Sprinting Spring

Time moves far too fast when you’re getting ready to relocate.  Between spring cleaning and house staging, I feel as if I’m missing spring!

It seems as if just a moment ago the red maple (Acer rubrum) trees were still in burgundy bud, and now their growing green “helicopter” seeds have mellowed the crimson blooms so that the trees look decked with flakes of copper.

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I allow my forsythia (Forsythia x intermedia) to grow rather large and wild; it’s tallest branches reach up to my second story window. The arching stems and myriad bright yellow blossoms make it look a little like a firework.

The forsythia bushes (Forsythia x intermedia), tulip magnolia (Magnolia lilliflora), and spicebush (Lindera benzoin) are in full bloom, not to mention actual tulips and daffodils.

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The tiny, chartreuse blossoms of the spicebush (Lindera benzoin) are a true sign of spring. The spicebush is a native shrub/small tree in this area of Virginia and, having evolved here for millennia, really “knows” when it’s spring for sure.

I have already seen mourning cloak (Nymphalis antiopa), tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus), and cabbage white (Pieris rapae) butterflies!

Mourning_Cloak_butterfly_(Nymphalis_antiopa)_near_West_Overlook

The mourning cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) butterfly is one of the first to emerge in spring because its caterpillars feed on willow trees, which are among the first to leaf out.

It’s wonderful to watch the Earth wake up, all blossoms and bird song – if only time would slow just a little so that I could enjoy it longer.

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It makes me unreasonably happy when the willows finally turn green. My inner child skips around singing “It’s here, it’s heeeere, spring is really heeeere!”

To capture the few seasonal moments I had between cleaning and donation runs to the local YMCA, I thought I’d write a couple of haiku poems.

I wanted to do it “right”, of course, so I quickly Googled the how-to.  Big mistake.  The rules I learned in grade school apparently no longer apply.  By the time I was done being confused by the many voices and opinions on what English haiku should comprise, I decided it would be easier just to call the following “triplet” poems.

So, here are the four quick triplets that describe the spring moments of my March:

 

cold hands

tucking in tiny roots and

courageous leaves

breaking ice,

wild yellow explodes

forsythia

warm earth

soft pink petals

hope

trilling, proud

and persistent, he calls

to his future

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Gardner vs. Naturalist

Well, the sun is back out in Blacksburg and we are almost thoroughly dried from the floods.

The town will begin collecting autumn yard waste tomorrow morning, so I spent a good portion of the afternoon trimming branches and cutting stems of overgrown plants in my yard.

I keep a very beautiful, but very messy garden. I like to plant my perennials so close together that it’s difficult to see the weeds growing up between them.  The only downside to this is that by the end of the season, my busy garden is full of brown seed heads, spent daylily stems, and weeds that I thought were pretty enough to let grow.

Meanwhile, only the asters, mums, and goldenrods are still blooming. The garden is more messy than pretty by a longshot.

And this is when the gardener in my brain wrestles with the naturalist.

Messy gardens are good for wildlife.
I have to repeat that mantra to myself a lot throughout the fall.

These past few weeks, though, the wild world has been helping me out by actually showing up to take advantage of my messy garden.
Here are some pictures of the things that have helped the naturalist and the gardener get along:


This picture shows the pokeweed that has grown huge in my corner garden. I find the fuchsia stems and inky purple berries quite attractive. But, there’s no doubt that most of my neighbors consider this poisonous plant a weed.  And, as the season goes on, the large leaves turn yellow and droop and entirely unattractive manner.  I was on the verge of cutting the whole thing down when I arrived home from a walk and spotted my very first cedar waxwing gorging itself on the berries.  The pokeweed stays.


These are the spiky brown seed heads of my purple coneflowers. The stems and leaves are equally brown and crispy. The gardener in me itches to grab the pruners and remove the unsightly, unverdant lot of them.  But then every morning when I first open our front door, I am treated to the startled flight of a small flock of bright yellow American goldfinches. They wake well before I do and feast on coneflower seeds.  So, if I have to put up with brown in order to get a scattering of gold every morning, the coneflower seed heads stay.


My zinnias didn’t come in well this year.  I think I stored last year’s seeds incorrectly.  Where usually they are a gorgeous green mass of leaves topped by impossibly large flowers that look like fireworks, this year they are leggy and not blooming so well, as you can see in the picture. But, when I am stuck folding laundry, I often look out the window because something has zipped through my peripheral vision and I spot  the ruby-throated hummingbirds that are sipping sweet zinnia nectar to fuel their little bodies over the long migration south.  And, just this last week, Monarch butterflies are using the zinnias has pitstops on their southward migration as well.  The zinnias stay.

