The recently held Connecticut Flower & Garden Show was a welcome late winter event with its lovely landscapes, exquisite floral arrangements and unique vendors. All the landscapes were delightful to view but I thought that the Earth Tones Native Nursery with its lighted recycled beer bottles and Aqua Scapes of CT both had especially creative exhibits.

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Aqua Scapes of CT landscape at 2018 CT Flower & Garden Show

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Earth Tones Native Nursery display at 2018 CT Flower & Garden Show

Another great feature of the flower show are the thousands of plants, bulbs and seed packets available for purchase. Several of the vendors were offering various species of tillandsias, commonly called air plants.

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Tillandsias for sale

They are quite popular because not only do they look interesting and quite different from other houseplants, but they do not need soil or potting mix to grow in. So, they can be grown almost anywhere light and temperatures allow. According to Yumi Chen of Yumi Jewelry & Plants ( air plants are a favorite of apartment dwellers and college students as they do not take up much space nor do they require a lot of care.

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Tillandsias on display at Yumi Plants

Tillandsias are a genus in the Bromeliad family. They are epiphytes which is a fancy way of saying they are plants that typically grow on other plants, often in the crotches of trees and shrubs. They may also grow on rocks, cacti and even on the ground. Tillandsias are native to parts of the southern U.S., Central and South America.

Unlike most plants that we are familiar with, tillandsias only use their roots to anchor themselves to a living or non-living object. Water and nutrients are not taken up by the roots but rather by the leaves. As a general rule of thumb, those with thicker leaves are native to drier areas while those with thinner leaves grow where there is more rainfall and humidity.

There are over 650 different species of air plants. Many have slender or strap-shaped leaves but a few larger ones have more triangular-shaped leaves. While they are grown primarily for their curious mop-like shapes, they do have interesting tubular or funnel-shaped flowers often in bright colors.

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Tillandsia flowers at KC Exotic Air Plant Booth

Caring for tillandsias is not difficult as long as their basic cultural needs are met. Providing air plants with the water and nutrients they need is the key to healthy plants. Their leaves have specialized microscopic structures on them called trichomes that are hollow tissue cells that absorb any moisture they come into contact with. They also give many species of tillandsias their lovely silvery blue sheen.

Suggested watering regimes vary depending on who you talk to and which websites are visited. Keith Clark of KC Exotic Air Plants ( recommends soaking plants 3 to 4 hours every 2 weeks while Ms. Chen suggests a 30 minute weekly soaking. Other regimes include misting or placing them under a faucet of running water. Like most plants, how often they are watered depends on the species of plant as well as climate conditions. During warmer, drier periods because of home heating or summer sun, plants probably need to be watered more frequently. Also, if they are kept in humid bathrooms and kitchens, they may need less water. Since I just purchased my first air plant, I will see how it fares with a once a week half hour soaking.

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Watering tillandsia by placing in a bowl of water

Both vendors as well as Tillandsia International ( do stress the need to let the air plants dry out before putting them back in their pots, bowls, globes or other containers. If your tap water is chlorinated, consider using bottled, well or rain water instead.

Air plants do not require a lot of nutrients and respond well to a bromeliad fertilizer (17-8-22). The easiest way to fertilizer according to Ms. Chen is to mix a quarter teaspoon of fertilizer into a gallon of water and use this solution to soak your plants in once a month from spring through fall. Plants typically are not fertilized during the winter months.

Tillandsias need bright, indirect light but few do well in full sun. Place in an east or north window or 3 to 5 feet away from more brighter southern or western exposures. They can also be grown using artificial light.

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Tillandsia in a glass globe makes a nice hanging plant

Plants will develop roots but since these are only needed to anchor the plants to trees and other objects, they are often trimmed away before plants are sold. As the roots grow back, they can be left on the plant or cut off depending on how it is being displayed. Because of their unique shape and growth habits they can be placed in hanging glass globes, used to fill decorative bowls or other containers, included in succulent dish gardens or attached to wall hangings. Because they need good air circulation, they might not do well in enclosed terrariums.

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Tillandsias in open terrariums.

