bright spots of the yellow flowers out back.

Above is a shot of some of the goldenrod, genus Solidago, that grows at the edge of our rear lawn. I don't know what type of goldenrod it is. There are perhaps a hundred varieties of goldenrod, and I hear that they are difficult to tell apart. All goldenrod is native to North America.

Goldenrod is incorrectly blamed for causing allergies. The real culprit for pollen allergies is ragweed. Goldenrod blooms in vast sweeps of big showy yellow flowers, while ragweed flowers are so uninteresting that they are invisible by comparison. Ragweed is wind-pollinated, but you would have to stick your nose in a clump of goldenrod in order to inhale the heavy pollen.

Below are photos of goldenrod pollinators that Chris took at Idylbrook Field on the same chilly August morning when we got photos of the monarch caterpillars.

The cold weather has slowed down the insects, making them much easier to photograph. Here is some sort of a bee, and a mosquito.

The poor bees were waiting for the sun to warm them up that day. Fortunately for them, we have had several hot days since.

I did a Google search on "goldenrod bug" to identify this beauty, and taa-daa! It came right to the top. This is Megacyllene robiniae, otherwise known as a locust borer. In their pupa form, they eat their way into black locust trees, causing considerable damage to the tree. But, like the black locust, these insects are North American natives.

In their adult form, the locust borer uses goldenrod as its food source. They are easy to spot as well as being fairly common, but at a glance, they do look like big scary wasps. I'm sure that's exactly what the yellow-and-black coloration is for.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

An Unexpected Community Event

Chris’s enthusiasm for the garden never entirely recovered from the tomato blight. The long row of carrots and the sweet potato patch were, I think, looking like more work to him than fun. It didn’t help that the last batch of carrots was a bit bland, and the individual carrots were small and a pain to clean.

But we have made a habit of inviting the neighborhood kids over to help themselves to raspberries. They know that we are eager to show off whatever is growing. (Here, try a green bean! Take a squash home with you! Do you know what ground cherry looks like?) A taste-tour of our garden has become a regular destination for some of them. Chris and I have shown them what a turnip looks like when yanked from the ground, what asparagus looks like when it grows up, and what watermelon looks like when it is only the size of a golf ball.

Today, we invited them over to help dig our root crops.

I volunteered once at the Food Project during the sweet potato harvest, and plucking the giant tubers from the ground was so much more fun than I had expected it would be. I thought the neighborhood kids would at the very least find such an experience to be novel and educational. After all, just a week previously, when I had pointed out the leafy sweet potato patch, one of the pre-teen girls had asked where the sweet potatoes were. I had to suppress a grin when I said “under the ground”. She smacked her head in a silly-me-I-knew-that gesture, but the fact remains that she, like myself and so many others in this culture, had never seen a sweet potato – or a beet or a squash or a green bean - as a whole plant.

One of the funnier people-disconnected-with-crops moments I had was a few years back, when the topic of pineapples came up when talking to a friend who, like me, had spent part of her youth in Hawaii. She had a memory of pulling a pineapple out of the ground, and so assumed that they were root vegetables. I think what she pulled from the ground was a pineapple top that someone was attempting to root.

I find it quirky that although canned, and even whole pineapple are readily available across the continental US, that even in Hawaii it isn’t common knowledge how a pineapple grows.

The kids today were so curious about our root vegetables that they arrived at a run, and I can’t adequately convey the enthusiasm they generated as they dragged their fingers through the soil for those sweet potatoes. Every pitiful, under-developed root was like a buried treasure. Clumps of carrots pulled up by the handful made them giddy. The sheer weight of the carrot-filled basket had them in awe.

Chris later pointed out that he would have been disappointed in the underwhelming sweet potato harvest had the kids not made the event such a delight. It would have taken him five times as long, and he would have come in the house afterward dusty and weary. Instead, when he waved goodbye to the gang, he was giddy. We sent our helpers home with sweet potatoes that don’t compare to the scale of the ones in stores, and carrots that we suspect may be (like the previous harvest) a little lacking in taste. But, I suspect, the kids will be far more excited to eat these vegetables than the perfect ones that arrive miraculous and dirt-free from the store. Perhaps we have inspired one or two of them to cook. Or maybe, we hope, some day one or more of them will start their own garden.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Native Berries

I grew up indoctrinated with the notion that all berries not sold at the grocery store must be poisonous. This, I'm sure, is something that I was taught as a very young child to prevent me from sampling unknown plants. There are enough poisonous plants around that uneducated sampling could kill you.

This, for example, is Ilex Verticillata, Winterberry holly. Most members of the holly family have poisonous berries. It is unclear whether these berries are poisonous, or just inedible to humans. The wildlife loves them, however.

If you are close enough to get a good look at these berries, you're already too close.

