Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Pine Pollen Week

Every summer pines everywhere dust everything with pollen.  Our white pines are prolific in this--among all the wind-pollinated trees, it is theirs that gets noticed by otherwise oblivious but fussy car owners, necessitating a visit to the carwash.  This year, attentive to phenology* as never before, I resolved to watch for the "flowering" of the pines. 

 May 14th
 May 23rd.  Each of the fat needle-like things is actually a bundle of five needles.
 May 27th
June 7th 

I waited in the spring while the white pines of the neighborhood lingered in the small, hard buds of winter.  In May I watched the buds soften, and in late May begin to lengthen into the "candles" that are a pine tree's way of growing new twigs and needles.  I watched for something to emerge from these twigs, among the five-fold bundles of needles that extended gradually from papery brown sheaths. The first clear evidence of pollen dusting surfaces came the first week in June.  On June 8 I finally spotted the little male cones in a mature tree.   

 Get your eye REAL close to the screen and squint.  (what I do, anyway.)
The little yellow things are clusters of male cones.

Only now did I scrutinized the pines in the knowledge that the male cones were there somewhere, and discover I had been looking in the wrong place: instead of the outsides and tops of the trees--easier to observe from the ground against the sky--the small male cones were crowded onto growing twigs lower down and more recessed, as if they shunned direct sunlight.  Though abundant, each golden cone was small as a child's little finger tip.  [I've since learned that the female cones are borne in the tree top, while the male are lower down: possibly to reduce the chance of falling pollen fertilizing female cones on the same tree.  (Nature usually frowns on self-fertilization, since it reinforces in the offspring harmful mutations.)]

 Pine pollen collected by dew on my kayak, 
and floated to the side of my rain barrel.

 Then, on June 11, came brief rain showers, and sidewalk puddles that evaporated to leave the tell-tale yellow shorelines of pollen.  I now walked the mile circumference of our "block" with one eye on the sidewalk and another looking for pines.  It struck me that the pollen seemed pretty evenly distributed--no one area more thickly coated than another--even though the trees were rather patchy.  Wind seems to be a pretty thorough, if random, dispersal agent. 

At that point, the pollen, so recently begun, seemed to be at an end: finding a tree that had male cones in reach, I took a twig, planning on taking a photo; but the cones crumbled before I could get the twig home.  A few days later the rain of fallen cones from one grand tree had formed thick shoals on the roadside. 

 This white pine--
 -- left this litter on the roadside (you can just make out pollen cones among the needles),
--in this quantity!

A few thoughts come to mind at this profligacy.  What an enormous expense a pine goes to to pass on its genes in its children--so inefficient compared to the targeting that comes with insect pollination.  And how critical that all the pines let go at once: just a week early or a week late, and all would be for naught: there would be no receptive female cones.  And should you be one of the few who are allergic to pine pollen, what of the sneezing you do for that week or so? it's pine sperm you're allergic to.  (Okay, not quite: the pollen itself isn't sperm, though each pollen grain delivers cargo of two sperm.)

*patterns of seasonal change in living things.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Solstice Evening on the Pond

Early this morning came the summer solstice--the moment in Earth's orbit when the sun was directly above the Tropic of Cancer, so we in the northern hemisphere would experience the most direct rays and the longest day in the year.  That makes today the first day of summer; a surprise to those who think summer is defined by warm weather, instead of the the angle formed by the earth's orbit and its equator.  

This was a very significant moment for ancient peoples, reliant on such calendrical markers for agriculture and its attendant ceremonies.  Ceremony is still important to us today, of course.  (My wife tells me Stonehenge was mobbed.  To each his or her own, I suppose.)

I consciously acknowledge such days, though I have no ceremonies to mark them.  But I did think it lovely weather for a little paddle on a nearby pond, Nippenicket.  And appointments earlier in the day meant the opportunity would come later, so I resolved to be on the water at sunset.  (Sunrise would have been more appropriate, but I an NOT a morning person.)

I took my skin-on-frame boat, Musketaquid, and shoved-off at 7:30, paddled around a little island and back with many stops for photos, and landed just after the sun disappeared about 8:40.  Everything was growing.  The yellow water lilies just on the point of blooming, the white water lilies just behind them.   But the sunset alone made it worth the trip.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Attending to Grasses

Today, our first good walk in three days (the dogs and I a bit rain-shy), I made a mental note to mow the front lawn.  But first I needed to take a better look at the grasses before mowing them down.  That led to the idea to attend to grasses on our walk.  A fair number of grasses are in flower, and more have finished flowering and are setting fruit. 

 The grass above is still in flower; you can just make out the stamens dangling from diminutive flowers.
The grass below is finished flowering, and its fruit developing.

Passers-by watched a strange guy crouch on the sidewalk with a camera intent on who-knows-what, while two small dogs tugged at their leashes.  The movement of the delicate stalks with the slightest breeze made the photography challenging; and I quickly decided on plan B: pick a few stalks of whatever looked different, and add it to the growing bouquet in my shirt pocket. (The stranger with camera and dogs got stranger still.)

I lay my finds on the kitchen table, trying to eliminate repeats.  I still find it a little amazing how many different grasses my little suburban neighborhood hosts.  Even the most manicured of lawns usually has a neglected corner--a bit of wild that begins to redeem the property in my eyes.

 The entire pocket collection.  A dozen-odd species, I think.


What are their names, you might ask?  I don't know myself.  Call them Tom, Dick, Harry, Hermione...  Their being matters more than their names, after all--just as yours does.  But familiarity is difficult without a "handle"--just as it is in learning people.

So it might be time to brush-up on grass ID.  Subject for a future post, perhaps?

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Hickory in bloom

Of my two pignut hickories, I chose the smaller to observe for Nature's Notebook because it had a branch low enough to reach.  That would enable me to keep a close eye on flower and fruit development.  --if the tree flowers, which it didn't this year.  It's larger neighbor, on the other hand, flowered nicely, but could only be observed through binoculars.  I had never seen hickory flowers up close, and could only study them in books.

A few days ago I looked on the ground under the big tree for fallen male catkins--they would tell me they were about done flowering.  I did see some, but I also discovered the work of an Evil Squirrel.

Sometimes in spring I find whole twigs with seemingly healthy leaves and flowers lying on the ground.  I have seen this in oaks and maples, and now hickory.  I finally decided that squirrels were cutting them and letting them fall for some nefarious and squirrelly purposes unknown to me.  I call it Evil since it seems the squirrels aren't doing if for food (unless they are extremely clumsy and careless eaters), nor nesting material, and the fallen twigs simply lie on the ground and die, wasted.

But this particular time an evil squirrel had chosen a hickory twig, and enabled me to see hickory flowers up close for the first time.  I may, temporarily begrudge this squirrel the title "blessed."  Soon I may begin following the bigger tree for Nature's Notebook.

The whole twig laid atop the appropriate page in my copy of Gleason & Cronquist* 

The prolific male flowers are in long catkins.

Each male flower is surrounded not by proper petals or sepals, but an irregular "perianth," 
and stamens vary in number from 3 to 10.  (I counted 7 in several flowers.) 

The female flowers are few, larger, and green; they will grow to become hickory nuts.
Two female flowers or developing fruits are visible: one just above and left of center, the other at far left against a leaf.

Carya is the Latin name of hickories.  The paragraph describes them in botanical jargon.
The page below details the species Carya glabra--the pignut hickory.

*Manual of Vascular Plants of Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada, second edition, 1991, by the late Henry A. Gleason and Arthur Cronquist, if you must know.