Gardening


 

 

forsythia

The earth is continuing to awake this week, wide-eyed and full of vigor. The most obvious, in-your-face sign is the bright and intense yellow flowers of forsythia popping up and out of landscapes and yards. There is nothing subtle about forsythia. It is loud and screaming to be seen. A designing friend once called it the “spring vomit defiling the landscape.”  Another bit of sage wisdom on color theory about yellow was offered from a quilt teacher, “A little yellow goes a long way.” But I think forsythia’s splash is just what is needed after months of grey and browns of winter, especially a winter without the white of snow cover.  Forsythia shocks us out of the winter doldrums and seems to waken all the other flowers.

forsthyia in the woods

 

Forsythias bloom on wood grown in the previous year. Prune forsythia the spring immediately after flowering. Flower buds develop during the summer and fall, and fall, winter or early spring pruning will remove them. Forsythia is a non-native plant here. Most species are from Asia with one originating in Southeastern Europe.  Forsythia is often used a marker and reminder to apply crabgrass preventer. Once the forsythia is starting to drop its flowers, the timing is right to apply pre-emergent fertilizer. The same ground temperatures at that stage of blooming are the same ground temperatures to initiate crabgrass seed germination. Good to know.

Daffodils complement the landscape, drawing eyes away from possible blinding by overplanted forsythia hedges. Daffodils come in varying shades of yellow from soft, pale yellows and whites to deep, yellows with almost orange trumpets. Bulbs planted in clumps look more natural than soldier straight rows, although rows add a sense of formality and satisfy the orderly type of gardeners. All parts of the daffodil plant is toxic to animals, making is a good choice where deer and voles are common to visit.

daffodil clumps

Directly following the forsythia flowers, several showy trees begin blooming. First is the star magnolia, (Magnolia stellata), with its white star-like flowers. Any winds will move the tepals, and if you squint hard enough, look like twinkling stars. Star magnolia is native to Japan and is a common specimen tree here in the U.S..  Flowers delicate often succumb to frost damage and turning brown tinged.

 

Saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangiana), blooms a week or two later than the star magnolia. Saucer magnolia flowers are cup shaped in various shades of pink depending on variety. The parents of this hybrid are Magnolia denudate x Magnolia liliiflorsa, both native to China. I love the smooth grey bark visible during the winter once the leaves drop, providing great winter interest.

 Another softer and less yellow flowering shrub blooming currently is Cornell pink azalea AKA Korean azalea, (Rhododendron mucronulatum). Blossoms come out before the leaves turning the multi-stemmed shrub into a mass of many clear pink flowers. It is native to Korea, Russia, Mongolia and Northern China. Bees especially appreciate its rich nectar source and often are can be seen visiting at all times of day.

Rhododendron mucronulatum. Azalea Pamm Cooper photo

Spicebush, (Lindera benzoin), is a native understory shrub with subtle, pale yellow flowers attached along branches before leaves emerge. Look into the woods to see a bit of dotted yellow haze in wet areas. Leaves can be used to make a tea. Red berries will be produced later in the season providing food for wildlife and birds.

spice bush

Cornelian cherry, (Cornus mas), is not a cherry at all, it is in the dogwood family. Native to Europe where the fruits produced later in the season are used for preserves and syrups, if you can beat the birds to harvest them.  Mature trees develop interesting, exfoliating bark.

Look lower to the ground for first spring flowers. The native bluets (Houstonia caerulea) are beginning their show up. Other common names are Azure Bluet and Quaker Ladies. Find them growing in moist areas near stream banks, rivers and ponds. I see them in natural lawns where no herbicides or weed and feed products were ever used. Cow fields are usually loaded with them in rural areas.

Bluets

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is another native spring flowering plant poking its white blossoms up from the soil with its leaves following below. Flowers are self-pollinating, and then form a seed pod which ripens around July. Ants are important allies in spreading the seeds, and eating the rich lipid coating on the seeds, aiding in germination.  Bloodroot occurs natural in woodland settings, blooming before the tree leaf canopy develops. Bloodroot gets its name from the red juice emitted from rhizomes historically used to dye wool and fabrics. It was also used for medicinal properties in the past.

