Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Mystery of the Black Gums

My neighbor's mystery tree in early October. AMcC
In the back of a neighbor’s property stand the mystery trees. They certainly must be wild trees. Instead of being installed in the center of the lawn, as human landscapers like to plant, these trees grew in a group along an unmowed property line. Perhaps birds dropped the seeds, along with a bit of fertilizer, while perched on the rusting remains of a fence.

At first I thought of persimmon. The chunky, dark bark seemed right. The leaf seemed right, but where were the fruits? What is with that 45° turn about a third of way down most branches? It looks like each branch has a bent elbow with palms up, saying “I dunno.”  

I suspected Black Gum, but thought of that as a swamp tree. These grew in soil that was average in moisture. I even looked with binoculars, searching for small berries without success. And I had read about Black Gum’s spectacular fall color, something that I had never noticed in these.

The mystery began to unravel when I read Don Kurz’ description of Black Gum’s bark as “alligator hide,” a description I had previously read applied to persimmon. He also mentions that Black Gum is “the first tree to turn color, typically beginning in August, and one of the first to drop its leaves” (Kurz, Trees of Missouri, 218). No wonder I had missed the autumn show! HortNet helped with the mystery of the invisible fruit. They note that only female trees bear fruit, the fruit blends with dark green leaves in summer, and any ripe fruit is quickly gobbled up by birds in late summer or early fall.
The Hebrew Moth, photo by Jenn Forman Orth

Many sources describe spectacular red fall color. This is variable. Most trees in my neighborhood--now that I recognize them--have yellow leaves in fall. I saw one young tree however that had the most beautiful red leaves, and these persisted until late October.
Most often, Black Gum is a lowland tree, but not a tree of the swamps as I had thought. It's characteristic elbow branches are interesting in winter and a great help in identifying it.

Besides being a great nectar-producer in spring and fruiting tree for fall migrating birds, Black Gum is the host plant for an interesting underwing moth, called the Hebrew moth,  Polygrammate hebraeicum. Heitzman, in Butterflies and Moths of Missouri mentions that the  larvae “conceal themselves by pressing into crevices in the bark of the host plant” (263). My moth photo comes from Flickr friend Jenn Forman Orth. Check her original in full size along with a lively discussion about the origin of its name.
The "alligator-hide" bark of the Black Gum AMcC

Bark of a young Flowering Dogwood forms squares AMcC
Persimmon tree bark forms rectangles AMcC

David Sibley, in The Sibley Guide to Trees, compares the bark of three similar trees. The related Flowering Dogwood has scaly bark in square blocks, the unrelated Persimmon’s bark is rectangular blocks, while Black Gum’s bark on mature trees is “deeply furrowed.” I see this not only on the trunk but also on large limbs. Perfect for hiding a caterpillar! 

More mysteries to come in my next post…

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


American Bittersweet AMcC
Spring is a time of easy metaphors for renewal, hope, life. Autumn, well, not so much. Lovely fall colors are cheery, but brief. Just as Goldengrove is unleaving, a magnificent vine is revealed, covered with clusters of small, shiny red fruits, surrounded by open capsules of orange. We call it American Bittersweet, Celastrus scandens. Kurz notes in Shrubs and Woody Vines of Missouri that Celastrus is a Greek name for a tree and scandens means climbing. But how did it get its melancholy English name? Perhaps its autumnal display associates it with the demise of summer, the season of loss.

We humans like to ascribe meaning to natural phenomena. The albatross symbolizes guilt; the raven, death; the lark, “blithe spirit;” bittersweet, remembrance.

The contradictory name has been on my mind, since the furry friend you see in my profile picture died this week. For those who have experienced the death of a dear pet, I don’t need to explain my feelings. For those who have not, I don’t think I can adequately describe it. Instead, I’ll focus on the sweet memories.

