Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Finally, Summer!

"Summer afternoon -- summer afternoon, to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language."  H. James

Though culturally we've been in summer mode for a few weeks now, the season, scientifically, starts at the solstice -- that moment when the sun kisses the Tropic of Cancer before heading immediately (though slowly) back toward the south.  Of course, poetically and Earth-centrically, we think of the sun moving north and south; in reality the sun is pretty indifferent to the earth.  The earth, orbniting the star that to us means life, is tilted on its axis, always in the same direction.  As it hits the point in its journey 'round where the "top" is most tilted toward the sun, we have our solstice, our longest days, our seasonal transition.

This year, that moment occurs at 11:24 pm CDT on June 20... which means that the solstice actually occurs on June 21 in New York and June 20 in Chicago (and points west).  (Though we think of it as a day, the solstice is actually a moment, and it's the same moment glob-wide!)

I'll leave you with one more summer quotation:
"Summer is the annual permission slip to be lazy.  To do nothing and have it count for something.  To lie in the grass and count the stars.  To sit on a branch and study the clouds." R. Brett
Enjoy the lazy days of summer!

A Servicable Berry

Serviceberries are ripening, some turning the darker shade of red that means they're ready to harvest.  Serviceberries are one of the species out there that have several, regional common names that can make it hard to communicate about them; serviceberry is my least favorite.  Juneberry I like because it accurately describes when the berries are ready,  giving you some useful information.  Saskatoon is just a fun name, from a Cree word for the shrubs.  (Saskatoon, Sasketewan, is named after these plants, and not the other way around!)  Shadberry (or variants -- shadbush, etc.) is used in the NE and refers to the shad runs that take place at the time of blooming.  

I was first introduced to these berries as Saskatoons when I lived in Northern Minnesota.  People lauded them as a great native substitute for blueberries in muffins or pancakes, and used them to make jam.  I'll give you that they are the siza and shape of a blueberry, and have a similar flavor (which similarly improves when cooked).  Personally, though, I find the seeds to be a bit of an annoyance in terms of using them as a food source.  The seeds -- 3 per berry, I think -- are about 2 times the size of a raspberry seed.  They're perfectly edible and just come out the other end, but, you know... I'm not expecting my muffin to cruch quite so much, I guess.  I've tried making jam with them and leaving the seeds in and frankly, eating it was really unplesant.  I've also tried removing the seeds to make jam, and to be totally honest, this is not worth the considerable time and effort it took.  If I were hungry or foraging I'd certainly count them as a great food source, but in today's world, they're not my favorite.  (And I'm saying that as a locavore, who would just rather be eating the strawberries that are peaking now and the early raspberries and even black raspberries have just started to come in.)

A note about making jam with serviceberries... Amelanchiers are in the rose family, same as apples, and as such are very high-pectin fruits.  I make jame without using pectin and have gotten pretty good at judging the gel point and know which fruits take longer and which are shorter... still, sometimes I undercook (syrup) or overcook (just not good).  The first time I made serviceberry jam, it gelled so fast, I was in disbelief and kept cooking.  I ended up with something so stiff it was unspreadable and even un-get-out-of-the-jar-able.  So that's my warning if you're planning to try it.  It seems like it'd be a good year to, as there's a bumper crop, at least here! 
Seeds of the saskatoon.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Bugs on Flowers

Hey, you know what's super hard, and also involves looking at really creepy close-ups? Identifying a spider.  I knew this was a crab spider, so I had a place to start, and I'm fairly confident its in the genus Misumessus, possibly a female green beauty?  Right or wrong, this is a lovely spider I found on a Canada anenome.  (I have a much higher tolerance of creepy crawly critters than most people, but still... I rarely describe spiders in terms like lovely or beautiful, but honestly?  Look at her... she's just striking.)  Note: Canada anenomes are still blooming, but past peak. 
The insect was sort of incidental to this picture, for me.  I was actually aiming to photograph the coreopsis, which have just started blooming.  I just love them, love their frilly petals but mostly I love their color.  It's by absolute favorite shade -- those who know me will recognize it as the color of my car, my office walls, several of my running shirts, and close to the color of my spring/fall jacket that I wear for like 6 months a year.  And these flowers have such a pure color.  Some petals look like the color is watercolored onto white petals (indeed, some flowers, if you rip a petal, you will see white under the color).  But these, these look like a pool of pure color, you could dive into it... 
I have no idea what this guy is.  Some sort of orthoptera, I guess.  A young one, maybe.  Anyhow, he was hanging out on an impatient at my parents' house yesterday, and I thought he was cute.  

