Amateur and professional drinkers of wine and coffee are very familiar with the flavors that are used to evaluate the complex tastes of those beverages. Grass, cinnamon, peach, and almond are among the dozens of compounds that can found among the sensory description wheels or charts for wine and coffee. But did you also know that those words are also used by the maple syrup industry?

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Counter Culture Coffee                 Aromaster                    Agriculture Canada

Maple sugar and syrup production has been a part of northeastern North American culture since before the Europeans arrived en masse in the 17th century. The native indigenous peoples passed their methods down from generation to generation through oral history and traditions. In fact, the methods that they used to gather sap and produce maple syrup were so basic that they have changed little in essence into the 21st century. The Algonquians used stone tools to make the incisions into the trunk from which reeds were inserted which allowed the sap to run into birch buckets or scooped-out sections of a trunk. The sap was concentrated in much the same way that most cooking was done; by dropping heated stones into the liquid, raising the temperature to the point that steam carries off the excess water.

Laura Ingalls Wilder described the maple sugaring process in her book The Little House in the Big Woods. Chronicling her life in 1870s Wisconsin, Mrs. Wilder recounted the late winter tapping of the maple trees and the making of maple syrup which they called ‘sugaring off’. The buckets of maple syrup supplied them with a sweetening agent for the next year, especially in the very basic meal of ‘hasty pudding’; cornmeal cooked in water to a thick mush that was sweetened with maple syrup. The syrup was also boiled past the syrup stage until it crystallized, poured into pans, and allowed to cool into rounds of maple sugar.

There have been developments in the past four centuries that have streamlined and improved production. Wooden taps and then metal spiles replaced reeds, wooden buckets were replaced with metal buckets, plastic bags, or even tubing that allowed the sap to be collected from many trees at a time into a holding vat. When maple trees are 30-40 years old they are large enough to tap, and can support 2-3 taps each, depending on the diameter of the trunk.

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Once collected, sap must be reduced a great deal, from 20 to 50 gallons to a single gallon of syrup. It must be boiled carefully so that sugar crystals do not form. Once boiled in large kettles, sap is now heated in flat, open pans that increase the rate of evaporation and speed up the process.

I attended a maple sugaring workshop sponsored by the Arboretum at Connecticut College this past weekend and get a first-hand view of some of the techniques. The first step in maple sugaring is tree identification and Jim Luce, our instructor, gave us some tips. Tree identification during the winter takes a bit more investigation than it does in the summer when the distinctive, palmate, simple, opposite leaves (seen the Canadian flag?) and samara (helicopters) are present. However, few species, maple among them, have the distinctive opposite buds and branches. Sugar maple bark is gray, going from smooth to furrowed and its twigs are light brown with scattered white lenticels. The buds are red or brown and pointed and the sap is clear, not cloudy.

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The most desirable maple species are Sugar maple (Acer saccharum), Red maple (A. rubrum), and Black maple (A. nigrum) due to a 2-5% sugar content although syrup can be made from walnut (Juglans) and birch (Betula) sap also. Birch sap runs a bit later in the season so that you could collect that in April and make syrup after the maple season has ended. Tapping of maples starts in early February once temperatures are above 32° F during the day and below that at night and generally runs for 4-6 weeks.

Rather than describe the tapping process step by step, here is a video of the workshop that was held on a cold and breezy day:

 

It was an enjoyable experience, especially the tasting of the finished product poured over ice cream! We sampled a commercially prepared Grade A syrup that was darker in color but less tasty than the sap that Jim boiled down from sap collected yesterday.

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The newly cooked sap had definite vanilla undertones and was sweeter with being cloying. Oh yes, I have a new appreciation for the complexities of maple syrup and for the cost of a quality product now that I have seen the amount of work that goes into it. Pancakes, anyone?

Susan Pelton

As a plant pathologist, I enjoy a little plant disease humor on the rare occasions when I run across some.  On a recent visit to the Plant Pathology department at Cornell University while there for a workshop, I saw this fun list of

TOP TEN things PLANT PATHOLOGISTS know (slightly revised and with pictures added):

toptenplantpathologistfacts-cornell

I worked on trying to put this right on the blog for a long time but the photos and text wouldn’t line up right.  So if you click on the link, you can see it the way it should be!

Thanks for visiting!

