We’re back from the mountains! The leaves were not quite peak color in higher elevations but still breathtaking to us. On our return, we found very little color on the Seacoast of New Hampshire.
However, there was one understory tree that we enjoy from our window each fall that greeted our homecoming with bright yellow leaves. It’s the native witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) that grows along our woodline. Step just inside the woods and there’s a riot of witch hazel turning yellow as far as one can see.
With most deciduous trees bare, the witch hazel’s yellow tassels brighten the fall landscape. This is the only tree in North America to have flowers, ripe fruit, and next year’s leaf buds on its branches at the same time. While the blooms are open, last year’s seedpods reach maturity and loudly eject one or two tiny black seeds per pod 30-feet or more. If left undisturbed, the seeds will germinate in two years.On some branches, I can see year old pods open and empty… however every now and again, I spot a seed that didn’t eject last year. I wonder if these old seeds are still viable.
It’s time of year for Halloween witches and goblins so you might think the holiday has some connection with the witch hazel tree that blooms at the same time… but not. The root of the word witch comes from an old English word, wice, meaning pliant or bendable. As lore goes, this tree produces the branches and twigs for divining rods that can locate underground water sources.
Oh what an interesting and often overlooked native tree for the landscape! Do consider this native one or one of the many cultivars if you are looking for a fall blooming woody plant to enhance your property.
Just feet from our front door is a small woods that drops off gently to a marshy area that is still partially blanketed in snow. Yesterday, I decided to make my way down the incline to the meandering stream in the midst of the woodland to search for the first or one of the first native plants to flower in the spring.
The ground was spongy and muddy where there was no snow cover, and slippery where the snow patches were turning icy before melting altogether. This is just a small spit of woods but once inside, the tree canopy enveloped me. The earthy smells, the birds twittering, the squirrels moving along the tall hemlocks and pines, intensely green moss covering every fallen branch and tree stump, made this tiny wooded area a magical spot away from civilization. I felt I had just entered the magical portal linking me to a miniature Narnia.
Growing out of the snow at the edge of the stream, I spotted what I’d come to find, Symplocarpus foetidus, skunk cabbage. The first part of the plant is the spathe, a purplish mottled pod that is able to generate heat and melt a hole in snow. None I saw had opened yet but when they do, they will expose the spadix, the flower cluster inside that will attract insects. The green bud next to the spathe will become the massive leaves of the plant. When the days become warmer, these leaves will unfurl to a very large size… up to 2-ft. in length and a foot wide.
Not related to a true cabbage, the name of the plant, skunk cabbage, comes from the smell of the plant, a fetid odor that attracts early flies to visit and pollinate the plants. The raw leaves are eaten by insects but are toxic to most animals… including the human animal.
Some may think these plants ordinary or common, but I am fascinated by these natives, a true harbinger of spring, that can actually melt snow. Knowing how to do that this winter would have come in handy in New Hampshire!
The decision to remove all the white pine trees in this association was a difficult one for me. But, in the end, I went along with the majority vote to take them all. There were benefits to keeping the trees. They provided life and they provided shade and they gave us privacy. They blocked the frigid winter winds, helped to clean the air, and they certainly helped with soil erosion and water drainage as we live on the lower part of an incline…. but I had to concede the fact these tall trees were planted too close to buildings. There was a fear of what might happen if strong storms struck. It has occurred with other white pines in this neighborhood in year’s past.
Another reason given for the removal was that the species was not considered desirable. I held my ground on that one. Just ask Doug Tallamy, chairman of the department of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware, author of the popular books, Bringing Nature Home and The Living Landscape, who promotes growing natives to help support an area’s ecosystem. Pinus strobus, eastern white pine, is one he recommends for providing food, nuts, insects for a host of wildlife. Besides, I consider it a beautiful soft needled evergreen tree that whispers a song when the breezes come through.
Last week was the icy, snowy, cold week for tree removal. The operation was reminiscent of scenes from the movies Fern Gully or Avatar as heavy machinery, trucks, cranes, cables, and saws advanced around the area. One by one I watched these trees fall. I watched two squirrels jump from the tip top of one tree to the snow covered ground. I watched as birds flew around the tops of trees but not landing.
Click to enlarge:
I will collect some of the cones left behind and toss them into the woods that surround the neighborhood. Let’s hope a few of the offspring take root.
For every negative, I look for the positive. 1. With the tall pines gone, we now have morning sun at the breakfast table, a totally unanticipated perk that puts a smile on our faces. 2. The herbs on the window sill are responding very favorably to sunlight and we have removed the grow light that kept them happy all winter. 3. Facing an easterly direction, we’re finding the passive solar energy is keeping the home warmer. That’s a very good thing for the heating bill. Sigh…
Doesn’t it bring good luck to take a handful of milkweed seeds and toss them high on autumn breezes? At least that’s what I believed growing up. Make a wish and scatter the fluff to the wind.
The common milkweed seeds (Asclepius syriaca) are bursting forth on the walks we take. And judging from clumps of seeds and spiny pods on the trail, children are still practicing this custom of scattering seeds the best they can.
One of the biggest winners in the scattering of these seeds is the monarch butterfly who depends on the plant to complete its life cycle. It’s a prolific native that is too robust for the flower garden but useful when grown in the right spot. The plant is plentiful as we walk along our regular sunny pathway but I always take a handful of seeds and make some wishes further along on the trail.