The naturalist wins.

No doubt the gardener will get some more trimming done after the first killing frost, but the seed heads will stay until every seed has gone into a goldfinch tummy.
And, in the spring, all the branches and stems that I didn’t get collected by the town’s second fall brush collection and, therefore, are piled in an out of the way corner will make a wonderful hiding spot for a mama Eastern cottontail and her soft, sweet, baby bunnies.

Monarch Mystery: The Case of the Disappearing Chrysalids

This is a close up of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) blooming in my garden in June.

This is a close up of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) blooming in my garden in June.

I have many, many milkweed plants.

(I’m not bragging, just stating facts.  And, the fact is, I’d be happy to send you ripe seeds in a few weeks.)

Here is the classic butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) blooming in its bright-as-the-summer-sun orange.  This also bloomed in June in my garden, but is still blooming today.  Butterfly weed is now carried in a variety of gorgeous colors by most native plant nurseries.

Here is the classic butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) blooming in its bright-as-the-summer-sun orange. This also bloomed in June in my garden, but is still blooming today.

I let them grow all over my garden, often as volunteer plants in truly odd spots, because I love monarch butterflies.  I’ve planted milkweed of one type or another (both common milkweed and its cousin butterfly weed) in every garden I’ve had for the last 14 years, so that every year I can cross my fingers and hope to spot those cute, clown-colored caterpillars munching happily in my very own yard.

A few weeks ago we saw our first monarchs of the season fly through the yard, sipping on the zinnias I grow to attract butterflies of all kinds.  Occasionally we’d see one flitting around the leaves of a common milkweed plant; skittish and picky about where to land and easily disturbed.

Brightly colored zinnias are butterfly magnets!  Here we see a monarch sipping nectar from a bright pink "Monster" zinnia.

Brightly colored zinnias are butterfly magnets!  Here we see a monarch sipping nectar from a bright pink “Monster” zinnia.  Adult monarchs will drink nectar from many species of flowers, but when it comes to laying eggs, only milkweed will do!

Then, about a week ago – Eureka! – my daughter called me out to the front yard; she had found five monarch caterpillars one one of the milkweed plants.  Our joy was palpable.  We both went out several times that day and over the next six days to “check on the kids”.

Hello, little fellow!  Monarch caterpillars don't mind the toxins in the milkweed leaves they eat; that's what makes them poisonous to would-be predators!

Hello, little fellow! Monarch caterpillars don’t mind the toxins in the milkweed leaves they eat; that’s what makes them poisonous to would-be predators!

We watched them paring down leaves in neat little arcs, growing fatter by the day.  Then, just as I began to wonder how much bigger those hungry caterpillars could get, they all disappeared.

“Yay!”  I thought.  They’ve all gone to pupate.  We’ll look for the chrysalids (my preferred plural for chrysalis because “chrysalises” just sounds silly) and keep an eye on those and maybe, just maybe, we’ll catch a brand new monarch emerging.

Delight and anticipation immediately poured from my heart into every corner of my body and began fizzing like champagne.

Evidence of caterpillars well fed.  This is monarch caterpillar poop.  It's scientific name is "frass", which is one of my new favorite words.

Evidence of caterpillars well fed. This is monarch caterpillar poop. Its scientific name is “frass”, which is one of my new favorite words.

Until yesterday.  I went out to look for those chrysalids and found:  none.  Seriously!  I couldn’t find them anywhere!  I looked closely enough to see two new caterpillars, each less than a centimeter in length, recently hatched on the underside of a milkweed leaf, but no pupae!

So cute when they're young, but soon it will grow up and abandon me, just like its sneaky older siblings did.

So cute when they’re young, but soon it will grow up and abandon me, just like its sneaky older siblings did.

I looked on the milkweed, on the plants surrounding it, underneath all of the leaves.  I sat and sprawled and bent and, no doubt, entertained the passing neighbors with my comical yogic poses – but I found nothing.

Where are they???  How far away from their host plant can these chubby little caterpillars crawl?

Moving my search area to the internet, I found an article titled “Where to Look for a Monarch Chrysalis in the Garden“, but didn’t care for the bleak numbers about depredation it gave at the beginning.  My caterpillars did not bite the dust!  (It’s my garden, I can be in denial if I want to.)

Can anyone out there help me solve my monarch mystery?

Pandapas Pond – Part One

Eight minutes.

I timed it.  In just eight minutes I can drive from my house to Pandapas Pond, one of the best family nature spots I’ve ever visited – living in Blacksburg is the best!