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Daily Dosage

Wild quinine is a pretty distinctive and actually pretty plant.  This is it -- it kind of looks like it's not quite blooming yet, but it never gets showier.  It's never been my favorite because of the midicinal common name, not because of anything important about it... so I decided to find out about that.  So the Cinchona tree is where the medicine quinine comes from, and is still used today to create this anit-malarial medication.  I guess in WWI, the supply of cinchone bark and therefore quinine was cut off.  This plant was used as a substitute.  Ito does contain quinine, but not nearly as much, and don't think it works nearly as well, but it does have medicinal uses, including reducing fever and treating burns.  

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Just One Plant Today

White water-lily (with bonus damselfly!).  Really a lovely pond flower that blooms for a very long time.  These are perfectly adapted to their aquatic habitat.  Leaves have a very large surface area, allowing them to float on the water, thus maximizing their sun exposure.  (Look at that surface tension!)  The stoma (for air exchange) are on the top of the leaves, rather than the underside, which is much more typical.  And, the leaf tops are waxy to repel water.  Under water, the stem is long and flexible, allowing the plant to float despite changing water levels.  The flowers also float, and are very fragrant if you manage to get your face close to one.  When the seeds form they go underwater and sink, increasing their chances of growing... though they also reproduce by rhizomes. Though I've never seen the stereotypical frog hanging out on a lilypad, under the water these plants, which ususally grown in colonies, provide shelter for all manner of macroinvertebrates.  (Which makes them a great place to use pond nets with kids! And also attracts frogs and other larger species that eat the small critters.)

To keep up with my recent trend of scientific nomenclature, these are Nymphaea odorata; nymphaea are grottoes or shrines dedicated to nymphs!  (Odorata presumably refers to the strong fragrance, but that's not as interesting!)

Friday, June 16, 2017

Another Daily Flower Report

I think of DYCs as a late summer thing, but some bloom early!  This, I believe, is an ox-eye sunflower.  Perhaps more interesting, in this case, is the plant's scientific name -- it's a Heliopsis species.  "Helio" is Greek for sun... opsis is Greek for "appearance" -- so it looks like the sun.  Its specific name is helianthoides, which means "like Helianthus" (that being the genus of sunflowers).  So it looks like the sun, and like a sunflower!  Heliopsis species are sometimes called false sunflowers. 

Also just starting to bloom are Asclepias species, here a butterflweed. Though a member of the milkweed genus, these plants don't have the milky sap associated with most milkweeds.  They are, however, still larval hosts to monarch butterflies! 

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Daily Flower Report

Spiderworts are looking lovely this time of year.  A nice, early-blooming prairie plant, spiderworts have long bloom times as a plant/species, but very short bloom times as an individual flower.  Within the clusters on the top of each plant, a few (or more, as you can see) flowers bloom at a time, each for only a short time, but in succession so that the flowers can be seen for over a month -- usually throughout all of June.  They are morning-bloomers, and close up at night, so an evening look can fool you into thinking they aren't blooming anymore, but in the morning they're back!
Foxglove beardtongue -- commonly named because of its resemblance in flower structure to the foxgloves that grow all over England, and because of the littly hairy things on the flower's corolla which look like a hairy tongue sticking out -- is flowering now:

Purple coneflowers are also starting to open.  The disc flowers will open from the outside in, and you can see that the very outer row currently has the pollen of open flowers.  We're just starting the season for this iconic prairie species!

Into Every Life...

They say into every life, a little rain must fall.  Lately, we could use more than a little rain -- it's been very dry even while just north of us, WI and MN have gotten lots of storms and flooding.  Yesterday afternoon (just in time for the farmers' market to be cancelled), we got much needed rain in the form of some pretty heavy storms and some lasting light rain as well.  This morning, we got another little burst... I got caught out in it, totally unprepared, and had a soaking we walk.  But when you get caught in the rain, you get to see the rainbows!
With rain, we also got the "blooming" of the cedar apple rust galls.  
These look like alien life forms coming down to colonize earth via cedar/juniper trees, but are actually a fascinating manifestation of a disease that has a 2-host life cycle, alternating between these evergreens and crabapples, hawthornes, and other members of the rose family.  The galls on the cedar trees, taking up to 2 years to develop, look like hard, lumpy, brown golf balls until spring rains allow the orange telial howns to swell up.  They look like some sort of tentacled marine creature mysteriously misplaced in a branch a thousand miles from the ocean!  These release spores, then die... but the disease lives on as the spores find their crabapple (etc.) host.  On those leaves, they manifest as a yellow-orange spots.  Eventually, these, too will release spores that... you guessed it... infect the cedar trees!  And the cycle continues.  It's the circle of life... and it moves us all..

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

A Few Observations for Today

Now that I'm back at this, I'll try to choose a few things each day to focus on when I'm in town.  The temptation to write about everything that's happening all at once is great, and choosing just 2 or 3 things is terribly difficult given how many things I'm not choosing...

