from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
March 28, 2004
These are the best of salad days. In the woods and along the fields you can pick succulent shoots and unfurling leaves with a rainbow of tastes and textures. Glossy tips of greenbriars, young leaves of oxalis, plantain, dandelion and spiderwort... Wild onion is important in any salad, and don't forget to sprinkle in a few violet and Redbud blossoms.
Around the barn the most abundant wild salad- ingredient is the weedy Corn Salad, VALERIANELLA RADIATA. I love to slice open a wedge of hot, moist cornbread and fill it with Corn Salad lightly spritzed with vinegar. Corn Salad's taste is mellow and unusual, and I can't eat it without recalling my Belgium days, when the French-speaking lady with whom I lived insisted that no proper Walloonian garden could exist without a healthy row of Corn Salad, in French known as mâche. You can see Corn Salad's tiny white flowers and curiously bifurcating stems at www.csdl.tamu.edu/FLORA/mi02/mi02074.jpg
Of course, on an everyday basis my salad makings come mostly from the garden. Our ancestors knew what they were doing when they domesticated lettuce, spinach, radishes and the various onions and garlics. Garden salads are much easier to make but they lack the edgy sensations of wild things.
On Monday, neighbor Karen Wise and I visited Pellucid Bayou, a deep ravine emptying into Sandy Creek, and located in Homochitto National Forest about four crow-flown miles south of here. We hiked a couple of miles through the woods, and that walk could not have been more pleasant.
Trees are putting on their leaves now, so when walking through the forest you are immersed in a dazzling diffusion of sunlight-charged, green-glowing, breeze- animated, expanding leaves. Every shade of green shimmers around you and the brightest hues are more yellow than green. The darkest greens are those of staid evergreen magnolias and pines standing like old men inside a superfluity of scattering green moths. Add to all this the continual calls of chickadees and migrating vireos and warblers, woodpecker drummings, the earthy odor of the soil and the perfumy fragrance of plum blossoms, and you have something grand to walk through.
Here and there Flowering Dogwoods shattered the greenness with full-blossom whiteness. At woods edges, Carolina Laurelcherries (PRUNUS CAROLINAIANA) produced white flowers in fingerlike, lacy panicles, as seen at http://web.fccj.org/~dbyres/cherrylaurel/prunus2.htm. Papaws, ASIMINA TRILOBA, bore their curiously 3- peteled, down-drooping, maroon-colored blossoms (www.bio.psu.edu/Courses/bio414/jpegs/asitri.jpg) on slender, upward arching branches. Bigleaf Magnolias had huge terminal buds splitting open, revealing leaves already ten inches long before unfolding and growing much larger. Yellow Jessamine, GELSEMIUM SEMPERVIRENS, vined high into treetops, sprinkling the canopy here and there with bright yellow (www.duke.edu/~cwcook/trees/gese.htm).
Maybe the most unexpectedly large and pretty flowers were those of the Crossvine, ANISOSTICHUS CAPREOLATUS (www.scsc.k12.ar.us/MetcalfP/11.6crossvine.jpg ) clustered atop many kinds of trees. Down on the ground the violets were often thick. Beside the Common Blue, there was the Early Blue Violet, VIOLA PALMATA, with interesting halberd-shaped leaves, and the Prostrate Blue Violet, VIOLA WALTERI, with heart-shaped leaves conspicuously veined like African Violets, as shown at http://plants.usda.gov/cgi_bin/plant_profile.cgi?symbol=VIWA.
I've been wanting to visit Pellucid Bayou because in the February, 1995 issue of nationally distributed Natural History Magazine, noted botanist Robert H. Mohlenbrock wrote a story called "Pellucid Bayou, Mississippi." He'd been mightily impressed with the plants there, noting such interesting species as Maindenhair Fern, Silky Camellia and Star Vine, as well as Fetid Trillium, Climbing Hydrangea, Bittersweet and Doll's-eyes. So far I don't see that Pellucid Bayou's flora is much different from other similar bayous in the area. I'll bet Mohlenbrock just named his story after Pellucid Bayou because it's such a nice name.
Except for the Fetid Trillium, it's too early for most of the plants he mentioned to be flowering now, but as spring continues to develop, you can bet that I'll be watching for them, and reporting on them to you.
At Pellucid Bayou as well as the woods around the barn, the Fetid Trilliums, TRILLIUM FOETIDISSIMUM, are common in moist, shaded ravines. This species is endemic to only a small area -- Louisiana east of the Mississippi River, northward and eastward into ten south-Mississippi counties, including ours. Fetid Trilliums are among eight species of "special plants" described in the "Rare Plant Survey of Homochitto National Forest," issued by the Mississippi Dept. of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks in 1992.