We go there fairly often, but not often enough.  I say this because the trails around Pandapas (called the Poverty Creek trail system – over 17 miles of hiking) are full of rhododendrons and I have still not been up there when they’re all in bloom.  Four years as an undergrad at Virginia Tech, one as a young newlywed, and now three years as a townie, and I haven’t seen the rhodies in bloom.  Unacceptable.  And now, with our move date only a year away, I’m down to my last two springs, my last two chances.

Here in town, the rhododendrons are just finishing bloom.  So, doing my handy-dandy elevation math, with Pandapas at 2,196 feet and Blacksburg at 2,080 feet, and spring climbing the mountain at 100 feet per day (heaven help me, I’m writing a word problem – and I so hated math class) I was about to miss them again!

So yesterday evening we hopped in the car and went.  No plans, no packs, just decent walking shoes and the golden sunlight of evening.  Perfect.

Except the rhodies weren’t blooming.  Actually, we did see one, on the way out, in deep shade and in full, glorious bloom.  But it turned out to be the cherry on the sundae, because everything else going on at the pond pushed the rhododendrons right out of my mind within five minutes of being there.

My daughter, Abbey, recorded over 30 different plants and animals in her nature notebook.  (FYI, if you want to slow an eight-year-old kid down so you can have a leisurely nature walk, give her a waterproof camera and a nature notebook.  Works like a charm.)  I’m not going to review all 30 here because it’s a beautiful day and I want to get outside, but here are the highlights:

Mountain Laurel

This mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) is just beginning to bloom.  It is a cousin to the rhododendron; both are in the Heath family of plants.

This mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) is just beginning to bloom. It is a cousin to the rhododendron; both are in the Heath family of plants.  I snapped this picture of a plant 10 feet from the parking lot.

These are what made me temporarily forget the rhododendrons.  The mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) were blooming everywhere in shades of delicate pink pretty enough to make just about anything slip your mind.  This is one of my favorite parts of nature – that it can so occupy the senses that the mind has no room left to process worries.

Mountain laurel also goes by the names “spoonwood”, because early Americans made spoons from its wood (again, nature names are often utilitarian or descriptive) or “lambkill”.  Want to guess at the origin of that second one?  Yep, lambs that ate mountain laurel could end up dead.  Mountain laurel is toxic to livestock and to humans, so much so that even eating honey made from the nectar of its flowers could give you a bad case of stomach upset.  Not that you would, thankfully, because the honey is very bitter.

The poison within the plant is called grayanotoxin.  Various Native American tribes made use of the plant externally as an analgesic or anti-inflammatory, and I hope that somewhere in a lab they’ve got this stuff stocked away for further study as to its medical uses.  After they get rid of the hideous diarrhea and vomiting side effects of course.

Not that that’s what I want you to remember about mountain laurel.  Remember this, please:  oooohhhhh, pretty, pretty, pretty – so pink and pretty!

Canada Geese & Goslings

Only one adult is pictured here, but there were several browsing with the goslings and herding them, slowly, away from us.  They were not worried about us - or the cameras we were pointing at them - in the slightest.

Only one adult is pictured here, but there were several browsing with the goslings and herding them, slowly, away from us. They were not worried about us – or the cameras we were pointing at them – in the slightest.

Pandapas is a year-round haunt for Canada geese (Branta canadensis).  They’re rather tame, too, and will even follow you at a safe distance on the off chance that you’ll drop a crumb of bread or toddler’s Cheerio.  We didn’t feed them (not that I’m morally opposed to it; I’d just use birdseed rather than bread) but they let us get close enough to take good photographs of the goslings still in their fluffy baby feathers.

The only notice they took of us was a little perfunctory head bobbing and hissing performed by one of the adult geese in the group when we got within three feet.  Did I say rather tame?  I meant very tame.  A wilder goose would likely have spread his wings to look bigger and chased us off, snapping its bill.  They’ve even been known to bite (though they don’t have real teeth, so it’s more like a vicious pinch).  Not these geese, though; they treated us like the possibly-profitable/possibly-annoying tourists that we were.

Black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) posing prettily in the evening sun at Pandapas Pond.

Black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) posing prettily in the evening sun at Pandapas Pond.

Black Locust Blossoms

Photo courtesy of the esteemed Abigail Birch, budding photographer and excellent nature buddy.

Photo courtesy of the esteemed Abigail Birch, budding photographer and excellent nature buddy.

Moving on around the pond’s flat, graveled, one mile loop trail, we ran right into some low hanging black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) blossoms.  They look like lacy frills from far away, but up close they’re velvety and sumptuous, the color of cream sauce with tiny floating pools of butter.  (Yes, I’m writing at lunch time again.)  I photographed the blossoms on the left a little further around the trail in a sunny spot.  The first ones we saw were in shade and a bit to high to get a really good picture.  (I’m still bitter about the poor quality of zoomed photos from my phone.)  Abbey took a fairly good shot of these, though, with the “real” camera, which I’m using with her permission here on the right.

