Wildlife


tiger swallowtail and obedient plant

Tiger swallowtail on obedient plant flower

“What dreadful hot weather we have! It keeps me in a continual state of inelegance.” – Jane Austen

What a strange summer we have had so far in New England! I almost thought of going to Florida to escape the heat and humidity. It has been hot and humid, no doubt, but it is August after all, and things are coming along nicely in the out- of-doors. This time of year there is enough good stuff going on in the landscape to overcome any weather difficulties we may be experiencing, so let’s plod on out and see what’s happening.

Horsebarn Hill on a foggy July morning

foggy morning on Horsebarn Hill UConn

 

 

As we head on into the mid= summer, most garden buffs are by now reveling in the abundance of hydrangeas that are now in bloom. The dwarf ‘Little Lime’ is one of several panicle Hydrangeas that have nice full-bodied lime green flowers that pack a visual punch in the landscape. ‘Little Lamb’ is another of the smaller panicle hydrangeas, this one also having a compact form with pure white, ethereal blooms that give it its name.

little lambs hydrangea

‘Little lamb’ panicle hydrangea

Hibiscus are also blooming now, with their outstanding large, colorful flowers that really provide some visual excitement in the garden. I came across a nice hedgerow type planting that made a nice privacy screen along a sidewalk. I am not really a hibiscus fan, but a pink- flowered one popped up in my garden, and looks so great there that I guess it can stay. I wonder if someone snuck it in there to get me to have kinder thoughts toward these plants…

hibiscus border

Hibiscus

On the wild side, the sweet- smelling Clethra alnifolia is in full bloom and is attracting all types of bees, beetles and butterflies. Look for this small clump-forming shrub in any areas where soils are moist. The white flower spikes are very fragrant, so you can tell where Clethra are long before you actually see them. Groundnut vine is also blooming now, with its pea-like pink flower clusters dangling from its twining stems. Often found twining itself around goldenrods and blue vervain, it is always fun to come across this plant.

red spotted purple on clethra alnifolia

Red spotted purple butterfly on Clethra

The barn swallows that are partial to building their nests on the eaves of our equipment building have had their second brood of the year, as have bluebirds. Hopefully that will exit the nest soon and mom and dad can have a much needed rest in the near future. There was a female wood duck taking her brood on a tour in a large beaver pond the other day.

barn swallows ready to leave nest

barn swallows ready to fledge

female and male juvenile wood ducks Early August Airline Trail marsh Pamm Cooper photo

Juvenile wood ducks

I came across a wild grape that had one leaf covered with interesting cone- like galls formed by the grape tube gallmaker midge (Schizomyia viticola). This is a harmless gall, and only affected one leaf on the entire grape plant. Looks like a bunch of tall red, skinny gnome caps were set on the leaf.

grape tube gallmaker on grape leaf

grape tube galls

Combing through garden centers for great plants is always enjoyable when you find something like the Blackberry or leopard Lily Belamcanda chinensis. Star shaped flowers only 2 inches wide are heavily spotted with red, while foliage is sword- shaped. The flowers appear in late summer and bloom until frost, so this is a good plant to spiff up areas where other perennials are fading into the sunset.

leopard li;ly Belamcando chinensis

leopard lily Belamcando chinensis

Interesting plants suitable for containers are agave and other succulents. I saw a good size Agave colorata recently which was very striking in appearance. Its leaves are thick and powdery blue- gray with unusual cross- banding designs on them, plus leaf edges have brown teeth tipped with spines. A spectacular plant!