Rosie and I went everywhere together for more than 16 years. She accompanied me on many birding trips, though she really preferred chipmunks, moles, and other mammals. She camped with us in the Rocky Mountains one June, and I was surprised to see her barking at two Gray Jays. She didn’t usually pay attention to birds. Then I saw one dart in and snatch a bit of her fur while the other stole a kibble from her bowl.

Rosie the Fishin' Dog AMcC
My brother-in-law called her “the fishin’ dog.” Her favorite spot was the tiny pond in my back yard. I keep a few goldfish there to eat mosquito larvae, and once she spotted them, she wanted them. She tried to catch a fish every day of her life and never succeeded. Far from being discouraged, she came back to the job fresh every time. She spent so much time in the water that one summer I had to take her to the vet for swimmer’s ear.

Like a true a terrier, she was independent. She seldom asked to sit in my lap as I watched TV, but she did like a good nature show now and then, especially if there were bears to bark at. When she was a puppy, she sat up on the bed while I watched Turner and Hooch; starring the tidy detective Tom Hanks and the untidy Dogue de Bordeaux named Hooch. She barked and jumped and generally went nuts every time Hooch came on the screen. That video was like a Jane Fonda exercise tape for Rosie.

If you grow bittersweet in your woodlot or on an arbor, be sure you get the native variety, not Celastrus orbiculatus, Round-leaved or Asiatic bittersweet. The fruits of Round-leaved bittersweet are less showy, and the plant is aggressive. As the name suggests, the easiest way to determine if the vine is native to the US or an invasive invader is the shape of the leaves. American bittersweet’s leaf is not round, but an elongated oval with a pointed tip. Sweet as they are to look at, the fruits are poisonous.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Love a Scorpion

Striped Bark Scorpion, photo by Ted MacRae
Earlier this month, one of my favorite blogs, Beetles in the Bush, had a popular post about scorpions. Seeing Ted’s scorpion photoswhich he generously loaned to me—reminded me of my own limited experiences with these arachnids. The difference is I didn’t stick around to take photos. I skedaddled. Except once…

I worked for more than 20 summers at youth camps, most of that time at the same camp in Missouri. The camp is situated in the foothills of the Ozarks, four valleys surrounded by seven hills. West and south-facing slopes have comparatively sparse vegetation; cedar trees (Juniperus virginiana), post oaks (Quercus stellata), and fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica), and an occasional patch of prickly pear cactus. In between are enormous limestone ledges, some like small cliffs, sparse grass, and butterfly weed. When I took a field zoology class from Dave Tylka I saw what was underneath those slabs of limestone. Until that first field trip, I never dreamed of turning over a rock to see if a black widow waited in ambush underneath.

So much for the ecological background.

This particular summer, I worked in the camp office. Along with 3 others, I stayed in a split-level cabin. On the upper level were 2 small bedrooms, an ancient bath and shower, and a phone that never stopped ringing. The lower level was a meeting area/kitchen, furnished with a couch and chairs made of a clunky log framework and a vinyl-covered cushions, fiesta orange. The walls and ceilings were stained lumber. Some described the style as “Early Adirondack.” Others noted its resemblance to a coffin.

We had a bigger problem than orange furniture in our cabin—roaches. They were everywhere, and I’m talking about big roaches. Flying roaches! My horror knew no bounds. The assistant director was a young woman from south Texas, who went by “Tex. She was a fun-loving person, but not one to suffer a fool lightly. And I was being very foolish.

“Well my goodness, it’s nothin’ but a li’l billy ole roach!” she’d say with disdain. “Such a fuss over a li’l billy ole roach, cain’t even hurt nobody. Now if it was a stangin’ scorpion I could understand it, but this is jus’ a li’l billy ole roach!”