 

-by Carol Quish

 

Male red-winged blackbird

Spring is when you feel like whistling even with a shoe full of slush.  Doug Larson

Following a relatively mild winter, this spring has been a bit of a chiller so far. Forsythia in the north a yellow bud and central areas of Connecticut barely have yellow flower buds showing and star magnolias are just starting to show a few blooms. Spring may be slow to start, but at least it isn’t winter.

Spring peepers are singing, and have been for about three weeks. These harbingers of spring provide a cheery chorus for those fortunate enough to live near ponds. They were joined a couple of weeks later by wood frogs, who have a more throaty but equally welcome spring song.

Spring peepers live up to their name

Painted turtles, the first of which I saw in February on a 60 degree day, can be seen on warmer days sunning themselves on partially submerged logs and rocks. Spotted salamanders have already laid their eggs in vernal pools, and wood frogs should be doing the same now. Check out vernal pools for the eggs of these amphibians, plus you may see some immature salamanders swimming around before they develop lungs and venture onto land.

painted turtle stretching

Painted turtle stretching out

 

Spring azure butterflies, Celastrina ladon, have a single brood, and flight may occur any time between late March and early June here in Connecticut. This is one of our first butterflies to emerge from its chrysalis, and can be seen obtaining nectar from early spring flowers such as bluets and violets.

spring azure on bluet May 19 2016

Spring azure butterfly on a native bluet flower

Another early flying butterfly is the Mourning cloak, easily identified by the upper sides of its large, chocolate brown wings that are edged with cream borders and lined inside that with lavender to blue spots. Imported cabbage white butterflies are arriving from their southern living quarters. This butterfly lays its eggs on members of the brassica family, which includes the wild mustards, including the invasive garlic mustard.

Mourning cloak early spring

Mourning cloak basking in early April

Migrating birds are slow to arrive, but the red-winged blackbirds have been back since early March, although some were even here in late February. Males arrive way ahead of females, which gives them plenty of time to select the best nesting sites in advance. Some warblers may fly through just before invasive honeysuckles leaf out. Palm and black and white warblers are some of the earliest to arrive. Palm warblers flick their rusty tail, much as phoebes do, and they move on northward to their breeding grounds. Many black and white warblers remain here to breed in woodlands.

palm warbler on migration in April pamm Cooper photo

Palm warblers sometimes migrate through before most plants have leafed out

Forsythia and star magnolias are just starting to bloom -later than normal this spring in northern Connecticut, but bloodroot and violets should be blooming any time now. These are important flowers for our spring pollinators. Japanese andromeda, Pieris japonica, has been blooming in some places since late March, and this is also visited by early spring flying bees. Along with pussy willows, this is a great plant for Colletes inaequalis, the earliest ground nesting bee which is active around the time  native willows start to bloom.

Japanese Andromeda flowering in early April 2018 Pamm Cooper photo

Japanese andromeda flowers in late March

Check out streams for marsh marigolds and watercress, and dry sunny, woodland areas for native trout lilies that usually start to bloom in late April or early May. Red trillium, Trillium erectum, sometimes has an overlapping bloom time with bloodroot, depending on the weather.

Watercress (Nasturtium officinale)

Watercress blooming in a woodland brook

 

Raccoons, foxes and many other animals may have their young from early spring through June. Some birds, including great horned owls, may have their young in late winter. Sometimes these owls use the nest that red-tailed or other hawks used the previous year.

baby raccoons June 2

Two week old raccoons in a sunny spot in the woods

 

While the central portions on the United States are having bomb cyclones this week that are bringing heavy snows and severe wind gusts, we should have snow here only in the form of a distant memory. I can live with that.

Pamm Cooper

 

 

 

 

 

‘Plant a little mint, Madame, then step out of the way so you don’t get hurt!’

anonymous British gardener

Spring is the time when we look forward to putting aside our heavy winter clothing for spring jackets and hearty soups and stews for lighter fare. The first foods that are produced in our gardens in the spring are usually greens such as lettuces and spinach, asparagus, green onions, and peas. And there is no better complement to peas and green onions than mint.

mint

Mint (Mentha) is a fast-growing, aromatic, perennial herb with opposite, toothed leaves, and stems that are square in cross-section. Most varieties reach 1-3’ in height. It prefers a moist but well-drained soil in a neutral pH. Mint can be started indoors from seed or sown outdoors once the ground has warmed and like all seeds, they must be kept moist until they germinate. Choosing to buy seedlings or larger plants will bring a quicker harvest, and I find that I like being able to break off and crush a leaf to see what the mint variety will smell and taste like.