Agaave colorata

Agave colorata

pattern on agave leaves

patterns on Agave colorata leaves

Caterpillars this time of year are larger and, in my opinion, more interesting than the early season caterpillars. One favorite is the brown- hooded owlet, which is a sports a rich array orange, blue, yellow and red. Look for this caterpillar on goldenrods, where it feeds on flowers and flower buds.

brown-hooded-owlet-caterpillar

brown-hooded owlet

If you want a nice surprise, with a little careful handling you can check inside folded stinging nettle leaf shelters and may find either caterpillars of the comma or red admiral butterflies, or the chrysalis of the red admiral.

red admiral chrysalis inside nettle leaf shelter

red admiral butterfly chrysalis inside a leaf shelter on stinging nettle

 

The skies can provide some viewing that is better than any television show. Thunderhead clouds can provide some drama as they develop on hot and humid afternoons, and may provide further excitement in the form of thunder and lightning, and rainbows may follow. We can have remarkable sunsets any time of year, so don’t forget to have a look at the sky around sunset. August is also a great time for early morning fogs as well, especially when we have had a humid night. Getting up early does have its good points…

P1060375

Thunderhead developing on a hot and humid afternoon

 

Pamm Cooper

Cornus mas flowers April 24 2018

Cornus mas flowers- Cornelian cherry dogwood flowers in April before leaves appear

Spring has returned. The Earth is like a child that knows poems.

– Rainer Maria Rilke

This spring has arrived at a plodding, glacial pace. Several snows in April and chilly, gray days which far outnumber the anticipated sunny, warmer ones seem to have put nature into a low gear. Birds that normally would have arrived in early April, like chipping sparrows, were late arrivals. Forsythia bloomed later than it did the past few springs, and soils have remained cold enough to hold back lawn grass growth. But the cold weather can’t last, and we finally have seen a few sunny days this week.

colletes at hole 4-14-2018 Pamm Cooper photo for Facebook

Native Colletes inaequalis ground nesting bee at entrance to her nesting tunnel- one of the earliest spring flying bees

Tree swallows arrived a couple of weeks ago, and barn swallows followed a week later. I always check out a nice swampy area along a road every spring when false hellebore is about a foot tall. This is when many migrating warblers start to come through on their way north. Two of the earlier arrivals are the yellow-rumped warblers and the palm warblers, which can often be seen together in good numbers as they catch insects on the fly. The loud drumming of pileated woodpeckers can be heard and barred and great horned owls should have nestlings by now. Canada geese should be sitting on eggs, with young hatching out in a week or so.

Pileated woodpecker pamm Cooper photo

Pileated woodpeckers

Bloodroot is now blooming, and before it is done, red trillium should also be blooming. Trout lily leaves are up, and its flowers should appear in a week or so. The early flowering azalea, Rhodendron mucronulatum, is flowering now with its welcome pink flowers. Bees were all over several plantings of this shrub on the UConn campus this past sunny Tuesday. Pieris japonica, or Japanese andromeda, Cornus mas and star magnolias are also in full bloom. Ornamental cherries are just beginning to bloom now and as the native black cherries begin to leaf out, look for tents made in the forks of branches by the Eastern tent caterpillars. Native bluets began blooming this week, and many native and honey bees, as well as early flying butterflies avail themselves of the nectar these tiny blue flowers provide.

purple trillium Pamm Cooper photo

Purple trillium blooms shortly after bloodroot

Rhododendron mucronulatum. Azalea Pamm Cooper photo (2)

Rhododendron mucronulatum azalea in bloom in late April. Note that this azalea does not retain its leaves through the winter

Spring peepers have been singing like a glee club, and are a welcome white noise in early spring for those of you who live near ponds. In vernal pools, egg masses of wood frogs, spotted salamanders and American toads can be found now. Diving beetles and water striders are also active now. Our vernal pools support life stages of many kinds of insects and amphibians, and provide water sources for many animals and birds as well.

spotted salamander nymph among frog eggs April vernal pool

Gilled larva of the spotted salamander swims among wood frog eggs in a vernal pool

Red, or swamp, maples are already dropping flowers, while spicebush are just starting to bloom.  Snowball viburnums are leafing out and new leaves seen curling are probably signs of snowball aphid feeding. Look inside the curled leaves for these aphids. While not a cause of alarm for the health of the plant, it is a cosmetic issue. Redbuds are showing deep pink flower buds as are the larger ornamental cherry varieties like Prunus subhirtella, the weeping Higan cherry. When these bloom, crabapples are not far behind.

Japanese Andromeda flowering in early April 2018 Pamm Cooper photo

Japanese Andromeda, Pieris japonica, can bloom in March. This year it has remained in bloom through late April. Many bees visit its flowers.

