The Fruits of Winter – Winterberries


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The sun travels lower in the sky
Night wins over day
The earth frozen to beaks and paws
It’s long winter sleep for some
For some, cocoons are spun, eggs laid
Others resting under the leaves of a fall’s passing
Or under the bark of trees
Or bottom of ponds
Thou others must find their way
Day by day
It always the search for food, warmth and shelter
No leaves, no insects
Only with the fruits of winter may they survive

Photo above is a Female Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) it is a deciduous holly that is native to eastern North America that grows in average, acidic, medium to wet soils in full sun to part shade. Adaptable to both light and heavy soils, but prefers moist, acidic, organic loams. Good tolerance for poorly drained soils including wet boggy or swampy conditions

Winterberry like other hollies have incomplete flowers (dioecious) where male and female flowers are on separate plants

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Male Flower

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Female Flower

When I worked at nursery I used to tell customers when looking at flower to ID, think of belly buttons indies (male) and outies (female)

Also in my forever trying to be funny, when a customer asked how to do you tell a plants’ sex, I would pick up the potted plant and turn over and say “oh it’s a male or female”, just like you do with a puppy

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“The fruits of the native hollies, like winterberry, ripen late and are what ecologists call poor-quality fruits. They don’t contain a lot of nutrients (they especially lack fats and oils). They also contain some compounds that can make them taste bad to the birds. Most fruits produce these bad tasting compounds; they are what keeps animals from eating fruits until they are ripe. Usually the compounds break down and are gone by the time the fruit ripens, but in the hollies it takes longer for them to fully break down. So they’re not eaten by migrating birds; they prefer fruits packed with sugars, fats, and oils that provide energy for their flights. Plus, holly berries still don’t taste very good during the fall, during migration. But the bad tasting compounds do slowly break down, and the fruits get gradually get more palatable. At the same time, winter wears on, and winter birds must take whatever food is available, even if it’s not very nutritious. At some point, the holly berries start to look pretty good and the birds willingly eat them.
No one knows for sure what purpose this alternate timeline serves the holly plants, but there are a few good ideas. Since so many other plants ripen their fruits in time for migration, the hollies avoid competition by waiting longer. It also takes energy and resources to make highly nutritious fruits. By waiting until the birds are a little less choosy, hollies get their seeds dispersed without having to put all that energy into reproduction.”

It has also been said the as the berries stay on the plants and going thru freezing and thawing they can ferment and birds or animals eating the berries can become intoxicated

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In Search of the Red Spotted Newt


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In my travels and in my work I’m always in search of the Eastern Red Spotted Newt (technically at this stage (photo above) in its’ life it is called a Eft) though where I’m looking it isn’t the habitat that the newt might spend time

“The eastern newt (Notophthalmus viridescens) is a common newt of eastern North America. They frequent small lakes, ponds, and streams or near-by wet forests. They can coexist in an aquatic environment with small, noncarnivorous fish, as their skin secretes a poisonous substance when the newt is threatened or injured. They have lifespans of 12 to 15 years in the wild, and may grow to five inches in length. They have 3 stages of life, two of which are aquatic. Adults mate in early spring out of the water and lay their eggs (100 or more) in the water on underwater plants. Larvae hatch in early spring and leave the water in late summer and transform into efts. The efts live on land for up to four years. They do not have gills, but like all newts and salamanders, must keep their skin moist. They are most often seen crawling around after a heavy rain. Efts eat small insects (especially springtails), snails, and other small arthropods. In Winter, efts will hibernate under logs or stones.
As they grow older, the efts grow darker. They begin to look more like adult Eastern Newts. When they are ready, they return to the water and become adults. They will live the rest of their lives in and around the water.
Adult newts eat worms, insects, small crayfish and other crustaceans, snails, mussels, tadpoles, other amphibian larvae, amphibian eggs, and fish eggs.”

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For me it is a personal search for a little more than 36 years ago I moved from NYC to NH. My then family and I had to decide whether to stay or move back, to rent and own, when we heard about some land in the woods with a small cabin on it. It was middle of August, it had rain that day and when we got out of the car to visit it, there were two red newts waitng for us, wiggling on the forest duff. At that moment I fell in love with that place and woods around it and lived there for almost 27 years.
So when I do find my red newt I plan to thank it for it past relatives who had lead me on another path to a new life with all of its’ goods and bads, for who I have become and who I will be.

Bonsais, a Circus of Trees and Every 35 feet Part 3


Oh it is a beautiful day! A nice day for a walk in the woods. We can meet at the hay field down the road and walk in, be careful to park on the field side of the road because as you will notice the field across the way it hasn’t been hayed or mowed for years and show signs of early succession with perennials, shrubs and tree seedlings and at the stone wall on the edge of the road the rosa multiflora and autumn olive has taken over and you don’t want to get too close. It’s about 1/4 mile hike thru the fields, but it shouldn’t be too bad as the fields have had its’ first cut and is just starting to grow anew. As we look what is growing here we see timothy, clover, vetch and annual and perennial grasses such as orchard, rye, switch grasses and maybe other plants that we might consider to be weeds. but for the person who is cutting this field they do try to keep out plants that might be poisonous to horses, cattle and other livestock and introduce plants that might have higher nutritional value. We notice an area that hasn’t been cut and the reason for that is that there are ground nesting birds like bobolinks or meadowlarks who’s brood has yet to fly off from the nest. How this field is maintain is a factor in what plants grow here. If the field were to be mowed once a season we might find that plant species would change over time, for plants that might take longer to flower and set seed might start to replace those that can survive being cut two or  three times a season, and if as some time happens, this field is used for grazing of livestock, again over time the plant composition might change again due to the greater input of fertilizer in the form of manure and what plants can survive being grazed on.