Mint can run rampant over your garden, spreading through underground runners called stolons, and should be either placed where this habit will not be a problem or contained by annual division in the spring.  When I was a novice gardener (and a very green one at that) some 35 years ago, I made the mistake of planting mint in our garden. It took several years to eradicate the mint that threatened to overtake the bed. If you do want to plant mint in the ground, one option is to plant it in a bottomless five-gallon bucket sunk into the ground with only the top couple of inches peeking out.

Growing mint in containers or hanging baskets solves the problem of mint taking over. Container herbs will require more moisture than garden-grown herbs and may benefit from late afternoon shade. And containers can be brought in for the winter. I have had mine in a sunny window since last October and it is still doing well. Below is an image of mint planted amid eggplant in a container.

mint 3

Chocolate mint in flowerFresh leaves should be picked as soon as the plant has enough foliage to maintain growth. Only remove about one-third of the foliage at each harvest. Early morning is best to ensure that the oils are not dried out from the sun. To dry herbs for winter use, the leaves should be harvested prior to flower buds opening. Pinching off leaves will help the plants to fill out. Any mint that is allowed to go to flower will attract a wide variety of pollinators with its white, pale pink, or pale purple blossoms. The image on the right is chocolate mint in flower (image from the NCCD Plant Sale site)

 

True mint varieties are known to cross pollinate with other types of mint when planted within close proximity. This can result in characteristics from different mint types to appear in one plant, leading to unfavorable scents or flavors. There are between 20-25 species of mint in the Mentha genus depending on the source: the following are some of my personal favorites.

Chocolate mint

 

Chocolate mint, Mentha x piperita ‘Chocolate’, is my top choice, with its brownish-red stems and brown tinged serrated leaves. It is a cultivar of peppermint (which itself is a hybrid of watermint and spearmint) and prefers full sun. I’ve heard the smell and taste compared to an Andes Chocolate Mint, an apt description.

 

 

 

Mint' Spearmint' 2

 

Spearmint, Mentha spicata, also known as common or garden mint, prefers partial shade and a neutral pH. Like all commercial mints, it is sterile and can only be propagated through cuttings.

 

 

 

Mint 'Peppermint'

 

 

Peppermint, Mentha piperita, does not tolerate dry conditions as it is native to stream beds. Black peppermint has deep purple-green leaves and stems and a higher oil content while the white is actually light green and has a milder flavor. It is often used as a digestion aid.

 

 

 

Pineapple mintPineapple mint, Mentha suaveolens ‘Variegata’, has a lovely, light pineapple scent. As its Latin name suggests the pineapple mint has white-margined, bumpy, hairy, variegated leaves making it a visually interesting addition to any container. It is the variegated cultivar of apple mint, Mentha suaveolens. Sprigs of the unvariegated apple mint may occasionally appear among pineapple mint and should be pinched out. This is called reversion and happens when the less vigorous variegated specimens return to the original sturdier form, due to less chlorophyll being produced by the light sections of their leaves. Grow in full sun for upright plants or partial shade for a sprawling cover. Image by the U of Florida.

 

mint 'Apple'

 

Apple mint, Mentha suaveolens, has woolly, square stems and leaves that are a bit hairy on top and woolly below. It has a very faint, apple-like taste if the leaves are crushed so it is a subtle addition to fruit salads or in drinks.

 

 

 

 

Mint 'Orange' 2

 

 

Orange mint, Mentha x piperita citrata, can reach up to 2 feet in height. It will bloom in the late-spring into summer with lovely small violet flowers.

 

 

 

Some other varieties of mint that I saw recently included a strawberry mint (below, left) that has a fresh strawberry flavor and mint ‘Mojito’ (below, right), with a touch of citrus.

Mint leaves make a delicious addition to beverages such as lemonade, seltzer, or even iced water. Mint ‘tea’ is not a true tea, which must be made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis, but in fact a tisane, an infusion made by steeping leaves in hot water. Whether the leaves are fresh or dried, a mint tisane makes a refreshing hot or iced beverage.

