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After a long spell of foggy warm days and melting of previous layers of snow, temperatures lowered a little and it snowed over night. In the morning wet and heavy snow coated everything. (I know how heavy as I had to shovel it!) It is one of those spectacular winter views that turns the landscape white and black, a fairy-esque landscape sparkling in ice and snow on trees. This is one of the wonders of living here. You can see how heavy the load on the branches is as they bend with the snow’s weight.

photo of last night's snow

 

photo pileated woodpeckerWe had a special visitor today– a Pileated Woodpecker. These are just great birds to view. I have to say I see bald eagles more often than I see this particular woodpecker.  This maybe my fourth or fifth viewing, and the others were not this up close and most were when we lived in Missouri nearly twenty years ago where the holes being pecked out of wood were from my house.

He (this is a male; the female has a grey forehead that turns to red further back) landed on the bird feeder on my back porch and pecked at the suet on this side of the feeder once but was more interested in the the suet block on the far side of the feeder. I took twenty photos, but the bird moved so fast I mostly got blurred images or only tail feathers as he bent over the far side of the feeder to eat suet.  That bill looks dangerous, doesn’t it? Good for chopping wood.

The bird sites say these woodpeckers are about the size of crows, but the crows in this area are not this large or impressive. They live year round in much of the eastern United States, but also inhabit areas in lower Canada. Obviously they can face our cold winters. If your want to know more, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology site gives more about information about Pileated Woodpeckers.

I hope he comes to visit again. Six more packages of suet sit in a cabinet and we will buy more if he keeps visiting.

2nd photo pileated woodpecker

I don’t have any daffodils yet, and the only blooming things in my garden are the snowdrops. After visiting Olathe, Kansas, where daffodils were in abundant display along with many blooming shrubs including forsythia, redbud, and crabapples, I know how far behind Northern Michigan is. But the signs of encroaching spring are showing. I took the photo of the pussywillows (Salix discolor) just emerging today while taking a walk.

Emerging catkins of willow trees emerge, a sure sign of spring.

Emerging catkins of willow trees emerge, a sure sign of spring.

Amelanchier

Amelanchier laevis

The little, white flowering trees blooming in our forests about this time of year are serviceberry, or Amelanchier. Going south on highway 131 the proliferation of blooming trees often looks like snow in the forest.

Also known as the shadblow, the serviceberry are the first trees to bloom in spring, usually along with forsythia. Unlike the forsythia, they are native. The name serviceberry has two possible derivation legends. One is a corruption of ‘sarvisberry,’ a name the Romans gave to the sorbus, or European mountain ash. Early American settlers noticed the Amelanchier’s fruit resembled the berries of the sarvisberry. The other comes from folklore. Early settlers saw the blossoming of serviceberry as the proper time to inter bodies held during the winter, or because travel was too difficult during winter to attend funeral services, so a memorial service was held when the serviceberry bloomed. The name shadblow comes from its bloom time concurring with the annual migration of shad in eastern rivers.

In June, the serviceberries produce red berries that ripen to deep blue, which gives the Amelanchier another common name, juneberry. Settlers prized the fruit for making jam, but because they are easily bruised and keep poorly, they have never made it into the food production industry. To collect berries from the wild you have to beat the Robins, Cedar Waxwings, and other birds and many mammals to them, not an easy task, so few of us have tasted juneberry jam. If you come across ripe wild serviceberry fruits, try them, for they are delicious, with a hint of pear flavor.

Serviceberries are members of the rose family, and if you look closely at the flower, you will see a disheveled resemblance to wild roses. The branches hold their five-petaledl white flowers in disordered groups and even the petals might not all match in length. About six species grow in Michigan, but these plants hybridize very easily, so species identification can be next to impossible.

Because they are an understory tree, or trees that live beneath the shade of taller trees, you can expect serviceberries to be small, usually less than twenty feet. There are also serviceberries that grow as small shrubs. Most serviceberries are hard to find under cultivation, perhaps because some tend to sucker and spread, particularly in the shrub group like the roundleaf serviceberry, A. sanguinea.

The Amelanchier grandiflora is a hybrid and grown as a specimen tree sometimes called the apple serviceberry. This hybrid is better behaved than its wild cousins, less prone to suckering and produces larger flowers.

