JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
temporarily issued from near Natchez, Mississippi, USA

March 22, 2005

NATCHEZ SPRING
Busing north last week from Mexico I wasn't sure how advanced spring would be when I got to Natchez here in southwestern Mississippi. At Brownsville in southernmost Texas the Mesquite, Sweet Acacia and Jerusalem-thorn were almost fully leafed out, and outside of town the cotton already stood ten inches high. At Houston and Baton Rouge trees were green with leaves half expanded or bursting from buds.

Here near Natchez, however, a hundred miles inland from the moderating Gulf of Mexico, the leaf-buds of most trees are only beginning to burst, and most trees still look locked in winter. Friday morning as I jogged at dawn I understood why: After some 80° days earlier in the week, now white patches of frost puddled along the roadside.

Still, spring is very much in the air here. Grass is green and azaleas, white irises, plum trees, Saucer Magnolias and Redbuds are flowering. Spring Peepers (tiny frogs) are peeping like crazy, and the titmice, cardinals and Northern Parulas (warblers) sing all day long.

One day is warm and sunny, the next cold and rainy, and storms come and go. In other words, it's a perfectly normal, old-fashioned spring in Natchez. I feel lucky to experience it.

*****

ACORN BEGINNINGS
The old trailer in which I hermited eight or so years in the Mississippi woods is now parked down below the house of my friends Karen and Jackie, near Natchez. I'm staying in it for a couple of weeks, before shooting off for my summer home. The main trees above the trailer are big Southern Red Oaks, and their branches are currently heavy with yellowish catkins -- clusters of male flowers. It's a pretty thing to see, those big trees' black limb-silhouettes branching upward into the blue sky, and when the sun is behind the trees the catkins glow with back-lighting.

The catkins are dangling, slender, wormlike affairs consisting of a threadlike central axis along which are strung many male flowers, each consisting of a tiny bract shaped something like a thumbnail, beneath which arise stamens. Pollen carrying the male sex-germ is produced by the stamens' anthers. Once the pollen is shed, the catkins will fall onto the ground. City people often notice oak catkins when they fall onto sidewalks where they make a squishy mess.

The catkins are hard to overlook, but locating the oak tree's female flowers -- the future acorns -- can be a challenge. The female flowers look a little like very tiny, greenish pineapples wedged between the leaf stem, or petiole, and the twig. These female flowers have no calyx, no corolla, and no male parts. They consist only of an ovary with a 3-lobed stigma (a fuzzy appendage on which pollen falls and germinates), and a protective scale known as the involucre. Eventually the ovary will mature into the acorn and the involucre will become the acorn's cup.

At www.backyardnature.net/fl_bloak.htm I provide a picture showing a Black Oak's expanding leaves, its slender, yellowish catkins, and a close-up of a female flower. As the oaks in your area produce catkins, you might enjoy trying to locate their female flowers.

By the way, there are many species of oaks -- about 60 in North America north of Mexico. Our oaks fall into either the White Oak subgenus or the Red and Black Oak subgenus. The Red and Black Oaks have dark bark, their leaf lobe tips bear weak bristles at their tips, their acorns require two years to mature, not one, and their acorns are typically bitter. In contrast, the bark of white oaks is pale and their leaves bear no small, weak bristles at their lobe tips. White oaks produce acorns in a single year, and those acorns are often sweetish, and therefore the best to eat.

*****

A HEALTHY AMERICAN ELM
The Southern Red Oaks aren't the only big trees around my trailer flowering right now. As I type these words a gentle shower of little green items is falling not far away. Those items are the fruits of the American Elm, ULMUS AMERICANA.

I'm especially happy to see this healthy, lustily reproducing tree because throughout much of the American Elm's distribution it's been killed off by a number of diseases, particularly the Dutch Elm Disease, caused a fungus introduced into the US from Europe in 1930, in a shipment of logs. Up at my old Kentucky home it's unusual to find large, healthy American Elms. In many areas the species has been completely wiped out. I've found several healthy trees around Natchez, however. Maybe it's because American Elms here are relatively uncommon, so their low population density keeps them from being infected by sick neighbors.

The most common elms around here are the Winged Elm and Slippery, or Red, Elm, which are not attacked by the Dutch Elm Disease. Therefore, if you find a healthy elm, you may want to know whether it's one of those species, or an American Elm.

It's fairly easy to distinguish the species, based on their fruits. All elm fruits are flattish, papery, wafer- like things called samaras. You can see the American Elm's fruit and other identification features at www.cnr.vt.edu/dendro/dendrology/syllabus/uamericana.htm.