J. Allen

Special occasions and holidays like Valentine’s Day inspire many of us to send flowers to those we hold with love and affection. In selecting the contents of your bouquet, make it especially memorable by choosing flowers that carry with them symbolic messages of endearment. Many flowers and plants have been associated with certain emotions, feelings and attributes throughout the centuries. This romantic notion was most apparent during the Victorian era with its accompanying publication of The Language of Flowers.

To the Victorians, each type of flower conveyed a message which could be modified by blossom color and also its stage of development. By combining different flowers in nosegays or bouquets, you could strengthen, diminish or deliberately misconstrue your floral communication.

A red rose, perhaps the most sought after flower come Valentine’s Day, signifies love, pure and ardent. White roses as well as most other white flowers often stand for truth and purity, while a yellow rose represents jealousy or mistrust. Not all yellow flowers convey negative messages; yellow tulips mean hopeless love, yellow violets, rural happiness and yellow jasmine, grace and elegance.

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Red rose bouquet from UConn blooms,

Members of the pinks family including carnations are associated with betrothal, marriage and fidelity. In fact, at one time, their clove scented flowers were used to flavor the wine given to brides following the wedding ceremony. Clusters of phlox blossoms were frequent components of Victorian tussie-mussies. Delightfully scented, they were also a symbol of sweet dreams and implied a proposal of marriage. Because of its clinging habit, English ivy too, is symbolic of fidelity and married love.

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Carnation arrangement. Photo by dmp.

Otherwise known as heart’s ease, love-in-idleness and tickle-my-fancy, the pansy, as its French name ‘pensee’ suggests, stands for romantic thoughts. You are telling someone special ‘I am thinking of you’. It was also thought that an infusion of pansy leaves would cure a broken heart. A bouquet of jonquils says ‘I desire a return of affection’ while the buds of a moss rose are a confession of love.

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Pansies by Lisa Rivers.

A white daisy signifies innocence, a white chrysanthemum, truth. Forget-me-nots speak for themselves as does love-lies-a-bleeding. Lilacs were symbolic of chastity, purity, innocent beauty and immortality. Stocks meant lasting beauty.

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Daisies by dmp.

Pink larkspur represents fickleness, purple larkspur, haughtiness. Snapdragons indicated presumption while a rose-scented geranium showed preference.

Herbs, foliage plants, and even many fruits had symbolic meanings. Rosemary is for remembrance, bay stood for constancy or immortality, and ferns for fascination. Giving your love a peach meant ‘Your qualities, like your charms, are unequalled’. A pineapple says ‘You are perfect’. An apple signifies what else but temptation!

For a long lasting floral conversation piece, make a nosegay or arrangement using dried flowers and plant materials. Add delicate scent by tying it with a grosgrain ribbon soaked in rose water and dried. A few drops of essential oil will also perfume your bouquet.

Start a new tradition with every bouquet you send. Spell out your message of love or friendship with floral elegance.

Dawn P

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Groundhog in field. pcooper photo

February brings groundhog day at its beginning and some longer day-length and light at the month’s end. It is always a little exciting to watch silly weather-men and women  with a groundhog waiting to see if it will cast a shadow on February 2. If the groundhog sees his shadow, it is believed he will go back to sleep for we will have six more weeks of winter.  We in Connecticut should know it is still too early for this hibernating animal to wake from its winter slumber deep underground if it were left to its own in a natural environment. Thankfully we have a few nature centers caring for rescued animals that would otherwise not survive in the wild. Some have a groundhog or two to share with the public on this most ceremonious day of weather prediction. And the annual tradition continues with much lightheartedness bringing needed smiles and community, and a 50 50 chance of accuracy.

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Punxsutawney Phil (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

How they get the groundhog to participate is a great feat, because after all, it is a wild animal most people encounter feeding on lawn and gardens, or on sides of highways in open land. They are those brown, ground hugging mounds moving in the grassy areas along the roads.

Other names for groundhog are woodchuck and whistle pig. They do make a whistling sound when alarmed and a ‘chuck chuck’ sound both inspiring their common names. Their Latin name is Marmota monax and are a rodent in the squirrel family. These ground dwelling rodents dig tunnels two to five feet deep and up to 30 feet long. They usually produce one generation per year in litter numbers of two to six born in April or May. At six weeks of age, young are free to forage for themselves and leave the den on their own. That is a lot of woodchucks for one small, suburban lawn!