When an air plant finally matures, which takes about 9 to 12 months for the smaller species according to Mr. Clark, it blooms and then produces offshoots, generally referred to as pups. When these reach about one third of the size of the parent plant, they can be separated but often they are left intact creating colonies of air plants, which are more vigorous than individuals.

Cut off any dead leaves and if the plant develops brown tips, they can be trimmed off. Tillandsias are pretty tough plants but sometimes are forgotten about. Shriveled plants may be regenerated by soaking for 24 hours. Provide your plant with adequate light, water and temperatures above 45 F and these delightful plants can be employed in a variety of scenarios around the home and at the office.

Happy Spring – Almost!


Cornell Pink Azalea and Steeple

Spring is just around the corner bringing a fresh year to begin new gardening activities. Composting is a great way to recycle weeds, food waste and just about anything that was once a plant. Composting home and garden waste is one way to reduce what is picked up by the garbage truck, reducing your carbon foot print, and saving money for you if garbage collection is charged by bag, or your town in tipping costs. Tipping costs are the amount municipalities have to pay per ton to use regional trash plants. Every little bit helps. The benefits of the end product of compost can be used in gardens and lawns, returning nutrients and increasing organic matter to the soil resulting in healthier plants.

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Finished Compost.

Composting is controlled decomposition. Everything eventually rots, but by knowing a bit of the science of how things break down, we can make rot happen quicker, getting more compost faster. Every compost pile or bin needs carbon, nitrogen, air and water, and soil organisms to do the dirty work of decomposition. Micro-organisms are the fungi and bacteria which feed on the stuff in the pile. They are most efficient when the pile contains a ratio of 30 carbon to 1 nitrogen.

Browns are the carbon and are from dead plant material. They are the browns of the pile. Fall leaves, newspaper, scrap paper, woodchips, dry hay, straw sawdust dried grass clippings and weeds without seeds are all browns.

newspaper for composting

leaves and caroline Dry leaves are carbon.


Newspaper is carbon. No glossy sections.

Greens provide nitrogen the microbes need to process the carbon. The nitrogen will be given back to the pile after the microbes use it, and also release more from the carbon material. Greens are green leaves, grass or weeds without seeds. Also fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, tea leaves and even coffee filters as they are paper, which comes from trees.

compost pile

Things  not to put in a compost pile include meats or dairy products, fats and oils, bones, weeds with seeds, diseased plant material, and dog or cat manure. Also no pesticide treated plant material.

dog, rye

Pet waste is not recommended.

Water should be added to keep the pile as moist as a wrung out sponge. Too much water and microbes drown. Too little moisture and the microbes will dry out and die. Turning the pile will incorporate more air, helping the pile to dry if too moist.


Piles can be out in the open just as a heap on the ground or contained with wire or fenced sides.

Closed container can also be used and must have drainage holes to allow water to escape it the inside become too wet from rain or watering the pile. Some containers are mounted so they can be turned, effectively turning the contents inside. Turning the container or the pile incorporates more air and distributes moisture, both of which the microbes need to do their work of decomposing. If a container is used to compost, add a few shovels of soil or finished compost to introduce healthy microbes into the organic matter of greens and browns.

Finished compost can be screened through a 1/4 inch piece of hardware screening stapled to a square made from 2×4 inch boards. Shovel the compost in, and shake or move it around to keep the larger sticks and debris out of the finer end product. Through the larger pieces back into the pile for further breaking down.

compost screened

Happy composting!

-Carol Quish

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

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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.

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Red admiral on my pants

Pamm Cooper                              all photos copyrighted by Pamm Cooper


We may be in the throes of winter but there is a place in New England where the most beautiful and delicate flowers bloom year-round. These flowers are presented in all their glory in displays that have recently been upgraded to enhance the viewing experience. These flowers and specimens will never wilt or fade, they are forever captured in a state of perfection. These are neither fresh, dried, preserved, nor photographed flowers. They are the Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants, the famous “Glass Flowers” of Harvard University.

I first saw the Glass Flowers several years ago when our daughter Hannah, then a student at MIT, suggested a visit to the nearby Harvard Museum of Natural History in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As with most natural history museums the collections ranged from wildlife specimens and fossils to minerals and gemstones. But it was the Glass Flowers exhibit that Hannah knew that I would enjoy most.