Thanks to Dr. Lucile M. McCook, Curator of the Pullen Herbarium at Ole Miss, for telling me how to distinguish this species from the almost identical and much more common Sessile Trillium. The differences between the two species are so subtle that only a botanist could treasure them. But they are enough to make the Fetid Trillium a full-blown species with its own unique genetic heritage. I needed Dr. McCook's help because Fetid Trilliums were not known to exist when my books were published. The species was described in a journal in 1975.
Fetid Trilliums are supposed to stink. The species name "foetidissimum" means "stinks a lot." I find the odor to be very faint, only hinting of decaying flesh. This trillium knows that a fly looking for carrion pollinates as well as a bee.
What a wonderful thing to discover that in the woods all around me live such special little beings, as pretty as can be, and buzzed by frustrated flies. On the Internet you can see a Fetid Trillium at http://fp.trilliums.plus.com/images/Trillium%20foetidissimum%202000.jpg
DEVIL'S URN FUNGUS
At home on a fallen twig at the edge of a bluff in Pellucid Bayou were a couple of colonies of Devil's Urn fungus, URNULA CRATERIUM. I was tickled to find these because in the fungus section of my backyard nature site, for a long time I've been needing a picture of a "cup fungus," and Devil's Urn is a perfect example of that. Of course Karen took a fine picture of it and you can see it on my page at www.backyardnature.net/f/cupfung.htm
Cup fungi such as the Devil's Urn are cup or bowl shaped, and they produce their fungal spores on the inner surfaces of their cups. You probably know that the typical mushroom has paper-thin "gills" beneath their "caps," and that spores fall from these gills. Thus cup fungi have a completely different setup from regular mushrooms. A cup fungus is as different from a regular gilled fungus as a human is from a worm. Completely different "phyla" are involved.
With spring coming on, this is a good time to be watching for the different kinds of fungi. You can get an overview of the most commonly encountered kinds of fungi at my "backyard fungi" page at www.backyardnature.net/f/2fungi.htm
On that page you'll see that there are gilled mushrooms, mushrooms with pores, stinkhorns, coral fungi, puffballs, bird's nest fungi, jelly fungi, rusts, smuts, our cup fungi, and more.
WILD AZALEA FLOWERING
Of all the plants putting on a show now, maybe the most spectacular is the Wild Azalea, RHODODENDRON CANESCENS. Growing beside the little stream running past the barn, this eight-ft-tall, understory shrub with leafless, slender, brittle twigs is resplendent with spreading clusters of pink-and-white, two-inch long (5 cm) blossoms, the heavy odor of which reminds me of my mother's favorite perfumed talc. You can see the gorgeous flowers, exactly as they appear now, at http://cricket.biol.sc.edu/herb/RR/Rhododendron_canescens1.jpg
Botanists don't see significant technical differences between azaleas and rhododendron species, so both belong to the genus Rhododendron. The Mississippi Plants Checklist of Rhododendron Species at www.herbarium.olemiss.edu/echecklist.php?genus=Rhododendron lists five species in the genus. The particular species flowering near our barn is a wide-ranging one, occurring on the Coastal Plain from North Carolina to at least as far west as Mississippi. It's known by a host of names, including Sweet Pinxter Azalea, Swamp Azalea, Mountain Azalea, Piedmont Azalea, Hoary Azalea, and even Bush Honeysuckle. However, most people just call it Wild Azalea, not worrying about that name being applied to several species.
How amazing that such a plant should grace our forest, simply because no one has thought to destroy its habitat yet, or dig it up.
BLUEBIRDS ON MY BLUEBIRD BOX
In this year's February 29th Newsletter I told you about my building a bluebird box, the design of which I posted at www.backyardnature.net/101/birdbox.htm
The day I nailed that box onto its pole down at the Field Pond, a certain unnerving thought came to mind. That is, of the approximately 392 bird species recorded as occurring in Mississippi, how can I presume that just one of those species, the Eastern Bluebird, will choose this nest box?
Therefore this week when one dusk I went to sit beside the Field Pond I was astonished to see a male Eastern Bluebird atop my creation, singing his heart out. He'd fly to the hole and disappear into the box's darkness, then reappear with his face framed by my jaggedly cut hole, then fly back to the top and sing some more, then return into the box, and he did this again and again, as if trying to convince himself that the box really worked. This inspired me to build a second nest box. Within two days it also had a male atop it behaving in the same manner.
At www.backyardnature.net/birdnest.htm, my bird-nest page, I mention six types of bird nest: scrapes; platform nests; cup nests; adherent nests; pensile nests; and, pendulous nests. My nest box was built for birds using cup nests, so that eliminated many species. However, cup nests are the most commonly encountered nest type, built by a host of other species besides bluebirds.