More insects are becoming active now with the warmer weather. Look for the striking six- spotted tiger beetle along open woodland trails. Cabbage white butterflies are also arriving, and will lay eggs on native mustards and the invasive garlic mustards. The second generation may end up on your brassica later in the year. Mourning cloak and comma butterflies are out now, and look for swallowtails and the spring azure butterflies. Migrating red admirals and painted ladies usually arrive around the time of crabapple and invasive honeysuckle bloom. I can hardly (but must!) wait to see a swallowtail butterfly. To me this is a certain harbinger of steady, warm weather.

6-spotted tiger beetle

The 6-spotted tiger beetle is hard to miss

Mourning cloak early spring

The mourning cloak butterfly survives winters here in the north as an adult. Often it is seen imbibing at sap flows or on animal dung

tiger swallowtail butterfly on bluets Pamm Cooper photo

Tiger swallowtail on native bluets

As you venture out this spring, listen for the songs of newly arriving birds, observe  insects as they go about their daily activities and enjoy the flowers that join together to make spring a poetic response to winter. Definitely a more charming repertoire in answer to winter doldrums than my own seemingly useless “ hurry up spring” song and dance…

Pamm Cooper

 

 

 

 

red-spotted purple

Red-spotted purple

Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.

-Nathaniel Hawthorne

question mark on window II

Question mark butterfly resembles a brown leaf with wings folded up. Note white ? on wing.

Brushfoot butterflies are ubiquitous in Connecticut, familiar to most people who spend any time outdoors in the summer. Almost one in every three butterflies in the world is a brushfoot. Members of this subfamily of butterflies, the Nymphalinae, differ from other butterflies in that their forelegs are well shorter than the other four legs and are not used for standing or walking, These forelegs have little brushes or hairs rather than feet, thus the common name, which they use for tasting and smelling. The next time you see a monarch, check out its front legs.

fritillary and diving bee on thistle late summer

Great spangled fritillary and bumblebee on thistle flower

8 fritillaries on milkweed

Great spangled fritillaries on milkweed

Many brushfoots are found in particular habits, common ringlet, which prefers open, sunny fields with plenty of flowers like goldenrods, fleabane and asters. Others may be found along open wood lines, like question marks, commas and mourning cloaks, especially where there are sap flows on tree trunks. Many brushfoots can be found just about anywhere there are open areas with flowers and caterpillar host plants.

wood nymph

The wood nymph is easily identified by the yellow patches on the fore wings that have striking eye spots

common ringlet Belding 9-5-12

The common ringlet prefers open grassy areas like fields or roadsides and may be elusive to find.

One species, the mourning cloak, is notable for overwintering as a butterfly here in the New England cold season. On warm winter days, you may see one flying in open, sunny woods. It normally does not visit flowers, but gets its nourishment from dung, rotting fruit and sap flows on trees.

Mourning cloak

Mourning cloaks may fly on warm winter days

Caterpillars of the brushfoots usually have spines, which, although menacing enough to the eye, are harmless if touched. A notable exception is the familiar monarch caterpillar which is spineless with a set of horns at both ends of the body. Some caterpillars, like those of the comma, American lady, Baltimore and red admiral, spend the daytime inside leaf shelters made by tying leaf edges or masses of leaves together. Knowing host plants is useful when looking for these caterpillars. If the shelter is opened slightly, you will find the caterpillar resting calmly inside.

comma just before pupating July 3, 2009

Caterpillar of the Eastern comma seen after opening its leaf shelter

Some members of the brush foots like the question mark and the comma butterflies have angled wings. Most are brightly colored and quite beautiful, like the common buckeye, which is a vagrant visitor here in Connecticut. Others have brown camouflage patterns on the undersides of the wings, like the question mark and the comma. When they rest on leaves or twigs with the wings folded upright, they appear to be dead leaves.

eastern comma

Eastern comma

Colors and patterns on the wings can vary dramatically on brushfoots. Often the upper wing surfaces are more brilliantly colored than the undersides. Or they can be just as colorful when viewed either on the top or underside, but have different patterns. An example is the great spangled fritillary, which is orange and black on the upper wing surfaces, but the undersides are orange with brilliant white spots.

