May Bloomers and Bullfrogs

In the last week or so the high-pitched chirps of the Chorus Frogs and Spring Peepers have been replaced with bigger sounds. Bullfrogs down in the pond have been sounding off at dusk. We’ve been able to hear their “bud” calls drifting up the hill in early evening. That’s a sign that temperatures are warming up as we slide down the backside of Spring. In a month’s time the calendar will say it’s Summer.

The first two weeks in May we’ve seen the following wild flowers blooming:

Perennial chamomile and chives were blooming in the garden at this time.

Serviceberry Trees Bloom at Woods Edge

Serviceberry trees are one of the first flowering trees in North America. Their white flowers shine bright from the edge of the woods. When I see these flowering trees I know its time to look for Spring Ephemeral flowers.

(Click any photo to see a larger image.)

Flowering serviceberry tree at the edge of a field.
Flowering serviceberry tree in a stand of trees at the edge of a field. Photo taken 5 April 2012.
Serviceberry tree flowering among maples and oaks just leafing out.
Serviceberry tree flowering among maples and oaks just leafing out. Photo taken 5 April 2012.
Flowering serviceberry trees along a Pennsylvania country road.
Flowering serviceberry trees along a Pennsylvania country road. Photo taken 5 April 2012.

Serviceberries, also known as Juneberries, will be in leaf a couple of weeks after their white blooms are in view. The flowers develop into small berries that ripen in June, hence the name Juneberry.

The tree canopy is coming in fast now that it’s the third week of April. We are surrounded by trees where we live in the middle of the woods and right about now the trees seem to be closing in on us. During the winter we can see far into the woods, but now with the greenery growing bigger the view is getting blocked near the forest edge.

Heard baby bluebirds in their bird house yesterday. The parents have been frantically flying to and fro feeding the little guys peeping in there. Their activity must have caught the eye of a hawk because I saw one on the ground about five feet from the birdhouse. Didn’t see the strike to know if the broad-winged hawk got a bluebird for lunch, but he flew away without anything in his talons.

Bluets, violets and fairy wings continued to be beautiful this past week. The flowering trees were impressive everywhere! Pink and white dogwoods, ornamental flowering cherries and crabapples, light purple redbuds, and even the yellow balls of sassafras flowers brought many smiles this past week.

Late Coltsfoot Flowers and Dark-eyed Juncos

In my early Spring post I was wrong about the Dark-eyed Juncos having gone north for the season. On the 9th of April I saw a small troupe of juncos pecking the stones on our gravel driveway. Obviously, all the juncos hadn’t flown back to Canada quite yet.

Robins made their Spring appearance and have been hopping around the place for a few weeks now. I suppose the juncos will leave any day, unless they are year-round residents that stay in the Appalachian Mountains all year.

Dark-eyed junco or slate-colored junco, female.
Dark-eyed junco or slate-colored junco, female.

Another blooper popped up last week when listing a few early blooming plants that are ahead of schedule this year. As luck would have it coltsfoot was mentioned as one of the plants that were finished blooming for the season, albeit earlier than normal. Such a definitive statement is bound to get one in trouble with the whims of Mother Nature.

In most places along our country roads you can see the seed heads of coltsfoot plants that have already bloomed for the year. The round, composite seed heads are much like the spent flower heads of dandelions that a child picks up to blow the seeds into the air.

Coltsfoot seed heads are white in the background and dandelion is flowering yellow in the foreground.
Coltsfoot seed heads are white in the background and dandelion is flowering yellow in the foreground. Photo taken 5 April 2012.

The flowers in the photo above faced south with at least a road’s width of open space to its south. One usually finds this early spring bloomer along roadsides and in full sun. Most of the coltsfoot flowers have ended their early blooming for the year but small pockets of flowering coltsfoot may still be seen. Look in secluded or shady areas for the last-flowering coltsfoot blossoms.

Coltsfoot flowers close up and droop their heads overnight, then raise them in the sunshine of the following day.
Coltsfoot flowers close up and droop their heads overnight, then raise them in the sunshine of the following day. Photo taken 12:30 p.m. on 5 April 2012.