I personally have a running summer battle with a family of groundhogs determined to scale the fence surrounding my vegetable garden and eat just about everything I grow.  Fencing should be left loose and angled out and away from the garden so the climbing animal will fall out rather than into the garden. Bury the bottom of the fence 1 1/2 to  2 feet deep to prevent digging under the fence. Stringing an electric fence wire four to six inches above the ground in addition to the fence will give the animal a shock, providing it with a lesson not to return. Animal repellents of hot pepper, garlic, sulfur and predator urine can all be sprayed around areas you want to protect. These usually need to be reapplied after hard rain. It is illegal to put out any poison which targets woodchuck. Trapping is allowed according to the Connecticut DEEP, with relocation onto State managed wildlife areas or forests. However, DEEP does not recommend relocating nuisance animals as it is very stressful for the animal. It will not have housing, food or water and usually ends in death of the animal. DEEP recommends humane euthanization.

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Woodchuck in trap. Pamm Cooper photo

Groundhog, woodchuck or whistle pig, whatever you call them, they can do a lot of damage. Below is a picture of a pretty old weeping cherry tree on the great lawn of the UConn campus in Storrs. I have been watching the steady decline and eventual death of this specimen tree due to the extensive tunneling and den building, excavating under the roots. There are large soil mounds and a wide hole giving access and  protection. UConn has many such areas providing shelter to the ever-growing population of these animals, which can be common place to see all over campus. Stepping in one of holes can also be a danger. Farmers have long battled with woodchucks making holes in pasture and field, especially dangerous for horses and cows which could break a leg.

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Death of weeping cherry due to woodchuck tunneling under root system. Pamm Cooper photo.

If control measures of fences, repellents and traps still leave you with a groundhog problem, there is always the option of hiring a Nuisance Wildlife Control Operator licensed by the State. http://www.ct.gov/deep/lib/deep/wildlife/pdf_files/nwco/nwcodir.pdf

-Carol Quish

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Cedar waxwings on a crab apple in winter

“He who marvels at the beauty of the world in summer will find equal cause for wonder and admiration in winter.”
-John Burroughs

 

Winter is a good time to get out and about as weather and gumption allow. Depending on where you go, there can be interesting things to see, and there no lack of books or other resources to help you learn about whatever you find. I like the shore and the woods in winter, especially on sunny days.

Ring-necked ducks can be found in small ponds or flooded fields during the winter. These small ducks dive to for mollusks, vegetation and invertebrates, and may be seen in small groups or in pairs. Males are more dapper than females, having a glossy dark head with a purple sheen, black chest and back and silvery sides. The bill is boldly patterned with a white ring near the dark tip and a base outlined with white.

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Male ring-necked duck

Another small duck that overwinters along the Connecticut coastline is the ruddy duck. They can be found in coastal estuaries and brackish rivers and streams near their entrances to the Sound. Males congregate in small to large in large flocks resting on the water during the day, heads tucked under a wing. Tails may jut nearly strait up and males have blue bills and a contrasting white cheek patch. More cute than handsome, they are also a diving duck.

Another bird that may overwinter here as long as food is available, is the red- breasted nuthatch. This cousin to the white-breasted is mainly found in coniferous woods or patches of pines, spruce, hemlocks or larches. They have black and white striped heads, slate-blue wings and back and reddish underparts. They sound similar to the white-breasted nuthatch, but their voice is more nasal and often more repetitive. They creep up and down trunks and branches probing bark for food, and may visit suet feeders.

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Red breasted nuthatch

Winter is a great time to look for any bird’s nests that still remain in deciduous trees and shrubs. Baltimore oriole nests are probably the easiest to identify as they hang down from moderately high branch tips, and often are decorated with purple or orange ribbons. Birds are often very particular as to what materials they will use- dog or horse hair, lichens and mosses, grasses etc. Cattail or cottonwood down is a must for yellow warblers and American goldfinches. I am lucky to have found two ruby-throated hummingbird nests, tightly woven tiny cups constructed of spider webs with lichens decorating the sides.

