Hiking through the Winter Woods

After wet, heavy snowfalls this fall, I thought for sure we were on our way to more polar vortices and deep snowfalls like last winter. Click to enlarge all photos.

There’s never 100% certainty, but because a strong El Nino did not materialized, the Climate Prediction Center of the NOAA now predicts a 40% chance the Northeast will have above average winter temperatures. We still may have our share of memorable snowstorms because those can only be predicted one or two weeks before. Fingers crossed…

This weekend the temperatures in Exeter hovered in the 40’s….great Virginia-like weather for a holiday hike with family. Blue skies. Abundant sun. Mild temps. Light breeze.

farmWe hiked over private land to the Phillips Exeter Academy woods and numerous trails that run along the Exeter River and beyond. With hardly a ripple in the water, we were treated to some spectacular reflections of the sky and trees…. only broken up by the activity of 20 or more mallards happily enjoying the mild weather.

Winter is the time to notice the bark on trees and we stopped several times to witness activity and interests along the trails. Click to enlarge.

Finally, with abundance of wet weather, the tiny natives along the trail were gloriously happy and green on the woodland floor when little else was green except tall evergreen trees.

Partridge Berry (Mitchella repens) with its bright red berries grows slowly and will form a thick mat when conditions are right. I am careful not to disturb it.

Partridge Berry (Mitchella repens)Princess Pine (Lycopodium obscurum) is a club moss that looks much like a tiny pine… whose 100′ tall ancestors existed almost 400 million years ago before flowering plants populated the earth.  They reproduce by rhizomes and spores. Often used for Christmas decorations, many states now protect this delicate native plant.

Princess Pine (Lycopodium obscurum)

Marsh Marigold: A light in the forest

marsh marigoldWith a stream running through the woods that surround us, Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris), is prolific along the wettest sections of the forest floor. A member of the buttercup family, the flower’s sepals are a vibrant yellow with bees and other insects buzzing all around the early bloomer; a good source of nectar and lovely to behold!

Is it Green yet?

Although winter is far from over in New England, there are a few indications that spring is around the corner. One sign occurred yesterday when I attended a lecture on Native Plants given by Peter Van Berkum of Van Berkum Wholesale Nursery in Deerfield NH. A packed room welcomed the speaker to Churchill’s Gardens in Exeter NH.

Peter Van Berkum

Peter Van Berkum

He began by asking the audience, “What is a native plant?”  There were no shout outs but I heard a few different answers quietly spoken around me. “There is no wrong answer,” he said. Some define native plants as Continental, as belonging to a continent. Others interpret natives as Far-Regional, or as Near-Regional, and some limit the ecoregion to County. The definition from the website of the New England Wild Flower Society is simply “…plants growing in North America before European settlement.”

An interesting talk about native plants accompanied by a colorful PowerPoint presentation entertained the knowledgeable listeners. Whenever a question was posed, this group was not stumped. Although there were natives such as wild cranberry and delphinium and marsh marigold and an array of asters that were not easily grown in my Virginia zone 8 gardens, it was good to hear so many natives in Virginia were also New England natives. There was my good friend, Joe Pye, and the familiar Bee Balm, False Solomon’s Seal,  native ferns, ironweed, native sedge and many more.

If I would like to further my education on New England natives, the book he recommended is Flora of the Northeast, A Manual of the Vascular Flora of New England and Adjacent New York by Dennis Magee and Harry E. Ahles.

Check out the website for Van Berkum Nursery where propagation is the name of the game. The story behind this dynamic multi-talented husband/wife team is inspiring….. and don’t miss the charming video with Peter Van Berkum supplying the foot-tapping background music. The nursery specializes in shade plants that are indigenous to New England. They have 4 interesting collections: New England Woodlanders, Appalachian Woodlanders, New England Meadows, and Wicked Ruggeds.

New Hampshire Vacay

Standing in line for my New Hampshire driver’s license, I spotted a poster on the wall at DMV that touted “New Hampshire is 84% forested and the rest is underwater.”  Hmmmm… really? I verified the fact with an online forestry site that it is indeed 84% forested and the underwater part is obvious when looking at a Google Map of the state. Rivers, lakes, ponds, bays dot the landscape and the ocean provides a superabundance of water.

So I decided then and there to search the perfect getaway for my children, spouses, grandchildren in this land of trees and water. The words I searched  for online were peaceful setting, pristine water, native plants, hiking trails, private, rustic cabins, firepit… all within driving distance to Portsmouth for a night out or day at the ocean. And I found the perfect cabins nestled in the woods on Wild Goose Pond near Pittsfield NH.