The mystery of how my box was finally chosen by a bluebird and not another species lies in the fact that each living thing lives its life occupying a narrow ecological niche. In the big tree outside my window Black-and-white Warblers glean the tree's bark, Red- eyed Vireos keep to the higher branches, and Carolina Chickadees prefer the lower branches. Nature is highly ordered, and invisible and inviolable boundary lines crisscross everything we see, or think we see.
I suspect that a chickadee or wren would have loved living in my nest box, but I placed it too far from the forest, too much in open air, for them. That box needed a bird loving open fields, but one thinking in terms of hollow snags or tree trunks for a nest site, and it needed a bird able to fit through the 1.5-inch hole I carved in its front. Of the 392 Mississippi bird species I know of, only the Eastern Bluebird fits all those criteria. My banged-together nest box is practically a job description for the Eastern Bluebird.
A neighbor built a nest box just like mine, and bluebirds came to check it out, but they rejected it. Probably that happened because, instead of placing the box near a large field, he put it near his house where he could see it. Bluebirds need plenty of field space to forage in, so if you don't have that, don't count on getting bluebirds.
By the way, you can review the checklist of Mississippi's 392 recorded bird species at www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/othrdata/chekbird/r4/msstate.htm
Bird checklists for those you in other states are at www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/othrdata/chekbird/bigtoc.htm
THIS WEEK'S MIGRATING BIRDS
Here's this week's list, compiled on Friday, March 26th, on a warmish, overcast morning:
WINTER RESIDENTS PREPARING TO LEAVE
5 Ruby-crowned Kinglet
2 Solitary Vireo
4 Yellow-rumped Warbler
SUMMER RESIDENTS JUST ARRIVED
1 Rough-winged Swallow
3 Red-eyed Vireo
2 Yellow-throated Vireo
3 Northern Parula
2 Black-and-white Warbler
1 Louisiana Waterthrush
TRANSIENTS (just passing through)
PERMANENT RESIDENTS (individual birds may migrate)
3 Turkey Vulture
1 Red-shouldered Hawk
3 Brown Thrasher
2 Eastern Bluebird
2 Eastern Meadowlark
2 Red-winged Blackbird
5 Field Sparrow
7 Eastern Towhee
In the above list I was most tickled by the Chuck- will's-widow, heard at the crack of dawn on Friday morning. Probably most people who hear Chuck-will's- widows think they are hearing Whip-poor-wills, which are very closely related and look and behave very similarly. Songs are written about Whip-poor-wills but hardly anyone talks about Chuck-will's-widows, and I don't know why this is so. The Chuck-will's-widow's song is a "chuck" closely followed by two curvy notes, while the Whip-poor-will almost says its name, WHIP- er-WILL!
You can hear the Chuck-will's-widow's call at www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/htmwav/h4160so.wav and the Whip-poor-will's at www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/htmwav/h4170so.wav
Chuck-will's-widows are most abundant in the Southeast's piney woods, while Whip-poor-wills tend to be a bit more northern, and to prefer woods near fields. Both species, along with the Nighthawk, are mostly nocturnal insect eaters with large heads, short bills but enormous mouths that can scoop in insects during flight. Their camouflage colors and patterns blend beautifully with a forest floor littered with brown leaves. You can see a Chuck-will's-widow at http://huskertsd.tripod.com/species/chuck_wills_widow.htm
This morning as the eastern horizon just began to pale I stepped from the trailer and heard what sounded like heavy raindrops pelting the satellite-dish solar cooker. It wasn't raining anyplace else so I walked over and saw that large, dark beetles were plummeting from the sky and bouncing off the shiny aluminum dish onto the ground. Apparently they were attracted by the aluminum's brightness. The beetles were a species of Shining Leaf-Chafer of the Scarab Beetle Family, closely related to Japanese Beetles.
What mysterious urgency caused this hoard of never- before-noticed beetle species to pick now to fly skyward, and prove vulnerable to the radiance of my satellite-dish solar cooker? I have caught part of a strand of events leading from one mystery to another, and I can hardly even guess at causes or affects.
In fact, these days with so many extraordinary events blossoming all around me, I would say that after "awe," the sensation I am most experiencing is that of feeling ignorant. My lack of knowledge about the most ordinary and near-at-hand phenomena is absolutely appalling. I brush away a few leaves on the forest floor and what I see there fills me with a sense of shame for my stupidity.
An yet, there is a certain charm in honest addleheadedness. For, the people I most admire assure me that they feel even more astonished about things and more simple-minded than I. Mostly I am speaking of people who are scientists and good teachers, or just regular folks who constantly, like me and my Sunday- morning beetles, bounce into things and fall back looking and feeling dumb.