Trading the cold of night for the warmth of sunshine, coltsfoot flowers gain enough energy to raise their heads and open their composite flowers. The coltsfoot in this particular location didn’t seem to open their flowers completely by late afternoon, so they were probably on their last few days before turning to seed.

Coltsfoot flower heads open up slowly in filtered sunshine.
Coltsfoot flower heads open up slowly in filtered sunshine. Photo taken at 2 p.m. 5 April 2012.

The last two photos are of the same clump of coltsfoot, taken about an hour-and-a-half apart. This grouping of coltsfoot was along a Pennsylvania country road and adjacent to woodlands on the south. Sunlight was filtered through the trees and so made for a late-blooming set of coltsfoot.

Manual Destruction of Bagworm Nests Really Works

It finally occurred to me a while back that we didn’t spend any time taking care of bag worm nests this year. Evidently, the manual destruction of bag worm nests really does work to remove them.

I’ve posted here before on bagging the bag worms. Essentially, the bags or tents are manually destroyed by physical means using a stick or plastic bag-wrapped hand so the caterpillars don’t have a home to go back to after ravaging the forest. Yes, by destroying the nests and the worms that get in the way, we are killing living things. Just remember that we’re not using pesticides to do so!

Not only are the nests unsightly, but the caterpillars are very destructive. They eat all the leaves from a chosen tree, especially cherries and other members of the Prunus genus. If the tree is in otherwise good health, it may be able to sprout a second set of leaves to carry on living for the rest of the season. If the same tree is hit two years in a row with the hungry mouths of bag worms, the tree may become too weak and not survive.

It’s typical that the woods that surround our house are a haven for the tent caterpillars or bagworms. We used to see the ugly tents in many trees, but this year there were none. There seem to be plenty of nests that appear high in trees, especially near the rivers, so that makes a sort of reservoir of worms for future infestations.

Does anyone else see good results by manual nest removal? I’m curious to see what may appear next year. If we do see more bag worm nests then, you can bet that they’ll also be destroyed.

Red Eft Going Boldly in the Woods

While out looking for wintergreen plants during the morning hours one day in July, this orange salamander crossed my path. I wasn’t walking on a trail, but rather traipsing through the oak-hickory-maple woodlands on a mountain ridge in Pennsylvania. What a cute little salamander! It’s very unusual to see a salamander outside of their hiding places, but if you do see one it’s most likely the Red Eft.

Red Efts are the terrestrial phase of the Red-Spotted Newt, Notophthalmus viridescens viridescens, who usually can be found in ponds or other slow-moving water. The life cycle of this salamander is typical of amphibians who need access to water as well as land. The land must be damp or moist, so they don’t stray far from a source of water. The source of water that this particular red eft came from was likely a small pond about an 1/8th of a mile down the lane.

Looking down on a salamander found walking in the woods early in the morning.
Looking down on a salamander found walking in the woods early in the morning. Photo taken 4 July 2011.

We see dark-colored newts hanging in the pond until they are startled or gulp a breath of air before submerging. The aquatic phase is dark brown or russet with red spots.

It was a joy to see this little gal tramping around in the woods. There are some gigantic bullfrogs at the pond and lots of their carnivorous tadpoles, so I’ve wondered about the newts’ ability to evade their predators. Leaving the pond for a year or three is part of their strategy to survive. The terrestrial or land form of newts has a bad-tasting chemical in their skin secretions that wards off birds and mammalian predators.

Red eft tramping through the woods in the mountains.
Red eft tramping through the woods in the mountains. Photo taken 4 July 2011.

As to the sex of the red eft, one can’t be sure as they haven’t transformed into adults yet. The Red-Spotted Newt life cycle begins and ends in a small body of water, like a pond, ditch or temporary vernal pool. The aquatic larval stage spends the first few months in the water until it reaches the transforming stage. During its transformation the aquatic salamander attains the ability to breathe atmospheric air so that it can live on land. The transforming phase is dark in color, but otherwise looks just like the red eft.

When the transformation is complete, it’s ready to leave the water and go about on land as the red eft, or land form of the newt. The newt will find a new or its birth pond in one to three years and mature into an adult female or male. Adults are yellowish-brown or greenish-brown with dark spots. Males are differentiated from females by a high dorsal fin on their tail. The tails of the transforming phase and the red eft are nearly round in cross-section. When in breeding condition the males will have black horny growths on their hind legs and toes that the females lack.

