Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Acer sacharum, Rest in Peace

Did the one-mile walk with dogs yesterday for the first time in a few days, and looked in on on my plant acquaintances.  

The red maple down the block and round the corner has now shed most of her children, though--since she lives in a narrow strip of turf between street and sidewalk--nearly all will inevitably come to a bad end.  Even so, I expect she will probably get a few surviving offspring over her lifetime--and that's enough (on average) to keep the red maple population stable. 

The red oak on Chatham is doing fine; his male catkins are long since fallen, and, from the ground, I can't see his female flowers nor any beginning of acorns.  For awhile I thought he might be a black oak rather than a red, but I'm still inclined to think I got the ID right the first time.

The sugar maple on the corner of Nancy Lane that I've been following since last fall is--gone.  I stand in sunlight where sunlight shouldn't be, and look at a low, modest mound of wood chips on an otherwise blank stretch of suburban lawn.  Trees do get old, and sometimes endanger homes, but this tree seemed hale and hearty to me.  And even when a tree this old must come down, it should be an event, a drama.  My first thought, after the shock, was that someone should have posted a notice, a sentence of condemnation, preferably at least a month before sentence was to be carried out.  

On the day itself, neighbors should have gathered, somberly dressed and reminiscing in quiet voices.  There should be an earth-shaking crash, the earth gashed by the tons of falling trunk and the scattering of shattered limbs.  The aftermath--as in any execution--would inevitably be brutal, tears falling as whining chainsaws rip into living flesh, smell of tree's blood heavy on the air.  Trucks would come to carry away the logs (hopefully to end on a cheerful hearth rather than buried in a landfill).  Neighbors would disperse, lost in thought.  The evidence of what has happened should be everywhere, signs of disaster, wilted leaves betokening death.  

Instead, this blank lawn and its wood chips are as if the half-century-old tree had never been at all.  

It is obscene. 

I can only wonder whether the homeowner's decision was the occasion of prolonged struggle and anguish, or only a matter of engineering, of dollars and cents.

In his journal on October 7, 1857, Thoreau wrote:

It is monstrous when one cares but little about trees but much about Corinthian columns, and yet this is exceedingly common.

Monday, May 26, 2014

New England Nature

Looked out bathroom window a few days ago to see yellow-and-black butterfly sipping from lilacs.  Guessed it was a viceroy, since it didn't look like a monarch.  (You might tell from this that I don't know from butterflies!)  However, there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio...  With much novice frustration at hunting down wildlife in guides that cover at least half the country, I was inspired to search "massachusetts butterflies.  In only a few minutes I had nailed it as a probable Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, by the black streaks extending from the leading edges of the wings.  

AND the result of that brief web hunt gave me, as lagniappe, a new site to poke around in! 

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

"Infant" Mortality

I've been teaching ecology to 9th- and 10th-graders lately.  While watching a video segment that featured young arctic fox cubs that depended for their survival on their mother's ability to bring home equally-cute snow goose chicks for dinner, I pointed out that, over the long term, both foxes and geese were likely to raise only about two offspring per couple to maturity over their whole lives.  That's the simple consequence of having a stable population: parents can only replace themselves--nothing else will serve.  Of course, that is the overall average over a whole population, over a long enough period to even out variations in resources, etc.  Even so, it is instructive to meditate upon: there are always more young born than can survive. 

In light of this fact, the overwhelming fecundity of trees is even more incredible.  Walking the dogs a few days ago, I found myself looking at a tiny bit of the vast untimely death that is a normal part of life.

Immature Norway maple fruits on sidewalk.

These winged fruits (called "keys') each contain two embryos.  They are only a fraction of the size they normally reach at maturity, so could not survive even if they had landed in a better spot.  Although it has been a bit gusty lately, I'm pretty sure they were aborted, rather than simply blown down.  I can't say why; their loss must represent a significant waste of resources for the tree. 

The only good I can see from such an event is that the tree's loss is inevitably someone else's gain; insects, worms, fungi and the like small creatures will feast on the keys for some time.  And, of course, natural selection could not perfect the Norway Maple Way of Life without the competition for existence that results from too many young competing for a chance at survival.

Don't worry--there're plenty more.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Spring 8

 New job is keeping me busier than usual.  Catching up on the last few days.

 Time to take a peek at some things I've been ignoring: the very cultivated, the very small, the very inconspicuous.  

Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) is a favorite of mine, though I sometimes ignore 
the pink variety on the grounds that it is a cultivar. 

The flowers of flowering dogwood are actually small and inconspicuous--
it is the bracts (modified leaves) below the inflorescence that we first notice.

