Monday, April 30, 2007
The birds are pouring back into our hollow after their winter away. Working in the garden I hear the heartening song of one of my favorites, "cong-a-lee." I look up and see the bright red shoulder patch of a Red Wing Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus. Around here I see this species as a solitary bird sitting on a fence post announcing the bright heat of summer. But apparently in some areas large flocks form of these birds and can cause a great deal of crop damage.
My next door neighbor told me yesterday he had been out "merkel hunting." My brother-in-law also had been hunting merkels last weekend and found a big handful. Local folks call the Morel mushroom "a merkel." The Latin genus name, Morchella, suggests the origin of this peculiar name. Stories of these mushrooms also being called "dryland fish" and "hickory chickens" in Appalachia signal the need for considerable more research into the folklore of this traditional spring hunt.
The loudest spring tree is probably the Paulownia (Paulownia tomentosa) or Princess Tree. This invasive tree grows easily in poor soil everywhere (including cracks in city sidewalks) in our area. Now the big lavender orchid-like blooms call attention to themselves before the appearance of the giant, almost tropical leaves. According to Wikipedia, this tree does indeed have magical properties which will probably become more and more valuable as modern society ravages the landscape, "Paulownia has the ability to reclaim ecologically stressed and degenerate patches of land relatively quickly. Its root systems run deep and penetrate compacted and contaminated soils which have resulted from industrialized development. Paulownia is a phyto-remediator, increasing the organic content of degraded soils, processing and filtering contaminants through the uptake of its vascular system, and emitting oxygen into the atmosphere."
Friday, April 27, 2007
Every summer we have a family of Baltimore Orioles, Icterus galbula, in our Black Walnut tree. Orioles winter in Central America, yet every spring a few return to our yard to build their unusual sack-like nest high in the branches of the Walnut. I knew they were back yesterday when I started to hear the single flute-like note of their call around the house.
The peas have been slow to poke up through the soil. They finally appear bringing big smiles to me and all of the critters ready to start munching on them! This year I have planted three varieties, Chinese-style edible-podded snow peas...the flat pods you get in stir fry, edible-podded sugar snap peas, and good old English peas that need shelling.
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
And he is oh so delicious! Just started to see the green spikes of asparagus push through the mulch yesterday. This patch is getting mature and the stalks are getting bigger and thicker. My family prefers the thinner, daintier sprouts.
Tuesday, April 24, 2007
Well, it turns out, that our friendly Earthworm, Lumbricus terrestris, is a newcomer to the North American ecology as well! The same National Geographic article which credits European colonists with introducing the Honeybee to America claims the Earthworm came to America as a stowaway on ships, probably in root balls of fruit trees and other plants. America had no great garden cultivator worm to compare with this guy. The American forests are still adapting to the impact of having their fall foliage drop disappear from the ground almost instantly as Earthworms devour it and turn it into humus.
Once again I am amazed that members of the ecosystem which we have presumed have "always" been here are "invasive" species. The ecosystem is never static, it seems to be ever changing as climate and populations change.
Another bird to reappear suddenly is the American Goldfinch, Carduelis tristis. Its garrulous flocks fly through the pastures looking for the seeds of last year's weeds. It is not entirely accurate to say these beauties have "reappeared." They have been here all winter, but wearing a dull green plumage. It is now as the weather warms that they reappear in their golden finery.
Returning from its winter vacation in the Amazonia, the Eastern Kingbird, Tyrannus tyrannus, reappears in the garden. It hovers in the air watching for bugs then dives down upon them, often catching them in midflight. This magnificent bird is aptly named Tyrannus TWICE. It will chase off Blue Jays and it rolls the "abandoned" eggs of Cowbirds out of its nest! (The Cowbird lays its eggs in the nests of other birds hoping they will do the hard work of rearing and feeding their young.)
The news on the street, "Cell phones are killing the bees!" Yet I am reassured to see this busy honey bee, Apis mellifera, working the blossoms of my apple tree. The New York Times has reported that the commercial bee industry, especially crop pollinating companies in California, are experiencing a dramatic drop in their bee populations. The causes could be multiple, and most seem to stem from the industrialization of America. But watching this bee work my tree amid the buzz of dozens of insects, many not honeybees at all, reminds me that the pollination of plants is a far more complicated business than we may think.
As a footnote, this evening I discover in the current National Geographic that our wild honey bee is the European honey bee and it is a new arrival to North America. Before the early colonists brought their honey bees from home, America depended solely on a native set of insects for pollination.
