Saturday, April 30, 2016

Ephemeral Woods

The first wave of ephemeral flowers is waning, including the last of the Bloodroot, above, now replaced by a single, giant leaf for capturing the diminished sunlight of the greening woods.

Now, Wood Anemone, Anemone quinquefolia, can be seen in clusters, although not always in flower.

Here, a pink-hued Wood Anemone flower next to the inflorescence of Pennsylvania Sedge.

 And here, in white.

I am most excited to find large patches of Cutleaf Toothwort, Cardamine concatenata, on the northeast facing slopes, under the dying oaks and growing sugar maples.

I've become critically aware of the value of dying trees and fallen timber to the continuity of all life within the woods.

A tree growing for over a century dies (I've counted rings). The loss of leaves allows sunlight and additional moisture.

Maybe the tree is blown down in a violent summer storm or felled by constant gusts behind a strong winter cold front. As it falls, its massive, dense wood contorts and dismembers younger trees on its way down, creating an even bigger hole in the canopy.

Seeds that have moved via wind, runoff, or even more so by insects and small animals may be well placed, lying in wait for this opportunity to sprout. But you didn't notice because all that concerned you was the giant that came crashing down. A couple of years or more later, the presence of the fallen giant less prominent, there in the clearing is something new.

Saturday, April 16, 2016


I'd like to tell you what kind of Oak this impressive bark belongs to, but in age, among oaks, it is a challenge without leaves. No matter, this old, large oak is anchored near a clearing made by wind of storms and pressure of fungus and disease.

On the bark of a giant that had fallen last summer, I place garlic mustard just pulled. I keep it off the soil so that it properly desiccates, a lesson learned a year ago. Now committed to the project of eradicating the weed, I think of it as gardening, a task with its own time, that I can accomplish while out photographing the woods, searching for mushrooms or ramps, or completing some other woodland project. Away from fallen logs or large stones, I make piles so the mustard remains obvious to me later, as I check on its desiccation or dispose of it. Officially known as Garlic Mustard, Alliaria petiolata, I've pulled enough acreage of it now to refer to it as "skunk mustard," because its garlic-onion odor reminds me more of that mammal's funk. Click here for a concise and useful journal article on all things problematic with garlic mustard in North America.

This upland spot was (still is?) an oak and sedge stronghold for quite some time. Now cleared of its main shade oak, what may grow in these changed conditions? Its slopes are partially covered with Pennsylvania Sedge, Carex pensylvanica, and some Virginia Waterleaf, Hydrophyllum virginianum. I found these native strawberries, Fragaria virginiana growing in patches, too. A straight line trail runs through this location, with plenty of soil disturbance from quadrupedal hooves and nosing through leaves and soil for food. Maybe I could intervene beyond pulling weeds by giving some complementary plant a foothold. We tend to avoid plants consumed by deer and in this way we consume them by exclusion.

While pulling skunk mustard I stumbled upon this snake, a common Eastern GarterThamnophis sirtalis. Its reaction to my sudden presence was no reaction at all.

As I continued to hover, pushing my fingers into the dried leaves to pinch-grab below the prostrate brassica stems, concern took over. I let it be, moving on around a tree to grab more mustard.

Then I spotted two more, one with coloration slightly dull compared to the other, sunning themselves near their burrow. My leaf rustling was too much antagonism and the one to the right took off. Minnesota isn't known for its snakes, although I am happy to see them here in our woods. Along with our frogs and salamanders, they are an important indicator of the land's well-being.

It's been very dry so far this spring (and despite constant snow cover, the winter was short on snow). In our new climate reality, we anticipate extended dry periods along with excessive rains from thunderstorms. Because of the lack of runoff from non existant spring rains, I was able to navigate the entire small wetland, plodding across acres of dried, sun-bleached naples yellow grasses. I witnessed the garlic mustard making inroads into the wetland as well as an arm or two of Creeping Charlie, Glechoma hederacea. I also spotted considerable patches of Stinging Nettle, Urtica dioica growing among the garlic mustard, but also several feet farther into the wetland. There is a tree, likely an ash, rooted at the edge of the wetland but fallen into it that has continued to send up branches along its trunk. Under the tree's crown there is a muddy circle where only the plants, above, are growing. At first glance I thought "Marsh Marigold?" Maybe not. Thoughts?

I did make a soggy-footed attempt into the great wetland on the south side. I wanted to see the willows -the first pale greening of spring, up close, but I didn't make it far enough in to be truly rewarded. Underneath those grasses were channels and ponds of water still draining from a much larger supply of slopes than the little wetland to the north. I did see evidence of Swamp Milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, about twenty five feet from the wood's edge. The exploration of the wetlands, our sunny places, compels me to engineer a boardwalk (literally -cut logs, debarked and placed longitudinally, with boards run lengthwise between them). Future projects.

Closer to the house, on the dry slopes bloom Bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis. Maybe these can be planted in the clearing among the wild strawberries?