When used in culinary dishes, mint can liven up any recipe. As it is native to the Mediterranean it is a common ingredient in many cultures. Greek cuisine uses mint in many dishes. Tzatziki is a sauce made from Greek yogurt, cucumber, garlic, lemon juice, chopped mint and salt.

taztziki-1.jpg

Its Indian cousin, raita, uses the same ingredients except for the garlic to create a cool sauce to offset the heat of Indian curries. Another Greek dish, tabbouleh, is a great summertime favorite with our family. Usually made with bulgur wheat, I use quinoa as the base grain, and then toss this cold salad with chopped plum tomatoes, cucumbers, scallions, and fresh mint. Olive oil, lemon juice, and salt finish off this refreshing cold salad.

 

peas_4_3021757467I have also used fresh mint leaves in homemade strawberry jam, adding the clean, chopped leaves just before ladling the mixture into sterilized jars and putting them into a hot water bath for 10 minutes. A very British spring dish is fresh peas with mint where a sliced scallion is sautéed in butter, then fresh, shelled peas are added along with a pinch of salt, and just enough water to barely cover them. After 2 minutes on a high heat add a small handful of torn mint leaves and cook until the peas are tender. Fresh sugar snap peas can be used in place of the shelled peas.

Some benefits to growing mint are that deer rarely eat it and as an essential oil it can be used to control mites and mosquito larvae or as a repellent to rabbits, dogs, and cats. Even more beneficial is how well it pairs with chocolate! Its no surprise that mint is a symbol of warm feelings, virtue, and eternal refreshment.

Susan Pelton

All images by S. Pelton unless otherwise noted.

A few weeks ago I took off for New York City to spend a few nights with my recently married friend and his wife. Going to the city a few years ago to visit him before he was married was much different than the weekend I just spent with the newly-weds. We spent most of the morning walking around different shops, getting brunch, then trying out a few different vegan ice creams. After walking off a few scoops of ice-cream, we ended up at Chelsea Market, an “enclosed urban food court, shopping mall, office building and television production facility”. My friend and his wife told me about this restaurant they dined at while on their honeymoon in Paris called Miznon. There were four Miznons located throughout the world in Tel Aviv, Paris, Vienna, and Melbourne. In 2018 a much awaited fifth Miznon was opened in the US, at Chelsea Market. Apparently, Miznon sells a world-famous cauliflower dish, that according to my friend’s wife I just HAD to try. Now up until recently I have had a very limited pallet, and had only just started eating cauliflower, and wasn’t a big fan. I expressed my disinterested to them about broccoli’s even less appealing, pale knockoff. However, they just wouldn’t let me leave without trying it. We went into Miznon, ordered, and took a seat and people-watched all the characters passing through the market. Our waitress dropped off what appeared to me to be a deflated basketball. The couple I was with could barely contain their excitement. Upon further inspection, I realized that this was not in-fact a basketball, but a head of cauliflower wrapped in parchment paper. My friend slowly unwrapped the cauliflower when I first caught a glimpse of the actual dish. When I had tried to prepare cauliflower myself, it always came out either completely burnt, or very watery. This dish was golden brown and smelt like no cauliflower I had ever smelled before.

Cflower

Unfortunately I couldn’t find the picture I took of the dish myself, so this will have to do. Image provided by: https://static.domain.com.au/twr/production/uploads/2017/08/22230751/Roasted-Cauliflower-1950.jpg

I took my fork and was caught off guard by how easily the cauliflower peeled off from the stem. After my first bite I was hooked. The consistency was so smooth, the flavors were so established; a far cry from the usual tasteless dishes I had tried before. Before we had even finished our first head we had ordered another, and I was frantically searching on my phone for the recipe. Luckily my friend’s wife already had it saved and sent it to me, which I can now share with you! Here is a link to the recipe: https://www.foodandwine.com/recipes/miznons-whole-roasted-cauliflower; and here’s a cool video of the chef preparing the dish:

Once we had our fill of cauliflower we left Chelsea Market and stumbled across the High Line, an old elevated freight line that was repurposed as a large, unique city park. The High Line runs over a mile and a half through NYC, and is filled with garden, artwork, and venues for community outreach programs. Now unfortunately I was visiting in early March, and the weather wasn’t favorable. It was cold and rainy, so we didn’t have much time to explore, and the gardens were barren. However, the little time we spent walking the converted tracks through the city was an awesome experience, and has me waiting for warmer weather to go back. More information about the High Line can be found on their website: https://www.thehighline.org/.

highline

The High Line. Photo by J. Croze

highline1

The High Line. Photo by J. Croze

With spring in the air, many of us are starting to resume outdoor activities. Pussy willows are peaking out and minor bulbs are beginning to bloom but the landscape in many parts is still sporting the remains of winter. Without herbaceous growth and tree leaves, the rocks and tree trunks and fence posts are so much more visible. On them, what is quite noticeable now is an abundance of lichens.

crocus early

Early crocuses welcoming the first day of spring. Photo by dmp, UConn.

