'Life On Distant Hill’ Blog
“Unless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered, you will never grow.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
Observing Nature on Distant Hill
All of the photos in this blog are taken by me on the 58 acres that comprises Distant Hill. There always seems to be something I find on my daily walks that sparks my interest, and I find myself wanting to know more about it. This Blog combines my photos with the information I have found online about the subjects I photograph. I always try to include numerous links to the interesting websites I came across in my research.
There are so many interesting thing in nature right in front of you, if you just keep your eyes open. One doesn't have to go far from home to find something new and fascinating.
By Leaving a Dead Log Near Your Vegetable Garden?
It is hard to believe that leaving a log or downed tree in the woods might help you grow better vegetables, but it might just be true. It turns out that there are a number of parasitic wasps of the Superfamily Ichneumonoideathe, Braconid and Ichneumon, that are important parasites of other insects.
The adult female of the Ichneumon centrator wasp, shown above, hibernates for the winter under the bark of downed trees and logs on the forest floor. The females are impregnated before
hibernation and will develop eggs in the spring when warmer weather returns. This subfamily of wasp, Ichneumoninae, with over 120 species native to North America, are all parasitic and lay their
eggs in mature caterpillars - species of caterpillars that are often pests in the vegetable garden.
Charles Darwin was a bit repulsed by these parasitic wasps. In 1860 he wrote, "I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice."
A Very Useful Plant
Salidago, commonly called Goldenrod, is a genus of over 100 species of flowering perennial plants in the aster family. The majority are native to North America, with just a few species native to South America and Eurasia.
The pollen of Goldenrod is often unfairly blamed for causing hay fever in humans. However, the true culprit is the wind-dispersed pollen of Ragweed (Ambrosia sp.), which blooms at the same time as goldenrod. Goldenrod pollen is too heavy to be easily blown about, with the plants relying on insects for pollination.
The flowers of Goldenrod are an important source of fall nectar for bees, flies, wasps, and butterflies. The leaves are also used as a food source by the larvae of many butterfly and moth species
Humans have put Goldenrod to good use over the years. Native Americans used the seeds of some species for food. They also chewed the leaves to relieve sore throats and chewed the roots to relieve toothaches.
Solidago virgaurea, European Goldenrod, is used today as a kidney tonic by herbalists to treat inflammation and irritation caused by bacterial infections or kidney stones.
One of the more interesting uses of Goldenrod took place in the early 20th century, when Inventor Thomas Edison experimented with goldenrod to produce rubber. Edison created a fertilization and cultivation process to maximize the rubber content in each plant. His experiments produced a 12-foot-tall (3.7 m) plant that yielded as much as 12% rubber. The tires on the Model T given to Edison by his friend Henry Ford were made from goldenrod.
A Spider of A Different Color
Goldenrod Crab Spider (Misumena vatia) are common on a number of flowers at Distant Hill Gardens. Our Milkweed Meadow is one of their preferred sites for laying their eggs and guarding them until they hatch.
This species is a sit-and-wait predator that does not use a web to catch their prey. This one was hiding on a pink Rugosa Rose. Not the best camouflage, but it was still able to snare a bumble bee.
Because flowers are their chosen habitat, the majority of their diet includes pollinators such as bumblebees, honeybees, butterflies, and moths.
Misumena vatia is also known as the Banana Spider or White Crab Spider. They are one of the few spiders in North America that are capable of changing their body color from bright yellow to white,
or white to yellow, depending on the flower they are hiding on. The color change from white to yellow takes between 10 and 25 days, the reverse about six days.
Common and Beautiful...but Tiny and Hard to Find
I noticed this tiny fungus growing in the grass on my way to the swimming pond recently. Cyathus striatus, commonly known as Fluted Bird's Nest, is a common bird's nest fungus with a widespread distribution throughout temperate regions of the world.
Fluted Bird's Nest can be distinguished from other bird's nest fungi by its hairy exterior and fluted inner walls.
Cyathus striatus is a saprobic fungus, deriving its nutrition from decaying organic material, and is typically found growing in clusters on small twigs or other woody debris. It is also common on mulch under shrubs.
Fluted Bird's Nests are also known as Splash Cups. The name refers to the method of spore dispersal. When raindrops hit the 'eggs' in the cup, they spring from the cups and are thrown three or four feet away.
Shortly after discovering the Fluted Bird's Nest, I found an even smaller species of this interesting family of fungi. It is called White-egg Bird's Nest (Crucicibulum laeve) and is the only
bird's nest fungi to have white "eggs". (See photo below)
A Unique Geological Feature of Distant Hill
A metaconglomerate is a metamorphic rock composed of pebbles and gravel that have been flattened due to directed pressure. Sometimes, strongly directed metamorphism results in a stretched-pebble conglomerate.
The parent rock for a metaconglomerate is a sedimentary rock conglomerate. The rock forms from large, rounded sediment grains such as pebbles and cobbles deposited by a stream. If the sedimentary deposit becomes buried, compaction and cementation occur forming conglomerate rock. If burial continues to great depth, the pebbles and cobbles become flattened from the pressure. In some cases the pebbles may become stretched from linear movement.
Most metamorphic rocks form at a depth of 25 to 50 miles (40-100 km) where pressures are 10,000 to 30,000 times greater than at the surface.
Metaconglomerates are considered high-grade metamorphic rock, meaning they formed at a temperature of greater than 1000°F (≈600°C).
Occasionally stretched pebble metaconglomerates may work their way up to the surface of the earth, as is the case with these unique outcroppings here at Distant Hill Gardens in Walpole, New Hampshire, USA.
Is There a Drugstore in Your Backyard?
Shinleaf (Pyrola elliptica) is a native perennial wildflower that can be found growing in the woods of Distant Hill Gardens. It is an evergreen herb, 5-10 inches high with a slender, branching rootstock that produces a set of basal, dark green, ovate to elliptical leaves.
The naked flower stalk bears from 7-15 white, waxy, drooping, greenish-white flowers, which smell like lily-of-the-valley and bloom in early summer here in southern New Hampshire.
Shinleaf is also known as Waxflower Shinleaf or Wild Lily-of-the-valley.
It contains a drug closely related to aspirin. The leaves reportedly have analgesic properties and were used as a poultice on bruised shins and other sores and wounds. Such a leaf plaster was referred to as a shin plaster. Tea made from the plant is said to have been used by some native American tribes as a treatment for epileptic fits, rheumatism, indigestion, and sore throats.
I have read that Shinleaf can be propagated by root cuttings or runner divisions. If young plants are containerized, they can be brought inside in late winter to hasten growth. I think I may give it a try. It sounds like it would make a good addition to the medicine cabinet!
Our Smallest Native Dogwood
Canadian Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) is a woodland perennial flowering in late spring at Distant Hill Gardens. It only reachs a height of about 8 in (20 cm), unlike other taller native dogwoods that are shrubs or small trees. It grows in moist partial shade, often under conifers, and in wooded swamps, shaded bogs and peaty areas. It likes acidic soils, which we don't have much of on Distant Hill. Just a few Bunchberries grow on the acidic shore of the Cranberry Bog/fen under some native high bush blueberry plants.
According to Wikipedia, each bunchberry flower has highly elastic petals that flip backward, releasing springy filaments that are cocked underneath the petals. The filaments snap upward flinging pollen out of containers hinged to the filaments. This motion takes place in less than half a millisecond. This is one of the fastest plant actions known requiring a camera capable of shooting 10,000 frames per second to catch the action.
Cornus canadensis in known by a number of common names, incuding:
- Canada dwarf-dogwood
- Canadian dwarf cornel
- Creeping dogwood
- Eastern bunchberry
A Very Unique Native Fern...Uncommon but not Rare
The Bronze Fern, also known as Cut-leaved Grape Fern or the Common Grape Fern, is unusual in that it grows in one of two forms, a broad leaf form (Botrychium dissectum obliquum), or a skeletonized cut-leaf form (Botrychium dissectum dissectum).
This small grape fern also has an unusual life cycle. It begins it growth during the late summer, when new leaves (both fertile and infertile) are produced.
The infertile leaves remain alive during the winter, changing from a green to a beautiful bronze in response to below freezing temperatures. These leaves may wither away during the spring (although not always), and the fern persists in a dormant state during the summer, until the same cycle repeats itself beginning in the following August or September.
The Three North American Species
Witch-hazel (Hamamelis) is a genus of flowering plants in the family Hamamelidaceae, with three species in North America and one each in Japan and China. They are deciduous shrubs or small trees growing to 10–30ft (3–9m) tall.
Hamamelis virginiana, known as common or American witch-hazel, is a species of witch-hazel native to eastern North America. It blooms in the fall while all other species of witch-hazel bloom in late winter or early spring. H. virigiana grows naturally in the woods of Distant Hill Gardens.
Hamamelis vernalis is a species of witch-hazel native to the Ozark Plateau in central North America, in Missouri, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. Vernal Witch-hazel is under cultivation in our gardens at Distant Hill.