Red spotted purple hybrid UConn

Red-spotted purple seen from above. First picture top of page shows the undersides of the wings

Several brushfoot butterflies are migratory, going south in the late summer and early fall, and then returning the next spring. Monarchs, painted and American ladies, and red admirals are some of the migratory species. They return north when wild mustards, crabapples, invasive honeysuckles and early native plants are starting to flower.

red admiral brushfoot butterfly Pamm Cooper photo - Copy

The red admiral is one of the migratory brushfoot butterflies

One brushfoot of special concern in Connecticut is the colorful Baltimore butterfly. Smaller than many other brushfoots, the Baltimore is striking as an adult, a caterpillar and a chrysalis. Caterpillars overwinter in large groups inside shelters they make by tying leaves together with silk. Look for these butterflies in large open fields that have water nearby.

Baltimore Checkerspot July 6, 2014

Baltimore checkerspot

Baltimore uppersides Pamm Cooper copyright - Copy

Baltimore checkerspot topsides

common buckeye 2017 Coldbrook Road in Glastonbury

The common buckeye is a tropical visitor to the north

As the winter comes to a close and the spring brings us warmer days and flowers, remember to look for the arrival of the migrating brushfoot butterflies. The first to arrive are usually the red admirals and American ladies and monarchs will follow later on in mid-to-late June. You may be able to sit awhile in the sun and have a red admiral land on you- a common, which is a happy occurrence in the life of a butterfly connoisseur.

red admiral on my pants 5-6-12

Red admiral on my pants

Pamm Cooper                              all photos copyrighted by Pamm Cooper

 

snow and tree

As I sit here inside, watching the cold wind blow and snow pile up outside the warmth and safety of my little writing spot, I wonder just how all those living beings outside are surviving. Trees are swaying in the wind, and birds trying to visit the feeder are forced to alter flight plans while sporting ruffled feathers. The only animals I see are hunkered down squirrels. And just where did the insects go?

A little research tells me all of the annual plants are dead. They completed their life cycle in one year going from germinating a seed to producing seeds which are waiting winter out to make new plants in the spring. In my vegetable garden I call them volunteers. You know those tomato seeds that germinate from last year’s rotted tomato fruit that dropped to the ground and its seed volunteered to grow where I didn’t put this year’s crop. The seed survived through the winter, not the plant. Annual weeds drop seed in this manner, too.

IMG_0877default

Perennial plants are a different story, although their seeds can do the same overwintering as annuals, the existing plant can live through the winter to grow another year, hopefully for many years more. Trees and shrubs are woody perennials that have woody above ground structures and roots that overwinter. Herbaceous perennials overwinter their roots and crowns only. The above ground portion of the plant dies back, but the crown and roots are alive at level or below ground. Perennial plants go dormant, living off of stored food until warmer weather returns. Storage organs of plants are the thick roots, rhizomes and bulbs. Just how they prepare themselves to make it through the winter happens at the cellular level long before freezing temperatures begin.

Plants are triggered by the amount of light and the amount of dark they experience, and lower night temperatures signal to get ready for winter rest and dormancy. Different species have varying light and temperature levels signals. Deciduous trees and shrubs must begin the process of losing their leaves by first stopping the production of their food. We notice it in slower growth and in the leaf color. The leaves are the food factory of the plant where photosynthesis happens. Carbohydrates are made then stored in roots and woody parts of the tree or shrub. Lots of light and water results in good growth and food storage, but when light amount lessens, leaves slow down production. Chlorophyll is also produced during photosynthesis, giving the leaf a green color. Once the leaves stop working, no more chlorophyll is produced and the other plant pigments of red and yellow are exposed now that there is no green chlorophyll to cover them. This is when we see beautiful fall foliage. The next change happens in a specialized layer of cells at the point where the leaf stem (petiole), attaches to the twig called the abscission layer. These cells enlarge and harden to choke off water flow to the leaves and the leaf slowly dies and falls off.