We move on and before we reach the edge of the woods we come upon brook and some wetlands and we notice the signs of  a past beaver encampment on the brook, large girdled dead trees some distance from the brook, beaver chewed stumps and maybe the remnants of their dam. When the beavers were here they would have ponded the area upstream, the expanded  the wetlands that were already here and change the flow of the brook downstream. The area around the pond would have changed ; trees were taken down by the beavers or died from the soil becoming saturated or being girdled and some remain standing. Whether the beavers were evicted or they had moved on to new food sources, this is area is one of transition with the pond being gone, the wetlands area being reduced as the soils dry out and others plant species able to grow  here again. Even if the beavers hadn’t populated this area, this brook and surrounding wetlands might still be going to changes; from changes in the brooks’ flow either from changes in precipitation or divergence of the water flow upstream, whether natural or man-made  and/or deposition of sediments in the area from land disturbances upstream.

As we walk along the edge of the wetlands to the beginning of the wooded area notice that forests’ edge is dense with many shrubs and younger trees we might also notice that some non-native and some invasive plants have managed to get a foothold here with their seed being deposited or blown in from surrounding areas. We walk in to the woods we notice it is a bit cooler, the sunlight only reaches the ground in little patches, the understory plants and trees seedlings are more scattered. As we walk on we see the changes in tree dominance in one area beeches might have larger numbers than oaks or maples. There are larger size beeches  with surrounding younger ones that haves spouted from the older trees roots. we travel a little farther on  we see oaks and maples mixed with white pine, white ash, hemlock and spruce. Off to side there is dense hemlock stand with nothing growing underneath except for some smaller hemlocks that may be older than their size would indicate, their growth is slow as they wait for an opening when the sun might reach them and then they can take up the space allowed them. We also notice changes in the understory plant material some plants in abundance in one area but not in other areas, including ground covers, sometimes more plants growing where more sunlight reaches the ground. Maybe a tree or trees were blown over in a wind storm allowing more light to reach the ground. We see evidence of past openings with ‘pillows and cradles’ which are mounds next to depressions which indicate that trees had been blown over raising the roots out of the ground and being that the trunks  or roots having decayed  and the soil dropped where the roots were.

As we have been walking we have notice  series of stone walls which indicated that this land had been cleared of forest and was either farmland or pasture maybe dating back more than a couple of hundred years ago. At some point this area was abandoned as farmland and allow to regenerate to forest, we can assume this from the few trees that may have been here for a hundred years or more. Yet we notice that many of the trees by their size may not be more the fifty years old, so we can also surmise that these woods had been logged again and the older trees were left because they didn’t have any timber value or were in locations too difficult to cut and remove.

We all have different perspectives to what these different habitats are and what they mean, and we are just beginning to understand how each of these habitats do effect each other. How changes in one area might have impacts on surrounding habitats from natural or man-made changes or how continuous changes in each affecting the other. They are unique environments that are woven together by the soils, types of organic debris,  micro-organisms, moisture and water, flora and fauna. One can spend a life time observing  and studying it and still not know or understand it all.

We have reach the top of the hill from here the trail to the right heads off to a old gravel pit long unused and you would see that plants are just starting to get a root hold, just here and there and most likely will take decades if not a century  to built up enough organic material to once again become a forest. To our left we look out to see the development below, residential neighborhoods, shopping areas. One thing that might strike you is the vast difference between what we have just experience with our walk and much of our man-made landscapes which mainly is one of well structured islands in seas of black and green. Trees and plants nicely spaced, evenly organized, one of these, three of those or massed plantings for  that visual impact. The reason for our walk is about  landscape zoning ordinances for if we didn’t have any ,how much worse might our landscapes look? Areas of lawns might be just black top or left as gravel. It would be left up to those who enjoy landscapes and gardeners  who always want to add something new to their  homes verses others who just don’t care what it might look like. Some we create laws about landscapes and lawn in the hope to improve the quality of all our lives, to bring our changes to the natural environment from development  and keep the natural integrity of the supporting landscape. The trouble is when laws are written they meant to be clear and understood by the majority and carried out by good hardworking folks who don’t know much about  the nature of trees, plants, soil habitats, what their requirements and how they might  impact the natural ecosystems. We can try to control issues of water, pollution, vegetation and it impacts on us and our environment, we write ordinances that call for a tree every 35 feet, shrubs every 6 feet along the perimeter which is certainly better than none, but how does that fit to a natural environment? When ordinances requires ‘ x’ number of trees and shrubs for ‘x’ number of parking spaces planted within the lot; where rarely they remain healthy or even survive given root space, soil conditions; might it not be better to use that plant material to create natural buffers and leave the parking lot for cars.

We have over time develop an ideal of what  a good landscape should be, that includes lawns, foundation plantings and with islands here and there.  Yet next to the natural landscape does it really fit or does it belong? What if I decided to stop mowing my lawn, allow it to become a meadow; might someone come to my door and cite me for an un-kept lawn? How would I explain my reasoning to that person who can understand what a lawn should be, but not a meadow? How would the neighbors feel if I let my landscape go ‘la natural’, let nature take its course?  As more and more of the natural landscape is being taken over by ‘us’ and we replace what was there with what we consider good landscaping, with the technology and equipment to change our environment on an unprecedented scale and no way of knowing the long term effects  we might be having on whole ecosystems . For our parts as landscapers, designers it is time to reconsider what is a good landscape, one that takes the whole environment in account, addresses our understanding soils,  our choice of plant materials (native and alien), including grass species and give them greater importance in our changes of the natural landscape.