Often overlooked, birch seeds are distinctive and easy to find on a snowy forest floor

Published January 26 2022 in the York Weekly, Portsmouth Herald, Fosters Daily and online at seacoastonline.com

Even though I am sure I have seen these all my life, I don’t remember ever noticing the actual seeds of birch trees until relatively recently.  This is one of those things that is so easy to overlook, but so easy to observe on a snowy winter’s day.

The seed-producing parts of our local birch trees are borne on catkins. 

Birch trees have both male catkins (which dangle) and female catkins (which stand erect) on the same tree. Male catkins release pollen in the spring which blows around until it encounters and then pollinates a female flower-female catkins are simply clusters of birch flowers.   As the seeds within the female catkin mature, the catkin starts to droop as it prepares to release the seeds.  The seeds (also called nutlets) are winged structures that are so lightweight that they can be carried quite far away and don’t have hard shells (like an acorn), so they germinate quickly–this is why birch trees are often the first trees to colonize after a fire or other disturbance (hence the term “pioneer species”). 

A fallen female catkin with the oval, winged seeds and bird-like bracts scattered around. Sue Pike Photo

If you take a walk in a snowy field (or forest) amongst some birch trees, look down.

  You should see tiny things in the snow, little seed-like structures.  Look closer-you’ll see tiny oval seeds (or nutlets as they are called) with tiny translucent wings and other tiny things that look like silhouettes of birds flying-these are the leftover protective structures of birch seeds. These are bracts, modified leaves that protect the birch flowers. When you see one of those dangly catkins hanging from the tip of a birch branch, what you are seeing is an overlapping series, a cylindrical column, of these bracts, protecting the seeds. The bracts look like they have wings, but compared to the seeds they are heavy-they don’t need to travel as far as the seeds.

Giant yellow birch bract on the left dwarfs the two tiny gray birch bracts Sue Pike photo

Different birch tree species can be distinguished by those protective bracts.  Gray and paper birch seeds are protected by bracts that look, to me, like soaring birds–two outstretched wings, a head and a tail.   Yellow birch bracts look like bird tracks to me– bird tracks with 3 toes and are  much larger than paper and gray birch seed bracts. 

Hopefully we will have more wintery weather here in the Seacoast. 

The snow gives us an opportunity to see things that are normally hidden.  The next time it snows, you really must go outside and see for yourself.  You will need a patch of snow and some birch trees.  Look down.  Look for little soaring birds.  Look for tiny pieces of flotsam that look like bird tracks.  Then look around and you’ll find some birch.

Read more about birch seeds and bracts at naturally curious and birch ID at maine.gov

It seems like a miracle teaberry can survive the winter: but it’s not. Here’s how it works.

originally published January 15 2022 in the York Weekly, Portsmouth Herald, Foster’s Daily and online at seacoastonline.com

The snow isn’t too deep yet, so now is a good time to go look for one of the more rugged little plants to grace our woodlands – teaberry. 

Teaberry, also known as winterberry and checkerberry (sometimes even called boxberry), whose scientific name is Gaultheria procumbens, is an evergreen, low-growing shrub or ground cover with dangling white flowers that develop into bright red berries.

You will find glossy green, slender to almost round leaves holding their own against the cold and snow. How does it do this? Why are the leaves so glossy? Why, if you crumble a leaf and smell it, does it emit that characteristic wintergreen smell that graced Teaberry gum, a gum you might remember with fond nostalgia if you are as old as I am? 

Teaberry, also known as winterberry or checkerberry, grows close to the ground in New England to help protect it from the freezing cold photo by Susan Pike

Teaberry occurs from Newfoundland and New England south to Georgia (in the mountains) and west to Minnesota. While in the southern part of its range it might not often have to deal with snowy, cold winters, over most of its range it does. Cold winters provide two major challenges for plants, freezing temperatures can cause cells to rupture and freezing temperatures that lock up water as ice so plants can succumb to dehydration. Plants have a number of adaptations that help them deal with these conditions. 

Advantages of holding onto your leaves in winter

Deciduous plants drop their leaves to avoid losing too much water to the atmosphere during the freezing and therefore dry winter. The problem with this is that they will need to grow new leaves every spring and miss opportunities to photosynthesize on warm, sunny winter days as well as in the late fall to early spring. It also takes a lot of energy to produce new leaves.

Evergreens hold onto their leaves, they can photosynthesize all year (as long as it is sunny and warm enough) and have adaptations that help minimize water loss. A thick waxy cuticle (outer layer on the leaf) helps reduce water loss to the atmosphere. That’s why teaberry has that nice glossy leaf. That’s the waxy cuticle.

Teaberry has a slew of adaptations to help make it through the winter

Both broad leaves and even needle-shaped leaves can curl up as temperatures approach freezing, protecting the little pores on the underside of the leaf (the stomata) that release water vapor into the atmosphere as the plant breathes. To prevent frostbite, evergreen plants will often produce excess sugars that act as antifreeze, lowering the freezing point for their cells. Hugging the ground and getting buried by snow also helps with insulation.  

Reddish-purple anthocyanin pigments help protect the leaves from, weirdly, too much sun in winter Sam Pike photo

Leaves need sunscreen in winter!

This past weekend, temperatures plummeted into the sub-zero, but as soon as the sun came out and warmed the teaberry leaves, they could soak that sun in, photosynthesize and turn the sunlight into sugar. This sounds easy, but one weird thing about staying green in winter is that these little plants can get too much sun. The forest canopy is gone. In the winter, if it is too cold for photosynthesis, the leaf still absorbs the sunlight, and with nowhere to go the sunlight can damage the leaf – similar to how we can get sunburned. 