tree in fall

The next cellular change is called cold hardening. It happens within the vascular system containing the plant juices and water. If water inside the cells freeze, it will rupture the cells, permanently damaging the plant. The cold hardening process increases the sugar content of the water, and makes other protective chemicals, lowering the freezing level of the plant liquid. Basically the plant makes its own antifreeze. Cell walls are also changed to allow water leakage into spaces just outside the cell so if crystals do form, damage will be avoided. The acclimation of all these changes makes the plant able to tolerate below freezing temperatures. Fall pruning or fertilizing with nitrogen during August and September stimulates new growth interrupting the cold hardening process.

Evergreen trees and shrubs have thick leaves with waxy coatings to prevent moisture loss. Some broadleaved evergreens have gas exchange openings called stomata on the underside of the leaf. In very cold weather the leaves will curl as the stomata close to prevent moisture loss. Rhododendrons are a good example. Evergreen plants will continue to photosynthesize as long as there is moisture available, but much more slowly during the winter.

rhododendron curled in snow

Animals and insect have the ability to move, unlike plants. They can migrate, hibernate or adapt to winter’s cold. Certain birds migrate to warmer areas and better food sources. Hummingbirds, osprey, wood ducks and song birds fly south, and some birds from far north in Canada come south to spend the winter here. Juncos, snowy owls and bald eagles summer at a higher latitude and spend the winter nearer to us. They go where they can find food.

Some animals go into a winter dormancy or hibernation. This phase consists of greatly reduced activity, sleep or rest, and lower body temperatures while their bodies are sustained from stored fat. Bears, woodchucks, skunks, bats, snakes and turtles all have true hibernation, not waking until light levels increase and food sources begin to be available again. Bears and bats find caves, woodchucks, and skunks dig tunnels, snakes and some turtles burrow into soil and leaf litter, all in protected sites.

woodchuck at entrance to tunnel

Woodchuck at the entrance to his tunnel where he will spend the winter.

Other animals such as chipmunks have underground burrows lined with stored nuts and other food. Beavers do the same in lodges they build just above water, and line with stored logs to feed on during the winter. They sleep for long periods, only waking to eat and if maybe take a short walk above ground before returning to their den. Fur bearing animals will grow a thicker winter coat to help keep them warm, and may be a whiter color to provide camouflage in the snow.

Voles are active all through the year. In winter, they will tunnel through the snow, just on top of the ground looking for plants material to eat. They will strip the bark off of young trees and eat the roots. Voles store seeds and other plant matter in underground chambers. Mice are active and breed year round, living in any protected nook or cranny they can find, including our homes. They store food in hidden spots away from human and predator activity. Check for mice tracks around your foundation after a freshly fallen snow to see if mice are using your house for their winter quarters. Moles are active deep underground, below the frost line, in an elaborate array of tunnels. They feed on soil dwelling insects throughout the winter. I guess you could say they go ‘south’ in the soil profile during cold weather of winter.

Squirrels do not migrate nor hibernate, they adapt. They are active all winter, raiding bird feeders, and feeding on stored nuts. They grow a thicker coat of fur and fat for winter. Squirrels make great nests high in trees, well insulted with leaves. Several grey squirrels will share a nest to keep warm. They are often too quick to get a close up photo!

squirrel tail

Insects as a group are very large and diverse. Some migrate in their adult stage such as monarch butterflies and some species of dragonflies. Others overwinter in pupal stages like the chrysalis’ of spice bush swallowtails or cocoons of Cecropia moths.  Others adult and immature insects, depending on species, enter a state of diapause, similar to hibernation in animals, to overwinter during the winter. Diapause is a dormant semi-frozen state for some insects.  And like plants, changes at the cellular level occur, too. These insects produce an alcohol-like chemical and added sugars to the moisture in their bodies to prevent freezing, just like vodka will not freeze when placed in our home freezers. Insects will first seek out a protected place in the soil, leaf litter or under lose tree bark or rotten logs.