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Nest made of grapevine bark and colored trash- possibly a catbird nest

If you have bird house, especially for bluebirds, make sure to clean them out by early March, as bluebirds start staking out a suitable nesting sites early. They will use old woodpecker holes, high or low in the tree trunk, in the woods or on the wood line. Just be sure to have no perch below the nesting box hole as bluebirds like to cling to the hole while feeding their young and seldom use a house with a perch.

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Male bluebird on nesting box

Fireflies have been out during the warmer, sunnier days of winter. Check out the sunny sides of tree trunks. Another insect that may be out on warm days is the Mourning Cloak butterfly. These butterflies overwinter in tree bark crevices, sheds, tree cavities or anywhere else they can escape winter winds and snows. They may be encountered flying around the woods on sunny, warm winter days.

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Fireflies on a sunny tree trunk during January

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Mourning cloak butterfly

Just before sunset, check out the surrounding trees for a characteristic orange glow. Caused by clear skies to our west and the scattering of blue light, houses and trees can reflect the bright winter oranges as you look toward the east. Lasting only a few minutes, if that, it is one of the winter highlights for me.

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Pre-dusk winter glow

This winter, many paper wasp nests were unusually small. Not sure what to make of that, except maybe the wasps had a lack of food, or were out too late last January and were not able to acclimate properly to the sudden cold. As for snow, so far not much to speak of in my part of the state. But I’ll take the rain over the snow as long as the ground isn’t frozen. While snow can be pretty, I simply don’t miss this ….

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Winter 2010

Pamm Cooper         all photos copyright 2017 Pamm Cooper

“Clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones, coastlines are not circles, and bark is not smooth, nor does lightning travel in a straight line.”

– Benoit Mandelbrot, introduction to The Fractal Geometry of Nature

At this time of year many of the trees and shrubs in our landscapes are mere skeletons of their summer glory. Their beautiful canopies of leaves have been shed and they provide little visual interest. Unless you look a bit closer…

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This is actually a great time to observe the branching patterns of deciduous trees. A closer look reveals that they are eerily similar to our own vascular and respiratory systems. As each system goes from the main trunk to the larger limbs to the smaller branches and then the twigs we see the same fractal branching that occurs in the network of blood vessels in our lungs. How incredible that such like systems are actually performing a reverse process. Trees are taking in our exhaled carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen (O2) into the atmosphere.  In turn, we inhale that O2 rich air into our lungs where it travels through the increasingly smaller vessels until it reaches the capillaries where it passes through into our bloodstream. As the oxygen-rich blood travels through our body our cells use the oxygen and release CO2 back into the bloodstream where it travels back to our lungs before releasing CO2 as we exhale.

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The important thing to remember is that for both of these systems to work well they need to cover a large surface area and fractal branching is the most efficient way for that happen. Fractal branching is a pattern that repeats itself in either larger or smaller scales, each step looking like a copy of the same overall shape. These patterns are called self-similar and are found in many areas in nature from trees to rivers and many more. Ferns are a great example of a self-similar fractal as each pinnate leaf is a miniature version of the larger frond that it branches off from although natural branching fractals do not go on infinitely as mathematical fractals can. Remember the Fibonacci Sequence from your high school math class?

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Most of the fractals that we are familiar with and see on a regular basis fall into the category known as spiral fractals. Spiral fractals are responsible for some of the most beautiful forms that can be found in nature. Many galaxies are spiral fractals. The marine animal known as the Nautilus is perhaps one of the most well-known examples of the spiral fractal. But there are also so many spiral fractals that we encounter in the plant kingdom on a daily basis.

Ferns exhibit fractal properties in two ways. The uncurling of a new fiddlehead in the spring is a lovely example of a spiral fractal while a mature Japanese Painted fern (Athyrium niponicumn) pictured above shows the self-similar pattern of a branching fractal.

The Monkey Puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana)  has a most interesting growth pattern with each branch a continuing spiral of tough, scale-like leaves. Although native to Chile and Argentina, these images are of a specimen that is located on the Long Island campus of Hofstra University.

Closer to home are some plants that are in many of our gardens during the summer season. The compact spirals of Stonecrop, also known as Sedum, help to form the tight clusters of thick leaves that give it its distinguishing look. I always love the way that dew or rain collect in the in little cups that are formed.

Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus), Gerbera (Gerbera) daisies, and Coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) show their spirals on a grand scale.