One of the most noticeable things out on the trails today isn't one of the many flowers blooming, but these hawkweeds that are done doing so.  This photo doesn't convey what makes these seedheads so noticeable -- their size.  Each globe is about 3 inches in diameter, a perfect sphere of parachute seeds waiting for the wind.  The plants are 2 to 3 feet tall, so at this time of year, they hang above most of the surrounding foliage. 
The flowers are all but finished blooming... there were hundreds of seedheads and this was the only bloom I found still in the flowering phenophase:

Astute observers will notice the similarities in flower and seed structure to its cousin the dandelion.  These yellow hawkweeds are also not native, but they don't colonize lawns and gardens the way that dandelions do, and in my world they don't cause a problem -- though some would disagree.

Bindweed, on the other hand, most definitely causes issues.  These morning glory relatives are problematic weeds in the garden world... the flowers -- whether the smaller, white variety on the left or the larger pink variety on the right -- grow from these skinny, string-like vines.  They wind around and around plant stems, making themselves inextricable from the desirable plant.  Often, I end up sort of following the vine down tot he ground and pulling it out from the root, and just leaving the vines wrapped around the other plants to die there, as they presumably will with no connection to the earth.
Bindweed is just one example of where, sometimes, I hate knowing things.  I mean, in general I like knowing about the natural world and what's what, and I don't think I fall prey to the pitfall of mistaking naming it with knowing it.  (Many people, I find, once they learn the name of a species, check it off some sort of list as a plant or animal that they know, and they're done with it.  No more to learn, no more observations needed.  Of course, the name tells you very little about the species... doesn't tell you what eats it or what it eats, what niche it holds, how it reacts to wind, the patterns in its veins, or what light makes it look the lovliest, or any one of a million things you can learn about something beyond its human-given name... but I digress.)  My actual point was, there was a time in my life whan I could have looked at those flowers and just seen beauty.  I remember (long ago) a time when a buckthorn forest was an awesome place to hide or play or build forts or follow deer trails.  Now I tend to see the problems in every landscape, and I can't get past the negative impacts.  A lot of people just look out at the field and it's green and waving in the wind and there are colorful flowers and it's beautiful, and I just can't divorce myself from the knowledge I have to not see what's problematic.  Ah, well... I guess when I see a place with a balanced native community, I appreciate it all the more.

I can't end on a nasty note, so here's a lovely indigo, displaying the typical branching pattern of Baptisia alba (white false indigo), which stands out in the prairie.
We typically see three species of Baptisia in this area, and they are all early blooming (with the white being the last).  Cream wild indigo (B. bracteata) blooms first... it's probably finished now, though there was a ton of it in Rollins Savannah just a couple of weeks ago.  It's got a much different habit, arching toward the ground and therefore never getting tall.  The flowers are creamy in color (thus the common name) and larger than the other species and have the typical irregular shape of legume flowers.  (Being legumes, all three species are nitrogen-fixing, and therefore do great things for the soil in the prairie!)

The next to bloom is the blue false indigo (B. australis).  These are almost finished blooming (and some have started to form their seed pods, which are pretty cool) but I found some still in flower.  The blue indigos gow quite tall, where they're happy, form a big closter that looks like a small shrub. 
(See how I did that?  Got to write about three plants for the price of one!)
Until tomorrow, then...

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Tree Flowers

It's hard to come back to this blog after a long absence.  So much is happening, it always seems like, why should this flower, or this insect, be the thing that gets me back into it?  Plus, with so much happening... I could easily show 10 plants that have changed phenophase since I left for my family's reunion 5 days ago.  So what got me to write today?  I learned something!  Now, it's not like I know everything there is to know about the natural world.  No one does, and I suppose I know more than most, but a lot of people know more than me.  I often learn things about nature -- from books or the internet.  I see something, I go back and ID it, or I research it so that I can be sure I'm being accurate or have enough to say when I'm writing.  

Today I had one of those experiences when I just noticed something that I'd never noticed before, learned something just from seeing and experiencing it.  Sumac is a plant that doesn't get much mention at this time of year in my observations.  In the fall, it's leaves turn brilliantly red, orange and yellow quite early, making it a prime target for observations.  Its red berries are striking above its foliage.  But this is the flower:
Green, blends in with the leaves.  You'd walk right by it, and I certainly have.  What I noticed today was that the flowers were covered with bees.  (No, no photo with a bee in it.  Oh, well.)  I never really thought about what pollinated those green and rather uninteresting flowers before, but apparently honeybees don't find them to be uninteresting.  The flowers were literally a-buzz with bees!  Naomi's new knowledge for today, gleaned by my own research rather than someone else's observations!

I"ll switch from barely-noticeable flowering trees to some of the most showy:
These catalpa flowers, each close to 2 inches across, are really very striking and in full bloom right now.  Just look at that spectacular coloration -- the yellow and purple in there.  I wonder what that might look like to a bee or another pollinating insect with compound eyes.  (Like neon "Eat Here!!!" signs, I always imagine.)

More tomorrow?  Maybe!