Hamamelis ovalis, known as Big leaf witch-hazel, is a new species of witch-hazel that was only discovered in July 2004, in southern Mississippi. It has since also been found in a few sites in southern Alabama.
aka 'Snapping Hazel'
The seed capsule of witch-hazel splits explosively at maturity, ejecting the seeds with sufficient force to fly for distances of up to 30 ft (10 m), giving it the sometimes used common name "Snapping Hazel".
Medicinal Uses of Witch-hazel
Witch hazel is an astringent produced from the leaves and bark of the North American Witch-hazel shrub (Hamamelis virginiana). This plant extract was widely used for medicinal purposes by Native Americans. They produced witch hazel extract by boiling the stems of the shrub and producing a decoction, which was used to treat swellings, inflammations, and tumors. Early Puritan settlers in New England adopted this remedy and witch hazel is a component of a variety of commercial healthcare products today.
More Interesting Facts About Witch-hazel
- Witch-hazel is one of the very few American medicinal plants approved as an ingredient in non-prescription drugs by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
- The botanical name, Hamamelis, translates to “together with fruit”. This refers to the fact that witch-hazel is one of the few trees/shrubs that can bear fruit, leaves and flowers simultaneously.
A Beak of Another Color
It’s hard to predict where in the western and northeastern US Evening Grosbeaks (Coccothraustes vespertinus) will show up in any given winter to feed. Knowing that, we are lucky to have a small flock of Evening Grosbeaks visiting our bird-feeder this winter here in New Hampshire.
These beautiful birds are fairly large and often travel in sizable flocks. Because of their size they prefer platform feeders to tube feeders. They eat sunflower seeds but are also attracted to the seeds, berries, and buds of trees and shrubs, especially maples, in the gardens and forests of Distant Hill.
In summer Evening Grosbeaks fly north to breed in spruce-fir, pine-oak, pinyon-juniper, and aspen forests of northern North America and the mountains of the West.
Both male and female Evening Grosbeaks display an interesting physical change from winter to summer — not in the color of their plumage but in the color of their rather large beak. It turns a pale, pearly green color during breeding season from a bone-white color in winter. The beak of the bird in the photos is beginning to change to breeding color.
The World’s Most Common Mushroom?
According to Wikipedia the Common Split Gill (Schizophyllum commune) is the world's most widely distributed mushroom, occurring on every continent except Antarctica. It is found predominantly from autumn to spring on dead wood, in coniferous and deciduous forest.
Often when fungi appear to be similar but occur on widely separated continents, DNA analysis shows that their genetic separation is so great that they should be classified as distinct species. Thanks to the work of John Raper and colleagues at Harvard University over two decades from the 1950s to the 1970s we know that Schizophyllum commune is one species worldwide. Roper and friends collected Split Gill mushrooms from all over the world. From germinated spores they grew mycelia and showed that as two strains are of different mating types they were able to mate with one another. They also discovered that Schizophyllum commune has more than 28,000 sexes, an adaptation that minimizes the risk of siblings mating and hence maximizes the genetic diversity by achieving nearly 100% outbreeding with new genetic stock.
Although European and US guidebooks list it as inedible, this is apparently due to differing standards of taste rather than known toxicity, being regarded with little culinary interest due to its tough texture. S. commune is, in fact, edible and widely consumed in Mexico and elsewhere in the tropics.
A Beautiful Medicinal Native Plant
American spikenard (Aralia racemosa) is one of my favorite shade-loving native plants under cultivation at Distant Hill Gardens.
American spikenard is a relative of ginseng. A perennial here at Distant Hill Gardens, it reaches up to 6 feet in height and makes a striking display in the garden. The plant produces tiny greenish-white flowers in rounded clusters in the summer and dark purple-red berries in the fall.
One of its most beautiful attributes of Aralia racemosa are its heart-shaped leaves that can reach up to 8 inches across.
We grew our Spikenard from seed gathered from native specimens in our woods.
Medicinally, the roots of American Spikenard have a number of uses, including as a diuretic and as an expectorant. Native Americans used an infusion of the roots to treat a wide variety of ailments, including tuberculosis, coughs, colds, sore throats, menstrual problems, kidney problems, and lung diseases. They also applied a poultice of the root to burns, swelling, wounds, boils, sprained muscles, and broken bones.
A Medicinal Native Plant
Western Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea), also known as simply Pearly Everlasting, is a perennial wildflower that was often used medicinally by North American Indian tribes to treat a range of ailments.
Common uses for this species included poultices for treatment of sores, boiling in tea or a steam bath for rheumatism, or smoked to treat colds. The plant was also among many native species of plant used as a tobacco substitute.
Over 100 species of Anaphalis are recognized in India, south Asia, and Europe, but only one, Anaphalis margaritacea, is native to North America. All members of the genus are commonly known by the name pearl or pearly everlasting for the pearl-white involucre bracts that surround the yellow disk flowers. These bracts remain fresh in appearance long after the central disk flowers have wilted, making them well suited for dried flower arrangements.
Western Pearly Everlasting attracts both butterflies and bees and
acts as the host for Skipper, Moth and American Painted Lady caterpillars.
Three Native Orchids of Distant Hill
Downy rattlesnake-plantain (Goodyera pubescens) is one of three species of the genus Goodyera native to Distant Hill Gardens. It is the most common species of rattlesnake-plantain in New England, and can be easily identified by the broad central stripe down the middle of each leaf.
The evergreen foliage is attractive year round, with individual leaves lasting 3 to 4 years. It flowers in late summer with small white flowers densely packed on a slender cylindrical spike, 6 to 18 inches tall. Downy rattlesnake-plantain can be found in the entire eastern half of the U.S. and Canada as far south as Florida.
Despite the name, rattlesnake-plantains are not related to the common lawn weed plantains, but has similar appearing rosettes of leaves. They are actually in the orchid family, Orchidaceae.
In addition to Goodyera pubescens, Distant Hill Gardens has two other species of native rattlesnake-plantain growing in our woods:
- Goodyera repens - (Dwarf Rattlesnake-plantain, also known as Lesser Rattlesnake-plantain, Creeping Rattlesnake-plantain, or Northern Rattlesnake-plantain.)
- Goodyera tesselata - (Checkered or Tessellated Rattlesnake-plantain)
Checkered Rattlesnake-plantain is a hybrid of Giant Rattlesnake-plantain (G. oblongifolia), and Dwarf Rattlesnake-plantain. In New England, G. oblongifolia is found only in Maine, where it is considered Endangered.
Hybrids can develop between Checkered Rattlesnake-plantain (Goodyera tesselata) and Dwarf Rattlesnake-plantain (Goodyera repens). This makes these two species of Goodyera difficult to identify at times.
The Iceman Mushroom
Piptoporus betulinus, the Birch Poypore, develops from a small white spherical swelling on the side of dead or living birch trees. It quickly grows into a large shelf-shaped mushroom up to 10 inches (25cm) across. Barbers used to 'strop' or sharpen their razors on strips cut from these polypores, and so they are also sometimes called Razor Strop Fungus.
An extremely useful medicinal fungi, Birch Poypore has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. It also contains compounds that are effective against intestinal parasites.
Pieces of Birch Polypore were found on the 5000 year old mummy known as Ötzi the Iceman. Ötzi's frozen and mummified body was found in September 1991 by hikers in the Ötztal Alps on the border between Austria and Italy. It is uncertain why Ötzi carried the pieces of Birch Polypore, but he did have intestinal parasites in his gut. Did he use the Birch Polypore as a medicine to help control these parasites?
"The Diamond of the Forest"
Chaga Mushrooms are nothing like the common soft Mushroom. They are almost as hard as wood. Known in Russia as the “Gift from God” and the “Mushroom of Immortality,” chaga have been used medicinally for thousands of years. The Japanese call it “The Diamond of the Forest,” while in China it is known as the “King of Plants.”
Chaga mushroom, Inonotus obliquus, is also known as clinker polypore, cinder conk, black mass and birch canker polypore. It is a parasitic fugi on birch and other trees. The sterile conk is irregularly formed and has the appearance of burnt charcoal. It is not the fruiting body of the fungus, but a mass of mycelium, mostly black due to the presence of massive amounts of melanin.
Documented as early as 4600 years ago, Chaga was used by Asian folk medicine practitioners to maintain a healthy life energy balance or “Chi”, preserve youth, promote longevity, and boost the body’s immune system. It was ingested by the local people of the Siberian mountains as a Chaga Tea, with a flavor that resembles coffee. It was also smoked, or applied to the skin.
Laboratory studies on extract of chaga mushroom have indicated possible future potential in cancer therapy, as an antioxidant, in immunotherapy, and as an anti-inflammatory. For medicinal use, an extract is needed to make the active components available to humans.
A“Little Basket” of Pollen
Bees in the family Apidae, made up in part by bumblebees, honey bees, stingless bees, and orchid bees, all posess pollen sacs. The corbicula, Latin for "little basket", is a cavity on the rear legs into which pollen is placed.