Decorative cabbage and kale (Brassica oleracea) are seasonal plants that bring their cold-resistant beauty to our fall landscaping and thus complete a full year of natural fractals that can be found all around us .

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Susan Pelton

Spittlebugs are common and easily recognized by the white foamy ‘spittle’ produced by the nymph or immature stage of the insects as they feed. Adults are less often seen but are commonly known as froghoppers (close relatives of leafhoppers, etc).  Depending on the reference, there are anywhere from 30 to 60+ spittlebug species in the United States.  All feed on plants, including both woody and herbaceous types.  Some spittlebugs have broad host ranges and others narrow.

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‘Spittle’ produced by nymphs on a plant. Photo by: G. Lenard, LA State Univ.

 

There is usually only one generation per year and most overwinter in the egg stage inside overwintering plant tissue where they were deposited by the females in from mid to late summer to early fall, depending on species. Hatch occurs in the spring, probably in May in Connecticut.  Even though spittlebugs feed by extracting plant sap/juice through needle-like mouth parts, they seldom cause notable injury to the plant.  There are a few exceptions including the meadow spittlebug (Philaenus spumarius) and the pine spittlebug (Aphrophora cribata).

Color variations of the meadow spittlebug adult.  Photos: Cheryl Moorehead,     bugwood.org

The meadow spittlebug has a broad host range that includes both herbaceous and woody plants. It is reported to cause damage in clover, strawberry, mint, herbaceous ornamentals and both coniferous and broad-leaved woody plants when present in high numbers.  Other common names include the common froghopper and the cuckoo spit (most common name in the UK).  Eggs are laid in the stems or crevices of host plants in the fall.  When they hatch in the spring, nymphs usually feed on the plant the eggs were laid on but they will move to younger more tender tissues as the plant grows.  There are five nymph stages and all produce spittle as they feed.   Once the adult stage is reached, spittle is no longer produced and the adult is quite mobile, quickly jumping a long distance relative to its size when disturbed.

The froghoppers or adult stage are so-called because their bodies are somewhat wider at the rear like a frog. The name cuckoo spit may have come about because the spittle tends to be first seen in the spring around the same time that the first calls of the cuckoo bird are heard.  Most adults are brown to green in color with only subtle markings but some species have striking coloration or patterns.  The meadow spittlebug adult is quite variable in coloration.

So, about the spittle. The spittle offers some clear benefits to the nymph(s) hiding within.  First, it helps prevent the soft-bodied little guys from drying out.  In addition, it protects them from detection by potential parasites and predators.  A single mass of spittle may be inhabited by multiple nymphs feeding in the same area on the plant.  How is the spittle produced?  First, the spittlebug ingests more plant sap than it needs for its nutrition/sustenance.  The excess is expelled through the anus as a watery waste product.  It mixes with a mucilaginous fluid produced by glands on the abdomen and air bubbles are introduced from a special canal by abdominal contractions.  This is pretty interesting stuff going on in gardens, forests and meadows all around us each spring and early summer!

spittlebugnymph-bugwood Spittlebug nymph.  Photo: David Cappaert, Bugwood.org

If you would like to get a closer look at a nymph, don’t be afraid to brush the foam carefully away from a plant and look for them inside. They will be up to ¼” long depending on their stage of development and may be yellowish, greenish or brown in color.  They are elongated and generally are positioned head down. This facilitates the movement of the spittle downward to cover them.  Nymphs are shy and will not be happy to be exposed.  They will attempt to walk away but cannot run or fly.

The biggest problem with spittlebugs in the garden, whether it’s an ornamental or food garden, is the unsightliness of the spittle masses. Spittle and nymphs can both be washed off the plants with a steady stream of water.  On a small scale, they can be hand-removed and disposed of.  Normally, no chemical controls are recommended and the spittle protects nymphs from contact insecticides.  Not sure if there are enough spittlebugs to cause plants to be weakened?  Look for distorted or stunted new growth, and of course numerous spittle masses on the same plant.

In a few cases, additional injury to the host plant can occur if toxic substances are introduced into the plant while feeding or if the froghopper/spittlebug is vectoring a plant pathogen (could be a virus or phytoplasma).  Feeding wounds can create entry points for some pathogens.

By J. Allen