Note that the American Elm's samara is greenish, about half an inch long, and is hairless on both faces, but its edges are conspicuously fringed with white cilia. The samaras of our two other common species have hairs on their flat faces.

You can read a lot more about American Elms here.

*****

DOCK-GREEN PERFECTION
This winter I've had my fill of tortillas, bananas, pineapples, tangerines and oranges, but what I've really been craving is cornbread and greens. Karen and Jackie let me make my campfires, and cornbread-style cornmeal is available in local stores, so now I have my cornbread back. There's no garden here with the spinach, mustard and turnip greens I've enjoyed so much during my recent hermit springs but, still, I'm managing to have my greens.

For, along the gravel road I jog each morning there's a certain place where weedy Dock grows in profusion, with leaves looking like green, tufted, foot-tall, slender rabbit-ears poking from the ground. There's no hint of flowers or stem -- just leaves, and those leaves are at a perfect stage for eating. Right now the plant is using its leaves to photosynthesize carbohydrates, which it then stores in its taproot. Later a knee-high and higher stem will bolt from among the leaf-tufts, drawing upon the energy stored in its taproot. Atop that stem an elongate cluster of tiny, greenish flowers and fruits will be formed. You can see a tuft of dock leaves similar to what I'm harvesting now -- though mine are taller and much more robust -- at www.les-snats.com/fiches/rumex_obtusifolius.html

Several dock species provide good eating, but the one I'm eating is RUMEX OBTUSIFOLIUS. I've seen it referred to as Bitter Dock, but I seem to remember my grandmother in Kentucky calling it Speckled Robin, because at this time of year its green blades and petioles are often speckled with red spots. This species is further distinguished by having "cordate leaf bases" -- on each side of the petiole where the blade intersects the petiole, the blade bulges down in a rounded lobe.

Dock doesn't cook down nearly as much as spinach and other greens, so a small gathering makes a good mess. I throw away the water of the first cooking because docks can be a bit bitter. On the second cooking I use as little water as possible, then simply plop the greens atop a hot piece of cornbread, and it's pretty good eating. Of course butter-eating people would find the combination improved by topping it off with a big dollop of butter.

*****

AZALEAS
Beside nearly every house around here right now there's one or more brilliantly colored azalea in full bloom. Azaleas are a glorious part of the landscape here, whether they're horticultural varieties next to houses or native plants growing wild in the woods.

There's a bright red one next to my trailer. Since there are many kinds of azaleas, I figured I needed to know this one's name. By "name," I don't mean one of the jillion English names given to horticultural varieties like "Pink Cascade" or "Silver Sword." I mean the Latin name.

In my Bailey's Manual of Horticultural Plants I identified the gorgeous individual next to my trailer as RHODODENDRON INDICA. I bet that a lot of the small- shrub, bright-red, old-time azaleas grown around Natchez are this species, or at least derived from it. The species, a native of China, was introduced into Europe in 1810 and brought here later. Now horticulturists have developed from it varieties with flowers ranging from white, pink, salmon, crimson, and magenta to orange.

As with almost everything in nature, once you focus on the topic of azaleas you find a whole new world worth exploring. If your spring gardening hormones are acting up right now, you might be inspired by a visit to the Azalea Society of America's website at www.azaleas.org/index.pl.

At that site, be sure to notice the FAQ page, and then just browse through the site looking at all the kinds of azaleas.

*****

KAREN'S TRIP TO THE YUCATAN
You'll recall that in January my Natchez friend Karen visited me at Komchen in the Yucatan. Karen kept a diary during her entire trip, which included taking a series of US and Mexican buses, both coming and going.

The remarkable thing about Karen's trip is that she did the whole thing without speaking Spanish. Moreover, I'd written out step-by-step instructions for taking a series of buses all the way down, but when she got to southern Texas she learned she could buy a single ticket all the way to Merida, so she bought that instead. Unfortunately, using the long-distance ticket caused her to enter Mexico without having changed any dollars into pesos. Also, a Mexican bus-company official, either through ignorance or downright meanness, caused her to miss her bus at one of the junctures, putting her into a real pickle -- without Spanish and without pesos...

However, she pulled off the whole thing in style, and in her diary she "tells it the way it is," good and bad, and with a lot of good humor. Along with 19 of her snapshots, I've placed the entire, unedited, unexpurgated diary, under the title of "Mexico the Hard Way," at www.backyardnature.net/travel/karen.htm.

*****

STILL ON THE MOVE
I'm still "in transit." I'm not sure how long it'll be until I can issue the next Newsletter.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers

Jim Conrad

Visit Jim's Backyard Nature site at www.backyardnature.net