Amelanchier are very tolerant and adaptable to many growing conditions. Their natural habitat is partial shade, but many grow in full sun. They can tolerate dry soil and drought once established. They are not prone to breaking limbs by strong winds and storms. Because of their rose relationship, they might get fire blight disease, but this is usually due to over fertilizing.

Amelanchier are hardy, small trees. With their early spring bloom, summer fruit, and great fall color, they provide multiple seasons of interest and make a perfect tree for small gardens or yards.

I joined a large audience to hear Jerry Dennis, author of The Living Great Lakes, today at West Shore Community College’s Main Stage Theater. He talked about many of the threats to the Great Lakes. It was a long list including invasive species (170 other species, although Asian Carp still remains only a threat not an actuality), pollution like molecular plastics, water shortages, Nestle and bottled water, general human apathy, and why change seems to take so long.

What I took away is that man is the greatest threat to the Great Lakes. Our uses of these massive fresh-water seas, the economic realities, loopholes in regulations, slow acting governments and agencies, and our irresponsible uses both in the past and the present. Mr. Dennis has strong hope for the lakes, their great strength and resilience. Considering the ever increasing human population consuming finite resources, I’m not so sure.

West Shore Community College, where I teach, has a cross curriculum topic: The Year of Water. The website devoted to this topic features some outstanding photography of Lake Michigan. Take a Look!

Winter is a hard season for me. I do not like cold, and I have to make myself leave the house. I have to wear more clothes outdoors and in. Outside can look so very bleak.
Snow on pines

Yet the landscape after a winter storm can be awesomely incredible in its evidence of nature’s strength and ultimate power. Unusual sights emerge like the sun shining through pristine white clouds and bright blue skies while ahead lays a gray sky thick with snow. Trees laden with snow and roads lined by ever-growing piles of the snowtruck’s deposits add to the much changed everyday sights. White fields and dark, heavy skies give a reversal of expected outdoors visual weights and I feel like Henny-Penny screaming, ‘The sky is falling, they sky is falling.” The dark, wet bark contrasts starkly with the snow etching each branch, bringing a visual acuity unseen in any other season. When the sun touches weeping willows the branches glow with gold. The burnished russet of last summer’s oak leaves offers a subtle but vivid split compliment to the purple shadowed snow and the deep green of adjacent pines. It is different, strange, gorgeous, overlooked spectacle from the warm landscapes of summer.

Snow covered apples

Snow covered apples

So too is the awesome effort needed to drive through a storm when caught—devastatingly hideous, scary. A forty-five minute trip can become ninety minutes or more of a dangerous, nerve-racking trek demanding intense attention: Is the dark patch in the road pavement or ice? How far ahead is the car hidden by the billowing snow cast upward by its wheels? Can I pass this car going twenty-five miles per hour on an apparently safe road, or is there an obstacle ahead? If I pull off on the shoulder, will my tires have traction to take off again? Oh no, someone’s slid off the road!
truck and road

This past month has shown this effect throughout the Northern Hemisphere and the coming week looks like a replay. Is it an effect of Global Warming, or a global warning? Today’s fierce winds and ice-glazed roads have closed most schools in Northern Michigan. The temperatures are horrendous, promising frostbite to those who go out unprotected. Even my cats do not want to go out. If their desire overwhelms their prudence, they are soon back at the door—literally on it, pounding paws and shouting, “See me? see me! I want in!”

Let me in!

Let me in!

Endure.

Sun rise from left side of photo creates beauty in tree tops.

Friday I had to go into Ludington to participate in a Literacy Workshop. My mind misread (probably from wishing about druthers) the correct meeting time for 8:30 to 9:30 (it’s an hour drive for me); most embarrassing walking into a meeting in progress when you think you are arriving early. However, I’m habitually early so I wasn’t an hour late, but my drive hit the sun’s rise, and I took what I thought were beautiful landscape photos. I’m sharing two.

Rising sun hits tree tops on an October morning.

goldenrod
Most open fields in this area and many other parts of the United States look as if touched by Midas as goldenrod blooms in late summer-early autumn. Numerous species of goldenrod are found in Michigan, and even more in North America. Perhaps because of this local abundance, many gardeners don’t consider this plant garden worthy. It is true that most species are lanky and rampant, and invade places readily.