The next morning, I pulled a clean T-shirt out of the chest. If you’ve ever spent time at camp, you know the tremendous value of a clean shirt. Out of that shirt leaped a roach! They heard me screaming on the next hillside. Tex was not impressed. “The way you carry on over a li’l billy ole roach, cain’t even hurt nobody. I could understand it if it was a stangin’ scorpion, but that’s nuthin’ but a li’l billy ole roach! Back home, we had stangin’ scorpions. Now if it was a stangin’ scorpion, that’d be different, but this is nuthin’ but a li’l billy ole roach, cain’t even hurt nobody.” We replayed this scene every day. Every day for 4 weeks. It was beginning to undermine my self-confidence.

One evening we had a meeting of camp counselors in the big room on the lower level. There was lots of laughter, some yawning, and a bit of arguing over the campfire plans. Just as the meeting was about to break up, I noticed something scuttling across the floor. The screen door no longer met the threshold and through that gap marched the biggest scorpion I ever hope to see. In a flash, weeks of humiliation overcame my cultural bias against invertebrates, and I called out cheerily, “Oh Tex! There’s someone here to see you!”

She bounded down the short steps into the room, and made eye contact with all eight eyes of our very own stangin’ scorpion. She screamed for days…

You don't find satisfaction like that every day. I grabbed a broom, encouraging “Little Stangie” to climb onto the bristles. Puzzled and amazed counselors watched as I gently carried it out to the dark rocky glade by the door. I didn’t want some insect-phobe trampling this misunderstood arachnid. I might need him again one day.

The only species of scorpion in Missouri is the striped bark scorpion (Centruroides vittatus). Along with other species of plants and animals of the glades, it’s a relic of Missouri’s ancient past as a desert. Missouri Department of Conservation says that our species averages between 1 and 1 and a half inches. No way! This big daddy was twice that! They also note that the sting is no more dangerous than that of a wasp. An article by Darryl Sanders on Missouri University Extension website states that they can be “up to 2.5 inches long.” MDC tell us its favorite meal might be spiders, beetles, or smaller scorpions. And li’l billy ole roaches.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Fragrant Sumac in the Winner's Circle

Fragrant Sumac shows great fall color AMcC
If there were a triathlon of Midwestern native plants, Fragrant Sumac (Rhus aromatica) would be in the winner’s circle.

In the first leg of the triathlon, Wildlife Use, sumac’s performance is outstanding. Fragrant Sumac is one of the earliest blooming plants in our area (Midwestern US). Small yellow flowers appear in March, which, according to the US Forest Service, are pollinated by native bees. The red, hairy little red fruits are gobbled up by mockingbirds and others, since it is one of the first fruits available in summer. Caterpillars of the Red-banded Hairstreak eat fallen, decomposing sumac leaves (Brock and Kaufman, Butterflies of North America). I have seen this butterfly in my yard, but have never observed the caterpillar among the leaf litter.

Sumacs are host plants for two spectacular moths, both with outlandish caterpillars. The Showy Emerald Moth (Dichorda iridaria) caterpillar mimics a crumpled, dead sumac leaf. I haven’t seen this caterpillar yet, and I was unable to find a photo of one online, but nature-lovers should get a copy of David Wagner’s Caterpillars of Eastern North America just to see it. The adult Showy Emerald moth is beautiful. According to (hosted at Montana State University), its range centers on Missouri.

Hickory Horned Devil, photo by Tom Woodward
The startling Hickory Horned Devil can be almost 5 inches long! lists its food plant is “sumac.” It’s the larva of the Royal Walnut Moth, also known as Regal Moth. I haven’t seen these on my plants yet, but I’ve seen the adult moth nearby.

Fragrant sumac is a contender in the Garden Use leg of the competition. It’s a small shrub, drought-tolerant, native to glades and prairies. Dave Tylka recommends it as a good shrub for the understory of your wildlife garden (Native Landscaping for Wildlife and People). More than 10 years ago I purchased several plants of the variety named Gro-Low, named a Plant of Merit by Missouri Botanical Garden. It has formed a thick groundcover, just like I’d hoped it would. However, my plants have never borne fruit. Even though the Garden shows it with fruit, I think it is a sterile hybrid. Recently I bought three unimproved plants from a native plant nursery. They bloomed well their first spring and immediately bore fruit. In addition, I decided to experiment with a variety named ‘Konza Prairie,’ selected from the wild by the Kansas Forest Service for “its superior fruit production.” I think the natives have better fall color too, which leads me to the final leg of our triathlon.

