from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
December 14, 2003
FIG TREE STEM CUTTINGS
Recent hard freezes have left local Kudzu terrains looking like parking lots knee deep in brown, crumpled wrapping paper. This unsightliness is offset by the fact that insofar as we experience a "peak of fall colors" here, maybe this has been the prettiest week. Of course our colors never match the displays offered by deciduous forests farther north but, still, in our area, if you're passing down a road through a woods of frost-bronzed oaks, with late-afternoon sunlight filtering in from the west, the impression is of passing through a golden, glowing tunnel. When Spanish Moss gently sways in afternoon breezes overhead, the effect is nothing less than majestic.
Another consequence of this cold weather is that now is the time to take "stem cuttings" from certain kinds of trees. The idea is to manage the cuttings in such a way that by next spring they'll have developed roots, and then what once was a twig can be transplanted as a rooted sapling.
The other day neighbor Karen Wise picked me up and we went to an overgrown, abandoned homestead she'd discovered way out in nowhere, where an old fig tree struggled with other trees overtopping it. We filled Karen's little van with large branches removed from the fig tree, returned here, and then with razor-sharp knives removed twig tips up to a foot long. We cut the stems diagonally in order to expose more cambium area, because future roots will arise only from that very thin region right below the bark. Then we stored the sticks upright in buckets with water in the bottom of them.
Later I worked up a plot of new garden space, applied rooting compound to each twig's cut end, and planted 315 of them an inch or so deep and half a foot apart. The rooting compound contained 0.1% Indole-3-butyric Acid, which is a synthetic auxin. In nature, auxins are plant hormones. Many kinds of auxins enable plants to things such as orient their stems toward sunlight and have their roots respond to gravity. Synthesized Indole-3-butyric Acid mimics the natural auxin Indole- 3-acetic Acid, whose job is to initiate root growth. The chemical formula for Indole-3-butyric Acid is C12H13NO2, and you can see its structure, with its two carbon rings and a single atom of nitrogen, at www.serva.de/products/formulas/26172.gif
We have a book here suggesting that fresh stem cuttings should be tied into small bundles, then buried over winter in a can of damp vermiculite. The rooting compound should only be applied in the spring, it says, when the cuttings are set out. This author, like so many, is a Yankee with gardening experience "in the northern mountains of Vermont." I'm guessing that here we should skip the can of damp vermiculite, for our "deep winter" is surely warmer than his "early spring." It's always a good idea to check where your horticultural guru lives before accepting his or her advice.
Of all the Earth's families of flowering plants, the Duckweed Family possesses the smallest flowers and fruits. Duckweed plants themselves are tiny. The ones scattered like green confetti across the surface of our black-watered Woodland Pond are about 3/16ths of an inch long (4 mm). They are flat, free-floating, and oval shaped. You can see what they look like en masse at www.ulsamer.at/db/lemna-minor-2.jpg and you can admire a much-magnified image showing their flowers at www.mobot.org/jwcross/duckweed/duckweed-botanical.htm
Duckweed flowers are about as stripped down as possible. A single duckweed plant body, referred to as a frond, bears three flowers, two of which are male, the other being female. The flowers bear no calyx or corolla. Male flowers consist of a single pollen- producing stamen, and female blossoms are composed of nothing but a single naked pistil. In the picture linked to above you see the two stamens overtopping the single pistil.
I've always wanted to see those flowers in real life so this week I took my handlens, got on my belly at the edge of our Woodland Pond, and scanned hundreds of fronds. I found no flowers, but I did discover some fruits, which was nearly as exciting. With the naked eye the fruits looked like smallish, individual grains of dun-colored sand atop fading, dying duckweed bodies. Only with strong magnification could any detail be seen.
The fruiting plants were not floating on the water's surface. Among the many thousands of plants seen, only a half dozen or so were found with fruits, and all of these had been left stranded three to six inches high on an emergent stump as the water sank after the last rain. Probably the stress of being marooned out of water stimulated the fronds to flower and fruit. All the fruiting fronds were dead or dying. Green, healthy-looking duckweeds floating on the water's surface were busily reproducing by budding. At the first link mentioned above you can see how duckweeds nearly always appear as two or more fronds stuck together, not alone. The smaller fronds in such clusters have budded off the largest one.