Lichens are rather curious creatures. They are a great example of a mutualistic association between two species – a fungus (called the mycobiant) and an algae (known as the phycobient). Fungi are a diverse group of organisms but none can produce their own food. So, they are dependent on another organism for survival. Gardeners are familiar with pathogenic fungi that attack their plants. Fungi that are decomposers break down organic matter. Mycorrhizal fungi form symbiotic relationships with most species of plants.

mushroooms by door

Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of fungi. Photo by dmp, UConn

In all these examples, the fungi derives its food from other organisms, living or dead. The same can be said for lichens. In this partnership between the fungi and the green or blue-green algae (or sometimes both), the latter photosynthesizes providing food for itself and its fungal partner. In exchange, the fungus allows the algae, which can only survive in fresh or salt water on its own, to live practically anywhere when the two form this dual living organism. The fungal structures also serve to protect the algae in harsh environments, which is why lichens can be found on all continents as well as in dry, hot deserts or frigid, polar regions.

Lichens are often confused with mosses, which are actually a separate group of non-vascular plants. They do often inhabit similar sites and since mosses are able to retain moisture, lichens that live near them may be able to use this water to extend their growth cycles.

moss

Moss in a woodland area. Photo by dmp, UConn.

Unlike plants, lichens have no leaves, stems or roots. The algal part of them can photosynthesize but lichens get all their water and nutrients from the air and precipitation. They attach themselves to substrates either by fungal filaments called rhizines or a holdfast, which is an extension of the body (thallus) of the lichen.

lichens 2

Lichens covering rocks along old stone wall. Photo by dmp, UConn.

There are at least 40,000 known species of lichens and reportedly, it is much more difficult to identify species of lichens than species of vascular plants. They do have 3 distinct growth forms though that can help start the identification process. Foliose lichens have two distinctive sides, usually a top and a bottom. They come in a variety of forms – lettuce-like, ridge-like or bumpy or even convoluted.

lichens 4

Ruffled lichens on rock. Photo by dmp, UConn.

Often fruticose lichens are found hanging from trees or other perches. They can be thin strands and pendant, or upright and shrubby or cuplike. Some have flat branches that appear to be matted.

Lichen Dixie Reindeer fructose Cladina subtenuis www2.crms.uga.edu

Fruticose lichen – Dixie Reindeer. From: www2.crms.uga.edu

Crustose lichens, as the name implies, form crusts on rocks or on soil, often in proximity to mosses and cyanobacteria. They appear flattened or pressed against the substrate and these crustose lichens can be brightly colored.

lichen colorful crust www.nps.gov

Colorful crustose lichens in Utah. From: http://www.nps.gov

Just like plants, lichens have certain requirements to grow and survive. Not surprisingly, these include light, water, air, nutrients and a substrate. Since lichens need to photosynthesize, they need sunlight. Various species have adapted to different light levels, some high and some low. Often species growing in hotter environments are more pigmented, and hence, more colorful.

Lichens can absorb both water and water vapor through their cortex (outer layer). When moist, they start photosynthesizing and growing. Since lichens do not have a mechanism to retain water, during dry periods, they enter into a dormant phase often becoming dry and brittle. Once rain or fog remoistens them, they will become active again. Since they can absorb moisture from water vapor, lichens are often found in foggy coastal regions.

Nutrients are absorbed from water, air and sometimes the substrate they are growing on, especially if it is soil. Lichens need nitrogen to form proteins and other substances, just like plants. The blue-green algae (sometimes called cyanobacteria) part of the lichen can convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form that both parts of the lichen can use. This process is called nitrogen fixation. Excess nitrogen can be leached by precipitation and enter the ecosystem for use by other living organisms.