Abbey let me borrow the "real" camera to get this shot of the cockspur hawthorn (Crataegus crus-galli) blossoms.

Abbey let me borrow the “real” camera to get this shot of the cockspur hawthorn (Crataegus crus-galli) blossoms.

Cockspur Hawthorn Blossoms

Not to be outdone by the locust trees, just across the path we were stunned by some small (20′) trees absolutely covered with tiny white flowers.  The five-petaled blooms gave me the hint that this tree is in the rose family, just like so many other wild fruit trees, such as black cherry, crabapple, and beach plum, but it just didn’t “look right” to be any of those.  Closer examination of the photos we took, showing large thorns among the blooms, and a bit of research in my identification books makes me believe it’s cockspur hawthorn (Cragaegus crus-galli).  If you know better, please post in the comment section!

This no-longer hungry caterpillar had finished its spring feast of cherry or apple tree leaves and was headed for a safe spot to create a chrysalis.

This no-longer hungry caterpillar had finished its spring feast of cherry or apple tree leaves and was headed for a safe spot to create a chrysalis.

Eastern Tent Caterpillar

The tents in the trees are looking brown and tattered, so it’s no surprise that we found a fully-grown Eastern tent caterpillar (Malacosoma americanum) out of its webby nest and crawling across the path in search of a place to pupate.  The caterpillar is much more colorful than the beige moth it will become, with a bright white stripe down its back flanked by alternating yellow, black, and periwinkle blue stripes on its sides.  It even has a row of half-moon eyespots running the length of each side of its body, and the whole caterpillar is covered with fine, yellow hairs.

In general, hairy or “tufted” caterpillars are best left untouched, as their hairs or bristles can give a nasty sting, but there are no warnings on this one in my caterpillars guide book.  Still, my husband gently lifted the caterpillar with a stick (let it crawl on, don’t scrape it up!) so we could examine it more closely.  Gorgeous.  Made me dislike the trashy looking tents much less!

Okay, we’ve barely rounded the first corner of the loop trail and look how much we’ve seen!  I’m starving though, so stand by for part two, which I hope to publish later this evening, or at least after some lunch!

Mother’s Day at Claytor Lake: Part One

Water makes us happy.

It’s something about the sweet smell of freshwater or the negative ions in the air or the saltwater-filled cells in our body having an ancient longing for their ocean home.  Something.

I don’t really care what, actually, I’m just so grateful that in my beloved mountain home, I have family with a cabin on Claytor Lake who let us come out to visit.  It’s because of this tremendous stroke of luck that I got to spend Mother’s Day with my husband and daughter and in-laws looking out over deep blue waters and nearly summer-green mountains.

But the awesomeness doesn’t start at the lake.  It starts on the drive down where, from my Mother’s Day Throne (AKA the passenger seat) I was able to look out at my kingdom and observe long and well as my dear husband kept the car on the road.

The drive from Blacksburg to Claytor Lake is a lovely one when you’ve got the time to look around.  Just on the big roads I saw:

Black locust trees in bloom along Route 460 looked like trees covered and dripping with heavy lace. Photo courtesy of By Famartin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia)trees in bloom along Route 460
looked like trees covered and dripping with heavy lace.
Photo courtesy of By Famartin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Colonies of mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) dotted across fields amongst grazing cattle.   Photo courtesy of "Podophyllum peltatum Shenks Ferry 1" by Nicholas A. Tonelli from Pennsylvania, USA - Shenks Ferry Wildflower Preserve (10). Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Podophyllum_peltatum_Shenks_Ferry_1.jpg#/media/File:Podophyllum_peltatum_Shenks_Ferry_1.jpg

Colonies of mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) dotted across fields amongst grazing cattle.
Photo courtesy of Nicholas A. Tonelli via Wikimedia Commons.

Mayapples are named not for their fruit, but for their blossoms, which are blooming right now and reminded the early namers of apple tree flowers. Photo courtesy of Cody Hough via Wikimedia Commons -

Mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) are named not for their fruit, but for their blossoms, which are blooming right now and reminded the early namers of apple tree flowers.
Photo courtesy of Cody Hough via Wikimedia Commons –

After steering off the highway at exit 109, the drive gets even better; winding through curving mountain roads, past cabins and farms, climbing hills and turning blind corners, observing “country” driving manners with a nod or smile or fingers lifted off the steering wheel in friendly acknowledgement of strangers who might as well be friends.