Whenever you see a body of water covered with "green confetti," it's worth paying attention to who that confetti is. Often two or more species are present. In our area the most common duckweed is LEMNA PERPUSILLA, but other species of the genus Lemna also might be found. Besides duckweed, there is also "Great Duckweed" of the genus Spirodela. Duckweed fronds have a single "root" dangling into the water, while those of Great Duckweed have two or more. Great Duckweed fronds are generally larger than those of regular duckweed. Also in the Duckweed Family and even smaller than Lemna species are members of the two genera Wolffiella and Wolfia, which look like tiny, short, green threads and globular spheres, respectively. These last two genera are famous for supplying the smallest of all fruits known in nature, being 1/100th of an inch long (0.25 mm) and weighing only about 1/400,000 of an ounce (70 micrograms). You can see and read about these at www.mobot.org/jwcross/duckweed/flowering-dormancy.htm#Smallest
LOGGERHEAD SHRIKE IN THE HONEYLOCUST
My jogging road courses across flat land between a large pasture and an expansive, open field. These are part of Sandy Creek's floodplain. As the sun rises during my daily runs I love having an horizon-to- horizon view of the open sky, with the sky's clouds, fog or clearness setting the tone for the upcoming day. When the fields are white with frost or dark and soggy with overnight rain, I exquisitely feel that dry frost or penetrating wetness on my legs, arms, face, and deep inside my lungs. Rarely the wind howls across the fields at dawn, shaking the power lines and whistling through the pasture fence. I think that running across an open, windy area provides about as much of a free feeling as a landlubber can experience.
Especially on those rare windy mornings a certain bird can be expected to appear on the swaying power lines. Not only must this bird enjoy the wind's wildness, but also he must enjoy watching me, for sometimes after I jog past him he flies down the line so he can see me pass again. He looks very much like a grayish mockingbird, except that he's a little chunkier, has a bill that hooks downward instead of being straight, and across his face he wears a black mask. He's the Loggerhead Shrike, LANIUS LUDOVICIANUS. "Ludovicianus" means "of Louisiana," so the species is right at home in our area. The species is migratory, but its summer and winter ranges overlap here, so it's found here year round. You can see a Loggerhead Shrike at www.dcnr.state.pa.us/wrcf/lhdpic.htm
Loggerhead Shrikes have an obsession for sharp things -- whether it's spines on cacti, thorns on trees, or barbs on barbed-wire fences. This passion complements the bird's practice of storing prey by impaling it in spiny places where it's likely to be left along. If you ever find a mouse or a grasshopper stuck on a spine well above the ground, a good bet would be that it's the work of a shrike.
Years ago while working on a story I interviewed someone at Mississippi State up at Starkville. Spotting a shrike on the campus's manicured grounds I wondered what he was doing in such a tame environment. But then he flew to the top of a chainlink fence and I understood, for the cut wire atop the fence was jagged and sharp enough to cut skin. I've simply never seen a Loggerhead Shrike where no spininess existed.
Sometimes the jogging-road shrike crosses Liberty Road onto this property. However, he doesn't range freely across our fields and woods but rather orbits around a big Honeylocust tree next to Sandy Creek. And you know that Honeylocusts bear branched spines powerful enough to puncture tractor tires.
This is one bird you don't expect to see in a forest, for it is a creature of open places. It's interesting to note that in the late 1800s the Loggerhead Shrikes' distribution expanded into the US Northeast, probably because of deforestation and agriculture. However, since the 1940s its distribution and numbers have decreased as abandoned, marginal farmland and pastureland have returned to being forested. The species continues to decline in numbers in most but not all places.
It would be sad to lose this species, if only because it's always wonderful to be in the presence of any being whose whole personality is colored by an irrepressible passion for something not destructive -- even if that something is "sharpness."