This little red-flowered weed (whose name I"ll remember tomorrow) has halberd-shaped leaves that taste very like sour apple--very nice in a salad, I'll bet--making this fellow lucky to have a lawn so blest.
(It's Sheep- or Field-Sorrel, Rumex acetosella.)

Some small grasses, including some in my lawn, are in their glory right now.  Many people 
would be surprised to know that grasses have flowers at all, small and petal-less as they are.

Here is the first portrait of the red maple I have been following for Nature's Notebook and these pages.  
The fruit is almost ripe, having turned a rusty red different from the bright red flowers of April.
The fruit on its neighbor a short distance down the same street is still mostly green.  
Why? it may be that my maple, very near an intersection, gets more sun than the other.

Maples are supposed to be dioecious--the whole tree either male or female.  My red maple is this way--a vigorous female.  (Being all one sex is rather uncommon in the plant world, by the way, with most flowers bisexual, being both male [producing pollen] and female [producing ovules & forming seeds].)  Others are monoecious, with flowers either male or female, but both found on the same plant.  But most common are  bisexual (aka androgynous) plants and flowers.  What, then, to make of Norway maple, which has male and female AND bisexual flowers on the same tree, and even the same inflorescence?  Such plants glory in the term androgynomonoecious!

The flowers visible here are bisexual, having both pollen-producing stamens (little yellow structures 
on the ends of stalks inside the flower facing us) and a pistil (protruding from the flower's center, 
and ending in a double-curl) that contains the ovules and becomes the fruit.

Sugar maples have been revealing themselves; the ones I have been watching have at least two neighbors on the same street.  One of the two close neighbors of the tree I've been following turns out to be female: it is modestly hung with keys. 

Most of the keys are visible in upper center, marking this tree as a female.  The many holes in the leave tell us that insects are emerging. and that sugar maple leaves are tasty!

Saturday, May 10, 2014

A Short Paddle in Nippenicket Pond

Bought a new plastic kayak a few days ago to replace the one I stupidly lost.  This new one is a tiny thing: under eight feet long, 20 pounds over its capacity with just me, my feet crowded into the pointy bow.  It has no place to keep gear dry.  It's a little less stable than my lost ten-footer, as well.  But its chief virtue outweighs all these vices: it is so small and light that I can toss it into  the back of my little hatchback and go paddling almost as quick as thinking about it.  (Boaters learn that smallest, easiest boats are oftenest used, and therefore oftenest enjoyed.)  I think I will name her Toy Boat.

This morning was my first chance to get it wet, in Nippenicket Pond.  Here are a few scenes from my half-hour on the pretty pond.

Just by leaning back, I can put the back end of the little kayak almost underwater.

A mix of spring shades.

Spotting these leaves floating on the pond led me to the silver maple (Acer saccharinum)
that lost them.  I hadn't known of one on the pond.  All the winged fruits ("keys") floating in the water
had one of the two wings aborted, and I wonder if that is why the tree dropped them.

Fern fiddleheads growing right out of the water yards from shore.  I can't identify them yet.
But I'm pretty sure they aren't specifically "aquatic" ferns.  The cabin standing alone on the point
 in the background would be a romantic getaway--if it were in good shape.  --and if it had tight bug screens.

I saw these colors from a little distance, and paddled over just to capture it in a photo.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Spring 7: Lotsa things jumpin

April vacation is my traditional start to the boating season, and everything else takes a backseat to the trip and its preparations.  But now I'm back, and catching up with what's been going on.  

Before it gets too much to keep track of, here's what's jumping now.

The black cherry whose leafing-out led the charge into spring
(at least for native trees I saw), is preparing to flower.  Photo May 1.

The red maple around the block had flowers with winged seeds (aka "keys") just peeking out; 
now the keys have grown to dominate, the flower petals now merely fringe at their bases.
Photos taken April 19 and 24, and May 3.

The Norway maples have leaves emerging behind the flowers from the same buds.

The sugar maples around the block are blooming and leafing-out at a great rate
--racing the Norway maples.  Photos April 28, May 3.

The red oak around the block from me has gone from this to this.  The flowers and leaves are 
emerging together, even though they come from separate buds.  Photos April 28, May 4.

The big paper birch around the block went from having only male flowers blooming (long hanging catkins), 
to having female (up-curved catkins) and very young leaves, which are emerging from the same buds.  Photos April 28, May 1.

Some blueberries have young leaves, and flowers preparing to bloom.  Photo May 2.

Staghorn sumac, a weak-stemmed shrub or small tree that grows abundantly at the high school, has leaves just emerging.  (It's name comes from the resemblance of the fuzzy stems to a stag's horns.)  Photos May 3.