Royal Walnut moth, photo by Cherie Priest
We’ve had a good fall for leaf color this year, though not perfect. According to Missouri Environment and Garden, Oct. 2010, (newsletter of the University of Missouri’s Plant Protection Programs) the best fall color occurs when days are warm and nights are cool. We’ve had too many warm nights in October and November this year for optimal color, but it’s still been great. The first picture above is one of my “unimproved” fragrant sumacs and its purple leaves show that the anthocyanins have done their job. In the interest of full disclosure though, there is one plant that may outrun my little Rhus aromatica
—its cousin, Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra). This small tree has tropical-looking leaves that are dazzling red in fall. I may have to add it to my collection.

A big shout out to my Flickr friends Tom Woodward and Cherie Priest for the use of their Creative Commons photos!

Smooth Sumac's autumn show is hard to beat. AMcC

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Binoculars for Your Nose

Eastern Witch Hazel is the last tree to bloom in the Midwest. AMcC

I stepped outside on a calm autumn night last week. A fresh, citrus scent was in the air. It reminded me of witch hazel in bloom. That couldn’t be, of course, because my big hybrid witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise”) blooms in February. Then I remembered my other witch hazel tree, a scrawny little guy, completely overshadowed by big brother Arnold and my neighbor’s silver maples. When I bought my home in the 1980s, I knew I wanted a witch hazel tree. I was in love with the one that bloomed by the east wall of the Missouri Botanical Garden in late winter. I knew there was a native variety, but I wasn’t aware of any native plant nurseries in my areas at the time. I ordered Eastern witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) from a native plant nursery in the Appalachian Mountains and planted it about the same time as the Asian hybrid. According to Don Kurz’ book, Trees of Missouri, I ended up with a tree that is native to the Ozarks, though not to St. Louis County, Missouri. Two short decades zipped by with only the puniest of blooms, on the slenderest of twigs. Now this fragrance in November…

The next morning I confirmed it; my skinny 12 foot-tree was covered in bloom! The scent is wonderful, but it can be elusive. You can stand right next to a branch in full bloom and not be aware of it. You can be twenty feet away in the dark and know it instantly. Like all scent, it’s hard to describe with words: something like an orange, but lighter. I say full bloom, but that’s “full” by witch hazel standards. The petals are narrow ribbons of yellow, half-inch-long or a bit more. The blooms are often clustered together, without stems. 

With a shovel and a bit of determination, it’s not too hard to remake your perennial border. It’s a little tougher to remedy mistakes with trees and shrubs. If I were to remake the trees in my yard, I’d give my Eastern witch hazel a spot with more light, farther away from it’s winter-blooming relative. Both are covered in golden leaves in fall. One is the last tree of the year to bloom; the other is the first. 

According to John Hilty’s website, “Illinois Wildflowers,” Eastern witch hazel is pollinated by flies, but also a few moths, wasps and beetles. The plant doesn’t need showy petals, streaked with guides to direct butterflies and honey bees to the goodies. It does need scent, and so do I.

Scent may be the most neglected of human senses, but it’s more important than we admit. Grocery store shelves are filled with scented candles, scented oils, scented gel sticks, scented night lights, and scented trash bags. A popular fabric softener comes in 23 different varieties. On their website, you can search by “scent type”: “airy fresh” or “modern exotic.” 100 ml. spray bottles of perfume (3.4 oz) can sell for $100 and up. Gas stations sell air fresheners too. They say “New Car Scent” just flies off the shelf. Fragrance is of the essence in the garden for both humans and pollinators, as I mentioned in “Creatures of the Night.” It might be nice to have a device to amplify our sense of smell. Binoculars for your nose, perhaps?