The brown and orange woolly bear caterpillar burrows into the forest floor to spend the winter as in its larval stage. In spring it will come out of its dormancy to pupate, later becoming an Isabella tiger moth.

woolly bear

Other insects lay eggs singly or in mass groupings, which are equipped to live through the winter and hatch when conditions are good again. Gypsy moths spend the winter as egg masses, tolerating down to -20 F temperatures. Crickets are another insect group which lays eggs in the fall on the ground that will provide a new generation of night songs for us to enjoy the next summer.

Gypsy moth egg cases, p.cooper photo

Gypsy moth egg mass will overwinter on this tree bark. Hatch will be in late spring.

-Carol Quish

tulips

 

 

 

winter landscape January

Frozen lake in January

“Feeling a little blue in January is normal”

  • Marilu Henner

The one thing I like about January is that at least the days are getting a teeny bit longer. We still have the cold weather and probably a bunch of snows will fall, but the nights are shorter and I am fooled into thinking spring will soon be here. While I like to escape into the wilds in the warmer, more colorful months, it can be a more difficult enterprise now. Snows may not allow an easy walk in the woods, but the roads are clear, and they will have to do as a means of checking out the January happenings outdoors.

winter stream

A winter stream and beech trees still holding onto their leaves

Although cold, the air is nice and clean (it seems!) and crisp, providing a refreshing change to an extended existence in an indoor environment. And there is still much to see in the winter. Bird species may not be as abundant, but the ones that are still here provide a nicer experience for me than watching fish in a tank would.

Coot Pamm Cooper photo 2016

Coot sporting its ivory bill

Pileated woodpeckers may be elusive, but they are quite vocal, and so they often give away their location as they gad about in the woods. Water birds are still around- a kingfisher is still finding stuff to eat in areas of open water- and mallards and Canada geese are, too. Coots may be seen in open water near the shore, and merganzers and ruddy ducks can be found in small or large flocks in the coastal areas. And Cooper’s hawks, as well as sharp-shinned hawks, small accipiters that prey on birds, can be seen buzzing bird feeders for easy pickings on a winter’s day.

Coopers hawk in yard Jan 8 2018

Cooper’s hawk waiting near a bird feeder

In my town, there is a large population of black vultures now, which is a remarkable development as just a few years ago avid birders would ‘flock’ to an area where a black vultures was reported to be. During the 1990’s, black vultures were considered very rare visitors to Connecticut, but in the last few years, they are definitely staying year- round and breeding here. You can tell black vultures from turkey vultures in flight by the white bands on wing tips, versus the half silver wing undersides of the turkey vultures.  Up close, the gray faces of black vultures are readily distinguishable from the bald, red faces of turkey vultures. Black vultures will often congregate on chimneys on cold days.

black vulture in 5 degrees

Black vulture on a 5 degree January day

vultures

Turkey vulture spreading wings- black vultures in the foreground

We had very cold weather the last two weeks- down in single digits on a few mornings and not much above the teens the rest of the time. Today, it is raining and fifty two degrees. If warm conditions keep up for a few days, fireflies may come out from their winter hiding spots in bark crevices, Look for them on sunny sides of trees in wooded areas. They will not fly, too logy for that, and will return to their resting places as the weather gets cold again.

fireflies in winter

Fireflies out on a warm winter day

When we have snow cover, that presents an opportunity to check out animal tracks in the snow. Deer tracks require no great hunter-like skills to figure out, but others may be tricky. I get a kick out of mouse tracks- don’t’ know why- maybe because they are one of the few animals that leave a tail print between the footprints.

two mice headed for a tree trunk as seen by their tracks in the snow

Two sets of mice tracks leading to a tree

 

Two of my favorite native plants that give interest to the monotone winter landscape are the redosier dogwood, Cornus sericea and winterberry, Ilex veticillata. Both plants offer a splash or red to a snowy landscape, and winterberries offer a food source for many birds and some small animals. Winterberry is found in the wild along edges of woods and swamps, and redosier also prefers similar areas in the wild.

red twig dogwood winter color

redosier dogwoods in winter

Even though it is not a native plant, I do love the Norway spruces when they have established mature stands. Red squirrels, at least, also appreciate the seeds that are one of their important food sources in the winter. You may come across piles of the spruce cone scales where the little pissant red squirrels take off the scales to access the seeds inside.