The corbicula is a cavity surrounded by a fringe of hairs, into which the pollen is placed; most other bees possess a slightly different structure for collecting pollen called the scopa. It is made up of a dense mass of branched hairs on the hind legs and/or the abdomen as opposed to a cavity.
To fill the corbicula a bee moistens the forelegs with its protruding tongue and brushes the pollen that has collected on its head, body and forward appendages to the hind legs. The pollen is transferred to the pollen comb on the hind legs and then combed, pressed, compacted, and transferred to the corbicula on the outside surface of the tibia of the hind legs. A single hair functions as a pin that secures the middle of the pollen load.
The bee then carries the pollen in the pollen basket back to the hive where it is mixed with honey or nectar to produce what is called bee pollen.
Bees collect the pollen as a protein source to raise their brood. An average bee colony will collect about 40 to 120 pounds (20 to 57 kg) of pollen a year.
Thanks to Wikipedia for much of the above information.
An Edible Gem
Gem-studded puffball, Lycoperdon perlatum, are also known as common puffball, warted puffball, or the devil's snuff-box.
Puffballs are considered to be a good edible mushroom when young, when the gleba or inside is still homogeneous and white. Nutritional analysis of pufballs indicates that they are a good source of protein, carbohydrates, fats, and several micronutrients.
In maturity, the top of the puffball sloughs away, revealing a pre-formed hole called the ostiole, through which the spores can escape. Mature puffballs release their powdery spores through the ostiole when they are compressed by touch or falling raindrops. A single puff like this can release over a million spores.
A Southern Species Moving North
The Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes) is the largest butterfly in Canada and the United States. Adults have a forewing span of 4 to almost 6 inches (avg. 5.5 inches) for males and a span of 5 to 7 inches (avg. 5.8 inches) for females. It is an uncommon stray in southern New Hampshire and Vermont, but we have had them here at Distant Hill Gardens for the past two years.
Is their presence in New England an example of climate change at work?
A paper published last year in Nature Climate Change seems to support that theory. They reported that many of the southern butterfly species in the US are packing up and moving north... "Our results suggest that a major, climate-induced shift of North American butterflies, characterized by northward expansions of warm-adapted and retreat of cold-adapted species, is underway."
The caterpillar of the Giant Swallowtail is as least as interesting as the butterfly. It looks exactly like a bird dropping, making it unappetizing to most insect-eaters. If it does happen to be threatened by a predator, a bright red, forked structure called an osmeterium emerges from its head, along with releasing a strong noxious odor.
The caterpillar has the nickname 'Orange Dog' due to preference for plants in the citrus family. It is very common in Florida and is considered a pest in the citrus groves throughout the State.
Here in northern New England, it will feed on Common Prickly Ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) or the Common Hop Tree (Ptelea trifoliata), if available. Both are native plants in the citrus family. Only the Prickly Ash can be found in this part of New Hampshire.
The only plant growing at Distant Hill Gardens that we have found Giant Swallowtail caterpillars feeding on is a Gas Plant (Dictamnus albus). It turns out that Dictamnus albus is in the same botanical family as
There is one other plant in the Rue family growing at Distant Hill Gardens, an Amur Corktree (Phellodendron amurense). We will have to keep an eye out for the Giant Swallowtail caterpillar feeding on its leaves.
Three Stages of Life
The eastern red-spotted newt (Notophthalmus viridescens) is a common newt of eastern North America. It is also known as a red eft, a red-spotted newt, or an eastern newt.
Eastern red-spotted newts have a very interesting life cycle. They have three very different and distint stages of life:
- The aquatic larva or tadpole
- The red eft or terrestrial juvenile stage (shown here)
- The aquatic adult
The larva possesses gills and are brownish-green in color. Born in the spring, they shed their gills in late summer and they transform into the red eft.
As an eft they develop spots on their backs. They can have as many as 21 of these spots, with the pattern differing among the subspecies.
After two or three years, the eft transforms into the aquatic adult. The skin on its back of
the adult reverts to the brownish-green of the tadpole and it develops a yellow belly. It develops a larger and wider tail than the eft stage
to aid it in swimming. Adults may be active all winter on pond bottoms or in
After two or three years, the eft transforms into the aquatic adult. The skin on its back of the adult reverts to the brownish-green of the tadpole and it develops a yellow belly. It develops a larger and wider tail than the eft stage to aid it in swimming. Adults may be active all winter on pond bottoms or in streams.
Are ants a valuable pollinator?
Ants are shown here feeding on the nectar and possibly pollinating flowers of Spreading dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium). This native bushy perennial grows on the field edges at Distant Hill
I said "possibly pollinating" because scientists have discovered that many ants secrete a natural substance that acts as an antibiotic. This secretion protects ants from bacterial and fungal infections, but unfortunately this secretion also kills pollen grains rather quickly.
In addition, ants can actually reduce the likelihood of other pollinators visiting a plant because they are stealing the insect attracting nectar. Luckily, Spreading dogbane is also pollinated by flying insects and does not rely totally on ants. Hopefully they leave some nectar for the more efficient pollinators like bees.
Hands and Knees Fungi
Slime mold is often called "hands and knees fungi" because it helps to be on your hands and knees to see them well. There are over 700 named varieties of these fungus-like organisms. They vary drastically in their size, shape and color and are found during periods of very wet weather.
What is a slime mold?
Slime molds are not true fungi but primitive fungal-like organisms currently classified with protists. More than 700 different species of slime mold exist. Those found on lawns or flowerbeds have a two-part life cycle. During warm, moist weather the slime mold lives as a shapeless, growing blob called a plasmodium. The plasmodium may be gray, cream, colorless, bright yellow or orange. A plasmodium can slowly creep across the ground, moving like an amoeba and consuming bacteria, fungi and organic debris as it moves. Beds of shredded, decaying wood mulch are prime real estate for slime molds because mulch is especially full of tasty fungi and organic debris. Those that live on turf feast on the fungi and bacteria that live in the thatch. When the environment dries out, the plasmodium transforms its shapeless body into many small, often stalked, fruiting bodies that are full of dust-like spores. Sometimes, a plasmodium moves itself to a dry spot to accomplish this transformation. The dry, sporulating slime mold often looks hard and crusty. The tiny spores can remain dormant in the soil for years, waiting for another period of moist weather, when they germinate and each release a small, motile cell. Two motile cells fuse together and grow to become a new plasmodium, starting the cycle anew.
(Thanks to Iowa State University Extension for the above definition.)
aka Matchstick Fungus
Swamp Beacons are the club-shaped fruiting body of the Mitrula elegans fungus. They grow in marshy and wet areas either solitary or in groups, and are often found growing directly in shallow standing water. Appearing in the late spring or early summer, they sport an irregular blob-like orange/yellow cap, with a stem that is smooth, straight, and translucent white. Up to 2 inches tall (5 cm), Mitrula elegans is a ‘recycler’ fungus, feeding on dead and decaying plant litter. They play a vital role in driving the carbon cycle, releasing nutrients that they don’t require back into the habitat.
Swamp Beacons are native to North America and are considered a common fungus. The habitat they require, however, is becoming quite rare. They need very specific conditions to thrive, but when those conditions are met they can be found in profusion. Of the twelve different wetlands here on Distant Hill, Swamp Beacons are growing in only one.
A very similar species, Mitrula paludosa (known as Bog Beacon in the UK) is native to Europe.
Fungi play a major role in decomposition of wood and leaf
litter in forest ecosystems. To break down this material, many fungi use enzymes that need oxygen. Swamp Beacons belong to a class of fungi that can degrade leaf litter and woody debris under water, without the need for oxygen.
Check out this University of Virginia website for more on the Swamp Beacon.
A Unique Native Viburnum
Hobblebush (Viburnum alnifolium - syn. lantanoides) blooms in early May in the woods of Distant Hill Gardens. It is a shade loving deciduous shrub growing 6–12 ft (2–4 meters) high, with branches that will root if they touch the ground. These rooted branches form obstacles which can trip (or hobble) walkers – hence the common name.
Hobblebush succeeds well at growing in deep shade. Developing leaves before the neighboring trees leaf out gives this Viburnum access to the suns rays for two to four weeks before the over-story leaves have fully expanded. The large heart-shaped opposite leaves, up to 8 inches long, act as large solar collectors in the dark understory.
This eastern North America native has developed a number of interesting adaptations that enable it to not merely survive, but to flourish in the cold and shade. It has an antifreeze in its leaves that reduces the freezing point to 23℉ (-5℃), enabling the growing plant to withstand temperatures that would damage most other plants. At night, hobblebush maintains a low respiration rate compared to other plants using less energy. And the showy flowers in the outer ring are sterile while the small greenish flowers of the inner cluster are fertile. This enables the plant to produce flowers that are attractive to pollinators while using less energy.
The flowers are 3 inches or more across, followed by fruits that change in color from red to dark purple in late summer. The flowers provide nectar and the leaves provide food for the Celastrina ladon (Spring Azure) butterfly and its caterpillar. The fruits, leaves and twigs of this beautiful Viburnum are food for a large number of birds and mammals. In fact, one of its other common names is Moosewood.