There have been many sightings of hawks, vultures, eagles, sandhill cranes, turkeys of course, and others to make seeing the more common birds seem, well, common. Yet the first robin of spring was worth pausing for, as well as bluejays and cardinals hanging together.

And while squirrels aren't on anyone's favorites list, they have yet to cause us any trouble, likely because their habitat is still largely intact. They do not come toward the house and didn't mess with last year's garden. This bounding fellow has a red head, feet, and tail. I wonder if it this one, from last fall, or a relative.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Spring Chorus

You cannot see them, but they are there, near any body of water. They know when you are there, even though they are concealed under leaf litter, and will hush on your approach. If you wait, silently, they will begin playing their combs once again. They are the Chorus Frogs of March. See here for the group experience.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Woods Today

Back in NYC I might take a walk from time to time, but more often than not it was for the purpose of getting somewhere that I might find myself on a walk. Today, after gaining some ground on research for my (other, new) summer course Shipwreck of the Minotaur at the Mayapple Center for the Arts and Humanities, I chose to take a walk through the woods with some purpose in mind, but mostly to get out of doors for an hour. I did need to check on the sap buckets, as cooler weather has extended our sap season, and also to check on my Easter day's garlic mustard eradication project around the back slough.

I've kept my eye on the Tradescantia spp. that I transplanted from Brooklyn last year in a new garden where the old lilac used to dwell. It looks to have survived. The same garden is now home to the old Brooklyn 'New Dawn' climber rose (a rose that has seen four different yards over its years), a sedum I found growing here in the woods, Dicentra eximia from Brooklyn too, and whatever else was growing there that we've decided to allow (and hopefully not that horseradish I did my best to dig out).

In the front yard, all varieties of garlic are now soaking up the sun. Incidentally, these are not German Hardy, but an artichoke variety, possibly with 'giant' in the name, that were shipped gratis, likely because of poor size thanks to drought and fire in the garlic seed producing region. There are as many commas in that sentence as garlic in this row, but my point is that the sign is a stand in.

I headed into the woods, although the wind made for a biting chill and a hazardous walk through the ready-to-fall. So much dead wood squeaking and creaking like a brig on the open seas, I hesitated to pause for the earliest of ephemerals like Virginia Waterleaf, Hydrophyllum virginianum or the mystery plant, below, that caught my eye as I hiked off path to navigate a significant enlargement of the water line in the back slough.

I was motivated to get back to the slopes of the slough to check on the garlic mustard that I chose to spray with a low percentage mix of glyphosate and water last Sunday. Spring is the time to deal with garlic mustard, particularly March and the earliest of April. Virginia Waterleaf, ramps, some rosa species, a few asters, and other early, less pernicious weeds are coming up and I have no desire to affect those in the act of ridding the woods of garlic mustard. In these zones hundreds, probably thousands, of garlic mustard seedlings are sprouting from the seed bank. It was not an easy decision to spray, especially within a yard of the slough's water line. And I am frustrated to report that after six days the results were not significant. Most leaves were mottled, but the plants were not in the state of distress I would have expected. I've considered that I may need to apply a second course, although I am not happy about that. It was necessary to do so, even with a much higher percentage of glyphosate, on the buckthorn "hedge" growing alongside the garage pad. What I have to consider is the compression of the wet soil in spring. It appears to me the less foot steps, the better, especially after the frost heave has done such a nice job of loosening, aerating, and draining the soil surface.

In the past I thought garlic mustard didn't do well in flooded soil, and maybe it won't if the slough remains flooded. However, what I've seen is that in early spring the ice melts and freezes and this heave extracts the garlic mustard from the mucky soil. It then floats, roots and all, in the spring melt water, preserved in a cool water bath until conditions improve. At the water's edge the leaves and stems of garlic mustard are bluish gray to the deepest purple and often hard to spot against the dark water. The garlic mustard a foot or two away, on drier land, have some purple to the stems, but the leaves are quite green. So green, in fact, that it is a little painful to pull or spray at this time where you find yourself longing for the green of spring.

So what happens to this water's edge garlic mustard? Does it die? I don't think so. Many of the plants, some of which I simply scooped out of the water and some which were easily pulled from the muck, had the biggest roots. Garlic mustard is a biennial, so last year the seedlings emerged and grew strong, despite the waterlogged soil, and this year they are ready to grow and set seed. I'm not willing to wait for the sake of observation, yet I am sure many will escape my vision or reach, and I will be a witness to their success.

As I make my way around the slough, eyes to the ground, I think much about what good the garlic mustard could be doing. What species make use of it for cover or for food? Does it stabilize the soil on the wooded slopes? Is balance achievable? Is garlic mustard simply symptomatic of a woods so degraded by other culprits (err, humans, for instance)? In other words, how necessary is the work I've begun, and am I causing more harm than good? And, you know, I like questions.

If you would like to see more photographs of the woods, follow me on Instagram @frankmeuschke where I post regularly under the hashtag #thewoodstoday.