Norway spruce forest in winter 2-27-16

Stand of Norway Spruce in the winter

Indoors, though, it is warm, as well- lit as you may desire, and a better relaxing environment in January. Until the warm weather comes, perhaps an orchid in flower may providing a charming blush of living color, while we wait for nature to do the same.

Pamm Cooper

orchids in January

 

 

 

 

   “The grass on the rock, the flower of the heath, the thistle with its beard are the chief adornments of his landscape.” Ossian.

Well, here we are. 2017 has come to an end and 2018 lays before us. We are at the darkest time of the year as the winter solstice, which occurred on December 21st, brought us only 9 hours and 8 minutes of daylight on that day. That is 6 hours and 5 minutes less daylight than on June 21st! Its no wonder that this time of year is referred to as ‘hibernal’, a time when the deciduous trees are bare, the dropped leaves begin to decay, and birds and wildlife have settled into their winter homes and habits.

Squirrel on the suet feeder
A squirrel on the suet feeder      Image by S. Pelton

In Connecticut winter-time means that most plants have either died back or gone dormant. The evergreens hold onto their leaves and needles but they are not actively growing. Some of the more common evergreen landscaping plants for zone 6 such as the (clockwise from the top left) the rhododendron (Rhododendron sp.), the Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus), the mugo pine (Pinus mugo), and the white spruce (Picea glauca) add so much to the barren winter landscape.

                                                                                                Images by S. Pelton

The non-evergreen perennials can also be of interest during this time. From the top left clockwise, the American pussy willow (Salix discolor), the stonecrop (Sedum sp.), and the hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata) all add some textual variety to the landscape.

                                                                                                         Images by S. Pelton

 

Their monotone appearance doesn’t really catch the eye like the very appropriately named winterberry (Ilex verticillata) does. One of the deciduous hollies, winterberry looks especially outstanding after a snowfall. As with most hollies the winterberry is dieocious and requires a male and a female plant to produce these beautiful red drupes which will remain on the plant through a good part of the winter to the benefit of small mammals and more than 40 species of birds.

                                                                                        Winterberry images by S. Pelton

But I would like to talk about an evergreen shrub that holds not only its leaves but its flowers all winter. Known as spring or winter heath (commonly but incorrectly called heather) Erica carnea has the most delicate, bell-shaped pink flowers and whorled, needle-like leaves that are barely ½” long. The family Ericaceae also includes the true heathers that were once included in the genus Erica but are now in the genus now called Calluna. Calluna heathers are called summer or autumn heathers and can be identified by their smaller, scale-like leaves which are in opposite pairs and their flowers which emerge in late summer. It is the heather Calluna vulgaris that evokes images of wide expanses of Scottish highland moors that appear to be covered in a pink mist.

5391978-PPTJohn M. Randall, The Nature Conservancy, Bugwood.org

It was the winter heath, Erica carnea, that stood out as I walked through our yard on a recent sunny but bitterly cold day. Its tiny pink flowers don’t seem capable of withstanding the arctic temperatures of the past week yet there they are.

heather in winter closeup 2                                                                                 Erica carnea close-up       Image by S. Pelton

The compact, or dwarf, size of most heath helps to limit the amount of air circulation through the plant and it creates its own microclimate whereby the plant is not as vulnerable to the cold as a taller, more openly branched plant. Its low growth habit does expose it to the possibility of frost when very cold air settles near the ground but it’s likely that in Connecticut a cover of snow may insulate it.

