NATCHEZ NATURALIST
NEWSLETTER:
from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA

November 25, 2001

CRICKET CHIMES
During recent weeks night-time summer's unyielding, almost raucous roar of katydids and other grasshopper relatives has gradually metamorphosed into a peaceful chiming of crickets. I am reminded of a few lines in the ancient collection of Chinese verses known as The Book of Songs:

In the sixth month the grasshopper vibrates its wings.
   In the seventh month, out in the fields,
   In the eighth month, under the eaves;
   In the ninth month, about the doors.
   In the tenth month the crickets
   Get under our beds

This verse may be as old as 3,000 years. Just how many generations of country people all over the Earth have noticed -- even cherished -- this seasonal shift, and felt snug and content with the chirping of fall crickets? I now sleep inside my trailer, with my nose at the open window, and what a pleasure to awaken in the middle of the night to breathe in the chilly, moist air, while crickets chime right below me.

*****

FIRST ICE
Wednesday morning the thermometer in my Waxmyrtle showed 27° F (-2° C). The water in my teapot was encrusted with a thin layer of ice, and the pastures along my dawn jogging route down Lower Woodville Road were white with frost. It was a dry cold, however, so it didn't feel bad. Later at breakfast as I drank hot water my exhalations created impressive steam clouds that lifted into the Pecan trees, where early sunlight would make them glow pink.

Frost damage in the gardens was spotty. All the basil in one garden was destroyed but that in another mostly survived. None of my peppers was hurt, but the gourd vines were devastated, and the cannas were half killed back. Unfortunately the cold didn't seem to faze the aphids which right now are wrecking havoc in the turnip beds and among the cabbage.

The gardens remain beautiful nonetheless, particularly because this year I made substantial plantings of various marigold varieties here and there and now those plants could not show up more brightly with their orange and yellow blossoms. These xanthic eruptions among green beds of kale, mustard greens, turnips, green onions and collards, and many rows of cabbage and cauliflower, is a wonderful thing to see. On outsider holidays I try to keep a low profile, but on Thanksgiving morning I couldn't avoid going for a peep at the gardens, just to see how pretty everything was.

*****

LADYBUGS
Early in the week I didn't need to check an Internet weather site to know that a coldfront was approaching, for each crack in my little trailer became an entry point for ladybugs. Somehow these little red beetles know when cold weather.

It's best to keep them out of the trailer because a ladybug leg in the wrong place on a computer circuitboard can cause all kinds of grief. They get in, anyway. During ladybug-entering times the bugs home in on cracks and holes like smart-bombs, and my trailer's door and windows in general do not fit together that well. Also these bugs clearly regard my ear-holes as potential overwintering grounds.

I grew up calling these insects "ladybugs" but most books refer to them as "ladybirds." The dictionary says that the latter word is derived from "bird of Our Lady," so perhaps in the old days people thought that these insects were so pretty that they deserved to be associated with the Virgin Mary.

The most common ladybugs on the Kentucky farm of my childhood are not the most common species here. If you go to http://www.ent.iastate.edu/imagegallery/lady/ you will see five different common ladybugs in Iowa. I think that our Kentucky ladybugs were the several-spotted COLEOMEGILLA MACULATA. Two species have been entering my trailer. One seems to be the no-spotted CYCLONEDA MUNDA, sometimes called the Red Lady Beetle, and the other is surely a species of the genus HIPPODAMIA very close to the H. CONVERGENS shown on the Iowa page. We have other species as well. It appears that just the subject of "ladybugs" is a monumental one.

*****

DAY OF THE GINKGO
Many years ago someone planted several kinds of exotic trees around the plantation's central buildings and one of those was the Ginkgo, GINKGO BILOBA. Ginkgoes are such special trees that at my nature study site at http://www.backyardnature.net/ginkgo.htm a whole page is dedicated to that species, along with a picture of its leaves and fruits. Botanically the species is of interest for two main reasons. First, it is such an anciently evolved, primitive gymnosperm that it bears flat, butterfly-like leaves that fall off this time of year, instead of the persistent needles typical of other gymnosperms such as pines, spruce and firs. Second, for a long time all ginkgo species were considered to be extinct and were known only from fossils, but then about a century ago some living specimens were discovered in Asia. All of today's planted specimens are descendents of those trees, and it's assumed that Ginkgoes no longer survive anywhere in the wild.

For a brief period every year our Ginkgoes turn bright yellow and when the sun shines on them the effect almost makes you cry. Most years the peak yellow period lasts for only a day or two, then the next day nearly all the leaves fall at once. Typically we have one day we can designate as "The Day of the Ginkgo," and on that day it is worth sitting a while just looking at the trees, thinking what it means that there can be such beautiful tree for anyone to look at.