Lichens 1

Lichens on tree. The rain will wash any excess nitrogen fixed by the cyanobacteria into the soil where plants can use it. Photo by dmp, UConn.

Air quality is key to a healthy and diverse lichen population. In fact, lichens are used in two ways as indicators of air pollution. The cleaner the air, the more diverse the population of lichens will be. Typically, the number of species declines with proximity to urban or industrial areas. With time, often more tolerant species will replace the more sensitive ones. Monitoring the species over time provides a picture of the change in air quality. As air quality improves, more sensitive species may recolonize some areas.

Lichens absorb not only water and minerals but pollutants, like heavy metals and other contaminants, from rain and dust. Because of this property, lichens are often collected and analyzed for these various pollutants and the results can tell us much about air quality.

Many animals depend on lichens for food, shelter, nesting material and hiding places. People have eaten certain species of lichens but many other species are poisonous so identification would be crucial. Lichens are also used as dyes, for medicinal purposes and in some natural personal care products.

They can start the process of soil formation. As they attach themselves and colonize rocks, lichens very, very slowly cause the rock to weather releasing its minerals and particles into the surrounding soil system. Get a glimpse of lichens on your forays into the woods, down the street or around your own yard. Perhaps you’ll look at them in a different light – at least before the trees leaf out.

Dawn P.

Insects and animals visit our outdoor spaces all the time, even though we may not see them. Some are nocturnal being active at night when we are not typically in our yards or gardens. They do leave signs they were there though. Some leave tracks where they were walking or crawling about, others leave feeding marks where they had a meal. Take some time to observe the living beings sharing your outdoor areas.

Elm trees can be attacked by an Elm Bark Beetle, which feeds just under the bark in the cambium layer of the tree. The tiny insect feeds by chewing up the moist plant tissue, leaving a beautiful and distinctive pattern  once the bark dies and falls off as shown in the photo below. The elm bark beetle are known to spread Dutch Elm Disease to elm trees in the process of feeding.

Elm Bark Beetle damage on dead log.


Adult European elm bark beetle. Credit: J. Benzel, Screening Aids,
USDA APHIS ITP, Bugwood.org

A newer pest in the northeast which also feeds just under the bark is the Emerald Ash Borer. It is emerald green as its common name implies, and also small in size at less than a half inch. Control is very difficult since the larval stage feeds underneath the bark where contact insecticides cannot reach. The adult beetles feed on the leaves in spring after they emerge from D-shaped exit holes they make in the bark when they chew their way out of the tree. It leaves a more random and larger feeding pattern, with the ability to kill an ash tree in three years.

Emerald Ash Borer Handiwork Elizabeth Park Trenton, Michigan

Emerald Ash Borer Adult, Photo by David Cappaert, Bugwood.org

A group of insects aptly named leafminers feed in between the top and bottom layers of a leaf. You can see the feeding trails left by the larval stage of some moths, sawflies and flies. They are usually host specific, each species of insect feeding on only one species of plant. Once again, pesticides will not reach the inside of the leaf where the insect is located. Remove and destroy infected leaves to kill the leafminer.

Boxwood leafminers.
Columbine leafminer damage, Bugwood.org photo

The next photo of a pattern on a pipe of a gate near a lake was sent to our office asking what made the etching. The marks are feeding trails of snails eating the algae growing on the pipe in the wetland area. Snails have a ribbon-like tongue called a radula which has thousands of tiny teeth that line the surface used to rasp up the algae.

Photo credit, Lou Beausoleil

Woodpeckers leave their marks while pecking on trees. They peck to make noise to find a mate or declare their staked out territory. They also peck into trees in search of insects to eat. The red-bellied sapsucker makes small holes in a pegboard fashion as it systematically covers an area of a tree to seek out every insect.


Sapsucker damage to a dead branch.

Of course many animals leave tracks in the snow and soil, like hoofed deer and the three toed turkeys. Below are vole tracks meandering around its tunnel opening.

What tracks can you find?