To help prevent this, these evergreen plants will often produce more red pigments (anthocyanins) that serve as sunscreen. Plants like teaberry don’t exactly thrive in winter, but they hang on, ready to start photosynthesizing for real on those first warm days of spring, ahead of their deciduous counterparts. 

Even though teaberry has been used in food and medicine in the past doesn’t mean we should pick it now.

Teaberry’s characteristic wintergreen smell is one of its most delightful traits. The smell comes from methyl salicylate – the primary component of wintergreen oil. Wintergreen oil (derived primarily from our local wintergreen and its Asian cousin) has been used as a flavoring (tea more traditionally, gum more recently), medicinally, in particular as an ointment for aching muscles and also in perfumes and toothpastes. Luckily for teaberry, the manufacture of synthetic methyl salicylate has reduced the harvest of this woodland plant. 

I originally learned about teaberry as a “trail nibble.” We would pick a leaf or two and nibble on it while walking along (the berries are also edible). However, while this is a delightful plant to want to consume (though methyl salicylate can be harmful in large quantities), teaberry is an important part of forest ecosystems and should be left alone to do its thing – native wildlife need these trailside snacks much more than we do. 

Teaberry is a wonderful addition to any wildlife garden

Teaberry, one of the few green leaves around in winter, is an important winter food for a variety of native wildlife. Chipmunks, grouse, turkey, bear, mice, fox and deer all eat the leaves during winter.  

If you are establishing a wildlife garden, teaberry would be an excellent addition. It likes acidic soil in dappled sunlight (will produce more flowers and berries with some midday sun) and can hold onto water, so once established it doesn’t need additional watering.  Because it spreads through roots and creeping stems it helps to hold soil in place.  Given the right conditions, it makes an excellent ground cover.  What better way to enjoy teaberry than to encourage it to grow in your backyard.

Nature News: How to identify a mystery fish (or anything in nature)

originally published January 15 2022 in the York Weekly, Portsmouth Herald, etc and online at seacoastonline.com

A dead fish washed up on the beach might seem like an unsavory thing to write about, sad and tragic, but sometimes these encounters give us a glimpse into the unknown.  What lives off our coast?  Who dwells in those depths?

A friend recently posted a photo of a fish she found washed up on the beach, asking for help with the identification…. “We found this fish washed up on Ogunquit Beach when we took a walk there last week. We have been trying to identify it with no luck. We’d love to know what it is since we haven’t seen anything like it before. It’s about 2 feet in length from nose to tail, dark shaded scales, tail like a tuna, big eye socket, and upturned mouth. Any ideas are greatly appreciated!”   Those of us who responded to her post were definitely not fish experts–our guesses ranged from young tuna to piranha to something called an Atlantic pomfret.  It turns out that the Atlantic pomfret was the closest to the actual identification, one that had come from a Google image search…but it took some time to corroborate the ID.  

An Atlantic pomfret washed up on Ogunquit Beach last week. The size of a small tuna!

The wonders of a dichotomous key!

While I don’t really know much about the myriad of fish to be found in the Gulf of Maine, I do have two methods to help identify any given fish-ask an expert  or use a guide book/taxonomic key.  I did both. I sent the photo off to friends who know more about fish than I do, but at the same time I scoured my bookshelves for relevant guides (found none) and the internet, where I had better luck.  While, as I mentioned before, I don’t know much about fish, I do know how to use a dichotomous key.  A dichotomous key is usually set up as a series of two choices (often phrased as questions) that lead you to the correct identification.  In the case of this fish, the key I found to Gulf of Maine fish started with these two choices: is the mouth soft, with no firm jaws, no pectoral fin and in form is eel-like, or, does the mouth have firm jaws and are there pectoral fins even if the form is eel-like? Each choice sent me to another set of choices (always 2 choices since this was a dichotomous key), which continued until I arrived at my fish. The key took me to the big-scale pomfret (Taractichthys longipinnis), a member of a group of fish known as sea breams or pomfrets.

One reason old-fashioned dichotomous keys are better than apps…..they make you think.

While there are a number of apps available to help instantly identify whatever you see out there in nature, there is something to be said for using an old-fashioned dichotomous key to identify fish or trees or flowers or birds.  Unlike an app, keys force us to think.  For example, while using a key we might have to look up words we don’t know–in my case, I had to look up what the little bumps between the dorsal fin and the caudal (tail) fin were called–and discovered that they are finlets and are thought to improve swimming performance.  And, by using a key I looked more carefully at this fish…where I had thought it looked very tuna-like, after attempting to ID it with the key I realized it’s mouth and forehead shape looked nothing like a tuna (more like a piranha!). I also noticed how large those scales on its side looked. When my more expert friends responded, they agreed on the big-scale pomfret ID, noting the steep, rounded forehead, the shape of the scales, the long fins (hence the species name ‘longipinnis’)  and more…we had our fish!  

It is nice to still have mysteries in the world.

The big-scale pomfret (also called a long-finned sea bream) is a rarely-caught fish, probably because they tend to be solitary and live at depths of over 1,500 feet.  While this was a big fish at 2 feet in length, they can reach 3 feet.  The world record weighed almost 21 pounds! From studies of their stomach contents it looks like big-scale pomfrets tend to feed close to the bottom on squid and shrimp. 

I didn’t find many fun facts or extensive background information about this fish.  I love this!  It is nice to know there are mysteries out there in the deep.  It is nice to be able to walk our beautiful shoreline and occasionally get a glimpse into that deep ocean world that is so different from our own.