Although it is familiarly known as the Glass Flowers this exhibit actually represents over 4,000 models of 830 plant species and includes incredibly realistic and detailed models of enlarged flowers and anatomical sections of the floral and vegetative parts of the plants (clockwise from top left: Banana, Verbascum thapsus/Common mullein, and Gossypium herbaceum/Wild cotton).

Prior to 1886 the Harvard Botanical Museum, under the direction of George Lincoln Goodale, used pressed plant specimens, wax models, and papier-mache as samples for study. Pressed specimens are of limited teaching value as they are 2-dimensional, dried, and lacking in color, wax models and papier-maché were rough and didn’t stand up well. Around this time, Goodale saw some glass models of marine invertebrates in the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology that had been created by the father and son partners Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka from Hosterwitz near Dresden, Germany. He contacted Leopold Blaschka who then made and shipped a few botanical specimen samples which even though they were damaged in US Customs still showed the possibilities of further work.

There were other glass-blowers at the time and it was said that no-one could replicate the secret methods employed by the Blaschkas. The Boston Globe said that the glass flowers were “anatomically perfect and, given all the glass-workers who’ve tried and failed, unreproducible”. But in fact, there were no secret methods employed and their techniques were commonly known to other artisans. In addition to glass the Blaschkas used wire supports, glue, paint, and enamel in their work. Their method melted glass over a flame or torch which they controlled with foot-powered bellows in a technique known as lampworking. This differs from glassblowing which uses a furnace as the heat source. The molten glass was manipulated, pinched, and pulled with tools to achieve the desired forms. The finished specimens were occasionally formed from colored glass but were often hand-painted.


Leopold Blaschka credited their ability in this way, “get a good great-grandfather who loved glass; then he is to have a son with like tastes; he is to be your grandfather. He in turn will have a son who must, as your father, be passionately fond of glass. You, as his son, can then try your hand, and it is your own fault if you do not succeed. But, if you do not have such ancestors, it is not your fault. My grandfather was the most widely known glassworker in Bohemia.” Schultes, Richard Evans; Davis, William A.; Burger, Hillel (1982). The Glass Flowers at Harvard. New York: Dutton.

(at right, Caroline and Leopold Blaschka, seated, Rudolf Blaschka, standing)


The original 10-year contract between the Blaschkas and Harvard commissioned the work at a rate of 8,800 marks per year ($3,533 US dollars) or approximately $91,565 in 2017. The funding came from a former Radcliffe College botany student of Goodale’s, Mary Lee Ware and her mother, Elizabeth Cabot Ware, members of a wealthy Boston family. Additionally, all freight charges were covered by Harvard.

So, the artisans have been commissioned. Remember, the year is now 1890, film photography is in its infancy and it is about 100 years before the internet is available to the public. So how do two glassmakers in Germany research botanical specimens from all over the world? Well, some plants were sent from America and raised in the Blaschka’s garden. Other plants that were tropical or exotic were viewed in the royal gardens and greenhouses of the nearby Pillnitz Palace (below images). Rudolf Blaschka traveled to Jamaica and the United States in 1892 to make drawings and collect specimens. Leopold died in 1895 but Rudolf continued to work until his retirement in 1936. Rudolf had no children and had never taken on an apprentice so there was no one to take over from him ending a 400-year-old dynasty.

But the legacy of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka lives on in over 10,000 glass models that are in museums the world over. Although the greater number of these are marine specimens it is the Glass Flowers that are most famed. The Glass Flowers encompass 164 families and 780 species in 850 full-time models. There are 4300 detailed models of individual floral and vegetative parts that capture every detail, right down to a grain of pollen as in the example of Lupinus mutabilis (Lupine) shown below.

Glass Flowers Exhibit Harvard Museum of Natural History

There are models that show the fungal and bacterial diseases of fruits in the Rosaceae family that includes apples and pears (The Rotten Apples, shown below).
Rotten apples

Others show insects in the act of pollination such as their depiction of a male fruit fly on an orchid, top image, or the bee on Scotch broom, below. Plants are exhibited from the simplest to the most advanced in the order of evolution.