-Carol Quish

barred owlin oak UConn campus 2014 - Copyright Pamm Cooper

A barred owl rests in an oak

A thousand stories come together as you observe all of the life associated with oak trees

One of my favorite things to do is to take a lightweight three- legged folding stool out on hikes and sit down for a while in areas that show a promise of something good to come if I can simply wait a bit. It is always a surprise to discover all the activity going on that I would have missed because of a failure to employ the railroad method of outdoor walking: “ stop, look and listen “.

doe sleeping in backyard winter under oak

Doe sleeping under an oak in the winter

Oaks provide a great opportunity to observe all kinds of life, as they are a major food source for many caterpillars, cicadas, katydids and other species of insects.. Holes from feeding insects, leaf shelters containing caterpillars and leaf or twig galls are just a few things you may notice. But a closer look will prove that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Tiny creatures seen crawling along twigs and leaf undersides may be the nymphs of some sort of tree hopper insect. Caterpillars might dangle down on silken threads, spiders may have woven webs among the branches and mushrooms arise from duff underneath the trees. Oaks provide nesting sites for many birds and animals, and food in the form of leaves, twigs and acorns.

spider webs on oak trees October 2016 foggy morning

Spider silk dangling from an oak on an October morning

Early in the spring when oaks are just beginning to show swollen buds, catbirds normally are back. And as leaves begin to unfurl, look and listen for scarlet tanagers and Baltimore orioles in the top of the canopy of mature oaks. There must be caterpillars there because you will see them poking around and under the newly opened leaves. Male red- bellied woodpeckers advertise the fact that they have constructed a fine nesting cavity suitable for any females in the area. The males can be hard to spot because they sit inside their hole and poke only their head out and sing sporadically all day. Because of past storms, many oaks have dead vertical limbs that are just what red- bellies like for drumming and excavating.

red belly in hole

Male red bellied woodpecker sings from inside his newly created nesting hole

Oaks have the distinction of being the host for many gall insects. While most are not a threat to the health of the tree, they can occur in large numbers. One of the most common galls familiar to many people are those formed by the oak apple gall wasp. These are large and are a smooth with a limey green color. Neatly tucked inside is the larva of the wasp, safe and sound from predators. A gall of the wool sower wasp is associated with white oaks and it looks somewhat like a toasted marshmallow.

wool sower gall

Wool sower wasp gall on white oak

Oaks are also the host plant for over 500 species of moth caterpillars, which makes them the champ when it comes to supplying bird food in Connecticut. From spring until fall, check out oak leaves for any caterpillars that may be there. Late in the summer, walking sticks might also be found on oaks.

 

afflicted dagger on oak

Afflicted dagger caterpillar on an oak

yellow-based tussock moth caterpillar on oak

Yellow-based tussock moth caterpillar on white oak

Butterflies such as the spring-flying Juvenal’s duskywing, banded hairstreak, striped hairstreak and red-spotted purples also use oaks as host plants for their caterpillars. If these butterflies are seen, check out any nearby oaks for the caterpillars.

Juvennals duskywing

Juvenal’s duskywing butterfly uses oaks as a host plant for its caterpillars

Several weevils are associated with oaks, among them the acorn weevil. The female lays an egg inside an acorn by chewing out a hole with its mouth and inserting one egg inside the developing fruit. Look for acorns in the fall that have a small round hole. This is evidence that the larva that was feeding inside has exited by chewing its way out. Sometimes squirrels can be seen turning acorns around in their paws as they look for these holes, or feel the weight of the acorn. They will not waste valuable time opening an acorn that will not supply a sufficient supply of food.

female acorn weevil Pamm Cooper photo

Female acorn weevil on red oak

New York weevil found on oak May 2017

New York weevil on oak

A few years ago, there were lacewing eggs everywhere on the undersides of all kinds of oaks. The next year- hardly any on oak, but there were a lot on cherries. In late summer. Lacewing larvae move about on the top of oak leaves with old molted exoskeletons and other debris piled on their backs. They look like little mobile fuzz balls.

 

lacewing eggs

Lacewing eggs under an oak leaf

Deer and turkeys rely on acorns for food during the fall and winter. Sometimes you can see the places under oaks where deer have dug through the snow looking for acorns. Gray, red or flying squirrels will also eat acorns and may also nest in the trees as well. Once year a pair of young flying squirrels were out during the day because their nesting hole was damaged by a fallen branch.

flying squirrel near nest hole

Young flying squirrel

The next time you see an oak, imagine all that may be happening on, around and under that tree. Look a little closer and see what you can find. And enjoy its shade at the same time.

 

Pamm Cooper

tree frog common gray on tree trunk

You have to look close to see the gray tree frog on this tree trunk

Next Page »