For more on this interesting native shrubs read this Northern Woodlands article.
And for more photos on this rather extraordinary native plant and its survival mechanisms read this blog 'Hiking with Chuck'
Medicinal Mushroom of Spring
On one of the first days this spring with no snow cover on the ground, I noticed this group of Scarlet Elf Cup Mushrooms (Sarcoscypha coccinea) on the forest floor. This medium to large mushroom, with its bright scarlet stalked cups, fruits in very early spring, often rising through the snow.
These mushrooms are widely distributed in hardwood forests east of the Rocky Mountains, and along the West coast. The Scarlet Elf Cup is a saprobic species, growing on rotting wood. Basswood (Tilia) is the preferred wood type for the species, and American Basswood (Tilia americana) grows in abundance in the woods of Distant Hill.
The fungus has been used medicinally by the Oneida Indians of Northern New York State. The dried fungus was used as a styptic for the navels of newborns after the umbilical cord was cut in order to help it heal properly. Scarlet Elf Cups were also used as a dressing for wounds.
The First Flowers of Spring at Distant Hill
Vernal Witch-hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) is the first shrub at Distant Hill Gardens to flower every year. The buds, which soon will become fragrant yellow flowers, are just beginning to open on this, the first full day of spring. Finally, life returns to the gardens after a long snowy winter.
Hamamellis vernalis, or Ozark Witch-hazel, is native to the southern and central United States. The flowers will open on relatively warm days but remain closed when it's cold to avoid frost. When the flowers do open they will be pollinated by small gnats and bees.
There are several cultivars of Vernal Witch-hazel selected mainly for variation in flower color, including 'Carnea' (pink flowers), 'Red Imp' (petals red with orange tips), and 'Squib' (vivid yellow flowers).
- Height: 6-10'
- Spread: 10-15'
- Habit/Form: Rounded to upright
- Zone: 4-8
- Birds Attracted: Robin, junco, titmouse, cardinal, and many others
- Plant Appeal for Birds: Seeds released in September-October
Are the wetlands at Distant Hill emitting Methane Gas and contributing to climate change? The answer to that question might be yes!
According to Wikipedia, one of the most significant natural sources of atmospheric methane are wetlands, and they remain a major area of concern with respect to climate change. The methane is released as organic material in the wetland slowly decompose and ferment in the oxygen poor environment found there.
If this is in fact methane being released, I'm sure that the small amount of being produced isn't adding much to total global gas emissions. But it certainly isn't helping.
The test to see if it is methane is to attempt to light it on fire. If it Burns its methane. I definitely have to give that a try!
A Perfect Example of a ‘Catch 22’
According to Katey Walter Anthony in her Scientific American article
'Arctic Climate Threat -- Methane from Thawing Permafrost' :
"Arctic permafrost is already thawing, creating lakes that emit methane. The heat-trapping gas could dramatically accelerate global warming. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, packing 25 times more heating power, molecule for molecule, than carbon dioxide. If the permafrost thaws rapidly because of global warming worldwide, the planet could get hotter more quickly than most models now predict."
As more melting taking place, more methane is released, which causes more melting! A perfect example of a 'Catch 22'
An Invasive Species?
Earthworms are so ubiquitous here in North America that we take them for granted. But chances are that if you live in the US or Canada, many of the earthworms you see are not native species.
According to Wikipedia, of the 182 taxa of earthworms found in the United States and Canada, almost 33% are invasive species, being primarily from Europe and Asia. When they become too abundant, these non-native earthworms can lead to reductions in native plants species and some trees. This occurs when the worms move much of the decomposing organic nutrients from the soil surface down below the reach of the plants roots. By redistributing nutrients, mixing soil layers, and creating pores in the soil, they are also affecting the characteristics of the soil important to the rest of the ecosystem.
Change is Good
- Simple metamorphosis: Grasshoppers, along with dragonflies and many other insects, go through simple metamorphosis. This is a 3 stage process: Egg to Nymph to Adult. The young nymphs usually look much like small wingless adults. The wings develop externally.
Here is a partial list of insects that use simple metamorphosis.
A Band-winged grasshopper in the Nymph stage of development. Note the short stubby wings.
A Band-winged grasshopper, in the Adult stage of its development. Note the long wings.
- Complex metamorphosis: Butterflies and moths undergo complex metamorphosis, in which there are 4 distinct stages: Egg to Larva to Pupa to Adult. With Complex metamorphosis, the immature insects and the adults have different forms, often live in different habitats, and may have very different behavior.
A Monarch caterpillar, the Larva stage of complex metamorphosis.
A Monarch chrysalis, the Pupa stage of complex metamorphosis.
A Monarch Butterfly, the Adult stage of complex metamorphosis.
Long Hairs on the Hill
Tussock moths Caterpillars are all members of the insect family Lymantriidae . The common name is derived from the hair tufts, or tussocks, found on most larval forms. The large larvae, or caterpillars, are hairy with many species having stinging hairs. Most feed on foliage of trees and shrubs. Some Lymantriidae caterpillars, such as the Gypsy Moth, are considered major forest pests. There are about 350 known genera and over 2,500 known species of Tussock Moths found all over the world, in every continent except Antarctica.
Notable Tussock Moth Species and Genera
- Brown-tail, Euproctis chrysorrhoea
- Yellow-tail, Euproctis similis
- Gypsy moth, Lymantria dispar
- Nun Moth, Lymantria monacha
- Pale tussock moth, Calliteara pudibunda
- Pine tussock moth, Dasychira plagiata
- Arctic woollybear moth, Gynaephora groenlandica
- Rusty tussock moth or Vapourer, Orgyia antiqua
- Western tussock moth, Orgyia vetusta
- White-marked tussock moth, Orgyia leucostigma
- Douglas-fir tussock moth, Orgyia pseudostugata
- Satin moth, Leucoma salicis
- Coca moth, Eloria noyesi
- Painted apple moth, Teia anartoides
A December Harvest of Cranberries
A December harvest of cranberries from the bog at Distant Hill Gardens. The frosts have sweetened the berries a bit, but they still have a tartness that goes well with our sweet homemade maple syrup.
Cranberries are a group of evergreen dwarf shrubs or trailing vines in the subgenus Oxycoccus of the genus Vaccinium. They can be found in acidic bogs throughout the cooler regions of the northern hemisphere. They are an important commercial crop in Canada and the United States.
The Health Benefits of Cranberries are many. Cranberries and cranberry juice have been found to help prevent urinary tract infections. They also have been shown to have anti-cancer properties. The cancer-preventive benefits of cranberries are known to extend to cancers of the breast, colon, lung, and prostate.
We Have Two Native Species Of Cranberries
Large Cranberry, Vaccinium macrocarpon (syn Oxycoccus macrocarpus), is the species shown here and the one grown commercially.
Small Cranberry, Vaccinium oxycoccosis, is quite similar to the large variety. Both are native to the northeastern United States and Canada.
Identifing Features the Two Species
- The size of their fruit: A quarter to half inch long (.635 - 1.25 cm) on Small Cranberry, and a half to one inch (1.25 - 2.5 cm) on Large Cranberry.
- The leaf edges: Generally rolled under on Small Cranberry and flat on the Large Cranberry.
The 'Have No Fear’ Mushroom
The Yellow-orange Fly Agaric, Amanita muscaria var. formosa, is common in the woods at Distant Hill. It is somewhat poisonous and hallucinogenic when consumed by humans, but not deadly like some species of Amanita. The toxins affect the part of the brain that is responsible for fear, turning off the fear emotion. Viking Berserkers , who had a reputation for fierceness, are said to have ingested this mushroom prior to battle.
According to Wikepedia, it's called the fly agaric because residents of a number of European countries used it as an insecticide to control flies. Albertus Magnus was the first to record it in his work 'De vegetabilibus' sometime before 1256. Small pieces of the mushroom are placed in milk to attract flies and they become inebriated and crash into walls and die.
A Poisonous but Medicinal Native Plant
American Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) is a perennial herb that is native to much of North America and grows in the woods at Distant Hill. It is a beautiful and very vigorous plant that can grow to a height of more than ten feet.
Some research has shown that a protein contained in pokeweed, called pokeweed antiviral protein (PAP), has anti-tumor effects in mice and laboratory studies. It has also been shown to help control some viruses such as herpes and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
According to pokesaladfestival.com, new research has revealed that a possible cure for Childhood Leukemia called (B43-PAP) is found in the common Pokeweed.
All parts of the plant are at least mildly poisonous when eaten, although the root is most toxic. Even so, the berries and dried roots are used in a few herbal remedies and the leaves can be eaten when small. Young, boiled pokeweed leaves & shoots are considered a special treat in the South and a canned version is occasionally available in grocery stores. The pokeweed leaves must be harvested before there is any noticeable red color in the leaves or stem, usually when the plant is still under about six inches tall. Even at this young age there are highly toxic alkaloids present so the leaves must be boiled in three changes of water to render them safe enough to eat. Boil for five minutes in each change of water.
The seeds are very toxic even after cooking, but the juice of the berries can be made safe by boiling. After boiling the berry juice can be made into a jam or jelly. The berry juice has also be used as a dye or as an ink.
More Medicinal Native Plants at Distant Hill
Pokeweed is yet another plant or fungi growing at Distant Hill that are known to have medicinal qualities. Others I have posted photos and info about include:
Thanksgiving Dinner ?
A Wildlife Restoration Success Story
New Hampshire offers excellent opportunities for hunting wild turkey. This is possible today only because turkeys have made an amazing comeback in New Hampshire. By 1854, the birds had completely
disappeared in the state because of habitat loss and market and subsistence hunting. Restoration efforts began in 1975, when Fish and Game released 25 wild turkeys in New Hampshire; careful management based on good science has allowed that initial introduction to grow to more than 40,000 birds today.
Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!
I recently put up a trail camera in the woods at Distant Hill, just a few hundred feet from the main road. It is amazing what is hidding out there in the forest.
In the past few weeks we have had numerous red fox, a fisher, a black bear, a raccoon family, and an opossum visit us, along with dozens of gray squirrels. To view all of the trail photos taken at Distant Hill, with links to information on each animal, go to my Trail Camera set on Flickr.
Its Tea Time
All parts of the
(Actaea pachypoda) plant are considered poisonous to humans. But, according to Wikipedia, both Native Americans and settlers made tea out of the roots for relieving pain of childbirth. The early colonists also used the plant to improve circulation and to cure headache or eyestrain. This plant is sometimes called Dolls Eyes because the white fruits resemble the china eyes once used in dolls.
In cultivation White Baneberry requires part to full shade, rich loamy soil, and regular water with good drainage to reproduce its native habitat. We have had good luck transplanting Doll's Eyes from the forest to the gardens of Distant Hill. Come late summer, the flowers will transform themselves into the large white berries shown above.
A Poisonous Native Plant (unless you are a bear)
Jack-in-the-Pulpit is one of those red-berried plants that families with small children should avoid planting in their gardens. All uncooked parts of the plant are poisonous to humans. However, the corms can be eaten by humans if processed correctly, and Black Bear, who happen to love the corms of Jack-in-the-Pulpit, can eat them without a problem.
An Edible Mushroom at Distant Hill
Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus), are shown here growing on a dying sugar maple at Distant Hill Gardens. They are one of the easiest edible mushrooms to identify. Often found growing in large numbers, it usually doesn't take long to collect enough for a meal or two. In this case, I shared half of the find with a friend and still had enough to freeze for later.
Their name comes from the fact that they resemble oysters in looks, and some say in flavor. According to Wikipedia, the genus Pleurotus is one of the most commonly cultivated edible mushrooms in the world.
More Than Just a Tasty Mushroom
Oyster mushrooms are not just tasty, but they are good for you too. They contain chemicals that help to lower your cholesterol.
And Pleurotus fungi have been used in mycoremediation of some oil based pollutants. They help decompose the oils. The key to mycoremediation is determining the right fungal species to target a specific pollutant. Certain strains have actually been reported to successfully degrade various chemical weapons.
There any no poisonous look alikes in North America or Europe. However, the poisonous Omphalotus nidiformis, which grows in Japan and Australia, is sometimes mistaken for an oyster mushroom.
This is a photo of a tobacco hornworm, the caterpillar of a Carolina sphinx moth (Manduca sexta) feeding on a tomato plant at Distant Hill Gardens. The tobacco hornworm, is closely related to, and often confused with, the very similar tomato hornworm. Both feed on plants in the Nighshade Family. The tomato hornworm is the caterpillar of the five-spotted hawk moth (Manduca quinquemaculata).
Note the Red horn at the tail end of the caterpillar, and the seven diagonal lines on its side. These identify this as a tobacco hornworm. The tomato hornworm has a Black horn, and eight V-shaped markings in place of the diagonal lines.
This is the same tobacco hornworm seven days later. It is covered with cocoons of Cotesia congregata, a species of parasitic braconid wasp. They lay eggs in the bodies of tobacco hornworms. The eggs hatch inside the hornworm and the larva feed internally, later to emerge from the body to spin their cocoons.
If you find a hornworm with these white cocoons, just let it be. Young wasps will soon emerge from the cocoons and lay their eggs in other unsuspecting tobacco hornworms.
Note: The insect on the body of the hornworm is not a braconid wasp. I'm working on getting a positive ID. Do you know what the insect is?
A Peaceful End to the Nesting Box War
To learn about the Nesting Box War go to an earlier blog 'Bluebird vs Tree Swallow'
We have been trying to get Eastern Bluebirds to nest in our birdhouses for many years, without any luck. After noticing that we always had Tree Swallows use the boxes instead of bluebirds, I decided to do a bit of research. I soon found out that we were not the only ones with this problem, but that there was a possible fix.
Scientists have discovered that the distance between the nesting boxes is critical to attracting bluebirds instead of swallows. We followed the recommendations and moved our four boxes. I guess it worked, because this is the second brood of bluebirds raised in this box this season.
Medicine in the Bog
Extracts of the Round-leaved Sundew, also called Common Sundew (Drosera rotundifloia) have show great efficacy as an anti-inflammatory and anti-spasmodic. The sundew was used during the middle ages to treat the plague, and is used today as a Homeopathic cough remedy.
There are hundreds of Round-leaved Sundew growing in the bog at Distant Hill Gardens. Sundews comprise one of the largest genera of carnivorous plants, with near 200 known species.
The plant feeds on insects, which are attracted to its bright red sticky tentacles. It uses enzymes to dissolve the insects and extract nitrates and other nutrients from their bodies. It is thought the Sundew has evolved this carnivorous behavior in response to its habitat, which is usually poor in nutrients or so acidic that nutrient availability is severely decreased.
The Round-leaved Sundew, one of the most widespread sundew species, is found in all of northern Europe, Siberia, Korea, Japan, New Guinea and much of northern North America.
In North America, it is considered endangered in the US states of Illinois and Iowa, exploitably vulnerable in New York, and threatened in Tennessee.
Beautiful Bog Orchids
The two acre floating bog at Distant Hill Gardens has a large number of beautiful orchids named Rose Pogonia (Pogonia ophioglossoides). The Latin name "Pogonia" means beard, a reference to the bearded lip on the flower. Rose Pogonia is also known as Snake Mouth, Snakemouth Orchid, Beard Flower, and Adder's Mouth.
These orchids may be found in sphagnum bogs, fens, wet meadows, roadside ditches, and acidic swamps throughout the eastern North America.
Threatened and Endangered Information
The USDA lists Rose Pogonia as threatened or endangered in several states.
The Common names below are from state lists. Click on a state name to get a complete protected plant list for that state.
|rose pogonia||Exploitably Vulnerable|
An Often Overlooked Butterfly
The Folded-wing Skippers are not very colorful, so they are often overlooked in the garden. But they are an interesting insect because of their unique and characteristic posture: they hold their wings partially open while resting, with the front wings and hind wings held at different angles.. All members of this group feed on grasses or grassy-like plants, like sedges and rushes, as caterpillars. Because of this fact, they are often called Grass Skippers.
Folded-winged Skippers, also called Banded Skippers, are butterflies of the family Hesperiidae. There are over 2000 species of Folded-winged Skippers, and 1500 other species in the
Skipper family. They are found worldwide.
Butterflies are a mainly day-flying insect of the order Lepidoptera, which is made up of the following superfamilies:
Mowed For The Monarchs
Monarchs butterflies need milkweed to survive. The caterpillars feed on the leaves, which makes them unpalatable to birds. The sap contains cardiac glycosides, which are toxic to birds.
We favor the milkweed in our fields and go out of our way to help it thrive. We have found that mowing in mid May, just as the milkweed plants are emerging, works best. It develops a healthy crop for the Monarch butterflies by cutting the already tall grasses. The milkweed isn't cut, which allows it to become the dominant plant in the field. We mow a second time in late October, after the plants have gone to seed.
Tagging Monarch Butterflies
Working with ‘Monarch Watch’ in 2003, Michael tagged a butterfly that was found six months later in El Rosario, Mexico, part of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. This is the area where the majority of the Monarchs east of the Rocky Mountains migrate to for the winter; an estimated 60 million to 1 billion butterflies every year. That small butterfly from New Hampshire had flown 2288 miles!
One Cool Dragonfly
Have you ever noticed that some Dragonflies point their tails up into the air at times, and wondered why? Well, a number of scientists have given it some thought, and have designed some experiments to answer the question. The research points to dragonflies attempting to cool off.
It has been dubbed "The obelisk posture" and has been observed in about 30 species of Dragonflies and Damselflies. A few species lower their tails instead of raising them, but for the same purpose - to keep cool.
More Amazing Dragonfly Facts
- A dragonfly can spot an insect moving 33 feet away.
- Dragonflies have six legs but cannot walk.
- A Dragonfly called the Globe Skimmer is thought to have the longest migration of any insect - 11,000 miles back and forth across the Indian Ocean.
Check this link for even more amazing 'Dragonfly Facts' from a past blog.
All That Glitters is Not Gold
A FOUR-SPOTTED SKIMMER
This beautiful dragonfly is found around the world in the northern hemisphere. It is known as the Four-Spotted Skimmer (Libellula quadrimaculata) in North America, and as the Four-Spotted Chaser in Europe and Japan.
Question: What is the state insect of Alaska?...
You guessed correctly... the Four-Spotted Skimmer.
Interesting Facts About Dragonflies From Wikipedia
- Some 5680 different species of dragonflies are known in the world today.
- Dragonflies are valuable predators that eat mosquitoes, and other small insects.
- Dragonflies are some of the fastest insects in the world. In general, large dragonflies have a maximum speed of 10–15 metres per second (22–34 mph).
- In some parts of the world dragonflies are a food source, eaten either as adults or larvae.
- In the United States Dragonflies and Damselflies are sought out as a hobby similar to birding and butterflying, known as oding, from the dragonfly's Latin species name, odonata. Oding is especially popular in Texas, where 225 different species of odonates have been observed.
The Northern Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer) - formerly Hyla crucifer, commonly called a "Pinkletink" in Martha's Vineyard, is a small tree frog only about an inch (2.5 cm) long. The Peeper is distinguished by the dark cross forming an often incomplete X shaped mark on its back. This X is the origin of the species name crucifer, meaning “one who bears a cross” in Latin.
Spring Peepers are rarely seen. But starting in mid to late March at Distant Hill Gardens, usually before the ice is out of the ponds, they are always heard. They are one of the first signs of spring here in New England.
Spring Peepers have large "vocal sacs" under their chins. They pump these sacs full of air until they look like a full balloon, then let out a mighty "peep" while discharging the air. The easiest way to see calling Peepers is to look for their shiny vocal sacs, which look like 25-cent pieces, inflating and deflating as they call. Only males emit the loud peeping call, which establishes a territory and attracts females. On warm spring evenings, the concentrations of calling "Pinkletinks" around ponds and wetlands can be incredibly loud.
A Rare Bird
A male Northern Bobwhite (Colinus virginianus), in a maple tree on Distant Hill in Walpole, New Hampshire. The Northern Bobwhite is a resident throughout eastern North America, from southern Mexico and western Guatemala through the United States to extreme southern Canada. Southern New Hampshire is at the northern most geographic range of this bird in New England.
In Long Island, New York, students and teachers are helping biologist Eric Powers with an initiative named 'The Bobwhite Quail Project'. He feels that ground feeding birds are a missing link in the fight against ticks and lyme disease. They have been raising Bobwhite chick and releasing them into the local parks, with a noticalbe reduction in the tick population.
Here is a very short video gives a hint of why this bird is named a "BOB-White".
Bobwhite...A Near Threatened Species
Bobwhites are classified as 'Near Threatened' by The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™ because of loss of habitat and over hunting. They are found in early successional vegetation in a variety of habitats, often created by disturbances from fire, agriculture and timber-harvesting. Maintaining tree canopy cover at less than 50% to develop open, parklike conditions is essential. It has been estimated that over 20,000,000 individuals are being killed annually by hunters in the United States.
A Cure For Cancer?
Hemlock Varnish Shelf mushrooms, Ganoderma tsugae, grow on dead or dying Hemlock trees. There are four species of Hemlock occurring in North America. At Distant Hill Gardens you will only find the Eastern Hemlock, Tsuga canadensis.
The Chinese University of Hong Kong in Shatin, Hong Kong, conductrd a scientific study in 2006 and found that extracts of the Hemlock Varnish Shelf, along with extracts from both Ganoderma lucidum and Ganoderma sinense supress breast cancer tumors. In a 2008 scientific study, conducted by Taipei Medical University in Taipei, Taiwan, extract from Ganoderma tsugae, the Hemlock Varnish Shelf mushroom, was found to inhibit colorectal cancer cell growth.
Ganoderma lucidum enjoys special veneration in East Asia, where it has been used as a medicinal mushroom in traditional Chinese medicine for more than 2,000 years. This makes it one of the oldest mushrooms known to have been used medicinally.
Wood Ducks Taking Flight
This pair of Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) visited the swimming pond at Distant Hill Gardens in the early morning. Because of the low light, I had to use a very high ISO "film" speed. This makes them look more like paintings than photos. Beautiful, none the less.
Wood Duck Facts
- Natural cavities for nesting are scarce, and the Wood Duck readily uses nest boxes provided for it. If nest boxes are placed too close together, many females lay eggs in the nests of other females.
- The Wood Duck nests in trees near water, sometimes directly over water, but other times up to 2 km (1.2 mi) away. After hatching, the ducklings jump down from the nest tree and make their way to water. The mother calls them to her, but does not help them in any way. The ducklings may jump from heights of up to 89 m (290 ft) without injury.
- The Wood Duck is a popular game bird, and is second only to the Mallard in numbers shot each year in the United States.
- Wood Ducks pair up in January, and most birds arriving at the breeding grounds in the spring are already paired. The Wood Duck is the only North American duck that regularly produces two broods in one year.
The above facts are thanks to allaboutbirds.org
Native Woodland Wildflowers
Trillium are spring ephemeral perennials. It is a genus of over 40 species native to temperate regions of North America and Asia. We have two species of Trillium growing in the woods at Distant Hill Gardens:
Interesting Facts About Trillium
- It is illegal to pick and/or transplant trilliums from public lands without a permit in Michigan, Minnesota and New York.
- Trillium is one of many plants whose seeds are spread by ants. Trillium seeds have a fleshy organ called an elaiosome that attracts ants. The ants take the seeds to their nest, eat the elaiosomes, and put the seeds in their garbage where they germinate.
- The above ground parts of Trilliums are scapes with three large, leaf-like bracts. The true leaves are technically the underground papery coverings around the rhizomes.
- Trillium erectum is also known as Stinking Benjamin because the flowers have the smell of rotting meat, which attracts flies as pollinators.
Dwarf Ginseng (Panax trifolius) also known as Groundnut, is a springtime herb native to eastern North America. Its distinctive tubers can be eaten raw or boiled. Native Americans drank tea made from the whole plant for medicinal purposes. It was used as a remedy for a large number of ailments, from colic to rheumatism and tuberculosis. The root was chewed for headaches, shortness of breath and fainting.
Different Soils...Different Native Plants ?
It is worth noting that Painted Trillium, which needs acidic soils to thrive, grows only on the twenty-one acres of land at Distant Hill Gardens in the town of Alstead. Both Red Trillium and Dwarf Ginseng, liking a richer soil, are found almost exclusively on the thirty-seven acres of Walpole land. Is it just that the soils are different from one town to the other? I think not.
The Alstead property has been virtually untouched by humans for at least the past 100 years. The Walpole property's forest was managed for timber and maple syrup since it first became a farm in 1790. The vegetation found on either side of the town line is like night and day. Everything we humans do, or don't do, to the land has a profound effect upon what will grow there and the health of the forest. Doing nothing is sometimes not the best course of action. In this case, the biodiversity of the property has been increased because of the difference in human interaction with these two adjacent parcels of land.
A Declining Species
North America has two easily distinguished races of Northern Flickers: the yellow-shafted form of the East, which occurs into Texas and the Great Plains, and the red-shafted form of the West. The key difference is the color of the flight-feather shafts, which are either a lemon yellow or a rosy red. Hybrids look intermediate and are common at the edges of these two groups’ ranges.
The Yellow-shafted Flicker is one of the most rapidly disappearing birds in North America. Breeding Bird Surveys show a steady decline of three to five percent annually since the mid 1960s. Christmas Bird Counts depict the same trend. By these estimates, there may be only one-third as many flickers around today as there were in 1960.
Interesting Flicker Facts
- Although it can climb up the trunks of trees and hammer on wood like other woodpeckers, the Northern Flicker prefers to find food on the ground. Ants are its main food, and the flicker digs in the dirt to find them. It uses its long barbed tongue to lap up the ants.
- The red-shafted and yellow-shafted forms of the Northern Flicker formerly were considered different species. The two forms hybridize extensively in a wide zone from Alaska to the panhandle of Texas. A hybrid often has some traits from each of the two forms and some traits that are intermediate between them. The Red-shafted Flicker also hybridizes with the Gilded Flicker, but less frequently.
- The Northern Flicker is one of the few North American woodpeckers that is strongly migratory. Flickers in the northern parts of their range move south for the winter, although a few individuals often stay rather far north.
The above facts are thanks to allaboutbirds.org
Pulsatilla vulgaris is an early blooming perennial at Distant Hill Gardens. One of its common names is Pasque flower. However, Pasque flower is also the common name for a number of other species of plant of the genus Pulsatilla. Proof that using the common name for a plant can be quite misleading. To add to the difficulty, the genus Pulsatilla is sometimes considered a subgenus under the genus Anemone. Pulsatilla vulgaris is synonymous with Anemone pulsatilla. Even the Latin names can be misleading. I think those who name plants go out of their way to make it complicated!
A Poison or a Medicine ... or Both?
Pulsatillas are highly toxic, and produce cardiogenic toxins and oxytoxins which slow the heart in humans. The herb is harmful if eaten fresh and only the dried plant should be used medicinally. The anemonin compound in Pulsatilla is a powerful irritant, and overdoses cause violent gastroenteritis, vomiting, looseness of the bowels, convulsions and even coma. Even so, some Native Americans have used Anemone pulsatilla as a medicine for centuries. They used it to induce abortions and childbirth, among other things.
In researching my blog posts about the various plants at Distant Hill Gardens, I have discovered just how many plants have proven (and some unproven) medicinal qualities. According to the 'US Forest Service Celebrating Wildflowers' webpage on Medicinal Botany, a full 40 percent of the drugs behind the pharmacist’s counter in the Western world are derived from plants that people have used for centuries, including the top 20 best selling prescription drugs in the United States today. Here is a link to a Wikipedia list of Medicinal plants, many of which grow at Distant Hill Gardens.
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have returned to Distant Hill Gardens. As part of their spring migration, some of these birds fly across the Gulf of Mexico, a 500 mile (800 km), non-stop flight over water.
These tiny birds, the only hummingbird species to breed in eastern North America, don't just consume nectar but are omnivores, also feeding on insects and spiders. An adult ruby-throated hummingbird may eat twice its body weight in food each day, which it needs to sustain its high metabolism. Its rapid wing movement of 53 beats per second must burn up the calories quickly!
Females ruby-throats provide all care for young hummingbirds, often having several broods each year. They lay one to three eggs, incubate them for about two weeks, and, after hatching, feed their young for about three weeks. Ruby-throated hummingbirds are largely solitary outside of the breeding season.
Of all hummingbirds in the United States, this species has the largest breeding range, covering all the states east of the Mississippi River.
On Top of the World
Chipping Sparrows love our Christmas tree plantation at Distant Hill Gardens. A number of the birds call the conifers home for the spring and summer months. We always find a few nests in the twenty or so trees we cut to give to friends each Holiday season.
Chipping Sparrows seem to gravitate toward evergreens. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology's website allaboutbirds.org states that:"Chipping Sparrows... sing from the tops of small trees (often evergreens). When singing, they cling to high outer limbs." We can vouch for that.
Plant Potatoes When Dandelions Bloom
A gardening rule of thumb in New England is to plant your potatoes when the dandelions bloom. We usually plant four varieties of organic potatoes every year at Distant Hill Gardens Rio Grande Russet, Red Sangre, Yukon Gold, and my favorite French Fingerling.
The French Fingerling is by far the most prolific variety in our garden. We have harvested as many as thirty pounds from a single pound planted. The yield for our other three varieties is about ten pounds per pound planted. Another common name for the French Fingerling is "Nosebag". Legend has it that the name "Nosebag" resulted from the way in which the tubers were smuggled into the U.S. from France- in the nosebag, or feed sack, of a horse.
Which Variety of Potato to Use in Cooking?
Here is a handy list excerpted from 'The Cook's Thesaurus' showing which varieties work best for the many different cooking methods possible:
Best for baking: russet potato
Best for potato salads: Yellow Finn potato, new potato, red-skinned potato, white round potato, and purple potato
Best for mashing: russet potato, Yukon gold potato, Caribe potato, and purple potato
Best for soups and chowders: Yukon gold potato, Yellow Finn potato, red-skinned potato, white round potato, and purple potato
Best for pan-frying: red-skinned potatoes, white round potatoes, new potatoes, and fingerling potatoes
Best for French fries: russet potato, purple potato, Bintje potato
Best for purees: fingerling potatoes
Best for roasting: new potatoes, Bintje potatoes (and IMO fingerlings)
Best for steaming: new potatoes, Yukon gold potatoes
Best for potato pancakes: russet potato, Yukon Gold potato
Interesting Facts About the Dandelion
- The word Dandelion comes from the French name for the plant dents de lion. This means teeth of the lion and refers to the jagged edges of the leaf of the plant.
- The other French name for this plant is pis-en-lit, in English this means wet the bed. Dandelions deserve this name because their greens, when eaten, remove water from the body. So eating the greens could cause someone to well… you can guess the rest. Not recommend for a bedtime snack.
- The dandelion first came from Asia but it now calls the entire planet home!
- Each year fifty-five tones of coffee substitutes made from roasted Dandelion roots are sold in England, Australia and Canada.
- The Dandelion provides an important food source to bees. The pollen from this plant helps bees out in the spring because it flowers early and the flowers continue through to the fall providing constant food. In fact no less then 93 different kinds of insects use Dandelion pollen as food.
- The Dandelion seeds are important food to many small birds.
The above facts thanks to NatureWatch
The Nesting Box War
Both Eastern Bluebirds and Tree Swallows visit us at Distant Hill Gardens every spring. We have six bird boxes for them to nest in, but there is a problem - they will compete for the same box. It turns out there is a way to alleviate the problem. Bluebirds will not let another pair of bluebirds nest within about 300 feet. Tree Swallows defend a range of only about 20 feet from other nesting Tree Swallows. However, both will allow other species of birds to nest within there defended range.
The trick is to place the nesting boxes in pairs, no more than 5-10 feet apart. Each pair of boxes should be at least 300 feet from the next pair. Too many boxes in one bluebird territory may attract groups of swallows that can mob a lone pair of bluebirds. If swallows use one of the paired boxes, they will allow bluebirds to nest next to them, but not other swallows. With the next pair of boxes being 300 feet away, these can also accomodate both swallows and bluebirds, without attracting too many Tree Swallows. Everyone is happy!
The Tree Swallow Project describes the box location in detail, along with lots of photos and info on building nesting boxes that work best for tree swallows.
The North American Bluebird Society website has plans for a number of different bluebird nest box designs.
I have to go out now and place my nesting boxes in pairs. I'll let you know if it works...
UPDATE...Moving the birdhouses WORKED!
Here is Photographic Proof that the Nesting Box War is over.
An Avian Parasite
The Brown-headed Cowbird is one of my least favorite birds (on a par with the European Starling), but it is a very interesting bird nonetheless. It is North America’s most common “brood parasite.” A female cowbird makes no nest of her own, but instead lays her eggs in the nests of other bird species, which then raise the young cowbirds. Researchers believe that parasitism by cowbirds may be a significant factor contributing to the declining numbers of many songbirds in North America.
Cowbirds were historically open-country birds, associating with buffalo herds and later adapting to domestic cattle. The prairies and plains were the cowbirds’ homeland, but they have now expanded their ranges. Currently the Brown-headed Cowbird’s range includes all of the 48 contiguous states and southern Canada.
An average female lays about 80 eggs, 40 per year for two years. Only about 3% of those 80 eggs reach maturity—an average of 2.4 adults per female. Such numbers more than compensate for the excessive loss of eggs and young in the nests of inappropriate hosts. Each pair of cowbirds replaces itself with an average of 1.2 pairs—which will double a cowbird population in eight years.
Facts About the Brownheaded Cowbird
- Brown-headed Cowbird lay eggs in the nests of more than 220 species of birds. Recent genetic analyses have shown that most individual females specialize on one particular host species.
- Social relationships are difficult to figure out in birds that do not build nests, but male and female Brown-headed Cowbirds are not monogamous. Genetic analyses show that males and females have several different mates within a single season.
- Some birds, such as the Yellow Warbler, can recognize cowbird eggs but are too small to get the eggs out of their nests. Instead, they build a new nest over the top of the old one and hope cowbirds don’t come back. Some larger species puncture or grab cowbird eggs and throw them out of the nest. But the majority of hosts don’t recognize cowbird eggs at all.
- Cowbird eggs hatch faster than other species eggs, giving cowbird nestlings a head start in getting food from the parents. Young cowbirds also develop at a faster pace than their nest mates, and they sometimes toss out eggs and young nestlings or smother them in the bottom of the nest.
- In winter, Brown-headed Cowbirds may join huge roosts with several blackbird species. One such mixed roost in Kentucky contained more than five million birds.
- The oldest recorded Brown-headed Cowbird was 16 years 10 months old.
The above facts thanks to allaboutbirds.org
Lungwort ... A Cure For What Ails You
The photo is of Pulmonaria saccharata 'Mrs. Moon', also called Lungwort or Bethlehem Sage. It is one of the earliest blooming perennials at Distant Hill Gardens. In spring, the plant produces small clusters of 5-petaled flowers that are pink at first, and later turn to blue-purple. It easily self-seeds, but the seedlings are manageable. It makes a beautiful ground cover or single plant early in the season, but can turn quite ugly in the heat of summer if it doesn't get enough water and shade.
The genus Pulmonaria or Lungworts have been cultivated for centuries as a medicinal herb, because the ovate spotted leaves were thought to be representative of diseased lungs. This followed the 'Doctrine of Signatures' - the concept that the key to the medicinal use of various plants was indicated by the form of the plant. This concept was employed by the herbalists of the Renaissance, and was accepted until the latter part of the 19th century.
Lungwort Tea is still used in the treatment of chest diseases and asthma. Its benefits are thought to include a therapeutic effect on the respiratory system, and it is said to be one of the best herbal remedies to relieve the most common symptoms of flu and colds.
Some -Wort Plants and Their ‘Signatures'
- Lousewort, Pedicularis - thought to be useful in repelling lice
- Spleenwort, Asplenium - thought to be useful in treating the spleen
- Liverwort, Marchantiophyta - thought to be useful in treating the liver
- Toothwort, Dentaria - thought to be useful in treating tooth ailments
- Hedge woundwort, Stachys - thought to have antiseptic qualities
- Lungwort - Pulmonaria - used in treating pulmonary infections.
I Can’t Make Heads or Tails of It
The Banded Woolly Bear Caterpillar is found in temperate regions of North America. It emerges from the egg in the fall and overwinters in its caterpillar form, when it literally freezes solid. It survives being frozen by producing a cryoprotectant in its tissues. Because the summer period for vegetative growth and hence feeding is so short in some northern areas, the Woolly Bear can feed for several summers, freezing again each winter before finally pupating. Some are known to live through as many as 14 winters in the Arctic. Once it emerges from its pupa as an Isabella Tiger Moth it has only days to find a mate before it dies.
Folklore About the Banded Woolly Bear Caterpillar
Folklore of the eastern United States and Canada holds that the relative amounts of rust and black on a Woolly Bear caterpillar are an indication of the severity of the coming winter. It is believed that the narrower the rust colored band in the middle of the Woolly Bear caterpillar is in the fall, the more severe the winter will be. In reality, hatchlings from the same clutch of eggs can display considerable variation in their color distribution, and the rusty band tends to change width with age.
A Pretty Pollinator
A Tricolored Bumblebee, Bombus ternarius, visiting an Erica carnea 'Springwood White', a variety of Spring Heath. This bee is also known as an Orange-belted Bumblebee, for obvious reasons. The name bumblebee refers to any member of the bee genus Bombus, in the family Apidae. There are over 250 known species, existing primarily in the Northern Hemisphere, with New Zealand and Tasmania being exceptions. Bumblebees are social insects that are characterized by black, yellow or orange body hairs often in bands.
Like their relatives the honey bees, bumblebees feed on nectar and gather pollen to feed their young. Bumblebees will also tend to visit the same patches of flowers every day, as long as they continue to find nectar and pollen.
What Makes Bees Buzz?
One common, yet incorrect, assumption is that the buzzing sound of bees is caused by the beating of their wings. The sound is actually the result of the bee vibrating its flight muscles. This is especially pronounced in bumblebees at low ambient temperatures.
Our Organic Alarm Clock
Every spring, often in the early morning hours, a male Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker drums on the metal roof of a cabin just outside our bedroom window. According to allaboutbirds.org, most non-birders believe that the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is a fictitious bird created just for the humorous name. It is in fact a widespread species of small woodpecker. Its habit of making shallow holes in trees to get sap is exploited by other bird species, and the sapsucker can be considered a "keystone" species, one whose existence is vital for the maintenance of a community.
Interesting Facts About Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers
- The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker frequently uses human-produced materials to help in its territorial drumming. Street signs and metal chimney flashing, and metal roofing amplify the irregular tapping of a territorial sapsucker. The sapsucker seems to suffer no ill effects of whacking its bill on metal, and a bird will return to a favorite object day after day to pound out its Morse code-like message.
- The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is the only woodpecker in eastern North America that is completely migratory. Although a few individuals remain throughout much of the winter in the southern part of the breeding range, most head farther south, going as far south as Panama. Females tend to migrate farther south than do males.
The above facts are thanks to allaboutbirds.org
Rocky Raccoon ... An Early Riser
Last week, on my daily walk in the woods at Distant Hill Gardens, I came across an eight-inch hole in the ground. I thought it might be the den for a small animal, so I set up my motion sensing infrared trail camera. Sure enough, a few days later, I got a photo of a Raccoon sticking its head out of the burrow at 4:25 AM.
As stated in the Northern Virginia Ecology website, "Raccoons are omnivorous and eat almost anything, including: nuts, berries, acorns, leaves, grasshoppers, crickets, grubs, worms, dragonfly larvae, clams, wasps, salamanders, frogs, crayfish, snakes, turtles and their eggs, bird eggs and nestlings, fish, voles, and squirrels. They often eat garbage scraps and at times have been seen eating dead animals on the sides of roads."
And, from personal experience, I know they eat CORN. I wonder if this is the same Raccoon that raids our sweet corn every year?
The First Lettuce is Planted
After planting the lettuce, we covered it with a floating row cover called Agribon+ AG-19. It can be used to protect plants from insects or, in this case, from the cold. The material offers about 4 degrees of frost protection. But, even without the row cover, hardened lettuce plants should survive 20 F. We keep it on until the danger of frost has past. Then we replace it with a shade cloth to protect the lettuce from the hot summer sun.
The link above for the row cover Agribon+ takes you to a page on Johnny's Selected Seeds website. They have a much better and more informative website than Fedco Seeds, the supplier we bought the row cover from. Fedco's price of $13.00 for a 83" x 50' roll beats Johnny's price of $21.95 by quite a bit.
We are 'Fans of FEDCO' here at Distant Hill Gardens
We purchase all of our seed from Fedco Seeds, a company based in Waterville, Maine. It is one of the few seed companies in the United States organized as a cooperative. Because making a profit is not their primary goal, their prices are much lower than most seed companies. And they offer much more than just seeds. Fedco has five divisions:
- Fedco Seeds - Untreated vegetable, herb and flower seeds
- Moose Tubers Certified seed potatoes, onion sets & shallots
- Organic Growers Supply - Cover crops, soil amendments & supplies
Fedco Trees - Trees, shrubs, fruits, berries, bulbs & perennials
- Fedco Bulbs - Fall planted flower bulbs and garlic.
They all publish annual catalogs. Nothing fancy with no glossy color pages, just black and white. But with lots of useful information and great prices. And they offer many certified-organic varieties of seeds and tubers. They recently started selling lifetime memberships in Fedco for $100 and Distant Hill Gardens joined as soon as we heard about it.
More than half of the ornamental plantings at Distant Hill Gardens were bought from Fedco - many of our bulbs, perennials, trees and shrubs. We should really change our name from Distant Hill Gardens to 'FEDCO Gardens.'
The Eastern Phoebes Are Back
As soon as the sugarhouse at Distant Hill was built in 2007, Eastern Phoebes (Sayornis phoebe) took up residence. That first year, we made the mistake of allowing the birds to nest in the rafters. What a mess! A lesson was learned. Now the doors and windows of the main building are kept closed, starting in early spring and through the summer. Our avian visitors are welcome to nest in the woodshed attached to the sugarhouse, and for the past four years that is exactly what they have done. They still make a mess, but a gravel floor is a bit easier to clean than all of our stainless steel maple syrup equipment!
Interesting Facts about Eastern Phoebes
- In 1804, the Eastern Phoebe became the first banded bird in North America. John James Audubon attached silvered thread to an Eastern Phoebe's leg to track its return in successive years.
- The Eastern Phoebe is a loner, rarely coming in contact with other phoebes. Even members of a mated pair do not spend much time together. They may roost together early in pair formation, but even during egg laying the female frequently chases the male away from her.
- The use of buildings and bridges for nest sites has allowed the Eastern Phoebe to tolerate the landscape changes made by humans and even expand its range. However, it still uses natural nest sites when they are available.
- Unlike most birds, Eastern Phoebes often reuse nests in subsequent years—and sometimes Barn Swallows use them in between. In turn, Eastern Phoebes may renovate and use old American Robin or Barn Swallow nests themselves.
- The oldest known Eastern Phoebe was 10 years, 4 months old.
The facts above are thanks to allaboutbirds.org
Canada Geese Return to Nest
Each spring, for the past five years or more, a pair of Canada Geese have nested in the center of the marsh next to March Hill Road at Distant Hill Gardens. I don't know for sure that they are the same two geese, but the nest is close to the same place each year.
Nesting Facts for Canada Geese
Nest placement for Canada Geese is on the ground, usually on a slightly elevated site, near water. They prefer a spot from which they can have a fairly unobstructed view in many directions. The female selects the site and does much of nest construction. She does all the incubation while her mate guards her and the nest.
- Clutch Size: 2–8 eggs
- Number of Broods: 1 broods
- Incubation Period: 25–28 days
- Nestling Period: 42–50 days
Question: How many geese does it take to make a gaggle? The answer, according to my Mac Book Pro's dictionary, is Five. And a gaggle is only used do define a group of geese on the ground. In flight, a gaggle becomes a skein, a wedge or a team.
The first known collection of specific names for collective groups of animals, including many birds, was published in 1486. Click for a link to a Wikipedia web page with a list of collective names for groups of birds and animals. One of my favorite group names is a 'Charm of Goldfinches'.
More than you need to know: In terms of salt, a gaggle is equal to eight fifty pound bags of salt.