This is Toxicodendron vernix, otherwise known as poison sumac. The birds will enjoy these berries late in the winter, when other food sources have been depleted.

These are the berries of jack-in-the-pulpit, Arisaema triphyllum. I have read that when chewed, a chemical they contain will cause your mouth to immediately feel like it is full of needles. These are poisonous to humans and livestock.

Much to my surprise, Plants for a Future lists the bulb of this plant as being edible, when it is prepared properly by being thoroughly dried.

These are the flowers and unripe berries of pokeweed, Phytolacca americana, a perennial herb, and it is a classic example of a common, poisonous berry that you want to keep out of the hands of toddlers. The entire plant is poisonous. But like jack-in-the-pulpit, parts of the plant are edible if prepared properly.

Plants that are safe to eat only after some specific preparation tend to have interesting stories behind them. Pokeweed greens, for instance, were commonly eaten by the poor in the Southern United States because it is one of the first edibles to grow early in the Spring. After a winter of eating nothing but beans, cornbread, and bacon, I would eat this plant with enthusiasm, too.

Pokeweed was actually sold canned up until about a decade ago. The last company to carry it discontinued the product not because there weren't people eating it, but because they were having trouble finding workers willing to harvest it. Aparently they were hiring people to collect this plant from the wild, rather than cultivating the stuff.

To my great surprise, Plants for a Future lists these berries as being edible both raw and cooked. These are Cornus amomum, silky dogwood. I haven't tasted them yet.

[Update: they taste awful. But perhaps they weren't yet ripe.]

This dragonfly was clinging to the dogwood berries, too cold to fly away from my nosy camera.

Lastly, this is Vaccinium corymbosum, northern highbrush blueberry. They grow in our wetland but have only produced a few berries this summer. On Frye Island, Maine, we ate our way along the road from similar blueberry bushes.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Milkweed Insects

Me: "Hey Chris, there's a neat bug over on the milkweed. Would you grab the macro and snap a picture?"

Chris: "Another one?"

What can I say? Milkweeds are full of interesting insects. I guess I keep noticing them because I have been checking our milkweed volunteers daily for monarch caterpillars.

These were the some of the first to catch my eye:

Euchates egle, the milkweed tussock moth, or harlequin caterpillar. These are a North American native. It turns out that monarchs don't care for tough, old milkweed, but these furry fellows love it.

They are a lively bunch, chewing and chewing; and when they see you coming, they go sprinting for cover.

These caterpillars usually aren't solo, and can be quite efficient at defoliating entire milkweed plants. But it's worth losing the plant, because these bugs are so much fun to watch in action.

The first time I saw one of the next critter, it was eating a hole in the one and only milkweed blossom in the yard. When I tried to photograph it, he dove into the flower in terror.

It's a red milkweed beetle, Tetraopes tetraophthalmus. On this occasion, we spied them on milkweeds over at Idylbrook Field. It was a chilly morning, so this and other bugs were too sluggish to escape our nosy camera.

Idylbrook Field is absolutely covered with milkweeds, including many tender young plants, the perfect food for tender young monarchs.

Aren't they cute? They look like Miyazaki characters.

The big ones are so plump and colorful!

Now if you don't care for swarms, you may want to skip the next several photos.

The orange bumps above are aphids. Specifically, Aphis nerii, oleander aphids. They likely originate in the Mediterranean, but (to my rather uneducated perspective) seem to be fitting in nicely into the local food chain. Supposedly they don't do much harm directly to milkweed, unless their population explodes, in which case their decomposing poop can block the leaves from getting ample sunlight.

Aphid poop, called honeydew, is mostly sugar. Ants love it, so they often swarm about overtop of the aphids, eating the honeydew and protecting the aphids.

This is a population of aphids that has exploded. The poor plant is rather encrusted with moldy honeydew.

Aphid swarms are all clones of the original female. The aphids continually give live birth to more clones until the host plant is too damaged, at which point the aphids produce clones with wings. Above, you can see one of the aphids has just given birth to a clone.

Wasps of some sortwere regular visitors to the swarmed plants. I believe they were eating the honeydew from the leaves.

This, I suspect, is some sort of assassin bug, of the family Reduviidae. It was likely there to dine on aphids.

I have no idea what this critter was, but the way it was crouched near the aphids makes me suspect it was there to make a lunch of them.

Here is the same bug, with a clueless aphid climbing over it's back.

Now enough with the nasty swarms! Here is something more attractive:

This is a yellow-collared scape moth, or Cisseps fulvicollis. It actually doesn't have anything to do with milkweed, even though it happens to be sitting on one.

I stumbled over two of them a few inches from each other on a milkweed (and who I feel guilty for interrupting); and nearby, another pair on some other sort of plant.

Woo, bug porn!