Category Archives: Trees

Catkins – Drooping & Dropping

For just a few days in the spring, male catkins —- slim clusters of drooping flowers (often crudely described as worm-like strands) drop from the forest canopy. Their female counterparts (usually chunkier and upright) remain in the tree, awaiting a good wind to impregnate them with the pollen from the males. Fertilized female catkins will produce seeds. In an oak tree, they bear acorns.

In Westwoods, the ground is strewn with male catkins from oaks and silver birch. They are extremely delicate so that any disturbance (such as picking one up to examine it) releases bright yellow pollen. The naked eye cannot see how gorgeous these flowers are but take a look at these enlarged scans!

Oak tree Catkins
Oak tree Catkins
Silver Birch Catkins
Each of these strands has over 300 separate flowers.
Detail of an Oak tree Catkin
Detail showing individual flowers of an Oak catkin.
Detail of Silver Birch Catkin
Detail showing individual flowers of a Silver Birch catkin.

Rotten Designs

Rotting wood is my new passion. Where I walk in Westwoods has a greater share of dead trees than most other forest areas. It used to be dense with Hemlocks until they were killed by the wooly adelgid infestation. Now the forest floor is covered with downed trees and branches. It is truly a mess. I used to think it was ugly. But I started to see the standing stumps and logs as carved sculptures. Then I looked closely at some fallen logs and was mesmerized by the patterns. Some are made by fungi, some by boring beetles, and some by weather. Enjoy this gallery of rotting wood.

Turkey Tail – NOT!

Violet Toothed Polypore Fungus
Violet Toothed Polypore

Just before leaving for a three-week vacation, I took some photos of a fungus covering a fallen dead hardwood tree. While I was in California, I watched a video by a charismatic fungal enthusiastic, Adam Haritan, who made it clear that my fungus was either Turkey Tail or a Turkey Tail look-alike and that the only way to know for sure would be to examine its underside.

If the underside was white and had tiny pores, my fungus was trametes versicolor, commonly known as “Turkey Tail.” If it was more beige and smooth, it was stereum ostrea with the pitiable moniker “False Turkey Tail.” If it was slightly purple and had a toothy structure, it was trichaptum biforme – “Violet Toothed Polypore.”

During the three weeks, I realized two things: 1) that I was subconsciously rooting for my fungus to be what mycologists call true Turkey Tail and 2) how prejudiced I was being. After all, “False Turkey Tail” was so-named only because of its resemblance to the topside of trametes versicolor, not because it had some nefarious motives as an imposter. And besides, Turkey Tail itself was named because of its resemblance to an actual turkey’s tail. And the poor Violet Toothed Polypore, which is in fact the most common of the three species, had the role of a third child, mentioned for its relationship to the other two.

When I arrived home, I headed to the log in question, picked off a piece of the overlapping fungus and flipped it over. It was clearly violet and toothy. As I celebrated the identification of Violet Toothed Polypore, I felt a tinge of disappoinment in myself for feeling a tinge of disappointment that it was not true Turkey Tail.

Whorled Affairs

Hemlock Branch
Detached Hemlock Branch

In the 1980’s, almost all of the Eastern Hemlocks in Westwoods died from the Woolley Adelgid disease, leaving what appear to be medieval weapons strewn about on the forest floor. These bludgeons are Hemlock branches with tapering concentric rings on the insertion end. When the branches are still attached to the mother bole, they remind me of sculptures.

Why do they taper like this? I asked my go-to tree person, David Zuckerman, who is a Horticulture Manager at the Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle and also my brother-in-law (read David’s blog about Hobbit Trees). This extra wood, called a collar, is laid down by the trunk to give the branches more support. David sent me a research paper by Alex Shigo, who is known in some circles as the “father of modern arboriculture.” Shigo’s diagrams indicate that Hemlock branches have thicker collars than most other species due to having a core of hard resin.

Hemlock Branch
Whorled Hemlock Branch
Whorled Hemlock Branch
Whorled Hemlock Branch
Winged Victory of Samothrace
Winged Victory of Samothrace
Nkondi Nail Fetish
Nkondi Nail Fetish

Holding on until Spring

Marcescent Beech Tree
Marcescent Beech Tree

Here in the Northeast, many of us experience a strong feeling of protest, an internal voice that shouts “No!” when the deciduous trees are about to lose their last leaves.But some leafy trees do keep their leaves until spring! There’s even a special word to describe this tenacious holding onto living plant material through the winter — marcescence.

I never appreciated the tan papery leaves on Beech and Oak trees that flutter throughout the winter because I assumed they were a sign that the trees were dead. One year, it dawned on me that the parched leaves appeared year after yearon the same trees. They had to fall off at some point to allow for the new leaves, but when? I watched as they held on through heavy snowfall, frost, ice storms, and gusty winds. It was February, then March, then April… suddenly there were new green leaves; I had missed the transition!

This winter, take note of marcescent trees, whose leaves make a crinkly sound in the wind, glow when backlit by sunlight, and add color to the forest (even tan stands out in winter).

Beech Tree Leaves Holding on in Winter
Beech Leaves Holding On

Oak Apple Galls

Oak Apple Galls
Oak galls that housed wasp larvae. Note the escape hole!

These mysterious objects that look like desiccated golf balls were originally destined to be oak leaves but ended up housing wasp larvae. They are apple galls, a gall being any abnormal growth on a tree and the apple part because young ones resemble green apples.

In early spring, an “oak apple wasp” injects an egg into a leaf bud as well as chemical instructions that co-opt the bud into forming a cocoon for wasp larvae. In summer, a mature wasp emerges through a tiny escape hole.

Like many of nature’s most creative inventions, galls have a bad rap. However, oak galls do not harm the oaks. They provide food for birds and when pulverized, can be used to make an ink that was the medium of medieval scribes. The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were written in oak gall ink!

Blue-green Birch Twig

Birch Twig colored by chlorociboria
Birch Twig Colored Teal by Chlorociboria Fungus
Example of Blue-green wood in Intarsia
Chlorociboria stained wood used in Intarsia.

I occasionally come across fallen birch twigs that are a shocking blue-green color. Fellow hikers have had the same reaction that I had — that the color does not look natural ; someone must have dyed the wood.

When Museum curators saw that same hue in artwork by Italian furniture makers working in intarsia –- elaborate designs made with inlaid wood –- they too thought that the wood was dyed. However, scientific analysis of the artwork showed that the blue-green wood is an example of spalting – the coloring of wood by a fungus, in this case, the elf-cup Chlorociboria aeruginascens. Fifteenth and sixteenth century artists used the green wood to depict grass, leaves, bird feathers, animal eyes, and luxurious clothing. Back then, chlorociboria-infested wood was as valuable as precious metals.

Intarsia with blue-green wood
Intarsia with blue-green wood

Revelation in a Piece of Wood

Slice of Spalted Wood
Spalted wood from a sawn tree.

This sliver of maple wood cut from a tree that fell over the Red Rectangle Trail looks like a map of some unfamiliar world so I was surprised to learn that it is exactly that. The squiggly black lines superimposed on the circular growth rings look like meandering rivers. Known as zone lines, they mark territorial boundaries between species of fungi competing for the dead wood. I felt a little sad to learn about this self-serving behavior of micro-organisms. The sadness made me realize that, even though I swear I never thought about it, I had assumed that fungi would share.

For more information on this process known as spalting, visit the Woodland Trust website or meet “Dr. Spalting” herself.