This year our Ginkgoes' leaf-loss has occurred little by little, not on one day, and the coming of the yellowness also has dawdled so that it has been hard to designate a specific "Day of the Ginkgo."

Ginkgoes come in male trees and female trees. Sadly this year one of the state historians who checks on our historical buildings decided that our big female Ginkgo had to be removed, for her roots were approaching the old Wash-house. This was ridiculous but anyway now the female is gone and the remaining male is behaving confusedly. I blame the confusion on the strange weather and global warming, for it is too sad to think that the male may be sensing that his mate is gone.

*****

SPRING IN THE FALL
The Ginkgoes are not alone in being confused this season. In the gardens Common Chickweed, STELLARIA MEDIA, has been flowering for the last three weeks, though normally I see it first in December. Daffodils are blossoming around the plantation's central buildings.

You might excuse these species for being out of step with the season since they hail from the Old World and thus are not genetically programmed to deal with Mississippi weather. But then how can we explain that on the near-vertical, deeply shaded and ferny loess bluffs along our roads the native, spring-blossoming Prostrate Blue Violet, VIOLA WALTERI, also is producing flowers? You can see this pretty species at http://www.plantatlas.usf.edu/plantimage/Viola_walteri.jpg

This mingling of fall and spring flowers is probably a simple matter of our experiencing long strings of uncommonly warm days interrupted by occasional brief but sharply cold nights. On Wednesday morning for an hour or two it was 27 (-2C) but the rest of the week has been balmy, with Friday afternoon the temperature peaking at 82 (28C).

*****

BROWN SNAKE DUG UP
On Tuesday I was spading up soil in order to sow some arrugala and suddenly there in my nice crumbly soil was a Brown Snake, STORERIA DEKAYI. I often run into this species since it is active during the day and its favorite food is earthworms, slugs and snails, so the gardens couldn't be better for it. Most Brown Snakes are only about a foot long (30 cm) but they can get up to nearly 21 inches (53 cm). Of course such a small snake has a mouth so tiny that it couldn't bite a finger if it tried, and this snake doesn't even try.

As snakes go, this species has a large area of distribution -- from Maine to southern Florida and southern Minnesota through Mexico to Honduras. As often is the case with animals with such large distributions, the species is fragmenting into subspecies, some of them intergrading where their distributions overlap. Eight subspecies are recognized. Ours is WRIGHTORUM. One reason the species is so successful is obviously its flexibility. It's found from saltwater marshes to gardens and golf courses. If you find a pencil-sized, mostly brownish snake with dark-brown speckles, and right behind the eye there's a conspicuous downward streak where a fish's gill would be, it's a Brown Snake. This is a handsome little snake. You can see one at http://www.knology.net/~korell/sdekayiwrightorum.htm

*****

HONEYLOCUST PODS
Nowadays you can't walk far along our dirt roads without meeting with a bunch of large dark pods lying darkly on the ground. These are the fruits of the Honeylocust tree, GLEDITSIA TRIACANTHOS, a handsome tree famous for its large, tough thorns. I have spent many hours grubbing Honeylocusts from the hay fields because they can puncture a tractor's tire, not to mention the sole of a shoe. You can see Honeylocust leaves and fruits at http://www.kapili.com/h/honeylocust.html and the spines at http://www.hort.uconn.edu/plants/g/gletri/gletri47.jpg

The flat, usually slightly twisted fruit pods, a kind of legume, reach up to 18 inches (45 cm) long, so a large number of them on the ground makes a show. The wonderful thing about these pods is that in the area between the pod's midrib and the seeds there's an area filled with a dark orange, gummy pulp that is surprisingly sweet -- thus the name Honeylocust. Judging from the number of Honeylocust seeds in Raccoon poop these days the honey accomplishes its purpose of getting critters with a sweet-tooth to eat the pod, swallow a few seeds in the process, and later deposit those seeds somewhere far from the parent tree.

Of course there's only enough sweet pulp in these pods to barely make it worth a Raccoon's while, so modern humans used to keeping Cokes within arm's length most of the time won't find much to please them here. However, I have read that in the old days when sugar was harder to come by some folks not only extracted a little sugar from the collected pulp, but also dumped Honeylocust pods into barrels of water, and there was enough sugar in the pods to ferment the brew into a serviceable beer.

If you find some Honeylocust pods, break one open and taste the dark, golden pulp. The black skin is bitter so try to keep that apart.