Roger Conant makes an interesting statement in the Reptile and Amphibian Peterson Guide about the boldness of the Red Efts in exploring their terrestrial territory.

The terrestrial efts, although avoiding direct sunlight, are extraordinarily bold, often walking about in the open on the forest floor in broad daylight. After summer showers in mountainous regions they sometimes may be seen by scores or even hundreds.

I can certainly vouch for seeing one terrestrial eft in broad daylight, but I wonder where scores of them have been seen at one time. Has anyone seen such a sight?

Ode to a Sargent Crabapple Weed

Northern Short-tailed Shrew from US NPS
What does a short-tailed shrew have to do with a crabapple? (Image via Wikipedia)

Weeds are everywhere, so they are often overlooked. Most of us would think of dandelions or anything else growing in the grass as a weed, or point to any of the plants along the roadside as weeds. Our definition of a weed here at Wildeherb is:

A weed: any plant that is growing in the “wrong” place.

As our high school horticulture teacher taught us, a rose bush could be considered a weed if it was growing in the wrong place.

When a plant is identified as a weed, someone will pull it out, mow it down, or heaven forbid, spray it with chemicals to kill it. If everyone would spend less energy on all of the above, imagine the time and expense we all could save.

Weeds are kind of like cockroaches. They’ve been on this Green Earth long before humankind ever made the first fire to keep warm, and they’ll be here long after 2012. At least consider other options before polluting the Earth with nasty chemicals because your lawn or flower bed isn’t quite uniform. Being uniform isn’t very natural, and in my humble opinion, it looks pretty fake.

Major Pet Peave: Watching road crews spray chemicals at the base of road signs or seeing the dead brown mass of plants afterward! Isn’t there a better solution? Right away, I’d vote for fewer signs. How about putting down some stone or mulch that wouldn’t interfere with mowing? Why not plant a ground cover that won’t grow as tall as the other weeds that need to be mowed? With millions of miles of roads in the U.S.A. this is a problem of immense proportions looking for a green solution. We need to find better, healthier alternatives to the way we do things! <Rant over…back to my own weed “problems”.>

Just a couple weeks ago I chopped down two trees that I had planted about six years ago. They were pretty Sargent Crabapple trees, but they were in the wrong place. Hence, these weeds were removed.

Sargent Crabapple flowering in the backyard.
Sargent Crabapple flowering in the backyard. Photo taken 3 May 2011.

We’re surrounded by the forest, so we really didn’t need more trees filling in the most sunny places we have. The little foot tall saplings were planted there until I found the right place to move them. The trees were beautiful this Spring when blooming, but that wasn’t enough of a reason to keep them. They were taking up more sunny real estate than five blueberry bushes!

I thought about digging them up for a friend who admired the sprawling crabapples, but that seemed like waaaay too much work. Besides, she could get her own set of ten trees just by signing up for the Arbor Day Foundation. At $1 per tree it’s a deal that can’t be beat.

The Sargent Crabapple, Malus sargentii, grows wider than it does tall. These “little” trees had most branches less than an inch in diameter, so I used a pair of loppers to tackle the job. Each tree had a spread of 10-12 feet. They took up too much space in the sunny spot, so they had to go. If the root ball had spread out like the limbs did, we could have had a fish pond if I bothered to dig them up instead of cutting them down. Too late!

Today, there are cabbages growing adjacent to where the crabapples stood. Moss roses or portulaca adorn the area, too.

The dog was helping me in this project, so he had to sniff and dig around the area. He was relentless and obviously after something. No matter what I said or did that dog wouldn’t quit, so I knew somebody was hiding in there. He dug out and killed a Shorttail Shrew, Blarina brevicauda, see photo above.

After the tress were cut and I raked the area of sticks and leaf debris, I could smell urine, like that of a mouse nest. If there were other shrews in that place they will probably go elsewhere without the shade of the trees. If not, the cabbage will be ok because these little mammals eat insects and invertebrates, not plants.

