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As a gardener, I know humans have introduced many invasive species like Dandelions, Japanese Knotweed, and Phragmites, into many of our native North American habitats. I have witnessed it, and to some extent participated (in ignorance) of the problem.

As little as two hundred years ago the forests surrounding the Great Lakes lacked earthworms. The Ice Age and glaciers eliminated the native species, and during the 10,000 years since the last glacier, our trees and plants evolved to live in the wormless local soils. This became a thick layer of duff or the debris of trees and shrubs that lined the forest floor. Duff remains for years, slowly decayed by fungi, but providing a habitat for many Michigan ferns, delicate wildflowers, and small animals like salamanders.

Since settlers first moved into this area, they introduced European earthworms like the red wriggler to encourage composting. Gardeners still think of worms as a desirable asset to their garden’s soil. These worms eat decaying matter, aerate the soil, and leave humus-rich worm casting behind as they burrow. In general, they do good things for garden soil.

In the forests, however, worms eat the duff in as little as two 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 original native soils. While the introduction of worms 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 more acidic original soil.

Bloodroot

As this debris layer disappears, so does the habitat for plants like Trillium, Solomon’s Seal, Blue Cohosh, Sweet Cicely, Mayflowers, Wild Ginger, Lady Fern, Bloodroot, Bellwort, and the tiny Goblin Fern which might already be extinct in this area. They adapted to germination and growth in the thick layer of duff that provided them nutrients, moisture, protection from extremes in temperature and predators, and microorganisms like fungi necessary for their survival.

It is also believed the loss of the duff effects 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 affects a whole chain of living organisms.

Worms were introduced from dumped fishing bait, on the root-soil clumps of purchased plants, and on the tires of vehicles entering the local forest. The most severe invasions are usually near roads. This is one reason the U.S. Forest Service is restricting logging and road-building in certain forest areas in states around the Great Lakes.

Trillium

Once the earthworms infest an area, little can be done to remove them without doing more harm to the forest. We know many of the above plants grow in worm-infested soil because we grow them in our gardens, but a study in the Chippewa National Forest in northern Minnesota showed 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 it was a little thing that started this change.

(Updated. Originally published in the Cadillac News in 2002.

Despite seven cats in the neighborhood, this squirrely squirrel seemed extremely relaxed while enjoying a sunflower snack. Maybe he could even be labeled as show-offy. He must have known all the cats were in the house and sound asleep. Or, like many Michiganders, maybe he is only celebrating and enjoying a sunny, fairly warm spring day.

Unfortunately, the DNR has suggested everyone empty their bird feeders. The 3,000 or so bears in Northern Michigan are coming out of hibernation. They will be hungry and find sunflower seeds delectable.  Several years ago in the middle of the night I watched one laying on his back in the snow with two feeders he had torn down, pouring the seeds into his gaping jaws. The back porch lights illuminated his misdeed. Sorry birds, sorry squirrels. I don’t want Smokey on my back porch.

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.

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