Glass Flowers Exhibit Harvard Museum of Natural History

Cytisus scoparius (Scotch broom) with bees

This is not an exhibit that you would speed through. Each specimen is so enthralling that it is difficult to move on to the next one. The fact that every item there was created by only two men is mind-blowing and can be attested to by the tens of thousands of visitors each year. If you haven’t been to the exhibit I highly recommend it and if you have been in the past in would be worth going to see it in its restored glory. Visit the Harvard Museum of Natural History site for additional information and to view their videos of the Restoration and the Rotten Apples.

Susan Pelton

The Glass Flower images shown here are the property of Harvard University.

I bought some yellow fleshed beets at a nice farm stand in the fall. They looked good to me on the outside. Once I cooked and cut them open, though, this very dark (at least after cooking!) hollow center was revealed. It was present in all of the several beets in the bunch. The good news is that it could just be cut out and the beets were still delicious.


Photo by Joan Allen, UConn

But what might have caused this symptom? There are a couple of possibilities and the cause was not determined. Those that come to mind include inconsistent water supply and boron deficiency. Sometimes when a crop is growing slowly due to limited rain or irrigation followed by a sudden plentiful supply of water, the growth rate can suddenly increase and result in this ‘hollow heart’ symptom or disorder. I know this happens in potato but I’m not sure whether it’s likely in beet. There’s a major difference between the two….potatoes, while they grow underground, are actually stem tissue. You can tell because they have buds, what we commonly call the eyes. Beets, on the other hand, are root tissue.

Boron is a micronutrient for plants and a deficiency has been associated with hollow sections of stems or roots in some crops. Beets are listed among those crops that have a high boron requirement relative to others. Factors that can influence the availability of boron to plants include soil pH, sandiness of the soil, and soil organic matter content. A consistent and adequate amount of water uptake by the plant is necessary to take in boron from the soil. This is influenced by transpiration, the loss of water from the leaves. Conditions that reduce transpiration, such as humid, cloudy or cool weather, can be related to deficiency. High pH (alkaline) reduces availability of boron. Sandy soils or those with low organic matter content are more prone to boron deficiency.

How could the cause in this case have been figured out? Soil and tissue analysis can be used to measure nutrient availability and content in the plant parts. Soil tests can check not only nutrient content but also organic matter levels. UConn’s soil and tissue analysis lab info can be found at If a boron deficiency is confirmed, soil can be amended using borax, boric acid or Solubor. Different vegetables have different boron requirements. Lists of those most likely to develop a deficiency can be found in this fact sheet from UMass.

J. Allen


Often times, the people, places and things that we encounter going about our daily lives are not given as much attention as might be merited. If they were gone though, they would likely be missed. New England in January without a new, pristine snow cover, can be drab and rather dismal, especially on cloudy days. Thankfully, the green goodness of eastern white pines is spread throughout our landscapes. On our walks, driving to the store or work, in our parks, along the highways and even in many backyards, eastern white pines (Pinus strobus) with that slight bluish cast to their needles adds a bit of greenery to an otherwise bland landscape.

white pine needles

The needles of the Eastern White Pine are soft and flexible. Photo by dmp, UConn

Eastern white pine is a fast growing evergreen tree native from Canada down the east coast to Georgia and westward to the Great Lakes region. It is the only native pine in Connecticut that produces needles in bundles of 5. These are held together at the base by a deciduous sheath. New needles sprout forth each spring. Whereas deciduous trees lose their leaves each fall, the needles on an eastern white pine last for 2 years before abscising. We northerners tend to either leave pine needles in place in naturalized plantings, or rake them up if they fall upon the lawn. In the southeast, pine needles, aka pine straw, are sold as a mulch.