Friday, April 20, 2007
Tuesday, April 17, 2007
...that color is a gift. In addition to the gaudy magnificence of garden flowers, I remember that plants have historically been the source of much of the color in our lives. Madder, Rubria tinctorium; woad, Isatis tinctoria; and weld, Reseda lutola; provided the dyes red, blue, and yellow (as well as their many combinations, green, mauve, etc.) for coloring fiber for textiles.
Saturday, April 14, 2007
Spring light gives new leaves a revealing glow; our eyes make us witness to the return of life energy within. These red oak (Quercus rubra) leaves and flowers dangle from the trees planted throughout the city giving the town a festive appearance. Again, springtime reveals colors we won't see again until fall.
Wednesday, April 11, 2007
On a cool, gray morning a tulip from the garden warms the drawer stand in the bath room. Unlike the daffodils, the tulips we plant in the garden get smaller each year until they have eventually disappeared. Will this bulb bloom again next year to bring smiles to the cloudy days?
Tuesday, April 10, 2007
I always get a big smile when seedlings sprout! Here are the tomatoes I planted eight days ago. This variety is described in the seed catalog:
#41401 POLISH LINGUISA TOMATO (78 days) - $0.95
A huge, sausage shaped tomato that weighs two thirds of a pound. A New York state heirloom from the 19th century, the flavor is why it is still around. It can be used for salads but you'll probably want to concentrate on sauces. Polish Linguisa provides heavy yields on indeterminate vines.
Monday, April 9, 2007
Our search for signs of Spring on our Easter walk also turned up this beloved flower. Looking like fairy laundry hanging in the sun, it is named "Dutchman's Breeches" or Dicentra cucullaria. Its seeds are gathered like Easter eggs by ants who eat the tasty flesh attached to each seed. Then forgotten by the ants, the seeds sprout in the fertile detritus of the ant colony to increase the population of spring flowers along our mountain stream.
On our Easter hike up to the waterfall we search for signs of spring. One welcome discovery are the beautiful sprouting fiddleheads of ferns in the rich moist soil along the stream. We find several different varieties of fern, perhaps Cinnamon Fern (Osmunda cinnamomea) and Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides).
Saturday, April 7, 2007
Friday, April 6, 2007
Poison ivy that is. Beautiful glossy red leaves spiraling out of the leaf litter or sprouting out of the massive vines hanging from the trees by their hairy tendrils. The beauty of the spring leaves is surpassed in the fall by a blazing crimson. One early American naturalist suggested the plant as an ornamental. (He must have had someone else to do the actual digging and pruning for him!)
Thursday, April 5, 2007
The weather has turned cold again. I don't mind, it slows down the mad rush of spring. Warm weather can accelerate two weeks of cool spring weather into an afternoon and the next thing you know the lilac and the iris are blooming! In the garden the fruit trees begin to bloom, these photos show their progress. The cherries are first, then the pears, and finally the apples. We are still at a high risk of frost and so I can understand the reluctance of the different trees to show their fragile finery to the bees.
Wednesday, April 4, 2007
This extreme close-up shows the tiny flowers (about the size of a dime) of the pawpaw tree. This fascinating tree fills the understory of the woods around the streams in our neighborhood. In the spring these mahogany-colored flowers emit a slight fetid odor which attracts flies which are their chief pollinator. Pawpaws create a large and unusual fruit which we find among the leaves of autumn. The green-yellow oddly-shaped fruit has a custardy texture with a banana-mango flavor. This pawpaw is Asimina triloba, the northernmost member of the custardapple family -- typically a tropical plant. An amazing side note is that this tree is the only host of the zebra swallowtail butterfly!
Tuesday, April 3, 2007
Monday, April 2, 2007
Its time. Tomato seedlings are fast growers and shouldn't be started too early. Our average last frost date is April 30, so seedlings begun now will be a good size for planting out in the garden at the beginning of May. (Two years ago we had a hard frost in mid-May and lost almost every seedling we had planted out!)
Plant a number of tomato varieties, mostly paste tomatoes. I am trying out three heirloom paste varieties: Opalka, Polish Linguisa, and San Marzano La Padino. For my wife's kitchen garden we also start some Costoluto Genovese, an Italian heirloom tomato with superb taste and an awesome old-fashioned lobed shape. None of these tomatoes are hybrids, it is always interesting to see how they will grow.
Last year I successfully froze enough tomato sauce and roasted tomatoes to last us the year. If the weather and the bugs cooperate, we may do the same this year.