Winter Ways – Background

The ever-changing cycle of seasons is one of the pleasures of living in a temperate climate. From the emergence of tender life in spring and the abundance of summer, to autumnal ripening followed by the long, cold winter, each season has its unique conditions. Survival demands that plants, animals, fungi, and even bacteria are adapted to survive all the seasons, and, for most, winter is the most difficult. This might seem obvious, but the implications are important.

Because of the tilt of the northern hemisphere away from the sun in the winter, we experience shorter days and lower temperatures, often below the freezing point of water. Continue reading Winter Ways – Background

Sugar Maples – Background

The much-loved sugar maple tree provides food and shelter for wild animals, leafy shade in the summer, spectacular colors in the fall, firewood in winter, and the finest syrup in early spring. Learning to know sugar maples better and understanding how they produce the sap for the syrup we love so well can only increase our appreciation of these delightful trees.

Maples are easy to identify if you take a closer look at their growth habit. Continue reading Sugar Maples – Background

Trees in Winter – Background

Mysteries abound in the winter woods. Besides animal tracks in the snow, we might find nipped-off twigs, gnawed branches, debarked trunks – signs made by animals feeding on trees in winter. To figure out which animal has been doing the eating, we often need to identify the tree species. But, without their leaves at this time of year, trees can be mysteries to us as well. Animals that feed on woody plants have no trouble recognizing which twigs, buds, and bark make the best meals, but for us identifying trees in winter requires a close look and attention to detail, the skills of a good detective.

At the tips of branches, twigs offer many clues to a tree’s identity. Take a closer Continue reading Trees in Winter – Background

Galls Galore – Background

A stand of goldenrod, its rugged stalks standing tall in a wintry field, is a good place to look for galls, one of nature’s small wonders. Many of the stalks sport hard, round swellings about an inch in diameter. Cradled in each, awaiting spring, is the larva of a gall-making insect. Its life cycle, like those of many other gall-makers, involves a remarkable relationship between an animal and its particular plant host.

A gall is an abnormal growth on a plant caused by another organism, most commonly an insect or a mite but also by nematodes, viruses, fungi, or bacteria. Continue reading Galls Galore – Background

Songbird Songs – Background

As the days grow longer in spring, chickadees start singing a different tune. Besides the familiar chickadee-dee call, we now hear a whistled “hey, sweetie,” often answered by another chickadee: “Hey, sweetie! Hey, sweetie!” Soon a cardinal takes up the theme, “Come here, come here,” and later a bluebird, back from migration, joins in the chorus: “Ain’t I pretty!” By May, the orchestra, in full swing, fills the dawn with a symphony of birdsong. Why do birds sing so much in the spring? Why make noise that could betray your presence to predators? What role does birdsong play in the annual cycle of a bird’s life, to be worth so much energy and risk?

Many birds communicate with sounds. Ducks quack, geese honk, loons yodel, and songbirds sing. Continue reading Songbird Songs – Background

Dandelions – Background

Even the smallest child recognizes the common yellow dandelion. Their sunny flowers, bundled and offered as bouquets, announce that spring is here. Whether they bring a smile or a frown, you can’t help but admire a plant that seems to be able to grow anywhere – from lawn to roadside, from parking lot to playground. Dandelion flowers serve the same function as all other flowers: to produce seeds for the next generation. Though not native to North America, dandelions are here to stay, thanks to a whole host of strategies that ensure their fluffy seeds will float on breezes far and wide.

The dandelion, or Taraxacum officinale, gets its common name from the French dents de lion or teeth of the lion, thought to describe its jagged leaves. Continue reading Dandelions – Background

Flowers to Fruit – Background

From the time the pussy willows open in early spring until the last of the asters, spring, summer, and fall are the seasons of flowers. They are glorious – but why do they exist at all? Like the singing of birds and the taste of ripe strawberries, they give us great pleasure, and for some that’s enough – but flowers are essential to the lives of flowering plants. Blooming is the culmination of months or years of growth, and understanding their parts will illuminate what they do.

Flowers have four kinds of parts, and they are in predictable positions. Continue reading Flowers to Fruit – Background