This photo of phlox (Phlox paniculata) is taken in bright sun.  In the shade of the forest edge, the blossom color is a bit darker and much deeper. Photo courtesy of Atilin via Wikimedia Commons

This photo of phlox (Phlox paniculata) is taken in bright sun. In the shade of the forest edge, the blossom color is a bit darker and much deeper.
Photo courtesy of Atilin via Wikimedia Commons

Wild phlox (Phlox paniculata) and its garden siblings were blooming all along the roadside gardens and forest edges.  The purple of phlox is neither dark nor light, but a deep medium purple.  Ugh.  “Deep medium purple” sounds oxymoronic and way too pedestrian for this gorgeous color.  Let’s call it “phlox purple” and set a trend – it’s nothing like lilac or lavender or royal purple or orchid, and it deserves its own shade name.  (Why doesn’t purple have more shade names?  Blue has hundreds.)

The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) is shown here feeding on a native coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).  Photo courtesy of Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man) - via Wikimedia Commons

The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) is shown here feeding on a native coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).
Photo courtesy of Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man) – via Wikimedia Commons

Flitting through that phlox was a season first for me (perhaps that’s why spring is my favorite season – so many “firsts” for the year, each one reassuring and joyful):  an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)!  They’re common enough to be both Virginia’s State Butterfly and its State Insect, but they knock me out every time.  These bright yellow, black-striped and blue edged beauties are nearly 4.5 inches across; giant, yellow flower petals just floating and fluttering through the sky.

Check out those long outer tail feathers on this barn swallow (Hirundo rustica) in flight.   Photo courtesy of Alpsdake via Wikimedia Commons.

Check out those long outer tail feathers on this barn swallow (Hirundo rustica) in flight.
Photo courtesy of Alpsdake via Wikimedia Commons.

The “swallowtail” part of this butterfly’s name means that it is grouped with other butterflies (they make up the swallowtail family) that have two “tails” on their hind wings that reminded early naturalists of the points at either end of a swallow’s tail.  (Swallowing these butterflies tail’s is not recommended.)  We’ll have to come back to swallows themselves the next time I come back from Claytor; several members of the swallow family are native here and spend their summers feasting on the various insects that hatch by the millions from the surface of the lake.

I don’t actually associate spring with seeing butterflies, though they seem to be a centerpiece of every mass produced spring-themed card and product.  The truth about butterflies is that their caterpillars and/or eggs have survived a long winter and need their food sources to leaf out before they can fill their hungry selves up with enough energy to form a chrysalis and become adult butterflies.  The real butterfly bonanza comes from mid-summer through fall, when two or three generations have matured and laid eggs and little wings are fluttering everywhere.

The first butterflies to arrive in spring are those whose caterpillars feast on trees that leaf out early.  The host plants for Eastern Tiger Swallowtails’ eggs and caterpillars include

  • Wild black cherry (Prunus serotina),
  • Common Lilac (Syinga vulgaris),
  • Sweet bay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana),
  • Tulip poplar/tulip tree (Liriodedron tulipifera), and
  • Willow (Salix spp.),

all of which have bloomed or are blooming (the lilacs smell unbelievably good right now) and are nicely leafy caterpillar buffets.

The mourning cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) butterflies were likely named by Scandinavian settlers in America, according to Wikipedia.  A widespread species, this butterfly is called a "Camberwell beauty" in England.  However, its limited northward range would have meant that Scandinavians would have been less familiar with it.   Photo courtesy of D. Gordon E. Robertson via Wikimedia Commons

The mourning cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) butterflies were likely named by Scandinavian settlers in America, according to Wikipedia. A widespread species, this butterfly is called a “Camberwell beauty” in England. However, its limited northward range would have meant that Scandinavians would have been less familiar with it.
Photo courtesy of D. Gordon E. Robertson via Wikimedia Commons

I was gifted with another butterfly sighting once we’d arrived and were seated happily on the dock – a Mourning Cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa) was flying over the water toward us, probably heading for the giant weeping willow on the property to lay its eggs.  Mourning Cloak caterpillars also enjoy a nice meal of willow or poplar (or elm or hackberry).

And then I was lost in conversation and good food and laughter, with only the occasional whip of the head to try to identify a bird streaking by.

As afternoon softened into the golden light of evening, conversation turned again to nature (it seems to do that around me quite a bit) and my in-laws and I got to listening to and talking about bird calls.

But that’s going to have to wait for Part Two of this post, because there’s much more to tell and I’m a nearly an hour past lunch.  I’m so hungry I could practically eat willow leaves.  Or tulip poplar.