Pine needles in fall 2

Older needles yellow and drop from tree the second fall after forming. Photo by dmp, UConn

They do make a good mulch so if you happen to have a plentiful supply, consider using them in this manner. Often questions will arise about using pine needles as there is a false perception that pine trees somehow make our soils more acidic. In reality, eastern white pines have evolved to grow well in our native, typically acidic soils. Since our native soils are often nutrient poor, the trees will absorb as many nutrients in the needles as possible before letting them senesce so the dried, brown needles that fall from the tree are just slightly acidic which is a perfect pH for many of our garden plants. And, if your soil pH is a bit on the low side, just add some limestone.

white pine fallen needles

Carpet of fallen pine needles under tree. Photo by dmp, UConn

When the early colonists first set foot in America, huge amounts of the northeastern and northcentral parts of this country where covered with old growth eastern white pine forests. The Native Americans used this tree for medicinal, food and utilitarian purposes. The needles were made into teas used for colds and other respiratory ailments. They are also high in antioxidants and vitamins A and C. There are recipes to make tea from fresh or dried needles online these days and prepared tea bags can be purchased as well. The inner bark or cambium was consumed as food by some tribes and the resin was used to waterproof buckets, baskets and boats.

A number of wildlife also depend on eastern white pine for part or more of their survival. Deer will occasionally graze on them during severe winters but I have found they typically prefer my yews and my one strategically placed (for visual impact) arborvitae. Black capped chickadees and pine warblers look for insects in the bark, branches and needles. The seeds are loved by mammals such as eastern chipmunks, white-footed mice, red backed voles, and grey, red and flying squirrels. A number of bird species also find them appetizing including red-breasted nuthatches, pine siskins, chipping sparrows, evening grosbeaks, grackles and crossbills. Porcupines may feed on the bark of eastern white pines as well as seek shelter in the evergreen trees.

white pine cones

White pine cones are elongated and resinous. Photo by dmp, UConn

Eastern white pines grow very fast, very large and very tall. These were all qualities appealing to the early colonists, their British rulers and future commercial venues. Eastern white pine was great for building and used in early colonial homes for floors, furniture and other purposes. It was easily cut and took paint readily and as such in high demand.

In the mid 1700s, the British Royal Navy needed tall, straight timbers for masts on its ships. These types of trees were in short supply in England as their navy continued its expansion so exceptional eastern white pine trees in the American colonies were marked for harvest and export to Britain. New Hampshire colonists, in particular, did not like this and cut down the marked trees for local timber use. This insurgence lead to the Pine Tree Riot in 1772. There was even a pine tree flag created in support of this rebellious group defending local natural resources from plundering by a higher order.

pine tree flag

Pine tree flag – Origin by E. Benjamin Andrews (1822-1917) – Taken from The Project Gutenberg EBook of History of the United States, Volume 2 (of 6), by E. Benjamin Andrews, c. 1894. From:

Extensive logging by Americans from the 18th to 20th centuries lead to a reduction of about 99 percent of old growth eastern white pine forests from the east to the Midwest. While these majestic trees can live 4 or 5 hundred years, only about 1 % of old growth forests remain. Most of today’s stands sprang up after their parents were cut down and former productive tree lots abandoned. Although not as tall as their ancestors yet, Connecticut has 2 co-champion notable eastern white pine trees, both around 130 feet high. They are located in Thomaston and in Morris.

Some decimated areas were replanted with white pines from Europe. It may seem odd for native tree seedlings to be grown in Europe and shipped here but the Europeans had previously recognized the foolhardiness of the overharvesting of timber and had established nurseries to efficiently propagate various species including pines. Unfortunately, shipments that arrived in 1898 and 1910 were infected with a disease called white pine blister rust. This is a curious disease that has two hosts – the eastern white pine and ribes species including currants and gooseberries. It originated in Asia. Young pines were particularly susceptible and in some areas up to 80% of trees were killed. Control measures led to ribes eradication efforts. Some states passed laws prohibiting the cultivation of currants and gooseberries. This disease still lingers but perhaps because of developed resistance, fewer gooseberry and currant plants and climate conditions, the incidence of white pine blister rust is relatively low in Connecticut.

white pine stand

Eastern white pine stand. Photo by dmp, UConn

Fortunately, eastern white pines are resilient. Despite the fact that the earlier settlers cut down swaths of old growth forests on their move westward and the destruction that was wrought by the white pine blister rust during the early 20th century, eastern white pines still rule. So admire them on your drive to work, examine them more closely as you walk the dog, and plant one in your yard if you don’t already have this tree growing. This plant is a necessity to our native wildlife and it is a notable part of the New England countryside.

Dawn P.

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.


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