Rustic it was. And isolated. A pristine lake. Nice and quiet. Peaceful. With a variety of boats… paddles or sails provided. At night we snuggled under down comforters and during the day we paddled, sailed, hiked, ran, swam then gathered for a plein-air dinner cooked over an open fire.

Nature in its purest surrounded us.

… spectacular sunrises and sunsets.

Adventures that delighted children (and me!) included fairy houses using old bark, twigs, acorns, rocks, moss, leaves and other natural materials.

… puzzles

… lunch from bushes,

… running, walking,

… marshmallows,

… swimming, fishing,

… and finally, hiking Mt. Major with the ultimate in views!

I think I like it here in New Hampshire!

Douglas Tallamy visits Richmond

“Plants and animals are the rivets that hold our ecosystem together,” says Douglas Tallamy, professor and chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware. I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Tallamy speak to Garden Club of Virginia horticulture chairmen and state board members in Richmond today and his message was a challenge to gardeners and homeowners in the room to evaluate our own yards and plant more native plants to sustain wildlife and promote biodiversity.

Americans seem to love lawns, yet if they would simply replace the grass in 50% of their lawns with native plants, he added, we would create a 20 million-acre park that would go far in attracting birds and other wildlife back into our gardens.

As gardeners we often choose lovely plants that are both non-native and pest free, however insects are what we want and non-natives do nothing for them. Bring back the insects with native plants and trees and we will attract the birds, the frogs and toads, the skinks, etc. to this insect food source. Bird populations are on the decline, a fact linked directly to habitat.

It’s not the berries that the birds need, it’s the insects with high protein and fats. Over 90% of birds exist on a diet of insects while winter and migratory birds eat seeds.

Tallamy stressed that we all have an important role in making a difference to sustain wildlife and biodiversity. Share your space. Plant natives, folks!

For more information on this topic or to order his book, Bringing Nature Home, visit Dr. Tallamy’s website where he offers much guidance and advice. Lists of woody and herbaceous plants that support life and the number of insects it supports are included on the site. A surprise to me was the oak tree, # 1 on the list, that supports 534 different caterpillars!  Plant oak trees, folks!

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Eastern Redcedar

Good climbing tree...

I spent my elementary years in Newport News living just off a lane named for the cedar tree. I thought it was an awesome cedar-lined road with trees that seemed tall and majestic to my little self. My bike was parked beneath many of the cedars that had a foothold or low enough limb that I could reach by standing on the seat of my bike. High up in the trees, limbs seemed comfortable, a perfect saddle for a youngster to idle away a summer afternoon watching cars, bikers and walkers pass beneath me, unaware of the small monkey clinging to the rough branches high in the tree enjoying the sights and the the pungent aroma of the needles and cones.

So it’s natural that I would have a fondness for these common native trees in the Virginia landscape. You will see them on the horizon, growing in fields, against fences, on the waterfront, and in the middle of your flower bed. It is a rugged tree and a true survivor. The seeds of the female are spread far and wide by birds. Often it’s the first plant to sprout out of cleared land and one that I must continually weed from my borders. Not really a cedar at all, the Eastern redcedar or red cedar (juniperus virginiana) is a juniper, growing from Maine southward in the east and areas in the midwest. It’s a tree that is regularly cleared from sites as an undesirable.

Eastern Redcedar

Eastern Redcedar

But the tree is very desirable to birds. Walking past one of our tall redcedars during our last big snow two weeks ago, I startled at least 20 little brown birds that had been hunkered down in the shelter of the tight foliage. Not only does the tree provide great protection in wintry weather, the redcedar provides food for birds, squirrels, and other animals. The female produces delightful miniature frosted blue cone clusters on the evergreen branches that are used often in flower arrangements in our garden club.  Cedar closets, cedar drawers, and cedar blocks to repel moths in closets and drawers come from the aromatic red wood of the red cedar. Finally, here’s a little fact about junipers: the word gin is an English shortening of the Dutch word Genever, meaning juniper, the cone of a which is a main flavoring in the drink.

Add in a number of medicinal uses of the redcedar throughout history and this juniper tree has earned its place in the environment. So when mister gardener complains that one majestic redcedar is shading his vegetables too much, I say to him, “Move the garden.” This old tree will be here for hundreds of years!

Too much shade for mister gardener?

It’s been almost a year that I followed a live online chat at the Daily Press with Kathy Van Mullekom, Garden Editor, and Phillip Merritt, landscape architect and native plant expert. Kathy asked her guests to name 5 native plants they would choose to plant in their landscape and she answered first. I was delighted that she picked the Eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana)as one of her choices as a windbreak and to provide privacy from neighboring yards.  It’s a common native tree dear to my heart. This former tree climber thanks you, Kathy!

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester