Nature News: Wildflower Trillium is starting to bloom

published May 20, 2020 seacoastonline.com, the York Weekly, York County Coast Star, Portsmouth Herald and Foster’s Daily

One of the ways I have been dealing with staying at home is getting to know my backyard better through a daily ‘nature minute’ where I find something in my backyard, flora or fauna (though usually flora because plants don’t move) to do a short video about (you can find these at @pikeshikes).  I’ve gone through most of the obvious candidates; dandelions, unusual spring wildflowers, my first animal-a gray tree frog.  We have trillium starting to bloom along the bank that goes down to the river.  I can’t believe I thought this, but when I saw them I thought “why discuss trillium, everyone knows what they are, they probably have a boring backstory”.  What bothers me most about this is that I thought they might be boring. One of my guiding tenets is that nothing is boring unless you choose to be bored.  My other main tenet is that nature is awesome and wonderful.  So, I decided to read up on trillium.

Trillium are, indeed, a well-known wildflower.  As a spring ephemeral I would bet they are second only to lady’s slippers.   First, the name.  All trilliums are in the genus Trillium, which according to Merriam-Webster comes from New Latin and is an alteration of the Swedish word ‘trilling’ which means triplet.  This refers to the three parts of the flower, the three sepals directly behind the petals as well as three “leaves” which, technically, aren’t true leaves.  Those 3 big green things are a type of modified leaf known as a bract.  According to the US Forest Service “ Morphologically, trillium plants produce no true leaves or stems above ground. The “stem” is just an extension of the horizontal rhizome and produces tiny, scale-like leaves (cataphylls). The above-ground plant is technically a flowering scape, and the leaf-like structures are bracts subtending (underlying) the flower. Despite their morphological origins, the bracts have external and internal structure like a leaf, function in photosynthesis, and most authors refer to them as leaves.”

Since trillium are part of my backyard biodiversity study it made me inordinately happy to learn that the eastern United States has the highest trillium biodiversity in the world.  Of the forty three species of trillium (that we know of) found world-wide, thirty eight are found in North America! Four of these are native to New England: Trillium cernuum (whip-poor-will flower or nodding trillium), T. erectum (red trillium or stinking Benjamin), T. grandiflorum (great white trillium), and T. undulatum (painted trillium).  Other colorful common names for the trillium are wakerobin because they bloom with the first robins,  toadshade and birthroot due to traditional use during childbirth.

After taking a closer look at the trillium at my house I realized I have two different species, what I thought was just a big wilted one turned out to be nodding trillium, the white flower dangles, hidden, under the big, floppy, leaves.  Nodding trillium has the northernmost distribution of any of the North American trilliums.  Painted trillium have a more classic trillium look, flowers held above the bracts and easy to see.  One confusing thing about painted trillium is that their white flowers with a reddish or purplish blotch at the base can turn pink following pollination.  I only have three of these in flower, but can’t wait to see what happens.  

A friend just sent me a photo of a third native-red trillium.  I wish I had these at my house.  In addition to their colorful reddish flowers they attract pollinators in an unusual way.  They produce no nectar instead relying upon a fetid, rotten-meat smell that attracts flies (hence the common name stinking Benjamin). 

I know that I have a bit of a bias against big, showy, famous wildflowers-I tend to be drawn to the hidden, the not-so-obvious bits of nature that can take some effort to find.  But, after exploring the backstory of the trillium in my backyard I have a whole new appreciation of who they are.  As with everything in nature the more you learn the more you realize how little you know.  

Nature news: Building a magical mound in my garden

published May 12 2020 on seacoastonline.com and in the York Weekly, York County Coast Star, Portsmouth Herald, Foster’s Daily

I moved just a little more than a year ago and have been thinking about and building vegetable gardens ever since-many didn’t work out so well. The garden I started out back turned out to be in the coldest, shadiest part of the property. (I should have realized this based upon the amount of moss growing there.) So, this spring I moved the garden to the front — a sunnier spot that wasn’t originally my first choice given its proximity to the road. But I have grown accustomed to this. In this time of coronavirus, I now have almost as many neighbors walking by and waving hello as I do cars. It’s a friendly place for a garden.

Hugelkultur bed. The bricks are decorative, but the logs on either side are an extension of the buried logs underneath–they’ll slowly rot, retain water and add nutrients and organic material to the soil….they are building soil.

I am trying to garden as close to nature as possible — to work with nature, use nature as my guide and inspiration. My newest gardening adventure concerns something called hugelkultur, a word that means hill, or mound, culture. What I love most about it is that it is so obvious — its premise underlies natural soil formation. A tree falls in the forest, whether or not anyone hears it fall, it will eventually turn into soil. Hugelkultur beds use rotting logs as their base; the logs slowly release nutrients into the bed as they decay. So I recruited my son, quarantined back home, to help build a hugelkultur bed. He collected old logs from the forest, laid them on the ground and built a mound over them full of sticks (also from the forest), sod and straw, some compost, leaves and manure.

I was discussing my hugelkultur bed with my naturalist friend Steve Morello. He pointed out that there are more living cells in a dead tree than a living tree. In an article titled “Forest of the Living Dead,” Jenny Dauer of the Forestry Communications Group at Oregon State University asks, “Which is more alive: a live tree or a dead tree? If ‘alive’ means growing, breathing cells, a dead tree wins hands down. While only a thin layer of wood and bark are growing and actively transporting water and nutrients from roots to leaves in a live tree, all of a dead tree’s cells are teeming with insects, fungi, and bacteria. Some dead trees even have new plants and moss growing on them.”

Rotting wood is the basis of a healthy
forested ecosystem.

Walking in my woods this afternoon I thought about this — the sheer quantity of life found in one of those old standing snags or a downed log, slowly returning to dirt on the forest floor. It’s somewhat mind-blowing to realize that those snags and logs contain more life than the towering, living maples and hemlocks. Amazing to think that before that already partially-rotted standing dead tree hit the ground it was readying itself to release its nutrients back into the land, building soil.

The forest floor in my backyard is spongy with rot. Leaf litter and dead wood hide a vast network of lives dedicated to turning those dead leaves and wood into soil. Compare this to a typical garden bed. Most of my beds are wood frames filled with a mix of compost, manure and loam — very straightforward.

When I think of my hugelkultur bed, it seems magical in comparison — the logs buried in the bottom will start to decay over the next few years. The wood provides homes to the insects, bacteria and fungi that help with decomposition. It becomes spongy and holds onto moisture (a well-constructed hugelkultur bed needs to be watered only once every three weeks or so, at most). The decaying log provides warmth so that these beds can extend your planting season by a few weeks. What’s more, you are building soil with each mound you construct!

You can build hugelkultur beds in urban areas, a suburban backyard, even the desert. Try it! Bring a little nature into your backyard.

Nature News: The mating rituals of water striders

published May 6, 2020 seacoastonline.com, the York Weekly, Portsmouth Herald, Foster’s Daily and the York County Coast Star

The last time I wrote about water striders, it was the middle of the summer. I was sitting by a pond battling mosquitoes while watching them skate across the surface of the pond. I love how fast they move, which I didn’t understand. Are they skating and digging in their little feet for some purchase on the slick surface of the pond? Or is it a sticky surface that just looks like glass?

Water striders caught in the act of mating photo by Steve Morello stevemorello.com

Turns out not all small insects can do this – walk and skate on water. Water striders can because they have very fine hairs on the undersides of their legs that trap air and repel water. The scientific term for this is superhydrophobic. They can move so quickly because what they are doing is more like rowing, vigorously rowing, creating little swirls in the surface that help propel them forward. For their body size, they move fast, the equivalent of a 6-foot-tall person running 400 miles per hour!

I love the way their feet make little dimples in the surface of the water. Sometimes that’s how I first notice them – by the shadows those dimples cast on the bottom of the stream. As a biology teacher, I really love this, a textbook example of the high surface tension of water. They are bending the surface of the water.

I have been surprised to see water striders on my brook and along the edges of the river. I hadn’t realized they lived in flowing water as well as still water. Having never lived along a river until now, I have always made assumptions about who lives where. This was a big one. I always assumed they needed still-water, but there they were, skating upstream against the current, hanging out in the still water along the edges. And, as a wonderful sign of spring, this past weekend, while I was battling newly-hatched black flies instead of mosquitoes, I was able to catch some in the act of reproduction.

I realized these two were mating because they looked huge and on closer inspection it turned out I was seeing two, one being carried on the others’ back. So, I looked into water strider mating behavior. As you would expect, it is fascinating. As far as researchers know, there is no courtship involved. The male mounts the female. If she doesn’t fancy him, she might try to resist by deploying an extremely effective genital shield. However, the males have coevolved a behavior to prevent her from resisting, an extremely diabolical behavior. They coerce the female into mating by tapping out intricate patterns on the surface of the water. These patterns are meant to attract a predatory beetle that attacks from below the surface, the backswimmer. The female, since she is on the bottom, is more vulnerable to attack from below, so usually submits fairly quickly if the male starts tapping. This has been tested in an experiment (Han and Jablonski, “Male water striders attract predators to intimidate females into copulation,” Nature Communications, 2010) in which a small bar was glued to the back of the female. The bar raised the male up high enough that he couldn’t tap. When the male couldn’t tap, females resisted his advances for much longer periods of time.

I have been making more of a point than ever to get outside for some green time, to be in nature, to do some close and slow looking. By spending more time carefully observing water striders, my curiosity has been piqued and I have learned so much more than I would have with just casual observation. Look up slow looking. It’s something we shouldn’t have to be taught, but the art of sitting still in nature and observing what is going on around you is an art form, one that we can all participate in.

Frog and Salamander Egg Masses

published April 29 seacoastonline.com, The Portsmouth Herald, Foster’s Daily, the York Weekly and the York County Coast Star

Back in March, something wonderful happened. When nighttime temperatures hit the low 40′, when it was rainy and drizzly, huge numbers of amphibians began to move about, heading toward ponds to mate and lay eggs, most often to the vernal pools (temporary, fishless ponds) where they were hatched.

The two amphibians that participate in this annual early spring-late winter migration are wood frogs and spotted salamanders.

wood frog egg mass
Wood frog egg masses are loose clusters of eggs attached to a stick or branch at the surface. -Steve Morello photo

Wood frogs belong to a group of animals that have the remarkable ability to freeze but not die. To hibernate, they bury themselves in the ground and go into a deep hibernation in which their hearts stop beating, they stop breathing and partially freeze. Then with warm (above 40 degrees F) spring rains they revive, dig themselves out of the ground and head to the water to mate.

Spotted salamanders don’t carry things this far, but they do hibernate in underground burrows and tunnels, also emerging in the spring.

So, this magical thing happened (referred to as “Big Night” by wood frog and spotted salamander aficionados). These hardy amphibians came out of hibernation and headed to their ancestral pools to reproduce. Once they finished mating and laying eggs, they headed back to the woods to lead a very terrestrial existence for the rest of the year. Now, what remains in those pools are their egg masses.

So, now is a good time to check out your local vernal pools to see if you can find frog and salamander egg masses. The egg masses are big and have characteristic features that make it relatively easy to distinguish wood frog from spotted salamander eggs. Almost always the eggs are laid in vernal pools because, due to their temporary nature (vernal pools dry out in late summer and early fall), they are fishless. Fish would love to chow down on those huge egg masses. They are so easy to see.

Once you know what to look for, it is relatively easy to tell a spotted salamander egg mass from a wood frog egg mass; spotted salamander egg masses are surrounded by a jelly coat, wood frog egg masses are not.

If you were to pick up a spotted salamander egg mass (which you really shouldn’t), it would hold together and you would see that in addition to the gel surrounding each egg, there was a thick gel surrounding the entire mass.

If you were to pick up a wood frog egg mass (which you really shouldn’t), it would be looser and would fall apart more easily. The surface would look like a cluster of grapes. Each individual egg has its own gel-coat, but the entire mass lacks the extra protection of that outer layer.

Both wood frogs and spotted salamanders attach their eggs to vegetation (though sometimes spotted salamander eggs will rest on the bottom). Wood frog egg masses tend to be attached to overhanging vegetation or to twigs at the surface, whereas spotted salamander egg masses are attached to deeper branches, below the surface of the water. One interesting variation you might see with spotted salamander egg masses. Some have a clear gel-coat while the gel-coat of others is milky-white. The significance of this difference is unclear, but some research suggests it might confer some protection from predation.

Both wood frogs and spotted salamanders are considered to be obligate breeders in vernal pools, meaning they rely upon vernal pools for reproduction. The Seacoast area has an extremely high density of vernal pools, a habitat type threatened by suburban sprawl. If you know of a vernal pool in your area, try to protect it. These little amphibians have been using these pools long before we were here. They are also extremely important members of our forest ecosystems. They are food for an enormous number of predators – snakes, herons, raccoons, skunks and mink, to name a few.

To me, their migration to vernal pools to lay eggs is one of the most lovely of our signs of spring and each year. I seek those eggs out as a reminder of all the mysterious goings-on in my backyard.