IMG_20171231_141655664_HDR

                                                                                E. carnea in the snow    Image by S. Pelton

Early spring and early fall are the best times to plant, feed, or prune heath. When planting in full sun or slight shade in the early spring or fall do not allow these shallow rooted new plantings to dry out before they can establish themselves. Some gardeners amend the soil with peat moss, which can hold more than 20 times its dry weight in water in its cells, to help retain moisture. If you do add peat moss your heath plantings will receive an added benefit as the moss takes up calcium and magnesium from the surrounding soil and releases hydrogen. This action, called cation exchange, acidifies the soil. Heather prefers acidic soil which means that they are well suited to Connecticut. Plant them in area that will not be affected when you lime your lawn. Give them a dose of Holly-tone once a year when fertilizing other acid-loving plants such as rhododendron, azalea, or holly making sure that it doesn’t adhere to the foliage and reaches the drip line of the plant. As with any fertilizer it should be watered in.

                                                     Heath and heather images by the UConn Plant Database and S. Pelton

Spring is also good time to do any pruning of heath before the plant sets its flower buds or has new growth. Prune just to control any unwanted spreading and avoid pruning in the late fall as open cuts can collect water that will expand during a freeze and cause the stems to split. True heather (Calluna sp.) should be pruned annually in the spring as the flower buds do not set on old wood and the plants will become leggy and unattractive. Prune C. vulgaris at the base of old flowers.

Caliuna vulgaris heather

                                                                                   Calluna vulgaris      Image by S. Pelton

Other than needing occasional pruning heath and heather are very low-maintenance plants with few issues. You may find that deer or rabbits will feed on it as will the larvae of the Lepidopteran order which includes butterflies and moths or moths in the Coleophora genus. All in all, these plants are a wonderful addition to any yard or landscape as they unobtrusively add a swath of pink flowers and deep green foliage year-round. Perhaps 2018 is the year to add some year-round color to your landscape!

Susan Pelton

For additional information visit the UConn Plant Database: Calluna vulgaris (Scotch heather, Common heather) and Erica carnea (Spring heath, Winter heath)

Persimmon fruit close up

Ripe native persimmon fruit, up close. ©Carol Quish Photo, UConn

When thinking of fruit trees, persimmon does not immediately come to mind. We often see the large fruit of Asian or Japanese persimmon, (Diospyros kaki), in the produce section of larger supermarkets or specialty markets which are imported and need much warmer weather for trees to grow than the northeast provides. We do however, have the native American persimmon tree, (Diospyros virginiana), which will, and does grow quite happily to zones 4 to 9, two zones colder than Connecticut. American persimmon is native to the entire eastern United States. The fruit is much smaller than the Asian persimmon, but is said to be richer in taste when fully ripe. Waiting for the full ripening without the fruit getting to the rotten stage takes daily checks. Fruit can be eaten fresh, dried or made into a pudding. Fruits are very soft which probably why no one markets them. They would be impossible to ship even very short distances.

Persimmon fruit, blue sky

Unripe fruit is very astringent. If you have ever tasted alum, the resulting dry pucker of the mouth is much the same. As children, we dared the unfamiliar to eat one tempting them with “it’s good, really”, then laughing at the poor soul who believed us. Thankfully we lived to tell about it and are all still friends or accepted family. The Native Americans called them ‘dry fruit’ in the Algonquian language.

Persimmon tree

Native persimmon prefers a site in full sun, as most fruit trees do for good fruit production. It is accepting of a wide range of soil types except being in a very wet root situation. Good drainage is best, though. Trees make a good shade tree with plenty of larger, elongated leaves. They grow up to 74 feet tall and about 30 feet wide. Persimmons are dioecious trees, meaning there are male and female trees. Male trees house flowers containing pollen, the male sex part, and female trees house flowers containing the ovaries which, if pollenated and fertilized will produce fruits. If you want fruit, buy a female tree or one that you see fruit on it already. For a good fruit set, plant both a male and female tree. Occasionally, some trees will produce both male and female flowers on the same plant and be self-pollinating, but this is not always reliable. Fruits often hang on the tree late into the fall, even after the leaves have dropped making a pretty show of orange colors against the darker grey branches. The bark of a mature tree is beautiful on its own; black and corky, and richly textured.

persimmon bark, uconn plant database photo

Persimmon bark, photo UConn Plant Database

Uncommon and native fruits are ripe to be had, just look in the woods and forests of different locations to see what you can find.

Persimmon fruit

 

-Carol Quish

Next Page »