A certain visitor might miss the trees though. One day a couple weeks ago I saw what I first thought to be a large stick lodged in the middle of a tree. It had been windy, but I didn’t think it was that windy to have thrown a stick that far from the big oaks at the edge of the woods. When I recognized that the stick was now pointing up instead of down, I realized it was not a stick.

That stick just moved!
That stick just moved! Photo taken 23 May 2011.
It's a black rat snake! Perhaps it was searching for a shrew-meal.
It's a black rat snake! Perhaps it was searching for a shrew-meal. Photo taken 23 May 2011.
Tiny yellow flowers at the branch tips of Sargent Crabapple.
Tiny yellow flowers at the branch tips of Sargent Crabapple. Photo taken 3 May 2011.
A doe and young buck (on right) graze the long grass and weeds behind the flowering Sargent Crabapple trees.
A doe and young buck (on right) graze the long grass and weeds behind the Sargent Crabapple trees that were still flowering. Photo taken in the afternoon from the deck on 14 May 2011.

Leaves develop after the crabapple flowers. Its blooming period is about two weeks long. The leaves are small and cute. They occur in triplets with lobed edges and make a beautiful display in the fall.

Beautiful reds, oranges and purples in the autumn foliage of sargent crabapple trees.
Beautiful reds, oranges and purples in the autumn foliage of Sargent Crabapple trees. Photo taken 15 October 2010.

In a way it’s kind of sad to see the trees gone now, but I am looking forward to our fall cabbage crop. If you are looking for a small tree or a big shrub to fill in an area, you might want to give the Sargent Crabapple a try. It’s a pretty tree of a manageable size that gives rise to dainty flowers in the spring and colorful fall foliage. Join the Arbor Day Foundation for the cheapest way to get TEN flowering trees for only $10.

Yellow Oxalis Weed by the Millions

A weed that I’ve enjoyed seeing, until they had a population explosion in the vegetable garden recently, is the yellow oxalis or sour grass.

Yellow oxalis is also known as Yellow Wood Sorrel, which is the common name used for two closely related plants, Oxalis stricta and O. europaea. Both plants are native to the eastern United States. The outward difference between the two species is in the way the seed pods are held. The seed pods of O. stricta have a sharp angle in their stems, while those of O. europaea are not bent. Photos in this post are of O. stricta.

The leaves are like shamrocks, so sometimes we call it that. Each leaf is made up of three heart-shaped leaflets, joined at their bases.

By June the earliest flowering oxalis will set seed. Seeds develop in their candle-like spikes, which are the pieces to eat for a sour treat, although the foliage tastes sour too.

Yellow oxalis, Oxalis stricta, plant developing its candle-shaped seed pods.
Yellow oxalis plant developing its candle-shaped seed pods. Photo taken 9 June 2011.
Close up view of sour grass, Oxalis stricta, seed pods.
Close up view of sour grass seed pods. Photo taken 9 June 2011.

While pulling out weeds we often uncover toads. The little ones we find in the springtime are actually cute!

A garden visitor we like to see - they eats lots of insects - American Toad, Bufo americanus.
A garden visitor we like to see - they eats lots of insects - American Toad, Bufo americanus. Photo taken 9 May 2011.

Wild Native Bee Hive in a Catalpa Tree

A fellow we know is a farmer from way back. He knows the value of having bees around the farm and was proud to show us one of his natural bee hives. We didn’t get to see the actual beehive as it was deep inside the trunk of a large catalpa tree.

A big limb had broken off at the base for whatever reason and that made a hole into the trunk. Honey bees have been living in that tree for many years. Even though the big catalpa tree is right next to the house, our farmer friend found a way to live with the bees. Smart, I say. When his red raspberries are in flower, and that won’t be long now, they will be pollinated for sure.

Honey bees made a home in this old catalpa tree trunk.
Honey bees made a home in this old catalpa tree trunk. Photo taken 25 April 2011.

Letting the wild native bees stay where they are practically guarantees that the fruit trees will be pollinated. Another rotten old tree harbors a second colony of bees a hundred meters away. The walnut trees in that area will likely benefit from that beehive.

After hearing about colony collapse disorder and the plight of beehives in the USA, it’s great to see that at least some bees seem to be doing well.