In Europe, there are not as many species, and when first imported into England from the Middle East, it was an expensive medicinal herb. Its Latin name of Solidago means to make whole, or heal. Solidago was believed to cure kidney ailments, and a compress relieved the pain of fresh wounds and insect stings. Early herbals list a long litany of ailments goldenrod could cure, including calming the nerves. It also had a sweet taste used to hide more unpalatable medicines. Today, medical research has not proved goldenrod capable of curing anything except maybe blah spirits when someone looks at its cheery plumes of tiny yellow flowers.

Goldenrod still has some uses. Weavers use the flower heads for a natural dye. It provides varying tones of yellow depending on how the dye is made. Its dried flower heads provide winter bouquets, keeping their yellow color in a much softer tone. The only other notable use of goldenrod was in 1948, when Texas tried to develop it as an agricultural crop for an ingredient in goldenrod gum and candies. They didn’t succeed.

For many years goldenrod suffered an undeserved reputation for causing hay fever. Insects pollinate goldenrod, so its pollen is large and sticky to make it easier to coat the insect body for pollinating the next flower. This makes the pollen heavy and more likely to drop to the ground than become air-borne.

European gardeners think of goldenrod as an important garden plant and have developed many cultivars and hybrids. These have been exported back to the United States and are now commonly available in nurseries. The hybrids have been dwarfed, and the coarse stems and foliage somewhat refined to produce better garden plants. ‘Golden Thumb,’ also known as ‘Tom Thumb,’ is about twelve inches tall. Other cultivars that grow about twenty-four inches are ‘Baby Gold,’ ‘Golden Baby,’ and ‘Golden Gates.’

I still like mine best in the surrounding fields.
field of goldenrod

Are worms…that is at least what science claims. It seems the forests surrounding the Great Lakes developed without earthworms. Ten-thousand years ago native species disappeared during the glacier period. Since then, our trees and plants have evolved to live in a wormless soils. In this region, a thick layer of duff, the debris of trees and shrubs, lined the forest floor. Duff normally remained for years, slowly decayed by fungi, and providing a habitat for many ferns, delicate wild flowers, and small animals like salamanders.

Since settlers first moved here, earthworms like the red wriggler used in fishing and for composting, have been introduced into the forest lands. Gardeners usually think of worms as a desirable asset to soil. They eat decaying matter, aerate the soil and leave humus-rich worm castings behind as they burrow. In general they do good things for soil where garden plants grow.

In the forests, however, worms eat the duff in just a few years, lowering the soil’s acidity and making nutrients more available. The plants in our forests survived in the poor fertility and the high acidity of our soils. While this won’t necessarily harm the mature trees growing there, the duff’s absence affects the number of seedlings growing in an area. It also makes an advantageous situation for unwanted invasive species that couldn’t have grown in the original, more acidic soil.

As this debris layer disappeared, so did the habitat for plants like Trillium, lady slippers, Solomon’s seal, blue cohosh, sweet cicely, mayflowers, wild ginger, lady fern, bloodroot, bellworts, and the globlin fern. They adapted to germination and growth in the thick layer of duff. The duff layer provided them nutrients, moisture, protection from extremes in temperature and predators, and a habitat for microorganisms like fungi necessary for the plants’ survival.

It is also believed the loss of the duff effected the salamander population that fed on insects living in the debris. The salamanders in turn, provided food for snakes, shrews, thrushes, and screech owls, so the earthworm invasion effected a whole chain of living organisms.

We introduced worms from dumped fishing bait, on purchased plants’ soil balls. The tires on all of our motorized vehicles’ entering our forests often carry worm eggs, so the most severe invasions are usually near roads.

Once the earthworms infest an area, little can be done to remove them without more harm to the forest. We know many of the previously listed plants grow in worm-infested soil, because we grow them in our gardens, but a study in the Chippewa National Forest in northern Minnesota shows these species do not return to worm-infested forests.

Some ecologists hope the ecosystem of the forest may eventually come to a new balance. In the meantime don’t spread earthworms into wormless areas, don’t dump worm bait in forested lands, and keep your vehicles on roads and trails. Gardeners in wooded areas need to keep compost piles and worm contaminated soil from contaminating the woodlands. These may seem like small measures, but a little thing began this big change.

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