The Loggerhead Shrike's summer distribution map is at www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/htm96/map617/ra6220.html and its "Christmas Bird Count" winter distribution map is at www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/cbcra/h6220ra.html
The other day I collected an Oyster Mushroom, PLEUROTUS OSTREATUS, from the trunk of a dead Water Oak, and it was like meeting an old friend. The first wild mushroom I ever picked and ate was an Oyster Mushroom. You can see and read about this species, which is common in the northern temperate zone of both North America and Eurasia, at http://botit.botany.wisc.edu/toms_fungi/oct98.html
This species supplied my first wild mushroom meal because of three good reasons: 1) It was easy to identify; 2) No poisonous, similar-looking species existed with which it could be confused, and; 3) It was known to offer good eating.
Similar mushroom species that should be avoided do exist, but they are described as tasting so bad that no one would eat them and, while unpleasant-tasting, they are not known to be poisonous. If you collect a white to cream-colored, soft-textured mushroom up to a foot across, growing on a tree trunk and, when you nibble it, it doesn't taste bad, you're OK. To be absolutely sure, Oyster Mushroom spores are white and produced so copiously that usually you can find a white "dust" of them below the mushroom's gills -- maybe on the caps of mushrooms below them, for often this species grows in colonies.
Oyster Mushrooms derive their name from their body shape, like oyster shells, not from their taste. I find their taste to be fairly bland, but they do acquire and often improve the flavors of the good things you cook with them. The simplest and possibly the best preparation is to fry them in butter, seasoning only with salt and pepper. The one I ate the other day, however, went into the dish I usually reserve for those campfire breakfasts prepared in below-freezing weather.
That breakfast consisted of a handful of oatmeal boiled in water, with some chopped nuts added, and with two eggs dribbled into the watery mixture when it's hot enough to bubble, so that the eggs' protein forms lumps. All this is seasoned with mixed herbs, especially oregano. That morning when I snipped in an entire large Oyster Mushroom the bits of mushroom in the resulting porridge carried the mellower overtone- flavors of oregano and cooked egg yolk.
In our area Oyster Mushrooms can be found every month of the year, and sometimes you find enough growing together to pick a bushel or so. If you want to choose just one common, easy-to-identify, good-tasting mushroom to know and to eat, this is the species I'd suggest.
Earlier I mentioned cutting our fig twigs at an angle so as to expose more cambium at the twig's cut-off base. A woody plant's cambium area is worth thinking about.
If you were to cut down a tree, place a yard-long section of the trunk onto a table, and then by some magical process cause everything on the table to vanish except the trunk's cambium layer, you'd end up looking at a pale, translucent, yard-long cylinder composed of tissue-paper walls only one cell thick. The cylinder would have a diameter nearly as large as that of the vanished trunk section, for the cambium layer lies just below a tree's bark. It's between the bark and the wood. If you've ever knocked a chunk of bark off a living tree and seen the smooth, slippery surface coating the inside wood, that coating was the cambium layer. The position of the cambium layer makes sense because this filmy zone comprises the only living part of the tree trunk and, as such, from it originates both bark and wood. Those cells produced by the cambium layer facing outward from the tree's center make bark, while those produced by the cambium layer facing inside make wood.
You can see a very nice microscopic view of a stem cross-section indicating the cambium layer forming bark and phloem cells OUTSIDE the cylinder-ring and wood and xylem cells INSIDE the ring at www.nsci.plu.edu/~jmain/b359web/images/359i26.gif
Sometimes I sit imagining what the winter woods around me might look like if only the trees' living cells were visible. It would be similar to seeing a convocation of tall animals without their hair, feathers, horny plates or clothing. Since these forms consisting only of living cells would be only one cell thick, they'd be semi-transparent and probably they'd softly glow in the sunlight, ghost-like. It would be a forest of slender, pale, upward-branching cylinders rising skyward, swaying in wind so gracefully that I think that music surely would form spontaneously in the mind. This mind-music would be of a traditional Chinese kind, with tones bending, melodies flowing, all interweaving like tall stems of swaying, frost- yellowed, sunlight-glowing bamboo, accompanied by random-seeming, wood-toned percussion.
I think, to this kind of music, even I might be able to dance.
Yet, these beautiful, ghostly forms are always there, doing exactly as I describe -- just that they can only be seen with the mind, or spiritually, not with human eyes. I suppose that it's just human that I am not dancing all the time.